Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Film Courage Plus: Let The Actors Act!

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me, around 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

At the first Writer’s Guild “Words Into Pictures” Conference in 1997 I was one of the hundreds of people who watched Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau perform I.A.L. Diamond’s short play “Quizzically” about a pair of writers debating a “wrylie” - a parenthetical to tell an actor how to deliver the line. Due to chance and maybe the stars aligning correctly, I was in the front row, only a few feet away from these two great actors. It’s one of those things that I will remember forever... and Diamond’s short play is hysterical if you are a screenwriter. Diamond was a co-writer with Billy Wilder on SOME LIKE IT HOT and THE APARTMENT and many more films, and Matthau and Lemmon were the perfect team to bounce the clever lines off of each other. I haven’t read the play, but I will bet there were very few parentheticals in it, because those things are usually the sign of a problem in a screenplay... which is what we will be talking about today.


New screenwriters often litter their screenplays with “wrylies” (parantheticals) for a couple of reasons which are both part of not trusting the actors to do their jobs. One of the things that is difficult for new writers to remember is that even though writing that spec script is an individual accomplishment and you *are* all of the other people involved in making the film at that point, it will eventually become a team effort and other very talented people will work to create the finished film. There’s a line that is often blurry between that individual accomplishment and team effort, and new writers tend to micro-manage their screenplays instead of creating what TAXI DRIVER screenwriter Paul Schrader calls the “Invitation to others to collaborate on a work of art”. Our job as screenwriters is to give hints to the other participants in making the film, rather than give orders. We want to nudge them in the right direction, because if we try to shove them they will do the exact opposite of what we want. When you push, people push back. I often say that part of our jobs as screenwriters is to make the director think that it was their idea. So we need to let the actors do the acting, the cinematographer do the lighting, the casting director figure out what the actors look like, the set designer figure out the specifics of what the locations look like, etc. We can hint, but we can’t demand. And if we are good at hinting in our screenplays - everyone will think that it was their idea. So let’s look at letting the actors act...

Though we are imagining the performance in our minds as we write, we still want to leave room for each of the other creative people involved to do their jobs - and they are the experts at those jobs. If we use a “wrylie” to tell the actor that the character is supposed to be angry when delivering the line, that often means that the line itself is not expressing anger - and that’s a flaw in *our work*. Often “wrylies” are used to prop up weak dialogue that isn’t doing it’s job to demonstrate that emotion. There are better word choices or a better order to the words that will make that line show the anger of the character. Often the problem is sentence length - angry people don’t have long winded sentences, they are quick and to the point, and adding a wrylie is not going to change the length of the sentence. The shorter the sentence, the more energy in that sentence. Longer sentences dissipate the energy. So, as the writer, our *writing* needs to demonstrate the emotions so that we do not need a wrylie. Telling an actor to deliver a line with anger doesn’t make the line sound angry - and the line is our job, performance is the actor’s. Let the actor choose the delivery of the lines.

Here’s why: The 1964 version of THE KILLERS has a scene where assassin Lee Marvin is threatening Claude Akins, who has information on where his target is hiding. Now Marvin is playing a violent and impatient man, whose catch phrase is “I don’t have the time”, so you might think that (angry) is the perfect “wrylie” for his threats to Akins. When you wrote the dialogue - these were angry lines, right? But if they are angry lines, you don’t need to identify them as such - the dialogue *demonstrates* the emotion in the way it is written....

Plus, the actor might make a brilliant choice, as Lee Marvin did in this scene - he delivered the lines quietly and calmly, which made the threats even more chilling. He removed the anger from his voice, so we got control - and that makes this scene stand out. This is a man who kills people for a living and has as much feeling about it as an assembly line worker feels about doing his job. Awesome choice by the actor, and you don’t want to limit those choices by micro-managing their performance. Just as we have our skills as writers, actors have their skills. They understand how to play the scene better than we do, they play scenes for a living.

Trust the actors to do the job that they are experts at!

Also trust the director and everyone else to do their jobs. Directors like to be in control, they like to be the person who came up with the genius idea... so if you write CLOSE UP: they will not want to shoot that in a close up, because it wasn't their idea. And if it needed to be a close up? You just screwed yourself by writing CLOSE UP instead of using language so that the director reads the scene and imgaines a close up. In the DESCRIPTION AND VOICE Blue Book there's a section on how to use language to create a specific picture in the reader's mind. No need to type CLOSE UP if all they can imagine is a close up. I once had a meeting with a director on one of my screenplays and he was excited by "his idea" of how to shoot an action scene. I told him that he was a genius to think about shooting it like that... but I purposely described it so that you would imagine those shots and angles. I created the images in the reader's mind from those angles. I hinted.

So let the people do their jobs... and secretly be the puppet master pulling theor strings.


Make sure that your dialogue is doing its job, and doesn’t need to be propped up with a wrylie. The one place where a wrylie might be required is a sarcastic line of dialogue, but even then the delivery should be completely obvious by the situation and the character. The situation and character are also the writer’s jobs, so you still should not need a wrylie if you are doing your job. Sarcasm is a character trait - something that you can mention when introducing the character, and then their dialogue throughout the screenplay will reflect this. If a character who has never been sarcastic before suddenly becomes sarcastic, that’s a little odd - and maybe you should rethink that dialogue? Actors are going to question when a character does something out of character... and you should be questioning that before they ever get a chance to read it. So even with sarcasm, you don’t need wrylies. If the character is introduced as being sarcastic, and the dialogue in this situation can only be sarcastic? No need to micro-manage that. Trust the actor to figure it out. You do your job and allow them to do theirs.


The other way that new writers often micro-manage a screenplay is by telling an actor what expression they should have on their faces. My personal rule is that I control the actor’s bodies and the actor gets to control their expressions. Let the actors act! One of the problems with either a wrylie that says (smiles) or a line of description that tells the actor to smile is that some actors aren’t the smiling types. When was the last time you say Clint Eastwood giving a big toothy grin in a movie? So if you are trying to get that emotion to the audience, it never gets there. It’s depending on the actor to do the writer’s job - either through the line of dialogue that demonstrates happiness or and action (using their bodies) that shows happiness. If the situation that the writer creates is all about joy and happiness, the actor doesn’t need to smile - the *audience* will be smiling... and that’s the key to emotions and emotional scenes.

Frank Capra said, "I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries." Your job as a screenwriter is not to make the characters cry, it’s to create a situation where the audience cries. Or laughs. Or feels anger. Or feels joy. One of the things that I have noticed in some films is that when the character cries, the audience doesn’t have to... but if the character tries to remain in control in a scene where they would normally cry, the audience feels as if they need to do the crying for the character.

The same holds true with expressions - sometimes an actor knows that if they *don’t* show an expression when the situation calls for one, it will create stronger feelings in the audience. The actor understands what expression will be best for the scene, and sometimes they make an interesting choice that we, as writers, would never have thought of. I don’t know if Richard Widmark’s character laughed with joy when he pushed an old woman in a wheelchair down the stairs to her death in the screenplay for KISS OF DEATH or whether it was the actor’s choice (I suspect the latter) but that really odd choice given the situation is what made that scene famous. Actors can take our characters and find the behaviors that we never imagined - and that’s why we want to trust them to do their jobs.

There are times when a character nods or smiles as an important response - it's story related, so you will write that smile or nod or whatever. But try to find a better way to do that, if possible.

Um, I am guilty of this: I had a screenplay where the producer thought the protagonist was too dour, so I added a (smiles) wrylie a couple of times in the first ten pages, problem solved! Yes, I did everything that I just told you not to do. But only in self defense. I knew that whoever played the protagonist was going to be a charismatic movie star, and for some reason the producer was imagining some sad sack loser... I told the producer that I completely rewrote the character, but all I did is add a couple of (smiles) and it solved the problem. Tools not rules.

Some new writers think that the “description” part of a screenplay is just there to break up the dialogue, but that is not its purpose. The difference between Movies and TV when it comes to screenplays is that TV is a growth of radio - and tends to be more dialogue driven, and modern movies are a growth of silent films - and tend to be stories told visually. Through the actions of the characters. What their bodies do. So find the way to demonstrate the emotions with actions, rather than with expressions. Read through your screenplay - skipping the dialogue - and make sure that the story is told through the actions of the characters, the situations, the images. One of the things in my Action Screenwriting Book and I believe the Visual Storytelling Book are “twitches and touchstones” - creating a physical object with an emotion built into it, so that a character can create emotions in the audience just by touching that watch that their dead father gave them, and the audience knows that they are thinking of their father. Our job is telling stories visually through the actions of the characters - so we don’t need to tell them what expression is on their face... the actor can provide that.


Though we control the actor’s bodies, another place where writers often micro-manage is “business”. Business is what an actor does with their hands during a scene - that’s an oversimplification, but it’s any normal actions that aren’t changing the course of the story. “Kurt takes a sip of wine.” These are like “physical wrylies” - actions that really don’t have anything to do with telling the story, they are telling the actor what to do. “Sandra shakes her head” before the character saying “No” is redundant. When we are talking about the actions of the characters, we aren’t talking about little things that they do. One of my short films had a scene where a woman returns from the grocery store and is putting away groceries. Putting away the groceries was all of the action required for that scene, and the actress pulled out a bag of potato chips, opened it, and munched on a few as she put the groceries away. Brilliant! That was business. She did what someone normally does when putting away groceries - snack a little on something that she bought. I didn’t need to write that in the screenplay or tell her to do that - she is an actress and she did what the character would do in that scene. Eating a few potato chips didn’t impact the story in any way - so it wasn’t something that I would write in the script. Just as taking a sip of wine at dinner is just normal - unless the wine was poisoned or something, it doesn’t impact the story. A friend of mine worked on a film where the actor developed an amazing trick with a cigarette lighter for his character - not in the screenplay. But the actor thought that if his character had smoked their entire life, they would have developed fun ways to do it. Actors bring things like this to the characters. That lighter trick didn’t advance the story in any way - it was business.

You want to focus your action lines on physical actions that *do* impact the story, and let the actors do the natural stuff. If your screenplay is just a bunch of people standing around talking - that is a problem. Adding “Kurt takes a sip of wine” or “Sandra shakes her head” or even that cigarette lighter trick is not going to solve the problem of a static scene where nothing is physically happening or characters use words instead of actions. Often the story itself is the culprit, here - you have a non-visual story in a visual medium. A radio play that you are trying to pass off as a SCREENplay. Instead of adding business, go back and rethink that scene - how can you show the feelings and emotions? How can you demonstrate the story through actions instead of exclusively through dialogue?

Movies are words and pictures, and if you only have the words, a picture of “Kurt takes a sip of wine” tells us *nothing*. So let the actors do the acting - let them choose the delivery of the lines, chose what expression is on their face, choose what to do with their hands. And you as the writer create situations and physical actions that impact the story itself. Trusting the actors to do their jobs, trusting the cinematographer to do their job, trusting the costume department and set designers and everyone else to do their jobs.


- Bill


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