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Backstage Experts

The 1 Way to Make the Camera Care About Your Character’s Story

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The 1 Way to Make the Camera Care About Your Character’s Story

The script creates the plot and the actor creates the story. In other words the script creates the “what” and the actor creates the “why.” And the “why” is the character’s story. And the character’s story is not the same as the overall story. As a matter of fact the overall story spends the entire movie trying to talk the character out of his or her own story. It’s not the actor’s job to create the overall story. It’s the actor’s job to create his or her character’s story and then fight like hell to make sure the overall story doesn’t influence it. Sometimes your character will succeed. Sometimes your character won’t. But the struggle between your characters’s story and the overall story is what commands the camera’s attention. It’s what makes your character’s story interesting. The less you let the overall story talk your character out of his or her own story, the stronger and more vivid your character will be on screen.

And here’s how you can do it quickly if you have to. It’s called “The Scene Before.” Actors are taught to create “the moment before.” In film they will want to create “the scene before” and then let their character be emotionally stuck there—that’s the character’s story.

“The Scene Before”

Read the scene. Determine what the characters are talking about. Of all the things being discussed, one of the things will be your character’s most recent past encounter with the other character in the scene or other characters in the story. Just make sure your character was actively involved in the encounter and not a passive observer. Now put your character back in that previous encounter and—here’s the tricky part—try to keep your character emotionally stuck there while playing the current scene.

For example, a scene is between a boss and an employee. In the scene the boss is firing the employee and the employee is protesting and the boss is holding the company line. Imagine, for example, the boss’ most recent scene was with his or her own superiors where they were forcing the boss to fire the employee and it was breaking the boss’ heart because he or she cared about his or her employees. Let the boss be emotionally stuck in the previous scene with his or her superiors, while in the current scene, the employee is protesting being fired and the boss’ words are trying to defend the company.

Want to use the same cinematic weapon to create comedy? Let the boss’ most recent past encounter have been a seductive flirtation with a coworker. Now let the boss be emotionally stuck in the seductive flirtation while in the current scene—the employee being fired is protesting and the boss’ words are defending the company.

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John Swanbeck is a director, author, and Backstage Expert. For more information, check out Swanbeck’s full bio!


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