Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #127: Have One Gutpunch Scene

A producer was giving me a long list of notes on a script, and then he tacked onto the end, as if it were self-explanatory, “Oh, yeah, and make sure you add one of those scenes that an actress will demand before she agrees to play the part.”  Huh?  What scenes?  “You know, one of those scenes where she takes a stand and then breaks down and cries.”  Um, okay…  I dutifully added such a scene.

Only months later did I really start to understand why.  The “American Horror Story” pilot got a very mixed reaction, but one thing that all the reviews had in common was a puzzlement that Connie Britton was willing to do such a cheesy show right after her acclaimed five-year stint on “Friday Night Lights”.

Watching the pilot, I was wondering that, too… until I got to the gutpunch scene.  Britton and husband Dylan McDermott have been ignoring their marriage problems throughout the episode… and then suddenly, unexpectedly, they finally let each other have it …and I finally understood that note. This one scene was so strong that it would have lured anybody into the role. 

If a script is all text and no subtext, it’ll suck.  Audiences will hate it, critics will hate it, and, more importantly, actors will hate it.  On the other hand, if your script is all subtext and no text, it’s more likely to win over critics and sophisticated audiences…if you can get it made.  The problem is that, if the subtext never erupts up to the surface, you may have a hard time attracting a good cast.  And if you can’t attract top talent, it’s almost impossible to get a green light. 

Listen to your actors.  Once and only once, let the emotions come roaring out without a filter.  Let your characters hit each other with everything they have and tear each other apart.  As with anything else, the trick is to first roll the rock uphill as long as you can.  The more scenes you have of sublimated emotion and indirect conflict, the more tension is going to build up, build up, build up…  Don’t worry: actors understand the power of those scenes, too, and they love to play them.  But once they’ve created all that potential energy, they’ll want to release it. 

I’ve discussed recently how hard it is to get a character to admit that they’re wrong in the middle of a scene.  Instead, I’ve advised that you should have as few direct confrontations as possible, and let your character trick and trap each other instead.  But eventually, all the tricks and traps are for naught, and the characters have no choice but to rip into each other directly.  When all else fails: let them go for the gutpunch.  Your actors will thank you for it.       

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