Sunday, October 20, 2013

Screenwriters & Directors

I've been reading “Directing Actors” by Judith Weston, which was recommended to me by executive producer & screenwriter of “Keepers” Sharma Krauskopf. There is a lot of good advice and instruction in the book, but I'm disappointed that the author, despite protestations to the contrary, shows a striking lack of respect for writers.

To quote Ms. Weston, “It is exactly the job of the director and actors to create the sub-world. Heeding shortcuts to the characters' emotional life will make the director's and actors' job more, not less, difficult.”

As taught by screenwriting guru Hal Croasmun, the best in the business, creating sub-text is the province of the screenwriter so that depth is added to the characters and story. The screenwriter's use of subtext raises an average script significantly. A screenwriter hands the director a complete story world with people and places already created. The job of the director and actor is to interpret and portray this, not to recreate the characters and story by deciding upon subtext for themselves.

On page 167, the author goes on to state that “it is especially important to cross out (or at least approach with serious skepticism) the parentheticals: “pause,” “beat,” and “she takes a moment.” All these kinds of stage directions are adjectives, adverbs, indications of transitions or psychological explanations, or emotional maps (“He cannot look away”; “She makes a decision”). They are not playable. What the writer has done by putting in these abbreviated emotional guideposts is to take a stab at providing the characters' subtext.

The writer “takes a stab” at providing subtext? This is a preposterous statement and an insult to the screenwriter. This is like you saying something to me, and I then tell you that you don't know what you really meant by what you said, but I do know what you really meant, even though you said it and would obviously know what hidden meaning was behind your own words.

The screenwriter creates the story and characters, therefore the screenwriter knows the subtext of the character and dialogue. Without accurately interpreting the characters, the director and/or actors could add a subtext that is inappropriate. It is arrogant and egotistical for anyone to dismiss the writer as unable to provide the subtext for the very characters he or she created. And I disagree that “He cannot look away” and “she makes a decision” are not playable. These are very playable by talented actors and directors who correctly interpret the intent.

As I've stated many times in the past, the screenwriter gets very little respect, pay or acknowledgment for motion pictures. This is usually because the director deliberately makes changes to put his or her own “stamp” on the film. In this way, we can never know whether or not the film would have been better if it had more closely resembled the written blueprint (the screenplay) that was provided. All we can judge is the final result that has been altered, for better or worse, by the director.

Filmmaking is a collaborative effort, but it all starts with the screenplay. Without this blueprint there is no story, no characters and no film. Good directors and good actors can significantly improve a script, but it's important to remember that it's far easier to improve and embellish a finished product than it is to create that product out of nothing at all. Hollywood does not recognize this, as the lion's share of the credit for films is divided between the director and the actors. Most people don't know the name of a single professional screenwriter, not even an A-List screenwriter.

Judith Weston's "Directing Actors" is available on Amazon:

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