Delusions of Grandeur • R.D. Rhyne

June 21, 2020

Writing for the Screen

I’m gonna come out and say it: acting is hard. In interviews actors talk about “the work”, and I’ve always found this characterization odd—is it really?

After my fourth take of the same three lines, two hours after we started filming, I felt it.

I feel like a jerk for ever thinking it wasn’t work. Like much of art, acting is easy to criticize, and incredibly difficult to master. Not everyone can do it, either.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved it. The entire experience was exhilarating. But as someone who cares about doing things well, I realize I’m not very good at acting.

I thought talking to a camera would be similar to a stage presentation in front of a live audience. Both are performances, right?

The difference is apparent by what the camera doesn’t show you—the dozens of people behind the camera.

Light and sound crews, camera operators, story producers taking notes, the person advancing your slide deck, and an “A.D.”—Assistant Director—barking[1] at everyone to keep them on task.

My crew was just shy of 25 people[2]. They all had more experience than I did, and they rarely made mistakes. And if they did, they apologized to me!

Which is insane, because of how many mistakes I made. Flubbing words, shifting my weight out of frame, bouncing out of their focus line, or sounding like a zombie.

There is a director, too. Their job is to help you get your best performance, and maintain continuity across a host of other performances.

The whole machine is setup for iteration. Even if you “nail it” on your first take, you do another. When you get a “good take”, you experiment with the next one. Try things that might fail, then try it another way.

As a developer and designer, I’m familiar with iteration. Only those iterations are private, not in front of 25 people executing their job perfectly take after take.

I felt relief every time the director said “check the gate”. That meant it was time to move on.

The script is very different from stage presentations. For the stage, I typically write key points I want to hit upon in my speaker notes. Something I would glance at, never something I would read.

If you read on stage, you break eye contact with your audience. You can’t see their reactions, nor can you make them laugh.

On stage it is just you. You advance your slides[3]. You determine transitions. There is little coordination with others, so you can ad lib and you’re the only one who knows[4].

On camera, those 25 people need to do their jobs. And to do their jobs, they need to know what you are going to do. They need a script.

Fortunately for me, there was a fancy teleprompter that allowed me to look directly at the camera and read my script.

Problem solved, right?

About one times in three I flub the word “statistics” when I say it out loud. I avoid it in conversation. It isn’t the only word I struggle with either.

Truth be told, I’m extremely self-conscious about my speech.

That sounds weird coming from someone who likes to talk as much as I do, but there you go. Only real talk on this blog.

Back to the script. When I was writing I didn’t think about reading it. I thought of it like a presentation: I wouldn’t really say all of this, I’d come up with something that sounded more natural in the moment.

I focused on narrative. Story arcs, reveals, emphasis, and transitions. I built it like a story that one would experience by reading, not hearing. And I did not consider words I struggle to speak.

Writing fiction has taught me the importance of dialogue. People speak in incomplete sentences. They offer half thoughts, and are often prone to ramble.

If you write a character that speaks effortlessly in complex, multi-clause sentences without a breath—well, that character better be a robot.

Filming reinforced this lesson in dialogue[5].

It was hard not to become meta and critique my writing while trying to perform in front of the camera. I made it through the day by treating commas as periods. Phrases where I stumbled, like “an example implementation”, were simplified into “an example”.

The experience was wonderful, and I learned a lot about acting and writing for the screen.

I’m not sure if I will ever film like this again. Maybe if the project is right. But I will never again wince when I hear an actor talk about “the work” during an interview.

I’ll just nod and think to myself: “That’s why you get paid the big bucks.”

  1. My AD was a real card. When I met them, they told me “I’m here to make sure we don’t have fun.” An upmost professional, and very good at their job. A liar, too. We had a ton of fun. ↩︎

  2. Everything was perfectly safe, don't worry. Everyone was required to wear masks and maintained a minimum safe distance at all times. ↩︎

  3. It’s not always true that you advance your slides. My first presentation for a Mac conference was a blitz talk for the 2009 C4 conference. The organizer wrote software that would auto-advance each slide every 15 seconds.

    For that presentation I flipped through index cards with notes written in black sharpie. ↩︎

  4. During my presentation at the 2015 Release Notes conference, Charles Perry and his wife were behind a computer recording the talk. They could see my speaker notes as I presented and they later remarked “You didn’t look down at your notes.”

    My response was surprised “Was I saying what was written in them?” The point of this story, other than it makes me sound cool, is that I always ad lib my stage presentations.

    My public speaking class in university taught me that the best public speaking is extemporaneous. ↩︎

  5. Pro tip: when your Director says “Woah, that sentence is a mouthful”, your script has problems. ↩︎