Mark Tapio Kines is the author of Screenwriting Fundamentals, an online course on Lynda.com. He has written and directed two features, and is the first filmmaker to ever use crowdfunding to finance his work. Mark can be reached at his production company's site, http://www.cassavafilms.com.
It took me several years, two feature films, and a number of shorts before I truly came to a better understanding of how actors work. Like a lot of filmmakers, I have control freak tendencies, so I was convinced for a long time that my cast was just there to channel my ideas and characters.
Once I finally accepted actors as genuine creative collaborators, it not only mellowed me as a director, it also improved my screenwriting. If you’ve ever been frustrated by the disconnect between what you put on the page and what an actor does with it, I hope you’ll find these tips constructive.
“Fool-Proof” Your Story, Not Your Dialogue
Many screenwriters, especially those who work solo, fall into this trap: As you spend months carefully perfecting your dialogue, reading it over and over to yourself, you start believing that it can only be spoken in one particular way, or else it won’t make any sense.
To this end, you resort to “fool-proofing” your dialogue against any actor by including loads of parenthetical directions and typographical emphases. To wit:
Now, you’d think this would make it perfectly clear how the line should be delivered. Then an actor waltzes in and says it like this:
All your careful instructions have been ignored. Why does this happen?
Here’s my theory: Actors want to be taken seriously as creative artists. If you go overboard in your direction, they might think you don’t trust their ability to interpret your golden prose. So they rebel and make it a point to speak the dialogue differently. (I’ve even seen some actors cross out all the punctuation in a script, so that questions can be read as statements and vice versa. Someone told me it’s because Christopher Walken is said to do this.)
So as a screenwriter, what can you do to preserve your ideas – and your sanity? Here’s my advice:
- Accept that your dialogue can be read in a million different ways besides yours. Scale back those parenthenticals and those underlines as much as possible, and trust the cast to do their jobs. (Ironically, I’ve found that actors will often speak my lines exactly as I intended, as long as I don’t tell them to.)
- Add clear physical action to every scene – action that drives the story forward. No matter how Joe enunciates his distaste for boiled broccoli, if you write that he winds up throwing the pot of broccoli at Sally’s head, and the next scene shows Sally in the hospital recovering from her broccoli pot concussion, the cast will have to run with it, because this action is part of the story and not merely a debatable nuance. (Note: “physical action” doesn’t need to be violent! Joe could also storm out, walk to the local bar, make a new friend or enemy, and the story moves forward from there.)
- Let the context of each scene provide the clarity. If Sally enters the room wearing a pretty dress, and Joe says “Nice dress,” we can assume he’s being honest. But if Sally enters wearing an ugly dress, and Joe says “Nice dress,” you don’t have to spell it out that Joe’s being sarcastic.
- If Sally’s dress is pretty, yet Joe’s “Nice dress” comment is meant to be sarcastic, you could insert “(sarcastically)” above Joe’s dialogue to make this clear. But a more elegant solution would be to finesse the dialogue: If Joe says “Nice dress” and Sally says “What don’t you like about it?” it means she can tell when Joe’s not being sincere. It sheds a little light on their relationship.
- You can also indicate emotional moments within silences. Instead of Sally verbally responding to Joe’s comment about his broccoli or her dress, you could write, “Sally looks at him sadly.” Just don’t be surprised if the actress playing Sally winds up looking at Joe angrily instead.
The “Scene Desire”
You already know to establish what I call the “story desire” for each character – their primary goal in the movie, be it saving their family or catching the crook or whatever. But writers often underestimate the importance of the “scene desire” – what each character is trying to accomplish in each scene.
Actors live in the moment. Help them by giving their characters something to do, moment by moment, each and every time they’re on screen.
I don’t mean “busy work” like pouring drinks or lighting cigarettes. I mean a real scene desire. I can rattle off a ton of examples – picking a lock, looking for a hiding place, running to catch a bus, etc. Maybe such tropes aren’t appropriate for your low-key character study. But don’t overlook the valuable qualities of these examples: They’re visual. They move the story forward, because something depends on the outcome of their actions. And when it comes to “fool-proofing” your script against bad performances, they’re unbeatable. Even iffy actors can be pretty believable when you keep their characters busy with goal-driven physical tasks.
The scene desire is also an extremely important factor in the dialogue you write. You’ll note that in many films, a lot of dialogue consists of one character trying to convince another character to do something for them. Naturally, that other character is usually reluctant. It’s great for dramatic tension and it’s great for actors because it gives them that precious “motivation” – a goal they need to accomplish in that conversation.
But let’s say you’ve written a scene in which Betty tells Bob a heartbreaking monologue about her past. If you think this scene is about revealing some of Betty’s backstory to the audience, you’re going about it all wrong. It should really be about what Betty hopes to accomplish by telling Bob her monologue. How do you show this? By showing Bob’s response – and then by showing Betty’s reaction to Bob’s response. This way, we get a sense of what Betty really wanted to get out of Bob, and whether she got what she wanted.
It may sound cynical to constantly give every character an agenda, no matter what they do or who they are. But it makes for livelier storytelling and livelier performances. (It’s also more fun to write.)
A Meaty Role for Everybody
One of the myths in low-budget filmmaking is that additional speaking parts will inflate your budget hugely. I haven’t found this to be true. But I do believe that, when you fill your story with characters, you create a much richer and less claustrophobic world.
So first of all, if your story allows for it, I encourage you to write more parts for “day players” – the actors who come in for a day’s work on one or two scenes. A variety of faces will add more life to the finished film.
More importantly, I hope you will give each of those characters a memorable line and/or something interesting to do. Whether they’re “GUARD #1” or “OLD NEIGHBOR”, eventually some actor will spend hours standing around patiently in exchange for their 10 seconds of screen time. Make their work more rewarding. Sometimes the best line in a movie is spoken by a day player – and as a bonus, they’ll probably say it exactly as you wrote it, because they’re so grateful for that moment.
So if you have a waitress in a scene who comes in to pour coffee, don’t just have her say, “More coffee, sir?” The film can afford a couple extra seconds of personality. Give her a witty line or reaction. Have her interact a little with your main characters – the conversation can bring out something in them too.
In the End…
Whether it’s an indie or a blockbuster, movie audiences primarily remember the faces of the people they saw on screen. Faces, alas, are not what you the screenwriter have at your disposal. But if you write your script with actors in mind (and I’m not talking about writing for movie stars, but for actors in general), you can forge a stronger connection between what’s on the printed page and what’s in the completed film.