Collaborative directors (The Arts)

Paul M. Foster (22 December 2010 06:49:02 Revised 22 December 2010 06:45:54)

Ever watched the "special features" of DVDs? I often do. I'm usually most interested in why the filmmakers had their particular take on a film. But what you see a lot is actors gushing about how wonderful their fellow actors are, and how wonderfully "collaborative" directors are. The former I consider just the standard industry drivel. Of course actors are going to gush about their fellow actors. Do we expect them to say they're jerks? And if they did, do we expect it to show up on the DVD extras for a film? Not likely.

What irks me, though, is this business of "collaborative" directors. Actors really get excited about this. A collaborative director is essentially one who deviates from the script to allow the actor to play the part the way they want. I can understand the actor wanting to put his or her own spin on a character. Actors are creative types. But here's the problem: would you, as an actor, dare to do such a thing to a Neil Simon or William Shakespeare script? Seems unlikely. So what's different about Bill Smith's script?

Actors like to go to the director or writer and say that they don't believe their character would say what's in the script, or that they believe they should play the character in a way which is different from what the script dictates. Every time I hear this, I just have to laugh. I'm afraid I'd make a terrible director or screen writer under these circumstances. I'd be awfully uncollaborative. If an actor ever came up to me with this tripe as the writer, I'd knock them back a pace or two. It might go something like this:

Actor: "You know, Paul, I don't think my character would actually say this line, you know?"

Me (writer): "Really? Hm. Well, I'm pretty sure your character would say exactly what's in the script. Know why? Because I created that character. And no matter how much 'research' you've done on the character, I'm the guy who created him. And I'm pretty sure that since I created that character, I know him better than you ever will. So how about if you just be a good little actor and recite the lines as they are in the script. Okay?"

And that would be the last job I'd ever get in Hollywood. Same thing if I was a director.

Let's face it, an actor who wants to alter the script has decided he or she isn't satisfied with only being an actor. He or she has decided they want to be a writer or director at the same time. And if you actually are also getting paid to be the writer and/or director, be my guest; alter the script all you like. But if you're getting paid (often handsomely) to be the actor, I really think you should just wear the hat you're being paid to wear.

There's a certain arrogance in believing that, because of the "research" you've done on a character, you should deviate from the script. You've essentially decided that you know more about the character than the guy who created him. Perhaps a case could be made that all the writing these days is such crap that the actors have to pick up the slack. But I don't think that's what's really going on here.

Now, one exception I could see is where you've hired a brilliant stand up comedian to be an actor in your movie. If you're going to do that, and you're going for laughs, I can see where you might want to skip the script to some extent and let the actor/comedian improvise. The result is likely to be funnier that what you (the writer) turned out. I mean, how many writers also do stand up comedy? But that's a lot different from an actor who thinks they can second guess the writer and director.

What I really think is going on is that, first, there's a lot of crap that's been taught to actors about "research" and such which is completely unnecessary. If you're an actor, you should ideally be able to take the identity of a character without any research, using just the directions from the script and the director. The question is, can you act or can't you? If it takes you twenty minutes to dig up the anger or grief your character needs, then you should probably practice taking on different emotions until you can do it with a little more facility. If you just have to think up a bunch of backstory for a character, okay. But if your writer is decent, he should have taken all this into account in the first place. And if you don't know how to shoot a gun because you've never handled one before, by all means, go get some instruction in that department. But in my view, this is what a director is for. He should be looking at how you hold that pistol and know if you're doing it wrong. After, all he's there to direct you.

Secondly, I think actors have been "given their heads" too much over the years, and have come to believe they should have a larger say in the movies they act in than they deserve. ("Given their heads" is a term from horses. You don't want to "give a horse his head" too much, meaning you don't want to let him do just what he wants too much. You're liable to end up knocked off by a low lying tree branch, or back at the stables every time you start off in the opposite direction.) They will often freely admit they get paid ridiculous sums of money to do a job that really isn't that hard in itself. Moreover, they have people standing by continuously to tell them how cosmic and wonderful they are. After a while, I can imagine that they have a concept of their own importance which is beyond all reason. But in the end, they are really just actors, not writers and not directors. Perhaps movies would cost a little less if everyone wore the hat they were paid for, and not everyone else's. Or maybe not. When you pay someone $30 million for three months' work, I'm not sure anything would significantly lessen the cost of films.

I know all this seems pretty harsh. It's not a knock on all actors. But if you can't act the script in front of you easily without a lot of fuss and bother, perhaps you should consider a career change. Maybe you'd actually make a better writer or director than actor.