Sunday, July 01, 2012

Actors: How to give notes to writers

Actors, here are some tips on how to convey your script concerns to writers in a way that might result in them addressing your problems without hating you, slashing your tires, or making you the butt of room jokes for seven continuous months.

One ground rule though: This is predicated on your note being a legitimate concern with the sole purpose of improving the show. There’s no hidden agenda of “this puts me in a bad light” or “I want to have the last line” or “this guy is not handsome enough to be my boyfriend”. We understand that you will never actually say your problem is “I don’t want the audience thinking I’m not attractive enough to snare a better looking boyfriend” so you will couch your objections in actor-double-speak. “It’s counter to my character’s arc” and that sort of shit. Understand this: we see through that crap immediately. And there’s nothing we hate more than arguing over the script under the guise of art and integrity when we all know damn well it’s purely about your vanity.

So, let’s assume you have a legitimate concern. We writers don’t like to admit it in public but we acknowledge that you live with the characters you’re playing, you internalize them, you do give them a lot of thought (sometimes too much thought), and ultimately you’re the one who will be in front of the camera, naked to the world. Begrudgingly, we also admit that a lot of your instincts are correct. Your suggestions many times improve the script.

So it’s just a matter of communicating your concerns in a way that will make us receptive to you and here’s the key – WANT to make those changes.

Quite simply, it’s all about showing us respect.

When we come down to the stage don’t glare at us like we killed your puppy. If the script doesn’t work it, we didn’t do it on purpose. Try to remain positive. Give us the impression that you’re not overly concerned, that you have every faith that we can fix it. Is that hard to do sometime? Yes, of course. But you’re ACTORS. Act!

One trick is to start by praising something. You love “this” but just have some issues with “that”. We know you’re bullshitting We do the same thing when giving notes to other writers. But we appreciate the gesture.

If you want us to shut you off completely just say, “My character would never say that!” Whether it would or not, you say those words and we hate you.

You throw a script on the ground, expect us to walk away.

Please don’t say something we wrote is “stupid”. I can’t tell you how many times an actor claimed a certain story point or character action was “stupid” and “no one would ever do this” when in truth it stemmed from an actual incident that happened to the writer. Don’t trap yourself. Just ask. You can very nicely say, “this bit seems a little out there. Do you know of anyone who really did this?” If the answer is no, our next response will probably be, “You think we went too far?” You smile and say, “Well, kinda, yeah.” Our rewrite will include examining that bit.

I worked on a show once where an actress, a noted British thespian questioned some bit of business by saying, “So my motivation for this is what, darling? I’m an out-patient?” Her way of registering protests was with slightly pointed humor. This can be disarming or really backfire depending on the tone. Be careful. In this case, she was a sweetheart and we knew there was no malicious intent. That line became our way of questioning something for the rest of the year.

If you don’t think your character would say something we’ve written please tell us (nicely!!) why. We’ll never expect you to come up with the alternate line, that’s our job. But guide us a little. We’re not mind readers. And if you can, explain your problems in plain English and not actor-speak. “This line goes counter to my emotional center” does not help us a whit.

Expressing your objection in the form of a question often softens the blow. “Don’t you think I’d be curious when I see him come to bed in clown make-up?” Often times it’s easier for us to just say, “We’ll look at that” rather than try to justify it.

And once we say we’ll address it just thank us and move on. Don’t keep belaboring the point. We got it. We’re on it. You made your sale. Walk away.

Sometimes we’re not sure if it works or not so we want to see it. When you show it don’t purposely sabotage it. Trust me, we can tell in one nanosecond if you are. And if you are, we’re likely to dig in our heels and insist that it stays.

Here is why we need you to give it your best shot in a runthrough. If you commit to the material and it doesn’t work then we know it’s our fault and not yours. By seeing it on its feet we can often see what’s wrong with the scene. An alternative might occur to us. A scene may not work but there are three great jokes in there that do and maybe can be saved.

Don’t try to win every battle. Give us a few. If we really believe in our best professional judgment that something works or will get the laugh, let us have it. We’ll be so much more willing to change something for you that we’re not as cock sure about. Again, it goes back to respect. Trust us a little.

Don’t question EVERY line. After awhile we’ll hide from you, or in the case of a drama, kill you off.

And finally, let me share with you the single best way to give a writer a note and almost be guaranteed that he’ll agree to fix it. This comes from Nick Colasanto (who played Coach on CHEERS). Whenever he had a problem (which wasn’t often) he’d start off by saying, “Look, I’m happy to do it just as written, but…” Then he would lay out his concerns. But the fact that he offered to do it as written, we ALWAYS, every time, went back and adjusted the line to his satisfaction. Try it. It will work!

Thanking us the next day when we have made your changes also goes a long way in the goodwill department.

Bottom line: we all want to make the best show. Unfortunately, we’re also all under tremendous stress, have giant egos, and are a mass of insecurities. These are some tips to help actors deal with writers. I bet you actors have an equal or longer list of things we writers can do better in dealing with you. I may flinch but I’d be happy to hear them.


John said...

Any corresponding anecdotes about actors/actresses who protested loudly/petulantly about a scene, didn't get their way and then had to watch the 'horrible' scene score a bull's eye with the audience?

Anonymous said...

With its emphasis on respect and politeness, I feel this is a perfectly appropriate post for Canada Day.

The Mutt said...

I've been an actor for thirty years, and I gotta say, if anybody on a set ever told me, "You're and actor. Act." I would punch him right in the nose.

Johnny Walker said...

I think with a few minor tweaks this advice works for ANY creative situation. For example, a few months ago I offered to do my housemate a favour, doing some extra work for his company, for a presentation he had to give (he'd left it to the last minute).

I put together something simple, nice, and modern. Unfortunately he didn't like it, and had the gall to send me a message via email implying that my work wasn't to "industry standards", and that he was taking flak because of it. (Of course I was well-aware of how little work he'd done on the project before his presentation -- it was a running joke in our flat that he played squash instead of doing any work.)

Feeling like I'd been kicked in the groin after staying up until 3am so he had something to present, I decided to ask what my fellow graphic designer colleagues what they thought of the website I'd produced. At first they assumed I was asking them their opinion on the product the company was selling, being a bit confused as to why I wanted to know their thoughts on women's jeans.

When I asked them to assess the aesthetics, they unanimously thought it looked nice, still confused as to why I was asking.

When I explained that it was something I'd done in my spare time, and then shown them the feedback I'd been given, they were shocked. One quipped that I should reply and ask for a list of the "industry standards" I was supposed to meet.

Instead I just walked away from the job, suggesting that for the sake of a happy household we should never work together again. (Best decision I ever made!)

It's one thing to say you don't like something, it's entirely something else to insult a professional and their work.

Johnny Walker said...

Speaking of actor anecdotes, I remember my ex getting the follow bit of charm during an audition:

"Now do it again, but this time less like a robot."

Gee, now THERE'S a way to get the best work out of an actor!

Matt said...

Some actors have some experience writing or at least writing jokes, such as Ray Ramano as a stand up comic. Are you more likely to take notes from somebody with this experience.

stewart robertson said...

One of my biggest pet hates is being given a script where my character has lines that are cut off mid sentence and yet i have no idea what he would have said if he were allowed to finish speaking. for example :

John: i was just thinking that...

Fred: i dont care what you were thinking!

As an actor i might not know what my character was thinking and it can make it a touch difficult to deliver the line or even the scene, especially if the other actor is slow in cutting me off.

When im writing, i put the unspoken words in brackets after the elipses. this helps me immemsely.

Chris said...

Friday question related to this: How come everybody who worked for Roseanne hates her and nobody hates Larry David?

Writes that used to work on Seinfeld always said how Larry would just walk away when he didn't like your ideas and get into shouting matches with everyone about the show.

I'm sure they both just wanted the best for their shows and knew that their way was the funniest.

Unknown said...

Johnny's right. I'm not in the business (just a lowly IT guy) but this advice works everywhere. I've had a co-worker throw a document on my desk, call it crap and walk away. As a result, I took less of his feedback seriously. It's just good advice across the board.

Oh, and best line in the post:
“This line goes counter to my emotional center”

I'm going to see how often I can work this into conversation with my wife this week.

"I've asked twice now. Can you please change that lightbulb?"
“That goes counter to my emotional center”
“Changing the lightbulb is counter to my character’s arc”
"You're an idiot"

Anonymous said...

The answer to the Larry David question is that Larry David has talent.

You did a nice job covering this, Ken. The only thing I would additionally tell your actor readers is that a lot of times you may want a specific line changed, but WE are the only ones who can truly discern if even a tiny change will disrupt a whole story or a whole theme. It either will or won't be worth it to us to make the change. (If you're the star, I guess it will). So leave the decision up to us and know if your note didn't get addressed, we gave it plenty of time around the table and decided what was there was necessary.

Probably the worst note I ever heard from an actor was from Michael McKean who cornered us writers after a reading and said, "Look, I know you guys didn't MEAN to write badly, but..."

D. McEwan said...

"One trick is to start by praising something. You love 'this' but just have some issues with 'that'."

Also, follow it with another compliment. My shrink from years ago called this (When used in conversation) "The Sandwich Technique" where you deliver a criticism sandwiched between two compliments. It is useful in life also: "This dinner is delicious, it's unfortunately overcooked to the point of being inedible, but the sauce is to die for."

Johnny Walker said...

I've heard that the "shit sandwich" technique is best served: Compliment, compliment, criticism, compliment.

It's very hard to remember that in the spare of the moment, though!

Jan said...

Johnny Walker,

Well said. It's always nice to see "compliment" spelled correctly. The phrase is spur of the moment. You also had great punctuation.

The Mutt said...

I have worked on very few shows where the writer was around during production. (90% of what I've done has been on stage.) The only time I recall giving a note is when there was something I found to be a blatant contradiction or continuity error. (Even Shakespeare had some. Does Macbeth have children or not?)

Ken has written in the past about continuity problems and how they happen. I understand how writers and directors might make them, but what I don't get is how the actor lets them happen.

One of the earliest things I learned about acting was creating your character notebook. Go through the script and write down everything the writer says about the character, everything the other characters say about him, and everything he says about himself. Things like whether he has siblings, for example.

If I got a script where I talked about being an only child, then later got one where I talked about my sister, I would raise hell. But not to the writer. To the director. I work for him. I really don't think the actor has any business talking to the writers, or anyone else for that matter. I put myself in the director's hands. That's the job.

Carol said...

To 'The Mutt'

Regarding 'The Scottish Play', one interpretation I heard was that Lady M was married before, and SHE had children, but Maccers didn't. Because he was impotent, possibly. Which is why her digs about his manhood really goad him into killing Duncan. /Shakespere geek

Ken...I like your advice. Seeing as how the only shows I've done recently have been by dead playwrights, I won't ever have the opportunity to use this advice, but I'm betting it would work well with a director just as much.

Suzy said...

Here via a twitter link.

I did Seinfeld in 1994. The guy who was playing my husband came up to me and introduced himself and said he was playing my husband.

I almost said, "Yeah, riiiiiight."
Because THIS was who they chose for me? I was (silently)insulted until I remembered that Larry picked people for their talent. Poor guy only had one line SO WHY WASN'T HE A STUD??? jk, LD.

Great post.

Nick said...

I always liked the famous Harrison Ford complaint about his dialogue from the set of Star Wars - " You can write this shit George, but you can't say it!"

Well Harrison, millions of dollars in your bank account and thirty + years of those line being quoted so often they have entered popular language tells us that you CAN write this shit and say it....

Friday Question: Is there much room for ad libbing on the set of sitcoms? I know in films it can work because you shoot multiple takes - but in a sitcom format (i'm thinking of Robin Williams in Mork and Mindy) do writers appreciate when actors ad lib or is it generally frowned upon?

Anonymous said...

I recall a soap opera actress who portrayed a lawyer asking for permission to have a bottle of wine on the podium from which she was supposed to deliver what she considered a poorly written closing argument to a jury. She said it was because the character would have to be drunk to say what the writers had written.

Anonymous said...
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GMJ said...

Re: Nicholas Colasanto
(Possible Friday question)

On an entirely different matter, I noticed Colasanto directed over 29 different television shows between the mid-1960s through the early 1980s. Have you ever had a chance to see any of his projects? I suspect his professional way expressing his concerns to writers extended to his work as a director before "Cheers".

Just wondered. Thanks for reading this message.