So following on from Part 1, you’re watching a take of your scene in your show and an actor keeps saying a line in a weird way, or the ‘wrong way’. This happens, although less than you might think because of the process leading up to this moment.
You’ve probably been in on the casting of your show so hopefully you’re happy with the actor playing the part and what they bring to it. Bear in mind the actor is only really thinking about their character’s perspective which, at first, seems sociopathic, but is both legitimate and very useful. They can, will and should question the logic of lines, whether their character would do or say the lines that you’ve written. The ‘What’s my motivation?’ is a cliché, but it’s true. Every line needs to be motivated by character, story and logic, rather than being a useful transition line or being a bit of exposition.
Maybe the line is fine – but the logic of it isn’t clear from what's on the page. If that’s explained, that might help. Sometimes, a direction in the script will help eg. “NICK (like a sullen teenager) Just doing my best.” TV is made fast and there isn’t time to stop over every line and talk about it, so a bit of direction on the page can speed things along. But if you do it too much, it looks like you, as the writer, don’t trust the actors to find the line, or the director to direct the actors. So you need to find a balance.
Many of the problems can be ironed out before shooting. After the cast have rehearsed the scene on set, there’s a rehearsal for the crew (including you) to watch. After that, there should be a quick huddle with the producer and director and you have a chance to make suggestions. Eg. ‘Barry is saying that line about the fence-post a bit weirdly. He should play it as if he’s angry rather than puzzled. Does that make sense?’ And the director will be able to convey that note to the actor if they think it’s going to help. Remember, as the writer, you know what makes your characters tick. The director knows what makes the actors tick and how to get the best performance out of them – so you do your job and let them do theirs.
Staging an Intervention
Sometimes, you will want to intervene – and this is normally fine, if done right and respectfully. Don’t muscle in and talk to actors. I personally wouldn’t even talk to the director directly unless he asks me directly. The directors has got 1001 other things to think about – mostly how to shoot the scene from enough angles in the time allotted, which is never enough. You’re probably sitting with the producer. Talk to them. They’ll have thoughts of their own – and they’ll know the best time to talk to the director between takes.
There are times when the line just isn’t going to be said right – in your opinion. It may work well for other people, or feel more truthful in the scene. If it sounds weird and wrong, it might be cut in the edit. But don’t dwell on it. This actor who’s mangled one of your jokes has probably done something brilliant with a different line somewhere else in the script, turning a straight line into a joke with a tone of voice. Or reacted to line a really funny way. Let go of that line. In a half hour sitcom, you should really should have about 100 jokes. So there are others.
No 'I' in Team, (but there is 'me')
You are a team: You (the writer), the producer and the director – and the cast. That’s why you need to be careful who you work with in the first place. The key relationship is between the writer and the producer. It’s always flattering and exciting to have a producer interested in your idea, but if you feel they’re constantly pulling the show into a direction you’re not happy with, or you think they’re a jerk or incompetent, stop. Think. Do you really want to work with someone for hours, weeks, months, constantly making decisions together, the result of which will be broadcast on national television? Probably not. Although frankly, it still beats real work.