Write For a Star
“Write for a star” is one of the primal axioms of screenwriting, but it has applications across many other fields as well.
What does it mean to write for a star? Writing for a star means create a role that a star wants to play. Your story may be dynamite, your structure may be sound, your theme profound and involving. But the first question a producer is going to ask is, “Who can I cast in this thing?”
Moviemakers want scripts that attract stars. Because stars make movies happen. If we’ve got Matt Damon, the bank will write us a check. If Sandra Bullock says she’s in, the studio gives us a green light.
Stars put asses in the seats. If you and I go to a basketball game, we want to see Lebron. We came out for Kobe. I have zero interest in “the field” at the Masters this spring; I’m tuning in for Tiger.
Products too can be stars. Nobody does this better than Apple. The iPod is a star. The iPhone. Steve Jobs is rolling out the iPad now and every move his marketing and ad departments make is designed to make it a star. Steve Jobs himself is a star.
Style can be a star. Hemingway. Or sound. Phil Spector. Look can be a star. Lady Gaga. Even absence can be a star: J.D. Salinger.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we throw all artistic considerations to the wind and pander to some glam/slam concept of attention-grabbing. What I am suggesting is that, at at least one point during its evolution, we evaluate our material by asking ourselves, “Who’s the star here? Do we have one? Who (or what) supplies the bizazz that we need to make this material stand out?”
If we’re opening a restaurant, who’s our star? The chef? The look? The crowd?
What’s the star of our clothing line? Our non-profit? Our start-up school?
If our script, our opening, our business venture doesn’t have a star, how do we create one? Hollywood’s rules might help us here. Consider these bonuses reserved only for stars:
Stars make entrances.
Stars get star lighting.
Stars get the best lines.
Stars get Moments. Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm, Clint Eastwood’s “Make my day.”
Stars’ roles go somewhere. Stars’ characters change and grow.
Stars power the movie. In the climax, the star’s actions decide his own fate and define the meaning of the movie.
Even the tiniest scenes can be star moments. Did you ever see True Confessions, starring Robert Deniro? It’s a period piece, set in Los Angeles in the forties, in which Deniro plays a high-powered monsignor who is torn between the faith he wishes he could embrace and the wheeling-and-dealing he does all day long on behalf of the diocese. The legend goes that during production Deniro asked the director, Ulu Grosbard, if he could have one scene where the audience sees where his character sleeps. The director gave it to him. It’s a scene you might miss if you’re not paying attention. Deniro simply comes home from a long day among the city’s movers and shakers, mounts the stairs in the priests’ living quarters and enters a spartan room that contains nothing but a bed and an armoire. The actor has no dialogue; all he does is hang up his cardigan sweater (on a wire hanger) and sit down silently on the edge of the bed.
That’s a star scene. Only stars get Moments like that.
If we as writers are true to our calling, we’ll imbue even our most minor characters with stardust. As Francis Ford Coppola did with The Godfather. Clemenza. Johnnie Fontaine. Even Pauly. They all got to do what stars do–answer Stanislavski’s questions: Who am I, why am I here, what do I want?
I was working with a male action star when a rival’s movie came out. The new film had a scene in which the rival star was captured by the bad guys and tortured. Next morning my star demanded a torture scene too. At the time I thought he was crazy. But he was right. A star needs a Torture Scene. It lets the audience know he’s the star.
Writing for a star is a deep topic. Much can be said, including the possibility that we ourselves are the star. But let’s leave our resolution at this for the moment:
At least once during our process (writing our novel, launching our bistro, founding our charter academy) we will ask ourselves, “Who is our star? Do we have one? And if we don’t, how can we create one?”
We’ll imagine living, breathing actors standing before us, each one representing one of our characters (or products or points of interface with our audience). Each will demand from us an answer to the following questions: “Where’s my Moment? Where’s my Torture Scene? Dude, gimme something I can play!“
That’s really great advice Steven, thanks. As writers, we sometimes forget that people care about people – so the best way to draw them into our story is to make our story about the characters, not some abstract idea or social issue. And writing with our star in mind ensures we stay focused on this – otherwise, our star won’t be able to show off their talent. Thanks again – lots of food for thought.
I love this post and the “Write for a star” axiom. When I’m writing novels, I almost always have actors picked for the roles and there are certain scenes or lines that make me think, “If this book became a movie, this would be in the trailer.”
Steven, if you don’t mind sharing, do you have certain actors or individuals in mind when you’re writing?
Actually, that’s one thing I scrupulously NEVER do, Jeremy. I want to keep with the character as I imagine him … or, probably more accurately, as he (or she) presents himself.
Thanks Steven! I think you touched on this in your conversation with Mr. O’Brien when you asked him about the conflict between his characters and “people-as-they-actually-are-or-were.”
His answer was great: “My fidelity is to the story. To the story alone.” I imagine fidelity to one’s characters leads to fidelity to the story.
this is good advice for a musician/songwriter. the hook in my song is the star of the moment when i’m up onstage. f*ck what i want, my song wants attention!
Absolutely agree. Its all about the Hook & Hit Factor. A well crafted song has depth, magic & melody. You can’t define it but you know it when you hear it.
Good to hear from a fellow songwriter. 🙂 🙂