Monday, July 20, 2009

Actors: How to give notes to writers

Actors, here are some tips on how to convey your script concerns to writers in a way that might result in them addressing your problems without hating you, slashing your tires, or making you the butt of room jokes for seven continuous months.

One ground rule though: This is predicated on your note being a legitimate concern with the sole purpose of improving the show. There’s no hidden agenda of “this puts me in a bad light” or “I want to have the last line” or “this guy is not handsome enough to be my boyfriend”. We understand that you will never actually say your problem is “I don’t want the audience thinking I’m not attractive enough to snare a better looking boyfriend” so you will couch your objections in actor-double-speak. “It’s counter to my character’s arc” and that sort of shit. Understand this: we see through that crap immediately. And there’s nothing we hate more than arguing over the script under the guise of art and integrity when we all know damn well it’s purely about your vanity.

So, let’s assume you have a legitimate concern. We writers don’t like to admit it in public but we acknowledge that you live with the characters you’re playing, you internalize them, you do give them a lot of thought (sometimes too much thought), and ultimately you’re the one who will be in front of the camera, naked to the world. Begrudgingly, we also admit that a lot of your instincts are correct. Your suggestions many times improve the script.

So it’s just a matter of communicating your concerns in a way that will make us receptive to you and here’s the key – WANT to make those changes.

Quite simply, it’s all about showing us respect.

When we come down to the stage don’t glare at us like we killed your puppy. If the script doesn’t work it, we didn’t do it on purpose. Try to remain positive. Give us the impression that you’re not overly concerned, that you have every faith that we can fix it. Is that hard to do sometime? Yes, of course. But you’re ACTORS. Act!

One trick is to start by praising something. You love “this” but just have some issues with “that”. We know you’re bullshitting We do the same thing when giving notes to other writers. But we appreciate the gesture.

If you want us to shut you off completely just say, “My character would never say that!” Whether it would or not, you say those words and we hate you.

You throw a script on the ground, expect us to walk away.

Please don’t say something we wrote is “stupid”. I can’t tell you how many times an actor claimed a certain story point or character action was “stupid” and “no one would ever do this” when in truth it stemmed from an actual incident that happened to the writer. Don’t trap yourself. Just ask. You can very nicely say, “this bit seems a little out there. Do you know of anyone who really did this?” If the answer is no, our next response will probably be, “You think we went too far?” You smile and say, “Well, kinda, yeah.” Our rewrite will include examining that bit.

I worked on a show once where an actress, a noted British thespian questioned some bit of business by saying, “So my motivation for this is what, darling? I’m an out-patient?” Her way of registering protests was with slightly pointed humor. This can be disarming or really backfire depending on the tone. Be careful. In this case, she was a sweetheart and we knew there was no malicious intent. That line became our way of questioning something for the rest of the year.

If you don’t think your character would say something we’ve written please tell us (nicely!!) why. We’ll never expect you to come up with the alternate line, that’s our job. But guide us a little. We’re not mind readers. And if you can, explain your problems in plain English and not actor-speak. “This line goes counter to my emotional center” does not help us a whit.

Expressing your objection in the form of a question often softens the blow. “Don’t you think I’d be curious when I see him come to bed in clown make-up?” Often times it’s easier for us to just say, “We’ll look at that” rather than try to justify it.

And once we say we’ll address it just thank us and move on. Don’t keep belaboring the point. We got it. We’re on it. You made your sale. Walk away.

Sometimes we’re not sure if it works or not so we want to see it. When you show it don’t purposely sabotage it. Trust me, we can tell in one nanosecond if you are. And if you are, we’re likely to dig in our heels and insist that it stays.

Here is why we need you to give it your best shot in a runthrough. If you commit to the material and it doesn’t work then we know it’s our fault and not yours. By seeing it on its feet we can often see what’s wrong with the scene. An alternative might occur to us. A scene may not work but there are three great jokes in there that do and maybe can be saved.

Don’t try to win every battle. Give us a few. If we really believe in our best professional judgment that something works or will get the laugh, let us have it. We’ll be so much more willing to change something for you that we’re not as cock sure about. Again, it goes back to respect. Trust us a little.

Don’t question EVERY line. After awhile we’ll hide from you, or in the case of a drama, kill you off.

And finally, let me share with you the single best way to give a writer a note and almost be guaranteed that he’ll agree to fix it. This comes from Nick Colasanto (who played Coach on CHEERS). Whenever he had a problem (which wasn’t often) he’d start off by saying, “Look, I’m happy to do it just as written, but…” Then we would lay out his concerns. But the fact that he offered to do it as written, we ALWAYS, every time, went back and adjusted the line to his satisfaction. Try it. It will work!

Thanking us the next day when we have made your changes also goes a long way in the goodwill department.

Bottom line: we all want to make the best show. Unfortunately, we’re also all under tremendous stress, have giant egos, and are a mass of insecurities. These are some tips to help actors deal with writers. I bet you actors have an equal or longer list of things we writers can do better in dealing with you. I may flinch but I’d be happy to hear them.

35 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have a hard and fast rule... if you complain about a line for what I think is a petty reason, I will take away your line and not replace it. You can exit silently or remain in the scene silently... but I don't reward smallness. And boy, it does not take long for actors to learn to keep their mouths shut when it comes to giving self-serving notes.

Rebecca said...

This is one of my favorite posts ever. Entertaining, but with so much practical information! And I'm not even in show business.

Jerad said...

Great post, thank you! And really a guide to dealing with co-workers of any kind.

I usually form my notes as a question, a "I like it but, what do you thing about him being a bit more petulant?" type of thing, and always make sure the writers know they have final say.

I don't have so many pointed suggestions for writers off the top of my head, but those that I've had the best relation ship made an effort of showing trust in the actor to do their words justice, listening and ego stroking.

David O'Hara said...

Anonymous,

I wonder how many times the actor thought, "I was right. We didn't need that line."

Greg J. Pierson said...

Anonymous, great to see you're taking the high road when it comes to pettiness.

Oh, those actors and their egos.

D. McEwan said...

"We understand that you will never actually say your problem is 'I don’t want the audience thinking I’m not attractive enough to snare a better looking boyfriend'."

One of my all-time favorite Niles Crane lines, in the MArtin Plays Gay episode with Brian Bedford, when Martin is pretending Niles is his boy toy (such an hilarious Oedipal nightmare), Niles complaint to Frasier was: "They think the best I can do is an old man with a cane?"

I have usually couched such requests with "Might I make a suggestion? What if I ... What do you think?" This usually worked better than "Thank God for this script. I was out of toilet paper."

Patrick said...

Yeah, I don't know 'bout the 'tude there Anonymous. It seems to me that you probably invite a ton of conflict. Two wrongs ...

I'm also amazed - and totally naive, I'm sure - at how the ego clashes still seem so legendary in Hollywood. Almost every brilliant artist that I've ever seen interviewed, whether they be in the movie bussiness, on stage, or both, (writers, actors, directors, etc.)are always so humble. I know some of the big bankable names are great at self promotion, and therefore wouldn't sound anything but humble in an interview. But it seems pretty obvious that nothing really brilliant ever gets done unless its collaborative. Why all the clashing? Especially when you consider how lucky you most creative talent must feel to be working in the industry in the first place. Maybe some just don't see their employment as a blessing. Maybe some see it more as their propper place, or even worst, their birthright. But what do I know, I've never seen a paycheck from a producer of anything.

Anyway, I'm sure most of the pros on this site have read it already, but for a funny, stage take on the subject, check out J.P. Shanley's Four Dogs and a Bone. I think he wrote it after he received the oscar for writing Moonstruck. There was some speculation that it was based on his dealings with certain people involved with the film.

It really was a great post. And to use Nick Colasanto to drive the point home was perfect. From what I've heard, he was the epitomy of humble AND brilliant. But we hardly knew who he was until Cheers, so maybe the big egos rule. And maybe that's why there is so much schlock coming out of Hollywood these days ...

mrswing said...

To the people 'tudin' about Anonymous's 'tude:

So it's all right for actors to behave (deliberately or accidentally) in boorish ways, but when someone on the writers' side of the fence develops a strategy to deal with abuse, they need to get taken down a peg or two?

Everyone in film and television seems to live by the golden rule that the actors NEED their egos stroked.

Well guess what, so do writers. Without whom no one would have a job (not even on effin' reality TV). But somehow that message almost never seems to come across.

Bottom line: treat writers with affection and respect, and they'll gladly do their utmost to address your legitimate concerns. Treat them like excrement, and they'll reciprocate.

It ain't rocket science, people...

verification: barpu. Defecation in a public drinking environment.

Anonymous said...

Great post, and as someone else noted, great advice for dealing with co-workers every where.

After working on the crew of a number of shows for the past 20+ years it is my observation that virtually everyone who works on a production feels unappreciated. You think writers feel disrespected? Go hang out with the grips or gaffers.

A LOT of those feelings are caused by people being short or just rude towards a colleague. To be sure there are a fair number of grizzled veterans who don't exactly exude sunshine, but I always go out of my way to try and be courteous and respectful. It doesn't work on everyone, but over time it seems to take the rough edges off of most people.

Patrick said...

To mrswing: I really don't see how you could miss that I would never consider it okay for an actor to be boorish - I thought I made it pretty clear that I, a non-professional, think it's ridiculous that ANYONE could be so egotistical and rude and ungrateful and, well why go on ...

Maybe you're personalizing this. And if you are, I feel for you. But that would mean that you are probably in the entertainment industry - getting paid to be creative. So suck it up, and back off, 'cause I re-read my comment and it seams pretty clear that I'm not advocating childish behavior from a too oft stroked, asshole actor.

And for Anonymous: I apologize if I came off sounding a little cheeky, but I hope you see the point I was going for. Again, I am saying this as an outsider to your work environment, but egos are egos, no matter where you work. And you just sounded very confrontational, that's all.

And once again, for the sake of clarity - WHAT DO I KNOW. So at this point I'm just gonna' go read Four Dogs and a Bone (a play written from a gifted writers point of view on the subject at hand), for levity ...

Vermonter17032 said...

QUESTION: I'm wondering how show-changing decisions get made. For example, during the fourth season of Cheers, Lilith was introduced in one episode as a date for Fraiser. In season five, she was back in a larger roll one episode, and then a few shows later Fraiser and Lilith are cohabitating and she became a regular character. How does that process work? Did someone decide that Fraiser needed a steady girlfriend/wife, or was Bebe just so good you couldn't keep her out of the show?

Thanks!

Michael Green said...

I have read about how on two of the greatest shows in TV history, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "MASH," they had a table reading and would exchange ideas and make suggestions. Van Dyke might say, that line would work better coming from Rose Marie, or whatever. It strikes me that the writers would respect suggestions that come from intelligent actors. Someone who just phones it in or shows no general interest would be easier to ignore.

Tom Quigley said...

mrswing said:

So it's all right for actors to behave (deliberately or accidentally) in boorish ways, but when someone on the writers' side of the fence develops a strategy to deal with abuse, they need to get taken down a peg or two?...

A little courtesy and acknowledgment of the work and efforts on either side never hurt a situation -- plus there's also an element of economics and job security involved. I've heard first-hand of a lot more conflicts where the actor ended up being able to have the writer (or writers) fired, and not vice-versa. I also saw it happen when the DP of a show, who was a TV veteran and should have known better, made a disparaging remark about the show's star, have it get back to that actor, and be relieved of his duties shortly afterward.

carlae said...

Those guidelins work well in any situation where one is trying to stress a point.

Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer said...

Ken-- Nice advice! I'm not an actor, but I do a lot of "talking head" stuff for science documentaries. I've run into situations quite often where they've wanted me to say things I'm uncomfortable with (i.e stuff that is grossly scientifically inaccurate), so I'll have to try this. :)

tlace said...

Great post! Makes me wonder how the actors on some of my favorite shows relate to the writing staff.

Oh and PLEASE say that this is Nanny G-Spot... erm, I mean Emma Thompson because she's amazing and this would only endear her to me more.

I worked on a show once where an actress, a noted British thespian questioned some bit of business by saying, “So my motivation for this is what, darling? I’m an out-patient?”

Mowsh said...

Being both a writer and an actor, I love this column.

As an actor, it drives me nuts when another actor says "My character wouldn't do that/say that." You'd be surprised what people do in a given situation when they feel pushed to their limits or the stakes are suddenly huge or something taps into a deep seeded fear. People do things out of character all the time. When I'm on that side of things, my reason for being is to justify, justify, justify. And believe me, when you're struggling and you finally find that reason, this whole other level of richness is going to come across that you didn't anticipate. Or it won't and it won't go over well and at that point you won't be the only one noticing.

I think it's been said here, but it really is all collaborative and you treat people the way you want to be treated. On set, everyone has their job: I want to do mine, help you do yours and not be a general pain in the ass. We're all working towards the same goal. And nothing makes me happier than actually working in my chosen field. :)

Anonymous said...

How does it work the other way around, say, if an actor puts the wrong EM-phasis on a certain syl-LABLE?

--Jeff H.

A. Buck Short said...

Good advice. Now will you please get to work on a note explaining to my wife why I have to lose the clown makeup?

Anonymous said...

All nice but... the start with "Love this part"... only to follow with the "but...." -- I know alot of people who would groan if that was the route to be used each time, it gets routine pretty fast.

Do writers find themselves in the same situations you desribed vis a vis the actors to the script - writers having to make some change or suggestion and have to communicate to the producer, or director?

John said...

So, Ken, if you have an actor/actress with some or all of these less-admirable traits and eventually they decide to leave the series for something like a big career in feature films, how big is the temptation to write them out of the show by starting the next season off by having them arrested off-screen for a child sex scandal, workplace mass murder, or some other heinous crime?

Anonymous said...

To everyone who commented on my first post, first, thank you for your comments. Second, do 120 episodes with actors and then come and tell me how you'd handle the situation. And third, No, no actor EVER thought that he didn't need a line. Ever.

TVBlogster said...

I often wonder if actors who are really nice and have a great relationship with the writers are fearful of ruffling feathers and let some errors go by.

For instance, there was a lack of continuity in an episode of The Office that could have been corrected if perhaps the actress told the writers (nicely of course) her character said something the previous season that totally negated a character trait they suddenly gave her in the season finale. It was confusing to audiences and made her unrealistic.

wackiland said...

Although I understand why some people might get distressed over a perceived "tude" here, the truth is that everyone in this business has an ego and 90% of them live in fear that someone will decide they're not qualified to do the job they were hired for.

No matter WHO you're giving notes to, try to remember how you'd feel if you were getting those notes after putting in all the effort it took to get to that point.

And yes, I sent the post to a boatload of my clients...

D. McEwan said...

Michael Green said...
I have read about how on two of the greatest shows in TV history, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "MASH," they had a table reading and would exchange ideas and make suggestions. Van Dyke might say, that line would work better coming from Rose Marie, or whatever.

D. McEwan said...

(Oops. I had intended to follow up that quote with this stuff, but I batched it over from my write page wrong. Here's the rest:)

They did a similar thing on THE NANNY. At the table read Fran would say, "Her line would work better coming from me," or "His line would work better coming from me," or "that bit would be better being done by me," or "we don't need this scene; I'm not in it."

When a writer would say, "But it would be out of character for you to say/do that. We'd have to rewrite the whole episode," Fran always had the helpful suggestion "and your point is...?"

I saw a shrink for a few years decades ago. His advice was what he called "The sandwich technique," putting a complaint or criticism in between two compliments: "I love this scene. I wonder though if this line of mine right here wouldn't work a little better like this? That way it would match the excellence of the rest."

Does it get obvious? It might, except no one, writers, actors, directors, milkmen (do they still exist?), mass murderers, no one ever notices that a compliment to THEIR work is them being hosed. A writer can notice that you're hosing the director with sugar, but hose that same writer with sugar and they buy it. A compliment one is receiving is ALWAYS sincere. Only compliments to others are ever seen as insincere.

Bob said...

Ken, this was an excellent post.
My only problem... can we please lose the part that implies actors aren't making it all up as we go along?
Your blog is so wonderful. You're such a dear.

www;teachingwill.com said...

You are too kind.

The actors who don't ask for changes, like idiot..."I would never do that" changes are actors who came from the theatre.

Who cares what you'd do? It's a character.

Occasionally, changes are warranted. the operative word is occsionally.

Jeffrey said...

D. McEwan said...
"... no one ever notices that a compliment to THEIR work is them being hosed. A writer can notice that you're hosing the director with sugar, but hose that same writer with sugar and they buy it. A compliment one is receiving is ALWAYS sincere. Only compliments to others are ever seen as insincere."

I can only imagine the dynamics of working on The Nanny. Oy...

I have to disagree on the compliments. I've worked in and out of entertainment and as a writer of course I feel an unhealthy need for validation. But whenever someone approaches me and leads off with "I loved this bit--" or "Your stuff is terrific--" or "Based on your work I think we should make babies--", I get the unmistakable whiff of smoke being blown up my ass. What always comes next is the "Couldn't you maybe just do xyz for sweet little me--?"

WV: depitt -- deman of dejolie

Anonymous said...

Thank you, this was a great read, but the last line should say, "I'd be happy to hear them, but I may flinch."

:) Markell

Mac said...

Another excellent article from the most consistently entertaining industry blog.
I clenched in several places as I remembered a comic actor whose idea of giving notes was to call me on to the set, then announce "This script is f**king sh*t, listen to this. . ."
Then he'd read the aforementioned sh*t aloud to any assembled cast or crew who fancied regressing to the playground.
To be fair, that was an extreme example.
In my experience notes might be often tactless, but they're rarely (intentionally) nasty.

Kate Coe said...

"I've run into situations quite often where they've wanted me to say things I'm uncomfortable with (i.e stuff that is grossly scientifically inaccurate), so I'll have to try this. :"

Phil , I produce docs, and sometimes, it's very hard to get the interviewee to explain science in an easy to understand way. So, if you're being asked to say something wrong, find a way to explain the science to a 10 year old. And not a gifted one.

GregM said...

You run into this problem a lot less in the theatre. One actor whom I always take suggestions from is also a writer (plus I've worked with him five separate times now), and he's only made, I think, two suggestions over the course of those five projects--both of which made the play in questions significantly funnier. Always look for actors w/ theatre training and experience; they're professionals.

playfull said...

Mac

You going to name them..?

Mac said...

playfull,

I can't, because I'm as cowed into silence as any other freelance word-jockey.
That person's career is in free-fall these days anyway, due in no small part to on-set behavior such as I've described.
So there is some justice in the world (of comedy).