Actors and Directors – Why They Matter

Struggling scriptwriters sometimes believe the words they have written are the best to convey the emotion they seek to elicit.  But in a great (and, obvious) insight, one of Steve Soderbergh’s Six Tips (as compiled by London Palmer) for film making is to “get out of the way actors” .  This, of course applies to writers with a vengeance: It’s not only out of actors’ way but of directors, editors, the music, etc.

One of my favorite exercises in writing is to compare a script with the movie based on it.  And I say based, quite intentionally.   A particularly compelling example as to how actors, director and editor matter can be found in Mystic River, one of the great movies of our time, directed by Clint Eastwood, and ranking up there among his best along with Gran Torino.  Amazing edit by Oscar winner Joel Cox.

In the movie scene the toughie Jimmy (Sean Penn) realizes his daughter Katie’s body has been discovered at the bottom of an abandoned zoo animal enclosure.  In the script she has been discovered behind the screen at an abandoned Drive-in movie theater.  The set-up is that Sean (Kevin Bacon), a police detective, has recognized Katie, the daughter of his childhood pal Jimmy.  This is the scene in Brian Helgeland‘s script in his adaptation from Dennis Lehane’s novel:

Sean steps in, crouches. Whitey fills the space behind him.

That her?

As gently as he can, Sean uses his forefinger to move back a heavy strand of hair. He looks at Katie a moment.


We’ll have the father do a positive at
the morgue.

Blood’s from a split on the crown of her
head. She was beaten with some kind of
stick. But that didn’t kill her. She was
shot a second time. Looks like a .38.

Sean hasn’t really heard any of it.

What the fuck am I going to tell him. Hey
guess what, Jimmy? God said you owed
another marker. He came to collect.

Sudden SHOUTS from outside, the K-9 DOGS BARK like mad. Sean springs up. As he and Whitey turn outside.


Eight uniforms and two plainclothes converge on Jimmy and Val as they burst from the trees. Val goes down snarling almost right away. But Jimmy’s too quick. He’s almost to the screen when he stumbles. A young trooper, all head and high school tight-end, body-tackles him, lands on top of him. As he pins Jimmy’s arm back…

Hey! Hey! It’s the father.  Just pull him back.

As Sean turns back to the screen:

Sean! Look at me, Sean!

Sean looks back at him. Jimmy arches up under the young cop’s weight. Another cop helps hold him.

You find her? Is it her? Is it?

Sean is motionless. He holds Jimmy’s eyes with his own, locking them until Jimmy’s surging stare sees what Sean has just seen. And he knows it’s over, his worst fear realized.  And Jimmy screams. Love and rage in equal quantities.  It shreds the birds from the trees.  It ECHOES into the Pen Channel. Ropes of spit shoot from his mouth. Screaming. Sean turns away, looks back in at Katie.  It’s awful.

Now look at the clip. Sean Penn’s Oscar was well deserved.  As well as Clint Eastwood’s nomination.  Lord of the Rings / Peter Jackson trumped him that year though.

And check this one for a special surprise.

C. J. Rangel – Nov 2012