Want to Write? Work with Actors!

Anne-FletcherThis week I’ve been directing actors in rehearsals at Ealing Studios.  Actors take your words and bring them to rich, complex life.  So what can you learn by having actors rehearse your script in progress?

1)   If they don’t get it, no one will. Actors are your first audience.  Their questions are about clarity:  ‘Why does she do that? How experienced is he at his job? How long have they known each other?’  Your script may be deliberately ambiguous on these points.  It may just be plain unclear.  Listen to what they ask you and adjust accordingly.

2)   They make choices, so should you.  A lot of the conversation during rehearsal is about emphasis and interpretation. ‘Would he punch her or punch the door instead?’ ‘When does she decide it’s over between them?’ ‘Is he really crazy or just afraid he’s going crazy because of the way he’s been treated?’  Some of these are actors’ choices but they can help you fill out the characters and make them real so your work becomes as precise and nuanced as their playing.

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3)   Timing is everything.  When and how information is released is crucial in all scripts, especially when it affects the characters’ behaviour.  An actor might ask, ‘Have I always known this or have I just discovered it?’ When rewriting, you can use actors’ feedback to focus this release of information, especially where it provokes an emotional response in the character.

4)   Turn Around.  Identifying the turning point in a scene is acting class 101.  Yet many early scripts feature scenes that have no real turning point. Without this the scene feels ‘undramatic’ and actors will have problems playing it. It doesn’t have to be a big moment but something has to happen to move the story forwards or force the character to take action.  Use rehearsals to find these moments and to identify and cut scenes which are treading water or repetition.

5)   Count the Beats.  Actors love to find smaller moments or ‘beats’ within a scene to play that change the direction of the scene – for example  showing the ebb and flow in the balance of power between two characters before a decisive move is made. You can create these in your scenes and then refine them with the actors.  Good actors will give you new ‘beats’ you didn’t know were there.

6)   Give them characters they can build on.  Actors love characters they can get their teeth into, with a strong emotional arc with highs and lows,  discovering things about their world, making life-changing decisions. If you lay this groundwork, actors will breathe emotional life into your characters, which can inspire you in turn to write them even greater moments.

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7)   Love what they give you and accept it.  Making a film is a truly collaborative affair. Trust actors to explore your work in rehearsal and help you change it for the better.  Actors, like the director and the producer, are ultimately servants of the piece, your piece of writing and so let them serve you and it to the best of their abilities.

Three Ways to Work with Actors on your Draft Script.

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1)   The Script Reading.

This is the easiest – and cheapest – way to get input on your draft script.  Find a comfy living room or big kitchen, provide food and drink.  Actors will often do a reading as a favour, as a way to stretch their acting muscles and meet new people, or to get involved with a project on the ground floor. It can become a nice way for folk to network and get something back. But don’t promise roles to actors who read for you unless you can deliver. This is hard to guarantee if you don’t know who’s going to pick it up yet.  Send the script out  a week in advance, to give actors time to re-read, make notes and think about the roles.

Keep the listeners to a select few whose opinions you trust.  It’s a great way to really hear the script without having all the problems smoothed away by clever rehearsal. This kind of private reading is very different from the public rehearsed reading of a polished script where the goal is to raise the profile of the project and/or financing, although this may also provide useful feedback at a later stage for you and the production team.

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2)   The Script Workshop.

This could be a day, a weekend or longer  and may need a decent size rehearsal space.  This demands a bigger time commitment from actors, so you could offer a fee.   Another incentive is that helping you develop your script may result in them becoming attached to the project.  Advertise for actors on websites like Casting Call Pro or try The Actors Centre.  Scenes are played out in full, not just read, giving actors more freedom to interpret and test the material and for you to explore new storylines.   You can video rehearsals for reference later – but ask permission first and agree that the video will not be posted online  (unless agreed as part of a Kickstarter campaign).  If you don’t want to direct the actors, then find a friendly director to do it for you so you can observe.  Try Shooting People.org to find independent film-makers looking to collaborate.  Make sure it’s someone you like and trust and that they understand the key themes, character arcs and genre of your story.  Ask yourself what they’re bringing to the process in terms of approach and discuss what they hope to get out of it.  Sit in on the workshop or, if your prefer, watch the video later to see what questions they and the actors are asking of the material.  You can even transcribe the scenes developed in the workshops for future use, with written consent from the actors involved.  Some writer-directors like to create whole scripts this way.

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3)   Rehearsing a Script in Pre-Production.  

The rehearsal of your script with the cast as they prepare to shoot can be the best way to test, refine and polish your work to create the shooting script.  The story can still go through big transformations  as real locations are factored in to visually expand the story.  The director brings their vision to bear taking the visual storytelling to the next level.  As a writer let the script go to the director and actors now. Be aware that as actors get really close to the shooting date they may become wary of big script changes as they worry about learning new lines or changing what’s already working in performance.  You may yourself feel that the script is now locked and should not be altered too much in rehearsal!  Yet film-making is full of such last minute changes.  Everyone is trying to make the film the best it can be, so a little goodwill and understanding can go a long way.

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Rehearsing your script with actors can be the most fun you can have as a writer and certainly one of the most rewarding ways to develop your story if you let them in and listen to their feedback wholeheartedly.

How have you worked with actors to improve your writing? Leave your comments here or contact me via Twitter @Emlin32.  Happy rehearsing!

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7 Ways to Rise above your Research

achristmascarol-1951-1Factual research for a work of fiction is a two edged sword. What you learn can be fascinating but it can also feel like you’ve dumped a big pile of rubbish all over your story that you now need to wade through and decide what’s useful and what’s trash. So how do you rise above your research and find the truth of your own story?

1. DON’T JUST CUT AND PASTE

It’s tempting when you find a juicy story or piece of information to plonk it straight into your script. Consider first how you want to use it, or why it is attractive to you? Does it fit with the story you are writing? If not bin it.

2. TAKE TIME TO PROCESS

A lot of new information can be overwhelming. It could completely change the direction of your story.  This could be a good thing – or a huge distraction.   Don’t be intimidated.  Wait and see which facts resonate with you and emerge in your writing naturally.

3. CHECK THE TRUTH BEHIND THE FACTS

Special interest groups and their campaigns can be a great resource.  But check your facts are coming from an unbiased source or at least understand the bias at play.

4. LOOK AT BOTH SIDES OF THE ARGUMENT

Don’t just read research that confirms your own world view.  How can you write your antagonist if you don’t know what they believe and why?  You might find something that surprises you and adds credibility to your story.

5. YOU DON’T OWE ANYONE ANYTHING

Your greatest strength as a writer is your independence. Maintain it at all costs and don’t ‘get into bed with’ activists, governments or even people you interview who naturally enough have their own outlook on life.  Stay true to yourself and your story.

6. BUT TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for yourself and your writing.  Be accurate and truthful in your portrayals of events and characters in the world you’ve created, especially if your story is based on real events.

7. FOLLOW YOUR INTEGRITY when you write and trust yourself to find your own truth behind the lines.

What’s the strangest fact you have uncovered and how did it change your story? Leave a comment below or tweet me @emin32 on Twitter. Happy Writing!

CREATE ENERGY AROUND YOUR SCRIPT

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CREATING ENERGY

How do you create energy around your feature film script? Forward momentum is essential, not just to keep you motivated as you write but to cut through all the other projects being pushed equally hard by everyone else out there.

TAKE ACTION.

I’ve just decided to go to Arizona to research my feature script, ‘Anchor Baby’, and recce locations. It was already a goal for this spring but setting the date and checking out flights has created a huge swell of energy and excitement. I feel like I’m in production already.

DON’T WAIT FOR PERMISSION

Features are so expensive and take so long to develop and make that you can often die of old age while the deals are being done – and undone – and done again.  As a first or even second time director you are under a lot of scrutiny – can you carry a multi-million dollar movie? A lot of money is at stake so it’s a fair question but if you wait for someone to say yes, it’s OK, you could be waiting a  long time. The popularity of Kickstarter and Indiegogo is testament to film makers who don’t want to wait for permission anymore.  The digital revolution and the internet mean you now have the option to take some or even all of the movie making process into your own hands.

ACT LIKE IT’S TELEVISION.

The long development period on features can get you down. Working on TV shows I’ve learned that things happen fast. You are given a deadline and you have to stick to it. And with a lot of prep and hard work, everything can happen on schedule, on time and turn out pretty damn good too. Instead of looking forward into an uncertain future, be your own commissioning editor and give your project the green light – and a delivery date.

THINK LIKE A DIRECTOR

Go to the location that inspired your script – and take some shots, even shoot a trailer, visualise the scenes you’ve written.  Make mood boards of inspiring images – costumes for characters, colours for sets. They could become part of your development package and, even if they don’t, they’ll help you be more specific in your writing as you’ll know what your world looks like.

JUMP BEFORE YOU’RE READY

If the script isn’t there yet, write it while you’re looking at the locations. Rewrite it while you’re casting, finesse it in rehearsals. The script has to be strong, but if sitting behind a desk is getting you down, start planning the movie and use that pressure to work harder and faster.

All these ideas come down to one thing and one thing only. Don’t let your movie exist only in your head… MAKE IT REAL.

If you’re not sure how to do this, brainstorm ideas with friends.  How do you create energy around your projects?  Leave a comment here or tweet me @emlin32 on Twitter.

WHO’S ON YOUR TEAM? – 23 JANUARY 2013

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WHO’S ON YOUR TEAM?

Who makes you feel alive and listened to?  Who are your support team when you’re writing – and when you’re not?

I am lucky to have a very creative family – film-makers, artists and songwriters to name a few, and we are all avid consumers of plays, films, art shows and (whisper it) books.  Our family dinners are hugely invigorating, a gathering of friends excitedly arguing about the merits of the latest release.

Not everyone has family like this. Yours might be supportive of your writing or not. Or you may feel they like but don’t really understand your work. Your family might in fact be refreshingly uninvolved in your creative life.

Family comes in other forms.  Maybe you teach?  My other community is at the Met Film School, Ealing Studios – a great place to meet other writers and directors and compare notes on how your script is going. My students keep me up to date by showing me what they’re watching and inspire me with their enthusiasm and can do attitude.

Maybe your friends outside work are the ones you have the best conversations with? They let you unwind, be yourself, forget your overactive brain – or stimulate you with fresh ideas, opinions, must-see movies.  My friends are extraordinary individuals who give me continuity in a freelance life that is one long series of new beginnings.

If you need more people on your team, join a professional society – or start your own writers’ group. Writers are not natural ‘joiners’ but, as Groucho Marx didn’t quite say, if you can bear to join a club that would have you as a member then the wins become clear.  I am hugely proud to be part of this year’s Women in Film and TV Mentoring Scheme. Not only do I have the advice of an excellent mentor, I have twenty new friends – my fellow mentees. Twenty talented and lovely women in my field whom I can call on when I need someone in my corner.

And it’s a two way street – the more people I am there for, the more my life has meaning.

You get my drift.  It comes down to this.  Don’t do it all alone.  I’ve said it before, we are alone when we write, and we need that space to think.  But we also need fuel for our engine. Energy. Heat. Argument. And love.

Who’s on your team?  Make a list of the top ten people in your corner.

You can share your list below or tweet them a shout out on Twitter @emlin32.

Happy writing!