Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Writing Parts for Movie Stars

Aspiring screenwriters sometimes feel like there must be a secret password that working screenwriters know to get into the inner circle of the industry. I once felt the same way – and sometimes still do!  Well, there’s no secret password.  But working screenwriters do think about things that aspiring screenwriters often don’t.  These are things that are required to be a useful part of the industry; things that are needed to get movies made and sell them to audiences.  One of these things is writing parts that will appeal to movie stars.

Like it or not, this is still largely a star driven industry, even if the power of stars has waned a little in recent years.  That doesn’t mean every film needs a movie star to get made.  It depends on genre.  Dramas, biopics, buddy pics and romantic comedies almost always need stars.  Big popcorn movies based on underlying material, superhero movies, horror movies, and high concept broad comedies don’t (though often they have them anyway just to be on the safe side).

In other genres it depends.  Usually the higher the concept, the less the need for a star.  It’s about marketing.  If the studio can sell the movie based on the concept alone, then they might make it without a big star.  If not, they want someone they can get on talk shows and that will get the audience’s attention in posters and on billboards. 

So how do you write a part that will attract a star?  Here are a few techniques.

1) Consider the movie star demographic.  If your main character is a sixty-year-old Chinese woman, it’s going to be hard to cast a star.  Of course your premise will dictate your character’s age and gender to a certain degree.  You can’t compromise the premise to try to shoehorn Robert Downey Jr. into the role.  Most characters can and should be written color blind when it comes to race, but not all.  Once you’ve decided what demographic is best for the main character of your story, try to imagine at least six top stars that could play them.  If you can’t, see if you can adjust the demographic to be more star inclusive.  If you absolutely still can’t, see if the second biggest part can be made into a star vehicle.  Sometimes stars don't mind playing the second banana if it's a really juicy role.

2) Make the character someone we can root for.  Stars want to play characters people will love.  How do you make a character we’ll root for?  Give them a noble goal.  Make them an underdog.  Give them a “save the cat” moment early on where we can see they have a good heart.  Give them an identifiable, relatable emotional core – they’re in love, for example.  Give them character traits we admire – a sense of humor, altruism, coolness, strength, loyalty, expertise in an impressive skill.  You don’t have to do all of these, but each of these techniques will make the character more appealing to the audience and thus more appealing to the movie star.

3) Give the character an arc.  This is sort of the counter balance to number 2.  Stars want to play someone with complexity, not a one-dimensional goody two shoes.  The character needs to have a flaw, one that they’ll overcome by the end of the movie.  Just make sure the flaw's not so bad we won't root for them anymore.

4) The character should express a variety of emotions.  Stars are actors.  Actors like to exercise their craft in a variety of ways.  If your character is always angry or always stoic then you’re only giving your star one thing to play (and probably not creating a very realistic character to boot.)  Give the character some emotional range.

5) Give the character an entrance.  Now we’re getting down to the more specific techniques.  You want to give stars scenes that they’re dying to play.  A grand entrance is just such a scene.  Stars have as much ego as any of us – and usually more.   For more on creating an entrance, see my post on character introductions.

6) Give the character a Big Speech.  Another type of scene that draws actors is the chance to deliver a stirring monologue.  You have to be careful, though.  Too much speechifying is a turn off to the actor and the audience.  Nobody likes a blabbermouth.  Give them one big moment to shine, and make it later in the script when you’ve earned it through the build of the story.  And then make that speech a knockout.

7) Give the main character the best lines (and not the exposition).  The star wants to make the funniest jokes and toss out the wittiest bon mots.  And they won’t get excited about delivering the boring exposition.  Give the best dialogue to the main character and let the minor characters do the grunt work.  (This doesn’t mean a minor character can never make a joke, just be sure the star has the bulk of the great lines.)

Writing star parts is one of the skills required of a professional.  Maybe that bothers your artistic sensibilities and that’s fine… as long as you don’t care if anybody buys your scripts or turns them into movies.  And in a lot of ways the things that make a role interesting to a movie star are the same things that will make a character interesting to an audience.  Master the star vehicle and you will have one of those secret passwords that gets you into the inner circle.

Next time I’ll give some examples of how a few movies used these techniques.

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