Thursday, April 08, 2010


Clarity. You should always be searching for clarity in your writing. I read a script the other day where two characters had very similar names, which of course made them easily confused. For me, I don't even usually give two characters the same first letter of their name, but that's because I'm lazy and I just like to hit "B" and let MovieMagic fill in the rest. It won't do that right if there's more than one B. But I always try to make sure my names are very different from each other because you don't have an actor's face to help you differentiate.

It's not just names, though. Take a war movie. All those white brown-haired men with helmets on and dirt on their face get really tough to tell apart. Give each one a personality trait we can all cling to and somehow they become individuals. Saving Private Ryan does an excellent job of this.

That extends sometimes to production stuff as well. I was watching The Eagle Has Landed the other day, and the cast consisted of Americans, British actors and probably some real Germans, and they were all playing Nazis. Robert Duvall wore the stereotypical German uniform, had an eye patch and spoke with a very clear German accent. Okay, he's German. But then another guy came in with a very distinct British accent dressed in a uniform most people are unfamiliar with - I believe it was a German naval uniform but wasn't sure - and they discussed kidnapping Winston Churchill.

Winston Churchill is British. This guy was British. I was confused. Is he a spy? It took me like four minutes of careful listening and thinking to realize he was supposed to be German as well. Then we got a scene of Michael Caine, who is also British, with some kind of hybrid accent and wearing a completely different unfamiliar uniform, and he's saving Jews from concentration camps. Then Donald Sutherland shows up and speaks with an Irish accent. But he's actually playing an Irishman.

It took a good while for me to sort this mess out in my head. That's casting and the actors more than the screenwriter, but I think one of the big problems I had with this mix of characters is that the beginning of the film was so talky. They keep naming characters who aren't in the scene so when we finally meet those characters I'm not sure - is this the guy they were talking about? Is he German too? I don't know because he has a British accent. This is something the writer can head off.

We can't always control the cast but we can control, to some degree anyway, what comes out of their mouths. We need to make sure it leaves no room for confusion.


  1. good point. Scott says I'm to vauge, but I think he just doesn't listen. :)

    We are going to be in LA-4-15 to 4-17 for LA Comedy Shorts Festival.

    Are you going to any of the event?


  2. Thanks Emily, it is a good reminder to stick to clear messages and characters in the script although I must confess I got a bit confused when you started talking about the unfortunate casting. But as you say, it's true we have to let go of that in the end and the clearer our writing perhaps the easier it will be regardless of the casting to have out story shine through.

    Cheers from Aarhon, (an aspiring screenwriter in Sydney)

  3. I've heard this called making a script 'actor proof', as if the actors were setting out to ruin the story or something. But if something isn't clear to the director, to the casting agent, or to the actor then you can surely expect all of them will come up with different solutions to the problem - and they'll all be different than what you meant to say.

  4. Does the blame lie with the production or the ignorance of youth? I’d have to say the latter. And I don’t mean to be rude but this is one of the funniest things I’ve read in ages.

    Your first blunder is identifying every German character as a Nazi. Without turning this into a long history lesson, not everyone in Germany at that time, either in the services or civilians, was a member of the Nazi Party.

    In the armed services there was also a difference between the regular Wehrmacht and the (Nazi) Waffen-SS, with the former not always seeing eye–to–eye with the latter. If you look at a lot of the war movies from that era, especially the sort of Boy’s Own adventures like The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare they also show tensions between the high-ranking regular army officers and the token member of the SS.

    If you had a problem with the uniforms, Duvall’s character isn’t wearing a “stereotypical” uniform. He’s simply wearing a regular officer’s uniform. The “another guy” – who is Sir Anthony Quayle, by the way – is immediately addressed as “Herr admiral” by every other character, hence the naval officer’s uniform.

    The only character they talk up before introducing is Michael Caine’s Kurt Steiner. Already established as being a decorated paratrooper, when he and his men first appear they are wearing reversible winter uniforms. The fact that there is snow outside and they are travelling through Poland, obviously on the way back from Russia, is a bit of a clue.

    Here’s the thing with the accents... Usually for these kinds of films they needed one or two American stars to help sell it to American audiences. Whereas English actors would usually just add a slight German lilt to their voice, Americans tended to elicit a much stronger affectation to disguise their own accent.

    If you had problems with The Eagle Has Landed, the recent Valkyrie must have confused the hell out of you. Especially since little Tommy Cruise starts off in the light–sand coloured uniform of the Afrika Korps, fighting alongside King Theoden.

  5. Good Dog, that's all well and good, but you cannot possibly expect your audience to know that much about any era if you want them to enjoy a film. I shouldn't have to study before I go see a movie. It should be clear, which is what this post is about.

  6. haha you are funny, I'm going to read this from now on.


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