Thursday, November 29, 2012

Trust the audience

The Hollywood Reporter recently posted a fantastic roundtable interview with directors Gus Van Sant, Ben Affleck, Quentin Tarantino, Ang Lee, Tom Hooper and David O. Russell.  In my humble opinion, the whole thing is worth a look, but there's one section in particular I want to highlight.

THR: How do you deal with executive interference? When Django was running three hours and Harvey Weinstein was pressuring you to bring it lower, how did you handle that? 

Tarantino: It's not a big deal. I didn't want a three-hour movie, either. It's a big epic and everything, so I figured it would be around 2:45, and that's what it is. When you're cutting it down, at that moment in time, before you watch it with an audience, you know it's too long, but you can't imagine taking anything out. So then you watch it with an audience, and then all of a sudden -- "Oh, wow, that is kind of boring now!" or "No, this is not as suspenseful by the time we got to it as it needs to be." 

But you can only go so far in the Avid room on your own. At some point, you have to watch it with an audience. And then literally 15 minutes just come flying out, where before you couldn't imagine a minute leaving. (Laughter.) 

Russell: You sit through one of those screenings where all of a sudden everyone's bored, and then you come back and just like … 

 Tarantino: "I mean, guys, the story could never make sense if you take one more minute out of it!" And then you watch the movie and 15 minutes are gone by noon the next day! (Laughter.)

This is why I'm a big believer in doing table reads of your script once you've gotten it to the point where you can't imagine making any further changes.  Some of you might even remember a puppet offering up that advice.

I've done this a few times and it really helped with one script in particular.  I had sort of a tricky tone to balance between comedy and horror, and for the most part the table showed me that I was pretty on target.  Jokes landed as well or better than I imagined, the pace picked up in the right spots and the scenes had momentum all the way up to the shocking death at the end of Act Two.  In fact, going into Act Three you could really feel the low point.

And then came the scene that killed all the momentum dead.  When I wrote it, it made sense.  The protagonist pretty much just had his legs kicked out from under him.  All the easy solutions were denied him and his efforts to fix things not only resulted in at least one death that (hopefully) the audience didn't see coming, but it actually made things worse.  So I wrote a scene where the character goes to a bar and wallows in his situation.  The intent was to set up that he was ready to walk away rather than take one last shot.  And then after wallowing there, something leads him to another encounter which ends up provoking him to action.

Problem - the bar scene brought all the momentum to a screeching halt.  It was probably less than two pages, but it felt like ten.  With every syllable, I was aware of the energy being sucked out of the room and even when things got back on track, I could tell that this scene was a dud.  I never would have realized that without the read-thru because even though I was iffy about a few scenes, nothing made me especially concerned about this story beat.

Always trust your audience.  Be attuned to their energy.  If you can read a room, you can go far.


  1. For me, one of the best ways I learned to 'read' an audience was by performing in live improv (Second City style) shows.

    Man, there ain't nothing like being in a scene that is dying or dead and feeling the audience lose you.

    But at the same time you also learn how to milk certain moments and scenes because you've got the audience....

  2. I've done a few table reads via Google+ hangouts and found it very helpful to hear my words spoken by others.

    This sounds like an interesting site for writers who may have difficulty organizing a read online or in person.

  3. A table read can be an illuminating tool but my caveat is this: get trained actors to participate whenever possible. Sometimes a weak performance can be mistaken for bad writing just as easily as drunken karaeoke can ruin a hit song.
    You shouldn't put yourself through another rewrite just because your next door neighbors don't have a flair for drama. If you can't get actors, then at least have two different groups read the same script. Get your material the second and third opinions that it deserves.