Duel (1971): Script to Screen

DUEL, starring Dennis Weaver, began as a short story written by Richard Matheson who then transitioned it into a teleplay with Steven Spielberg directing. Spielberg went considerably over budget, going 3 days longer than the producer’s ten day schedule. The edited version for TV clocked in at 74 minutes. After excellent ratings and reviews, Universal brought Spielberg back to shoot more footage and create a 90 minute version for a theatrical release overseas.

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The teleplay reads more like a shooting script with far more camera direction than most contemporary scripts. Spielberg made many changes to Matheson’s scripted vision, and that is the important exercise in going from ‘Script to Screen.’ Reading the script while watching the movie might wear out your pause and rewind buttons, but learning filmmakers can benefit from gaining a better understanding of how a great director lifts the words from the page and turns them into shots and sequences.

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Spielberg is noted for strong planning and preparation. For DUEL, Spielberg created detailed sketches for how the production and shooting days would unfold. Screen direction was critical for storytelling, and driving stunts needed to be carefully worked out. But even with the best-laid-plans, there’s no guarantees that the show will be on time or budget.

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I had a conversation about Spielberg’s visual direction with Tony Zhou (Every Frame a Painting) who told me that if you watch the film at 4X regular speed you can totally understand the story. I’m going to try that as an exercise with an upcoming class.

Download script: DUEL