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In today’s Prescription we’re talking about rewriting for actors. Read on!
We’ve all seen it at the movies – that moment when an actor utters a line that doesn’t quite convince. Or worse, an actor plays a character that doesn’t quite sit with them altogether.
Let’s go behind the scenes. You’ve spent years on your draft, plotting, planning, rewriting. You’ve spent even longer getting the money and the locations together. And here you are now, with a cast, on set and things just aren’t clicking.
Every line feels like a lie and you don’t know what to do.
It doesn’t make sense because it all sounded perfect in your head. Nobody flagged it up in development. And now you have a very real problem with the clock ticking…
If you’re reading this before production, you’ve REALLY got to spend time focusing on what is absolutely correct in the casting process. Hire a good casting director and do multiple callbacks to be certain. Make sure that actor really IS the character. Workshop scenes. If you’re close with the actor then make it closer. Do everything you can to avoid last minute confusions/problems.
We’re going to assume here that you were diligent in the casting department, that you saw the actors perfect for the parts and cast them – but still, that dialogue comes out flat, lifeless and unconvincing.
Now the chances are you’ve fallen into the trap that many do, of staying TOO loyal to your imagination (or someone else’s) and are not flexing to the realities of film-making.
We’ve all been willing to change the shot, the costume, the location because the situation dictates it but, for many filmmakers, the dialogue somehow becomes written in stone and unchangeable. Sometimes it can be lack of a writer present on set, sometimes it’s lack of time – sometimes it’s stubbornness.
Don’t get caught up in making the actor repeat the same line over and over again hoping that changing the inflection or speed will suddenly make the line sound like you’d originally imagined it to. It might not be the performance, it could be the line.
Dialogue rewrites are usually essential in the run up to a shoot and on the day when actors breathe life to the page. Don’t see it as ‘a drag’ or a mistake. It might be under-looked at Film School or other classes but dialogue rewrites after casting are a natural part of the process.
Why should it change?
Film is not theatre, where the director must be loyal to the playwright. It’s not Shakespeare, where the text is crafted in rhyming couplets and must be performed as written.
Film dialogue is not designed to be preserved and honoured – it can change, often for the better.
Your dialogue may need changing for a myriad of reasons:
- Perhaps you were picturing Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn when you wrote your rapid-fire exchange and the actors available are a little more Rock Hudson and Doris Day. (I.e. the actors don’t fit the character 100% or vice versa).
- Perhaps you’ve been subject to a last minute cast-change (someone dropped out or the schedule changed).
- Perhaps it just doesn’t ‘feel right’ on the day.
Approaching the Dialogue Rewrite
Firstly, we must make it clear that your rewrite will very much depend on the level of talent you are working with, the time you have available and the character/scenes in need of changing. Make sure you have a short list of things you’ll need to ask yourself if something isn’t quite right.
What is the role/scene you’re rewriting for? How central to the story or sub-stories are the characters? Is it the writing of the character that needs fixing or the acting? What went before this scene? What comes after?
Is it an everyman character like David in Delivery Man or Cage in Edge of Tomorrow? Or an extraordinary character, such as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood or Violet Weston in August: Osage County or Jasmine in Blue Jasmine?
If you’re working with an ‘everyman actor’ and an ‘everyman character’ then you’ll most probably looking at tweaks here and there, shaping the character around the general feeling the actor gives off on screen (there is, for example, a huge gap between how Ethan Hawke plays an everyman and how Jonah Hill might). You want the actor to seem natural in the character even if it’s a few inches off of what you wanted that character to be. Better that than to have an unconvincing performance of somebody failing to be somebody else.
If you’re working with a method actor, a la Meryl Streep or Christian Bale, the chances are that they’ve been hired (and have signed on) to offer their services in versatility and create a character from the ground up, so perhaps a different, more collaborative approach will be required – or maybe the actors will be able to bend themselves to dialogue that would be outside of their usual speech patterns.
You MUST pinpoint what isn’t working, and fast, and fix it. Prepare that short list of questions! Unless you have the luxury to re-cast (if that’s the issue) then you must focus on what CAN be fixed rather than what could have been. Work with what you’ve got and make it the best version it can be now, not the best version it could have been once.
The film world is rife with examples of directors who change dialogue on the day or who allowed their actors to improvise but these are often reported with a ‘Hollywood publicity magic’ spin, as if it’s unusual or crazy to change a couple of words and the director is some crazed savant.
In reality, such changes are routine, and you’d do well to register this process as something that needs doing, rather than as rarity. Be prepared!
Here are some examples:
Boyhood director, Richard Linklater, had ‘a structural blueprint’ but ‘certainly not dialogue’ for his screenplay. In a recent Slate interview it was explained that “Contrary to what many viewers assume, Linklater doesn’t use improvisation in his movies. Instead he prefers to carefully rehearse and rewrite dialogue until it feels improvised. He generally schedules about two weeks of rehearsals before production starts, so that he can talk to actors about their characters’ motivations and get them to riff. These sessions are then drawn upon to rewrite the screenplay.”
“He [Owen Wilson] was completely wrong for it when I wrote it. I wrote the character as a New York Eastern intellectual. And we’re thinking ‘who can do this?’ There’s no one available, no one right. Someone said ‘what about Owen Wilson?’ I said, I always loved him, but he’s a surfer in Honolulu. He’s not an Eastern intellectual. And [casting director] Juliet Taylor said, ‘rewrite it and send it to him.'”
More extremely, Mike Leigh starts with no script and a premise and develops it with actors.