Shakespeare’s leeway


I was listening to the Nerdist Writers’ Panel Comics Edition Podcast thing the other day.

You know, the other day. Not this day, but the other one.

If you haven’t heard it, you really should. It’s great. Anyway, Ashley Miller was talking about writing Thor (the movie), about sitting with Kenneth Branagh and how Kenneth said he had spent twenty years trying to understand the soliloquy in Hamlet.

And it got me thinking.


First off, I was thinking about the time I nearly accidentally killed Kenneth Branagh one day in Bath.

The town, not the tub.

He parked his car on double yellows and leapt out into traffic, forcing me to swerve wildly to avoid him. I don’t think he noticed; but if it weren’t for my mongoose-like reflexes, he would be dead now.

Thank you, I am directly responsible for Thor. You’re welcome.

If it was him.

Maybe it wasn’t? Maybe it was just someone who looked like him?


Fuck it, I saved someone’s life. Sort of.

The car behind swerved into the opposite lane and caused a ten-car pile-up, killing fifteen people and a small pigeon; but that’s not the point. I didn’t kill anyone. I specifically didn’t kill Kenneth Branagh (or someone who looked a lot like him). *

Next up, I thought about how dedicated, awesome and serious he is as an actor and how amazing it is that he’s spent all this time trying to understand a single passage in a single play.


My third thought was that would never fucking happen to one of my scripts.

Okay, so there’s a quality differential between me and Shakespeare. In fact, you could argue that every other writer in the entire world sits between me and Shakespeare … and I wouldn’t argue back.

I’m like that.

But that’s kind of irrelevant because no actor would attach that much weight to any speech in any film script they were presented with. Theatre – yes, I believe maybe that does happen. Certainly among the work by the deader playwrights.


I can imagine a very kind actor spending half an hour, maybe 45 mins, trying to figure out how to make one of my speeches work before declaring “my character wouldn’t say that; but twenty years?


No chance. Probably because very few films are at the script stage for twenty years.

More likely because  if a play is still being performed 400 years after it was written then it’s kind of proved itself and probably doesn’t need to be improvised all over thank you so very much.

So not only is it pointless comparing myself (unfavourably) to Shakespeare; but it’s equally pointless comparing a film script written four days ago to a theatre script written four centuries ago.

Films change all the way through production. Lines are rewritten, chucked out, improvised, dug out of the bin and reinstated, forgotten and finally misread in an exercise which frequently leaves the scene unusable.

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New plays, I guess, go through a similar process.

Older plays, ones which have stood the test of time … they’re recited. They’re given respect. They’re given it because they’ve earnt it.

It’s different. I know it’s different. I do, honestly … but still, I can’t help feeling a little jealous.

Twenty years trying to understand the text.

Twenty. ^

Wouldn’t that be nice? For people to assume you put those specific words in that specific order for a specific reason and then try to figure out what that reason might be?

Makes me go all misty just thinking about it.

Then I go all sad because I know it’ll never happen.



* It’s possible, not all of this story is true.

^ Actually, I can’t remember how long he’s spent – I heard the podcast weeks ago now (or possibly yesterday) and don’t hold information in my head for that long; but let’s go with twenty.

You know the only thing worse than an actor improvising all over a script? An actor not improvising anything at all. It’s all about balance, people. Good actors know when to improvise and when not to. Bad actors improvise the line back to the place-holder-line the writer discarded because it’s a cliché.

My biggest bugbear is when an actor decides not to use a word because they don’t know what it means. Especially when that word is a technical term used in a field their character specialises in:

“I don’t think my character, a submarine captain, would use all these long words about submarines and oceans. I think he’d say something simple like ‘Let’s go under water, please’.”

Mind you, I’ve also had an actor pronounce one of my  spelling mistakes because they believed in the sanctity of the written word.

Both of these approaches are fairly extreme and, luckily, pretty rare. As ever, reality, common sense and the majority lie somewhere in the middle.

Categories: Bored, Industry Musings, Random Witterings, Sad Bastard, Someone Else's Way | 1 Comment

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  1. Pingback: 2013 | The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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