by Diana Black
While we writers often feel like the unsung heroes of Hollywood, we do keep the Hollywood planet rotating on its crazy axis. As storytellers, we’re the Master Chefs in the Creativity Kitchen. Without a rippin’ good yarn and characters bursting with vitality, they’ve got nothin’!
For our Pilot to be green-lit, for the first season to have a ‘brother’ and then a sister, there must be dynamic ‘character interaction’ lighting up every page, within every episode and across seasons.
While the individual actor will be a vital ingredient by adding their own unique flavor to the magical brew you’re concocting, there’s only so much an actor can do with on-the-nose dialogue, ‘pedestrian’ action, and lack of ‘character chemistry’.
A-listers are picky about their next project and with good reason, it’s their butt on the line because they’re ‘in frame’, which means they’re also picky about who they’re going to ‘play with’.
While we don’t have much input into the casting process, which is largely the Producer’s job, if there’s palpable chemistry between the actors AND the characters they’re portraying via the dialogue and action, the room will light up.
But what if you’ve pitched your project successfully, it’s been green-lit, and the auditioning process is underway and OMG, the room doesn’t light up, what if the gleam in the suits’ eyes begin to pale… someone’s gotta go.
So how can we ensure our creation provides better-than-great material for actors to work with?
Know before we pitch, rather than vaguely hope, that our material is awesome and from page one and every page thereafter. Conduct a Table read of your work before pitching and use real actors you’ve auditioned beforehand… if you’ve got the chemistry right, you’ll see sparks fly.
An actor eager for a chance to play is one thing, but how do we know our material will stack up under rigorous, if not vicious scrutiny?
For starters, ‘pixie dust’ in the form of great writing is a given and as the humble writer in the room, that’s about all we can deliver.
Our two-cents-worth in the casting process will be just that – minimal, so we must rely on our writing. If we’re a staff writer, there’ll be plenty of other writers in the room only too willing to outshine us and impress the showrunner with their brilliant, pithy dialogue and hip action… no end to pressure – we’re only as good as our last performance.
But what if we’re spec writers without that vicious sounding board?
The writer’s group who meet every third Tuesday may not be a good choice.
There’s sure to be more than one of us out there who’ve received feedback, which calls into question what planet or drugs was the reader on when they ‘read’ it?
Because it’s clear they didn’t; they merely perused it; if that. Most of us are honest, but some struggle with the demons of insecurity, jealousy and downright laziness.
Once you written the entire narrative, run multiple passes on each component of the script: the dialogue – one character at a time and for every scene they’re in; their action; character ‘voice’; mannerisms and style.
Is there consistency across the narrative arc? Does the dialogue ‘flow’? Critique without mercy!
Think about how an actor might play a specific character and deal with the scene, how the characters interact on the page and what’s in it for them.
The actor that’s cast will get under the character’s skin and take on that persona, which means there’s a duality going on in their heads, and you’d be wise to take that into account.
Once you’ve done the aforementioned passes, work through the script scene-by-scene, and do a scene analysis for both characters.
Examine one character at a time. Determine the following: Scene objective, Beats and for each of those, the Beat objective, action, the emotional state of the character/actor coming into that beat and the accompanying Subtext.
This may sound like gobbledygook to you, but actors that are properly trained, go through this process, scene-by-scene in preparation; it’s not a matter of just ‘winging it’ with raw talent and memorized lines.
Let’s gaze into our crystal ball… the project has been green-lit and auditions are underway… if the professional actor has prepared properly, they’ll be able to take direction and make adjustment.
One way to do this is by having three (3) different ways to present the scene. For the Casting Director, this demonstrates flexibility and a willingness to work with the Director.
Have you, as the writer, provided them with the scope to do that? For your work to be true ‘actor bait’, it’s not just the rippin’ good yarn you’ve told and the compelling character/s you’ve created, but also, and especially for A-lists, how well the script is written.
Professional actors are reading scripts or excerpts from them, every day – they know a good script when they see one. If knowing the attached Director, they’ll already have some idea of the latter’s ‘signature style’ and the likely choices he/she will make to realize their vision.
Just quietly, you as the writer, need to set these people up. Make it an enticing, sugar-coated trap, that’s mutually beneficial for all concerned.
Back to the present… once you’re sure that you’ve got each scene as dynamic and polished to the nth degree, seek reputable, industry-standard coverage and/or take a class with LB… he’ll tell you straight.
A study of what’s currently out there – on screen and on the page via the script, will help you better understand the concept of character chemistry. Determine whether it’s happening in other TV shows, and ideally, how you can ‘deliver’ on that.
Select a program and do multiple viewings of the same episode, focusing on one actor at a time.
Does he/she (the actor) look comfortable? Does the banter between the actors match their body-language? It always cracks me up watching Actor A (in character) say, “I love you, sweetheart” to Actor B (also in character), while shaking their head in denial.
Look at their eyes – you’ll generally be able to tell if the actor is ‘in character, boots an all’ (or not). For the dialogue, listen to the banter (don’t watch) and get a sense the ease of interaction (or lack thereof).
If the program is now into subsequent seasons, they must be doing something right; at least in the eyes on the viewing audience, and that’s what matters most (to the suits).
Take for instance, Arrow (The CW, 2012 -) … Oliver (Stephen Arnell) & Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards), are a classic example of opposites working together brilliantly.
Look at Lucifer (Fox, 2015 -) … the character Lucifer (Tom Ellis) & Chloe (Lauren German) are a couple flawlessly adept at weaving magic through their delightful witty banter and sexual tension; well done writers – namely, Tom Kapinos (and of course the actors).
If you can’t read the actual screenplay, study the dialogue across the seasons – for specific characters and think about how the actors (under direction), are maintaining energy, consistency and dynamism in the scene….
Remember, as “mere” writers, we don’t have much say as to which actor is cast, so we’re totally reliant on the script via the dialogue and action.
Get busy and be awesome!
Diana Black is an optioned screenwriter who has placed in competitions with features and teleplays. She’s also a professional actor with a Bachelor of Creative Arts – Drama, Film & TV. She’s a ScreenwritingU Alumni and a regular contributor to TVWriter.com.