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Improvising Screenplays: How to Power Your Script Using the Concept of Want


From “The Illusionist”

In our new column, Improvising Screenplays, improvisational actor Brett Wean shares how the concepts of improvisation can be applied to the work -- and play -- of writing your script.

I don’t remember exactly what year it was, or what street we were on: I hadn’t lived in New York City long enough to quite even understand where I was half the time. But I do remember that once my friend and I were ushered through the door -- the line of proto-hipster 20-somethings had been down the block -- the inside of the theater seemed improbably narrow, funhouse mirror skinny... like it had been placed down sideways by a giant, trying to fit a new architectural Lego block into the over-crowded space of the West Village.

We were there that Sunday night to see an improv show: “long form” improv, someone might or might not have explained to me, as opposed to what they did on that show Whose Line is it Anyway? (Which was apparently “short-form”). What the five or six performers in front of us proceeded to do for the next hour was genuinely theatrical, grounded, and emotionally-based... and consequently much funnier than I would have expected. After eliciting a one-word suggestion from the audience at the top of the show (just one and that was it!), the actors worked off of their instincts to play distinct, real characters. While the initially unconnected scenes that played out were hilarious, surprising, and silly, they all somehow ended up magically connecting together at the end of the show, in much the same way different plot strands always weaved back in toward each other in an episode of Seinfeld. What transpired was obviously impromptu, being playfully created for us out of thin air. But the comedy, as outrageous as it was, arose out of a created universe that felt real, and the conclusion of the night’s show felt as does that of any great piece of theater, or film: both surprising and inevitable.

“Had they really just made this all up on the spot?” I wondered to myself, as a budding young writer. “How did they do it?” I was hooked... and knew I had to learn to do it, myself: if not on the page, then at least on the stage.

It wasn’t until later that I realized who had been performing that night -- among the small group were Amy Poehler, Horatio Sanz, and Ali Farahnakian, who later broke off from this group, known as the Upright Citizens Brigade, to start his own improv community, The People’s Improv Theater (or The PIT) where I later performed at, myself. I took classes at UCB, and later continued my studies and became a performer at The PIT. It was there that I discovered and then practiced, over and over again, the techniques that allowed people to walk out on stage, armed with no pre-established plot, no clever ideas... and create something out of nothing.

In the years I’ve spent studying and performing -- and even coaching and teaching -- improv, it’s often occurred to me that many of the tips, tools, and guidelines we use to create the kind of improvised theater performed at places such as The PIT, UCB, Second City, The Groundlings, and other theaters across the country, can be usefully applied to the craft of screenwriting. These same methods I now have up my sleeve when standing on a bare stage, hoping to create compelling, entertaining theater, are just as useful in nurturing and defining a script idea, hammering out a feature outline, crafting a scene on the page, writing dialogue, building character... and much more.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know you can literally just show up at your computer -- or your notepad, stack of 3x5 cards, or the pieces of driftwood you whittle your ideas onto down by the lake (I’m not judging) -- and get the job done of writing your script?

That’s what this column is about.

And I swear you don’t need to have ever seen an improv show in your life.

* * *

I could go on and on about the basics. How the art of improvisation is based primarily on the concepts of agreement and “Yes-And” -- literally saying Yes to whatever “offer” or idea your scene partner comes up with, treating it as gold, and enthusiastically adding to it to build a scene. How you also learn to Yes-And your own unformed instincts and ideas, celebrate the products of your subconscious, and follow them through to their natural, yet somehow often surprising, conclusions.

Instead, I’ll jump right in with something more immediate -- something less New Age-y sounding, for those of you shrugging your shoulders and rolling your eyes, saying, “Sure, sure, Brett...believe in yourself, believe in your ideas...whatevs, man.” (To which I respond: Who says “whatevs” anymore? That’s so 2011.)

Fair enough. We’ll get back to that.

Let’s talk, right off the bat, then, about one of the specific tricks I have in my mental tool bag when occasionally finding myself in the terrifying predicament of standing up on stage across from my scene partner, having done the basics: we’ve established the who, what, and where of the scene... and yet, still... somehow, in that moment...

...neither of us has any idea what to say or do.

The audience is looking up at us blankly. My scene partner is looking at me blankly. I’m looking at her blankly.

One cricket... then another.

Far off in the night... the howling of wolves.

(You think sitting at your computer, not having anything to type, is scary?)

The concept I’ll offer you -- which also happens to be, in my opinion, one of the most fundamental, essential characteristics of any screenplay -- is:


What does your protagonist want in your film?

Better yet, what does he or she need?

That’s what the movie’s “about.” What your main character wants (or better yet, needs) to achieve.

Whether the hero’s want is emotional or physical -- to find love or to destroy the Death Star -- it is the primary motor that drives your story.

Think about it in terms of your logline. Or how you might describe your movie to a friend who just happens to be the head of 20th Century Fox. (How did you get to be friends with this guy, anyway? And how come you never invite me to come hang out with you?)

You’re sitting at the bar, you’ve both ordered your mojitos, and you’re taking your moment -- nonchalantly, of course -- to pitch.

WANT is the most evocative way to quickly frame the idea you want him to instantly fall in love with.

Because think about it: your movie, Space Ninjas, isn’t just about ninjas in space, hanging out in zero gravity, playing with nunchucks. (And yes, I know that’s not technically how you spell nunchaku.)

It’s about a particular ninja, who gets sent up into space to retrieve an intergalactic throwing star of enormous power... because without it, his planet will die. That’s what’s compelling about the story. He wants -- he needs -- to save his planet from the evil alien sensei who was once his teacher, and who now seeks out the throwing star for his own evil alien ninja agenda.

The concept of Want is not only the key to writing your logline... it is an essential mechanism for determining the outline of your script.

When I’m out on stage, and things aren’t quite cooking with steam yet... Want is one of the ideas I’ll return to again and again, because it is always compelling in any kind of scene... be it on film, television, in a stage play, or better yet, something witnessed in real life (!)... to watch one person try to get something he wants.

There’s an end goal, with a Yes or No answer. Just try and flip to another channel when you come across one character desperately asking for a piece of food... or his girlfriend’s hand in marriage. David Mamet and his cronies at The Atlantic Theater Company talked about it a lot. As an actor playing a scene, what drives you is always a specific -- and “checkable” -- Want. Each line, every action, is another tactic in trying to achieve your goal.

“Give me the stapler,” your character might say. Now check... did the other person give you the stapler? No? So try another tactic. “Please give me the stapler,” you softly plead, going all doe-eyed, touching your co-worker’s arm tenderly.

Personally, that’s the Number One way I always successfully gain access to a stapler. But that’s neither here nor there.

When I’m out on stage and things aren’t humming, I’ll think to myself: what are the details we’ve already established? What aspects are at play? Is my scene partner at a campfire, making s’mores? “Let me have that s’more,” I’ll insist. Did the way we happened to make eye contact when first walking out on stage seem to indicate some difference in status, as though he’s my older brother and I want his respect? Maybe I want him to admit that I did a good job of putting up our tents. “I want you to admit something,” I’ll gently begin. And I won’t let go until he does.

The Want provides a simple point of focus to let us relax and play the scene.

The movies we connect with the most wear their characters’ wants on their sleeves...both on a macro and a micro level. In the movie Taken, Liam Neeson wants to get his daughter back from her kidnappers. That’s the main, overriding want of the film. And every scene -- on a very literal level -- is a simple matter of desperate, determined Liam setting about obtaining the next little thing that will get him that much closer to achieving his main goal. Does he need a piece of information? First he asks. Then he threatens. Then he hits. Does he need a car? First he needs the car keys. Who has the car keys? “Tell me who has the car keys!!!” (I haven’t seen the movie in a while. But you get the point.)

“GIVE ME THE STAPLER!!!!” (I assume that’s a big moment in the sequel.)

But maybe action movies aren’t your jam. Consider a romantic comedy like Notting Hill. (Hugh Grant at his improbably modest, stuttering best.) Hugh wants love... and he finds it, to his surprise, in a chance meeting with a famous, gap-toothed American actress played by Julia Roberts. (What? You have some better idea who to cast as a gap-toothed American actress? Okay, maybe Lauren Hutton. Like, 30 years ago.)

Hugh doesn’t just meet Julia, follow her down the street and say, “Please, please, please, go out with me, go out with me,” over and over again. Because life -- even in the movies -- isn’t that simple. The scenes that make up the movie -- that writer Richard Curtis no doubt outlined systematically on little pieces of driftwood down by his lake (I’m not judging) consist of Hugh trying to achieve his Big Want in little ways, step by stuttering, winsomely handsome step: sneaking his way into a press junket by pretending to be a journalist for Horse and Hound magazine; taking her to one of those magical-seeming private parks which surely don’t actually exist; bringing her to meet his wacky circle of friends; racing in a crazy little car to her when he decides it’s now or never. (Does every Hugh Grant movie feature a crazy-little-car racing scene in it?) Even the more seemingly passive scenes in between the drama are still, quietly, deliberate actions of want. He tries to forget her, and get on with his life. Cue the rain and gloomy music. It’s a specific beat in the script.

So try thinking of your project in terms of your main character’s Want. Jot down a list of actions he or she takes to achieve it. Make a list of possible matter how insurmountable they may seem. That’s what makes them compelling. (And besides... no one’s looking yet. Unless you’re writing your screenplay under armed guard. Which I’m pretty sure is a non-union thing.)

Now reward yourself with a s’more. You’ve just created something out of nothing.

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