There are two major categories of research I believe that writers need to spend time on.
First, the most obvious, is research relating to the story being written. A lack of understanding and knowledge about the selected era, location, subject matter and characters of a story will quickly show. For this category, I will dedicate a future post.
The second category is where I want to share insights that I’ve recently gained. The script is merely one of several critical pieces to putting together a great film. As a writer, you have probably consulted dozens of books, articles and seminars on how to write a great script. You’ve probably been told that the script is the foundation of film. The importance of character, conflict and story has been drilled home. Perhaps you take this at face value and work to make a great script. But imagine you also explore the other pieces and roles in film making to gain perspective.
This is something I have been doing recently. I have found it very valuable.
The first thing I did was take an introductory acting course at a local acting studio. I was fortunate enough to have a Living Social deal come across my Inbox for “Acting for Non-Actors.” It was a four week course, one 90-minute class each Tuesday night, at the Bay Area Acting Studio in San Jose. Not really sure what to expect, I was still surprised at the great turn out as well as the diversity of students (age, background, nationality). Most students were just out to try something new, and a handful were people with previous or current interest in filmmaking roles. I was the only person self identifying as a hobbyist/aspiring screenwriter. I soon learned that at least one other student had also shared the interest. About 2/3 of the class time was spent on games/drills that were pretty fun and effective at bringing up the energy and drawing out the more introverted people of the group. The other 1/3 of the class was spent on very basic Meisner technique and scene work. I have signed up for the next section called “Acting for Fun” to continue gaining the actor’s perspective.
So far, from just a few classes, the main lessons from this experience, as a writer, were:
1) A speaking character must know who/how/where she or he is focusing their attention and energy. Be clear in your writing.
2) The character really must be unique enough that an actor can channel and use the particular relatable parts of themselves.
3) The dialogue must not get in the way. Keep it simple. An actor can do a lot with a few words. Trust them to communicate the ‘real story.’ Do not write out dialogue that really should come from subtext.
4) If you are doing a good job with the characters and story, you will also reduce or eliminate the need to direct from the page. That is, fewer movement action lines and parentheticals will feel necessary.
5) Make your characters such that actors *want* to play them. Boring (e.g. no personality, no voice) or vague characters (e.g. no real conflict or struggle) will not be educational, pivotal, defining or motivating – they won’t be exciting to study and portray.
I would love to hear from any readers that also took acting class and what you found helpful from the experience…
The second step I have taken, is to enroll in the Intro to Film class at local DeAnza Community College. DeAnza is especially recognized in California for its Film/TV program. The tuition is affordable, and the schedule provided several options, including the evening section that I selected. While only a couple of weeks into the class, I have already developed greater appreciation of a great foundational script. Casting, location selection, props, scene framing, camera work, actor positioning – all of this can help tell the story. But the characters and story have to be strong enough and clear enough to allow these important pieces to do so.
If you haven’t already educated yourself about these aspects of filmmaking, I encourage you to do so. There are a couple of books on my shelf that are great references, and also, one of my course references is the publicly available Yale site on Film Analysis. The textbook for my class is Looking at Movies.
I assure you will watch your favorite (and despised) films with a new perspective in what makes them great or miss the mark. It will challenge you to look at your writing with a critical eye for what is needed to turn your story into reality.
What other steps have you taken to gain perspective about the other roles in filmmaking and the importance of the script outside of the writer’s view?