Why Great Writers and Directors Ask Great Questions Part 1

Notes

This article is PART ONE of a 2 part series. PART TWO can be found here.

This entire video interview is fantastic and I highly recommend watching it in full, not only once but several times to really absorb their incredible advice for your own benefit and future success.

The summary of this entire article is, “If you want to become a great writer, director, producer or actor is to simply, ask great questions and listen.”

What you will learn:

  • The value of asking questions
  • The importance of collaboration
  • Resolving differences or changes
  • Script writing tips
  • The power of fear and courage
  • Developing the character with the actor

The Value of Asking Questions

As a screenwriter, when you are confronted by the director about making a change or disliking a specific area of your story, don’t immediately begin defending it. Instead, ask questions. Ask the director why they think that? Where in the story did that thought come from? How do you see this character or story? By asking questions, you open up the doors to a much more collaborative creative process in solving the issue at hand where both the writer and director can feel satisfied with whatever solution may come about.

For first-time screenwriters who have never been in the trenches of filmmaking and collaborating with a director, it’s a good idea to start with questions. Get an idea of where the director or producer or actor is coming from. Understand the script from their perspective. Then, you can begin to see where and how you can help address any issues or concerns.

The Importance of Collaboration

Storytelling by design is all about collaboration. It’s important the screenwriter, director, actor and producer are collaborating together to achieve the same result.

One of the elements that destroys collaboration is fear and mistrust. One of the reasons why these elements exist is based off the fact that the individual believes they do not know enough or are afraid of asking to increase their understanding.

A typical fear from a director’s point of view is that they don’t want to ask for help or to collaborate with the writer of the story because they want to be perceived as the all-knowing leader. A director may believe that if they begin collaborating with others and asking for people’s opinion, it may make them look unprepared or someone who doesn’t know what they are doing. So they decide to let their fears control them.

Another typical fear a director may be challenged with to avoid collaboration is the fear that someone else on their cast or crew may have a better idea than them. A secure director encourages great ideas from their cast and crew and may run with the new idea entirely or partially and still feel that their authority over their film remains intact. Whereas a weak director may feel self-conscious about this greater idea and will avoid it altogether to remain “in control” or “in power”.

If the screenwriter, director, producer and actor are able to collaborate well with one another, and being open and honest to all ideas for the ultimate goal of creating the best film possible. Then, the film will most likely outperform any ones expectations, had they gone at it alone. The challenge for these 4 individuals is giving up control and being open and accepting to all ideas.

The top 10 screenwriting resources.

Resolving Differences

As a director, when you discover resistance to change or some aspect of telling the story, don’t try to attack it, since that resistance is based off of fear. So, understand where that fear is coming from and see if both parties can come to an agreement.

A good strategy for two individuals who are at a disagreement with something regarding the storytelling, is to step back to a point where they ARE in agreement with how to tell the story. Then, slowly work towards the point where the two begin disagreeing. And then, you’ll begin to understand exactly what is causing the conflict.

Script Writing Tips

Never lose sight of what your movie is about. As obvious as that sounds, sometimes when you have been developing your movie for months or years, you get tunnel vision and begin focusing on specific aspects of the story rather than serving what the story is ultimately about, the premise, the theme, etc.

Many directors dread the first 10 pages of a script, because they are hoping that the script will capture their imagination and they completely forget about how they will be directing the script because the story and the characters are so fascinating. They just want to keep reading, page after page. That’s what makes a great script/story.

Within the first 10 pages of a script, you must introduce the hero and build empathy during the first 10 minutes. This allows the audience to develop a psychological connection to the hero. By actually caring what happens to this individual, good or bad. An audience becomes hooked into your story is the emotional connection you’ve set up that allows the audience to walk in the hero’s shoes. It’s not about having experienced a similar action or setting as the hero, but what the hero is going through psychologically, emotionally, in their heart and soul that allows an audience to be in the movie.

When trying to improve a scene during the writing stage, it’s important to ask questions. Such as, is this scene helping the hero towards their goal or overcoming an obstacle? If not, then the scene should be removed or heavily re-written. Then, you want to establish your goal as a writer, what it is you want this scene to accomplish? Once you know that, then you ask, “What will the hero do in order to achieve that goal at the end of the scene?”

LEARN 7 KEY PRINCIPLES USED BY SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS TO WRITE BETTER SCRIPTS THAT SELL!

Script Writing Tips Continued…

While answering those questions, you are not worried about dialogue. You are simply focusing on the purpose of that scene, the goals of the hero and how the scene progress the story forward. Once you have all that established, then you begin adding in the dialogue to support those goals. Sometimes, if you don’t know what you want the hero to say, just say what the actor is feeling and what they want. This is called, “on the nose dialogue”. It’s typically terrible dialogue, but it helps you understand the scene as a whole and where you can improve upon it.

Sometimes when you have two or more characters in a scene, ideally you want each of these characters to have opposing goals. This is what creates that conflict you want within each scene that helps progress the story forward towards the premise.

Creating deception and secrecy are a very powerful in telling a story. It’s a way of adding even more layers onto the conflict that already exists.

It’s important NOT to show your script to anyone if it isn’t completely ready yet. Before sharing your script to the people you WANT to read it like directors, a film producer or film investors. First, speak with people you can trust and know about how to tell a story and how to write a screenplay and to go over I and make any necessary changes to it. Because if you show your first draft of your script to a potential investor, and they don’t like it, they probably won’t read your second draft because they hated the first one. Michael also mentions, not to trust your own judgment about your script, get validation from your peers that the script is good and ready to show.

The Power of Fear and Courage

In every great story, it always involves some level of fear and courage. The fear represents the problem presented to the hero, and the courage is what the hero must develop and become in order to overcome the problem, the fear.

For a director, before tackling what the character or story is about when discussing it with an actor, is to first battle the actor’s fear’s or lack of courage before collaborating over the material. Sometimes, directors fear actors and vice versa. This is something you typically want to avoid or address before diving into the character’s fears and courage. Actors typically want to control their performance, and directors want to control the entire movie. Both the actor and the directors need to give up that sense of control and come together in a collaborative effort to achieve a common goal.

Mark mentions he has a technique when he coaches director’s, “not to direct the actor, but to direct the character”. When you do this, you allow the actor to shut down their mind, and allow the character to reveal themselves. And then you can dive deep into what is driving the character, their fears, building courage, etc.

An actor’s biggest fear is that they won’t please the director, or won’t do a good job, etc. So by addressing this issue and in fact bypassing this issue as Mark mentions in the video, he allows the character to emerge.

The top 10 screenwriting resources.

Developing the character with the actor

Mark mentions that actors need to be involved in the development process of the story before they begin filming anything. Commonly, the character is already written out completely without the actors say at all, and they are asked to become this character on the spot on the first day of shoot. A better idea would be to involve the actor while the writer is still developing the character, and so the two can truly work together and develop a well-rounded deep character.

A possible fear some directors may have working with actors, especially experienced actors is that they don’t know the character enough, or the story enough or what they want in general. It’s common to see very technical directors who have extraordinary knowledge of cameras, lenses, lighting, art direction, visual effects, and all that. And it’s easy for them to get what they want because it’s a tangible thing that they can see and control immediately. Like changing the lens on a camera. But, actors are intangible, it’s difficult to just tell an actor, “be more vulnerable”, it just won’t work. And that’s where a director’s fear comes into play, the inability to get the right performance out of their actor, especially experienced actors. So, it’s important for a director to understand how to talk to an actor, it’s all psychological, not technical like the equipment used on set.

As a director, to get a great performance out of an actor, you need to build within the actor an authentic state of mind as BEING the character, not the actor. If the actor simply ACTS as the character, it will feel manufactured. It’s important to be aware when an actor has a ‘plan’ on how they are going to perform, this should put up a red flag in a director’s mind. Because if an actor develops a plan, a strategy then the performance will appear mechanical and not authentic.

End of Part One

This marks the end of part 1 of our 2-part series. Click here to go to PART TWO.

References

If you found this article helpful, I highly recommend checking out the following books that goes into more detail on how to write a screenplay or directing tips.

Writing Screenplays That Sell

Directing Feature Films: The Creative Collaboration Between Director, Writers, and Actors

Recommended Resources

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (#1 Best Seller)

Guerilla Filmmaking

The Million Dollar Screenplay! Write your movie today!

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