I’d just typed FADE OUT for the umpteenth time in my short career. The draft was neat and a tightly wound one hundred and fifteen pages of thrills and chills. It felt bulletproof and as close to perfect as anything I’d yet fashioned. Once it was bound by three brass brads and a cover page, had you gently flicked it with a fingernail, I would’ve bet a dinner at Spago that you’d have heard it ring like Waterford crystal.
Then into the batter’s box stepped actor Paul Reubens, aka Pee Wee Herman. We weren’t more than acquaintances, but there was a period when Paul would occasionally swing by my tiny studio office to seek refuge amongst my guitars and silly desk toys. On this day he flopped into the chair across from me, humming a tune in his head while finding a sudden interest in the freshly minted screenplay I’d just culled from the printer.
“Ooooooh,” said Paul in a rare, non-paid detour into his Pee Wee Herman persona. “New words.”
“Hot off the printer,” I proudly said.
“Ever hear of Writer’s Nightmare?” he asked.
Paul released a laugh channeled directly from Hades. He fanned the pages of the new screenplay like a deck of cards.
“Need to pick a random page,” he said. “Tell me when to stop.”
“Stop,” I said.
“And let the Writer’s Nightmare begin.” The actor grinned as he stopped thumbing pages and from the very top left of the clean sheet, began reading my screenplay aloud. “Exterior. Theme park entrance. Day…”
Now, if you’ve ever imagined a talented actor reading your work aloud and hearing the musical notes of a heavenly chorus, this wasn’t it. This was a talented comedian who, with certain glee, was hell bent on initiating me into a select club of word-jockeys who’ve been through the nightmare and lived to tell. That’s because Paul Reubens, choosing to orate sans anything remotely resembling his famous alter ego, switched into his best staccato and read my chosen page with the flattest and undramatic affect imaginable. Sure. The action description sounded dry, like a Christmas toy instruction manual read by a robot low on battery power. It was when he came to the dialogue that I felt the first stab of pain.
My carefully chosen dialogue, scrutinized in a myriad of self-revisions, spilled from Paul’s lips with more wood than can be found at a Viagra convention. Every word was stilted, stuffed, disconnected from one another, and horrific to the ear. This was nails across a blackboard stuff. Seriously. I think I would rather have been waterboarded by the Pakistani secret police.
Of course there was no mercy from Paul. He read until the page ended, creased his face with a knowing smile, and dropped the script back on my desk.
“Fun, huh?” he asked.
“That was so effing cruel,” I said.
“Reminding you that there’s no such thing as actor-proof dialogue. See ya, Dougie.”
The torture was over. But the impromptu and purposefully leaden reading of what I thought was a perfect page of script left me with two resonant lessons. One: even the best of writing, read out of context and without the injection of a well-crafted performance, can be made to sound awful. And two: I would one day soon feel the need to pass on the gift that was Writer’s Nightmare.
But first a few thoughts on the actual nightmare of writing dialogue to fit into an actor’s mouth. And I do mean fit. No matter how sterling the words sound to your mind’s ear–or even that of your roommate, boyfriend, girlfriend, lover, mom, dad, and family pet–they are only as pithy as the pie hole that’s been engaged to deliver them.
You’ve heard of actors that could act the phone book? I’ve never seen one so much as try. And my guess is that even Meryl Streep would need a Marco-Rubio-awkward-moment-of-hydration before she made it past AAA Plumbing Supplies.
I have worked with actors who could pretty much make anything work. And others who had trouble pronouncing their characters’ names (read No Brothers. No Mexicans. No Problem.).
Let’s just take my trio from Bad Boys. Example: Tea Leoni. Not a whole lot I couldn’t put in front of her that she couldn’t figure out how to curl around her tongue and whip into a something breathy, snarky or ironic. My words were nothing compared to her intention which often contained far more insight and articulation than I’d first imagined.
Then there was Will Smith. He wasn’t yet the world’s biggest movie star. He had, though, shown miles of talent in his videos and hit sitcom and had earned some critical notices for his chops in Six Degrees of Separation. Writing for Will felt like riding a race horse that didn’t yet know how fast he could go. Will, though, was game and willing to try any words on for size.
Lastly, there was Martin Lawrence. Funny. Street smart. Very cool working with a writer. But still he was comfortable only within his own, limited frequency. It was nearly impossible to write dialogue for him. A stumbler would come along every three of four lines, forcing him to mangle words and chew ‘em until they became soft and he could spit ‘em out as something better resembling the image he had of himself instead of the character as written.
None of the former descriptions of these actors and their acumen for making a writer’s words fly is either right or wrong. They’re just different styles, all of which I’ve learned to both appreciate and prepare for.
I recall what an actress pal of mine who’d once said of working on a movie with Christopher Walken. She described how Walken would ask the writer to remove all punctuation and direction from the dialogue in order to undo any potential roadblocks that might get in the way of his performance. I never forgot that, and sometime keep that in mind when I compose speeches.
Then came one long, rainy night when I was working with The Usual Suspects actor, Kevin Pollock. It was a wet and icy exterior with the our only refuge from the elements being the small village of pop-ups meant to keep us dry. Pollock decided to keep our huddled few in stitches by spending mostly all of his off-camera time in a near perfect, Chris Walken impression. At one point I mentioned Walken’s punctuation trick. Pollock snickered, cracked wise, then the actor in him began to process the concept.
“Know what?” said Pollock, in maybe his only non-Walken moment in a long night. “The writer in me wants to call that a buncha actor bullshit. But the actor in me kind of agrees. Writer. Please get out of my way.”
I still think about that brief conversation whenever I begin the process of scissoring through my dialogue choices in search of actor landmines.
What’s that you said? Did I ever pass along the rite of the Writer’s Nightmare I’d painfully received from the evil Paul Reubens?
What do you think?
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