Telling the actor what to feel vs. what to do

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  • Telling the actor what to feel vs. what to do

    So I find this super confusing. Readers gripe about "unfilmables" so you put action statements. Now, I read this (boldface mine):
    "You should be telling the actor what you want them to feel at this moment, not do. If you write detailed physical description of action, an actor is going to do precisely what she is told. She may question you about it... but, she may silently acquiesce. Once you tell an actor to "put her face in her hands,- she is going to assume, because it's in the script, that it is very, very important.That gesture may have been something from the scene hovering above your computer that you simply transcribed onto paper. It may not have been that big a deal to you. But if you leave it in the script, it becomes a big deal. Just because it got written does not necessarily mean it is good writing.

    When the actor puts her face in her hands, you just eliminated a host of other options that had been open to her. "

    What do you guys say? do you simply show that she's just lost her freaking puppy in a hit and run and let the "actor" figure out what she wants to do, or do you show her DOING some specified action(s)--"... holds her head in her hands, sobs uncontrollably."?



    Love to hear what you think. (Full article link below.)


    https://yourscreenplaysucks.wordpres...ctors-choices/

  • #2
    Re: Telling the actor what to feel vs. what to do

    I can only speak for myself.

    For me, it depends on the situation. If a character is disgusted by something, I will usually just write, (insert character name) is disgusted. Or reword it to something else like, (insert character name) can't hide their disgust.

    I don't really care how the character (actor) shows their disgust, as long as they make it clear on the screen. It's up to them.

    Other times, I am very specific. If it is a powerful point in the film and I want the actor to behave in a certain way because I want the visual, I will write something specific like, (insert character name) collapses to the ground over his son's prone body, throws his head back and wails to the heavens.

    Right or wrong, I don't bother with that stuff. I write it my way. Like it or don't. *shrugs

    I'd suggest finding what works for you and best conveys what you see in your head when writing your script.

    Disclaimer: I don't purport to know anything.
    il faut d'abord durer

    Comment


    • #3
      Re: Telling the actor what to feel vs. what to do

      Originally posted by SBdeb View Post
      "You should be telling the actor what you want them to feel at this moment, not do. ... It may not have been that big a deal to you. But if you leave it in the script, it becomes a big deal. Just because it got written does not necessarily mean it is good writing.

      When the actor puts her face in her hands, you just eliminated a host of other options that had been open to her. "

      What do you guys say? do you simply show that she's just lost her freaking puppy in a hit and run and let the "actor" figure out what she wants to do, or do you show her DOING some specified action(s)--"... holds her head in her hands, sobs uncontrollably."?
      I think it's kind of silly as it stands. Any writing is "limiting." As soon as your character does one thing there are an infinite number of things they are not doing at that moment. And, if you have your character "putting her face in her hands," it better be a big deal -- because this gesture is intended to show deep emotion. This line (hopefully) wouldn't be written in a vacuum, I'm guessing the context would make it clear why the actress should be overcome with emotion in this scene.

      I'm guessing what the writer of this means is "don't make your writing too mechanical." Don't go to Step 1, Step 2, Step 3 ... without pausing for effect or mood.

      Kind of like ...

      Code:
      Ellen enters the room.
      
      Ellen sits down.
      
      Ellen puts her face in her hands.
      
      Ellen sobs.
      I exaggerate, but I've seen stuff pretty close to this -- right down to never using pronouns.

      At any rate, that's my guess. I don't really know exactly what the quoted writer meant.
      STANDARD DISCLAIMER: I'm a wannabe, take whatever I write with a huge grain of salt.

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: Telling the actor what to feel vs. what to do

        Let me amend my question to limit it to emotional responses. Let's say "shock." Let's say you have a scene early in the script, and your character will be shocked at something [again, it is early and one has not set the stage for the reader to know that the character will, or should be, shocked here.]

        Here's another way to ask. Is it OK to simply say:
        Ronald looks up from his phone in shock to hear his song on the radio. [and just let the reader figure out what this might look like, and the actor 'act' shocked however they want]

        ... or is it better for the writer to suggest what he/she is picturing happening in a physically, describeably way?
        Ronald's song comes on the radio. He looks up from his phone, his eyes grow wide, his mouth opens in shock.

        Or like LMPurves does, just what feels right at the time?

        Comment


        • #5
          Re: Telling the actor what to feel vs. what to do

          You're asking if it's ok to just label the emotion in narrative and let the Actor figure out the physical equivalent, or should you describe shock and not label it. I've seen both, the stronger play is the description.

          Shock = wide eyed, mouth agape, eyebrows raised

          Disgust = crinkled forehead, scrunched up nose

          It's best to write words that portray the emotion and simply write the emotion label.

          Comment


          • #6
            Re: Telling the actor what to feel vs. what to do

            So, the first thing I would say is that the overall emotion of the scene should be clear from the scene.

            Most of the time, it should be obvious from the moment that the puppy gets hit how the actor (and audience) are supposed to feel about the puppy getting hit. You're not counting on "She puts her face in her hands," to tell the actor what they're supposed to feel, because the scene itself is doing that.

            Beyond that, there's a judgment call about what the scene needs - painting a picture, being clear, that kind of thing.

            What I think this writer is getting at is the idea of what I call "puppeteering" - choreographing individual actions on behalf of the actor, which can, in fact, close the door to better ideas. The actor is going to be better at communicating whatever feeling you want through their face and body than you are. They are going to have ideas that are better than your ideas because communicating emotion through their face and body is what they train to do.

            But it's a gray area. It's hard to draw a bright line between "okay" and "not okay." It's a judgement and a feel thing, and no two writers draw the line in exactly the same place.

            Comment


            • #7
              Re: Telling the actor what to feel vs. what to do

              Originally posted by SBdeb View Post
              Let me amend my question to limit it to emotional responses. Let's say "shock." Let's say you have a scene early in the script, and your character will be shocked at something [again, it is early and one has not set the stage for the reader to know that the character will, or should be, shocked here.]

              Here's another way to ask. Is it OK to simply say:
              Ronald looks up from his phone in shock to hear his song on the radio. [and just let the reader figure out what this might look like, and the actor 'act' shocked however they want]

              ... or is it better for the writer to suggest what he/she is picturing happening in a physically, describeably way?
              Ronald's song comes on the radio. He looks up from his phone, his eyes grow wide, his mouth opens in shock.

              Or like LMPurves does, just what feels right at the time?
              My opinion is that in each scene the actions and the characters should naturally flow together and you can buy a bit of "not having to explain" every emotion.

              Which I think gives you an indication of when you SHOULD explain the emotion and that is when it is in REACTION to what happens or is said OR is unnatural to what is expected.

              I think it a good endeavor to TRY and not be too "on the nose" with writing emotions or duplicate.

              Ex. John smiles, then bursts into laughter. He's happy.

              However you definitely want your characters to FEEL and EXPRESS emotions. In most screenplays this is conveyed through dialogue combined with action.

              Using your own examples I would even write it like this (keep in mind I don't know if this is correct or not but works for me)


              "A song comes on the radio. Ronald stops and looks up, eyes wide. It's his song."

              I've always been a fan of ACTION (the trigger) => Character reaction and in this case sequentially the song comes on first and then Ronald reacts.

              Some examples from produced screenplays:

              "Sleepless in Seattle" - The phone call exchange towards the beginning.
              DR. MARCIA FIELDSTONE (V.O.)
              (repeating herself)
              Dr. Marcia Fieldstone of
              Network America.

              SAM
              Jesus, are we on the air?
              Jonah, for God's sake --

              JONAH
              Don't be mad at me, Dad.

              Sam can see Jonah. He's frightened. Sam immediately
              feels how upset Jonah is.

              DR. MARCIA FIELDSTONE (V.O.)
              He feels that since your wife's
              death you've been very unhappy.
              He's genuinely worried about you.

              Sam is looking at Jonah, who's rooted to the spot he's
              standing on.

              And later same sequence:

              INT. HOUSEBOAT - NIGHT

              SAM
              It's been about a year and a
              half.

              DR. MARCIA FIELDSTONE (V.O.)
              Have you had any relationship
              since?

              SAM
              No.

              Sam is very uncomfortable about this --

              DR. MARCIA FIELDSTONE (V.O.)
              Why not?

              SAM
              Look, Doctor, I don't want to
              be rude, but --

              DR. MARCIA FIELDSTONE (V.O.)
              And I don't want to invade your
              privacy --

              INT. CAR - NIGHT

              ANNIE
              Sure you do.

              SAM (V.O.)
              (overlapping)
              Sure you do --

              Annie smiles.

              SAM
              Look, we had a tough time at
              first, but I think I'm holding
              my own as a dad, and Jonah and
              I will get along fine again as
              soon as I break his radio.

              Annie laughs. So does Mr. Fieldstone

              And later

              Annie coasts to a stop outside a handsome mansion in
              Washington, D.C., the motor running. She's hooked now,
              she's not getting out of the car until she's heard it
              all.

              SAM
              You touch her for the first
              time, and suddenly... you're
              home. It's almost like...

              ANNIE
              Magic.

              SAM
              Magic.

              CLOSER ON ANNIE

              realizing she has just said this. Realizing that it
              must mean something but not knowing what.

              SHE'S CRYING.

              DR. MARCIA FIELDSTONE (V.O.)
              Well, it's time to wrap up,
              folks --

              A FIGURE appears at the passenger side window, which
              Annie doesn't notice. She's wiping the tears away with
              her hand.
              And the very emotional scene within Captain Phillips at the end:

              INT. USS BAINBRIDGE - GUEST QUARTERS - BATHROOM - NIGHT

              Phillips showers - exhausted. Then:

              INT. USS BAINBRIDGE - GUEST QUARTERS - MOMENTS LATER

              Phillips sits on his clean bed, in his clean clothes, with an
              ice cold beer in his hand. In the corner a monitor shows live
              coverage of his release. It's over.

              There's the SAT-PHONE. He reaches for it.

              ...until, suddenly, his hand stops. Just frozen.
              And something hits him like a wave - a sudden surge of grief,
              terror, pain, frustration, all at once. Everything he didn't
              exhibit for the last five days, now smacking him in the face.

              He begins to cry - out of nowhere - a shock to him. He tries
              to hold it back, but can't. Just too much in there.

              We leave him here, sobbing - and DISSOLVE TO:
              You know Jill you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived. Whoever my father was, for an hour or for a month, he must have been a happy man.

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: Telling the actor what to feel vs. what to do

                Originally posted by Ronaldinho View Post

                What I think this writer is getting at is the idea of what I call "puppeteering" - choreographing individual actions on behalf of the actor, which can, in fact, close the door to better ideas. The actor is going to be better at communicating whatever feeling you want through their face and body than you are. They are going to have ideas that are better than your ideas because communicating emotion through their face and body is what they train to do.
                .
                Yes, but am I not writing first for a reader? I guess that's something I'm trying to figure out here.

                For this to be read by any actor, it has to be first read by a reader.. and then another, right?

                Comment


                • #9
                  Re: Telling the actor what to feel vs. what to do

                  Originally posted by UneducatedFan View Post
                  My opinion is that in each scene the actions and the characters should naturally flow together and you can buy a bit of "not having to explain" every emotion.

                  Which I think gives you an indication of when you SHOULD explain the emotion and that is when it is in REACTION to what happens or is said OR is unnatural to what is expected.
                  Makes excellence sense, as always, UneducatedFan. Thanks for the instructive post.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Re: Telling the actor what to feel vs. what to do

                    Originally posted by SBdeb View Post
                    Yes, but am I not writing first for a reader? I guess that's something I'm trying to figure out here.
                    Eh. Worry less about that.

                    Ronald looks up from his phone in shock to hear his song on the radio. [and just let the reader figure out what this might look like, and the actor 'act' shocked however they want]

                    ... or is it better for the writer to suggest what he/she is picturing happening in a physically, describeably way?
                    Ronald's song comes on the radio. He looks up from his phone, his eyes grow wide, his mouth opens in shock.
                    So, these two examples have radically different problems.

                    The first one is out of order. He can't look up in shock before his song starts playing. Tell the story the way it unfolds to the audience. Aside from that, it's fine.

                    The second one is basically a textbook example of what I mean by puppeteering. You've given me two separate actions, and either one might be fine, but together it feels clumsy. Also, I don't think people's eyes widen in shock at hearing a song - so you've picked a bad, tropey action description. (This gets to one of the reasons to be careful about this type of writing - writing facial expressions in an accurate, clear, and compelling way is hard, and most people fall back on tropes).

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Re: Telling the actor what to feel vs. what to do

                      I would also check scripts and steal. Think of your favorite movies, there must be scenes where the characters are shocked, excited, depressed, or angry. Get the script online and see how it's written.

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Re: Telling the actor what to feel vs. what to do

                        Originally posted by Ronaldinho View Post


                        I don't think people's eyes widen in shock at hearing a song .
                        Except maybe if one is hearing one's own song on the radio for the first time.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Re: Telling the actor what to feel vs. what to do

                          Originally posted by Joaneasley View Post
                          Except maybe if one is hearing one's own song on the radio for the first time.
                          "That Thing You Do"
                          Probably my favorite part of the movie, when they hear their song on the radio.

                          Lots of eye widening, and other excitement.
                          "I just couldn't live in a world without me."

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Re: Telling the actor what to feel vs. what to do

                            Originally posted by SBdeb View Post
                            So I find this super confusing. Readers gripe about "unfilmables" so you put action statements. Now, I read this (boldface mine)
                            Emotions are not unfilmables. Emotions are inherently filmable. Watch some of a movie or tv show on mute. For the most part, you'll probably know how the actors are feeling without any dialog whatsoever.

                            Unfilmables are beyond what you can see and hear in that moment, and can't possibly know given what you've read in the pages leading up to it. Something like:
                            "Mack opens Minnie's wallet, wishing for the Nyquist to win the Triple Crown by a nose. He pulls out the divorce lawyer's business card, and all thoughts of big bets at Preakness vanished."
                            You can't see or film Mack's wish as it's written in this example. All you can film at this moment is Mack opening the wallet, finding the divorce lawyer's card, and having some sort of emotional reaction which -- if written well -- probably doesn't need much more for the reader to see exactly where Mack will be emotionally.

                            IMO, it's far, far better to convey the emotions, not the actions, for both the actors AND the readers. My mental image of what "looks up in shock" apparently doesn't have the same visual as yours. When I read "his eyes grow wide, and his mouth opens" I don't necessarily see "shock" as the causality of that action. He looks rather goofy and childish in my mental film, actually, like he's been sucker punched or took a bite of unsweetened chocolate.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Re: Telling the actor what to feel vs. what to do

                              For what it's worth (don't know if any of it is original):

                              SAM
                              You must remember this,
                              A kiss is just a kiss,
                              A sigh is just a sigh,
                              The fundamental things apply,
                              As time goes by.

                              The door to the gambling room opens. Rick comes swinging out. He's heard the music and he's livid.

                              SAM
                              And when two lovers woo,
                              They both say I love you,
                              On that you can rely,
                              No matter what the future brings,
                              As time goes by.

                              Rick walks briskly up to the piano.

                              RICK
                              Sam, I thought I told you never to
                              play...

                              As he sees Ilsa he stops short. Sam stops playing.

                              Two close-ups reveal Ilsa and Rick seeing each other.
                              Rick appears shocked. For a long moment he just looks at her.
                              "I am the story itself; its source, its voice, its music."
                              - Clive Barker, Galilee

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