Friday, August 04, 2006

What actors hate

As mentioned in this space before, writers need to remember that actors perform their material. And there are certain things actors hate. As a public service, when writing your script, here are some of those traps that will make for unhappy actors and by extension, an unhappy you.

Actors hate having to give exposition. It’s dry, it’s informational, it’s not fun. Unfortunately, SOMEONE has deliver the exposition. The trick is to spread it around, find ways to hide it, and make it entertaining. Necessary information woven into a joke is a great solution. Exposition itself is a great topic for a later post.

Actors don’t like just asking questions in a scene. They didn’t spend four years finding their “inner center”, “emotional truth triggers” and portraying ice cream cones just to ask questions. But sometimes there is a great temptation to do that. Actor “A” knows all this information, Actor “B” needs to know it. In real life, it’s a simple conversation of Q&A. Not in actor-life. Massage the scene so that Actor “B” has some jokes or comments, or Actor “A” shares information without being prompted.

Similarly, actors don’t like just doing set-ups for other actors’ jokes. Bud Abbott is dead. Spread around the wealth. The tough thing here is knowing Actor “A” is funny and Actor “B” is a lox. Still, you have to throw him a bone or two. Or work in some jokes in the set ups themselves. Or re-cast.

Here’s a common rookie mistake: Having an actor in a scene and not giving him a line for a page or two…or four. If he’s in the scene he needs to have a purpose and needs to be a participant. If he has no purpose, find a way to get his ass out of there. You’d think actors want as much screen time as possible but they would MUCH rather be out of a scene than be a piece of furniture in it.

Here’s a biggie: parentheticals – those little bracketed indicators that suggest the intent of the line. Most actors are irritated, even offended by them. They feel it’s their job to discover the intent. And they like the freedom to interpret the lines as they choose. That’s fine to a point. I still use this device, albeit sparingly (same with underlining specific words I want stressed) because first and foremost I want my scene to be interpreted correctly. But like I said, I am very judicious. I never indicate (angry), (sad), or (jaundiced but insouciant).

That said, you’re probably writing your script to be READ not PERFORMED (actors hate capitol letters too.) So in the interest of having a reader better understand your script and maybe buying it, you can sprinkle in a few more parentheticals. (warning) But don’t go crazy.

Actors balk at thankless roles. The best friend, the harpy-wet blanket (see any ABC comedy wife except Rosanne), the “Ralph Bellamy” boring third guy in a triangle soon to be dumped (Ralph Bellamy played this role in HIS GIRL FRIDAY and 297 other movies), and any role played by Emily Mortimer. Find a way to make these characters interesting, complex, or maybe let Ralph Bellamy get the girl.

Long speeches: Actors like ‘em and hate ‘em. They like having a big juicy emotional speech and they hate having to memorize them. Forget that human beings don’t normally speak in long speeches, if you want to give a character a big speech, fine. Don’t give him six. And give him spots to breathe.

Actors protect their characters, as well they should. Writers sometimes have the tendency to sacrifice their characters’ integrity for the sake of a big joke. I gotta side with actors on this one. Once you’ve sacrificed a character you can’t go back. Find another joke.

And finally, most actors don’t want to be seen in an unflattering light. They may voice their objections in gobs of Byzantine actor-speech, but trust me, the real issue is they don’t want to look weak, or mean, or playing the girlfriend of the Elephant Man. They can have flaws but within reason. What you need to do here is either give the characters interesting shadings, multi-dimensions (not always weak, not always giving dogs caramels to eat) or make the parts so meaty that actors suddenly would kill to play them. Villains, in particular, can be delicious, despite how hateful and cruel they are. Is there a more fun character than J.R. Ewing? Or Simon Cowell? Or my favorite champagne villain, Alan Richman in DIE HARD?

By making a concerted effort to accommodate the actors’ needs (and most of these are just good general writing tips) you stand a much better chance that the actors will embrace your script and even add to it. Their wardrobe and make up issues? That’s someone else’s problem.


Scribe LA said...

Great post, Ken! Thanks. "Or my favorite champagne villain, Alan Richman in DIE HARD?" haha. Also, the better the other roles in the project, the better it will look to the actor who also has a good role, because it'll mean that other good actors will be interested in the project, too.
I mean, did "Angels in America" have a good enough cast? geesh. Almost too good, if that's possible.

the third coast said...

Terrific post, Ken. I've just finished working with a small team of novice writers on an original sketch review, and it's my first experience working with actors. I've learned a lot, but your advice takes it further.

Anonymous said...

Exposition that makes me cringe:

"Bob, as your psychiatrist it is my duty to..."

Bob already knows the guy's his shrink, accountant, butcher, etc. To me, it's a sure sign of lazy writing.

Anonymous said...

Spot on advice, Ken, especially about parentheticals and underlined words.

Good actors detest -- and avoid like the plague -- these indications being forced on them. Sure fire way to drive them to another choice, or make the that choice feel less lively when it's the right one.

Great ones get hired for their talent to pass words through their imagination and invent great stuff.

If the intent of a sentence is so unclear that you need to indicate meaning, 99% of the time you need to rewrite it.

Julie Goes to Hollywood said...

Didn't the original actress who played the girlfriend of the Elephant Man win a Tony? Just heckling. :-)

VP81955 said...

Many excellent points. A good script lays the groundwork for people with other talents -- actors, directors, designers -- to use them. Don't stifle those people.

I liked your point about antagonist characters. I had a treatment and several scripts for a sitcom I'd created about a comedy-writing (male) witch; this was before Nora Ephron's "Bewitched" reworking ruined my already slender chances of reaching fruition. The lead character's antagonist was the showrunner, a stereotypical Harvard hotshot who deemed himself entitled to such success because of his lofty background. (The executive producer hired the witch character, not him, thus creating the tension.) However, I didn't want the showrunner to be a one-note "villain," so I created some scenes that gave him some texture and made him more likable to the audience without diluting his antagonistic qualities.

The Frasier Crane character, both on "Cheers" and on his own series, developed in a similar way; otherwise he would have not won the empathy of the audience.

Anonymous said...

The more I hear about actors, the more I like my dog..

Beth Ciotta said...

I know these posts are aimed at screenwriters, but as a novelist, I find them helpful as well. Thank you for being here, Ken.

Anonymous said...

Rope with Jimmy Stewart was an excellent film, if a little stagey. It was surprising that his character was doing a few expository things, serving as the writer's voice, from pretty much the opening scene.

Whaledawg said...

Didn't Emily Mortimer play a bad ass assassin in that crappy "Formula 51" movie?

Are you saying actors hate being attractive bad ass assassins?

BTL said...

Thanks for pointing out the ABC sitcom wife thing, it's no wonder I've been forced to take up reality television (though not in any serious way, mind you). I find most movies have similar problems, that's why creating complex female characters is sort of my pet issue. That and unnecessary sex scenes where directors cast themselves opposite supermodels. Particularly if I have to boom them.