Archive for month: February, 2016

What’s My Line?

01 Feb
February 1, 2016

I wrote this up some months ago, at the time that the “Show Me A Hero” miniseries was broadcast on HBO, but then held the essay back for the simple reason that viewers were still acquiring the narrative. After all, nothing is more distracting to the viewing of any edifice than to stumble through a side door and be confronted by all the interior scaffolding, if not evidence of an architect’s early mistakes and lesser intentions. But as the miniseries has now been airing for six months — and as the DVD release of “Show Me A Hero” is slated for tomorrow — I’m guessing that any little extra attention to detail can only be a good thing. And, oh yeah, SPOILERS:

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Most of the time, writing for film or television – if the writer retains a producer’s title on the set – is a straight, simple negotiation: Here’s the page. Say the lines. Yes, like you mean them, as a good actor would. You’re a good actor, right? Of course you are. That’s why we wanted you. So, you talented, photogenic prick motherfucker, say the fucking lines the way they were fucking written and then we can all go to the bar pretending to be friends.

Okay, so it isn’t quite that totalitarian.

And yes, the actor has to believe in the pages, and yes again, he or she is entirely correct to raise questions when a line or a scene bumps, when something seems emotionally inconsistent or implausibly plotted. Good actors live in those characters, or at least reside in the general vicinity; if they aren’t comfortable in the skin of their intricately created personas, then yes, perhaps, there’s a scene or three that needs rewriting.

Filmed narrative is intensely collaborative. And the script is just a script; until you film the sonofabitch, it doesn’t actually exist in a form that matters to anyone. So it makes sense to stay reasonable, and to open one’s ears to any actor who is thinking carefully about character, or perhaps even story, especially when the questions are selfless, and sincere, and in service of the greater whole. Every now and then, the actor is right.

It’s quite annoying when this happens.

And not because I hate to be wrong any more or less than the next man. Though I do. I hate it more than the next man because the next man is usually not right, and quite often he’s astonishingly and epically incorrect, which is, of course, why he’s The Next Man. If he were right, he’d be this man – me. Which would make me, I suppose, the next man – and if I was that ignorant rube, then okay, I’d shut my pie hole because I’d fucking realize that as The Next Man, my weak-sister argument is no match for this keen-witted fellow who is savaging me intellectually and rhetorically. Understand, I say all of this with the humility of a gentleman who wants at all points to be agreeable and kindhearted, to be yoked in tender harness to any and every soul in our divine human comedy. Seriously, I’d love nothing more than to agree with my Next Man brethren at every point possible. I would. But then we’d both be fucking wrong.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that the thing about me letting an actor be right is he damn well better be right. When he makes a choice to go off book or omit some element of the storytelling, he better be servicing not just his character, but the narrative to which that character is in service. He or she better be so sure of the decision and its effect on the entire story that directors and film editors and producers aren’t sitting in a dark room months later cursing some Hobson’s Choice in a scene that is missing the necessary elements. I’ve been there. And rest assured, it will not be only the Hobson’s Choice that I’m cursing.

On the other hand, the good actors do know their business. And their business is something so ineffable and extraordinary that when they completely understand a role and the purpose of that role in the context of a story, an argument or two about some dialogue or action is probably unavoidable.

And with that preamble, I’d going to tell a story on myself and a couple of actors and a director because, hey, I’m not sure they ever get around to teaching this stuff in film school. Maybe they do. I wouldn’t know having never been within rock-throwing distance of a film school. Regardless, it strikes me as a pretty good primer for anyone interested in the inside baseball of filming. What follows is a bit of how we actually do.

The actors are Oscar Isaac and Winona Ryder and the director, Paul Haggis. The project is the “Show Me A Hero” miniseries recently broadcast on HBO. And the scene in question is the culminating, confrontational moment of a storyline involving the characters played by Isaac and Ryder, the ex-mayor of Yonkers, Nick Wasicsko and his longtime political ally and friend, Vinni Restiano, respectively.

Cornered at the end of his political career, Wasicsko has decided to run against Restiano for the Yonkers council president, and Restiano, finding him alone at a bar, confronts him with the betrayal.

“I gotta ask you,” Restiano says angrily, “do you actually believe in anything other than yourself?”

After which, in the script, I wrote a line for Wasicsko, at the bar alone, after Restiano has stormed away: “What makes you think I believe in myself.”

It is an overt line. Too much so. And as Haggis pointed out when we were contemplating the script prior to filming, no one actually talks to themselves aloud in a bar in such fashion. Nonetheless, I was determined to hang on to the line – at least through the filming of it. Why?

Because – and here we come to the spoiler, so read on only if you know the end of the story or don’t care to watch the series – in a few subsequent scenes, Nick Wasicsko will take his own life. And singularly among all of human behavior, ending one’s own existence, absent, say, a clear and required act of martyrdom, is a choice that affronts and repels viewers. The compulsion to argue against even a careful established narrative construct for suicide, with all the requisite tells and clues, is so powerful that any story that concludes with a willful act of self-destruction risks a corresponding backwash of disbelief and disconnect by the audience.

The solution to Paul’s very valid note was to rewrite the moment so that Wasicsko delivers the line directly to Restiano in reply: “What makes you think I believe in myself?” In such a reading, the line is delivered without belligerence, as a wry attempt to parry the insult with self-effacing humor, to convince Restiano to sit and share a drink and maintain the friendship in spite of all. A line-read such as that is plausible, and while it doesn’t reveal fully the depth of the self-loathing required to take one’s own life, it feeds the storyline by speaking the words aloud and leaving them there to be slowly absorbed by the audience, and to remain in evidence as the tragedy takes its final turn.

Having contemplated the whole of the story for months with great care, Oscar Isaac was nonetheless unconvinced even by this sardonic reading of the line and after revisions were published, he mentioned his concern, to which I replied, with all the manipulative and false equanimity to which an executive producer is entitled: “Okay. We’ll get it both ways.”

Behold, the ultimate argument against committing too early to either a writer’s or actor’s choice. Why decide now? Let’s wait for the close coverage of a line or action in question and then film it both ways. Yours and mine. Then, when film editing the whole of the narrative later, we can assess the storyline and our execution of it, and make the proper choice.

The only problem from the actor’s point of view is, of course, he has to trust in the wit and taste of the director and producer; he won’t be in the editing room to participate in the final decision on which take to use. By offering the variations in the first place, he’s opening the door to differing outcomes. What if the writer is unwilling to kill one of his writerly lines, even if it impairs performance? What if a director is unwilling to kill a more dramatic moment, or worse, a pretty shot, for the sake of a real or authentic one? What if someone’s special, blessed baby needs to be murdered in the crib and no one has the stomach to do the deed?

As seasoned and as talented an actor as we have, Oscar Isaac was working with Haggis and myself for the first time. Trust goes only as far as it does in such circumstances, and on the day of filming – at the rehearsal of the scene, in fact – it became clear enough that he did not want to give up the line.

Paul came to me with the actor’s adamant objections.

“I think we’ll get it in the performance,” the director offered, trying to ameliorate the standoff. “I don’t think we’ll need the line.”

I couldn’t be sure. A subsequent scene involving Wasicsko’s further breakdown as he returned to his home and sat alone with his own thoughts – this had yet to be filmed. Therefore, I couldn’t yet know what Oscar was going to bring to that moment. Would there be enough in that scene – which offered little in the way of dialogue – to convey Wasicsko’s deep rage and loathing, as well as his final resolve? If I walked away from this barroom scene without even a passable read of the overt line, would I be cursing Isaac and Haggis later, trying to vindicate the narrative without all the necessary assets? Get your choices now, or go without them forever.

I went over to Oscar to make my pitch.

“You may be right. I may not need it,” I argued, “but suicide affronts an audience as few other things do.   How are they going to be reconciled to the character’s choice if we aren’t explicit enough?”

Oscar showed real irritation with me for the first and only time in the long weeks of filming: “How?’ he said. “Acting.”

Christ. He was offended by the suggestion that he might not be able to convey the interior of his character’s disjointed and desperate mind — either in the last look of this bar scene, or in the soon-to-be-filmed sequence in the Wasicsko home. I was doubting him. Trust, it seems, runs both ways.

“I’m not saying that line,” he declared with finality.

I went back to the video monitors, frustrated and angry. Haggis tried to carry water for me, going to Oscar and asking for a take or two with Oscar’s best read on the line, if only in the spirit of compromise. But the actor was still ambivalent.

To this point a bystander to the debate, Winona Ryder found me at the monitors and immediately registered my mood.

“Do you think you need it?” she asked of the line.

“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “Maybe not. But this is suicide that we are trying to explain, and if it isn’t selling and we leave here without it, we can never come back for it, can we?”

Winona is as much a pro as Oscar; at this point, she’s had nearly three decades of this stuff. So being as good as she is at her craft, it’s entirely likely that she saw right through what I did next. But hey, maybe not. Because while I’m not an actor by any means, I was, in a previous life, a pretty good newspaperman; ergo my skill-set of honed, manipulative, shit-eating gamesmanship is not inconsiderable. I have talked sealed grand jury reports out of federal prosecutors and story confirmations out the most tight-assed FBI agents. In a pinch, I can get a Northern District desk sergeant to log on to the computer and pull a half dozen full criminal histories of private citizens.

I commenced to pout.

“I don’t know why the fuck I’m even here in Yonkers,” I vented to Ryder. “I might as well be back in Baltimore if the script isn’t the script and if I’m here to be ignored. I mean, why am I even up here every fucking day sitting here at a monitor if this is what it is.”

There’s an old saw that I use on actors about all of this, an easy parable about how we’re all just tools in the box – the writer, the actors, the props, the camera lenses – that none of us actually matter unto ourselves, that it doesn’t matter if one doorway is perfectly plumb, or if the mantle is beautifully trimmed, or the balustrade elegantly finished. What matters is the house we’re building — the whole of the house. It’s all that ever matters.

I threw some of the house metaphor at Winona. She nodded politely and quickly; she’d no doubt heard it before, perhaps from me earlier in the production, and certainly elsewhere in her time wandering the vast diaspora of filmmaking. The house talk isn’t original to me; not even close. I forget where or when I acquired it, but no doubt it was cribbed it from some other ink-stained screenwriter.

And yet I fired that old chestnut up and then, in a manner that probably conjured for Winona Ryder some of the most amateurish thespianism this side of dinner theater, I looked away from her with what I imagined was a look of wounded, self-loathing commensurate to what Oscar would soon be summoning for this scene. I tried my best to play as wrecked and tortured a writer as might exist.

Winona then went back to Oscar, arguing with her fellow actor that he could find a good, throwaway reading of the line, that it could work, that he could trust us not to use the take if it didn’t. She later told me that she even started to invoke the house-building metaphor, but Oscar looked at her with the weariness of a combat veteran: “Not the house speech,” he said, rolling eyes.

He also chided her for switching sides, with a remark that she later admitted was guilt-inducing: “So now you’re playing for the other team, huh?”

Later, I would find myself amused and a little surprised to hear the dynamic acknowledged so explicitly by an actor, but I’m not really sure why. Every screen or television writer I know tells tales in which the actors are ever portrayed as the Unreliable Other. Why should actors think differently about these games within the game? In any event, Winona Ryder had wandered across the neutral ground, advocating selflessly for the scribblers and shot-listers, and therefore, to some extent, against her own colleague and calling. Learning as much, I felt wrong for having done my backhanded best to enlist her, but here and now, at least, I’ll credit her last, gentle appeal to Oscar with having achieved the outcome.

Because after devouring several takes that omitted the dialogue in dispute – ending each with a look of such deep shame that there could be no mistaking his character’s lethal despair – I found myself startled to hear Nick Wasicsko throw the line back at Vinni Restiano on a read that worked beautifully. It was wounded but flippant, a retort that clearly and credibly sought to make light of a deep insult and maintain the normalcy of an old friendship. The extra line even worked without punching holes in Winona’s opposing and equally marvelous performance; though Restiano had to contain herself long enough to wait on Wasicsko’s reply to her question, her fury at the flippant answer fueled a savage, visceral exit. Oscar’s read of the line and Winona’s reaction to it both made actual sense, and in giving it up, Oscar had granted me an honest choice.

“You won’t need it,” Haggis said again after we had the take.

“Probably not.”

And we didn’t. A week later we shot the ensuing scene in the upstairs bedroom and Oscar Isaac delivered an extended, agonizing nervous breakdown that culminated in a moment of grievous surrender. Everything we needed to make sense of a man’s choice to self-destruct was therefore evident without a scripted utterance. Later, in editing, I watched the alternate take from the bar scene one last time, listening as a great actor landed a clever but unnecessary line. A writer’s line. A beautiful, fatted, blue-eyed baby of a line.

Lose it, I told the editor.

I like to imagine that I’ll work with these fine actors on some future project, that every line and gesture in every future script will be butter, that we’ll go from scene to scene agreeing amiably on every single notion. But, no, that’s impossible and ridiculous. More plausibly, I’d like believe that by carefully enveloping and achieving a line that I actually didn’t need, two actors had earned enough of my trust that I might be more assured of their insight and sense, and too, that by discarding their gift to me once it was given, I’d earned their respect for my own restraint and taste. Next time, I’d like to believe, it isn’t going to be so fraught. Next time, we’ll all know each other better. Next time will be easy.

Yeah, no. They’re actors.  You gotta keep an eye on those fuckers.

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And congratulations to Oscar Isaac for his receiving a Golden Globe Award for his work in “Show Me A Hero.” No, really, I mean that genuinely.  For real.   – DS