21 August, 2007

Writing for Actors (Or: why writers should win the Best Acting awards)

Karel Segers, The Story Department:

"Until recently I was only a producer and story consultant. I can now add 'writer' to my credits. Well, in spirit that is. The credit will never be on the screen. It was a rewrite-for-hire job and although in my humble opinion the story is now 200% better, the original writers will get the praise, if any. In any case, it is exciting to know after my rewrite the script was deemed ready for consideration by a Hollywood Studio (Fox) where it is at the time of writing.

But all that is beside the point. The project in question is supposed to launch the career of a particular actor, which I could hardly believe after reading the draft I received. The actor's character was NOT the story's protagonist, he had limited screentime and worst of all: he was given the most unspeakable dialogue.

Which set me thinking. How do you write dialogue for a beginning actor? You don't. You write emotion. And emotion the actor will not need to perform. I have had this conversation a dozen times over the past month so I apologise in advance for those who have heard me preach about this before.

Let's go back about eighty years (or ten blogs) to the work of Lev Kuleshov.

"Kuleshov took unedited footage of a completely expressionless face [...] and intercut it with shots of three highly motivated objects: a bowl of hot soup, a dead woman lying in a coffin, and a little girl playing with a teddy bear.

When the film strips were shown to randomly selected audiences, they invariably responded as though the actor's face had accurately portrayed the emotion appropriate to the intercut object.

As Pudovkin recalled: "The public raved about the acting of the artist. They pointed out the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead woman, and admired the light, happy smile with which he surveyed the girl at play.

But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same." (from David Cook's splendid A HISTORY OF NARRATIVE FILM.)

These results are known today as the 'Kuleshov effect' and it explains why often actors win awards for performances they didn't give. When Russell Crowe broke onto the Hollywood scene with his nomination for THE INSIDER, it had IMHO nothing to do with his acting skills but everything with Eric Roth and Michael Mann's terrific writing, which effectively projected the feelings we share with the Jeffrey Wigand character onto Crowe's blank face.

A more recent example is the late Ulrich Mühe's performance in THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Das Leben der Anderen), which won him numerous best actor awards including at the European Film Awards. The second half of the movie is an emotional powerhouse, yet the actor's face is near blank.

Conversely, great actors have been blamed of bad performances where the only culprit really was the screenwriter. The actor could have avoid the blame by politely passing on a screenplay that was not worthy of his attachment.

Bottom line: if you want to write great drama for any actor, irrespective of the experience level, don't describe the emotion you want to see on the actor's face. Make the audience feel the emotion before the character has to respond to it. Great drama does not have visible emotion; it makes you, the audience feel it. If you must, write a tear on an expressionless face.

Hitchcock would say: "I need actors who can do nothing well." He understood perfectly that it was the writer's job to convey the emotion, not the actor's. He also perfectly understood the power of the Kuleshov effect and consequently: the power of editing.

Great actors are not those who can be express sadness, anger or desperation better than others. Great actors are those who can pick great scripts."


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of Juliet on Lost.

Pillock said...

I noticed something like this while watching the Assassination of Richard Nixon. Emotions going the whole time, especially while Sean Penn's character got on with his life, in spite of all the crushing disappointments he kept experiencing. Then comes a scene in which he finally breaks down crying. At that point, when the emotion welled up on screen, I felt very little. I was watching Sean Penn act, rather than getting caught up in the emotion.

On the other hand, I saw a play called Bonjour Bob. It was a play for children, about two lonely old men, who magically communicate with each other across the sea. Both men were cheerful and optimistic the whole time, but the audience was in bits.

Jo Barnes said...

Can you show a bad and a good example of writing emotion?

Phill Barron said...

I'm not sure I'd agree with you on this, Robin. If you watch 'Heat' and 'LA Takedown' you get to see the same scenes performed by different actors.

And it makes a big difference.

The writing is the same, the direction is the same, but one scene is far to superior to the other.

Similarly, a well written, well acted scene can be ruined by the editing, or the direction or even the music.

I think saying an actor is a blank face the writer creates emotion around is really insulting to good actors. Admittedly there's not many of them around, but porobably no less than there are good writers.

Imagine if an actor said the opposite to you: the Best Screenplay awards should go to the actors because the words aren't important it's the way they're pronounced.

Robin Kelly said...

Sorry, I forgot the quote marks, it wasn't written by me. I don't agree with it in its entirety, it's just something I found that made me think.

The Kuleshov Effect is fascinating in that it is a reminder that we're trying to convey emotion and that's done by the cumulative affect of the whole screenplay. I think that's what the original author means, Jo.

By the time you have finished your set-up and you have your character in crisis, we should know exactly how they feel because it's how we would feel in that circumstance and we can identify with them.

Good scripts make sure the characters are capable of evoking that emotion, bad scripts don't.

I personally think that for an actor to convey that simplicity he talks about isn't easy and I agree, Phill, that not everyone can do it.

I remember Rain Man and all the accolades Dustin Hoffman got but Tom Cruise had the much harder job.