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.

“Uh… no.”

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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Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • Jay

    Hi Doug,
    Love the blog!
    To steal and change a line from a great film, ‘I’m a long-time reader, first-time caller’ and I just sold my first spec (my email is pretty much my name — three letter first name — so easy to google the sale).

    Was wondering if I could pick your brains, ask a few stupid questions, get some advice for a new kid on the block — if you have the time!

    Thanks

  • Dave Frizzell

    PeeWee? Really? Don’t get me wrong here, Bruce Willis is the epitome of manliness, and Kevin Pollock has enough talent to power a small country… but chilling out with Paul Reubens!!? I have to say Doug, you hang out with some cool cats out there in La La Land. I tip my hat to you, sir.

    • Yeah. Me and Pee Wee. Brief moment of tightness way back when. Whoo hoo. Glad someone is impressed, Dave.

  • I heard Paul Giamatti can make even the crappiest dialogue sound good. I heard this from Alexander Payne, who cast him in “Sideways” over George Clooney. I don’t know any of these guys, mind you. But still.

    • But it’s still impressive, Julie Ann. Great actors are amazing craftsmen and artists.

  • Guinea Pig

    Love this story Doug. Once again, I am amazed by the seemingly bottomless well of patience you seem to possess when it comes to dealing with people in the industry.

    Your experience reminds me of an interview I read once with William H. Macy who said that he learns his lines, *all* his lines, *exactly* as he sees them on the page.

    And when he turns up on set, he speaks the dialogue *exactly* as it is presented in the script.

    His take on it was this: if the writer has spent all this time constructing the script in this particular way, then it is for a damn good reason and the actor better do his best to do the words justice.

    And if he can’t, then maybe he should try another career.

    • Bill Macy. Consumate pro. And his attitude is why he’s a favorite of David Mamet. And, for the most part, his roles are impeccably written. So he knows good writing.

      • Recently went to The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island for the second time… one of those bucket list things being that my 7th grade English teacher had us read scenes from “Somewhere in Time” back-in-the-day… and in re-watching the film again at The Grand, I noticed ol’ (young!) Bill Macy as one of the stageplay actors who congratulate Christopher Reeves prior to the old woman walking up to him with the pocketwatch to say: “Come back to me.”

        It had me jump up and exclaim it to the crowd… most of whom came to the hotel *because* of the movie (like me)… and then we all started vocalizing our comments regarding the film for the rest of the (small) screening.

        Truly, that movie was a fulcrum component in me choosing to be a writer after being an engineer in LA for Hughes Space & Communications… thus, finally getting up to The Grand Hotel and noticing that minor cameo was truly cool.

        Doug…

        As a fellow author/writer, I truly appreciate your writing.

        You craft a sentence with true verve, grace, and style.

        It’s an honor to read your stuff…

        Namaste,
        Brian Shell

        • Thanks a million, Brian. Appreciate your words and your sharing.

  • Gosh I can just picture Reubens sitting in your big chair massacre-ing your script. The look on your face must’ve been priceless!
    Another great story!

    • Never even thought of that, M. What does a person look like when they’re drowning in their own spit?

  • Yet another great blog Doug! The tone of your words I see as so down to earth, such an undercurrent of wisdom…. like a quiet but powerful river just babbling under the surface. I appreciate you sharing your experiences as it’s such a solid reminder that we all have more to learn 🙂 haha. I may already know the answer to this, but have you read the War of Art by Steven Pressfield?

  • Wise and entertaining words as always, Doug. Also, I feel compellled to share that I’m from Waterford – whoop!

    • You are? Did I ever tell you that The War Department is from Cork?

      • Oh, I think you did mention that at one point, Doug! Very cool 🙂 I’m actually from Dungarvan, a little town in west Waterford about 20 mins from Co. Cork. So your good lady wife and I were practically neighbours. It’s a small world 🙂

  • Clint Williams

    I have new respect/admiration for Paul Reubens. Whodathunkit?

    • You never know where great advice will come from. Thanks Clint.

  • I’m about to do a full rewrite on my novel adaptation. As the writer I’ll attempt to stay out of all the actors’ ways. Thanks for helping point me in a good direction.

    • You can do that, Phyllis. Or direct it yourself and torture your cast.

  • Scott

    “like a Christmas toy instruction manual read by a robot low on battery power” – excellent!

  • James Hornsby

    Here’s a blog I can really learn from. BTW if Paul taught you this important lesson, what advice would you then give for a starving writer? Have a specific character in mind? Have a determined language and culture as well as cryptic scene description, or write it Mamet style? Thank you always for the great lessons.

    • Good question. And a future post by me. But the lesson is to not only hammer on your dialogue and, when you watch pictures you admire, listen carefully to how the words are crafted. But also get your stuff read by actors with talent. Solicit their criticism. Learn from how they struggle to put their lips around your words.

      • James Hornsby

        Cntrl C then save and memorize. Thank you!

  • Gary deBrown

    That’s not the writer’s nightmare anymore…

    There’s a new writer’s nightmare: One in which the powers that be don’t read your original script; (or anyone else’s) at all, because they are too busy reading novels. Regardless of quality of story or even franchise potential. And more than six to seven months go by before you can even get a pass, which at that point, feels like a blessing. So much so, that it has you seriously considering writing a novel next as a written entry to be a filmmaker instead of what’s been the standard and proper entry since the inception of film, the core component that’s primary function is to be a blueprint to a movie – The Screenplay.

    Trust me, I’m living it….

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  • David Morris

    Thanks Doug…so is it fair to say (in the realm of the screenplay) there’s no such thing as ‘great dialogue’, only ‘great delivery’? And what would Will Shakespeare, were he hawking his wares in Hollywood, have to say about all this?