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."