by Peter Hanson, contributor to Script
Dear Jessica Alba: We haven’t met, but I’m a screenwriter. I’m one of those pale, intelligent-looking people you occasionally notice on the set, looking upset every time you put your own spin on a line of dialogue. Sorry if I distract you when I’m on the set, but if strangers didn’t enjoy looking at you, you wouldn’t really have a career, so I hope we’re cool.
Listen, here’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I saw those quotes online last week from your upcoming interview in Elle magazine. Just to refresh your memory, here’s what you said: “Good actors never use the script unless it’s amazing writing. All the good actors I’ve worked with, they all say whatever they want to say.” I can’t wait to read the rest of the interview, because it sure sounds like you’re including yourself among the gifted thespians who don’t need to rely on screenplays. If so, that’s awesome! It’s so impressive that you can walk onto the set and figure out what to do and say in order to advance the story. In fact, if you’re not consulting the script, then I guess you made up the story, too. Wow, you really can do everything, can’t you?
It seems like only yesterday you invented that cool sci-fi character you played on Dark Angel, the TV series James Cameron had the nerve to say he created. And then you danced your way back onto the big screen with Honey (2003), giving one of your most important performances in a midriff-baring tank top. From that point onward, it was one dramatic triumph after another for a few years. In Fantastic Four, Into the Blue, and Sin City, all released in 2005, you displayed every single aspect of your talent. In fact, you showed off pretty much everything you could fit into a spandex superhero costume, a drenched bikini, and a cowboy-themed stripper outfit. You probably said some words in those movies, but I guess I was distracted by the power of your acting.
You’ve really been stretching lately, inventing a series of exciting roles for yourself without consulting scripts. You were in that Hayden Christensen movie nobody saw, Awake (2007), that Mike Myers movie nobody saw, The Love Guru (2008), and that Casey Affleck movie nobody saw, The Killer Inside Me (2010). Oh, and I can’t forget your crowning achievement, playing a tough federal investigator in Machete, the Robert Rodriguez movie that came out last summer. The way you took a shower in your underwear and posed just right so that Rodriguez could digitally erase your clothes and create the illusion you were naked—boy, I can’t wait to hear James Lipton interview you on Inside the Actor’s Studio to learn how you came up with that unforgettable moment!
All in all, I’ve got to admit that you’ve made your point: Working “off-script” is the way to go. I mean, look at all the terrible movies featuring actresses who respect the written word, losers like Annette Bening and Meryl Streep and Hilary Swank and Kate Winslet. Has any one them made something like Honey or Into the Blue? You bet they haven’t!
So listen, Jessica, here’s the thing. I’d like to tell you a little bit about what I do, since it’s a real pleasure to talk about my craft with someone who doesn’t know anything about the subject. After I finish, of course, I’d love to hear all about the magical process you use for creating characterization and dialogue and story without reviewing what people like me wrote. As a screenwriter, here’s what I do. When I have an idea, I spend weeks and weeks figuring out how to fit that idea into a story with a beginning, middle, and end. After that’s done, I populate the story with characters, sort of like a chef adding ingredients. Finally, I give the characters things to do and say that help readers, and eventually viewers, understand where the story is going and what it’s supposed to mean. If a producer buys the thing I wrote—y’know, a script—the producer hires a director, who coaches actors through performing the scenes in the script in such a way that the story’s themes are communicated to paying audiences.
Oh, who am I kidding? We both know that’s not how it goes. How it really goes is a producer buys the script and makes me change it, then hires a director who makes me change it again or fires me if I can’t or won’t make the changes. After that, my script—or at least the document that started out as my script and turned into something else—gets shown to fantastic people like you. And if you agree to play one of the roles in the script, all that means is you like the paycheck (which has a whole lot more zeroes than my paycheck), so you agree to show up on the day shooting starts and do your magic act, inventing your character’s name, motivation, occupation, physical actions, and speaking style. I mean, when you really think about it, it’s a shame the screenwriters of your movies even get to put their names in the credits, since you do all the hard work!
So let’s make a deal, Jessica. You should take all the credit for the wonderful things you do in front of a movie camera. No screenwriter should get the praise you deserve for that special way you probe deep into the mysteries of the human condition while wearing low-cut shirts and skintight jeans. That’s why I think it’s better for everyone if you make movies without screenplays. Let the world see how you do on your own. And in return, I think it would be great if movies that have screenplays don’t have Jessica Alba.