December 18, 2009

THE WRITE STUFF: ACTORS AREN'T PROPS

One of the things one should always keep in mind when one is writing for a movie or a TV thing is – very early on – that the lines you write, the scenes you create need to be interpreted by certain people. What do we call them again? Ah, yes. Actors. Horrible people, they are. Horrible, I say! They actually think that they can bring something to the table! Who do they think they are? Ah, yes, actors!

Seriously, though, I think that actors are not the table, and they do bring something to it. Your script. Your characters. But they need to make it. They need to bring it to life. And that's why the audiences connect to them, and not to you. Don't be bothered by that. Don't ever be bothered by that. As Morgan Freeman says in this roundtable, "I need a writer, and I perform according to certain parameters that were set up by somebody else". That's very kind of him, acknowledging that.

But it's the other way around. Sorry, Morgan. Writers need actors. Good actors. Great actors. People who don't just read lines, but bring something unique to them. Everybody can read lines. It ain't that hard. But a truly great actor or actress, they build a character with the sticks and stones you give them, and one of the things that is vital is for them to give them a bit of leeway to do just that. To create the pauses between lines. To show the audience how that character they are playing is unique.



One of the things that struck me about Tony Gilroy's Duplicity (by all accounts that should have been a home run, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, the guy who wrote Bourne and Michael Clayton) was how lifeless that movie was. And I'm not talking about the plot, which was kind of neat, but ultimately irrelevant, I'm talking about how people behaved. How flat the lines were. And in an interview, Roberts and Owen said that the nice thing about working with a writer-director is that "he knows exactly how we were supposed to say our lines".

That was – unintentionally, maybe – one of the most damning things I have ever heard, for if it was Gilroy telling them that this is how his characters sounded like, he choked his actors to death.

Me, personally? I think that the biggest part of directing actors doesn't happen on the set. And before anybody goes "huh?", let me explain. The biggest part is when you cast them, when you look at them, listen to them, when you can see that they will bring what you put on a page to life. Sure, there is a lot of improvisation and fine-tuning on the set itself, but I stand with Nicholas Cage on this, if you hire Morgan Freeman, then you know you've hired a guy to do the heavy lifting for you, and you more importantly, you know he will. Trust him. Trust his instincts. Debate with him, sure (for none of us is without fault), but ultimately, trust the person you hired to bring your vision to life, to bring it up maybe even higher than you had imagined.

Don't fucking stare at your monitor all the time. Wanna know why? For them, for the actors, you are the audience. They want to know, they need to know. Is this working? Do I get a reaction from what I've just done? Trust them, and they will trust you.

The rest? The rest is just bullshit.