It’s the words in my head I want to hear actors say

Even the words I haven't written are precious to me, writes Rob Long

Go into any casting session taking place anywhere in Hollywood and you can always tell who the writer is. He or she is the one not looking at the actor. The director, the other producers, the casting director – all of them will be, naturally, looking at the actor who has come in to audition for the role.

The writer, on the other hand, will be eyes-on-script, following along with whoever is auditioning. To many, this looks like some kind of examination, like we’re trying to monitor the actor’s memory.

Writers are notoriously touchy about their words – we want the actors to say each word we wrote, in the order in which we wrote them, without even a breath of improvisation.

That’s understandable, I guess. Writers are on the lowest rung of the upper tier in Hollywood – above the crew and the agents, of course, but below the actors and the director – so clinging to the idea of a word-perfect recitation by the actors is a way of clawing back a little bit of power.

The thinking is this: we wrote the words and we have a very clear idea how each line is supposed to sound, so why be distracted by anything else, like the expressiveness or authenticity of the performance? Best to keep your head down and listen for the person auditioning to say the lines exactly as they sounded in your head, and hire the actor who hits closest to the target.

The problem here is that actors – good ones, mostly, but even bad ones – have an irritating way of making plain words seem a lot livelier and believable than they are on the page. So watching an actor – even a not-so-good one – act out your words is instructional even if they say them differently from how you said them in your head, or, if like me, you actually act them all out in an embarrassingly full-on performance during the writing process.

Confession: somewhere in the back of my mind, in a place I won’t admit exists, I’m always thinking, in a barely audible interior voice: “You know, if I worked out at the gym a little more, I could be an actor.”

But if the actor auditioning, as opposed to the actor in the writer’s mind, says the words wrong – and by wrong I mean not the way they sounded in the writer’s head – then there are really only two possibilities. The first is, the words need to change. If an actor can’t make a line work, maybe it’s the material. The second possibility is you may need to change actors. But after a day of casting, after hearing the material fail with a variety of performances, there’s really only one solution: change the words.

But then, of course, you have to change the way you heard it in your head, which is a lot harder than it sounds. Because that really was the first performance, and as every actor knows who’s ever taken over a role that another actor made famous – when, say, Laurence Olivier did King Lear after Ralph Richardson, or any of the Batmans and Spidermans and Supermans – the two versions can both be good.

Writers do this to other writers, too. I have yet to meet a head writer on a television show who hasn’t taken over the rewrite of a script and fiddled with the words for no real reason. I’ve caught myself doing it many times. There have been specific occasions when the changes were merited, but often I find myself switching words around or swapping adjectives because, as I once put it to a young writer whose script I was reworking, “I like words that have the ‘k’ sound in them”.

Writers aren’t just protective of the words they’ve written, they’re also protective of the words they would have written.

This kind of inflexibility isn’t restricted to writers. Everyone, at one time or another, has pre-written a script for someone else to read. We all occasionally have a sneaky chunk of dialogue we’d like someone in our life to read out, as precisely as possible. A therapist I know calls this “emotional scripting”.

Writers, in other words, are like bad romantic partners – it’s not enough that you tell us that you love us, or that you’re sorry, or that you’ll never do whatever it is you did again. You must tell us exactly the way we want you to, using the words we’ve written for you in our heads.

The trick for screenwriters – and husbands and wives and, probably, parents and children, too – is to look up from the words you’ve carefully assembled and watch what’s happening in front of you. Often, it’s even better that what you expected. But the only way to really know is to take your eyes off the page.

In show business – and in life, which isn’t all that different from show business, just not as well compensated – sometimes the most valuable person around is the one who doesn’t follow your script.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl

Published: May 9, 2014 04:00 AM


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