Script AnalysisVision, Analysis, and Imagination

Directorial script analysis must be tested by imagining the scenes in active detail.  This requires, among other things, thinking about motive for and the origin of actions.  For example, pretend that two characters are having a conversation in a certain scene.  Answering questions like “Who started the conversation?”  or “Who had the most to say?” is first the province of the director, who must sensibly and plausibly interpret the details of a scene and how those details influence (or are influenced by) the extended narrative arc governing the script.  By establishing a detailed and active “vision” for the script, the director will inspire confidence in the actors, who are tasked with imagining the details of the character’s lives and how those details correspond to the meaning of the piece.

Intuition and Script Analysis

Intuition occurs when the mind makes an instant, irresistible selection.  It means being alert and available for when the right option announces itself.  This insight permits an artist to locate and reveal the inner nature of a subject.  Being an artist (as opposed to just lucky) means that this sense of intuition becomes a reliable component of the creative process—an ability.

In order to hone intuition as a director and filmmaker, it is important to force yourself to consider and explore at least two other alternatives before making a decision.  Below is a list of reasons why this is a useful habit to develop:

  1. You may think you already know how to interpret a script, but comparing your first instinct against at least two more possible interpretations brings the rightness of a choice into relief against other options.
  2. You may like one of the other choices better!
  3. The recognition of alternatives can stall the temptation to map a character and micromanage his responses.
  4. The recognition that valid alternatives helps prepare the mind for collaboration when an actor presents a different vision for character development.
  5. Even if none of the ideas wind up being right, the exercise keeps your imagination and creative faculties responsive and limber.

“Solving” the Scene

The eventual goal of creating three alternatives for script analysis is to find the right one that “solves” the scene.  Some choices will eliminate themselves because they come from an incomplete understanding of the character or the plot; some choices will be eliminated because they seem imposed upon the scene rather than arising organically from it.  Some choices will be eliminated because they are too clichéd, sentimental, or over-used.

Having three answers frees you from committing too soon to the right answer and also allows for creative revisions of existing solutions.  Additionally, if you can’t come up with two more right answers, develop two wrong ones.  The goal here is the give your mind an opportunity to more fully understand the rightness of the choice you will eventually take.  Additionally, the development of these three choices requires long periods of engagement with the script itself, giving you a deeper understanding and greater respect for the material.

Throughout this process, trust your imagination and let it be your guide.  Let the ideas percolate, sleep on them, give it a few days of letting them mature and develop before deciding which approach to take.  It is better to spend a few days up front, honing you vision, than to spend months (or years!) trying to salvage a project that was misconceived at its inception.

Character Analysis

“Every actor must create the part differently than every other actor would because it’s a marriage of their essence with the character’s essence.”

                                    –Dustin Hoffman

Sean Penn, acting with Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way, observed that Pacino has “no plan” when it comes to how to play a character; “[Pacino] doesn’t get an idea he’s married to so much as a character, so you can’t mis-serve him.  That frees you.”   Rather than mapping out an emotional “connect-the-dots” of the character’s responses and feelings, Pacino instead trusts intuition and uses that as a springboard, acting moment to moment, trusting his own intuitive understanding of the character’s inner life.

Pacino’s approach reinforces his stature as a master artist; he is able to locate and focus on the central attributes of a character’s conscious and unconscious life, utilizing impulsive free-association to generate the texture of the character’s life.  The beauty of this method is that characters created in this way seem to have been alive before the film began and continue to be alive after the film is over.

One film project that takes a unique approach to defining character is Twilight: Los AngelesAnna Deavere Smith created a stage play from video footage of survivors, participants, and commentators on the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.  Smith plays the part of each one of these people, using their exact words.  The movie version of this play was shown on PBS in 2000 and, in a bold approach to character definition, allowed Smith’s representations to appear along-side the original interviews.  While it seems natural that an actor’s formulation of a character would necessarily deviate from the original subject, this was not the case for Smith.  If anything, Smith’s representations were so connected to the sense of self projected by the original person that her portrayal deepened and intensified the narrative.  When describing her approach in an interview, she said “It’s not an impersonation.  I am trying to find the place where the reality of another person bangs on the door of my subconscious.”

Like Picasso, who sent Gertrude Stein out of his studio so he could paint her from memory, great artists learn to trust the impression they receive of a subject’s essence, letting that guide their craft.  In a unique example of this, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life gave thirty different animators a film copy of the video footage and permitted them to rotoscope their vision of the original within a very minimalistic set of guidelines.  The resulting animations were focused, intensified, and utterly true versions of each character, illuminating aspects of their inner life.

Each of the examples references above offer different executions of the same fundamental artistic process, that moment when artists trust their powers of perception, commit to a character, and allow their powers to bring that character to life.  As noted above, this process is not creating a map or indulging in imitation; instead, it is a process of selection, focusing on key elements that define that character and allowing the other details to flesh themselves out through free-association.

The lesson here for script analysis is to trust associations and connections with the material and avoid a micro-managed road map of the character’s life.

Collaborative Analysis

In his preparation for the character of Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider, Russell Crowe deduced that Wigand was a terrible golfer.  Crowe considered this detail a key element of Wigand’s character development because, in his vision, Wigand was a man who did not fit in corporate culture.  Then Crowe discovered that the director, Michael Mann, wanted a brief scene in the movie where Wigand is at the driving range and his abilities as a skilled golfer contrast with his failures in day-to-day life, where another character even comments upon what an “excellent golfer” Wigand is.

As a result, Mann and Crowe had to negotiate.  Each had developed specific, imaginative details that were central to the development of the character, details that were inadvertently created conflict between the actor and the director. Such strength of vision is a testament to the quality of the work both men were engaged in; however, these kinds of problems can result in an actor being labeled “difficult” or a director being fired, or even the demise of the project.  Both Crowe and Mann understood that, before the project could move forward, they had to sit down together and discuss the disconnect between their interpretations.  Both directors and actors must be willing to compromise without sacrificing commitment to vision.

Knowing this information makes the golf scene in the moving all the more interesting.  When Thomas Sandefur (played by Michael Gambon) describes Wigand’s Golf game, his assertion that Wigand plays with a two handicap is swiftly corrected by Wigand, who claims to play with a seven handicap.  In the original script, Wigand claims to play with a three handicap.

Why is the number difference important here, and how does it reflect the negotiation between Crowe and Mann?  Depending on context, a golfer with a seven handicap could be considered a very good golfer; however, if Wigand is a perfectionist, he might actually believe that this makes him a very poor golfer, and this prevailing perfectionism has an influence over other aspects of his life.    So end the end, both Mann and Crowe get what they want and stay true to their vision through collaborative interpretation of the material.

Personal Analysis

“I got very emotionally involved with the major characters.  I identified with each of them.”

                                                                                                —Curtis Hanson

The term “script analysis” is something of a misnomer because the process has less to do with analyzing and more to do with deconstructing the script in order to find what hooks you, personally.  These ideas behind script analysis result from what the reader knows about life, informing the metaphorical meanings of the work through anecdotal experience.  It is not that the director is imposing his or her personal vision on the actor; rather, that the directorial relationship with the script inspires confidence in the actors and guides their own interpretations as they attempt to define their character.

As a rule of thumb, always approach a personal relationship with the script from a sense of love.  Love every character, and learn to appreciate each character for what he or she also loves.  John Travolta claims that he developed the character of Jack Stanton in Primary Colors as a “valentine” to former president, Bill Clinton.  And when developing the difficult and hurtful character of Ike Turner, Lawrence Fishburne explains that his research for this character started “with love. Ike loves himself, loves his music, loves Tina.”

The personal connection between the actor and the character doesn’t have to be a one-to-one direct connection; it can instead stem from a thematic connection, of believing in what the character represents.  This was the situation when Denzel Washington portrayed “Hurricane” Carter.  During the pre-production meetings between the two men, Washington told Carter “I’m not trying to imitate you.  I think the story is bigger than both of us.  I think it is about spiritual transformation and what happens when people reach out to each other.”

Rehearsal as Analysis

Rehearsal requires a plan, and script analysis provides that plan.  It is not the movie, itself, beginning; instead, it is the active embodiment of theories about the script coming into contact with one another.

For some directors, like John Sayles, script analysis is more important than rehearsals, so he doesn’t have them.  Instead, he sends the actors a brief synopsis of the backstory, and asks them not to “invent that shit.”  Sayles approach is informed by the belief that “if [actors] know where they are coming from before we even start shooting, then they can really play in the moment.”

The most striking aspect of Sayles approach is that it refuses to “road map” the performance.  The backstory, consisting of relevant facts and images associated with the script, allows the actors to independently explore the relationship between that backstory and their character.  In this way, Sayles removes himself as an interpretive agent between the actor and the script, relying on the actors to guide his vision.

Another notable aspect of Sayles approach is that it hinges upon an immensely rich and detailed sense of character development, as well as detailed and vivid writing.  Only then can the script and backstory stand in for face-to-face interaction between cast members.  It should also not be used as a way for the director to avoid doing his own job.