A good screenplay is a wonderful thing, but no matter how impressive a script may be, its potential will remain forever unfulfilled unless it is actually made into a movie. There are a lot of factors that influence whether or not a screenplay gets produced, but in today’s film industry, the most crucial of these is the script’s ability to attract a star who has enough critical acclaim, audience appeal, and/or box-office track record to be acceptable to potential backers.
So, what are the elements that can attract a name actor to a script?
Someone in a unique position to know is Christopher Lockhart. In 1998, Lockhart, a former screenwriter, was hired by ICM’s Ed Limato to read through the scripts that were submitted to the legendary agent’s office and find quality projects that would be a good fit for Limato’s elite stable of clients, who over the years have included Denzel Washington, Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Kevin Costner, and Steve Martin. Lockhart moved with Limato to William Morris and then stayed on when Morris merged with Endeavor in 2009. Following Limato’s passing in 2010, Lockhart went to work for the office of Patrick Whitesell, WME’s co-CEO. During his years on the job, Lockhart has helped bring a number of very successful projects to fruition, including Taken and Training Day.
“When you are looking for projects for actors, there are things you want to consider,” Lockhart explains. “You want to look at where the actor is—maybe he just won an Academy Award® last year, so now he wants to do something that’s a little more fun or a little more of a tentpole project versus that sort of prestigious, Oscar®-caliber movie he just made. And also, clients will often stress: ‘I’d like to maybe go this direction’ or ‘Let’s not do this anymore, let’s not do that.’ For a while, Denzel didn’t want to play any more cops. In fact, that’s part of the reason why The Taking of Pelham 123 was rewritten. In the 1974 film, Zach Garber was a transportation cop and in the original draft of the remake he was also, so that was changed to make him more of a civilian employee of the subway. Those are things that come into play sometimes. There are also practical reasons why an actor may choose a particular role: Maybe he doesn’t want to shoot outside the United States; maybe he only wants to make a movie in California; maybe he doesn’t like the co-star or the director; maybe he doesn’t want to work with the producer. It could be a plethora of things that can decide why an actor chooses one role over another. It could also be money. But, ultimately, most of the clients want to see stuff that they can really sink their teeth into.”
And what sort of stuff is that? “A lot of it has to do with concept—ultimately, much of Hollywood moviemaking is concept-driven,” Lockhart reports. “I’m always looking for a script that’s a movie. This is the thing that I think many writers tend to overlook, which is that they’re writing screenplays, they’re not writing movies. And that’s why their scripts don’t become movies.”
And what is a “script that’s a movie?” Lockhart says it’s one that is “cinematic and dramatic,” where “you can read the logline and you can say, ‘I get it: I can see the movie right from the logline; I can see the poster; I can see the actor in it.’ A good logline, a good concept, makes me start to think about scenes and actually start running the movie in my head.”
Lockhart doesn’t feel that these ideas need to be 100 percent fresh or original, in part because he doesn’t think there is such a thing: “When you’ve read as many scripts as I’ve read—well over 30,000—it is very hard to throw something in front of me that makes me say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen that before,’ and usually when I do, it’s not because I’m thinking, ‘Wow, that’s an amazingly [original] concept,’ it’s because I’m thinking it’s the most ridiculously stupid concept.” Lockhart feels that writers are better off spending their time devising interesting takes on traditional ideas, because that’s ultimately what the industry is looking for. “The old adage that everybody likes to say in this town is: ‘It’s unique, but familiar.’ It’s about taking what it is that we’ve seen before and just tweaking it to where [it causes the reader to say], ‘Ah, that’s clever.’ And that’s not that hard to do—when you’re writing something, you just have to ask yourself, ‘Okay I’ve seen this a million times, so what can I do to make it a little different? How can I twist it around just a tiny bit?’ and hopefully [devise a] journey that is unique and where the obstacles and challenges and conflicts are things that perhaps do feel fresh.”
These ideas “also have to have some kind of marketing potential where you can see where the audience is; even if it’s a niche audience, even if it’s a small audience. But most scripts that I read, I think, ‘Y’know, this isn’t a movie. It’s a home movie. I don’t even think that there’s a niche audience for it.’ Maybe it was a movie 20 years ago or maybe it’ll be a movie 15 years from now, but in this particular marketplace, it doesn’t quite feel like a movie.”
Of course, to attract a name actor, a “script that is a movie” has to have a great role for the actor to play: “If you want to attach a star, then you really have to have a great protagonist,” Lockhart notes. “A protagonist who is really active, who is really initiating the action of the movie, who’s responsible for the forward momentum of the narrative. And perhaps there’s a transformational arc there, because that’s what actors want to play. They don’t necessarily want to play the same note through the whole movie, so it’s about exploring those layers and really creating an emotional resonance to the character. Because, remember, we experience the story through the characters and because we really care about their experience and what it is that their journey entails—that’s where the emotional element is going to be.”
For actress Kathy Baker (Picket Fences, Street Smart, The Jane Austen Book Club), who plays a small but pivotal role in this past fall’s highly acclaimed independent drama Take Shelter, that great part doesn’t necessarily have to be the lead. “A long time ago,” Baker recalls, “I worked on a movie (Jacknife) with Robert De Niro and he said to me: ‘If one thing speaks to you in a script, then do that—don’t worry if it’s the lead character; don’t worry if it’s the starring role; if it’s going to get you some kind of an award, but if it speaks to you.’ And I have followed that. [In Take Shelter,] I have one scene. It was the lowest budget film I’d ever done—it was no money, I didn’t know the people, and why would I do it in Cleveland, Ohio? [Because] I liked that one scene … and I wanted to play that one scene.”
For Baker, an attractive script is also one that is well-written. “It can’t just be your little part—the whole movie has to be well-written. [That doesn’t mean] it has to be a certain subject matter or a certain style or highbrow or something. Just that the characters are well-developed; that the script is saying something; that it’s funny and smart. If the script is well-written and my part is well-written and challenging and if it speaks to me, I like to do it.”
In addition to good writing, Baker’s Take Shelter co-star—the Academy Award-nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Revolutionary Road Michael Shannon—looks for a personal element: “I like to see writers put something of themselves into the script … to see that they’re dealing with something personal or that really means something to them. I’m not real keen on style over substance. I prefer to see somebody really struggling with something very personal—with some issue or some aspect of their life. I knew when Jeff [Nichols, the writer-director of Take Shelter] wrote this film, he was dealing with some anxiety and feelings of insecurity that he was having about getting married and starting a family. That’s what I mean—he took something that he was personally really invested in … and he dealt with it in a poetic way and turned it into this screenplay, which is something that I could relate to because I was starting a family as well.”
Are there any elements that a writer should avoid including in a script, things that could potentially turn an actor off? “Over-talking, over-explaining, over-simplifying who I am,” Baker responds. “I like writing where [information is] in between the lines. Don’t tell me that I’m a good mom or that I’m an interesting mom or a funny mom or that I have a good relationship with my daughter. Don’t say in the lines, ‘Well, you know, honey, you and I have such a good relationship … ’ Give room for the actor to give expression to what you’ve written. I think that’s what the big playwrights do—they sort of know that an actor is going to bring some special stuff to it. Give me the chance to do that. I like to bring my own work and artistry to it, so if you tell me too much, I feel like I’m not important.”
Shannon agrees: “One of the wonderful things that Jeff Nichols does is trust his actors to fill out the characters. He doesn’t feel the need to put every little detail into the dialogue. His characters don’t speak their minds very often—they’re dealing with maybe a more practical or mundane issue while a larger issue is going on inside of them that they’re trying to grapple with or resolve, and he let’s the actors take care of that part. Because the way he structures his screenplays inevitably we’ll get to that point where you put your cards on the table, but for a long time, its underneath the surface. And he doesn’t feel like he has to explain everything, which is nice.”
As important as all of these elements are, there is one quality above all that Lockhart feels that a “script that is a movie” needs to have: “For me, personally, it’s always about emotion. I read a script and I want to be emotionally moved by it. I want to feel differently at FADE OUT than I felt at FADE IN. So I have to be moved. That doesn’t mean moved to tears. It could mean I’m disturbed or terrified—I just read a draft of the American adaptation of Oldboy, the [ultraviolent] Korean cult film and, I’ll be honest, I’ve probably only ever been able to get through maybe the first 10 or 20 minutes of the Korean film, so I didn’t really know what was in store. And by the end of that script, oh man, you have been moved. I just don’t want to feel apathy. And that’s probably the way I feel nine out of 10 scripts. I’m like, ‘Yeah, y’know, okay. It’s well-written, but it wasn’t an experience.’”
When asked to name some recent films that did provide an experience, Lockhart replies, “Training Day. That came to me initially for Mel Gibson, and I thought that it would be a better match for Denzel Washington. It was definitely a juicy role—the dialogue was terrific—and he turned it into something that was ferocious and memorable. Another project that really worked was The Blind Side. That was a star vehicle. You watch the movie and you get it. If another actor had been in it, it might have been a movie for Lifetime, but you get somebody like Sandra Bullock and it was a perfect match, a perfect match.”
Baker points out not every script that comes an actor’s way provides that perfect match: “I just don’t want it to sound like ‘Oh, I only take a part because it’s meaningful.’ Sometimes you take a part because you need the job, you need the money. I mean, we work for a living.” But when a great script does come along: “Well, Jacknife jumped out at me immediately. It’s based on a beautifully written play called Strange Snow by Stephen Metcalfe, and I just knew I wanted to play that part. I loved the play; I loved the writing; I loved the adaptation to a film script. I wanted to do Edward Scissorhands right away, I wanted to do Cold Mountain right away, and The Cider House Rules. I’m crazy about literature and about writing.”
“There are so many moving parts and so many levels to getting a movie made,” Lockhart reminds us, and while nothing in Hollywood is ever guaranteed, “Right now, we’re in a climate in which having a star attached can certainly help to move a project through, and a successful screenwriter in this town is a person who writes scripts that have the juice to then, in turn, attract the talent to earn the green light.”