Don’t Always Listen To The Writer

“I don’t honestly think people know what acting is.”

“Somewhere in your career, your work changes. It becomes less anal, less careful and more spontaneous, more to do with the information that your soul carries.”

-Ben Kingsley

One of my pet peeves is writers that feel the need to do the actor’s work for them.  There is a big difference between a writer giving an actor the words to say versus giving direction on how to say it.  Sometimes these directions are subtle and show up as over eager punctuation.  Sometimes they are more obvious and are laid out very specifically in the stage direction.  Either way, unless the writer is the director (and often even then), the characters are no longer his.  The story is his, but the characters now belong to the actor.

I saw an interview with Christopher Walken who said that the first thing he does when he reads a script is to cross out any and all punctuation.  That way, he can find his own rhythms of speaking the words.  But wait, you say!  What about the writer’s intentions, you say?!  The writer’s story will be told, I promise.  Once a director takes on a project, he or she might respond to the material in a way different than the way the writer originally intended.  The writer is no longer in charge.  The end result will be that the writer’s story will be told, they just may not be happy with the end result.  Oh well.  To all writers out there – If you don’t want to give up your scripts to the collaborative process that is film (and theatre), then write a novel.  If you still disagree with me, then consider this, Christopher Walken won an Oscar.

Let me give an example.  Here is a line of dialogue:

“We decided… just to talk to each other, but in the process we have created for ourselves a whole new life — possibly.”

The scene where this is from boils down to a man asking a woman to take a chance with him.  The writer added the ellipses, “…”,   and the  em dash, “–“, so that the actor knows to  pause.  Here is a Wikipedia definition of an Ellipses, “An ellipsis can also be used to indicate a pause in speech, an unfinished thought, or, at the end of a sentence, a trailing off into silence.  The ellipsis calls for a slight pause in speech.”  Here is what Wikipedia says about the em dash, “It can be used instead of an ellipses to indicate a sentence stopped short not because of interruption but because the speaker is too emotional to continue.  It also often demarcates a parenthetical thought.”

So, now we know what the writer wants us to do.  He wants you to pause twice in the sentence, the second time, perhaps, to add some emotion.  I would approach that line differently.  I know where the scene is going and I know how to drive it there.  But I’m going to go my own route.  How I pause and how many times is my business.  My job is to connect to my instinct and play the scene.  All that bogus writer direction needs to be flushed down the toilet or it gets in the way.

Now, if anyone reading this is still fighting for the writer, let me leave you with one final thought.  I recently was talking about this same subject with a casting director friend of mine and as I made my arguments she asked if I wasn’t afraid of upsetting the writer by clearly ignoring his intention.  I thought about it and said no for two reasons.  First, 9 out of 10 actors auditioning for the same role will do exactly what the writer says to do.  One or two might actually do it proficiently and the rest will look rehearsed and stale.  If I find my own way of getting to the finish line I know it will stand out in the minds of those in the room.  Which brings me to my second point.  I said,  of those in the room who are doing the hiring, I’m betting that the writer has the least amount of say in who gets the job.

She looked at me for a second and then her jaw dropped a little.  “Oh my God, I never thought about that, but you’re absolutely right.”  You see, everyone agrees that the actor must serve the writer.  What they don’t get is that the ones that don’t do it, often actually do it better.  Think about it.