When the Actor Writes . . . by Peter Fox [March 2012]

If you are reading this magazine, you are aware that independent filmmaking has taken off during the past five years. Tax incentives in the New England states have brought major productions to our region and have spawned new facilities; and with them, opportunities which did not exist before.

But of all elements of production which have experienced this growth, perhaps no other sector has increased its ranks as much as the stable of actors in our region. Many quality facilities have come to New England (The Actor’s Gym, run by Reno Venturi, here in Connecticut comes to my mind). Never before have aspiring actors had the opportunity to have access to world class instruction in the art of acting for the screen. With this increase in the talent pool comes an increase in amount of films being written by Actors. Numerous projects have been penned by Actors who seek to produce and sometimes direct their own work.

This undertaking is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for individuals who are not ready to go the distance. All work that makes it to the screen must first live on the page. There are mountains of responsibility, care, love and toil at every step of the process.

One of the dangers inherent for an Actor who chooses to write his or her own project is the headlong rush to complete the screenplay. It is the goal of every Actor to ply their trade-that is, to Act. By its very nature, Acting is a paradox. It is, at once, a solitary practice, as well as a collaborative effort. It is the juxtaposition of a character against other characters that holds the audience’s attention. It is the struggle of
a character within a set of established circumstances, trying to achieve a goal, that keeps an audience interested and wanting more. It is an Actor’s desire to express themselves, within that character, on the screen. And many times, when the Actor makes the decision to go forth and begin the process of writing a screenplay on their own, the paradox reveals itself. The Actor begins alone, and the writing begins. But then, the collaborative instinct kicks in, and others become involved in the process.

Here where the trouble begins. It is here that structure and form, the two most necessary elements of screenwriting, begin to fall apart. When other Actors are invited into the writing process, structure suffers.

There are ways for the Actor/Screenwriter to protect themselves, and their work. While I will not digress into the entire cinematic construction process here, let’s talk about some of the most common errors found in screenplays whose authors are Actors.

Beware of the extensive monologue.  By nature, Actors love to talk! This is okay. But Actors have a propensity to overwrite dialogue in scenes of a screenplay. Remember, character is action, not dialogue.  Character is what an Actor does, not what an Actor says. It is the character’s behavior that determines character. Kill your paper babies.  There is always a spark that begins the writing process. It usually begins with an idea for a scene; an emotional, or action packed scene in the mind of the writer that motivates the writer to build a movie around that kernel, or initial thought for the movie. And throughout the process, the writer struggles to hold on to that scene. To make sure that no matter what, come what may,that scene will appear on the pages of the screenplay, because the Actor must, no matter what, play that character in that scene. Don’t fall victim to this phenomenon. These scenes are always referred to as paper babies.  They are screenplay killers. Always begin with structure. Character Histories, Character Monologues, Treatment, then Beat Sheets. These are the movable parts; right up until the moment you are ready to derive the screenplay from the beat sheet. Isolate this paper baby. If it fits into your treatment, then stick with it. If it still works in the overall structure of your beat sheet, then and only then should you try to place it into your screenplay. If it fits, keep it. If it doesn’t, then lose it. Remember that a screenplay is like a house of cards. If one card is out of place, the whole structure must be taken down, and then reconstructed again from scratch. This is a universal and unavoidable truth.

Try to keep all dialogue slugs to five lines or less.  This can be a challenge, especially for writers who also like to act! Be objective.
Remember, show us. The only exceptions to this are the cathartic monologue i.e,  AL PACINO in SCENT OF A WOMAN. Don’t have the Actor tell us!  When a character tells us what he or she is going to do, and then does that action, the exchange is then referred to as being on the nose. Readers who do coverage notes in Hollywood use the note: “OTN”. When a Producer or Director, or Actors’ agent sees this written on a screenplay, they know that the writer has not done their homework.

Know what your character wants at all times by knowing the central question facing your character. The result of not knowing what your character wants? Stilted dialogue. This dialogue that is forced into the work for lack of knowing which direction the character is headed. This is usually done in the hopes that, through some miracle, that a solution will come to the writer during the process. It never works. The cause of this condition comes from a lack of preparation, and from not knowing your story. Identifying the central question is a process that must
be addressed during the early stages of the treatment-did I mention that you will probably write at least three treatments before you write your screenplay? – And cannot be avoided.

Don’t write your story as you write your screenplay. For all of the reasons above. Don’t get fooled into believing that you can write your story during the screenplay stage without going through the process. Just as an Actor experiences several stages of preparation before putting that character onstage, or before a camera, the Writer must also go through stages of discovery. That is what the process is for. Have you ever experienced the pain of watching an Actor take the stage ill prepared, or witnessed the pain of an audition gone terribly wrong? This is the same sensation experienced while listening to a Producer or development exec tell you why your screenplay sucks. And it is always for the same reason; a lack of preparation, and lack of knowledge of story.

Avoid the teeming masses who just want to help you write your story. This is your story. Just as an Actor stands alone, on a stage, with four hundred pairs of eyes staring up at them as hot light hits their face, you are the one writing your story. Collaboration with others begins after you have done your job. When you are onstage, can anyone help you? No. And if you have prepared, you will not need anyone’s help, because you have taken everything that you know and have learned about the process of Acting and focused it on this one moment. Whether you are onstage, or at an audition, or in the middle of your first take, you are ready. Because you have done the work; sweated and sacrificed for it.

It works the same way for us Screenwriters. So take all of that knowledge of the importance of preparation, and focus it onto the page. You’ll be surprised at how far it will take you.

Peter Fox founder of The Inside Track Workshops for Story and Cinematic Structure. He has worked as a Reader and Story Analyst at Paramount, Universal and Warner Brothers, and holds a MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute. For more information visit http://about.me/foxonfilm or www.peterfoxworkshops.com