The question was, ‘What Makes An Actor Friendly Screenplay?' As an actor, that has mentored writers for a lot of my career, this became a perfect opportunity to pour out my main bugbear.
First let’s look at the actors’ perspective . . .
This is an actor’s primary question and we want to be reassured that the director is also on the same page. A good script can offer that reassurance right from the start.
Actors are taught to go with the flow, be themselves and free-fall into the spontaneous whim of the character they’ve embodied. We allow ourselves to be driven by gut decisions our characters make. We have attained the confidence to let ourselves/character live in the moment. The last thing we need is be told how it should look when we do that.
All we really need is a sense of emotional context so our character can navigate through the challenges and make thoughts and moves spontaneous according to their specific motivational thrust. Believe me, we know what we are doing if we know our characters emotional make up, their values, obstacles and desires. If the script gives us the emotional bubble we live within, and the other characters too - to react against, then we have our world.
When a script is loaded with every move dictated in the action, from turning around to using a specific hand to pick up a mug, or even raising an eyebrow, you prepare yourself for a hard read and may have to figure out the emotional context hidden in the movements.
Experienced actors hate being dictated to and inexperienced ones may not get a confident grip on what their characters are actually feeling. It takes experience to decode physical actions into emotional objectives. Good scripts simply don’t require this measure of analysis during a read. Here's an example;
"Her shoulders drop, she bows her head and turns away to hide her tears. . ."
That would make me so wooden. What I need is, "Disappointed and hurt she makes every effort to hide her tears. . . ."
That emotional instruction might make my shoulders drop or the sparkle in my eyes go dull. I might hide my tears by turning away or covering my face. Whatever I do ‘in the moment’ depending on the camera closeness too, I'll come from a place of internal emotional motivation rather than just following a list of actions I should perform, as the writer sees it, and try to figure the emotional context on top. Would seasoned actors even follow that strategy? No, of course not, but we may not have a choice and all we read influences and colours our judgement. Think of a lady on a white horse. Now forget her. It’s not that easy. We then have to edit out the distractions hoping the director's concurs as s/he’s read it too! That adds ‘doubt’ and stiffens our natural choices.
Another example, “She turns and grabs the door handle that slips out of her grasp many times before she manages to open it.”
Okay, but why is my grip ineffectual? Am I panicking, absent-minded or overcome by a drugged-drink earlier in the scene that’s yet to be revealed? There’s no real emotional indicator here. Secondly, I might not need to turn, depending on the blocking i.e. on set I might already be facing the door, so that's redundant, and if I manage to open the door the first time, I don't want to feel guilty for not following the stage directions that closely, "did the director notice, have I got this wrong?" All sorts of thoughts tease me with failure.
So what’s an alternative? "She's in a panic. . ." , reassuring statement, but if the dialogue or story dictates that strongly anyway all I really need to know is: I head for the door and open it, with a note suggesting anxiety makes the door opening problematic e.g.
"She heads for the door. Her anxiety weakens her grip on the handle delaying her further.”
In short, please have confidence the actor will show, organically, the scriptwriter’s intention through their own spontaneously found physicality. Give them emotional context and some room to deliver the intention their way. The actor might struggle towards the door or go swiftly. They might use two hands to open it or one. They might loose their grip because their body has stiffened or weakened. Let them decide what the characters limits and strengths are but please offer an emotional motivation the actor can adapt, in this case, anxiety so they, and the director, can see the interpretation works regardless of ‘how’.
Don't get me wrong, sometimes it's really important to be specific about the action, e.g.
" . . . She takes a seat and, with the coffee cup in her left hand, tips it to look at her watch, spilling the contents into her lap. . . "
This was a comedy scene that then leads to another moment where the boss points out she's wet herself. Here the character MUST sit down to localise the spill and MUST have the coffee cup in her left hand to get the watch viewing and spill to work. That's all fine and necessary.
THINK then, when it's NOT necessary, the same amount of attention is placed on reading the specific stage directions because actors can only assume there's a point to be made by them. Often this is not actually the case and the reading of such specifics becomes laboriously distracting.
Also, if a character has a twitch that has to be made evident, it’s fine to suggest the twitch is there and maybe responsible for the dropping of a key down a drain for example. Once established a tiny hint is all that’s necessary to keep us reminded, e.g.
“His hand fumbles embarrassingly into the sweet packet”
Trust the actor to know how to use the twitch to effect, in their way. The director would also be there to make sure the twitch is evident and balanced in the film.
Action often tells you something better than dialogue ever can and serves as a 'language' in its own right. Personally I adore action, subconscious visual and sound symbolism storytelling the most, but I look at them all with emotional context not merely as physical necessities. Whatever emotion the action evokes in you as you write is what I want to read.
Look at this example : “She grasps the money with a frown, staring through the window at the now distant car.”
Of course actors take clues from the rest of the story so far, but what if this frown denotes a new sub plot and a hidden agenda? It’s the addition of an internal emotional reference that will inform you what this frown is for, not the physical result of it. How about then,
“She grasps the money and (either). . . disappointingly calculates her next move’ or 'with rage in her heart' or 'grief stricken’ . . . she stares through the window . . .”
A frown can say any of these things and could switch the plot in an instant.
If detailed actions scenes are a heavy-read, they are even more distracting when on set. Some physical moves are not 'felt' by the actor in the emotional way expected by the writer and some physical moves written can't be executed given the limitations of the shot.
Worse still, some directors 'look' for those specific actions and try to get them out of the actor, believing that's the only type of reaction that will work because they've fallen in love with the idea of it, when in reality, the actor has actually done a great job performing the intention of the writer through their own personal interpretation of the characters emotional state already. Often the influenced director is excused for not ‘getting the shot’ whereas the uncomfortably forced actor is accused of being ‘unable to act.’
Keeping character choices consistent, for an actor, also gets difficult when the writer’s version is dictating your every move and influencing the director and everyone else on set too. Don't colour the pallet, that's an actor’s job.
I've had a director and script tell me to blink my eyes as I look into the camera. That instruction tells you nothing. If the script had said "Her look is loaded with nonchalant strength," OR the director knew to tell me, "You're all powerful, you don't need this, look straight into the lens and let me see that in your eyes...." either instruction makes me naturally blink my eyes as I turn my head, all the while feeling aloof and commanding. Even if I didn't blink, the power and the feeling of being dispassionate in my reaction would still be shown somehow. That’s my job. There would be no argument or need for supplementing direction if that clear emotional, ‘nonchalant strength, aloof, commanding disposition instruction, had been written in the script.
Better directors get the gist of these script directions and then let the actor do things their way i.e. the most natural and 'real'. Some go to greater lengths and tell their cast to IGNORE all actions written so everyone is ‘free’ to maneuver within their own, more natural parameters and the limitations imposed on set.
Regardless of what’s inferred in the script, the specifics will be drawn out on set. If the camera is set on the actors right then it might be wise for the actor to use their left hand to offer some flowers, with the actor receiving them, taking them with their right, so everyone is 'open' in the shot. We all work for the DoP, the set design, the costumes even. Like directors, screen experienced actors know what’s most effective here and may even offer the flowers from behind the recipient to make a surprise moment more poignant. To have the choice and not have everyone thinking, ‘this is not right’ gives all on set, the freedom to get the emotion across, we ‘all’ want the audience to feel.
So what is the emotion you want the actors to evoke in each scene? Insert that instead of a turn, (shocked, surprised?) a shrug, (disheartened, unsure?) a raised eyebrow (enquiring, unimpressed?) or a fist on the table (angry, painful regret?).
Dialogue is a whole other topic for discussion on this ‘actor friendly scripts’ topic. I’ve had scripts where it really didn’t matter who said what line as there was so little unique characterization in the delivery or syntax of the words. Keep your characters desires in mind in every line, we do, and remember, ‘conflict makes good drama’.
Now you know actors thrive on being impressionable and easily influenced so they can respond quickly and organically, you may realise imposing physical expectations onto us too specifically only leads to a possibility of superficiality or misinformation and hampers the actor to make it, naturally, their own.
A good actor knows the emotional effect, joke or scare comes from everything being so natural and fluid the audience doesn't see it coming. The mechanics, the
prep, the script itself becomes invisible. It takes self-confidence in the actors’ instrument to pull that off well. Please don't trip us up by expecting a tilt of the head, instead tell us the character feels empathy or unsure. Don't make us 'thump the table' if that's not a crucial ‘telling’ plot point, suggest anger instead.
This is my idea of an ‘Actor Friendly Script’ one I suggest would also help any reader get more personally involved as well.
Regardless, we are nothing without you, so thank you.
SARA DEE is an Actress, Voice Artist, Presenter and short film Producer. She’s on the committee of The Media Lunch Club networking group and encourages support throughout the independent film industry in the UK. Sara’s performing work spans, UK television programmes and films, theatrically released features, award winning documentaries and shorts. Sara has starred in London fringe stage productions and worked at The Royal Court Theatre, which is dedicated to promoting new writing. www.saradee.co.uk
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