Most new screenwriters I have had the honor of talking with over the years are anxious to tell a story in the proper format with a logical and compelling chain of events. A very few recognized the need to write characterizations that have a soul-deep appeal to actors. Almost all of those writers who “got it” either had been or were still actors themselves.
People who are serious about acting work very hard to sublimate their external personality in order to crawl into the skin and soul of the character. It doesn’t matter if the part is a “Walk-on” with one line or a lead who appears in almost every scene. Their JOB as an actor is to become the character.
Over the years I have read accounts of actors taking their parts so seriously that they “lived” the role even off set until the end of the last filming session. Daniel Day-Lewis was reputed to be such an actor. Dustin Hoffman lived for three months at a hospital for the profoundly autistic before the filming of RAINMAN. He studied both speech cadence and body language. There are some cinematic greats who merely exaggerated their own personality, like John Wayne. He finally received an Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in TRUE GRIT because he did not portray a shadow of himself like all of his previous roles. He became Rooster. Three contemporary actors who come to mind as examples of devotion to unique character portrayal are Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, and Meryl Streep. One only has to enjoy a 2-3 day movie marathon of a single actor’s movies to grasp the profound professionalism of these actors.
In mentioning Dustin Hoffman’s research for RAINMAN, I wanted you to understand how serious actors are about their craft. Just as screenwriters create Character Profiles for their characters, actors study the script then construct their own, but in much more depth. Most actors do not want to read the writer’s profile for their character. Yes, they may ask for some facts like birth, parents and childhood. However, they document the psychology of a character’s motivation, the influences on speech patterns and body language. They analyze the relationships with the other cast members and the influence of self-awareness that can create a VISUAL the camera can capture. Their profile allows them to shut down their own personality and BECOME the character.
Anyone who is well-read in the 21st century and who reads all the novels of a favorite author can find “cookie cutter” character types that author likes to recycle. If you have written a body of work you may discover that YOU also reuse damaged alpha males who have to prove themselves or discouraged intellectual females who find a purpose that empowers them. You may like to torture egotistical tyrants who almost triumph or have a know-it-all supporting character who annoys the leads. On and on. It is human nature to recreate favorites.
How can you combat recycling your favorites? YOU like certain kinds of characters battling for their issues. Surprise! A 2-hour cinematic story is NOT about what you like; it is about unique characters experiencing THEIR lives as they struggle, discover, and battle life issues. If you-the-original-Creator are lucky, the producer-director-casting director signed an accomplished actor who makes that unique character LIVE in front of a camera, not as a stereotype, but as a credibly unique person.
Your JOB is to write an “actor-intensive” script. What is that? From FADE IN to FADE OUT, that script is vivid and throbbing with challenges to the personality of EACH character, but especially to the LEADS. It does not ever depict the melodrama of over-the-top emotional exaggeration. Every character is vital and vivid. Even the Walk-on characters will be roles the actors will proudly list on their resumes.
The events of your story need to be so griping, any actor reading it will feel an adrenaline rush that prompts a call to their agent saying “I just read that script you sent over. I want a part, any part. I just want to be involved in that project.” That is exactly the reaction Jeremy Irons had when he read KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (Ridley Scott’s historical). He was casted in the fine supporting role of the Marshal of Jerusalem.
If you are a genre writer, you have even greater challenges in both characterization and in plotting. Genres have specific needs to meet the expectations of the buying public. You fracture the stereotype mold when you focus on actor-intensive material. As you plan and write keep an actor in mind and write pages so throbbing with energy that ANY actor reading it will call their agent!
The initial creative process of “just getting the words down” is neither simple nor easy. It demands concentration on possibilities racing through the conscious mind. A finished novel is a huge accomplishment. Thus, when told “You aren’t done,” every writer cringes. The shift from involved subjectivity to cold objective analysis is a necessary process to take your piece of creative coal to a memorable and fascinating diamond. The analysis can be done logically without hacking your ego to pieces. Let author-screenwriter-editor Sally Walker walk you through a simplified analysis and self-editing process that will enhance one key mental state, awareness
Sally Walker’s published credits include literary, romance and western novels, a nonfiction essay collection, several creative writing textbooks, stage plays, poetry, and many magazine articles on the craft of writing, including staff contributions to two international film magazines for 10 years. With 30 screenplays written, several under negotiation at three different studios and her novel-to-screenplay adaptation on her plate, Sally has a well-respected manager representing her in Hollywood. In addition to long time active memberships in such national writing organizations as RWA, WWA and SCBWI, she was president of a state-wide writers organization 2007-2011. She keeps to a strenuous writing schedule and still has time to work as Editorial Director for The Fiction Works, supervising acquisitions and sub-contracted editors, as well as Script Supervisor for material sent to TFW’s affiliated Misty Mountain Productions. Sally has taught writing seminars, both on-site and on-line, for over 29 years and is the facilitator for the weekly meetings of the Nebraska Writers Workshop in Ralston, NE. For more information on her works and classes go to her website at http://www.sallyjwalker.com.