James Manos at Banff, Part ThreeComplications Ensue
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Friday, June 25, 2010

(Continuing my notes from the James Manos master class at the Banff Worldwide Television Festival...)

Manos stressed that he never writes with an actor in mind. “I can’t write with Bobby DeNiro in mind. I know the person, but it’s an amorphous vision.”

That makes sense to me. Producers sometimes ask me if I have cast in mind. I find it a bit dangerous to write for a star. If you’re writing for Jack Nicholson, for example, who invests so much personality in his delivery, you might tend to underwrite the lines. Underwriting the lines is exactly what you want to do if you actually have Jack Nicholson, or Clint Eastwood, or even Dennis Leary. But if you’re trying to create a character in the reader’s mind, you have to write dialog that is as distinctive as possible — not just only lines that that character would say, but lines that only that character would say.

If you get to write for a star, of course, it’s a joy. When I wrote lines for Colm Feore for BON COP / BAD COP, I knew what he’d be able to do with them.

Manos’s first choice for DEXTER, in fact, was Greg Kinnear; he thought Michael Hall was too nice a guy to play a cold serial killer.

(Actors run into this all the time. Even though we all know they’re actors and that they play characters, we sometimes assume they’re best basically playing themselves. Some actors can only play themselves, more or less. But I know one actress who was rejected because “we’re looking for a blonde.” And a francophone casting director told Lisa a funny story about a francophone actor whom she refused to ever cast in English projects because he was so Québecois. The guy had to call back pretending to be an American actor who’d just moved to Montreal; only at the end of the phone call did he admit he was the guy she knew.)

Manos stressed how important it is for actors to have solid theatrical craft. He basically feels you shouldn’t show up in Hollywood until you’ve spent years in New York doing theater. (Theater in LA tends to be second rate because the actors are only doing it in order to be seen by casting directors, and they quit the shows as soon as they get a gig.) “Michael Hall was singing cabaret in New York when we cast him.”

Manos doesn’t read spec episodic scripts. He’s only interested in reading “a script that shows your voice ... that shows your anger. Be committed to what the story is. You can tell when a writer doesn’t really care. Is this really what happened to you? Is this what your really felt? You can tell when someone’s really lived through it.”

He also finds that a major flaw in scripts he reads is “geography. ... I’m reading a script and I’m thinking, where am I? A moment ago I was in an alley. Make sure the reader sees what you see. You are writing pictures. Stop, now and then, and look at the imaginary screen. Where is he? Where is she? It’s a lost art. If a character shows up in the middle of the scene and he wasn’t there before, I stop reading, because I know the writer isn’t really seeing the scene.”

In the ‘whatever works for you’ department, Manos doesn’t like outlines. “Outlines are deadly for me. I know the beginning, middle and end, but then I like to write. Too many drafts and pieces get overdeveloped. I’m also not a fan of telling people what I’m working on. I do believe the more you talk about something the less chance it’s going to get done. You lose the inspiration to finish the piece. I think writing a very specific outline is killing yourself.”

(Yeah, that’s a direct contradiction to my “pitch your project over and over” advice. And if pitching your project makes it lose its juice for you, don’t do it. On the other hand, having read literally thousands of scripts, I would say that 90% to 95% of them would have benefited from being pitched at least a few times out loud.)

“And executives make you stick to the outline. You become a slave to your own outline. Let me find my way through it. I knew where I’ll end up.”

Manos agrees with Hemingway: don’t end your day’s work by finishing a scene. If you know how the scene will end, leave it for the next morning. That way you’ll start the day finishing something and feel good and have momentum, instead of starting with a problem you don’t know how to solve.

Manos does another thing I don’t do and don’t recommend. He starts every day rereading from page one, and rewriting and polishing anything he doesn’t like.

Personally, I don’t reread anything while I’m writing it. I find it slows me down. The only time I’ll look at something from a previous day is if I need to put in a setup for a payoff I just invented.

Manos’s technique results in fairly polished first drafts. Mine results in very fast first drafts that I can start tinkering with. For inexperienced writers, rewriting from page one is dangerous, I think. I think it’s really important to finish things before you start criticizing them. Reading your first draft can be demoralizing. But also, endlessly polishing your first draft can feel more rewarding than writing new pages; but it doesn’t get you to the end.

Manos doesn’t write on index cards. He hangs butcher paper on all his walls, and then writes on his walls. “Until you actually see the whole movie, you can’t write it. I write down character stuff, scenes, all around the office in different color inks. You wouldn’t be able to read it, but I can. When I can see the entire movie on the wall, I can write it.”

Manos says “You can learn more watching a bad movie than a good one. You can watch THE GODFATHER for two hours and never know what happened to you. But a bad movie, you’ll watch and think, don’t do that, that didn’t work, I could fix that...”

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Some really interesting stuff here... Kinnear as Dexter? Wow. Part of what makes Dexter great is that Hall has the perfect physicality for the role. Kinnear certainly has the acting chops, but it would be a little like watching Brosnan as Bond -- you just don't believe he can knock anyone out with one punch.

Does Manos contradict himself regarding outlines? An outline scrawled on the wall on butcher paper, is still an outline n'est pas?

Great series of posts, thanks.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:54 PM  

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