BIZ TIP TUESDAY:
SPADE/VAN DAMME RULE
We all wish we could have Oscar calibre performances in our films....
I've heard writers say "If Brad Pitt plays this role, it's a sure-fire hit!" or "Tom Hanks in this character will make you cry" or "Meryl Streep can turn this part into Oscar gold!" All of that sounds fantastic, unless your script REQUIRES a star or brilliant actor to make it work. Our scripts have to work no matter WHO they cast in the lead. We can't depend on a star to carry our scripts, our *writing* has to carry the screenplay. When we submit our screenplays, they are naked: no brilliant performance to make that just okay line sing, no gravitas of a great actor to give the role importance, and no funny delivery to make an iffy joke funny. We just have words on the page... so our words need to do all of the heavy lifting.
I have seen Brad Pitt in dozens of movies... but have you ever seen him as charming and fun as in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD? He is a revelation in that film! We all think of Brad Pitt as a movie star, but is he? Sure, he stars in movies - but do those movies draw an audience? Um, no. His biggest hit ever was WORLD WAR Z which made $202 million in the USA, and his average film made only $64 million. ONCE UPON A TIME has already hit his average - after just over a week! So it's not the actor or the star who plays the role, it's the role itself. that is important. Who creates the role? We doi! If Pitt were given more "movie star" roles like ONCE UPON that wre cocky and charismatic and fun, he would be a bigger star. But he ends up with things like ALLIED where the role is bland... and Pitt can't make it more exciting. That's OUR FAULT, folks! We need to write better roles - roles that don't depend on the movie star making it great. Roles that are already great on the page. Someone write some great roles for Brad Pitt now that he is on a roll!
A new version of this tip is in the Protagonist Blue Book as the "Statham/Rudd Rule", but I've decided to leave the website version the same in order to give those who bought the Blue Book something extra... but no matter which actors become popular and which actors end up in genre films: our screenplays still need to work *before* the roles have been cast. What we must remember as screenwriters is that our screenplay *is* the movie until it is made. There are no amazing performances from an Oscar winning actor - just our writing. So our writing must give that Oscar winning performance! It has to be on the page or it will never make it to the stage!
VAN DAMME IT!
Jean Claude Van Damme is a star who doesn't really carry a movie on his own, he's an action star who can do the splits and kick ass... but probably will never be nominated for an Oscar (though he was *great* in JCVD, playing an emotionally damaged version of himself). No one says "I just have to see the new Van Damme movie!" (Okay, I do). But if Van Damme is in a movie that looks interesting (like Mark Verheiden's TIME COP or Joshua James' great POUND OF FLESH), we'll go see it. The story is what sells the movie to the audience, not the star. The same is true with David Spade in comedies. These guys need strong scripts with great stories to carry them. They are second (or third) tier stars who don't attract an audience just because they are in the film, but because of the film they are in.
Our naked characters need to be interesting or amusing or passionate or fascinating on their own, not a character that *requires* the charisma or brilliant acting talent of a movie star. They haven't cast that star, yet... and maybe they never will. There are only so many of those great stars out there, so a large number of films will be made with that next tier talent.
The same is true for dialogue - if your lines will be laugh- out-loud funny if Jim Carrey delivers them, what if they can't hire Jim Carrey? What if they end up with Drew Carrey instead? Or Mariah Carey? Will those lines STILL be laugh-out-loud funny if Mariah Carey delivers them? Or is the humor DEPENDANT on the delivery of a specific actor? A funny line needs to be funny due to the *writing*, not due to whatever delivery the actor will give it. There are amazingly funny actors who can take a fairly bland line and make it laugh outloud funny. We all fantasize about them being in our films... but they won't have a chance to be in the film if the screenplay itself isn't so funny that it is bought and send out to those top tier comedic actors.
MERYL STREEP IN BLOODSPORT?
The same is true for dramatic actors. We're getting close to Oscar season, now, and soon we get to see all of these great performances... But you can't just plug Meryl Streep into a bad script and end up with an Oscar nomination... it starts with the screenplay! If you write a screenplay that's just okay, and hope they will cast Streep to make it brilliant, you are out of luck. She's never going to see that just okay screenplay! The challenge is, in order to get Streep you have to have written an Oscar worthy screenplay to begin with. No easy way out! What's more, if instead of getting Streep you end up with Mariah Carey? That dialogue and those scenes have to be so great that they still work.
I have written scripts for ex-athletes who are new to acting. You can't depend on the actor to make the line work, you have to write "actor proof" lines that work on their own. The *writing* has to work no matter who ends up performing the role. You can write "just okay" dialogue and Tom Hanks will make it sound great, but some of the stars I've worked with require BRILLIANT dialogue to sound "just okay". I always look at my dialogue and imagine the WORST delivery rather than the best. If the line still works, it stays in the script. Part of my job is to make sure these stars look good - that they seem clever and bright. Instead of expecting an actor to make the line work, I have to make sure the line works on its own.
Our scripts should be written so that no matter who plays the lead, the script doesn't suffer. They should be able to cast David Spade (instead of Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey) or Jean Claude Van Damme (instead of Harrison Ford or Ah-nuld) and the film should still work. If your script won't work without a brilliant actor in the lead, what happens if all of the great actors are busy? Or too expensive? You don't want to limit the possibilities for casting your script. We all want great actors to play the roles that we write, but we can't write weak scripts which depend on great actors to work. There aren't that many great actors in the biz.
WE'LL CAST THAT HOT CHICK!
THE HOT CHICK is a good example. (This "rule" began as the FARLEY/VAN DAMME RULE then became the SPADE/VAN DAMME RULE, probaly should have been the SCHNEIDER/SEGALL RULE at some point, and now it's the STATHAM/RUDD RULE in the Blue Book.) Rob Schneider may be funny, but no one is going to pay $11 to see him play Hamlet. He needs a script with a great idea and great execution to attract an audience. We can not expect the audience to just show up because, heck, it's the new Rob Schneider movie! We need an *idea* that attracts the audience, because in this case I don't think the star is going to do it. At the screenplay stage, there *is no star* so all we have is that great idea at the heart of our story. We don't even have the "talents" of Rob Schneider! THE HOT CHICK has a high concept that generates laughs no matter who plays the lead - a spoiled cheerleader swaps bodies with a crude convenience store robber. The contrast between the two creates the comedy - it could have worked if Ernest Borgnine played the role! The situations were WRITTEN funny. Remember, when a producer reads our scripts they are "naked" - no comedian has been cast that will make the lines funny - the lines have to be funny on their own. The same thing with dramas and thrillers and horror scripts - if the scene doesn't make them cry on the page, you'll never know if it will make them cry when Meryl Streep plays the scene. THE HOT CHICK isn't funny because Rob Schneider stars in it, it's funny because the concept and situations and dialogue are funny to begin with. Rob Schneider is the icing on the cake... if he can be called that.
Even though Adam Sandler is a star who gets $20 million a film and his films are usually very successful (don't ask me why), he still picks high concept scripts that could work even without a star. 50 FIRST DATES is a good example of a romantic comedy that is idea driven so it doesn't have to be star driven. Drew Barrymore suffered brain damage in a car accident and can't make new memories. Every morning she wakes up a clean slate - unable to remember anything that happened since her accident. Sandler is a love 'em & leave 'em romeo who thinks she might be the perfect woman - talk about a no maintainenece relationship! No reason to remember her name in the morning because she won't remember yours. You can have a series of one night stands with her, and she'll always be there for the next one... without being even a little angry at yuou for not caling her for a few months. Of course, he falls in love with her... and now must make her fall in love with him all over again every single day in order to maintain their relationship. That's a great high concept - it not only can be mined for humor, it provides the groundwork for romance, too.
Notice how the *character* is interesting as well. This is not some blank slate and Sandler shows up to give the character humor and emotions and depth... this is a conflicted character who could be played by almost any actor. The scheming romeo who loves them and leaves them... who finds himself falling in love. Imagine the Hugh Grant version. Imagine the Ryan Reynolds version. The Tom Cruise version. The Morris Chestnut version. The Kevin Hart version. The Jane Lynch version. The Diego Luna version. The Sung Kang version. The Kal Penn version. The John Cho version. The Neil Patrick Harris version. The Jean Claude Van Damme version. Though each actor brings their own personality to the role, you need to start with a role that is interesting enough and has enough depth to support that star's personality. We need to create those fully dimensional roles on the page *before* they cast Adam Sandler or whoever to play that role.
The *script* provides the comedy and romance and drama, so that Adam Sandler doesn't have to. There a great dramatic moment where Sandler believes Barrymore would be better off knowing the truth about her accident (her father and brother pretend it never happened), and the plan backfires. Barrymore has to relive the tragedy, and it's just too much for her. Her father and brother blame Sandler - creating more conflict and drama. The script provides the comedy, drama, and romance - and that makes Sandler look good. Along with WEDDING SINGER this is one of his best films... not because his acting is any better, beacuse the *script* makes him look good.
And to keep with the SCHNEIDER/VAN DAMME RULE scenario - Rob Schneider plays Sandler's best friend.
The new Jean Claude Van Damme movie POUND OF FLESH is about a guy who has his organs harvested and kicks some ass to get them back! Check out the trailer here!
Instead of writing a script that *requires* a great actor to carry it, you should be writing great scripts which can carry any actor. A great actor will just make it better, a second or third tier actor will still come out looking good. We have no control over casting, all we control are the words on the page... so make your script so good that even the worst actor can't ruin it! That means: make the *screenplay* brilliant. Is that hard work? Of course! But there is no movie star attached to our screenplay when someone reads it: it's just words on a page. So those *words* have to work.
Brad Pitt can be just a good looking guy in a blandly written role. like in ALLIED, or a charismatic star who lights up the screen in every sceen like in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. That is not as much up to the star as it is up to the writer. That's us. Making someone a star is *our job*.
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