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1.3. the director and the screenplay

“The main questions a director must answer are: ‘where do I put the camera?’ and ‘what do I tell the actors?'” — David Mamet1

1.3.1. Overview.

Screenplays have many readers, but one person’s reading matters more than any other: the director’s. In script analysis, the triangular relationship between the director, the cast and crew, and the script becomes analogous to the relationship between a priest, a community of believers, and their holy text. Sure, each reader may draw his or her own conclusions, but ultimately, it will be the director who determines the orthodoxy of their reading. Script analysis is no passive reading activity. Through her analysis work, the dedicated director will re-write the screenplay in shots and performances, which is why a director is generally considered the author of a motion picture.

The screenplay, like many holy texts, can be considered a living, breathing document. In one sense, it is incomplete until its tenets are incorporated into the lives of its adherents (the cast and crew). However, it is also a written text — limited as all written texts are — in its ability to address the real problems that arise when one attempts to put it into practice. For this reason, a director cannot blindly attempt a literal translation of the writer’s work any more than he can toss the screenplay aside entirely. The director — even if he is the writer of the screenplay — lives in a constant state of struggle with the screenplay text, a process of give and take, that if executed successfully, can result in breathtaking works of cinematic art.

The complex relationship between the director and the screenwriter is examined theoretically elsewhere on this site in terms of auteur theory. Here, instead, I will take a practical approach, exploring methods of script analysis that directors might successfully employ in their craft. Because script analysis is an intimate, creative process, what follows includes personal reflections that will stand in contrast to the objective, academic tone found elsewhere on this site.

Approaches to script analysis can appropriately be described as ways of reading, and the versatile director will be careful to avoid falling back on one favorite approach. By encountering the text of the screenplay from numerous perspectives, the director is sure to exhaust its creative potential. I will focus primarily on scene analysis here, but scene analysis should always be done in the context of whole-screenplay analysis.

For this exercise, I will use as an example a scene from The Empire Strikes Back.

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1.3.2. The Beginner’s Mind. [Back to Page Topics]

In The Film Director’s Intuition, Judith Weston discusses a beginner’s mind approach to script analysis. Before we can tear a scripted scene apart, we need to sit back and let the script speak to us. Reading and recording our thoughts at the beginner’s mind stage allows us to capture our initial intuitions before our analytical brain completely takes over the reading process. Here we identify all our natural proclivities, making ourselves more broad-minded and open to the suggestions of our collaborators. The beginner’s mind stage also gives us permission to fail, by entertaining even our wildest ideas before censoring ourselves through logic or practicality. “Permission to fail,” writes Weston, “is exactly the same as permission to learn. There is no creativity, no originality, no success, no progress without risk.”2

Some of the questions we might ask at the beginner’s mind stage are:

  • What preliminary ideas pop out?
  • How do you feel about the scene and the characters? What do you like? What irks you?
  • What personal connections do you feel?
  • What are your assumptions and prejudices?
  • What are the basic facts in evidence? The easy answers?
  • What questions do you have?

Let’s read the scene that follows, and I’ll respond with my own beginner’s mind:

INT. MILLENNIUM FALCON - MAIN HOLD AREA

[. . . scene abridged . . .]

Leia finishes welding the valves she has been working on
and attempts to reengage the system by pulling a lever attached
to the valve. It doesn't budge. Han notices her struggle,
and moves to help her. She rebuffs him.

          HAN
     Hey, Your Worship, I'm only trying to help.

          LEIA
        (still struggling)
     Would you please stop calling me that?

Han hears a new tone in her voice. He watches her pull
on the lever.

          HAN
     Sure, Leia.

          LEIA
     Oh, you make it so difficult sometimes.

          HAN
     I do, I really do. You could be a little
     nicer, though.
        (he watches her reaction)
     Come on, admit it. Sometimes you think
     I'm all right.

She lets go of the lever and rubs her sore hand.

          LEIA
     Occasionally...
        (a little smile, haltingly)
     ... when you aren't acting like a scoundrel.

          HAN
        (laughs)
     Scoundrel? Scoundrel? I like the sound of that.

With that, Han takes her hand and starts to massage it.

          LEIA
     Stop that.

          HAN
     Stop what?

Leia is flushed, confused.

          LEIA
     Stop that! My hands are dirty.

          HAN
     My hands are dirty, too. What are you afraid of?

          LEIA
        (looking right into his eyes)
     Afraid?

Han looks at her with a piercing look. He's never looked more
handsome, more dashing, more confident. He reaches out slowly
and takes Leia's hand again from where it is resting on a console.
He draws it toward him.

          HAN
     You're trembling.

          LEIA
     I'm not trembling.

Then with an irresistible combination of physical strength
and emotional power, the space pirate begins to draw Leia
toward him ... very slowly.

          HAN
     You like me because I'm a scoundrel. There aren't
     enough scoundrels in your life.

Leia is now very close to Han and as she speaks, her voice
becomes an excited whisper, a tone completely in
opposition to her words.

          LEIA
     I happen to like nice men.

          HAN
     I'm a nice man.

          LEIA
     No, you're not.  You're ...

He kisses her now, with slow, hot lips. He takes his time,
as though he had forever, bending her body backward.  She
has never been kissed like this before, and it almost makes
her faint. When he stops, she regains her breath and tries to
work up some indignation, but finds it hard to talk. Suddenly,
Threepio appears in the doorway, speaking excitedly.

          THREEPIO
     Sir, sir! I've isolated the reverse power flux coupling.

Han turns slowly, icily, from their embrace.

          HAN
     Thank you. Thank you very much.

          THREEPIO
     Oh, you're perfectly welcome, sir.

The moment spoiled, Han marches out after Threepio.

My first response to this scene is one of nostalgia, because of course I’m familiar with the acting from the movie. I want to get beyond that, however, to respond to the scene as if I’ve never seen it performed before. The interactions between Han and Leia remind me of a kind of dance, as they wrestle back and forth for control. The idea of a dance is interesting, because the setting is tight, claustrophobic even, forcing a closeness between the two characters that Leia resists.

I like the scene for its playful energy and dialectical back-and-forth. On the other hand, it’s also a little cheesy. Both the dialogue and the scene descriptions (“slow, hot lips”) are pretty cornball, so as a director, I may worry if this scene is going to come off as camp. In terms of the characters, I have mixed feelings. Han has a likable coolness here, but there’s also a thread of sexism that makes me uncomfortable. Han forces himself on Leia even after she says “stop” (it may seem silly to draw-out sexual violence undertones in a scene from Star Wars, but again, this is our beginner’s mind, where we want to let our thoughts flow). Leia is a powerful leader, but here she is reduced to a quaking, helpless object of desire. I’m worried about what that means for her character and the kind of message it may send to young girls, like my daughter.

In terms of personal connections, I’m reminded of my teenage years, when I first met the woman who would eventually marry me. We did not hit it off right away. In fact, our dynamic was not all that dissimilar to Han and Leia’s starting point. Even after we warmed to one another, I pursued her long before she showed even the slightest hint of interest in me. In that sense, Han’s persistence reminds me of myself at the age of 16, and Leia’s facade of indifference reminds me of my wife at the same age. Given the teenage connection, I see a childishness in the scene. These are two grownups acting like kids, refusing to be honest and open with one another, playing emotional games instead.

My early assumption in this scene is that Leia wants Han and has always wanted him. At the same time, my early prejudice is that Han behaves inappropriately here, that he’s crossed a line in not respecting Leia’s boundaries.

When we talk of facts in evidence, we’re asking what we know to be factual for this scene, both from the scene itself and from the context of the whole script. In this case, having read the entire screenplay, we know that Han and Leia are on the run from the Empire, that they’re hiding in an asteroid, and that the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive has been damaged. This is truly life or death for the characters. They also have no way of knowing the fate of the other Rebel fighters, including their good friend Luke Skywalker, whether any of them have escaped the Empire’s grasp. Acknowledging this context, it is clear that these people must be brimming with emotional confusion and stress. This is what Weston might call the big, fat fact, the fact “so obvious that directors (and actors) often overlook” it.3

Finally, I will list my questions about this scene. How tight is the space? What are the sounds that surround them? What’s the lighting? What do they smell like (when was the last time they bathed)? Are they hungry? How tired are they? How long exactly have they been inside this asteroid? When’s the last time either of these characters got laid? Is this just about sexual desire, or do these characters really love each other? Is this the first time they’ve gotten this close, or have there been other romantic near misses? Your list of questions at this stage should be exhaustive. Ask anything that might be asked. Don’t censor yourself.

Now that we’ve worked through the beginner’s mind, we’re ready to take a more analytical approach to this scene.

1.3.3. Subtext and Scene Beats. [Back to Page Topics]

Major turning points in a script seldom happen suddenly without warning. More often, these shifts are built from a slow erosion of power from one character to another, in exchanges of behavior we call beats. While we will discuss visual beats in section 3.6 of this site, these are distinct from the dramatic or emotional scene beats we’re discussing here. Just as individual shots are combined in editing to create a cohesive whole, writers build scenes out of smaller moments of change that happen between characters.

Different authors approach these scene beats in different ways. According to Judith Weston, “The ‘beat changes’ are simple changes of subject” in an exchange of active dialogue.4 According to Nicholas T. Proferes, “An acting beat (also referred to as a performance beat) is a unit of action committed by a character. […] Every time the action of a character changes, a new acting beat begins. Each acting beat can be described by an action verb. That verb is always in the present tense.”5 Robert McKee puts it more succinctly, “A beat is an exchange of action/reaction in character behavior.”6

Building on both Proferes’s and McKee’s definitions, a beat may be viewed as an emotional transaction to be understood in the terms of economics. One party tries to influence the behavior of another and will offer varying incentives to this end. In our scene from Empire, Han wants Leia to admit her affection for him, and he tries several tactics to elicit the desired response. When one strategy fails, he shifts and offers a new incentive. Each time Han’s strategy or Leia’s response changes, a new beat occurs.

It is important to understand this last point. Two characters may go back and forth on a single action/reaction for some time, and in these cases, only one beat is present. One character must change for a new beat to occur. For example, consider the following abstract exchange:

  • Action A/Reaction X, Action A/Reaction X, Action A/Reaction X, Action A/Reaction X, Action B/Reaction X, Action C/Reaction Y.

How many beats take place, and where do they occur? A new beat takes place wherever a character changes his or her behavior.

  • ||BEAT 1 –Action A/Reaction X, Action A/Reaction X, Action A/Reaction X, Action A/Reaction X ||BEAT 2 –Action B/Reaction X || BEAT 3 –Action C/Reaction Y.||

In the first beat, the two characters stubbornly repeat the same exchange over and over again. Finally, one character tries a new approach (creating a second beat), but still the second character doesn’t budge. Only when the first character tries a third strategy does the other character react in a new way (marking the third beat).

Now that we understand the definition of a scene beat, we are ready to do our first beat analysis.

1.3.4. The McKee Beat Breakdown. [Back to Page Topics]

Robert McKee, in his chapter on scene analysis, offers a very useful five-step method of breaking a scene into beats and locating the scene’s turning point.7 We will offer a shorthand version here, but readers are encouraged to read McKee’s original, which obviously goes into more depth.

The five steps of McKee’s process are as follows:

  • Step 1: Define the Conflict. Who drives the scene, and what does he or she want?Who or what stands in opposition? Why?
  • Step 2: Note the Opening Value. What is this scene about thematically? What value is at stake? What is the “charge” of that value? Does it stand at the positive or the negative?
  • Step 3: Break the Scene into Beats. Define every exchange in action/reaction. Remember that each shift in behavior marks a new beat.
  • Step 4: Note the Closing Value & Compare to the Opening Value. Has the charge of the value changed?
  • Step 5: Survey the Beats and Locate the Turning Point. Where is the greatest gap between expectation and result?

Let’s apply this method to our scene from Empire.

Step 1: Define the Conflict. Han Solo initiates and drives this scene. His desire is to have Leia acknowledge her romantic feelings for him. Han’s source of antagonism is Leia. As a leader of the Rebel Alliance and a woman, Leia needs to maintain control over her emotions for Han. Therefore, her desire is to withhold and hide those feelings. Their individual desires stand in direct opposition to one another, creating the scene’s dramatic conflict.

Step 2: Note the Opening Value. While the development of Han and Leia’s romantic relationship is the subject of this scene, the specific value at stake is Control. Leia’s control is Han’s obstacle. Since Han is the protagonist in this scene, the value charge stands at a negative because he must gain control from Leia in order to get what he wants.

Step 3: Break the Scene into Beats. Let’s do this directly on the text of the scene:

INT. MILLENNIUM FALCON - MAIN HOLD AREA

[. . . scene abridged . . .]

BEAT #1

Leia finishes welding the valves she has been working on
and attempts to reengage the system by pulling a lever attached
to the valve.  It doesn't budge.  Han notices her struggle,
and moves to help her. [Han’s action: OFFERING TO HELP; EXERTING
HIS MASCULINE POWER.] She rebuffs him. [Leia’s reaction: REJECTING
HIS HELP; EXERTING HER OWN FEMININE POWER.] 
========================================== 
BEAT #2
          HAN
     Hey, Your Worship, I'm only trying to help.
[Han’s action: BELITTLING HER POWER.]

          LEIA
        (still struggling)
     Would you please stop calling me that?
[Leia’s reaction: DEMANDING HIS RESPECT.] 
========================================== 
BEAT #3

Han hears a new tone in her voice.  He watches her pull
on the lever.

          HAN
     Sure, Leia.
[Han’s action: RESPECTING HER.]

          LEIA
     Oh, you make it so difficult sometimes.
[Leia’s reaction: BLOWING HIM OFF.] 
==========================================  
BEAT #4
          HAN
     I do, I really do.  You could be a little
     nicer, though.
        (he watches her reaction)
     Come on, admit it.  Sometimes you think
     I'm all right.
[Han’s action: LETTING HIS GUARD DOWN; PLEADING FOR A LITTLE 
REASSURANCE.]

She lets go of the lever and rubs her sore hand.

          LEIA
     Occasionally...
        (a little smile, haltingly)
     ... when you aren't acting like a scoundrel.
[Leia’s reaction: THROWING HIM A BONE, BUT NOT LETTING 
DOWN HER GUARD . . . YET.] 
========================================== 
BEAT #5
          HAN
        (laughs)
     Scoundrel?  Scoundrel?  I like the sound of that.

With that, Han takes her hand and starts to massage it.
[Han’s action: POURING ON THE CHARM; SEIZING AN OPENING.]

          LEIA
     Stop that. [Leia’s reaction: RESISTING HIS CHARM; TRYING TO CLOSE THE DOOR.] 
==========================================  
BEAT #6

          HAN
     Stop what?
[Han’s action: FORCING HIS WAY IN; EXERTING HIS MASCULINE POWER AGAIN.]

Leia is flushed, confused.

          LEIA
     Stop that!  My hands are dirty.
[Leia’s reaction: LOSING CONTROL; MAKING EXCUSES.]

          HAN
     My hands are dirty, too.  What are you afraid of?
[Han’s action: REJECTING HER EXCUSES; MOVING IN FOR THE KILL.]

          LEIA
        (looking right into his eyes)
     Afraid?
[Leia’s reaction: LOSING CONTROL; STALLING.]

Han looks at her with a piercing look.  He's never looked more
handsome, more dashing, more confident.  He reaches out slowly
and takes Leia's hand again from where it is resting on a console.
He draws it toward him.

          HAN
     You're trembling.
[Han’s action: REJECTING HER STALL; SEIZING CONTROL.]

          LEIA
     I'm not trembling.
[Leia’s reaction: PRETENDING HE HASN’T.]

Then with an irresistible combination of physical strength
and emotional power, the space pirate begins to draw Leia
toward him ... very slowly.

          HAN
     You like me because I'm a scoundrel. There aren't
     enough scoundrels in your life.
[Han’s action: LETTING HER KNOW HE’S IN CONTROL NOW.]

Leia is now very close to Han and as she speaks, her voice
becomes an excited whisper, a tone completely in
opposition to her words.

          LEIA
     I happen to like nice men. [Leia’s reaction: DENYING IT.]
========================================== 
BEAT #7
          HAN
     I'm a nice man.
[Han’s action: PERMITTING HER TO GIVE UP.]

          LEIA
     No, you're not.  You're ...

He kisses her now, with slow, hot lips.  He takes his time,
as though he had forever, bending her body backward.  She
has never been kissed like this before, and it almost makes
her faint. [Leia’s reaction: GIVING UP.]

When he stops, she regains her breath and tries to
work up some indignation, but finds it hard to talk. Suddenly,
Threepio appears in the doorway, speaking excitedly. 
========================================== 
BEAT #8
          THREEPIO
     Sir, sir!  I've isolated the reverse power flux coupling.
[Threepio’s action: INTERUPTING.]

Han turns slowly, icily, from their embrace.

          HAN
     Thank you.  Thank you very much.

          THREEPIO
     Oh, you're perfectly welcome, sir.

The moment spoiled, Han marches out after Threepio.
[Han’s reaction: POSTPONING THE FINISH.]

Notice how a new beat only occurs with a new behavior from one of the characters. Beat six is very long for this reason, as we can boil Han’s action and Leia’s reaction down to Gaining Control/Fighting It. Eight lines are exchanged, but they all constitute a single action/reaction, thus a single beat.

Step 4: Note the Closing Value & Compare to the Opening Value. By the end of this scene, Han has clearly achieved his goal and fulfilled his desire, placing the Control in his hands. As a result, the value charge has shifted to the positive. However, Threepio’s interruption at the end of the scene places Han’s control in a precarious position, leaving it open to an easy turn back to the negative.

Step 5: Survey the Beats and Locate the Turning Point. Here we can list each beat and look for the gap between expectation and result.

The beats are as follows:

  1. Offering Help & Exerting Male Power/Rejecting Help & Exerting Female Power
  2. Belittling Her/Demanding His Respect
  3. Giving Her The Respect/Blowing Off His Gesture
  4. Letting His Guard Down & Pleading/Keeping Her Guard Up But Answering His Plea
  5. Seizing An Opening/Trying To Close It
  6. Gaining Control/Fighting It
  7. Letting Her Quit Gracefully/Giving In To Him
  8. Interrupting/Postponing The Finish

In this sequence of beats, two potential gaps reveal themselves as possible turning points in the scene. In most of the beats, Han’s action results in an opposite reaction from Leia, disappointing him at every turn. In two of the beats, however, this is not the case. In the fourth beat, Leia responds — if somewhat guardedly — to Han’s plea for some positive reassurance. Likewise, in the seventh beat, Han offers her an opportunity to give in and she takes it.

Choosing between these two gaps to determine the turning point poses a challenge. On the one hand, the most forceful shift takes place in the seventh beat, in which Han officially wins his desire. On the other hand, this turn could not happen without the small opening Leia offers in the fourth beat. Indeed, beats five and six represent a slow erosion of Leia’s control as a result of her tactical error in the fourth beat, culminating in Han’s seventh beat success. For this reason, a strong case can be made for the fourth beat as the ultimate turning point in the scene.

Why break a scene into beats? As a director, you may walk into this scene thinking, “This scene is about Han and Leia’s romantic relationship,” but that tells you little of how to direct your actors or infuse the scene with subtext. By breaking the scene into beats, you know the scene is really about seven exchanges of behavior. Seven simple changes that result in a complete paradigm shift between the characters.

1.3.5. Questioning Scene Directions. [Back to Page Topics]

Judith Weston encourages actors and directors to question the scene text. “Taking out the stage directions is like looking at a picture without the caption. It’s provocative. It makes you think.”8 Actors often ignore stage directions entirely, since they’ll have to adhere to the director’s blocking when the scene is shot, and the director’s blocking may conflict with their own reading of the script. Directors shouldn’t ignore the scene text altogether, but they should learn to play with it.

Let’s read the Empire scene without any scene text or parenthetical direction, and see how we feel about it.

          LEIA
     Oh, you make it so difficult sometimes.

          HAN
     I do, I really do. You could be a little
     nicer, though. Come on, admit it. Sometimes
     you think I'm all right.

          LEIA
     Occasionally ... when you aren't acting like
     a scoundrel.

          HAN
     Scoundrel? Scoundrel? I like the sound of that.

          LEIA
     Stop that.

          HAN
     Stop what?

          LEIA
     Stop that! My hands are dirty.

          HAN
     My hands are dirty, too. What are you afraid of?

          LEIA
     Afraid?

          HAN
     You're trembling.

          LEIA
     I'm not trembling.

          HAN
     You like me because I'm a scoundrel. There aren't
     enough scoundrels in your life.

          LEIA
     I happen to like nice men.

          HAN
     I'm a nice man.

          LEIA
     No, you're not.  You're ...

          THREEPIO
     Sir, sir! I've isolated the reverse power flux coupling.

          HAN
     Thank you. Thank you very much.

          THREEPIO
     Oh, you're perfectly welcome, sir.

Contrary to Weston’s description, taking out the scene text is more like reading the captions without seeing the picture or like listening to a radio show. It is, however, provocative. Many questions are raised here, but three in particular: 1) what is Han doing that Leia would like him to stop, and 2) when does Threepio enter? Without the scene directions, Han could be doing anything to Leia’s hands. It also looks as if Threepio interrupts Leia mid-sentence. We get no impression of a kiss whatsoever. And what is Han’s tone when he says, “Thank you. Thank you very much”? In this reading, without scene directions, we could just as easily imagine Han smirking, as if the scene was about him getting Leia riled up with Threepio offering him an exit strategy.

The third and most important question is this: 3) what happened to our turning point? Read without the parenthetical direction “(a little smile, haltingly),” Leia’s line in beat four sounds like a complete blow-off. No door is opened for Han to work his way in through. Clearly, some scene directions are urgent to structure of the scene.

We don’t have to reject scene directions entirely to play with them, however. One can selectively question scene directions by removing the descriptive mode of presentation, leaving only pure report. Let’s read just the scene text without any qualifying language:

Leia finishes welding the valves she has been working on
and attempts to reengage the system by pulling a lever attached
to the valve. It doesn't budge. Han notices her struggle,
and moves to help her. She rebuffs him.

Han hears a new tone in her voice. He watches her pull
on the lever.

She lets go of the lever and rubs her sore hand.

With that, Han takes her hand and starts to massage it.

Leia is flushed, confused.

Han looks at her with a piercing look. He's never looked more
handsome, more dashing, more confident. He reaches out slowly
and takes Leia's hand again from where it is resting on a console.
He draws it toward him.

Then with an irresistible combination of physical strength
and emotional power, the space pirate begins to draw Leia
toward him ... very slowly.

Leia is now very close to Han and as she speaks, her voice
becomes an excited whisper, a tone completely in
opposition to her words.

He kisses her now, with slow, hot lips. He takes his time,
as though he had forever, bending her body backward. She
has never been kissed like this before, and it almost makes
her faint. When he stops, she regains her breath and tries to
work up some indignation, but finds it hard to talk. Suddenly,
Threepio appears in the doorway, speaking excitedly.

Han turns slowly, icily, from their embrace.

The moment spoiled, Han marches out after Threepio.

By selectively scratching out scene text, we create questions for the director to answer. If, for instance, we cross out “sore” in the sentence “She lets go of the lever and rubs her sore hand,” we create a question: why is she rubbing her hand? We take away the context (soreness) and create the possibility of subtext (pretending her hand is sore in order to non-verbally invite Han to touch her). The answer to why is she rubbing her hand is not the obvious — “she hurt it” — but the subtextual — she longs for Han to hold her.

Questioning scene text can also mean adding what isn’t there. Returning to my original concern that Leia is left powerless in the scene as written, I’m particularly bothered by the scene’s ending. After Threepio interrupts them, Han simply walks away leaving Leia in the lurch. We can address this by altering the scene text:

He kisses her now, with slow, hot lips. He takes his time,
as though he had forever, bending her body backward.  She
has never been kissed like this before, and it almost makes
her faint. When he stops, she regains her breath and tries to
work up some indignation, but finds it hard to talk. Suddenly,
Threepio appears in the doorway, speaking excitedly.

          THREEPIO
     Sir, sir! I've isolated the reverse power flux coupling.

As Threepio speaks, Leia slips from Han's embrace and escapes through
the doorway.

Han turns slowly, icily, from their embrace. toward Threepio.

          HAN
     Thank you. Thank you very much.

          THREEPIO
     Oh, you're perfectly welcome, sir.

The moment spoiled, Han marches out after Threepio.

With just a subtle change of scene text, we’ve transformed a Leia who — as originally written — is completely passive after the kiss to a woman who leaves Han dangling on a thread.

1.3.6. Questioning Dialogue. [Back to Page Topics]

Questioning dialogue is trickier than questioning scene text. Screenwriters long for their dialogue to appear on the screen unchanged, and many directors prefer their actors not to improvise. Often times, however, directors find that the dialogue just doesn’t work. It may be by no fault of the writer’s. Perhaps the actor just can’t nail the right delivery, or some other minor change to the scene has rendered the line meaningless in the present context. At one point or another, however, most directors will need to consider alternatives to the written dialogue.

Breaking a scene into beats is the first step to questioning dialogue. If you know what’s at stake in a given beat, you can replace lines without losing important information, or if you want to change the beat, you can do so purposefully.

Sometimes a director won’t want to change the line itself, just the delivery. One way for actors and directors to leave themselves open to new line deliveries is for them to memorize the script without punctuation, with each block of dialogue text committed to memory as a run-on sentence.

Consider just this core exchange in beat four:

          HAN
     I do I really do you could be a little
     nicer though come on admit it sometimes
     you think I'm all right

          LEIA
     occasionally when you aren't acting like
     a scoundrel

By taking out the grammatical rhythm of the lines as written, we’ve allowed ourselves the option of a very different line delivery.

In analyzing the dialogue, looking for triggers and operatives can also help the director and actors understand the shape of the scene. Triggers are words or phrases that provoke a response. Operatives are the words or phrases that directly respond to a trigger. Each actor will look for the triggers in the other person’s lines that prompts his or her responses. Let’s view this exchange from Han’s perspective, with triggers in bold and operatives in italics.

          LEIA
     Oh, you make it so difficult sometimes.

          HAN
     I do, I really do. You could be a little
     nicer, though. Come on, admit it. Sometimes
     you think I'm all right.

          LEIA
     Occasionally ... when you aren't acting like a scoundrel.

          HAN
     Scoundrel? Scoundrel? I like the sound of that.

In identifying the triggers and operatives, we clarify what’s truly at stake in each exchange of active dialogue — we clarify the subtext. Let’s look at them in detail:

  • Leia’s Trigger: “you make it so difficult” (subtext: “you complicate my emotional life”)
  • Han’s Operative: “you think I’m all right” (subtext: “because you want me”)
  • Leia’s Trigger: “when you aren’t acting like a scoundrel” (subtext: “I can’t handle you”)
  • Han’s Operative: “I like the sound of that” (subtext: “because you really want me”)

Not only does this process clarify the shape of a scene, it also creates opportunities for improvisation. As long as the actors both understand the triggers and operatives and include them, they can riff away from the rest of the scripted dialogue if the director permits this.

Sometimes we question a line because it is mysterious to us. It doesn’t seem to fit in. Maybe it strikes us as bad writing. Often times, Judith Weston suggests, these mysterious lines are in fact the key lines to unlocking a scene’s meaning.9 If in reading through a scene you find a bothersome line, concentrate on that line. Maybe you don’t understand it because you don’t understand the scene.

3.1.7. Synthesis. [Back to Page Topics]

Judith Weston suggests three solutions to every scene analysis problem.10 The point is to have not only one plan but multiple backups. Directors may have a clear vision of how a scene should play out only to discover on set that the actors either don’t understand the director’s vision or have a completely different understanding of the scene. In these situations, it is important for the director and actors to work through the problem together and find a mutually agreeable solution. If the director is set in one understanding of the scene, she may be unable to compromise. If she has already considered three different solutions, she has already opened her mind up to multiple scene interpretations.

The work above is for the director or actor to brainstorm privately, and they may draw from these notes on set. The key to success, however, is flexibility. A director does not want to read an entire beat breakdown to her actors. However, if it is clear an important beat isn’t connecting, she’ll be glad she’s done the work above to help address the problem with the cast.

Scene analysis helps the director avoid result-oriented direction, which looks “no further into characterization than describing what the dialogue ‘sounds like.'”11 If I were to tell the actress playing Leia, “sound angry in this scene,” I’m sure to get some very bad acting. The process of analysis gives us better choices. “Hide your feelings from him.” “Blow him off.” “Make him feel insecure.” These are playable directions, but you don’t have these options if you have not done an analysis of the scene.

1.3.8. Discussion Topics. [Back to Page Topics]

The following are suggested key terms and topics of discussion for college courses studying this material.

Key Terms:

  • Beginner’s Mind
  • Big, Fat Fact
  • Beat
  • McKee Beat Breakdown
  • Trigger
  • Operative
  • Mysterious Lines
  • Result-Oriented Direction

Questions:

  • Why is the beginner’s mind stage important?
  • How do beats shape a scene?
  • Why is it useful to question scene text and dialogue?
  • Why should directors avoid result-oriented direction?

1.3.9. Footnotes. [Back to Page Topics]

  1. Mamet, David. On Directing Film. NY: Penguin, 1992. Pg. 1.
  2. Weston, Judith. The Film Director’s Intuition: Script Analysis and Rehearsal Techniques. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2003. Pg. 7. Emphasis original.
  3. Weston, Judith. The Film Director’s Intuition: Script Analysis and Rehearsal Techniques. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2003. Pg.143.
  4. Weston, Judith. The Film Director’s Intuition: Script Analysis and Rehearsal Techniques. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2003. Pg. 14.
  5. Proferes, Nicholas T. Film Directing Fundamentals: From Script to Screen. Woburn, MA: Focal, 2001. Pg. 15.
  6. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 258.
  7. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg.257-287.
  8. Weston, Judith. The Film Director’s Intuition: Script Analysis and Rehearsal Techniques. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2003. Pg.155.
  9. Weston, Judith. The Film Director’s Intuition: Script Analysis and Rehearsal Techniques. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2003. Pg.153.
  10. Weston, Judith. The Film Director’s Intuition: Script Analysis and Rehearsal Techniques. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2003. Pg.80.
  11. Weston, Judith. The Film Director’s Intuition: Script Analysis and Rehearsal Techniques. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2003. Pg.76.

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