Actor Versus Screenwriter. Who’s More Important?

Common wisdom indicates there are three distinct stages to the storytelling process; writing the film script (queue screenwriter), shooting the vision (queue director) and the final cut for tone and pacing (queue editor.) Each step adds a different layer to the filmmaking process. Writers are the architects. Actors are the executioners.

As part of the director’s and writer’s combined vision, the actor plays a pivotal role in bringing characters to life by interpreting the screenplay. I’m not talking about an A-list actor tampering with every other line of dialogue so they get more screen time, but method actors understanding what’s on the page and how a role will be played for maximum emotional and dramatic impact.

Being an actor is more than simply executing lines of dialogue. It’s also about the silence. The expressions. The gestures. The nuances.

Actors need to inhabit characters in terms of their motivation, goal and emotional frame of mind to fully explore them. Ben Stiller once said, that actors bring an additional dimension to scripts that screenwriters may overlook. Maybe a certain tone can enhance comprehension or a line of dialogue can be replaced by a look or a monosyllabic grunt.

Dialogue should ideally be minimal, but impactful.

During an actor’s talk in Los Angeles chaired by Dustin Hoffman, he spoke of a character’s identity being expressed by a liquid stream of consciousness. Through a harmonious process, actor and scriptwriter form a perfect compliment to generate a well-rounded character. Neither has captures the entire essence of a character alone.

An actor has an intuitive sense of what works and what doesn’t on set.  Something screenwriters may not always grasp. They can easily spot jarring non-contextual dialogue during a table read as well as unmotivated, unclear or out of character behavior. Screenwriters need to juggle multiple characters in a script, while an actor can zoom in on one particular role.

We are all artists and are driven by aesthetics and emotions. We feel, we see, we hear. However, writers must also focus on the mechanical sensibilities of the movie script such as structure.

Many actors advise writers to write minimally. It’s an actor’s job to take the screenplay baton and transport a character through their story arc. Conversely, more novice actors like the security of additional character description to guide them by helping them understand the writer’s intent.

The story world is a continuous creation. The “locked down” screenplay is different to a transcript of a produced movie. A locked down script is what’s filmed and a transcript is what’s after a film has been produced. I often read transcripts to better explore dialogue because it’s exactly what appears on the screen.

Both screenwriters and actors are like organs in a body, functioning discretely, yet also in synchronicity of a greater whole. We are symbiotic and inter-dependent. Neither can fully express the vision without the other. A script is “locked down” much earlier in the film making process. An actor’s performance is “locked down” during the final edit after numerous takes.

Writers and actors appreciate that we are driven by both fear and faith. Fear can be described as a manifestation of a lack of self-worth. Faith can be defined as an overall belief that the correct storytelling decisions have been made.

Given the ever-changing beast that is a story, both writers and actors both need to determine the transition point when each must let go of the reins. When the magic happens, step aside with the knowledge that the wonder of the art form will prevail.

It is arrogant to believe that a writer has creative superiority over an actor or director. We are all part of the same cinematic food chain and therefore interdependent on each other.

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