"You're insulting the director/actors by telling them how to do their jobs."
This is a lament screenwriters hear often. It's a go-to criticism readers pull out when they feel they need to offer some sort of advice. Too often, this sort of advice is negative criticism instead of constructive. It's intended to correct a flaw in the writer's work, but to the writer, it smacks of 'you don't know what you're doing.' It's a defense of other artists at the expense of the writer, fraught with indignation and, right or wrong, tends to draw the ire of the writer.
It's a comment I see leveled against writers frequently in online forums, seminars and workshops. And it's not just actors or directors who bandy this jab about, but fellow writers. In fact, just two days after the belittling experience at the Action on Film Festival where filmmakers blatantly dismissed the role of the screenwriter, I attended one of my various writers' workshops where this very charge was leveled against a fellow scribe.
In the feedback session, an actor/writer responded to another’s work by saying it was insulting and offensive to actors. She backed up her claim by stating she should know because she is an actor. I remained silent at the film festival for fear of speaking in anger, but this time, I decided not to hold my tongue.
When my turn came to offer suggestions on the work in question, I said, “Don’t worry if you’re insulting. It’s your story until someone else wants it. Tell it the way you want.” I was immediately interrupted by the actor/writer, who informed me I was being harsh. I said there was nothing in the writing that was insulting except to someone who was insecure.
She fired back, “But she’s telling me how to do my job.”
Before she could launch into a discussion of how much time actors spend developing their craft, I suggested we offer specific recommendations on how to improve the script instead of offering up verbal jabs because someone feels slighted. But I couldn’t help wondering if the young lady was really offended? Is anyone really insulted or is it faux indignation? Or is this just a lazy way of offering criticism? And if respect is wanted, it needs to be extended. Why do so many actors want to ad lib dialogue a writer has spent months crafting? The common response I hear is ‘to make it my own.’
With all due respect, the actor's job is to make my words, the words of all writers, their own. They breathe life into what we have created. That’s the art of collaboration. They weren’t hired to do rewrites. So when actors ignore what a writer has created, when they stand on a stage and talk about the burdens of a script, writers are insulted.
But it’s not just actors or directors who deliver this ‘insult’ comment; as I stated above, it’s writers as well. I see it almost daily in one forum or another. One person posts a bit of script for comments and everyone piles on. The writer has insulted the actors, the director, the scenic designer. Maybe the only person not insulted is the lowly production assistant. So now that everyone is sufficiently insulted, what is really meant when someone says the writer is insulting?
I think when most readers, whether it is an agent, an actor or a director, offer up this ‘insult’ criticism of a writer’s work the reader is actually touching on something that they aren’t communicating very well. Saying something insults one person or another is a misleading way of saying the writer has taken them out of the story. For the director, it’s the use of camera directions. Employing technical jargon like POV, ECU or ‘We see. . .’ yanks the director from the world the writer has worked to establish and plunks him down in the edit bay with a shot list.
The writer has lost the forward progression of the story; he’s lost the engagement with his readers.
For an actor, it's a similar thing. If the writer gets bogged down in the minutiae of action, the actor is taken out of the action because of the action. The writer has probably overwritten a sequence, usually in an attempt to clarify or really drive home an emotion. We don’t need to know the character is sweating profusely, tapping his foot, twiddling his fingers and a million other actions to know he’s nervous or scared or whatever. The actor interprets this as the writer telling him/her every little thing that needs to be done instead of trusting the actor to use his own skills to bring the character to life.
To test this theory, I spoke with several directors I know about the use of camera directions in a script. Their comments were nearly universal. No one liked the use of camera directions, but neither were any of the directors personally insulted. They tended to look at the use of camera directions as a crutch from unseasoned writers who are still learning their craft. As director Kevin Hoffer explains, "If there is a lot of direction, then I start to get nervous that the writer is an amateur or a control freak. I find myelf drawn to material that has the barest minimum of description after the initial tone and style are set."
Another director said if it was a really good script he would keep reading, but eliminating the camera angles would make it a better read. However, he also cautioned that simply removing camera directions from a bad script would not sufficiently improve it to make it good. The takeaway?
Story is king, and camera directions and excessive action impede a good story - and raise questions about the writer.
So it would seem the 'insult' comment, based on my admittedly very casual survey, is less about stepping on other people's toes and more about the writer getting in his own way with information that isn't necessary to his story. In that context, it makes sense that actors and directors might make this comment, but the effect is to put the writer on the defensive. But that left me wondering why writers so often launch this barb against their fellow wordsmiths.
Is it meant as constructive advice to make a script more readable?
Are they simply coming to the defense of their fellow artists?
Or is there, perhaps, a darker reason?
As one of the directors mentioned, less seasoned screenwriters overwrite their action and include camera angles because they haven't learned their craft yet. Those that have advanced a little further in their careers have learned those rules of story structure and format. With so many writers scrambling to be noticed, it becomes easy for some writers to tout their own knowledge of the craft and knock a less experienced scribe. The warning of insulting a director or actor is often accompanied by comments like 'it's the mark of an amateur.' This is nothing more than one writer trying to sound superior to another. It is not meant as advice to the offending writer, but rather to make the commenting writer feel superior.
In this case, the 'insult' comment is the insult.
And it most likely comes from a place of insecurity. As a writer, there is not much you can do to combat someone else's diffidence, but you can learn the techniques to make your writing impervious to the 'insult' criticism. I'll discuss that in Part 3 of this 3-part blog.
If you have experienced comments such as the ones I have discussed here, how have you handled it?What was your reaction, and how did it impact your writing? You can respond directly using the form below or on The Screenwriter's Journey Facebook page.