“Every writer is a frustrated actor who recites his lines in the hidden auditorium of his skull.” ― Rod Serling
[Note from Screenwriting Staffing‘s Founder, Jacob N. Stuart] I recently partnered with the wonderful Cincinnati Film Festival this year. And one of the things we are trying to do in the Cincinnati community is equip screenwriters with economical approaches to breaking into the film industry. I was ecstatic during our first Screenwriting Workshop when I saw we had actors in attendance. Many of these actors are NEVER going to write a screenplay in their life, but they were fascinated by the writing process, and wanted to broaden their network and knowledge in the film industry. I applaud those actors. Very early in my screenwriting career, I found myself working a lot on-set, doing odd jobs, including acting in small roles and/or participating in “background” roles. At the time, it was just to pay the rent. But now, I look at those experiences in a whole new light. Understanding the acting process – or just the whole “production” process in general – has given my screenplays a MAJOR face-lift.
Worth taking into consideration: We are a lot like actors. Actors pen through each scene, finding the inner and outer “want”, objective for each character. As screenwriters, we should be participating in this SAME exercise. Actors are very vulnerable. They feel, they see, and create. They reveal who they are in their performance. Same with us. We REVEAL who we REALLY are in our own writing. Actors get turned down daily, more than you and I could ever imagine. Actually, they meet the faces of those who are rejecting them.
So this stigma in the screenwriting community that “actors” get in the way of “our” creative process needs to end. I truly believe if we understand the acting process, and even take them into consideration while writing, it will overwhelmingly help our screenwriting. Having the RIGHT actor attached to your screenplay immediately gets you a meeting with an executive. I know we tell our “friends” we go to see movies for the story (which yes, that’s true), but deep down the key factor that draws us to the movies is and will always be the ACTOR. Without actors, our writing is just endless pages of scribbles. Actors breath life into our precious words.
So that’s why I caught up with Kevin E. West. Kevin is the perfect candidate when talking about an actor’s role in this industry. Kevin has been working as an actor in Hollywood for OVER 25 years, Some of his credits include: Aquarius, Criminal Minds, Bones, Castle, Touch, CSI: Miami, Justified, Leverage, Lost, 24, Desperate Housewives, NCIS, Alias, CSI, Judging Amy, NYPD Blue, The X-Files, Melrose Place, & General Hospital. Kevin also founded The Actors’ Network, which began Kevin’s legacy as an industry wide recognized expert and opinion leader for the ‘business of show business.’ For more than two decades, The Actors’ Network has been recognized as the most trusted and endorsed actor’s business organization in the United States. In 2010, Kevin launched ActorBizGuru.com, an extensive 49-interview video library, featuring top industry professionals answering key questions. Kevin has spoken at the SAG LifeRaft Foundation, SAG Conservatory, ShowBiz Expo (NYC), WGA West, UCLA, Chapman University, Cal State Fullerton and talent conventions across the U.S.. Kevin will also be speaking in Stockholm, Sweden, in April of 2015.
Screenwriting Staffing: What is the first thing you do when you approach a screenplay as an actor?
Kevin E. West: There certainly isn’t a right answer to this because we’re human and all performers may view this differently, but if you’re talking about a screenplay and not a TV/Pilot (Hour or 1/2 hour) script then I tend to look at the Genre and the Geography. I do this for a couple of reasons. Clearly we all understand that the English language “in context” means many different things…as it really does in any language. If the writer wrote “put the gun down” it doesn’t mean much to me if I don’t consider the Genre of the work and the geography in which the character is likely saying this. “Put the gun down” isn’t even close to the same thing in Platoon as it is, Naked Gun. In addition to the Genre whether a screenplay is predominately in a small town, major city, international city or a rural part of the country or extremely rural (Deliverance) it matters a great deal to me, as an actor, before I get into looking at even the most simple and small role of a film.
Screenwriting Staffing: What is the most important trait you look for in a role?
Kevin E. West: Most actors would commonly say that in some way or another we’re always looking at their “goal or objective”, which makes complete sense because humans are always, at all times, trying to accomplish something…even if it is to “just relax and chill.” But if you look just inside the objective or goal there is a challenge to it. Yes, a writer might call this the “Conflict” but conflict in a screenplay is much more typically written as or defined as that issue between characters…not necessarily “within” the character. So sure I look at their goal or objective but I tend to look at the challenge to accomplishing that objective…within themselves. That’s where I tend to start.
Screenwriting Staffing: How do you view dialogue? Do you recite the lines exactly as written, or change the words to make it your own voice?
Kevin E. West: The second part of this question I will answer first because it is the easiest. The “bigger the name or star you are” the more latitude you have to “alter a writer’s words.” HOWEVER, in this order you’re allowed to do that if/when you’re not a star: Film, Hour-Drama episodic TV and then SitCom or 1/2 hour TV. Comedy does NOT allow you to change the words…because writing “funny” is really ultra-specific. Sure in more feature films and drama you can maybe “miss a word or two” or accidentally change or word or two…but you are NEVER paraphrasing the writers intent or script in an audition. As for how I view dialogue, as an actor, it is everything to me. I truly believe, most of the time, the failure of any written scripted dialogue of any kind…is in the dialogue. Sure you can have a flawed story or not execute Acts 1, 2 and 3 of a screenplay, but if it is overwritten (most common mistake I see) or lacks clear characterization and clarity…it makes it really hard on the actor. A lot of writers are terrific with concept, structure and even the execution of scene flow but their dialogue is just not well executed for the scenes.
Screenwriting Staffing: What’s your thoughts on writers who write (parentheticals) all through the script, giving the actors stage direction, as well as emotional direction?
Kevin E. West: Well in all honesty this is frowned upon within the walls of Studios and Networks. Maybe not as much in Television during Pilot phase, but definitely once the show is established. But in terms of Screenplays…you, as the writer, want to minimize this. Once in a while like (Sotto) is fine, but if you do it too much, especially when it comes to saying (fast) or (crying), the general thought is NO. The reason for this is unless you’re making your own movie, and going to direct it, these are simply elements of direction and feel that are more of a finished “shooting script” and not one for literary representation and/or when in the pre-development stage. You truly want to care, as the writer, far more about the execution of your story, dialogue and characters…and not the fine tuning of “writing in a performance”.
Screenwriting Staffing: Would you turn down a screenplay based on its content? If so, can you provide us with an example or past experience?
Kevin E. West: Absolutely, and have done so. And while I’m sure that I’m different in some ways than many actors, I wouldn’t turn it down based on genre or even bad dialogue. I would turn it down for being “remedial” in its thought process and / or because it is simply illogical. I do not care, (Sci-Fi) is a good example of this, how “out there” your idea is, I only care that the story makes sense WITHIN what you set forth as your premise and surroundings. I consider ALL screenplays as an environment inside of a snow globe. Contained. But if during your execution of that story you leave out or include elements that do not “fit” in that snow globe…no matter how outrageous or creative, then I lose interest in being a part of it or trying to execute the character as an actor.
Screenwriting Staffing: Would you work for free (or even a drastic pay cut) if you believed in the scripts cause/views?
Kevin E. West: NO question, I have, and will always continue to do so. I just did it last Summer in Oklahoma for a film soon to be released called, “I’m OK”. I don’t do it in Television…but I will do it for a Film.
Screenwriting Staffing: As an actor, you have successfully marketed yourself through social media, festivals, and other online platforms. What advice would you give a screenwriter when it comes to marketing?
Kevin E. West: I have, but I am still very cautious about Social Media marketing. As a screenwriter, you have to protect your “basic idea” to an extent, so worldwide exposure on Social Media doesn’t exactly go eye to eye with that thought. I would really express, since I too am a writer, that you focus on telling a brilliant story first, and use all angles possible to have that property read by “legit”, solid literary representatives on either coast…FIRST. To just try and use social media as a way to “promote yourself” as a screenwriter if you don’t have any “legit produced” work, or to think that “talking on social media” about your ideas is going to attract the “right people”, is to me, an unlikely reality and probably going to lead to a lot of frustration or bad exposure. Just my opinion. On the flip side of that, I do think a GREAT idea for uncredited screenwriters is to track really good Film Festivals (good ones, not the other 5000) and target the winning directors with your script…while they’re on their “way up.” THAT is my idea of marketing yourself as an unknown writer of screenplays.
Screenwriting Staffing: What part of the screenplay do you usually see cut during principal photography?
Kevin E. West: Physical movement and/or a certain amount of character exposition that is a bit of fluff, background, or even some transition scenes with non-star characters. Now that is more said of dramas, because with comedy it will be greatly related to whether or not it is funny, and if it’s worth keeping. The other common footage that gets cut is either a lot of unnecessary coverage by the director and/or something that gets shot that you suddenly realize in post does not match the flow of the story. When we write, we tend to feel everything is “of value”, but when you see performances and footage it is easier to begin to realize, “oh, we don’t really need that.”
Screenwriting Staffing: In closing, what is ONE thing you would like to see more of in screenplays? i.e., a certain genre, social issues, more villains, etc.?
Kevin E. West: We live in a very techno world now with digital media and watch phone. Yet, technology FAILS all the time and it is common. I think what is more and more interesting are common, normal, human stories and circumstances that show what we want to see: human frailty, but that frailty being driven or needing to be overcome, because of the failure of that which we count on every day and consider it “a given”. Louis C.K. did an entire bit about the guy “on the plane” who complained the “phone reception” was bad. And Louis was like: “…you’re in a chair…in the sky.” Both with comedy and drama these are the situations and scenarios that I think need to be worked more into basic stories. A lot of these would involved hackers, children and other such circumstances which are now common and we don’t see them a lot. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Romantic Comedy, Action Adventure, Thriller, Slasher or slapstick Comedy…it still applies, because it rules all our lives…everyday.
So, screenwriters….. here are 3 final thoughts on how to write with actors in mind:
1) Cut actors that aren’t needed. If you are going to write HOUSEKEEPER #1 in your script, make sure that character serves a clear purpose. Give that character something interesting to do or say. If you can’t find anything, CUT it.
2) Do NOT focus on the look of your movie (it WILL be changed). FOCUS on the character’s (actor) goal, purpose, and objective in your story.
3) Give your character (actor) something to do. Unless your story takes place in a class room, where only 1 or 2 characters are moving, give your character RELEVANT action.
Learn more about Kevin E. West: