Sunday, August 21, 2011

What Actors Hate (Besides Other Actors)

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, the “Ralph Bellamy” boring third guy in a triangle soon to be dumped (Ralph Bellamy -- pictured above -- 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.


blindmind said...

Thanks for this. And everything else. This blog is a gold mine for me.

Rich K said...

Having attended invitational writing seminars at a couple of majors, I have found producers aren't interested in writers over 40. Any comments?

Paul Duca said...

Dennis Miller viewed his stint in pictures as mainly being "the exposition being on BARNABY JONES and having to sum up everything for Lee Meriweather"

Ron Rettig said...

Ralph Bellamy finally got the girl, that is "Sunrise at Campobello".

Steely Dan said...

I actually thought "Superman Returns" was an excellent example of a film that did an exceptionally good job of hiding the exposition in jokes.

anduarto said...

Have to disagree about being on stage for several pages without a line. I think acting with your mouth shut is one of the more rewarding and interesting challenges an actor faces. Just because you're not saying anything doesn't mean you're not active, present and a real force in the scene.

Now, a character who's onstage for no particular reason in a problem. Not without a line? Not necessarily.

David O'Hara said...

Check out TOMORROW, By Hortin Foote, starring Robert Duval.

Duval IS the movie and has very few lines. Great performance.

Sue said...

Or how about Duval as Boo Radley in to Kill a Mockingbird.

Tom said...

Great advice. I always thought David Mamet did a great job of disguising exposition as Alec Baldwin's monologue in the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross -- the one part of that movie, even with all the big stars, that I'll bet almost anybody who's seen the film ever remembers.

te said...

Still, as a viewer, I get irritated by two kinds of exposition:

"As your accountant, Bill, I feel obligated to tell you..." If the guy has to remind Bill what he's doing there, it's time for a rewrite.

Then, more pertinent to what you're writing here, I hate it when the exposition goes needlessly (except to keep the actors busy) around the table:

[b]Bob:[/b] We've located Ken Levine's house.
[b]Sally:[/b] It's in Beverly Hills, but...
[b]Ernie:[/b] South of Sunset

and so on.

te said...

Whoops -- wrong coding. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't disagree more. When I'm producing and/or directing a story, I'm not interested in what the actor *wants* to do. If it's on the page, they better be ready to act it. They weren't hired to do what they *want* to do, they were hired to do a job.

I find that if an actor doesn't want to do something, it's because they aren't properly motivated. And that always comes down to poor directing or a poor-quality script.

The reasons you list are not reasons for an actor to complain, at least not on the surface. If we, as producers, directors and writers have collectively done our jobs, then there is a reason every word is on the page as it is, in the particular order it's in with the other words. And when an actor gets a shooting script, I expect them to do what it takes to prepare themselves to pull it off.

A lot of actors get into acting because they think it's going to be a cakewalk with very little actual work compared to the level of reward. Acting is not an easy profession, in any aspect. And because of that, the few, real actors that there are in the world have my deepest respect. But, I still refuse to coddle them.

miles_underground said...

On the British show "QI" a bit came up about Alan Rickman and how sensitive he is about being referred to as someone who plays a lot of villains. A little kid asked him about it (kids being the one who will ask those things grown up are too polite to say) and Rickman replied, "I don't play villains. I play very interesting people."

Johnny Walker said...

Great post, Ken. It must be hard to have to factor in all of these considerations when you're writing a script, but as you pointed out most of these are needed for good writing anyway (hiding exposition, making sure a character isn't sacrificed for a gag, not making a character's presence redundant, giving a character depth, etc.).

te: I always see the "As your accountant, Bill, I feel obligated to tell you..." trope as a jokey reference to Hunter S. Thompson (where a similar line was used to great comic effect).

I do dislike the "round table" exposition, though, now that you mention it. It seems very overused at the moment.

Anonymous: Like it or not, when you're dealing with human beings they will behave how they see fit. You can't fire an actor every time you have a disagreement. Aside from making you an ass, it would also be highly impractical and sometimes impossible. Your only choice is to try and get the best out of who you've got, and that means working *with* them (and not getting frustrated that you can't get what you want out of them).

Of course it would be ideal to cast actors that see your vision as clearly as you do, but that's not always possible. Ken's tips are designed to increase the chances of getting your vision onto film with the least amount of problems, not to dilute your vision in order to please actors.

Also, I the way you talk sounds like you're directing a self-funded indie film, not writing for a sitcom, where Ken has most of his experience.

Just my 2c.

Larry said...

This reminded me of a question I've always had about MASH. Though the characters Hawkeye and Trapper John were essentially equals in the camp, it always seemed to me that the scripts gave Alan Alda the lion's share of punchlines, even in scenes he played with Wayne Rogers. I have to wonder if that didn't make Rogers leave.

But my question is, perhaps being aware of this, did the writers go out of their way to make sure that Mike Farrell got more laugh lines than Wayne Rogers' did?

HogsAteMySister said...

Somehow I just know that the President wants those parenthetical comments (FROWN) on his teleprompter (Smile).

jbryant said...

Ken's right. Giving your actors a purpose in the scene is just good writing. A friend of mine produced a series that co-starred Tyne Daly, and he learned that from her. There was a scene (a dinner scene, I think) in which she was supposed to be at the table, but she had no lines or function. She asked to be written out of the scene -- not out of spite or disappointment, but because it was sort of ridiculous to have one of your key players in a scene doing nothing. If you have a talent of that caliber, you want to maximize your use of her. Why schedule her, costume her, make her up, etc., just to have her sit there doing nothing? Obviously, if her silent reactions to the other players are important to the scene, that's a different kettle of fish. But I think Ken's talking about scenes that treat a key player like an extra whose only purpose in the scene is for atmosphere.

Paul Duca said...

Off topic again, but a juicy bit of entertainment news I wanted to share. On November 8, Universal is releasing the largest DVD box set ever...a 109-disc Collectors Edition of the entire 20-season run of LAW & ORDER, priced at $700

Johnny Walker said...

Larry, that's a really interesting question. I definitely read somewhere that Wayne Rogers got fed up of playing second fiddle to Alan Alda. Looking back there are times that MASH felt definitely felt like "The Alan Alda Show". I've often wondered why it was so Alda centric, because it seemed the set-up was designed for an ensemble, and the other actors seemed more than comedically capable.

In fact, thinking about it, I'd love to know why the show was so lop-sided in Alda's favour. Was it audience reaction or was it something from behind the scenes. There are times when you watch it and it seems very unbalanced for no good reason.

Looking through some old articles it seems that Fox sued Rogers for breach of contract and defamation against Gene Reynolds (and five others).

I'd love to know the whole story.

Johnny Walker said...

Oops. I misread that. It was Rogers who filed a defamation suit against the producers because they said he'd held up production.

As for the breach of contract, he apparently never had a contract, so that fell through.

I guess it seems pretty straight-forward.

Kevin Ashworth said...

I would kill to play a role that has "jaundiced but insouciant" in parentheses.

cadavra said...

Last year I saw LA BETE on Broadway. When Mark Rylance enters, he launches into a monologue that lasted almost 40 minutes (yes, I timed it), while David Hyde-Pierce and another actor just stood there and visibly reacted to what he was saying. Neither spoke, but they made that scene, which would not have been nearly as astonishing if Rylance had been on stage alone.

WV: Bugly...nah, too easy.

Coltrane said...

Use exposition as ammunition! The only thing useful I got out of my college screenwriting class.

Dude of The House said...

Very interesting. I've been told I'm the King of Parentheticals, and I'm not sure if that's a title to be proud of or not.

Also, a strange connection from my weird memory: it was interesting that you mentioned Ralph Bellamy and Emily Mortimer together (as no one probably ever has before or will again), since Ralph Bellamy played Randolph Duke in "Trading Places" and he had a brother named Mortimer, played by Don Ameche.

Yeah, I'm weird. Sue me.

Pseudonym said...

Incidentally, David Hyde Pierce also got a girl in "Down With Love". (That was the part Ralph Bellamy would have played back in the day.)

cadavra said...

Actually, it was the Tony Randall part--the picture specifically parodied the Doris/Rock/Tony films of the early '60s (with Randall himself as DHP's father). Bellamy was too old by then to be playing those roles.

WV: "Obiandoc"--Physician who takes care of your Obian. (That sounds like a Carnak punchline.)

Anonymous said...

I care less as a writer about playing the role of director within the confines of the script, than I do about the story itself. Anyone remember the concept of 'a story'?

I know, I know. It's such an absurd idea I should be hammered underground just for mentioning it.