I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching this past week since hearing a Paramount producer at a film association meeting say, “When we are pitching projects to investors or distributors, first they want to know the Log Line then they ask who is in it.” Admit it. You, too, decide on what movie to spend you money on according to cast members. That may not be your top priority, but when you have favorites you certainly lean toward their latest movie.
As a screenwriter this favoritism has totally different meanings.
First off, you have to understand that actors don’t want repetitive role TYPES. They want to play characters who stretch their acting abilities. That is why “squeaky clean” actors will attempt evil or dark roles, such as Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame who did the dark stage play “Equus.” Or comedic actors will attempt more serious roles like Bill Murray in Sophia Coppola’s LOST IN TRANSLATION and Robin Williams succeeded in DEAD POET’S SOCIETY and GOOD WILL HUNTING. Sometimes the shift works and sometimes it doesn’t . . . but generally the A-List actors will give it a try. Consider the spectrum of characters played by Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Johnny Depp. On the other hand, “The Duke” John Wayne carved his iconic persona playing himself throughout a lifetime until he changed personas for Rooster Cogburn in TRUE GRIT.
People categorized as “character actors” do not quite have the same opportunities as the glittering personas of Hollywood. They get pigeon-holed more often because of their appearance than their abilities. Could you see Danny DeVito as a romantic lead? However, look at the diversity of the characters he played in ROMANCING THE STONE and THE RAINMAKER.
Working backwards on the character casting, some novelists will envision a character as a favorite actor and write the story with this person living the fictional tale. The mental picture enables the writer to connect with a living, breathing being. That reflects in the credibility of the story. The essence of the actor enhances the novelist’s visualization.
WARNING: Do not fall into this trap when you are writing a screenplay. Why? Actors do not want to play themselves or roles they have repeatedly done before. They want challenges. Your primary job as a screenwriter is to create such an enthralling story, whoever reads it HAS to keep turning the pages to see what happens next. Your secondary job is to create dynamic, startling, fascinating characters any A-List actor will hunger to bring to life on film!
WRITE TO THE CHARACTER, NOT THE ACTOR
Character Profiles are a screenwriter’s starting point. Research and refine the history, influences, preferences and psychology of the key players in any script. Of course, yu aren’t going to USE every detail, but these reasons for behavior, quirks and motivational drives will flow into the actions and dialogue of each character. YOU will see the unique persona that is essential to your story. As you revise, tweak, smooth the portrayal you will be creating a one-of-a-kind character that actors look for. These are the kinds of roles they WANT on their resumes. Some films may fall flat and simply not appeal to an audience. Usually that is unpredictable. By creating fantastic characters you at least can provide a challenge the actor can enjoy while making the film. Their emotional and mental investments in your characters are vital to their careers . . . and yours.
Know the internal essence, as well as the external identity of your characters. Never go overboard to emphasize either one for that is MELODRAMATIC writing. Identify where in your story you can give glimpses and multi-faceted hints of potential that ultimately are needed at crucial moments. Give the actor leashed power than can be released at the most satisfactory moment in the story . . . even if the part is only a supporting role. These moments when a character “pops” off the screen and into the audience’s heart are the gems in a professional actor’s list of credits.
Don’t micro-choreograph movement as that is the director’s and actor’s jobs. However, DO give each character succinct, punchy lines that give meaning to that scene and move the story forward. Think of it this way: Every speech should have consequences. Of course, you won’t known where to hone and carve away the superfluous until the script is finished.
I have had agents ask me “Who do you see playing this role?” Usually I am stumped and have to skim through the www.imdb.com site to visit a variety of actor profiles. First, I look at the various photos and consider the roles played (which indicates their choices or preferences). Every week IMDb updates “Top Ranked” actors, both male and female. These are loosely referred to as A-List . . . at that time. Secondly, I skim down the list for the lesser-knowns, the up-and-coming actors. And, finally, I check out their commitments. Why? An actor who is booked for five years may have a totally different “look” by the time a script is optioned and into development (budgeted with crew and cast recruited). Even then I KNOW whatever MY choices are, ultimately a producer and a director will have their own visions (and budget considerations). Agents ask so they have some starting point to plan their marketing.
The professional software programs of the film industry (such as Final Draft and Movie Magic) include features that will list the number of locations, both Interior and Exterior, as well as the number of cast members, number of scenes each cast member appears in and the number of speeches that character delivers. That all has to do with budget. Locations and sets are obvious. But the number of scenes a character appears in, as well as the number of speeches required of that character result in a calculation of the character’s WORTH to the project as a whole. Leads will have more appearances than supporting and supporting will certainly have more speeches than bits. That information is certainly valuable to the actors’ managers/agents who do the most of the initial screening of projects. Some of the world’s best actors don’t CARE about the money, as mind-boggling as that may seem. The renowned great Jeremy Irons read the script for KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (about the Crusades) and told his agent to get him a part. He didn’t care WHAT part, but stated he just knew he wanted to be involved in the film. He was casted in the supporting role of Tiberius, Marshall of Jerusalem, second in power under the king.
It is your responsibility to write such a character-intensive screenplay that actors like Irons will clamor for a role, ANY role. Want to “break into Hollywood?” That’s how you do it. Easy peezy.
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, one optioned in 2013, several under negotiation at three different studios and two novel-to-screenplay adaptations 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 the prestigious Nebraska Writers Guild 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. Sally has taught writing seminars, both on-site and on-line, for over 25 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