Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A writers' dirty little secret for actors

There are numerous situations on television series where the actors are at odds with the writers. Usually over the way actors treat the scripts.

But here’s what these actors don’t understand:

If you are respectful of the writers, if you present your concerns in a positive way, if you don’t antagonize them you will only be helping YOURSELF.

I’ve been in both situations — casts that were lovely and casts that were nightmares. Usually in those latter cases it’s one monster (no names but see the picture) who poisons it for everybody.

On the shows where the actors were lovely the writers bent over backwards to give them great stuff. They were also incredibly protective of the actors and their characters. More protective sometimes than the actors were themselves. We made sure characters didn’t come off too stupid or insensitive. We made sure every actor was being serviced. We’d say so-and-so has gone three pages with really nothing to do. Let’s give her a big joke.

Listen actors — we don’t need YOU to tell us you need more jokes. We don’t need YOU to tell us your character is being unnecessarily heartless. But if you do, if you throw the script back in our face, if you just tank scenes you don’t like you do so at your own peril. Yes, we may fix something you screamed about. But in the room you’ll have no advocates. No one will want to stay one minute later to see if we might give you a better joke. We’re professionals and we’ll turn out professional product. But don’t expect any allegiance. Don’t expect anyone to fight on your behalf. Don’t expect one of the writers to be bothered by a story point and have it keep him awake for one minute.

On the other hand, treat us with respect, consider our feelings, think of us as partners not enemies, and we’ll walk through walls for you. Like I said, YOU’RE the one who most benefits. And all it takes is simple human decency. Well, simple for some actors.

26 comments :

Roger Owen Green said...

So I take it you won't be watching the new Roseanne series?

Serious Friday question: has the proliferation of these old shows coming back to life pleased you, bothered you, or it depends? Does having the bulk of the original cast make a difference?

And, given the frequency of these, would you now suggest that an aspiring writer consider a script for a Cheers reunion or All in the Family, The Next Generation (Meathead and Gloria's kid is more conservative than Archie!)?

Brian Phillips said...

Ken, I've got this great idea for a sitcom. It'll make you boatloads of money!

Actually, I don't, but for a Friday question, what are some of the silliest sitcom ideas that you've heard (outside of the comedy genius of Traci Lords)?

James said...

Two great interviews at the Emmylegends website on this topic. One was from Henry Winkler, talking about the early days of Happy Days. He'd disparaged a script and Ron Howard pulled him aside and said he thought the writers were doing their best. Winkler adjusted his attitude. They got good scripts and a happy set.

The other was Stephen J. Cannell, talking about working with James Garner on The Rockford Files. Garner never complained about scripts. Cannell said once at a wrap party Garner said a particular script wasn't his best work. Cannell asked him why he didn't ask for revisions. Garner said he figured if Cannell had to stop to fix this script, it would take time away from other scripts in the pipeline that needed his time and attention. So in the long run he was better off leaving him alone to get his job done. Plus he knew Cannell wasn't just sloughing off junk so he could spend more time on a golf course.

Who wouldn't want to write for people like that?

E. Yarber said...

This may sound petty, but I think a certain type of actor never gets over having to go through the audition process.

One of the hardest parts of the job is having to work up a scene, do your very best with it under the pressure of performing for potential employers, and being told someone else gets the role. Now, this happens at every level of the business. I once met several times with a TV producer who liked a romantic comedy I'd written, but he finally told me he'd decided to option a biopic by another writer. Someone else may apply for a key grip position and lose the job to another crew member. Yet it seems especially bruising for an actor to be rebuffed because it's THEM up there on stage being judged, not a script or resume. There are a lot of factors to the decision the producers make, but it's very hard for for someone who loses a part to feel that at base they were being told that they were PERSONALLY inferior.

Of course we can have compassion for the actor who doesn't get a job, just as hopefully someone will root for the writer or grip. As noted here, many times a performer doesn't get a specific job but impresses the casting agents enough to get ahead of the line at the next one. Things go off the rails, however, when actors get um, THEATRICAL about it, acting as though having to go through the audition process is the cruelest punishment imaginable, and develop a me-against-them attitude toward the people they feel didn't properly appreciate them.

God help me, I once had to fix a project where the actors had written their own parts. There were monologues that ran for nine minutes. One woman had based her character entirely on a near relative, not bothering to write more than a blatant imitation, and didn't realize she'd done so in such a way as to totally humiliate her real-life subject. Trying to reason with them was like walking through a minefield. Didn't I realize how they had SUFFERED when someone else was in control? All their self-indulgence was justified in their minds because they had had to go through the discomfort of auditions, and this time they were determined to make everything happen on THEIR terms.

Well, they did it their way, and the work was judged sloppy and uninteresting. The relative who had been harshly portrayed was enraged when she saw herself insensitively parodied on stage. I don't know if the family rift ever healed. The backers lost a lot of money, and a dozen people wasted their time mounting the show. Feeding one's ego and trying to settle old scores don't result in great art. It takes subjectivity, whether from yourself or the judgement of less emotional collaborators.

By the way, the TV producer was right. My romantic comedy wasn't that good. I wasn't ready yet. I'd never submit it today.

VincentS said...

It's called commons sense. Unfortunately, actors - and I think it's peculiar to Americans actors (of which I'm one) - are not trained to respect the writer. In all my training and other actors training I've heard about interpreting text is considered "advanced" training as if interpreting text is not a basic thing.

VincentS said...

Friday Question: Have you seen the reruns of MASH aired on ME without the laugh track and if so, what do you think of them?

John Hammes said...

In other words - and in any walk of life - what goes around comes around.

E. Yarber said...

"It takes subjectivity, whether from yourself or the judgment of less emotional collaborators."

Objectivity, not subjectivity.

I keep telling myself "Never comment before you've had coffee."

Covarr said...

This brings up a Friday question I've been thinking about: Have you ever made substantial changes to a script based on input from an actor? Respectfulness aside (I would hope and assume that one is obvious), what factors influence the extent to which you heed their concerns?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

If only actors saw writers as *as* important to their careers as their makeup artists.

wg

Buttermilk Sky said...

Dave Thomas told a story about suggesting a joke when he was on GRACE UNDER FIRE. The 20-something writers rolled their eyes ("Look, the actor made a funny") and, Thomas said, "I didn't tell them I have an Emmy for comedy writing" -- he was head writer on SCTV, which they had probably never seen.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I can't help but wonder if the situation is ever reversed. i.e. Is the writer ever the diva? I would imagine that its probably more likely in the theater where the author is king. Yet, I have to believe that there are more than a few T.V./screenwriters that have the kind of massive egos that make them "unpleasant" to work for and/or with. I suppose the big question is, WHO'S SHOW IS IT? The creator-writer-producer, or the star.
M.B.

Gary said...

Everyone has heard the stories about what a horrible person Roseanne was during her original sitcom run. She was impossible to work with, respected nobody, and fired every single person on the staff, every day. But it must also be acknowledged that for several years her show was excellent: not only laugh-out-loud funny, but the most realistic portrayal of lower class life ever depicted. What I've always wondered is, if Roseanne was that wrong and that terrible, how was she able to maintain this quality?

Dom Esticgoddess said...

What's preferable, a show with backstage horror scenes that turns out as sharp and terrific as "Roseanne" was for many years? Or a cheerful huggy no-drama atmosphere that happily cranks out a generic, affable product?

Steve Bailey said...

Roger Owen Green: Years ago, Norman Lear actually did an All in the Family update (of sorts). It was titled 704 Houser Street, and the premise was that Archie had long since moved out of the titular location, and a black family, headed by a conservative (Good Times' John Amos) had moved in. Michael and Gloria's son was a character of the show. It didn't last even half-a-season.

Dr Loser said...

@Dom E:
That's one heck of a false dichotomy you've got there, isn't it?
If it helps, I stopped beating my wife fifty six years ago. Mostly because I've never been married.

Liggie said...

I think much of "Roseanne"'s success has to do with the cast. Laurie Metcalfe has produced excellent work since then, the show was where we discovered the talent of John Goodman. And they all seem to have a great camaraderie with Roseanne; I understand pretty much all of the original cast is back for the relaunch, including both actresses playing the older daughter and Goodman, who by now has his pick of material.

There may also be a case of putting up with a difficult star if the material is great and you can succeed. Bill Belichick comes across as a grouch, but if you play football for him, you'll likely be in (and likely win) the Super Bowl every three years or so. If you're in a career that's usually short, would you put up with his suffocating manner if it means a guaranteed game in February? Sure! Likewise, I thought the original "Roseanne" was fantastic and will gladly watch it when flipping channels, while admitting I hope I never meet her in person.

Donald Benson said...

You can have happy, laid-back sets that turn out great shows; the secret is thoroughly professional cast and crew that can be absolutely trusted to bring it when needed. You can also have tyrannized sets that turn out generic (at best) product because they've trained everybody to deliver ONLY what the boss wants; there's a cap on creativity and enthusiasm. If the boss has a bad week everything slides; over the life of a series quality declines if the boss begins to run out of steam.

Yes, there are mellow sets where the complacency shows, and there are horror story sets that sweat out superior work. But very generally speaking, neither is a formula for long-term success.

Arthur Mee said...

Another great James Garner story:

Juanita Bartlett was a rookie writer, just starting on "Nichols", Garner's early 70s western. Garner, on set, is having a little difficulty with a line and asks Bartlett if he can change it -- Bartlett thinks about it and says "no". Garner shrugs, and goes on to deliver the line as written.

Meanwhile, other staffers are horrified. One of them pulls Bartlett aside, to explain her faux pas. Garner's not just an established star ... his company is producing the show. Bartlett, the rookie writer, just told the STAR AND OWNER OF THE SHOW that a line couldn't be changed. If she ever wanted to work again, she'd better apologize profusely, blame it on her inexperience, and throw herself at Garner's mercy.

Bartlett, of course, would like to continue working. So later that day, she seeks out Garner, and begins to apologize for telling him no. She explains that it's just that the line had resonance with something that occurred earlier in the show, and would later be echoed by someone else in a later portion of the show, and it set up a whole character relationship, and changing it here would mean that the set up was weaker, and...

Garner looks baffled, and stops her. "It's okay," he says. "I figured if you said I couldn't change it, you had a *reason*."

Bartlett wound up working with Garner for the next quarter century.

Johnny Walker said...

Obviously the writers have usually gone around the houses 100 times before the script is seen by an actor. So it’s highly unlikely the actor is going to spot something the writers haven’t, but is there any way an actor CAN collaborate with the writing team without annoying them?

What if they genuinely spot something that’s been missed? Or could be improved? Or just needs to be explained to them? Isn’t it better for the show if they *respectfully* voice their concerns? Or will writers get annoyed no matter what?

Anne said...


Question (for Ken and/or Everyone) somewhat on the topic of actors and writers together:

Has anyone seen the documentary "Nobody Knows Anything (Except William Goldman)" ??

I thought the Kickstarter update said it was released in 2017 but can't track it down anywhere.

YEKIMI said...

Over 30+ years ago a former resident of a town I used to live in was written up in the local paper because he was a writer of the screenplay for a movie [of which I cannot remember the name]. He had left town many years before that but still had a number of relatives living in town. It showed at the theater I worked at and most of his relatives trooped out to see it although he wasn't there. Soon as his name flashed up on the credits at the beginning of the movie they all got up and started walking out. I thought there was some sort of problem and asked why they were leaving, their reply was that "We saw his name; that's all we wanted to see." I was confused and asked don't you want to see the movie and see if he did a good job writing it? They said "Nope, too damn long for me to sit around for [it was a little under two hours long], we just wanted to see his name". I was thinking what an incredible slap in the face it was for the writer who probably would have been incensed if he had known they had walked out just after seeing his name and not sticking around to see what he may have slaved over for years to write.

Same thing sort of happened with another movie [think it was "Hoosiers"] where a relative of some people in town [he had never lived here] had been "Set Decorator", "Actor Wrangler", "Roadkill Supervisor" or something like that where as soon as his name was listed, a few of them got up and left. Some stayed, probably because it was a "sports" type movie but I think it was because this time I charged them admittance. Figured if they're just going to walk out and disrespect the guy without seeing his work they're not getting a freebie from me.

Orwell said...

My mom loved James Garner in everything he did, and to be honest, I've always thought he was great, too. Maverick and The Rockford Files are highlights in the history of TV. It's nice to hear stories that show that Garner was as professional, nice AND talented as he seemed.

benson said...

@Roger Owen Green

All in the Family, The Next Generation (Meathead and Gloria's kid is more conservative than Archie!)?

Wasn't that "Family Ties"?

Andrew said...

@Gary and Dom: It's not an exact comparison, but I have heard that Miles Davis would deliberately provoke and insult his fellow musicians because the chaos and friction would lead to great music (Bitches Brew, for example).

Anonymous said...

"But in the room you’ll have no advocates."

Who in the room advocates for the viewers?

For example, Roseanne's show has generated buzz because someone in the room has advocated for depicting Trump voters as something other than idiots. Ken won't watch Roseanne for various reasons including politics. Yet, millions of Americans feel that same way, but their targets to ignore are Colbert and various other shows that insult their political viewpoints or worse yet, insult them.

Roseanne's show seems to be a hit in part because there is heat from conflict, especially when the combatants are evenly matched.

Advocate for writers. Fine. Advocate for actors. Fine too. But who is advocating for viewers. If it's too difficult to even watch Roseanne then how difficult must it be to advocate for the viewpoint expressed? And if you can't you so advocate then aren't you missing a huge opportunity and a huge market?