By: Jonathan James
Film has always been a passion of mine, ever since I was a child, but before I ever knew what happened behind the scenes, I first explored the world in front of the camera. I wasn’t like most filmmakers, my parents never gave me an old camera to run around making guerilla art films about cops and robbers or wherever my imagination could take me.
For the longest time, the only thing I knew about movies was acting. Actors running around, reciting lines and playing pretend. This enticed me so much that when I started on my journey as a filmmaker I first explored the wonders of acting first in the realm of the theater then later through short film. Though I enjoyed acting, I never sought money or recognition of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson proportions. What I didn’t realize was that the knowledge and experience I gained would help me through my experiences as a filmmaker and a writer for years to come.
If you’re a writer, and you've never been in front of a camera or an audience, you should do so.
Not in order to gain fame or recognition but to better understand your craft as a writer. We formulate and write the dialogue, we hear it in our heads in a specific way that the actors, with the help of a skilled director, are then able to transfer into a performance on the silver screen. When you perform in front of a live audience the response is immediate. Whether it's comedy or drama, you can hear the laughter or sniffles in response from your audience to your performance.
As a writer, this is a great tool to measure what and how the general public responds to lines of dialogue or certain stories. This is also what makes live reads of your script such an invaluable tool.
It is one thing to hear dialogue in our minds and through our own mouths, it’s quite another to hear them from a third party.
It is in large part why all filmmakers, especially writers should go through an acting or improv course. You don’t have to be Laurence Olivier, but knowing how actors interpret and birth a character to life from a black and white page not only helps you appreciate the art and the process but allows you to focus and enhance your characters and scenes.
Understanding what it means to write a part for an actor to “sink their teeth into” allows you to write deeper and more complex, memorable characters. No actor wants to play a cardboard cut out unless it's for a pretty lofty paycheck, but like you, the writer, all actors are artists. You want your actors to want to live and breathe your characters as you would want a director to live and breathe your story through the long months of production.
Learning improv is an especially imperative tool. It helps you to think on your feet in a tense situation. So instead of hitting that writer’s block while you’re stuck on set and the director and producer are screaming at you to fix a scene before you go over schedule, you will be able to easily pull out a scene or variety of lines to better your scene.
Here’s a hint “Yes and…” is the cardinal rule of improv, but it doesn’t just stop there. It works as a cardinal rule of the creative process. Filmmaking is a collaborative process. Don’t be a writer with a god-complex. No writer’s word is the rule of the land unless you’re someone like Quentin Tarantino or Aaron Sorkin. At some point, you will have to compromise and the improv technique of “yes and…” is a positive way to sort through a problem while making everyone happy. Let’s take a look at a little scenario to help you better understand.
You come to a producer with your script they read it over. They love it. You’ve gotten a big paycheck now you’re going to rewrites. You are getting bombarded by notes of every variety. Some are great and some are excruciatingly bad. But knowing how to collaborate and use improvisation as an actor would help you feel more inspired than like people are suddenly tearing your script to shreds.
PRODUCER: We like your romantic vampire script, but vampires are out of touch is it possible they could be gorillas?
WRITER: Yes, and what if one of them was having a romance with a chimpanzee.
PRODUCER: Or they could both be fighting for world domination in the high paced world of NASCAR.
WRITER: YES, and what if the gorilla was just an ex-space monkey that failed his tests and instead is now using his skills for NASCAR.
All of this is to say that improv is a surprisingly useful way to help you collaborate with your fellow filmmakers.
Obviously, you're free to disagree, but in the entertainment industry, it's best to think wisely before choosing your battles. Inn situations like a writer’s room where you are working with multiple writers to weave together a season or an episode you will want to be able to use such improvisational skills to bounce the ball back and forth in the room, furthering everyone’s goal. You don’t want to be the negative Nancy in the room constantly stopping the process by saying “no, my idea was better,” “no, I don’t have an answer for that because I know it won’t work.”
The more you can use the skills of improv and acting in your writing and throughout your career, the more it will test your creative abilities for the better and not to mention people enjoy working with writers who can collaborate in an effective way and still produce a great script.
As William Shakespeare once said: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts…”
We are writers we focus on the foundation, but to lack, the understanding of how the rest of the building (the building being the film) is built shows a naivete that will only hinder your writing. Knowing how to act allows you to understand the flow of dialogue and the essence of character.
You are more clearly able to know an actor’s strengths and weaknesses so that on the day you make that big script sale and a producer asks “who do you see in this role?” you won’t suddenly look like a fool by simply naming the recent “IT” actor or actress.
Even further in your career, you may even experience a Director or Producer coming to you for help in a quick rewrite you may have to know how to write in a specific actor’s voice. You can’t fix a Kevin Hart script by writing for John Malkovich.
We all get stage fright, but as a writer, in film, we do not have the luxury of simply hiding away and churning out script after script. Today understanding acting is more vital for us than ever. With pitch meetings and studios looking for quick turnaround rewrites, you’ll find that a basic knowledge of acting will help your writing more than you think.
There’s a good reason there is a slew of successful actors who’ve turned their backs on acting and moved into the written word. Besides, if you wanted to stay out of the limelight, maybe it’s best you just work on that novel.