October 12, 2009


The South Dakota Film Festival invited me to come and attend and be a judge as well as give a talk on screenwriting. As the date got closer, I found out I was going to be following Kevin Costner on stage in a little Aberdeen theater. Yikes. I remember what happened to Anne Murray when she let Bruce Springsteen open for her in 1974.

I came up with, what I thought was, a bulletproof topic: “All I Ever Needed to Know about Screenwriting I Learned from Watching A-List Actors.” But I was still relieved when I found out later that Costner was going to go after me. Whew! As an amateur comedian in college, I opened for Tim Allen once. And now I can say I opened for Kevin Costner.


Ed Norton and Sean Penn were in two of my clips. I realized it wasn’t a coincidence that they also happened to be directors. They are picky as hell about their material. Watch their films. Whether it’s the material they pick, the way they develop it or the way they rewrite it, you can watch their scenes and just see there are certain things they aren’t willing to do.

They just won’t give a generic answer or speak a line because of its exposition or thematic value. They will pick a prop or activity that’s meaningful in the scene and cling to it before they get stuck in a static talky-head scene. They won’t give the standard reaction to common situations.

I also had clips involving Heath Ledger, Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep. Amazing actors can give us huge insight into screenwriting. We can steal from them and use it in our screenwriting. In fact, today, we are going to take a look at this from a playful perspective.


I will address the topic more seriously in a later blog or in Craft & Career , but for now…

Consider all of the mean-spirited clichés about A-list prima donnas. Imagine the most hyperbolic examples of the awful attributes that movie stars have or supposedly have. Now let’s look at them one by one and see if we can actually learn something positive and productive about screenwriting from these clichés. Is there a way to reverse engineer our process so that it meets the needs of these supposedly entitled set of demands?

You know what? Maybe they have a point. Why would you want your protagonist to have to explain exposition? Why would Tom Hanks or Jack Nicholson or Meryl Streep want to play a scene where they have to answer a yes/no question with, well, “yes” or “no.” When consoling a grieving person, don’t let your protagonist say, “I know how you feel.” If you can imagine Harrison Ford taking a red pen to it and saying, “How about if I just give him a look and walk out of the room?” consider writing it that way to begin with.

Your protagonist is usually the smartest or most proficient character in the story’s world. Could he or she be the one who intuits the solution? Do you want the audience to sit around and watch supporting characters explain things to him? Which character and dialogue do you want in your sci-fi space opera?


COOL PROTAGONIST walks into the Hypermylithium chamber and immediately
approaches the SCIENCE TECH.

SCIENCE TECH: Thank god, you’re here, I was just about to fuse the migration-fissure process to the weldian plug-in to achieve hyper-overdrive in the main cylinder.

COOL PROTAGONIST: Really, you can do that? And I suppose you are going to take the data flow from the neutron laser and...

SCIENCE TECH: ...warp it into a hyper accelerated arching process that uses mustard seeds in a ripple-effect sort of shamanistic genre-confused androgynous way to upstart the missile chamber reaction.




COOL PROTAGONIST walks into the Hypermylithium chamber and immediately
approaches the SCIENCE TECH.

SCIENCE TECH: Thank god, you’re here, I was just about to fuse the migration-fissure process to the weldi--

COOL PROTAGONIST: --weldian plug-in, hyperdrive. Did you warp the neutron laser?

A FLUNKIE nods, surprised and impressed at CP’s knowledge.

SCIENCE TECH: Of course. And the shamanistic genre-confused…

Cool Protagonist nods.

COOL PROTAGONIST: The chamber reaction. Nice job. Now let's try the Mercurion Brilgamakjig?

Flunkie’s eyes light up.

SCIENCE TECH: Good call.

Science Tech runs off …

Or a simpler scene with a little more personal conflict.


COOL PROTAGONIST walks into the Hypermylithium chamber and immediately approaches the SCIENCE TECH.

SCIENCE TECH: Thank god, you’re here, I was just about to fuse the migration-fissure process to the weldian –

COOL PROTAGONIST: Jesus, Christ, Jerry, you more so than anyone should have known about using hyper-accelerated arching…. Guards, get him out of here. (To all) We are taking over the lab. Everyone will report to me, effective immediately.

And then even work some more on this last line of dialogue.


COOL PROTAGONIST: Jesus, Christ, Jerry, you more so than anyone should have known about using hyper-accelerated arching…. (motions to the sentries) Guards!

The guards haul ST away.

CP looks to his RIGHTHAND MAN who steps to the top of the steps.

RIGHTHAND MAN: We are taking over the lab. Everyone will report to us, effective immediately.

Although it’s a huge improvement from the original, I know even my rewrites here are comically bad. But you see how they are moving in the direction of acceptable by just selfishly thinking of how to make the protagonist have to listen to and spout fewer inanities. 2-3 more revisions and this scene would be presentable. If you were going to give him a line that implies that the lab belongs to him, you wouldn't make it so on the nose. The star would get a line something like "There's a new sheriff in town. And his name is Reggie Hammond."
Well, ah, duh. And really, like, make sure you write some good lines. Then give most of them to the protagonist.

We’ve all heard the cliché of an actor asking this question, but seriously what is your scene about? Imagine you’re on a set of a 120 million dollar movie and you have an actor who is getting paid $50,000 per hour to be there. Your production costs for the day are $500,000 and you have to call that actor out of the trailer to spend 8 hours doing a 2-page scene? Is that scene worth a million bucks?

Let’s say you are the writer-director and you tell your actors, “In this scene, your character wants to know if this woman knows the address of the killer?” He or she will start asking questions like “Really, is that it?”, “Am I attracted to this person?”, “Do I suspect that they are hiding something?”, “Why should I believe her?”, “Does this situation remind me of something from my past? Does he or she push my buttons?” If the scene is REALLY about only what you said it is, then are you sure it needs to be in the film? Are you sure it needs to be 2 pages?

Consider the scene that opens Inglourious Basterds. In the middle of the scene, the farmer grabs his pipe to smoke it. Do you realize the stakes? As part of this elaborate poker game where he has to conceal his bluff/lie from the Jew hunter. From his perspective, several of his friends will be killed if he doesn't smoke this pipe naturally, like he does every day.

Look at it from the character's or actor's perspective and find some surprising level of stakes and importance in every scene.

What is the upside to this? Well, we do want our actors to have to worry about nothing else but acting. Hopefully, this will allow them to be relaxed and in the moment. When great actors work together, a lot of their performance comes from reacting, not acting. They are in the moment and paying attention to what’s going on in the scene and the person opposite him.

How does this help you as a writer? Make sure your characters are listening to and reacting to each other. If you identify with one more than the other, you might tend to honor that POV more and make dialogue more of a monologue. Even if one character has most of the lines, there will be an implicit dialogue in the reactions, body movement and in the eyes of the characters. This will help you cut excessive words because if your characters are really in tune with each other, they will understand the situation before all of the words are even said. And if you get in the zone and listen to your characters, they will do alot of the heavy lifting (writing) for you.

Check out my first blog below about Heath Ledger. Maybe even check it out in better quality on YouTube. You will see what an actor can come up with if he is paying attention.

Sometimes I watch the best actors in the world elevate mediocre material. They do it by destroying clichés, coming up with surprising responses, saying less, not saying the obvious, letting body language or eyes express the beat or using the space around them as part of their blocking and performance.

Look at a character like House on the medical drama House. He makes almost magically prophetic “reads” of people and situations and we go with it. Look at how Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan figures things out, proposes solutions and is always a step ahead. Remember Nicholson in Batman after Jerry Hall looks at him in the mirror and tells him he looks great…remember what he said? I do. “I didn’t ask.” I don’t know if that’s his adlib or if it’s in the screenplay, but how’s that for a cliché-busting surprise of an answer?
Make your main characters smart and active. Let them understand something before anyone else could. Let them make the huge leaps of logic that only they can make but that will save the audience a few minutes of boring details. Let your character enter a moment with an understanding of as much of the boring details as possible, so he or she can get on with the cool stuff that only he or she can deal with.

If you can think of more clichés (whether or not they can be twisted into a writing lesson), leave them in a comment below.


  1. I am learning so much more from your newsletters and blog than I ever learned from the numerous books around...and believe me, I have hundreds of these books...

    Thank you!

  2. Thanks Patti,
    You are my first comment ever. Woo hoo!
    Come and spend a week in one of my classes if you can't get the fix here.