Conversations with Marilyn Atlas regarding What Actors Want in a Script and Creating Worlds.
Welcome back to Part 2 of Conversations with Marilyn Atlas.
Leslie Ann: In addition to your production business, you manage both writers and actors.
Writers want great actors and actors want great scripts. Is there something that you can share about what makes an actor sit up when they read a script? And are there acting techniques a writer can use to make their script ring more true, shine more brilliantly, so the action isn’t simply what I often see in scripts--stage direction?
Marilyn: Actors are always looking for challenging roles and an opportunity to play a character they may not have played before.
When I read for my actors, the protagonist’s personality as demonstrated in the first 10 pages, should be radically different in the last 10 pages. That represents a successful character arc, and is something actors purposefully look for. They want to SEE the character arc. That’s what gets actors excited. What is the transformation from who I am at the beginning to where I am at the end?
You don’t always get that. Honestly, today, I think that some of the best writing I’m seeing is on TV. I mean I’m bowled over by the great writing...it’s dark which I love...on a lot of FX shows. I think the writing on Damages is spectacular. Have you seen it? Your husband’s a lawyer....
LA: So I need to see it?
M: OMG, Glenn Close plays one of the most evil, maniacal corporate attorneys you’ve ever seen. And this is a woman, which is so interesting, because you don’t usually see that level of power hungry, evil, and maniacal in a female protagonist. I was riveted. If I’m out, I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and run straight home, because these characters are incredible. THERE AGAIN. Interesting character.
I think Dennis Leary of Rescue Me is a genius--he knows these blue collar workers and manages to find the dichotomy between their external world and their internal world. And you can see the vulnerability in how the actors are able to express it.
LA: I’m sure the readers will want to watch the movies and shows to see what you’re talking about. I do. I want to see what they have that makes you sit up and take notice.
M: The characters are compelling and interesting and non-stereotypical and I think it’s interesting to enter these worlds.
LA: Yes! I think the "world" is a big part of it. That’s what I don’t often see when I’m reading scripts. I don’t see the writer taking the time to develop the world.
M: OMG, you just said it. EXACTLY. Did you see Eastern Promises? Not yet? See it! I mean it’s fascinating. I love being transported into a different world.
LA: So when you read a script, when you’re looking for a vehicle to produce, is that something you want? I mean setting the world also means setting the character, the environment, for I don’t think you can have one without it being inexorably intertwined with the other.
LA: But I don’t see that when I’m reading, and yet those scripts sold. WHY?
M: You have to separate out the "quality" dramas and some thrillers being made with everything else. Unfortunately, much of the product that gets made is crass genre material. In other cases, the stars attached to a remake of a TV show, old film or extrapolation of content in some other form for the screen means that the incipient storytelling idea is already second-rate. The one crystalline exception is the "Pirates" franchise, which I believe exceeded its pedestrian origins.
Anyway, besides pre-selling the idea through business branding, nepotism can be a factor is getting a script sold. However, by far, why you see drivel on screen is because plot usually takes precedence when you have a high-concept movie.
I’m asking a writer I’m thinking of taking on as a client to take a second more careful look at his character development and the world of the story in his second draft, both to see if he’s responsive to helpful criticism, and because even though this is a big, blow-em-up tent-pole movie, even those have to be about humans!
I need to care that they have one day to save the world.
I think that the environment is crucial to the script when you a drama, thriller or mystery. Because these stories live or die based on specificity, and showing you the underbelly (usually) of a world you only thought you knew.
LA: How do you pick projects?
M: As far as what I want to personally produce? It’s also a gut reaction -- something that just hits me, excites me. It’s not like I mentally sit there and say; are the characters compelling, is the world interesting? It’s more something about the story that galvanizes me, excites me or touches me and I respond to it.
It may be a story I connect to and am passionate about seeing made, because I personally relate. But this much is true, I have had a visceral response to any project with which I’ve ever become involved.
Since this is also a business decision, I must evaluate the market for this story, the probability that it will get made, the likely ticket recipients/overseas sales and how much time I am willing to invest reshaping the script, lining up investors, attaching talent and getting distribution, before I ever see any financial reward for my efforts.
I’ve read voraciously all my life and read writers from around the world and traveled extensively, so what I respond to encompasses many of these factors.
So no matter who the writer is, what their background is, if they can find a way to evoke emotion from me, something that resonates in me, I become very excited and enthralled by the story and as importantly, the writer’s very special and original voice. It then almost seems like a mission to try and get that story developed and into the marketplace.
For example: at a casual catch up dinner a few years back, a writer mentioned a true story that haunted me for three years afterward. And I felt it would be the interesting basis for a TV pilot. I begged her to write a couple of pages, but she didn’t want to write a treatment or put her story to paper.
So three years later, during Christmas, I open the LA Times and there was a little article about based on a true story that has similar facets to the anecdote I’d heard earlier. With this confirmation of the believability and interest that her own story could generate, she agreed to write a few pages.
I hooked her up with a TV showrunner. (A showrunner is usually a TV writer/PRODUCER who not only may create and write the show, but pitches it to the TV networks. The networks will only be in business with SHOWRUNNERS exclusively.)
As I mentioned, most showrunners are also writers, so for me it meant that finding one of the very few TV showrunners WHO DOES NOT WRITE, and would take therefore be open to an idea and help develop it.
I was attracted to the project (again, based on the kernel of the true story and the differing example in the LA Times,) by the fact that someone who chose to be anonymous was doing something that was very purposeful and helpful. Beyond the unselfish urge being celebrated, the way this benefactor went about targeting a very narrow slice of the population in order to have the greatest impact, made the effort both more realistically attainable, lent a bracing specificity to the nature of the gift, and imparted the wonderful act with more credibility and less intellectual piety than other stories of philanthropy we have seen before.
LA: And of course, when submitting a book or script, we have no idea whether it will touch that specific agent/manager/editor/producer or not.
M: Exactly, but I do think those stories that have resonance will touch an emotional cord. The Kite Runner book...talk about a world, talk about characters, I mean that’s universal--childhood friendship. Yet there’s no guarantee. The book did phenomenally well, but that success didn’t translate when it was made into a movie, it didn’t get the kind of box office that was expected based on the sheer number of people who read the best selling book.
LA: How about any tips for creating great characters?
M: For both screenwriters and authors, I would suggest reading a scene of dialogue aloud. If it sounds strange or forced, then regulate it so that it seems more conversational. Make sure that each character "sounds" distinctive – via vocabulary, references, dialect, volubility and emotional register.
See if you can read certain lines with varying meaning, is your writing open to interpretation? That usually means you have subtext, and an actor has the space to read between the lines and open up the character.
I think you know, part of being a good writer is being psychologically astute. Seeing what is being revealed to us. If you look at good actors blessed with a good script, they’ll show us volumes in the smallest gestures.
LA: That brings up another question: What you mentioned above was actors reading the script and understanding the character and bringing their own take to that?
LA: Well I think maybe all scriptwriters should take acting classes.
M: You know what? I’m a huge huge huge huge believer in that. Two things, one a lot of writers are wonderful writers, but they’re not good pitchers. And unfortunately in LA and NY, as much as you need to be able to execute your story, if you can’t sell it in a pitch, people aren’t going to read it. There are courses in pitching your story, where they tell you to be animated, etc.
Second: When I say to a writer, "pitch me your story" at least 80-90% of the time, they can’t encapsulate their story. They’re all over the place and it makes me wonder what the heart of the story is if you can’t tell it IN ONE SENTENCE (the logline) then do you really know its commercial and emotional essence?
LA: I even run into that problem and I’ve been writing for years.
M: Yeah, it’s really hard. I always say you need to look at it in terms of who the protagonist is...a description. And what’s the journey they go through AND why would the audience be interested. It’s not like there are wildly different stories. I often use the example that there are a gazillion Baseball movies and every one of those writers found a way to take something that’s very common and twist it and make it interesting. And I think that’s part of a writer’s job.
LA: Right, which is probably the hardest job.
M: Probably the hardest. I mean I love writers. I have such respect for people that are story tellers. As I said, I’m a voracious reader, so when someone really captivates me, it’s thrilling.
So back to reading scripts: Actors can only create so much back story. In the screenplay, you need to be able to show us the behavior or actions that give us insight into this character. And I want to go on a journey. I always say that if you don’t grab me in the first two pages, I’ll read the first 10, but I don’t read beyond that. Because I want to be entered into a world. Into a character that’s interesting, that captivates me for an hour and a half.
FYI, 90 minutes equals roughly 90 pages of a screenplay.
So after we start creating our characters and give them dimension, we have to build a world for them--far easier said than done, but isn’t that true of writing in general?
And I loved Marilyn’s idea about reading dialogue aloud with varying meanings which can open up the words for subtext. This is a great tool for authors and screenwriters. It opens our minds, lets up play with the words, and what’s beneath the words--creating subtext, which remember is the meaning or emotion below the lines of what’s being said.
What do you think?
Stay tuned for Part 3, about Today’s RomComs vs. the Screwball Comedies of the 30's and 40's.