Letting actors loose on your precious words.

Last week we took our screenplay up to the Television Workshop in Nottingham, an institute for training young people for drama that’s nearly thirty years old with some very impressive alumni. The aim of the day was to take the dialogue that we (two crusty old geezers with a vague memory of childhood) had written for our juvenile characters and hand them over to actual youngsters and see what worked and what didn’t.

I was a little nervous, but also really looking forward to it: the trouble with being a screenwriter is you rarely get to hear actors playing out what you’ve written. Too many scripts go into development hell and the words are doomed to remain on the page. When I first started out, I was writing for local theatre, turning out a play a year and regularly working on the text with actors. It was always the proof of the pudding; if it didn’t work when they got it up on its feet, then it was back to the drawing board.

Writers can have a reputation for being precious with their words. In his book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor, David Mamet says “Invent nothing, deny nothing, speak up, stand up, stay out of school.” Or, to paraphrase it as I interpreted it, “Learn the fucking lines, no stupid backstory, and do as I say.”

I think this can apply to a lot of theatre, where the text is set and there are audience expectations. If someone started dicking around with the finely-honed dialogue of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, I’d be the first on stage to beat them to death with my heavily annotated copy of the Faber edition.

But movies are different: from the first producer notes, to the shoot, edit, and final ADR, changes will be made, some little tweaks, some major changes, and if the writer stamps his feet and has a hissy fit with each and every one, then he will soon be fired.

That’s not to say you should be a pushover, but even when you get a dumb note, it’s usually a symptom of something wrong. The fault or solution offered might not make sense, but it was a moment that took the reader out of the script and it needs to be addressed. Roll with those punches, work with people, keep the anger for private moments and you’ll find your script can only improve (and you’ll remain employed).

In the end, I needn’t have been nervous with the kids from Nottingham. Under the guidance of the Television Workshop’s Ian Smith, they did a reading on the script, then improvised off-script with great confidence and skill. It was great to see these characters finally come to life, and we found a few kinks in the dialogue that we’re now working on ironing out. More importantly, we discovered that the main concept worked, and that they found the characters relatable and fun to play (and we discovered some new swears that we’ve filed away for future use!).

So don’t be too worried about your actors. Yeah, some are crazy and have massive egos (like… er… writers), but the good ones can make you look awesome.



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Author, screenwriter, and co-founder of the Bestseller Experiment podcast.

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