Scripts are full of tiny details that can be used to create a visual canvas for the scene. Every director has different feelings about these stage directions; some can make a strong argument for taking them with the proverbial grain of salt. While using stage directions as suggestions rather than mandates may divert from the writer’s original vision, it allows for a more constructive environment on the set.
Ignoring Stage Direction Has Benefits
Some stage directions are essential to capturing a moment. These directions work like the titles of paintings, fostering thought and encouraging the viewer to view the material a new way. These stage directions add much to the script itself and should be cherished.
The stage directions that can be disregarded often little room for interpretation when such room might be helpful. For example, consider directions such as “in an excited voice,” or “her voice shaking with fear”. With these types of script directions, creativity is constricted much more than it is stimulated. It is more important to note the emotions that spawned these directions, instead of using them as a precise blueprint.
Even descriptive actions allow room for interpretation. The exact verbs used can conjure various images, but the nature of each emotional response should be unique. You always want to leave room for your actors to put a spin on things if the emotional truth of the moment allows for change.
Getting to the Emotional Heart
Writers will always use stage direction as a means of giving insight into their narrative viewpoint. When passing the material along to less creative business partners, this type of notation helps ensure that script is read the way the author intended. Any good writer will understand that there is room for adaptation within these directions; these directions are merely opportunities for emotional investigation, not a rigid blueprint of instruction.
Directors and actors who crave stimulation should look for opportunities to challenge the material. They don’t want to be told what their characters are feeling. They welcome the challenge of putting themselves in the moment and letting the mood come naturally. No one really knows what anyone is thinking deep down, so depriving your actors of the flexibility to create this emotional mood would be akin to painting a black and white picture of a grey world.
Please note this important point: even the writer, the omniscient creator, can’t know all of the secrets these characters hold inside. It is in this unknown realm where actors can put their personal stamp on the scene, and immerse themselves in the character. The truths manifest themselves in the actor’s body, voice, mannerisms, and delivery of the material. The only way to truly foster an authentic performance is to submit to the creative team’s collective vision of this character’s reality.
As a director, if you’re feeling any doubt about the veracity of the performance, ask yourself the following questions and note where your answers differ from the actor’s:
- In what ways are you similar to the character as you envision them? How do you differ?
- What life experiences allow you to tell the audience a different tale than any other person?
- Are there any truths in the script, which you genuinely feel? Does this allow for you to empathize with the character more easily?
Point of View and Emotional Hindsight
Actors capable of objectively reading the material should think about varying points of view that may allow them to view a character in a more complex way. This perspective shift allows them to note how some actions will paint the hero as a villain when the full story arc is considered. Even if these other viewpoints aren’t directly utilized, this mental re-positioning can result in a lot of great ideas.
Everything boils down to the personal impact the narrative has on each character. You may find diverging viewpoints intersecting at key moments, which could change the trajectory of the story itself. The evolution of these surprising moments is why questions and verbs are so useful when directors are discussing scenes with actors. Everyone is looking for the reality of their individual situation and to stimulate thought in the audience. Remember that these questions don’t have to be answered to be effective. The mental dialogue which results is your real prize.
Remember that emotions can be triggered in several subconscious ways, outside of narrative and performance. The staging, camera angles, lighting, music, and framing can build up (or tear down) the sentiment that each scene evokes. Viewers may or may be aware of this manipulation, which can result in an interesting dynamic. Some films feature characters that can’t be trusted, but this suspicion doesn’t come from the dialogue or action but from other, more subtle filmmaking choices. They may not even realize it, but the audience is being tipped off that things aren’t quite as they seem.
These subconscious manipulations can captivate a savvy viewer upon repeat viewings, even though all of the truths in the narrative have already been discovered. By expecting your audience to keep a critical eye out for these moments, you force yourself to sculpt a journey which holds up to careful and dedicated analysis. This motivation helps you capture something truly authentic.
Structural Blueprints of Transparency
Keeping the above in mind, there is a time and a place for scripted structural framework. A clear structure for emotional events ensures that the material is accessible for the audience. Even if the story itself is complex, it is possible to deliver the material in a straightforward manner without dumbing the content down, but only when you’re utilizing all of the storytelling tools at your disposal.
Though structure will always be important, there needs to be room to play with this framework in order for the project to take advantage of those surprising moments. When the two work in harmony together, the material is elevated to something greater than anyone anticipated.