Is Your Screenplay Ready For a Star?
By Jacob Krueger
Everybody knows that if you want to get your script made, you’ve got to get an amazing actor to say yes to the leading role. And that doesn’t mean some underappreciated thespian who really deserves her day in the sun. I’m talking above-the-line talent, a legitimate movie star whose name itself is reason enough for people to want to come check out your movie. It used to be that this kind of casting only mattered in the big budget world. But as the independent film industry has become more mainstream and competitive, star casting has become vital even for microbudget movies. Which means if you’re going to make it in this business, you’ve got to learn to write a screenplay that not only succeeds as a story, but provides the kind of irresistible actor bait that makes a big star want to take a chance on you.
Stop Selling Out and Sell In.
This may all sound like annoying sellout Hollywood business baloney to you. But the truth is, this is one of the rare areas of screenwriting where what is good for commercial success is also good for your art as writer. As a young writer, you can’t compete with the big boys when it comes to pay or play offers, money, clout or connections. You can’t run around spending millions of dollars snagging up existing intellectual property, built in brands and star vehicles that make big name actors see dollar signs. Unless you’ve got a bunch of A-List stars who already believe in your writing, there’s only one way to get a real A-List Actor to take a chance on your script. And that’s by developing your voice as a writer to a point where they read the role and just can’t say no.
That means that whether you’re writing a big budget action movie or the tiniest little indie drama, you need to develop an approach that puts character first and draws on your unique instincts as a writer. The good news is, understanding the way a great actor looks at your script will not only help develop your career as a writer, it will also help you develop your voice as an artist. Because the things that make an A-List actor most likely to respond to your work actually grow organically from the very impulses that brought you to write in the first place.
Why did George Clooney say yes to Michael Clayton?
Why does a multi-million dollar actor like George Clooney agree to work for the equivalent of a handful of pocket change on an unlikely low budget feature about the moral dilemmas of a back room corporate lawyer? Yes, every actor wants to win an Oscar. But to attract an actor like George Clooney to a role you can’t even afford to pay him for, you’ve got to do more than just write an Oscar worthy character. As much as actors would like to think the roles they pick are rational choices, stemming from carefully planned career goals, the truth is that choosing a role is a deeply emotional decision, stemming from deep psychological impulses of which the actor themselves are often not consciously aware.
These factors are different for every actor. But the good news is, you don’t have to have a degree in psychology to identify them. Because every actor leaves a vast footprint of their tastes, preferences, psychological quirks, turns ons and turn offs, which you can unearth by learning to analyze their existing library of films. This concept was first developed by renowned New York City acting coach, John Dapolito, as a way of helping emerging stars make sense of their own unconscious psychological impulses, target the roles in which they’re most likely to succeed, brand themselves for the market, and hone their acting techniques around their deepest instincts. As a writer, you can apply the same concept to your own writing, not only to mine for the themes that matter most to you, but also to target the actors most likely to respond to your writing.
Taking George Clooney as an example, nearly every role he has chosen to play, from Up In The Air, to The Fantastic Mr. Fox, to The Descendants, to Michael Clayton, has centered around the question of identity-a flawed character, trying desperately to figure out who he is, in the face of moral, psychological, social, and environmental obstacles. Clooney kills for these kinds of roles, for deep psychological reasons that most likely transcend even his own conscious understanding. He gets these kinds of characters, and he’s great at playing them. That doesn’t mean you should force some kind of identity issue upon your main character just because you want Clooney to play him. But it does mean that if the question of identity burns as deeply in your own psyche as it burns in George Clooney’s, you probably already have what it takes to write a character that would grab him at the deepest emotional level, and absolutely refuse to let him go.
This isn’t something you can fake.
You’re not going to write this kind of character simply by following some formula, or identifying the subconscious urges of today’s biggest actors. You’ve got to access something deep in yourself-a character, a voice, a theme that matters profoundly to you, and translate it onto the page in a way that in a way that speaks to those questions in an actor. This begins with understanding what an A-List actor is looking for when they read a script, the conscious and unconscious decisions they are making from the very first page, the little mistakes that make them stop reading before they even get to the good stuff, and the psychological underpinnings that make them see themselves in your character, and know this is a role they absolutely need to play.
Begin with the small stuff to get to the big stuff.
Understanding the little things that actors are consciously looking for when they read a script will ultimately lead you to the more powerful subconscious elements that sway their choices of which role to play. Which means that turning your script into actor candy can begin with something as simple as an image of your main character, a single line of dialogue, or a dramatic change in your character’s journey. Actors want to be doing dramatic things in dramatic ways, from the very first page of your screenplay. So start by taking a look at your main character’s first moment in the script, and ask yourself this simple question:
If you were a movie star who knew nothing about the script, would this moment alone make you desperate to play the role? If your answer is no, there’s a good chance the actor of your dreams is going to set down your script before they even get to the good stuff. But if you can find a way to look more deeply and specifically at that moment, and find the elements that make it compelling that any actor would want to play it, you’ll not only instantly increase the commercial appeal of your script, but also start to uncover the raw material that translates your own connection to the script onto the page. The more specific and compelling each image, each action, and each line of dialogue of your main character becomes, the more it reveals about the deeper themes that draw an actor to your character.
In this way, simply by working organically from image to image, line to line, and moment to moment, you can not only start to bring your most compelling themes to the surface of your writing, but also turn your screenplay into irresistible A-List Actor bait, all while improving both your art and your craft as a writer.
Your script is not for everybody. Nor should it be.
If you want to write a script that demands a great actor’s attention, you’re not going to do it by playing it safe, writing the same kinds of characters that everyone else is writing or following the same rules that everyone else is following. You’re going to succeed by tapping into the deepest, tenderest and most vulnerable parts of yourself, and putting them onto the page in the way that only you could. Every character you write is a part of yourself. And often the best characters come from the parts of us we are most reluctant to share: the parts that don’t feel acceptable in polite society, the parts make us feel weird, vulnerable, socially awkward or downright terrified, the parts of ourselves we don’t completely understand.
The greatest characters and the most powerful stories stem from the unresolved aspects of our own lives, the questions to which we still don’t know the answers, the little broken pieces of our psyches which drive us to write in the first place. These are the characters only you could write, and the ones that great actors will give just about anything to play. Because these are the characters that tap into the same vulnerable place in them that you were brave enough to expose in yourself. The trick is not writing a character that will please anyone. It’s putting something broken in yourself onto the page in the most honest way you can, and then finding an actor who is broken in the same way you are. Just as actors naturally find themselves drawn to certain themes, so too do writers. But because the root of those themes lies deep in your own subconscious psychology, often unearthing them in your writing can be challenging.
The good news is, just as actors don’t need to be consciously aware of their psychological themes in order to be drawn to characters that explore them, so too will those themes naturally come to the surface for you, if you can develop an organic approach to writing that taps into your own impulses as a writer.