Not like that! Like this!

14 10 2009

My first real education in film making (not that I ever make films) came in the form of a Dov SS Simens weekend film crash course seminar. It was good. I highly recommend it. The most important thing he taught me was that no one needs a license to make a movie. But that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is the second most important thing he taught me: let actors do their jobs.

On set, everyone has a job to do. The director envisions a project and tries (often in vain) to steer the project in that direction (see? that’s where they get the word). The lighting guys do lighting. The cinematographer does the camera work (yes, I’m drastically underplaying their roles, but I don’t want to get off on a tangent), and the actor is charges with pulling life and humanity out of the words on his/her script.

The writer, often enough, isn’t even there. And when they are there, they should not go around telling people how to do things. You’re stepping on the directors toes by doing that. And you should never repeat a line back to an actor (say it like this: “YOU”RE out of order. This whole COURT is out of order!”). It’s stepping on his toes.

Some actors get insulted by that. Others don’t. Even if they aren’t insulted, still don’t do it. Because all that’s going to happen is they’ll start taking their cues from you, and you’ll be the one doing the performing. They’ll be your puppet. And yes, they may start saying lines just the way you want them, but you’ll be losing out on different, often better takes on your characters.

This is a rule I’ve lived by in scripting, and why I often don’t even go to shoots. However, I’m starting to reexamine my position on this, slightly.

Last week, pretty much because I wanted to get out of the house, I went to a Transylvania Television shoot. They were shooting my material exclusively, and I technically went under the pretense that I’d be available for consultation and rewrites, but I really didn’t expect anyone to want my help. It’s not because they’re rude, but because everyone on this show knows their jobs.

They filmed a couple of short bits with Charles, and though he did an outstanding job, he wasn’t hitting the same tone for the character that I intended. In fact, there was one or two jokes he didn’t get at all. Firstly, that’s my fault. If you have to explain a joke to someone, it’s not funny, or at the bare minimum it’s not clear. Scripting is tough. You can’t really write in the inflections much. And a lot of people in the business frown on even italicizing words. You just have to be as clear as possible, and let the director and actors add their magic.

But eventually it did come up that someone wanted me to chime in on a line. Again, I was very uncomfortable with saying the line the way I wanted it said, but I did tell them which words in the line I’d like stressed. And the line came out better. In fact, the producer said having me on set for that was a big help!

So where does this leave us? To interfere or not interfere? Is it helpful, or stepping on toes. I suppose there’s no good answer; everyone is different. So the answer is, find out who you’re working with before you chime in. Would they find it helpful?

Second, do your job in the scripting stage. Make it as clear as possible. I don’t want to use the term “idiot-proof” but that’s sort of what you have to shoot for. Have someone else read it and give their take, or read it dry. If the comedy comes from the inflection and performance and not the writing, then you’re not really writing comedy, are you? You’re acting on paper.

Third, take some time to have a read-through with the director if you can. He calls the shots on the performance, but if he doesn’t know what the writer is thinking, then that’s information he can’t bring to the set. He might find it useful, and if he doesn’t like you’re take, he’ll have a jumping point to take it somewhere else.

And just to twist the knife, I got a preview of the first bit they filmed, before I chimed in, and while I think people will like it, I know it could have been better if I chimed in at some point. So lesson learned…hopefully.