Writing Like Cassavetes

30 Mar

When I have a question regarding actors or acting, I often call my friend Sarah.  She’s an incredibly talented actor with tremendous experience.  More importantly, she truly understands the craft of acting and what actors need.

Traditionally, a script is finalized before actors are cast.  Though some revisions are made, actors generally have little control over their lines and action.  On the other hand, filmmaker John Cassavetes thoroughly discussed and workshopped his scripts with his actors, resulting in countless rewrites.  Contrary to popular belief, actors did not simply improvise their lines in a Cassavetes film; they definitely used a script.  However, through collaboration with Mr. Cassavetes, they were integral in developing and creating their characters and dialogue.

I met with Sarah last week and discussed my interest in approaching my film similar to John Cassavetes.  I believe beginning with a loose script and workshopping it with actors is the way to go.  Sarah agreed.  She recommended I outline my plot and hone in on my characters.  Then, once I develop a first draft, she encouraged me to go forth with casting.

Thanks to Sarah, I have fully committed to this approach and hope to begin auditioning actors within a few short weeks.  Rather than abide strictly to a previously contrived script, most dialogue and action will be collaboratively developed with my actors.  And stay tuned: I will post audition and rehearsal videos, so you can partake in the collaborative process as well.

Below are some relevant thoughts by John Cassavetes in Cassavetes on Cassavetes by Ray Carney (2001, pg. 216):

I love the last line and couldn’t agree more, though at times being “locked in” might be a good thing…  What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.



6 Responses to “Writing Like Cassavetes”

  1. Mark Stolaroff April 5, 2010 at 2:31 am #

    Hey Chris, reading your excerpt from Cassavetes I am reminded of the film that nobody saw, “Some Body,” Henry Barrial’s first feature that I became a producer on once Next Wave Films (the company I was with at the time) became involved. This little film–in every way you could describe it as such–a precursor to Mumblecore, embodies those words perfectly and in fact, Cassavetes was a hero and an inspiration to the three filmmakers who made it. Yes, Cassavetes says to throw out the writer, but in “Some Body,” just about everyone else was thrown out, too. The “Some Body” set was a crew of two: Henry (the director) on one camera (Canon XL-1’s) and Geoff Pepos (the DP, Editor, & Composer) on another. Everyone else on the “set” were actors. The story was inspired by lead actress Stephanie Bennett’s life, and many of the actors in the film were playing versions of themselves from that part of her life. There was no written script, just an outline. Never a line of dialogue was written. The actors in the film were trained at improvisation and an extensive amount of prep was taken to flesh out the story. Henry would interview the actors, digging for interesting details of their lives to exploit in the film. This was gutsy work, and some of the revelations on screen were startling. Ultimately, the film was made for $3,000, and premiered in Dramatic Competition at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, a coup for this kind of film. It was the first film of its kind to premiere in Competition, and the first digitally shot and projected film ever in Competition. Unfortunately, you can’t see it anywhere. The film was a hit in Park City and Lot 47 Films, Jeff Lipsky’s company, picked it up for distribution. They spent a lot of money on marketing and releasing it theatrically, but the release ultimately wasn’t that successful, and because of some other poor-performing releases, the company pretty much folded, with the principals–Jeff and his two brothers–leaving the company and its assets to a non-film guy who had come on board as an investor. This guy has never transferred the rights of the film to anyone else, and he never released it on home video. So unless you saw it at Sundance or a couple of other festivals, or saw it during it’s brief theatrical run in one of the 15 or so cities, or caught it late at night on IFC where it ran for about a year, then you missed something really special.

    The interesting thing about the work on “Some Body” is how different that methodology was from what Henry employed on our current film “Pig.” You were on that set so you know it was a whole different deal. “Pig” is a very different film from “Some Body,” and the script was more important to the kind of movie being made. But Henry has never lost interest in actors or acting. To him, and to me, performances are still the top priority. The rest is just there to support that. You don’t have anything if you don’t have good acting.

    • Christopher April 5, 2010 at 3:45 pm #

      Very interesting, Mark. I’ve always wanted to watch Some Body. True Love is excellent; however, not as innovative, it sounds, as Some Body, which is why I’m so intrigued. I’m so bummed there is no way to watch it. And it’s initial success is amazing. I can’t believe it was the first digitally shot film in Sundance Competition. That’s huge.

      I’ll definitely have to talk to Henry when the time comes. The method he employed sounds incredible. I’d love some pointers from him. And I’m looking forward to watching Pig! Exciting indeed.

  2. Fraser Orr March 30, 2010 at 4:50 pm #

    “Scripts lock you in and subject you to your own thinking”
    Someone should really tell this to Charlie Kaufman. In all his films, especially Synecdoche, he and his characters are both stuck in his head and unable to really interact.

    Writers and directors have to be a little humble and let the actor bring something of themselves to the role. If you’re more committed to what’s on the page than what the actors can bring, you won’t get a true performance.

    • Christopher March 30, 2010 at 5:54 pm #

      Agreed. Again from Cassavetes, page 153: “We’d shoot whenever the actors were ready. We were slaves to them. The filming consisted only of recording what they did. We put ourselves completely at their disposal.” How freaking amazing is that???!!! I love Cassavetes! Thanks for the comment…

  3. Miguel N. March 30, 2010 at 1:04 pm #

    That’s an amazing way of aproaching the writing process. Cassavetes doesn’t tell you not to use a script. It’s just inviting actors to be involved at an early stage in the moviemaking process. Besides, if you have the chance to work with great actors, the movie and characters might reach a greater label of truth.
    Regardless, the director has to be confident on knowing what he wants and where he wants to lead those characters and actors.
    This approach to rewriting is exciting.
    It reminds me to the collaboration between director and actors at the theatre. Even though there is a writen play, the way of putting the pieces togheter are infinite. In many cases is a collaboration attached to the theatre convention and the use of the space.

    • Christopher March 30, 2010 at 5:48 pm #

      Miguel, Cassavetes also states this, on page 217: “I believe in improvising on the basis of the written word and not on undisciplined creativity.” I love that. There really is a place for the script as an organizational device and a launching pad, if you will. However, when combined with collaboration, the possibilities are infinite, as you say….

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