Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Difficult actors

So many great questions have come in the last few weeks that I’m taking two days to answer some of them. I may not reach my “snark quotient” for the week but what the hell?

Joanna wonders:

how often do actors approach a script as "I don't read scripts. The script reads me." It's surprising how much leeway I've heard about some getting.

It happens more in features than series. In the crush of production actors on series are lucky if they GET a script, much less one that reads them.

Here’s the thing – if an actor pulls that shit he better be GREAT. Writers and producers have the “Is he worth it?” scale. If it’s Dustin Hoffman in his prime, yeah. If their movies or shows stop getting good numbers they lose out on jobs because of their bad behavior. Jon Voight’s stock plummeted from this type of diva crap.

But I’m reminded of what Billy Wilder said about having to deal with the near-impossible Marilyn Monroe. “My mother would show up on time and know all her lines but who wants to pay to see my mother?”

Richard Y asks:

How often is it that writers attend either tapings or filming of their work? Does it make a difference if it is a 'live audience' project or a drama that involves a lot of location work?

Most writers try to attend the filming of one of their shows. Hey, it’s one of the greatest perks -- to see your stuff performed. Multi-camera is more fun because (a) you have an audience, and (b) you see the whole show done in a couple of hours. It’s not as much fun to watch single camera shows because everything goes so slow. A great line I heard was this: The first day you’re on a movie set it’s the most exciting day of your life. The second is the most boring.

Still, it’s a great experience to see your words come to life and single-camera shoots usually have great craft services tables.

Sometimes (especially on multi-camera shows) if the writer doesn’t attend the producers are pissed off. It’s a real snub. Obviously if there’s some legitimate reason like you’re out of town or working that night on another show that’s different. And when we stopped going to our CHEERS filmings the final year because it drove us crazy that the actors screwed up every three lines, we were very close to the producers and cast and no one was miffed. In fact, they envied us.

But if you’re a freelance writer, and you get an assignment and don’t attend the filming after the staff has rewritten you – you are on the shit list. Good luck getting another assignment. Especially if the staff didn’t take you to arbitration and you still retained solo credit. Not showing up is a big “Fuck you”.

The first pilot David and I ever had produced was rewritten extensively and then cast horribly. The result was a giant stinkburger. We went to the taping anyway and it was painful. After they finished they asked the audience to please stay in their seats. They wanted to tape some inane opening credit sequence with the cast clowning around with the audience. I cringe just thinking about it. So we got the hell out of there. And THAT pissed off the producer so much he tried to take shared credit on the script. A big arbitration resulted and we won but clearly this was out of spite because we left early. I hate that producer to this day.

And no, the pilot didn’t get picked up. Thank God.

And finally, from A_Homer:

I often wondered, during those years when blooper segments were added on after credits (Home Improvement comes to mind) why would the messed up scene, still contain different camera-angles? I mean, obviously they weren't going to use Tim Allen giggling away, so why actually still bother to execute a scene with different camera angles?

Because all four cameras are always filming simultaneously. Editors have the luxury of being able to select the most humiliating angle.

Thanks for your questions. Please keep ‘em coming. More answers tomorrow.


Erich Eilenberger said...

I noticed that David Isaacs is working on MAD MEN (and I assume that's the same David Isaacs you work with). I know that writers, Matt Weiner included, do make the transition, but it seems like a big change for a writer who worked in multi-camera comedies for so many years. Is it a natural transition and what contribution is somebody in that position expected to make?

By Ken Levine said...

The transition from half hour to hour is not that difficult if you're a good writer (which David certainly is). It's story telling, it's dramatic structure. The stories are told differently and with different tones but good dramatic principles hold true for both.

I think it's far easier to go from comedy to drama than the other way around. If you're not funny, you're not funny, no matter how brilliant your episodes of THE WIRE are.

sjml said...

Judd Apatow talks about that difficulty when he went from making Freaks and Geeks (hour-long dramedy) to Undeclared (half-hour comedy). "If something wasn't funny on Freaks and Geeks, that's ok -- we could just say it was drama. If something wasn't funny on Undeclared, it just *wasn't funny.*"

stålar said...

" They wanted to tape some inane opening credit sequence with the cast clowning around with the audience."

Uhm, what? What is this about? I can't recall ever seeing this on any other show.

Anonymous said...



A month or so ago you recommended "How I Met Your Mother," and my wife and I have been enjoying all the episodes through Netflix since. However, we are almost to the end of season three (the last season currently on disk). So now I need another recommendation -- preferably a sitcom, one that has more than a couple of years under its belt. Any thoughts? Thanks!

By Ken Levine said...


Kirk said...

"...cast clowning around with the audience"

I'm sure it's not the show Ken Levine worked on, but HANGIN' WITH MR COOPER began that way.

disment: to insult concrete

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Scrubs -- and all Frasier all the time, on DVDs.
It does not get old -- how could it? It's the best sitcom in the history of TV (IMHO).

Anonymous said...

I was listening last night to the commentary on Battlestar Galactica and Ronald Moore said that Mary McDonnell had given him a note regarding a script on whether her character would shoot another character and under what circumstances. He said, she had a good point so they re-wrote the scene...
Do actors give notes frequently?
Do some make sense and improve the show or is it very rare that actors and showrunners collaborate that way?

Anonymous said...

Scrubs indeed.

I'd also vouch for the cut-down-in-the-flower-of-youth Back To You, although it wouldn't be a LOT of viewing.

But it was brilliant.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Given the general dearth of creativity on the features side of Hollywood, I predict in 10 years we'll be seeing the film: How I Met Your Mother The Car.

You read it here first.

kadgi said...

ahah joe. Finders keepers!

Anonymous said...

Joe: Several years ago, a buddy of mine who is a development D.P. actually had a pitch for a My Mother the Car feature, which he thought would be a perfect "vehicle" (ahem) for Adam Sandler. Haven't asked him lately if he's still pursuing it.

Anonymous said...

Another line from Billy Wilder about Marilyn:

He's directing Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, and he says to them "You guys better be perfect in every take. Because eventually she'll get the lines right, and that's the take we're printing."

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm still working on that Don King-as-a-banker project.

Anonymous said...

Nowadays computers have the power to get new performances from actors long dead. But there's been nothing from Marilyn Monroe. Is that because she still won't show up on time?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ken for answering my question, quite informative - as are all your posts. No not sucking up because you answered it but because its true. :)

Anonymous said...



That's why they call her the late Marilyn Monroe.

Anonymous said...

Awesome. Thanks Ken!