Saturday, July 07, 2007


I've experienced a number of career incarnations in my life, moving from Cowboy to teen idol to actor, then writer and now producer. Each stage has allowed me to learn things about the previous levels I wish I'd known when I was in them.

For example...I spent 15 years as a professional actor. Worked a lot. Counted myself pretty good at the job and earned a respectable living.

But I also endured those moments that drive actors crazy. I've touched on this before, but chief among the agonies of actors is not understanding why you didn't get a part, being unable to perceive what level of craft, intelligence or talent you lacked that kept you from working.

This great unknowing drives many actors to distraction. I think it's at the root of much of the self-absorption symptomatic to the profession and explains the tenacity with which some cling to the tried and true tricks that seem to be working for them.

It wasn't until I was a few years past acting and into my writer stage that I had an experience I believe should be a requirement of entry into the acting profession -- the opportunity to sit on the other side of the audition room table.

During my tenure on "Friday the 13th", I began sitting in on auditions. Present on the "other side of the table" (now my side) were: a director, a casting director, a producer, a guy working the video camera -- and me. Facing us -- one actor.

I knew we were going to break some hearts and shatter some hopes on audition days. When we were done some of the folks we'd seen would be buying champagne and others would be wondering how they'd make this month's rent.

So, I saw my job as making sure that the best talent was hired for each available role. No pals of the director, heart-throbs of the producer or casting director favorites. Now that I was there, this was going to be about the best actor getting the job!

Only -- it didn't work out that way. In fact, in one case, we hired the worst actor who auditioned. And I was perfectly onside with that.

For that was the day that I finally understood that talent and technique aren't everything. While the choice of who works and who doesn't is heavily weighted by those elements, something else is the deciding factor.

We were casting a family of four -- Mom, Dad, Buddy and Sis. Dads were up first and we read three actors. One guy totally aced it. There was tacit agreement. We had the perfect dad. I was elated. The guys on my side of the table were all on my page!

Then the moms came in. They were all good. But Mom #1 (the best actor) felt a touch too young for Dad #1 and Mom #2 was far too hot for a guy like him. In fact, all things considered, our best option was Dad #1 and Mom #3. Okay, we decided to look at how the kids mixed in before making final decisions.

By the end of the day, we had selected and eventually went to camera with:

Dad #2
Mom #2
Sis #3
Buddy #5

We hadn't hired a single one of the best actors.

All over town that evening, four actors who were head and shoulders above the others in their respective category were probably wondering what they had done wrong. Maybe we hadn't liked their choices, an inflection, a gesture, their hair or what they wore. Perhaps we hated their agent, disliked something they'd done in the past or had said at a party.

It was none of those things.

We'd simply found the chemical elements which, when combined with the two compounds we already had (the show and the script for this week's episode) produced the reaction we needed.

It wasn't personal. It was business.

But here's the thing -- the business couldn't have been done successfully unless what we saw in that audition had been extremely "personal". What we were ultimately reacting to was simply the spark of someone's immutable and inimitable individuality.

The same reality applies to writers.

All around the blogosphere, there are very capable and talented people giving writing tips and all forms of professional advice. And if you're interested in becoming a better writer, you should take what they have to say to heart.

But the script you deliver needs to do more than follow the rules of writing and contain all the information necessary to translate your vision to whatever sized screen.

It needs to include -- you.

It needs to have a voice that couldn't come from anybody else. Because if it does, then that somebody else has as much a shot as you do -- and you'll both lose out to somebody who shows the now Producer me something I know comes from the heart.

I still write four or five original scripts a year. At least one or two spec pilots and the rest features. There's a certain amount of forethought that goes into their potential marketability but that's not the final deciding factor in whether or not they get written.

I'm also known for telling people that I don't really know what my scripts are about until I get about three quarters of the way through.

What I mean by that has nothing to do with story, character or the approach I've structured. I know those backwards long before I write "Fade In:". But it's not until I've lived with the characters I've created in the world I've constructed for them that I understand what they and that world really means to me personally and how I'm going to fit my perception of Life's truths into the work.

Because, quite frankly, if the script doesn't have "me" in it, then what's the point of "me" writing it?

I mean is Phil Collins the best drummer in the world? Is Pete Townsend the top Guitar virtuoso? Well, no -- but for the bands they've been in -- absolutely. Because what both those musicians brought to their writing and performing was something no other individual could have provided Genesis or The Who.

A few summers ago, I went to a Bryan Adams concert. I've seen him a few times and the show is always pretty great. But for some reason, things weren't clicking on this night. The tunes sounded by-the-numbers. Even the audience seemed to have fallen into a predictable set of reactions. I thought maybe it was just me -- and then something very special happened.

The local radio station had run a contest where the winner could go onstage and play lead guitar on one of Bryan's hits. Well, the time came to introduce the winner and this goofy looking kid walked out, nervous and flustered but ready for his 3 minutes of fame.

Bryan's guitar player found him an axe and stepped out of the spotlight. The band kicked in -- and the kid absolutely KILLED! He was magnificent! Adams shot a look to the band that said, "Shit, have we ever been doggin' it!" All of a sudden the audience and the band found a new energy and the concert just exploded.

All because that kid, who could've just played the charts, waved to his buddies and moved on, added something that was totally his, something nobody else was bringing that night. His skill as a player got him onstage. Sharing who he was made it a memorable moment.

Too many of the scripts I read lately are well written -- and soulless. I don't know if that's because it's all too easy to follow the philosophies of a Robert McKee, a John Truby or a Syd Fields and turn out what passes very well for a screenplay. I don't know if it comes from the belief that fitting the formula of this season's blockbusters or last year's network success will lead to similar good fortune.

For all I know, they're being written by writers trying to be what they think is politically correct, or what will find the good side of a development exec or a funding body.

Funny thing about all those approaches is -- they don't work. If your script reads just like everybody else's, those doing the hiring will stick with writers they already know.

You have to be like those actors and that concert kid. Even if you're not the most proficient, you'll get further by sharing something no one else can offer -- because it can only come from you.


Anonymous said...

Great Post!

Tom said...

I'm with you. But isn't the moral of your story about casting that family that the part goes to whomever fits with the rest of the actors already cast?
Did those that were cast get chosen because they put part of themselves into the role, or because they weren't too young/hot/old to be matched up with the other actors?

jimhenshaw said...

Yeah, I'm sure "matching" had a little bit to do with it, Tom. But nobody puts together a less talented cast just because they look good together (Okay, maybe when they were making "The Monkees").

Those actors all offered something that compensated for their talent deficit or showed they could rise far above it. Linking to the same gene pool isn't enough.


Kelly J. Compeau said...

This is a very important piece of advice, Jim, and I'm going to keep it in mind as I slowly inch my way up the showbiz ladder from part-time actress to writer/producer.