Home Services Story ScripThink Joe Gilford

Give your characters–-and your actors–a good ride

“The single most important task of the dramatist is to

write great roles for great actors. George Bernard Shaw

We all know that you cannot get a script sold, a movie done—a greenlight—unless you get a star to say that magic “Yes!”

But what do these actors want from your script? There’s plenty of stuff–dialogue, settings, story…

Carpenters want to hammer. Surgeons want to cut. Actors want to “act.”

They want to be seen dealing with difficulty and adversity; getting into trouble; getting out of a jam or many jams, one after another. Whatever it is, it must be intense to be worth their efforts.

In “A Beautiful Mind” Russell Crowe’s character can barely lead a normal life because of his deep mental illness. I’m sure that many stars were aching to do this character; they love this kind of problem-plagued personality. It lets them do what they love to do: ACT—and ACT BIG.

There’s also a myth–but maybe not–that in a tight Academy Award race “…the one with the disease always wins.” Now, maybe that doesn’t actually happen every time(or does it?) But what people are really talking about is the strain of playing a handicapped or mentally ill character. Or “going FULL RETARD” as the Robert Downey Jr. character puts it “Tropic Thunder.”

Another good example is “Buffalo 66.”  In the opening 15 minutes the only thing that Vincent Gallo(also writer and director) needs to do is find a place to pee. But he can't! And he's just been released from prison! It hurts just to watch this sequence.

I’m sure when Gallo was creating the story he was saying to himself “What can I do to keep this guy in a serious  jam!” Give your actors some intense and emotional material to do, to feel, and to say. Challenge them with a bumpy emotional ride, whether it’s a thriller like “The Fugitive” or an internalized emotional journey like “The Ice Storm.” They'll want to do your script because they will want to go through that emotional experience.  

This also helps actors feel they’re growing as artists. Added to this, we all know that challenging roles with intense emotional peaks and scenes get critics’ and the public’s attention. Every actor wants to be BIG—onscreen and off.

But why do great actors appear in seemingly lousy movies? One reason is that there is a great role in there and in these cases, stars just want to do it.

A good example is Taylor Hackford’s 1997 guilty pleasure classic “The Devil’s Advocate.” I happen to adore this movie. Every role has a nice rich arc of action. Every character has his/her own beginning, middle and end—that adds up to at least THREE good scenes for every performer, even in small  roles. Every character has their one BIG scene.

But how does Al Pacino end up in a cult movie like this? Just look at the role he gets to play–LUCIFER! Satan himself! THE devil! And he gets this amazing, wild, crazy, eat-the-scenery monologue in the final scene.

That last monologue is like a 6-minute guitar solo in a rock concert. THE ROLE IS IRRESISTABLE.

I think it’s worth considering the career of Nicole Kidman—easily one of our most gifted actresses. SHE NEVER STOPS WORKING. But look at her pattern. In one year, she’ll do “Cold Mountain,” a big-budget sweeping historical romance of the Civil War. And then, right after she jumps into Jonathan Glazer’s weird and unsettling “Birth”—a low-budget chiller about a little boy who Kidman is sure is the reincarnation of her recently deceased husband. Very weird and done by a first time director. But in both pictures, Kidman really  gets a chance to work her real stuff.

This is because ACTORS LOVE TO ACT. They are among the most hardworking artists in the profession. When they get a chance to do something great—THEY DO SOMETHING GREAT. I believe it’s one of the last truly magical processes left in our culture.

Good writing—tight scene structure, conscientious storytelling, responsible screenwriting and a good feel for a character’s journey—will get you your star.  

So, no matter what the quality of the whole movie, you’re liable to tempt a star by writing a lead role that a great actor can sink some teeth into. Give your star a chance to win an Oscar. They’ll love you for it.