Script Analysis – Don’t be Scared

Some news: Anthony Viera, sound mixer extraordinaire, is coming aboard the film! I’ve worked with Anthony on about 8 or 9 projects, and it’s always fun. Ben and Anthony have worked together on about a dozen projects as well. These guys understand the indie vibe and aren’t scared by it.

Working with actors still scares me sometimes, however. I’m not sure whether it’s because I haven’t done a whole lot of it, or whether it’s just endemic to the work. In a way, working on technical things is very easy for me. I understand the problem space and can nail a solution. Directing actors is about expanding on solutions, opening up more pathways – really going out on a limb.

I think this aspect of the craft turns off a lot of directors. I see their eyes glaze over as the actor asks them questions. Or I see them hit the actors with a ton of information when all they need is a sentence or two. So this past week I’ve been digging into my script analysis, hoping to get a jump on this type of situation.

The first thing I do is print out the script, dig out a pen, and go through each scene, looking for:
* Scene beats and transitions. These can be loosely defined as changes in subject. The transition is the space in between each beat. Sometimes it’s an unspoken, unwritten thing; sometimes it’s a bit of blocking or the entrance of a character; sometimes it’s a line.

* Sensory data. This includes images and sounds; also possibly textures, smells and tastes that are implied (like people eating dinner, or dressing in a certain way). Sense data are a type of fact, and facts are good to work with.

* Ambiguous lines or actions. These give you and your actors something to work with – since they could mean more than one thing, they’re like an opening into the character’s inner life.

* Facts / Backstory. Facts are always good. They can’t be judged. An actor can start with a fact and generate an emotional response more effectively than if s/he starts with judgments, opinions, gossip, etc.

* Tension/Stakes. Does the script fall flat in the middle? Does it ratchet up the tension? Does it need more or less “stuff” to get there? Since I’m working on my own script, I have the luxury of adding new stuff or taking it away at will.

From these things, I can glean the following info. This stuff I write down on a separate worksheet (I’ll post it up on the IndieGogo site).

* Thru-Line of each character for each scene. This can roughly be defined as what the character wants FROM the other character. It has to be verb-based, and it’s helpful if it includes an emotional response on the part of the other character. For example, Steve wants humiliate John can be too limiting. Steve wants John to feel humiliated opens up more possibilities for action.

* Moment Before. What happened just before the scene started. This is sometimes in the script, sometimes not. It’s very important to establish since films are shot out of order. One of my biggest failures as a director was not reminding an actor of what had just happened before a small transitional scene. The scene, which would have gone unnoticed, was instead really flat, because the actors didn’t carry the tension from the moment before into the scene with them.

* Questions. These are things I can ask the actors or myself. Sometimes a good question can open up a scene.

In the next blog I’ll get into more detail on this stuff, and post some links to some good books on the subject. The key thing is to take this stuff seriously, and work on it as early as possible. When that rollercoaster goes over the first hill (see my last entry), you’ll find yourself waist-deep or higher in production goo. Better to do your prep when things are calm.

Until next time…

The Long Ride Up the Rollercoaster

It’s been a few weeks since the last blog post. In part, this is because things are still in the early stages – I’m still gathering together resources that I can’t talk about publicly until things are “official.” I’m assembling some media (concept art, photo tests, and the like) that I’ll be able to show off soon. And I’m talking to my regular gang of fellow filmmakers, getting the word out about the film.

A lot of what I’ve been doing (apart from the above) has been spectacularly unsexy – I’ve been taking notes. Lots of notes. Notes about color schemes, about the character’s appearances and inner lives, about significant objects/images/facts in the scenes. I’m also reading and rereading film books, trying to get my head in the game again.

Once I’ve put some visual media for all of you to look at, the notes will make more sense. For now, I’m keeping them to myself, since most of these jottings and scribbles will never mature into executable ideas.

But that is in a way, what the point of the notes are. To prep myself for the real script analysis work that lies ahead. Right now I’m in the up stage of the rollercoaster. I know from experience that come May, when I start sending out casting notices, that things are really going to speed up rather drastically.

It’s important, especially if you’re a hyphenate writer/director/producer-type, to take time out every day to write some notes down about the script. The idea is to free your mind up a bit, let go of some of your preconceptions. Then when you start analyzing the script in more detail – finding out what the “core” ideas are – you’ve already shaken off a few prejudices.

The big thing for me is to find playable directions to give my cast. This is the Achilles heel of many an indie director. It’s so easy to get caught up in the producing or visual aspects of the film, that you can lose sight of what (in many ways) is your most important function on set – to direct the actors. Many times I’ve felt that the crew could do without me completely, and maybe even work better. But the cast depends on me.

I generally don’t look in the monitor for this reason, unless it’s a very specific shot. I trust my DP to get what I’m looking for – I’ll watch the blocking rehearsal through the monitor. I also don’t sit much. Sitting and looking at the monitor together feels like watching television. My body relaxes, I lose my focus, and pretty soon I’m in passive mode. Maybe this is good for some folks, but I need to be up and walking around. It’s probably insufferable for everyone else. But then most directors are insufferable on some level. The main thing is to communicate to the actors that I’m a participant, on some level, in their work. I watch them so they can focus on each other instead of themselves.

So that’s what late February/early March has been about – preparation, dealmaking, scribbling. There will be more exciting posts to come, I promise. But since I told you back in the day that I’d be sharing the experience of making an independent film, you might as well get a taste of the less exciting stuff too.