Popular Posts

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Working with Actors, Take 2

I asked Richard Hyde to let me know what things actors do that annoy writers! I was expecting a list as long as my arm, actually my arms sort of resemble those of a tyrannosaurus rex, so longer. I thought, "Surely, the way actors self-righteously say, 'my character would never say that!' must grate at him?"

But alas, Mr. Hyde has a different perspective to offer...

Actor Molly Kerr wrote a wonderful guest article for my blog about what actors look for in a screenplay. In return she asked me to write about the things actors do that annoy writers and how they could approach that relationship more productively. I thought about this, started writing… and was hopelessly stuck. I tried humour to ease my way in; didn’t work. Tried to jot down points as they came to me; definitely didn’t work. A writer having writer’s block writing about actors having actor’s block with writers? Far too meta.

Here’s the reason. In the writing process I have very little to do with actors. The most important creative collaborator, for me, is the director. Specifically, we are talking tone, themes, possibly the visual look of the film, maybe budget, definitely characters, breaking the story but rarely, if ever, who would be playing the characters we are breathing life into.

That’s not to say I don’t write with actors in mind. I absolutely do. Some well-known, some local. Often it’s a way in to crystallise your vision of a character. Sometimes you know an actor would be perfect for the part so you write it for them. Whether they get cast if the movie ever gets up is a completely separate discussion.

My experience with short films is similar. When it comes time to shoot the film my job is done and if I get invited on set I pretty much stay out of the way. It’s the director’s province and having multiple voices talking to actors about character or story can be confusing and (though hopefully not!) contradictory. Having said that, it depends on the director. I’ve worked with a director who was more than comfortable for me to answer actors’ questions and literally ‘set the scene’ before “Action” was called.

The only exception to date is where I was asked to watch improvisations and develop a short script from the results. That was an enjoyable process and resulted in two scripts being written and shot. I was also writing for actors ranging in age from 16 to 20 so there was far more input about the ‘voice’ of the characters and, for one of the scripts, theme.

Yet still I have not spoken about how actors annoy me as a writer. Maybe it’s because it’s framed as a negative. So let’s do it in reverse – what I like.

Using the improvised scenario, there was a character that, in many ways, was the token “bad guy”. This was mainly as a plot device to spark a conflict that would resonate throughout the script. The actor playing that role was uncomfortable – with valid reasons – with the portrayal. He was prepared to fight for his character and while I still needed aspects for the conflict I tweaked it to redeem him in the end.

Now, when I say “fight” I don’t mean histrionics and slanging matches. It was a quiet word and an observation. That’s all I needed. The reason I like that so much is because the actor was protecting his character which means he had bought in and, for want of a better term, cared enough to make sure he was well serviced in the writing.

I like actors who ask intelligent questions about their characters and the story. I like actors who are prepared. Most of all I like actors who respect the writing and what writers do. What may seem simply like a one page scene may have been written and rewritten many times. None of it should be arbitrary. We’re not making stuff up just for the fun of it. Set-ups and pay-offs are critical. Blow off a line or an action and the scene may still play… except you just lost the set-up for a scene five, ten, or twenty pages away.

If I’m doing my job properly there should be plenty of room for you to create your character and inhabit him or her within your process. I try not to be prescriptive but there are beats that need to be hit for story and character within the greater arc of the story, especially for features. Trust me with that. Writers spend drafts and, in some cases, years getting those beats and arcs right. If you go “off script” you may not understand the ramifications and knock-on effects. For me, structure is everything – tamper with that and a train wreck awaits… but that’s maybe a note for things that directors do that annoy writers.

If you have the opportunity to give me feedback before a script is locked either through rehearsals or even on set (with the director’s consent) I will listen if you approach me respectfully and with the best interests of the film at heart. I don’t have time for divas though. The goal always has to be to make the work better not just your role at the expense of others or the overall film.

There’s really no magical formula. Film is a collaborative medium but in many ways a hierarchical one as well. I love writing for good actors, smart actors, intelligent and perceptive actors. I like the opportunity to hear their insight into what it is I have written even though that doesn’t happen as often as maybe I would like. Good actors respect good writing and vice versa.

It’s when agendas and egos and other ephemera intrude that things go awry. I’ll repeat – the only goal is to make the best it can possibly be. If that’s not your motivation then that’s very likely to annoy me! I’m always open to have a genuine conversation about the script but just remember, a screenwriter serves many masters, and ultimately it will come back to those things that were discussed maybe as far back as the inception of the project – theme, tone, structure, specific story beats – that will determine any changes that are made.

Finally, the character you are playing may have been created within the fractured recesses of my imagination but you need to breathe life into them. I’m trusting you to protect them, fight for them, do justice to them. In essence, care about them. Do that and I won’t be annoyed at all!

Richard Hyde

For more of Richard's perspectives visit http://rwhyde.blogspot.com.au/ and follow his misadventures!

1 comment: