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I’ve had the occasion to perform readings of new works – in early drafts just for the writer and when the work is more polished in front of audiences. One of the more frequent “mistakes” I see novice writers make is to have too many circumstances come to the aid of the protagonist. Some years ago, I read for the writer and later in front of an audience a play called “The Iron Bear.” After the first rehearsal in the writer’s living room, I tried to find a metaphor for how the plotline appeared: “It’s like watching a swimmer in a strong current, but each wave is pushing the swimmer to shore. There are no obstacles. It’s much more interesting to watch a swimmer fight the current than to see one simply washed ashore.”

Recently, I started re-reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I have no idea how many times I’ve read this novel (or any other Graham Greene novel). I own them all and when I can’t remember the plot any more, I pick it up again. Oddly, I forget the plots and characters rather quickly. This is unusual – W.H. Auden described potboilers as the book “you can’t put down at night and can’t remember in the morning” (The Dyer’s Hand). Greene’s novels are compact structures of plot and character. The plots move like a potboiler, but the writing is on a literary par with The Great Gatsby. Oddly, I can discuss The Great Gatsby in great detail – even if I haven’t read the book in 20 years (I don’t think I’ve ever gone 20 years without reading it, but the point is I remember all the details). Greene’s novels, however tend to fade like old curtains -the outlines are clear, everything else has been bleached by time and the sun.

Greene’s characters are never superheroes. They are extremely flawed men (usually) with the odds stacked against them. Fowler, the protagonist of The Quiet American has one expressed desire: he wishes to stay in Saigon with his young female companion Phuong. One of the immediately apparent obstacles is simply Fowler’s age – although Greene never specifies Fowler’s exact age, the character himself frequently refers to the “decade” or so he has left to live. To complicate matters, Fowler has a rival, a young American Economic attaché named Pyle. Pyle is as innocent as Fowler is jaded, hopeful where Fowler is resigned. They are a contrast in character – foils, if you will. Pyle boards Fowler at a restaurant and as his first contact, assures himself that Fowler is a friend. Not that any of this seems to matter to Phuong. She is happy with Fowler, but she is concerned about her future.

The matter would be settled in a minute if Fowler could marry Phuong – but that would be too easy. So the next obstacle is that Fowler is married. And without marriage, can Phuong’s future be assured? Greene ups the ante – not only is Fowler married, but his wife is a devout Anglican who told her fiancé before they married that there’d be no chance of divorce. It went against her beliefs. Pyle, on the other hand, is not married and is idealistic enough to fall in love after one dance with a woman who cannot speak his language (Phuong speaks Vietnamese and the local brand of French) – even to the point of marriage.

The location itself creates obstacles. Fowler, Pyle and Phuong are all living (or stationed) in Saigon shortly before French Indochina collapses at Dien Bien Phu. Fowler is a foreign correspondent who occasionally travels to some of the less secure locations in Vietnam-thus both his and Phuong’s future are threaten simply by his manner of making a living. Even Saigon, where things are relatively safe, has bridges that are occupied by the French during the day and the Vietminh at night. The restaurants foreigners patronize are on second floors-with grill work to guard against hand grenades.

Greene is not satisfied with letting the obstacles halt at this pass. We learn that Phuong has a sister who exerts a lot of influence and wishes to see Phuong married. She had accompanied Phuong to the dance where she met (and continued to meet) Fowler throughout their courtship. Phuong was never let out of her sight and the couple were never allowed to be alone – until the sister came down with a fever. One night. And then Phuong was with Fowler. The sister never forgave them and is still looking for marriage prospects.

One of the more bizarre twists of the story is that as a romantic idealist, Pyle never goes behind Fowler’s back, but insists on informing the journalist of his intentions at every step. Once Pyle discovers that he is in love with Phuong – he makes an arduous journey to find Fowler at the front. Moments prior to an artillery attack, Pyle informs Fowler that he’s in love with Phuong. Once he’s made his secret known, he is relieved. Pyle keeps insisting that he has Phuong’s best interests at heart. Obviously there are parallels in the personal relationship with the colonial and “democracy bearing” powers and the native culture-who for the most part simply wants to be secure and go about her daily business. Is this an obstacle? Think about it – someone is in love with your girlfriend and insists on telling you their every move because you are their friend. Enter conscience – it becomes harder to strike someone who shares their thoughts with childlike simplicity.

Complication next: a telegram comes for Fowler when he’s returning from the front – he’s to be promoted to editor of the Southeast Asia segment of his newspaper back in London. So not only can he not offer Phuong marriage, he may not be able to offer her much more future than a few months. It may be possible to take Phuong with him, so out of desperation, Fowler writes to his wife to ask for a divorce.

In the meantime, Pyle wants Phuong to meet with him and Fowler and to choose between them. Fowler has to translate as Pyle doesn’t speak enough French of Vietnamese to communicate himself. Fowler has not yet told Phuong of the telegram. She listens to the discussion, then chooses Fowler. Pyle is defeated. He will apply for a transfer.

Fowler writes to his editor- he is a reporter, not an editor. He tells Phuong of the telegram. She imagines going with Fowler to London – but mistakes the location of skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty.

On the road from a religious festival, Fowler and Pyle run out of gas and are wounded by an attack. Pyle more or less saves Fowler. While he recovers in the hospital, a letter comes from his wife. Phuong’s sister has gotten a position at the American Embassy (whether through the influence of Pyle is left up in the air). She speaks English.

Up to this point, Fowler has been honorable – he’s told the truth. Perhaps not immediately, but in his own way he honors Phuong with the truth. When he reads the letter from his wife, the answer is a resounding “no.” She will not divorce him. Phuong sits at his side with hope. And? “No definitive answer.” Fowler is desperate enough to lie.

My intention is not to create a plot summary, but a study of a character with desire confronting a series of obstacles. What Greene does so remarkably well, not just in this novel but almost every book he’s every written is to create a character so human – a character with a strong desire who is weak enough that surmounting obstacles takes tremendous effort. Imagine, if you will, that Fowler is standing on the block at a swimming pool. Phuong is sitting on the other side of the pool. He dives. He doesn’t swim well, so he moves slowly and with concentration. Pyle dives into the next lane and begins to ask if the water is safe. A few hand grenades explode in the pool, cascading spray. Phuong hands him an opium pipe while he’s trying to recover from the waves. He smokes (one of the other obstacles I haven’t touched upon). His editor starts to drain the water from the pool. Pyle claims if he gets to the other side first he’s going to take Phuong and marry her. Fowler swallows water and begins to drown. Pyle saves him and resuscitates him, then they are back in the pool again. Fowler’s wife starts to through rocks on his back.

None of this is true in an exact sense, but what I’m trying to communicate is a character trying to pursue his desire in a direct line – and that the more obstacles that come between the character and the goal -the more compelling the plot becomes. I didn’t learn this lesson until later in my writing career. I have early plays with a lot of obstacles and no matching desire. I have characters who are blown through a series of events that happen to them- not the result of their pursuing a goal. Much of the writing is good -smart dialogue, astute characterization – but what makes a story dramatic is the pursuit of a goal through a series of daunting obstacles. Hollywood actors have ruined much of the scripting possibility by insisting on characters without weaknesses, superheroes – when the more severe the weakness, the more daunting the obstacle, the more compelling the story.

 

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I’m a later-comer to the Elmore Leonard oeuvre.  Naturally I’ve heard the name and had even watched Get Shorty without exactly knowing who wrote it.  I picked up Cuba Libre not even knowing it fell in the category of crime fiction — I simply wanted to read something new.  Leonard died before I ever read a word he wrote.  I guess it wasn’t all that new.

I’m not going to say I’ve downed the Leonard collection of 46 books, 7 screenplays and 2 teleplays before I made some observations.  My first note to myself was, that as intricate as I found the plots and as quirky as I found the characters, I always put down the novels as if I hadn’t had a full meal.  Now, I’ll admit, when I picked up the novels, I saw them as fiction, not crime fiction.  They were on the library shelves for contemporary fiction — and the library has a section for crime fiction.  Maybe they jumped ship.

What I love about the novels is similar to what I love about Shakespeare.  The messenger who appears before Henry V is full of sauce and vinegar for the English king.  He claims he was told to put it on and later basically apologizes for underestimating the valor of the man whose reputation was gained as Prince Hal.  They guy appears for basically eight to ten lines and he has as rich a life and purpose as any other character in the play.  The same is true for the Lords who plotted with the French and are found out before the troops leave for France — they are justified and believe in their cause (for all of one or two lines each).  Leonard has a similar capacity to see to it that each of his characters has a personal objective that is rarely subservient to the needs of anyone else.

In Road Dogs, various characters who’ve been fleshed out in other novels intersect. Jack Foley (Out of Sight) and Cundo Rey (LaBrava) come together via prison and connect with Dawn Navarro (Riding the Rap), who is waiting for Cundo in Venice, CA.  Each time the plot twists, it is more or less a revelation that a character is adjusting how they play the scene to get what they want.  Each character in the book has an agenda, from the FBI agent who trails Foley and threatens a local gangbanger into gathering a group of hoods to act as surveillance, to the movie star who is set up by Dawn as a mark for her psychic con game.  What is true for Shakespeare is true for Leonard — there’s no such thing as an auxiliary character.  Every person you encounter is central to their own life and has their own designs on how the game should play out.

The other commonality in Leonard’s work is a mirror of the hard-boiled detective.  Like the private investigators of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, Leonard centers his work on criminals who have their own code of honor. I’d consider calling them “hard-boiled criminals,” but that phrase tends to imply something else.  Jack Foley, for example, will consider double-crossing Cundo Rey and even sleep with Dawn, his common-law wife, but as events unfold there is a bond to his yard-mate that he cannot dishonor.  Neither can he go through and pretend to exorcise the new widow Danielle’s house of ghosts — it is abhorrent to him to play on her grief as part of the scam.

So then, the novels are lean, the characters self-motivated, the plots make credible twists as each character adjusts their methods to get what they want — what accounts for the half-hour after Chinese meal syndrome?  Simply this — there are few, if any, character arcs.  There are only plot arcs.  Once again, I blame the library for not alerting me that I was reading something other than crime fiction — no one expects Sam Spade to come to some kind of self-realization during one of his private investigations.  Half of the fun of the hard-boiled detective is the narrative voice making snide observations about “losers” and “dames.”  However, Hammett atones for Spade’s lack of character arc by his vulnerability.  Sam always believes one wrong person and gets trundled into a shack or shot up with narcotics as a result — and from there he gets hardened and recovers his dignity (along with whatever prize he may have been sent to discover).

The criminals in Leonard are generally too wary to be vulnerable.  They break bread with each other knowing that there are knives at every place setting.  And most of them finish the novel, dead or alive, no smarter than they began it.  Like Chinese food, it’s a fun night out, but it makes me question his ten rules of good writing.  They don’t really tell you very much (did you expect them to?):

  1.  Never open a book with weather.
  2.  Avoid prologues.
  3.  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.
  5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6.  Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9.  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

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Okay, so I’ve spent months writing and re-writing a script.  I’ve been listening to characters speaking in my head, jotting down their rhythms of speech, noticing their quirks of phrasing. I’ve paid attention to how scenes evolve, what words particularly piss off other characters, what words act as “keys” to character and plot.  I’ve set up jokes that evolve on the third repetition of a particular phrase — each time by a different character in a different context.  I’ve cut away every inch of useless verbiage to make way for actors to respond non-verbally and to add plot twists while keeping the page total under 108. I’ve taken the script through two or three in-house readings.  Now I’m in casting.

I “get” that actors usually only get sides.  I “get” that the film industry values immediacy over training.  I “get” that actors want to stand out.  But I never understand why actors feel compelled to improvise new lines the first time they are seen.  This is even more disturbing when they do it during a comic sequence.  Nothing ruins a joke faster than adding unnecessary verbiage.  So in an effort to assist the actor, I’m going to highlight a few things that every writer hopes for while sitting at the casting table (truth — they have little power, if they are there at all, they are mostly there because the director has much less experience with the script at this point than the writer).

Character Rhythm — if a writer has any skill at all, each character has a rhythm of speech.  Some people cut other people off (you’ll notice the ritual dash — on the line before, where someone is cut off), some characters stumble through their speeches, (“The thing is, I mean, the thing, what the hell am I saying, Trisha is, you know.  Round.  About to.” He makes a motion over his stomach. “Getting bigger.”). Not all patterns are written in stone, and we’re usually excited when someone brings truth to the words being spoken, but usually the pattern is there for a character reason — i.e. the alpha male who cuts everyone off, doesn’t find them worth listening to, and then needs to learn to listen by the end of the story; or the battered character who cannot say anything directly and must learn to stand up and confront.  Yes, writers think about it that much — there is character in speech.

Scene Rhythm — almost every scene is written with an arc, it begins at a particular point A (in a plot, in a relationship, in self-awareness), it moves through a transforming moment and ends at  point B.  Along the way, characters speak and things happen with a particular rhythm.  If I watch my son play with his best friend, they bump each other constantly as they walk from point A to B.  There’s a sort of friendly contention.  When Evan spends time with a young girl in his class, they move together like two fish swimming side by side.  The motion is less linear, and yet they are always in sync.  Scenes are like this. This does not mean there are no pauses; the question is where the actor chooses to pause.  For example, suppose these are two lines to close out a scene

Character 1 : Badda bing

Character 2: Badda boom.  [They clink beer bottles together and drink, the deal is on]

The dialogue expresses a certain amount of rapport, history and understanding between the two characters.

I can’t tell you how many times, if this were an actual audition piece (or even after the actor is cast and “keeping it fresh”) you’ll see:

Character 1: Badda……………………………………………………………………………

…b…iiiiiiii…..ng

[Now character 2 feels put on the spot, needs to one-up]

Character 2: (looks at his friend) You’re such an ass. Badda f*%kin’ boom.

What has happened to the rhythm of that scene?  Gone.  What has happened to the relationship?  Gone.  There is no sense of history, understanding or rapport. By ignoring the rhythm of the scene, the actors have now destroyed any legitimacy a joint action by these two characters would have in the future.  It would look like a manufactured plot point rather than a natural development of their mutual understanding. Weirdly, I might hire the actor reading Character 2 — he /she would have played the emotional truth of that moment.  More likely, I’d skip both of them because of the bad taste left in my mouth. Yet with different words, different scripts, I see this pattern repeated constantly — each time an actor wants to make an impression rather than play the truth of the scene.

Say the Words.  Everyone has a unique manner of speaking — even without improvising.  Some voices are high, some lower, some squeak, some lisp.  There are unique pronunciations simply because one was born in the Bronx or in Weehawken.  When someone is cast, it is in large part due to this unique quality.  The first courtesy to a writer is to say the words, as they are, at the audition.  Through the first several rehearsals.  If there is a problem, ask — what is this line supposed to mean?  Why can’t I seem to make sense of this?  In the theatre, this almost goes without saying.  But when I’ve been around film, there’s this attitude among actors (having read too many Actors Studio bios) that the words are just suggestions.  I can’t describe how many times I’ve been called back to rewrite a later scene because an actor glossed a really important piece of information while ad-libbing their lines.  I write character jokes, not punchline jokes (although I do write those on occasion) — how many times have I seen a joke killed because the actor missed the point and the necessary word to make it funny?  Then the director comes to me — “I thought this was funny — it got laughs in the reading — how come it isn’t funny?”  (because you allowed the actors to run rough-shod over the text).

Line fluffing — If I’m at an audition for a film, I can almost guarantee that half of the actors will add one of the seven words you can’t say on television to add some element of emotional emphasis they feel they cannot achieve in any other way.  It’s as if we can’t express ourselves as a culture, emotionally, without going to the septic tank. Some sprinkle the f-bomb through the lines so liberally that it seems the only thing that comes through.  One of the more embarrassing moments for me, was bringing my son — eight at the time — to a rehearsal.  These actors were cast!  They went through the scene several times.  Finally I took my son out to get some pizza.  “Daddy — did you write all those bad words?”  While I have written some F-bombs myself, when the situation and the character demanded that it be put on paper, that rehearsal was an old world family playing canasta.  Yeah.  F*%kin’ canasta.  “No, I did not write all those bad words.”  “Then how come they’re saying them?”  “Good question, boss.”

There was worse than the F*%kin’ card players, however.  We had a big reading of a script for backers back in 08′ (yes, just before the mortgage crisis, when funds could be got).  Film set in 1979.  Suddenly one of the actors, who’s playing an FBI agent (with a hippie girlfriend), starts adding “Dude” to every line.  Dude. I cringed.  I lived through 1979.  No one I knew called anyone dude.  Not in NYC.  People called each other “Man,” at times, but not “Dude.” And his use of “dude” was constant.  It made me look bad, as a writer — i.e. that I hadn’t done my research, didn’t know the slang of the era.  So, if you’re going to add a word, a line, a phrase, make sure — forget about it.  Don’t add it.

I read back over this, and while my intention was to provide some advice for actors — about how scripted dialogue is put together, and maybe how to best approach it, I feel I may have slipped  overmuch into the realm of rant.  I think that while providing examples, I slipped into ranting about those examples.  A bit.  I hope there is still enough useful information to make it worth the read.

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I became a playwright as the result of an odd night sleeping (that’s a blog for another day).  I became an actor, at first, to learn the mechanics of how a play works: I went on stage to become a better writer.  It turned out I became pretty adept at acting as well. I believe everyone who attempts to write for stage or screen should spend some time on stage or in front of the camera.  There are things one learns about dialogue that I’ve rarely seen learned any other way.  I’ll try to catalog a few of them here.

Shortly after the turn of the millennia, I was cast in the NY premiere of a work by Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin.  The translation was a collaboration: the producer rendered the words in English and a Columbia University graduate playwright crafted them into a verse play (the original was in verse).  The story follows the journey of a woman and her child as they seek shelter in the world as refugees. I played the captain of a refugee ship (one who charged high prices and drank extensively). The woman could only pay for one passage on my ship, so I let her work off the other passage as my mistress. When we arrive at the next port, it is morning some weeks later.  As she goes to depart, as an actor, I chose to give her a lingering look, as if in the time she was on board, she had awoken some passion or compassion within me and I was going to miss her.  There were no words.  This was rehearsal.

When I arrived at the next rehearsal, the playwright/translator — who had the liberty to do so — had added two pages of dialogue (mostly monologue) to express in words, what I’d been exploring in a glance.  I’d worked with Kelly before and had loved her original work.  Now, I didn’t know how to respond. On the one hand, it was beautiful that my glance meant so much to her that she wanted to add two pages to solidify it; secondly and sadly, the words added nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Everything had been said in the glance. I tried the words, but it truly belabored the point and if anything now made a spontaneous moment of recognition seem overworked and trite.  Now — how do you tell that to someone who’s just written the pages for you?

I’m convinced that underwriting dialogue is the first lesson any playwright/screenwriter learns when they go on stage.  Actors do so much more with a short phrase than any writer can add in a paragraph — if the situation is spot on, if the intention behind the phrase is subtle and correct. This is the relationship to subtext — the characters are rarely talking about what they mean anyway — the meaning is underneath.

Breaking up long passages is usually not necessary: writing “What?” “When?” “How?” “Yes?” simply because one character has been talking a long time and the writer wants to break it up kills the momentum and the actors.  There is no more difficult stage situation for an actor than trying to decipher where that one word comes from: am I really curious?  Is there some special information there that I want to confirm? It is usually very obvious when those words are inserted simply to break up a long passage. I love that Yasmina Reza will write a characters name (as if for dialogue) and then insert (silence) as the dialogue line.  It shows that the attention has gone to that character and the character chooses not to reply.

Stage directions on how to speak a line (line readings given by the writer instead of the director): Actors know their craft.  A great deal of it comes from a place that is not scientific (even if it is sometimes called Method). Most directors with whom I’ve worked insist on cutting stage directions before we begin. (This is less true of film).  Assume the writer adds the direction: TED (sarcastically) “Yeah, I’m racist.” What happens?  The possibilities of the actor can become limited.  They may start thinking of ways to make that line sarcastic.  In rehearsal, the actor is free to explore — try it as truth, try it as a questioning moment.  But the reality is the subtext — to whom is Ted speaking?  what do they want from them?  Why would they use a line like that?  Is Ted joking?  Actors need to discover what the action of a phrase is — not what the manner of speaking it is.  Therefore, to an actor, the phrase (sarcastically) shouldn’t mean anything.  It’s not an action.  Ted can be tweaking his listener to get x result.  That’s an action. Unfortunately, too many actors get screwed up by paying attention to the manner of speaking and forgoing actually focusing on taking an action.

More on subtext: In a film I wrote, a very Goth fringe theatre director — a Korean woman who is perceived to be lesbian — happens upon her lead actor standing near the piers along the Hudson River.  Out on the pier, gay couples are twined about one another.  She asks him, “Do you come here often?” I like to use this as an example when discussing subtext: what is she really asking him?  Does she actually want to know if he spends a lot of time at the river? No.  In my mind (the actor can make other choices), she’s asking him if he’s gay.  It is also the first revelation in the script that she may actually not be lesbian (why else would she ask him? Would it matter to her in any other way?).

Actors constantly look for subtext.  They break scenes apart and try to determine what is going on in the relationship?  What’s at stake? What am I trying to achieve?  This information should rarely be on the surface.

Not everything is subtext.  There will be times when a character will ask “which way is the train station” and really want to know.  But there are layers of other information there as well — why don’t they know?  Are they in a foreign city?  Are they confused? Lost? Delayed?  At no time in a film should precious seconds be wasted simply ascertaining the direction to the train station.  The situation has to have further significance.  This is subtext as well.

Knowing the Whole: A good actor takes a script apart, creates timelines, biographies, backstories.  The actor will likely curse any writer who does not consider the whole story.  I remember working on two plays, almost back to back.  The first was Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, where I played Doc.  In the opening scene, Doc tells Lenny that he’s dropped off his child at the dentist.  Naturally, as the actor playing Doc, I need to know how old the child is.  So I do the math.  Meggie left 5 years ago.  I was injured for a year.  I went up North, met my wife.  Even if we conceived a child on the first day we met, given the 9 month pregnancy, the kid can only be 3 years old and change.  Now I have to make a decision — did I just drop off my three year old at the dentist?  By himself?  What the hell kind of father am I?  What kind of three year old needs a dentist? Does it mean that Meggie is so much more important to me than my own family?  Am I really a rogue? Possibly.  But Doc in the rest of the play does not jibe with a man who leaves a three-year old at the dentist.  It was infuriating trying to resolve my character to the text. How do you feel telling someone that you just left your three year old at the dentist? Does it mean anything?

In the next month or so, I was playing George Deever in “All My Sons.”  There is a bit of dialogue between Joe Keller, his wife and George, where George catches the family in a lie — the wife says “he’s never been sick a day in his life” — but Joe called in sick the day there were flaws in the manufacturing, giving George’s father the instructions to “ship them out.”  George is a lawyer, so naturally he’s used to listening to stories for the flaws.  Naturally he picks up on the lie and pursues it.  Additionally, in a brilliant bit of writing form, Miller has Joe cross-examine George in the sequence just before the information comes out (as George is about to accept their insistence that Joe is innocent). Having worked on both pieces back to back, I found a distinct comfort in making choices based on the text with the Miller play that I did not have with Crimes of the Heart.

While there are a few things I can try to pass on, nothing replaces the experience of actually being in front of people or a camera speaking words.  I recall being in the theatre a few days after Heat was released.  There were places where the dialogue was so bad that the audience was laughing  at the writing, not the situation or because the line was finny.  Despite the fact that credit belongs to Michael Mann, as a writer I cringed.  I don’t want to copy any of the dialogue for fear of copyright infringement, but you can read some of the sequences here.  Say the lines out loud — try it.  See how they feel in your mouth.  I cannot believe that lines such as those could have come from anyone who’d possibly spent a few minutes acting (even if he did write for TV).  In all fairness, Michael Mann wrote The Insider, an amazing film whose dialogue is three miles from this work.  So it’s possible that the writer was trying a stylized language.  But when the audience laughs at the language  — when it sticks out so badly that Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro cannot make it sound any better than dinner theatre fare — the words did not succeed.

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–There are two nuns walking….
–So, there’s these two nuns, right?
–A couple of penguins is hoofing it down the street….
–Yo, check it out, right, there’s these two nuns
–Two sacred vessels of God shining in glory
–Ha ha, nuns, look! Where they think they’re goin’?

I had the good fortune when I first began to study acting to take classes with Michael Beckett. His approach was always very individual, but one of the lessons that resonated in my mind was a class in which he insisted that “words don’t mean anything.” There were mutterings about the class — “that’s not true,” “How can you know anything about a play if the words don’t mean anything…” etc.

Michael then proceeded to scream “I love you” at someone, then he said the words again as if he were mocking the person to whom he was speaking and then again as if the idea that he would love the person at whom he’d directed the phrase was the most ludicrous thing in the world (the subtext was along the lines of “yeah, right, like anybody would love you”). It was suddenly clear that the phrase “I love you” could mean multiple things and that much of it depended on context. He went on through several more variations, but not one of them meant “I love you.”

In other words, something that David Mamet made me think of:  People never say what they mean, but they always mean what they mean.

I was also lucky enough a few years after that to translate Fabio Rubio’s Mosca from Spanish into English for a production that included a Spanish director and several Spanish speaking performers. One of the trickier elements was finding English language equivalents — not just for the words that were spoken, but for the manner in which each character spoke. The play is an retelling of Titus Andronicus and each character is very distinct: Aaron the Moor is blunt and brutal, Chiron comes across as the idiot son of Tamara while the elder son, Demetrius is aristocratic and dainty. Tito has the aura of a no-nonsense woodsman and his daughter Lavinia has been very affected by her years of illness (there are traces of it in her speech).

One of the items I exploited in translation was the multiple meanings of various verbs (one of the things that translators begrudge is lost in translation). For example, the verb espantar can be translated as “to astonish” or “to frighten.”  Might one character mean “to frighten” and another to “astonish”?  Next,  one tries to add multiple layers in English to words that are written the same in Spanish, i.e. the phrase “Por fin, llegamos” could simply be translated “At last, we’re here.” For Demetrius, however, I would translate “Finally, we’ve arrived.” For each character, I tried to find a distinct way of speaking so that the actors would have more room to create variety (and to feel what was in the original).  Oddly, the Spanish speaking actors were the most demonstrative against such liberties (“It simply means ‘we’re here!”).  However, the director backed me on this.

If one looks at the list with which I began, it is clear that each line is a repetition of the same phrase said — not just in a different manner, but by a different sort of character. One of the more difficult things for a writer to do is to hear voices other than his or her own. I love East of Eden — one of my top ten books simply for its wisdom and compassion — however, most of the main characters sound like they’re the same person speaking through the mouth of a differently named character. I’m not saying every writer  has to imitate The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the varieties of dialects and phonetic spellings, but there is an advantage to paying attention to things like rhythm, word choice and sub-text when writing dialogue:

Rhythm: people speak in different rhythms. I knew a man once who kept winding one story into the next. I wanted to move on to another conversation at the party, but he seemed to begin each new story without taking a normal break. Once I started paying attention, I noticed that he would break for breath mid-sentence. I had been anticipating a story would end with a breath-pause; it never happened. I had an “American Renaissance” professor who spoke like train — wheels running down a track at medium speed. Clack-e-ta-clack-e-ta, he never broke stride, never hurried, never slowed, never paused. There were no emphatics, no points of humor. My notes from his class would leave a long streak that trailed off the bottom of the paper; I’d fallen asleep mid sentence and the pen slid down the page. There is no way to write rhythms without hearing them. If one lives in a city, it is easier — one can hang out in a part of town with a different ethnicity. The rhythms there are always different — and more easily heard. Sometimes I sit in a crowded place and simply try to hear voices like music — as sound only, so that the rhythmic quality of the voices comes through.

Word choice: I had a classmate in high school who, while everyone else was saying “that’s cool,” coined the phrase “that’s casual.” Someone I knew in college called women either “beauteous” or “hideous.” There was nothing in between. He also would walk into my room, pick up a cup (or pen or anything, really) and say, “what have you got here? A little cup-de dup?” He’d rub his hand on his belly while expelling air between his lips and add, “I seen betta in Maine.” My son and his classmates are now in the habit of calling anything excellent “o.p.” (over-powering). I had another friend who continually modified one description by a second — “She’s cute, in a big nose kind of way.”  “It’s good, in a stinky kind of way.” There are people who always phrase things as questions.  I acted with a model who always attributed her ideas to someone else (“I read in a book that….”; I also used this in a play).  When you add to the mix people who speak English as a second language, it gets more interesting.  Spanish speaking people frequently mix up “to make” and “to do” — thus the phrase “I have to make my homework.” (In Spanish, it’s the same verb, hacer.) A Japanese student once explained to me that “a dream has a lot of wish.”

Screenwriters who work in cityscapes have many choices to diversify their character content, not just in stereotypical ways (i.e. Pakistani cab driver) but in power-broker circles as well: club owners, grad students, library researchers, etc. can be given extravagant rhythms of speech by thinking about word choice and rhythm.

Sub-text: This goes back to my Mamet inspired statement about people not saying what they mean.  Most of us are dishonest.  We make allowances for people who can advance our careers that we’d never make for family.  We bypass honesty to be expedient.  But we still try to get what we want! Couples break up over the minor issues, never the major ones — if one is a profligate spender, the confrontation with the spouse is about some stupid six dollar object, not the repeated pattern of spending. How many times does a spouse say “You could have called me!”  But what is she or he really saying?  Possible answers: you don’t respect me. I think you’re cheating on me. I want out of this stinking marriage.  It’s important that the screenwriter never employ those last three sentences in such a context unless the character who speaks them is ready to step off a cliff.  We never say those things, not because they’re true, but because they seem irrevocable.  Once we’ve crossed into that turf, there’s no going back.  No, we much prefer to blame things on the other person, push them to leave or stay, push them to make any decision.  Right now, we’re too emotional to think clearly at all.

I was engaged many years ago to a woman in Ecuador from a very wealthy family.  Naturally, she didn’t want to leave Ecuador and insisted I go there to live.  I told her that I wanted to be sure that if I wasn’t happy in Ecuador, we could look at other places to live — i.e., I wanted to marry her, not Ecuador.  She cancelled the wedding.  I had already surrendered my apartment and my assistant professorship (tenured) and spent several days trying to get each back.  I succeeded.  In my summer job, I received a call from the young woman who had rented my apartment and had it taken back (via a real estate agent).  She told me she wanted to bring her mother by the place, as co-signer, to give the mother some idea of the places the woman was looking at.  I told her I needed to run, but she could come by around 8 p.m.

At this point, I was still numb.  It had only been a couple of days and I had been in constant motion to repair my life.  I hadn’t cried or even thought about the loss all that much.  It truly was just numbness.  I got back at 6, went for a run, and beat the woman back to the apartment by 10 minutes.  I was still breathing a little heavy from running up the stairs when they buzzed.  I let them look around.  The girl asked a few questions, showed her mother.  We made some small chat.  She was in her early twenties, dark-haired, willowy and simply dressed in jeans and a flowing blouse.

“I really just wanted to make sure the real-estate agent wasn’t pulling  a fast one.”

“What?”

“I mean, you’re really going to stay?”

I don’t know whether it was the innocence of the question, the long run, the possibility that I’d let down my guard because these people had nothing to do with my life, my lost fiance…. Suddenly I was bawling. Full out, body convulsively bawling.  The women felt awful.  They backed away, apologizing — “oh my god, I’m so sorry.  So sorry.”  They couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

As a writer and actor, I always remember — that is truth.  It is the emotion that seeps out when we least expect it — and it almost never comes from the words you would expect.  Sub-text is emotion.  It is truth.  It is what we really mean or feel when we’re busy saying something else.

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After writing about Impossible Films a week or so ago, I wondered if it were possible to categorize the possible reasons that good books don’t translate into film.  As I’m still processing the topic, I don’t imagine my list will be anything near complete.  However, there were three basic categories that seemed to define legitimate reasons that a good film cannot be made from a particular novel.

The first category, since I’d reflected on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM), is the philosophical novel.  Like ZAMM, there are certain novels that embrace philosophy and in fact, might simply be the metaphorical exposition of a philosophical system (anyone recall Plato’s cave?).  If one considers Hesse’s Journey to the East or Magister Ludi (The Glass Bead Game), it is easy to see his writing as working out a philosophical system (largely based on Eastern writings).  That some of his novels, Narcissus and Goldmund or Siddhartha, are simply stories working under those philosophical principles does not alter the predominant philosophic bent of the writer.  Can one film any of those novels?  Of course.  Siddhartha was made into a film in 1972 and there is a plan to make Narcissus and Goldmund by Senator Films.  Siddhartha is supposed to have had a decent critical reception, but it was yanked from distribution for many years.  As for N&G, if you read the release, you realize there is trouble: “We are planning to work with an international writer and director in order to realize the moving and profound story of Narcissus and Goldmund. A deep appreciation of the novel is required to be able to transport this tale on a level that works internationally.” (My bold text) Yes, but is a deep appreciation of the novel necessary to want to see it?  Milan Kundera is a tricky writer who seems to belong in this category. Yet his novels are thematic, not philosophical, despite the fact that he quotes Nietzsche. He uses philosophic questions to state his theme and builds upon it.  I was not truly aware of this until I saw the filmed version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. ULB translates very successfully film as a result.  Almost always, if the novel has a philosophic point of view woven into the fabric of the narrative — i.e. the narrative is a metaphor — the film will suffer.  I hesitate to put Ayn Rand books into this category as she is the Disney-tale of philosophy — good and bad people are easily recognized and there is little complexity of character or situation.  So while she tells her stories — and her stories are illustrations of her philosophy — one can only make films for her minions.  There is not enough complexity or depth in her work to make for a complete philosophy or a compelling film. She is the pop-psychologist of philosophers.

Narrator focused books: Have you ever seen a good film of The Great Gatsby?  Probably not.  Or at least not a film that equals the book.  There have been performances to admire, sets to die for, cars and furs galore, but the crux of the novel is Nick Carraway.  It is Nick who puts things into perspective and most of his musings do not occur when other folks are around.  He is on the fringe of two worlds, therefore the only one who can clearly see either.  Yet in a film, Nick is a minor character — as he is in the book.  So in the film, we — the audience — must assume Nick’s role.  We are the ones who are intended to muse on what we see.  Oh yeah, they use voice over, other tricks to try and assist us with Nick’s point of view, but in the end the difference between the novel and the film is this: imagine only being able to look at a scene from your window — there’s a party below, in the back yard of a neighbor and people are carousing and glamorously dressed; now imagine being in the yard itself — how has the perspective changed? That is what’s at the heart of translating Gatsby to film — it’s an impossible task and in the end I don’t envy the writers who take it.  I mentioned in No Country for Old Men what was lost in the film (narrator’s history and humanity) — it is a similar situation.  There are successful films made of books in the third person limited point of view, but not when the point of view does more than relate the tale.

Real magic (or magical realism).  I’m not talking about Harry Potter-esque magic where wands imitate weapons or do things that cranes and ropes can accomplish (don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the Harry Potter series immensely and this is not meant as a slight to the film-makers).  I’d read Laura Esquivel’s Como Agua para Chocolate some years before I saw the film. I admit that the crew was able to pull off most of the special effects with aplomb, but I watched in anxiety waiting for the final scene — how will Tita wrap the farm in her bedspread?  How will she eat candles so that her inner fire ignites them and opens the tunnel of light so she can join Pedro?  In the book it’s so beautifully told — but think of the image — a woman eating candles and then her inner fire setting them aflame….there is almost no way to do it that doesn’t look hokey.  So what did the film-maker do?  Fill the room with candles, put gauze on the lens and change the candles for matches (with an earlier explanation of how everyone carries within themselves a box of matches). It is an anti-climax for an otherwise immensely successful film.  So I actually started this category by talking about the most successfully made magical realism film.  I think that’s appropriate — I don’t like to pick on easy targets.  However, it also explains why I have trouble with the idea of making films of The Magus or 100 Years of Solitude.  There are just too many things that happen in those books that would be impossible to film.  Near the opening of 100 YoS, there is a narrative comment that things were so recently created that many of them lacked names (my translation). We are not in biblical times of the Pleistocene era — we are in the town of Macondo, in a time that appears to be somewhere between 1750 and 1890.  But Garcia Marquez conflates many eras into a single timeline:  how do you film that? The Magus has similar issues in that some appearances are magical in the book, but when you film them they become ordinary at best, hokey at worst.

I am a big fan of books.  I am also a fan of film and films made of books.  I cheer for every successfully made book-film, as I know how tricky is the work.  This list is by no means complete or even fully thought out.  As I said, it was a few days reflecting on what makes books hard to translate to film.  In almost every category, there has been a success story — but there have been a plethora more of failures.  I still look at my screenplay of Z&AMM from time to time.  I believe it can be done.  The hope I have for a list like this?  Once we identify the reasons we fail, we might have a better chance to succeed.

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A few years back, there was a huge uproar over the Connecticut casting of The Motherf*er in the Hat. The director, a relatively recent graduate of an NYU directing program, cast two actors who were part of this graduate thesis project. The problem was — they were white.

A dramaturg who graduated from Columbia Univ. with whom I’m familiar posted “that’s not the point of colorblind casting: to give more jobs to white actors.”  I simply replied — “I’m glad someone is hiring the actors who worked for them, for free, when the director was getting his/her degree.”  But I was being disingenuous — I never expected working for student productions to lead to anything further.

The truth is there are countless opportunities in NYC for actors to work, to learn the craft, to stay sharp and to keep themselves focused.  Both NYU and Columbia have graduate directing programs in Theatre and Film.  These programs have carte blanche from the acting unions to use professional actors — dues-paying union actors — without pay (it gets a little bit dicy when you’re working with a student who will drop thousands of buck on their film production, but considers it okay not to pay the actor even transportation).  Additionally, there are film programs at NY Film Academy, Brooklyn College, SVA, Digital Film Academy, et al.  All require actors.

I had something of a conflict with my then acting teacher in 1996.  I had left my steady job and was working free-lance, so funds were a bit tight as well.  Instead of searching out and paying for a new acting class, I decided I would spend a year learning how different directors work.  I sent in my picture and resume for the Columbia Graduate Directors program and auditioned.

The space was a large black box in the basement of a dorm building.  I chose to do a Shakespearean monologue as they’d asked for “classical.”  In the dimly lit space, there were seven directors huddled together in the middle of two hard white plastic fold-out tables.  I was working with the Richard of Gloucester monologue from the end of Henry VI, seconds after he’s laid poor old Harry to rest at the end of a sword.  As I spoke the words, I envisioned poor Henry lying on the floor at my feet, in a pool of blood, cursing me.  None of the directors seemed to be noticing him, so I continued speaking — “Had I not reason, think ye, to make haste and seek their ruin who usurp’d our right?” — as I walked behind them.  Yep, I walked out into their space and stood behind them, encouraging them to behold the spectacle lying on the floor.  After all — I was talking to them now — Harry was dead.

I didn’t hear anything for a couple of week, but then a Korean woman in her late 20s called.  We worked on an abstraction of Death of a Salesmen — she had me in a trench coat and my underwear.  Payback is a b__ch, as they say.  She told me that the other directors said, “you’re going to work with him?  He’s so scary!” Within weeks, however, I was called by one after the other.  During that semester, each director put up 21 projects between Anne Bogart’s  first year Death of a Salesmen class and Robert Woodruff’s Euripedes class.  I appeared in 17 projects.  During the Spring, I was working on Moliere at the McCarter Playhouse (Princeton), so I did not work with the directors again until the end of the term.

I’m am often asked two sets of questions about working for such programs:  “Does anyone see you.”  And “Is it worth it?”

Over the course of 10 years, I did countless projects at Columbia’s graduate directors program.  I did projects with the film program as well — readings, scene study, even some really bad films.  During the very first session with the Korean director, I had to make a decision:  do I only work this way (my way) or am I flexible enough to try other things?  I’d been trained in Uta Hagen’s technique — a technique that grounds itself in the objects of reality.  At its best, the Hagen technique is a life-rope that supports the actor in their made-up world while giving them some leeway to be alive and respond.  At its worst it is a cage for actors who only trust the objects, often picking up needless item after needless item simply to give them the reference for saying a particular line.  Now, I was being asked to do something that felt more like dance — move here, count to three, make this gesture.

Since we were doing an abstraction of the Miller, I simply did what I was asked.  I did not channel Willy Loman or even consider what I was doing a part of Death of a Salesman.  I was simply working like an extra — going where the director told me to go, doing what I was told to do.  Next, the same director asked me to perform in Medea.  The director had a very clear vision of what she wanted to see.  She wanted to cast a black actress who had put on white face.  The denouement of the encounter with Jason would have the actress then taking the white face off.  Problem: none of the actresses agreed.  They had ideas of what they needed to do to be seen as valid actors. I was given directions such as “Sit at the table.  Count to three. Pick up the knife.  Count to two.”  It is very difficult to be in the moment, to have any inner life at all, when you are counting.  That scene was about as close as I came to rebellion — yet I saw the actresses raging and what happened was we were wasting every rehearsal with hours of discussions on why the actress could not perform in the director’s requested manner. I decided to simply do my best.

It turned out that this problem did not just pertain to this particular scene.  Almost every director with whom I worked had a process that was particular to their background — whether they were from Korea, Maine or the Lower East Side — and they encountered actors who were generally trained in one method.  I decided pretty quickly that my job was to be there for the director — they were the ones paying for the course, they were the ones getting graded — if they wanted me to count to five and hold a knife in the air, that’s what I would do.  I get the counter argument: you are performing in front of Anne Bogart or Robert Woodruff, later Brian Kulick or Karin Coonrood, you don’t want to do something that makes you look lame.  But I made that decision — do what you are asked; find a way to make it work for you.

I learned as much in the years I worked at Columbia as the years I took class (frequently I was doing both at the same time — I did go back to class after I came back from my time at the McCarter).  I continued to work with Columbia students after my son was born simply to keep myself in practice — several of the directors were willing to rehearse on my schedule (having kids gives you only x windows of space for your art), so I was grateful to keep working.  In this time I worked on Moliere’s Don Juan, Ibsen’s Ghosts, Inge’s Bus Stop, Goethe’s Faust — works I probably would not have tackled otherwise.  And other than Faust, I did them in their entirety.

Additionally, over the past 15 years, Columbia’s film program has grown from NYU’s starving younger sister to a perennial Oscar producer.  I can do very little with the footage of those films I made in the late 90s — I was asked to cry without a reason, to be “evil” instead of psychologically complex and there are camera shots that are so bad that they look as if a six year old got ahold of the camera and was bobbing it up and down (although none of them are as bad as Norman Mailer’s direction of Tough Guys Don’t Dance)Now, I’m more than willing to do student films from both NYU and Columbia — as is Len Cariou and some other “name” character actors.

Have I met anyone?  Yes.  Anne Bogart and I know each other, she’s familiar with my work.  Robert Woodruff knows who I am too.  I stay in touch, at least on Facebook with many of the directors I’ve worked with there.  Are any names?  Not at the moment.  But if you ask me, that’s not the reason to do the work.  If you go to Columbia or NYU so that your work will be seen by Anne Bogart and you might be hired by her company, you’ll most likely be disappointed.

The main reason to go do work at Columbia or NYU (or any of the other institutes that require actors) is that you get better by working.  You cannot become a better actor by reading about it.  You cannot get skilled doing monologues in your living room — there’s no reception.  It’s like being angry when no one is there — if no one receives the anger, it goes back in — it doesn’t get processed.  You don’t grow.

I know an actress — one of the best I’ve ever seen — who refused to do any more student films when she was only one or two years removed from being in school herself.  She refused to do a lot of things — get new head shots when a potential agent asked.  She spent a lot of time in class — paying to develop.  And she kept up her skill.  But she wasn’t in front of the camera.  She was rarely on stage.  These things take their toll. She also never had an acting career — despite being enormously talented.  As I said, probably the best actress I’d ever seen in person.

So my advice to anyone who moves to NYC to become an actor?  Get familiar with the schools.  Start to work — yes, it demands your time.  And it doesn’t pay.  And the people may be demanding.  But you pay for class, don’t you?  What if you could get a class for free?  One that teaches you everything you need to know about being on stage, being on film? And dealing with people.  Wouldn’t you take it?  The only caveat is that it demands for you to be flexible, with your time, your attitude and your technique.

I’m pretty certain the schools in L.A. offer the same deal.

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