jump cut to dan’s introduction to screenplays

I just read my first movie script, which is odd considering I have been peripherally involved in theater since seventh grade, academically involved in theater since freshman year, and professionally involved in theater since the summer of 2006. And yet, ne’re a movie script to be found on my desk.

When I was the lit. intern at the Goodman, the casting intern at the time, Logan, told me about coverage–the job of dissecting movie scripts and writing up a report so the producing-powers-that-be did not have to read the scripts in full. I would imagine that–with the promise of slight fame AND money–there are more screenwriters out there than playwrights, but I could definitely be mistaken. Logan told me she made sixty bucks a pop, which was quite a bit more than one can make reviewing scripts for non-profit theaters (I think $25 per read is the most I have been offered). But she never got around to bringing in an example, and I never got around to bugging her.

So my introduction to the business of a movie script was delayed until this afternoon and I can categorically say that it is a STRANGE form. It looks like a play, but it reads more like a novel, or maybe a novella: if you take reformatting into account we’re only probably talking about fifty pages max. Like novels, screenplays have all these INSTRUCTIONS for the audience that go way beyond the typical stage directions one might find in a play. Example:

HANLEY: I do hope he is encouraged to pursue it in college.
PHYLLIS: Acting? You can study acting?
GEORGE: He doesn’t want to be an actor.
Hanley fights his inclination to challenge George.

Say what! His inclination? What’s that look like? I mean with a camera, it probably looks like a quick shift of the eyes or the slightest straightening of the spine, but the second balcony it probably looks a lot like an actor forgetting his lines.

But more to the point: isn’t that cheating! Shouldn’t the inclination be something the actor decides?! But wait, Dan, wait wait wait? When? When would the actor decide that? In rehearsal? Because you don’t get a rehearsal process in Hollywood. You get a quick reading, a quick conversation, twenty takes, and then you jump in the car and go to the next location.

I am slowly learning these things working in a city that is just a quick Southwest trip away from L.A. The Quality of Life, which opens at A.C.T. this Wednesday, was written and directed by Hollywood writer/director Jane Anderson, and all of the actors are Hollywood names. They had this to say about the rehearsal process of film:

Interview with Laurie Metcalf: I think most actors enjoy the process of rehearsals, which you don’t get in any real sense in movies and TV. I mean they call them rehearsals, but they’re not. You’re just scratching the surface, and I know I always walk away from a day on the set kicking myself and thinking about what I missed or should have done or didn’t think of quickly enough, You’re never satisfied with what you did.
Interview with Jane Anderson: A film actor often doesn’t entirely have to own the part because their performance gets shaped in the editing room. . . . Film actors don’t get a month of exploration. Often, they show up a week before, we have a read-through, maybe you have a few rehearsals; but film actors are performing on the fly. . . .When you have a week to rehearse for a film and an actor starts to go down the wrong hole, you say, “Wait a minute, actually the line means this and the character is really going after A instead of B.” And they’re grateful for that because you have to take shortcuts. If you do that for a stage actor the first week of rehearsal, you crush the exploration process.

And I guess the same is true for the writers. They prepare for a truncated exploration process with prescription-heavy scripts. They take shortcuts. They sacrifice collaborative creativity to a certain degree to ensure that the work gets done.

They are more specific in their vision on paper, but then doesn’t it get editted away in the cutting room? Is the irony that a screenplay is much truer to a writer’s vision than a play, but that the staged play more accurately presents the vision of the writer than a final editted film?

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