Many actors get involved with lo-budget or student productions to get material for their reels. This can be a great idea if the people you are working with know what they are doing, but it could just as easily turn out to be a waste of your valuable time and energy if they don’t. Shooting any film is hard physical work and requires efficient administration and scheduling if the director is every going to achieve his/her artistic vision. An excellent way of finding out what any lo-budget producer is up against is to read ‘From Reel to Deal’ by Dov S-S Simens. The cheesy title belies a straightforward step by step practical guide to making a first feature film on any budget, which the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and Baz Luhrmann used to make theirs.
The only way an actor can decide whether or not to get involved in a production is by reading the script. If the script is great, then there’s good chance the production will be great as well. But if it’s not on the page, it will never be on the screen, and if the script doesn’t offer you anything as an actor, you’d be best advised to pass. Hitchcock said that the three most important things about a movie are “The Script. The Script. The Script!” And Dov Simens confirms that, even with a lo-budget production, you first need to get the great script. Because writing a production-ready screenplay is very difficult indeed, this is much easier said than done.
Actors should read produced screenplays as part of their education, in order to teach themselves what good writing is. Remember screenplays are always by definition new writing and very often need to go through numerous drafts before they are good enough to be green lit for production. In the lo-budget world, scripts are not always fully developed and the right feedback at the right time could well transform a pedestrian script into a great one. Therefore, actors need to familiarise themselves with the basics of story structure so that you can see not only what might be wrong with a script but also the best way to put it right.
You should always start by familiarizing yourself with the 3-Act Structure: beginning, middle, end; set up, development, pay off; Act One, Act Two; Act Three. Anyone who tells you the 3-Act structure is dead, doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Well constructed stories have a strong psychological effect on the audience, and the reason they do have that effect, is that each of three parts has a specific job to do. Aristotle (in ‘Poetics’ – summary) used three terms to determine those jobs. Part One has to make the audience empathise with the protagonist (or hero), otherwise they won’t be interested to go on the journey with him/her. Part Two has the make the audience fearful. Bear in mind Aristotle was writing specifically about Greek tragedy in ‘Poetics’, the nearest modern day equivalent to which in film terms is the thriller, and a good thriller will always want to make the audience fearful for the fate of the hero during the car chases and shoot outs in the Second Act. Part Three then has to achieve catharsis, where the audience emotes with the hero when s/he recovers that lost part of him/herself (concealed hitherto by a fatal flaw) and becomes irreversibly whole, and, in film, demonstrates that fact by a single act which changes the world of the story forever.
Although the hero’s journey has become somewhat clichéd since George Lucas started talking about it in relation to writing Luke Skywalker’s journey (see: ‘The Journey of Luke Skywalker: An Analysis of Modern Myth and Symbol’ by Steven A. Galipeau) in the first Star Wars (Part IV), it’s a good idea to know about it as form not formula. Lucas got the idea from reading ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’ by Joseph Campbell whilst an anthropology student at Berkeley. Campbell had surveyed world myth and found that the hero’s journey across cultures went through roughly the same psychological phases, which he mapped out in ‘The Keys’ (see below), and it was this diagram that Lucas apparently used to structure his screenplay. After the enormous box office success of ‘A New Hope’, when Lucas starting talking about how he’d used Campbell’s ideas, Campbell himself (an academic) became the focus of much interest, and Hollywood started to take his version of ‘The Hero’s Journey’ seriously.
It’s certainly worthwhile reading ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’ if you have time but it is very much an academic textbook on mythology. ‘The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers’ by Chris Vogler is an interpretation of Campbell’s ideas for screenplay writers and is an easier read. Vogler was working for Disney at the time Campbell’s ideas became headline news, and he went back to ‘The Hero’s Journey’ and reinterpreted it first in a paper which was privately circulated to Disney executives, who got very excited and thought they’d found the philosopher’s stone of storytelling. The paper got out eventually around Hollywood and ultimately into the public domain in the form of this book. Vogler himself occasionally visits London to give seminars and they are definitely worth attending as he’s constantly reviewing and updating his material. The Third Edition of the book is about three times the size of the First Edition. A great troubleshooting guide when the screenplay doesn’t quite work.
The great exposé of how screenplays work is ‘Story’ by Robert McKee. For those of us who attended McKee’s early seminars, the book came as a welcome alternative to transposing the pages of scribbled notes made hurriedly as McKee ploughed on for almost three days endlessly delighting and inspiring his audience. The 466-page book covers very much the same ground, but the jokes don’t work as well. You need to see this guy live at one of his seminars.
An interesting recent addition is ‘Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc’ by Dara Marks. She takes many of McKee’s ideas and simplifies them in diagrammatic form, explaining how the protagonist changes by losing his/her fatal flaw and transforms through the influence of an obstacle character in Act Two. She identifies how the conflict in three separate but intermingled plot lines combine to produce the satisfying outcome demanded by the audience in Act Three. The conflict in the A Story (the big picture) is only solved by the protagonist resolving the conflict engendered by his/her fatal flaw (B Story), which in turn is resolved by the conflict in the relationship between the protagonist and an obstacle character (C Story). She gives numerous examples to show how this works. For example, “In Casablanca, the conflict in the ‘A’ Story – Laszlo needs Rick’s help to escape the Nazis – can only be achieved if the conflict of the ‘B’ Story – Rick connects with others – is resolved through the conflict of the ‘C’ Story – Rick learns to love unconditionally. Rick learns to love unconditionally through his reunion with Ilsa in the ‘C’ Story, and this change deepens his connection with others, which motivates him to help Laszlo escape.” Beautiful! She does argue the case very convincingly for the three distinct plot lines, but there are in fact not three but four!