Sunday, May 27, 2012

Bringing Characters to Life: What That Can Mean

We know that good dramatic writing has something to do with life.

One ("Method") definition of acting as: living truthfully within the given circumstances of the text. Put simply, the actor "lives" the part. The writing must convey a sense that the characters are living human beings. If there's no signs the characters are alive, the actors will have a hard time bringing them to life.

But what does "living" mean here?

  • "Live" how?
  • Where is the "life" in the part?
  • How does it get there?

Briefly: the writer puts it there, and the actors and director find it and use it.

So how does one do this?

What Is "Life"?

When I refer to "life" I mean something at once simple and complex, obvious and subtle.

Being alive is a corporeal, bodily state, as well as the feeling of moving from one state to another. It's a kind of registration in and alteration of consciousness by the impact of physiological states--and vice-versa.

Hence things like:

  • waking up and falling asleep,
  • getting excited, growing bored,
  • being in suspense, anxious,
  • being or growing more or less calm,
  • having the hair on the back of your neck stand up,
  • running for your life,
  • meeting an old friend,
  • meeting an old enemy,
  • falling in love,
  • getting drunk or
  • sobering up,
  • being very hungry or
  • very full--
  • and the like.

This is not a rigorous philosophical definition: it's a rough-and-ready bin to use for practical purposes.

As a writer, you are obligated to give the characters a sense of life. If you're just arranging incidents or using words and actions to convey plot information, you're not really dealing with drama: you're creating puppets to mouth your story.

Little bits of life in a drama are like breadcrumbs for the actors to follow to find your character in the forest of words on the page.

  • Think how often writers have their characters stay up late at night, get drunk, fall in love and the like.

These bits of life make the character humanly-identifiable--hence actable. If you don't put some bits of life in your work, the actor has little to glom onto.

It's not hard to see the life of drama--when experts are at work. The experts are: the writer, director and actor. We can look at a couple of nice examples:

  • a scene in one of George Cukor's films (Travels with My Aunt), and
  • a short scene in All About Eve.

Why These Scenes?

Cukor. Director George Cukor was very expert. His movies include beloved classics, and he had a special knack for eliciting fine performances. Performers under Cukor's direction were nominated for Oscars more than 20 times.

The critical vocabulary for talking about acting is so impoverished that most can't say why Cukor is so good at this or in what his goodness consists. Looking at the issue of "life" in the dramatic text, we can.

One of Cukor's arsenal of tricks was the long take: letting the camera run for a minute or several to really showcase the actors' work.

  • In one sense, the long take shows the actor working in real time. Hence long takes really are bits of living, life laid out across a duration.
  • But in another sense, the long take shows the director's ability to control the actors--even when not using the way a shot's edges 'crop' a tiny moment, pull it out of the flow of life to blend it back into a flow of shots.
    • (The long take is the flipside of the 'shot': not the shot as bounded by edges but the shot as full of something--full of time and life.)

Mankiewicz. With fourteen Oscars nominations and six wins, including Best Picture, All About Eve is well-written, -directed--it got Oscars for those--and well-acted: it had five acting nominations and one win (for George Saunders in a supporting role).

  • Bette Davis was nominated for ten Oscars and won three. She knows her way around a soundstage. (The year of All About Eve, Davis lost to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.)
In each scene, we can ask:
  • What is the life of the scene? What are its moments? Its changes? Its arcs and curves? (For life has an aesthetic shape as well.)
  • Where are the markers of this life in the text--the dialogue? Where can we see that the actors and director together have interpreted the text to find signs of life they can develop?
  • Finally, what is the story of the scene, the information--as opposed to the life? We need to see this to see what a weaker writer would have put in a scene unsupported by human life.

Tired, Stoned Divulging.

It's late at night. A man and a young woman (a stranger) are drinking champagne in the man's sleeping car. They will smoke some cigarettes, reveal personal details about themselves, and eventually get into bed together (mostly clothed).

Already, you can sense the "life" the actors need to perform: it being late, getting drunk, getting high, the woman getting upset, the man comforting her, the two preparing to sleep--or something.

All this could be acted out with whatever dialogue. It's the life of the scene--or part of it. But the writers added another fun element, and the actors and the director have a helluva good time with it.

(The writers were Hugh Wheeler, who also wrote the books for a couple of Sondheim musicals, and Jay Presson Allen, who wrote Cabaret and Marnie, among other things: these folks know what they are doing. And Cukor worked on the script's development.)

Namely, the young woman brings out some cigarettes. The man thinks they're "American," but the woman says "I got these in Paris." When she takes a drag, it's a tell-tale deep drag. The man asks: "Are these herbal?" And the woman replies: "I don't think so."

Clearly, the two are smoking weed, but the man doesn't know it.

So the actor does some nice things to show that smoking this cigarette is not familiar.

  • He coughs.
  • The cigarette doesn't seem to taste right.
  • At one moment he seems dizzy from the cigarette.
Then the other actor joins in the fun.
  • The pair break out into giggling, even with no clear reason.
  • The dialogue is a bit repetitive, and so they act the hide-and-seek of topics as a function of the two being stoned.

In short, there are cues in the dialogue about the time of day, getting drunk and high, exposing one's private thoughts and feelings, and the director and actors invent details--the funny taste, the slight headache, the giggling--which create the physical life of the characters, and this helps to ground the scene, helps us to understand it humanly.

As information, the scene is slight. But the point is the contrast between the two lifestyles and moral codes.

  • The man's an Anglican. The woman is a kind of daffy rich hippie chick.
  • He's British, and She's American.
  • He's staid, and she's bohemian.

None of this is central to the plot. But the man's transformation is central. And so the man's coming to know a different world and getting stoned without knowing it: these are life experiences that slowly but surely add up to changing the protagonist.

All About Eve

This scene is about 35 minutes into a 2:20 movie. (Don't ask me which 'act' that is.)

The scene consists of actress-diva Margo Channing is awaken at 3 a.m. by a phone call.

At one level, the scene is largely about information: we learn something new, and so does Margo. But Mankiewicz is too good a writer not to have the information land with psychological impact. And Davis is too good an actress to do a scene which is not humanly interesting.

Zoom to 6 min & 4 seconds: Youtube's software won't do this for me.

The operator claims to be placing a call at her behest for midnight California time. Margo knows nothing about this. The other party turns out to be her boyfriend Bill (who's in Hollywood shooting a movie). During the call, Margo discovers:

  • That it's Bill's birthday,
  • that her assistant Eve scheduled the call (and neglected to mention same),
  • that Eve is also planning a welcome home/birthday party for Bill upon his return.
A lot of the work is done through dialogue.
  • Dialogue marks one of Margo's realizations: "Bill, it's your birthday."
  • Dialogue also tells us something about the way Margo says it, because Bill (a director) criticizes her performance.
  • And the dialogue also tells us Margo is not thinking straight: when Bill says "I love you," she replies "I'll check with Eve"--repeating an earlier line about party guests and showing the audience how intertwined the three characters have become, and how unconscious Margo is, in several ways.

The scene ends with Margo lighting a cigarette, and in the next scene she's still in bed--as if perhaps knocked for a loop and still recovering.

So what is the 'life'? Where is it marked in the text? How is it acted?

Very simply, the life of the scene is a woman waking up. She is waking up at two levels.

  • She is woken up, catches on, becomes aware of Eve's treachury, the way Eve's 'mistakes' end up benefitting Eve.
  • And by a clever strategem, the writer Mankiewicz chooses the life of a woman physically waking up.

The writer was the director, and he either told Bette Davis, or she figured out herself: you go from sleeping to wide awake, because the woman learns something unpleasant.

So what Davis acts is: first struggling to stay awake, wanting to sleep. The writer, director and actor here are all on the same page. They mark a clear contrast from being asleep, through struggling to stay awake, to not being able to fall asleep.


You may not choose to weave "life" into your scenes. But it is at least a guarantee you have more than one level in your script--on top of the intricate information you have woven in to reveal character through subtext and actions. And you will also befriend your actor if you can give her some life to embody--life that carries the meaning of the story, too, not just its outer husk.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Don't Start on Page One: Work in Layers.

I dare say: the primary problem of creative writing is workflow. Where do you start?

I had two conversations about screenwriting recently, and taken together with a third observation, these can show something important about how to develop your work.

(The third thing is taken from some old Julia Child TV shows I've been watching. And those make me think that good writing is a bit like French cooking. But more of that later.)

First, I talked to an aspiring screenwriter whose approach to screenwriting was basically: "Start on page one--and then just kind of keep going."

This still blows my mind.

To me, this is like:

  • hanging the doorknobs or painting the trim before you pour the foundation, or
  • putting the icing in the pan and pouring the cake batter on top and hoping you'll get a layer cake.

A more sophisticated counter-argument would be: your brain can only do so many things at once.

  • There's something called "working memory."
  • This is like the cutting board for your mind.
  • It's the place in your brain where you bring together the stuff you need work over.

Can you do these all at the same time?

  • Juggle axes,
  • tap dance, and
  • recite the Pledge of Allegiance backwards?

Yeah, it's unlikely. Unless you can already do all three separately quite well. And then combining the three would only take a bit of practice.

But most people who start to write scripts cannot already do any of the separate skills too well. So starting from page one and typing is like trying to learn to juggle and tap dance at the same time.

The simple idea is: any complex made thing likely needs to be planned and built in at least a few steps.

Yes, I can make a paper airpline in a few steps. But you must assume that even the simplest movie script has a few things going on, and to get those events to spill out in an engaging way, some planning is desirable.

But what kinds of planning? In what kinds of steps?

The second conversation I had about screenwriting recently was about pitching--recounting your script or idea orally in order to sell it or get it read. Pitches come in a variety of sizes.

  • A thirty-second pitch--the "elevator" version.
  • A one-minute pitch. (This is for when the person isn't actually running away from you.)
  • A ten-minute pitch.
  • The whole movie in 30 minutes.

One person in the conversation looked at pitching as a separate skill and process--which in a way it is.

But I would urge that you should likely think of your emerging film script in pretty much this way. And movies that get made work like this and for a long time were even made like this. Screenwriting has this very organized side--but then it's also very organic--the same way we must learn any complex skill.

For any screenplay--the one you're writing, one you're reading, or one which was produced and which you're watching--you should be able to answer some simple questions.

  1. What's the premise? This is the basic idea, the hypothesis, which captures the problematic situation someone in the movie faces. A beach town is menaced by a killer shark and must destroy it. Or: A famous millionaire dies and reporters must discover the meaning of his cryptic last words. That type of thing: something that makes you curious to see the movie.
  2. What are the big chunks and turning points? This is three or four major actions which define the film's big twists and turns. The town can't get their act together. But a fractious team finally emerges, and they overcome their differences enough to work together. They ultimately succeed, but at a great price. The details inside these three or four chunks could change. But the gist should stay the same.
  3. What are the beats? These are the dozen or so smaller actions. The reporter tries to interview the rich man's second wife, but she's drunk and sends him away. Each beat captures between a few and ten minutes of the movie.
  4. How does each scene keep you in suspense and give you intriguing things to watch? This gets down to the microscopics of: Why does the character enter the room? What happens that's surprising? What new information comes out? How does your perspective change during the scene?

As you can see, these correspond to the various size pitches. And these layers of work also translate out into why an audience is interested or wants to share their enthusiasm with others.

Before you even see a movie, you likely know something about it.

  • The film needs to be promoted with a brief 'teaser' summary.
  • The story is compressed into taglines, posters, advertisements, etc.
  • Friends tell each other what the film is about in a sentence or two.

Longer things like trailers capture the major story points--as well as commercial attractions like stars and locations, story values like music or adventure. And then when viewers tell friends, they:

  • recap the story,
  • tell about interesting scenes,
  • describe certain moments where you must watch the actor closely to see what the character is feeling or hiding,
  • etc.

In short, these are all the levels at which the script must be interesting. If a script is not interesting at all these levels, it is likely not worth making--and almost impossible to promote or for viewers to recommend to friends or acquaintances.

The Julia Child/French cooking analogy is this: every ingredient in French cooking is itself layered with flavor, so the final dish has layer on layer of flavor.

  • You brown and salt the meat before stewing it.
  • The broth you add has a separate palette of flavors.
  • Even the fruit you use to decorate a tart might itself be soaked in liqueur or fruit juice.

Layers and layers of flavor characterize French cooking--and there's something delightfully similar when the story, scenes and dialogue are all richly layered.

Indeed, if you think about common criticisms, they often point to something missing at one of these levels. E.g.,

  • "Interesting premise but uninteresting scenes."
  • "Intriguing scenes, but not controlling idea or action to hold it together."
  • "The stakes aren't high enough--overall and in the individual scenes."

Back in the old studio system different people actually did different kinds of writing work on projects. So there was a kind of guarantee that each level of work would get expert attention and care.

  • Some people found interesting stories: forthcoming novels, published short stories, non-fiction articles in ladies' magazines that suggested interesting situations.
  • The same people summarized these--to see if they should be purchased.
  • Still other people decided which part was most interesting, essential--especially as it pertained to commercial potential (the stars under contract, the house genres, etc.).
  • Someone did a prose treatmen and analysis: this was five to ten pages, depending on the length of the original. It was a sort of short, novelistic summary, together with a discussion of why the material might be appealing.
  • Someone did a "scenarization." This broke the treatment down into segments that could be seen and acted out: scenes, montages, etc. This was like our outline of today.
  • Finally, still other specialists wrote the dialogue based on the scenarization.
Many people might work on the dialogue.
  • Women might work on the scenes that focused on women.
  • Humor specialists punched up that.
  • If someone had written a touching family comedy, she was brought in for the family scenes.
  • If someone had a knack for historical films and dialogue, he was brought in for that.

Now the nasty part is: imagine having to do all this yourself. It's a bit unfair. But that's the contemporary world of freelancers. Everyone has to do everything herself--until you're actually hired or have actually sold something.

So how, practically, can you do this yourself?

  1. Find or develop an interesting premise. The benchmark here is how much intereest it excites. It must excite interest in the writer, or there's no hope of getting started, let alone interesting an audience.
  2. Develop an interesting story outline from the premise. This means things like: one action flows from the prior one, and also that the overall situation becomes increasingly complicated--so the audience does not get up & leave.
  3. Parcel out the story into actable chunks: scenes, montages, sequences, etc. This is simply a requirement of telling a story on film. But it involves a lot of compression--leaving a lot out, picking exemplary moments.
  4. Visualize where and how those chunks unfold. My own technique is first to write the scenes without dialogue--purely visually, as a 'silent movie.' If a purely visual acting-out of the story does not convey what's happening, it's likely dialogue is not going to improve things.
  5. Add non-redundant dialogue. This means: your dialogue is not repeating what is already clear. And if you are able to write interesting dialogue where the characters are hiding their true feelings--because we see what's underneath elsewhere or can infer it--your scenes will be that much more interesting.

Hence at every layer, you have many opportunities to create interest--which is really the name of the game. (And also, if you don't work in this way, you will likely end up with lots of disconnected bits, rather than everything flowing from a few core ideas.)

This sketch does not give a full picture of these levels of work. And some kinds of work take place throughout. Only a few brief points can be added here.

  1. The Craft of Story Development. You're doing this constantly. And it has to do with connecting the pieces of the story, making this influence and interfere with that, beginning that later action earlier, etc. It's largely a question of keeping a number of plates spinning--like in the old vaudeville act--but it's also a question of unity, of preparing and even misleading the audience.
  2. Painting from Life. If you are from another planet, you are unlikely to have good material to use. Good movies are shot-through with interesting and precise observations of
    • the way people talk in the theater world,
    • the kinds of security tools at a big casino,
    • crime detection techniques,
    • what people wear and eat and drink in certain times and places,
    • and things like this.
    • If you don't have this degree of detail, you don't have a story--you have an abstraction.
  3. Hiding the Work: Creation vs. Presentation. Just because you thought of it in this order, doesn't mean you should tell it that way. As the writer you invented the story, but the audience might discover it in quite a different way than you did, or than the characters do. So there's a whole pleasant game-like way of revealing things to an audience slowly, parterning with them, getting them involved in figuring out the story.
  4. Interestingness Is Textural. Just the texture can be interesting. I'm thinking here largely of the way multiple stories are woven together. Several things happen at once--think of those spinning plates, each ready to fall at a different moment--and so the very way you bring things in and then take them away makes for a nice hide-and-seek with the audience.

These kinds of work don't seem to me isolated to one level. You must do them all the time, everywhere you go.

The writer must ask herself: What would be interesting here? How can I make this interesting?

And if you don't like posing and answering that question constantly, you probably don't have the stomach to do much writing.

--Edward R. O'Neill