Sunday, September 12, 2010

Equal time: What actors hate

Last week I talked about writer pet peeves when it comes to getting notes, focusing in one section on bad actor behavior. Well today, in the spirit of fairness, here are some things actors hate. Writers take note.

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, 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 Rickman 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.


Alan Richman said...

What human beings don’t normally speak in long speeches?

Peter J. said...

I don't think you meant it to be read as a joke, but taken on its own your title is hilarious.

Matt Patton said...

Few people played the nice guy getting the boot better than Ralph Bellamy. Especially when he was losing the girl to Cary Grant. Mind you he got a bit of his own back, playing the villainous doctor in ROSEMARY'S BABY

gottacook said...

"Is there a more fun character than J.R. Ewing?" Well, I would say instead "Is there a more fun series-TV performance than Larry Hagman as J. R. Ewing?" I don't know whether any actor could give as much juice to the role as he could. I despair to think who will end up with the role in the Dallas series revival I've read about in recent days. (At least the plans for a feature film starring John Travolta seem to be defunct; J. R. would have turned out much like Chili Palmer, I think.)

Alan Rickman said...

This blog has a minor typo, in which "Alan Rickman" is typed as "Alan Richman." The strange thing is that the first comment is from a person actually named Alan Richman. Is this a coincidence, or did this commenter actually choose his username to match the typo in the blog?

Mel Ryane said...

Writers and directors should give directions in verbs. "Being" is useless and leads to cliches. As in, "be sexy", "be angrier", "be funny."
Actors "do." They take action and the more they take, the more you'll get sexy, angry and funny.

Jeff Clem said...

I thought of Kevin Smith when you addressed speech-making. I am not a fan of his by any means, but the closest he has come to decent writing was "Chasing Amy", except for the fact that he had characters making speeches instead of conversing.

Ian said...

For at least ten years I've been hearing parentheticals (the little bits of direction that in scripts appear between a character's name and his or her dialogue) refered to as "wrylies." I make a point of using them only sparingly, but they are useful little buggers.
Also, there's a book out called "Writing the Romantic Comedy" that actually refers to that third wheel, sure-to-get dumped character as "the Bellamy," as in "Bill Pullman sure made a great Bellamy in Sleepless in Seattle."

Kirk said...

Bellamy also lost the girl to Grant in The Awful Truth.

Mary Stella said...

I thought of Kevin Smith when you addressed speech-making. I am not a fan of his by any means, but the closest he has come to decent writing was "Chasing Amy", except for the fact that he had characters making speeches instead of conversing.

Except for Silent Bob.

By Ken Levine said...

Actually Silent Bob does have a big speech in CHASING AMY.

YEKIMI said...

OK, I guess this could be sort of a Friday question. You've written about what writers hate and what actors hate. What do YOU think about that rare combination of writer/actor? I'm not talking about those who THINK they can do both but the ones who actually manage to get it right and write an interesting screenplay/TV script and act in it also? [I could bring up the ones that write/act/direct/produce also but I'll leave that for another day.]

te said...

The kind of exposition that raises my hackles the highest:

"As your accountant, I'm obligated to tell you..."

Doesn't he already know that you're his accountant?

normadesmond said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
normadesmond said...

no matter how you spell it.....alan rickman, yes!

Ben K. said...

Exposition: The best exposition on any show right now is provided by Jeffrey Donovan's voiceovers on "Burn Notice." Not only does he help explain the plot, but he's also informative about the details of spycraft and sometimes very funny.

Questions: While asking questions may not be the most dramatic way to convey information, it's also incredibly frustrating when a character desperately needs that information but never bothers asking for it. See: every episode of "Lost."

The Ralph Bellamy character: There's a trend now toward making the male lead's competition for the female lead more than just a doofus or a villain -- like Owen Wilson's over-the-top great guy in the "Meet the Parents" movies. (But I prefer calling the character who always gets left at the altar "the Baxter," after the movie of the same name.)

Villains: It seems to me that these are the most difficult characters to write effectively -- especially on a series, where they can quickly grow tiresome. Maybe that's why soap operas often have characters switch back and forth between being good and being evil. (Or have good and evil twins, as "The Vampire Diaries" is doing this season.)

Cap'n Bob said...

If you think people don't speak in long speeches you've never met my wife.

Tom Quigley said...

When I first started writing spec scripts, my work suffered from two of the worst offenses that you mentioned, Ken: long narrative speeches by characters,and too many parentheticals. I was able to solve both problems by (1) making sure that in the re-writes I broke up the long speeches and incorporated or interspersed them with some character action or activity (rule of thumb I went by: try to keep each block of dialogue to a maximum of three lines on the page), and (2) write the dialogue so that what it says will let the actor know how he or she should deliver the lines.

wv: blingi -- what Paris Hilton played with as a baby

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

Poor Ralph Bellamy. He even lost the best line in Trading Places to Don Ameche.

Arthur 1 said...

There's always the missing character who has a single telephone-call shot just to provide context, the main characters of the episode answering: "Hi (character's name) How's your (safari, business trip etc..)going?"

Spongebob of all characters/shows actually made an example of this, in an episode where the plot involved the Krusty Krab but proprieter Mr. Krabs was nowhere to be seen for the episode. He showed up in a taxi in the last seconds, and Spongebob says "Mr Krabs, you're back from your vacation!" whereby a big neon sign emerges from the head of Spongebob: "EXPOSITION". Even in a cartoon, the exposition-factor must be somewhat of a joke. In fact, even the last episodes of "Penguins of Madagascar" play self-reflexively with the need for flashbacks to recount a necessary factor for the recent storyline. Just to show, even cartoon-characters have the same issues.

Anonymous said...

After my first script was produced, I made sure to put MORE parentheticals into my next one.

Sometimes they really don't get it.

Larry said...

I felt in the first few years of MASH, the writers didn't give enough to Wayne Rogers in his scenes with Alan Alda, so he left. Unfortunately, they overcompensated by giving Mike Farrell too many laugh lines in his scenes with Alda.

escalante blogger said...

I like this one too, it's impressive.

Mac said...

Very useful advice.
I once worked on a show where I spent many hours writing up the supporting actors into witty and nuanced human beings. The lead actor, who was also the Exec Producer, spent about five minutes putting a red pen through the supporting actors' dialogue, (without actually reading it) reducing all dialogue except his own to the shortest feed lines possible.
The critical consensus on the show was "It might be OK if that guy would shut up and let the others speak." It turned out he wasn't as endlessly riveting as he thought.
OK, I've exceeded my big speech length, and dredged up an embittered memory. It's Monday, I'll be in a better mood tomorrow.
Anyway, great post, cheers.

Igor said...

"Actors balk at thankless roles. The best friend, the harpy-wet blanket, ... any role played by Emily Mortimer"? Check out Formula 51 in which she plays a hitman, so to speak. A great movie? No. A fun movie? Absolutely.

Erika @ Health and Happiness in LA said...

Well, if we're on the topic of what actors hate...

I definitely agree about parentheticals and being a piece of furniture but most of all, I agree that you can't sacrifice your characters.

Sometimes writers "reveal personality" by having characters suddenly blurt out personal information when there's no real reason for them to do so.

In general, anything that feels forced is uncomfortable. Don't sacrifice your characters for the sake of the plot or a joke. Find a way to make it work on all levels.

I don't like it when you have to do something completely out of character for the sake of a joke.

I can't stand how many female characters are woefully undeveloped. The men get to be interesting and different and the women fit one of a few cardboard stereotypes and/or exist only as foils for the men.

I get really scared when writers accidentally misuse a word. If you're not absolutely sure, look it up. And don't use phrases or cliches that only old people would understand.

And I may be strange but I don't mind roles that make me look bad. My mom has asked me why I go for so many unflattering characters and I don't know!