Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Writer Tip #2: Write For Actors

Wanna be a screenwriter?

Then write roles actors want to play.

Okay, okay. I know what you're thinking. Actors want to work. Therefore, they are happy to play any role anyone offers them. True. But there will come the time when you need someone special, and, when that day comes, you're only going to get them if you give them a role they want to play.

Now, granted, Clint Howard isn't Brad Pitt, but he is a fine comic actor who took the time out of his busy schedule to come out and appear in our little comedy. Why? Because he liked the role. As he said in the clip above, he said he liked to pick roles where he knows "he can come in and throw strikes." Tim Ratajczak and I gave him that role. He knew he could have fun with it. So he came out. So did Fred Willard -- one of the best comic character actors of our time. When Fred got onto the set, one of the first things he did was ask to meet the screenwriters. He wanted to tell us how much he enjoyed the writing. What a compliment from someone who had made me laugh so many times!

The Fred Willard part, by the way, was completely rewritten a few times. We knew we wanted a "name" in that role and we altered the script to fit the personality of each different actor before we sent it to them. For example, we put some subtle Star Wars references into the script before we gave it to Mark Hamil. (Word to the wise: Don't send Mark Hamil a script with Star Wars jokes.) I was so delighted that we got Fred Willard. I can't imagine anyone being better.

This all seems obvious, doesn't it? But it's not.

When I was an unproduced screenwriter, I aimed for a sense of naturalism in my writing. I hated those big, showy, Hollywoody actory moments. I pointedly avoided writing them. I wanted my characters to talk like real people, and their conversations to be as honest as ones you would hear on a bus stop. What an idiot! People don't pay ten dollars a ticket to listen to people talk on a bus stop! Back in those days I had a real agent and genuine interest in my scripts. But none of them sold. Now, looking back, I wonder if they didn't sell because I deliberately held back from giving the audience, in that case, agents and producers, the emotion and release they wanted.

(Or maybe the scripts simply weren't good enough.)

One of the best books I reading on writing "star" parts was Adventures In The Screen Trade by William Goldman. However, his illustrations were so etched in sarcasm that I ignored them. The light didn't go off over my head until I was editing a movie for horrormeister Mark Redfield. We were about to cut a speech a supporting character gave for length purposes. Mark wasn't happy about it. Not because we were cutting the script he wrote, but, instead, because we were cutting the other actor's big moment. Being an actor himself, Mark writes with an actor's mindset. He wants to give every actor in the film the kind of moment that he, as an actor, would like to have himself.

What I learned from Mark Redfield was amplified in my work with the mighty actor/producer/director David A.R. White. David has hired Tim and myself to write many movies, and his analysis of the scripts has given me great insight in the mind of the actor. In fact, David once hired us to write a Christmas movie. Before we started, David pointedly told us that he wasn't interested in playing the leading role. Tim and I took that as a challenge. We decided we were going to write the leading role in such a way that he couldn't resist it. By the end of the first draft, David told us he wanted to play it himself. (But he obviously didn't want to produce it, since it is the only commissioned script Tim and I worked on which hasn't been produced or isn't in active pre-production.)

There's an old Hollywood story that when Liz Taylor got a script, she would only read her lines into a mirror to see how she looked saying them. I believe it.

That is not just ego.

Actors know themselves and what they can do. They want to do what they think they do best.

As a screenwriter, your job is to help them do exactly that.

Sean & Tim with Freaking Fred Willard

Other Tips:

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.