Saturday, 21 August 2010

Script analysis check list from Judith Weston's Directing Actors

Judith Weston's book, Directing Actors, is the most helpful book that I've read as a director. As a refresher for script analysis on my upcoming short Insulting Incident I wrote myself a condensed version of her chapter on script analysis. Apologies to Weston for the butchery.

Use script analysis to uncover facts, images and objects held within the script. Use action verbs and questions generated through the process to guide actors to truthful performances. Don't set line readings or decide your playable choices ahead of time, instead gather all the possibilities to give you creative options while directing.


Remove stage directions that describe the characters inner life
, "longingly," "kindly," etc. These judgements encourage restrictive result direction.

Remove directions that depict blocking or business with no plot consequences in order to allow the actor's movement to be generated as a natural part of their performance.

Pay special attention to character's personal objects while ignoring any adjectives or adverbs. Ask questions, for example "What is the history of this object? Who brought it there?". Avoid making judgements, instead, explore all possibilities.

Look for backstory facts in the dialogue, they are part of the reliable skeleton of the script. Backstory facts mentioned in the direction should be considered as imaginative choices, to be used only if you find them helpful.

Directions that give us an image should be considered as potential clues to the themes of the movie.

Highlight directions that describe an emotional event but remove any descriptive words (e.g. "He searches desperately through the pile.."). Translate any psychoanalysing explanations ("He cannot look away") into emotional events ("He does not look away").

After removing unnecessary description you'll be left with very sparse, circled or highlighted stage directions which will contain clues to the physical and emotional life of the characters.


Study each characters lines and paraphrase their situation with the pronoun "I" rather than "she" to avoid making judgements about the character. Encourage any actor resisting a character to do the same, no person thinks they are really bad, everybody has their reasons for their actions.

Avoid "It's just...", "Obviously.." and "I assume..." snap judgements. You can't expect to inspire anyone when you minimise important events. Our artistic goal is to illuminate human events, not minimise them.

The technique of Three Possible. When you first read a script there will be lines that you don't understand. Don't rewrite, instead attempt to find out what they might mean. Non sequiturs and contradictions - even lines that at first you don't like - can be gold. Any time you don't like a line or it doesn't make sense, make a quick list of three things it might possibly mean. Don't try to find the right answer, just scribble down your ideas without evaluating them, eventually the insight you have been resisting will come.


1. You don't have to be creative to come up with them.
2. They are the skeleton of the script, its infrastructure.
3. They are magic keys to the subworld.
4. Both are great ways to give direction.
5. They help you avoid arguments with actors (they are indisputable).

Facts and Evidence. Facts are very powerful for actors - the magic "as if". The actor creates a simple set of circumstances, allows himself to believe them, and then functions as if he were in those circumstances. Some facts will be clear, others we will deduce by looking for evidence and following clues. "Facts" are events that have happened or circumstances that are true before the scene starts - the character's situation. "Events" are things that happen in the scene, but once they have happened they become facts. Don't forget - characters, like people, don't always tell the truth. They don't always know the truth. They may not admit the truth to themselves, and, of course, sometimes they lie.

Questions. Questions are the most important product of script analysis. Make a list of them. If a character says, "Why are you shouting?" instead of assuming that the second character is shouting, ask questions: Is the other guy shouting? Or does the first guy have a low threshold? Could it be that what actually bothers him is the content of that the second guy said? If you ever find yourself jumping to a conclusion, put it in the form of a question. If you find yourself saying "Obviously this has happened before," turn it right around and ask, "Has this happened before?". One question you should always ask is, "What in this scene is happening for the first time?". Turn negative judgements into questions. Rather than "Stephen is not a good employee" turn it into "Is Stephen a good employee?"

Script research - Sometimes a question will be answered, and a fact gleaned, from rereading a script. Or a new question will be generated.
External research - Always find out the meaning of a word or idea you don't understand.
Internal research - Your experiences, observations and understanding of life can help you connect to the script. Stories from your past are a great way to show actors your personal connection to the project.

Images and Associations - Unpack images from the dialogue and screen direction and use free association to uncover prevailing images personal to the character or thematic ones of the story.


History - Character biographies can be created by the actor or writer. These are facts that are not in the script so they should only be used if they stimulate the imaginations of the actors and catapult them into their sense of belief in the moment. Questions are the tool that gets us into imaginative back story.

What Just Happened - Useful if there is a gap between the previous scene and the current one. By filling in the moment-by-moment life of the characters before the scene started we create a sense that the scene is "in the middle of" something.

Objective/Intention/Need - Come up with as many candidates for each character's objective as you can think of. If you're not sure, don't anguish over it, jot down three bad ideas to get you started. If you are sure what the objective is, jot down alternatives anyway and consider the opposite of your original idea. Keep to one objective per scene per character unless a character has different objectives for different other characters.

Issues/What's at Stake/The Problem/The Obstacle - Don't allow yourself to think that any character is "just reacting", in other words leaving them with nothing at stake in the scene. A characters through-line or primary engagement is not always with the other person in the scene. The primary engagement may be with an image or memory, another person who is not present, or even an object. Making choices about whether the primary engagement in this scene is between the two of them, or elsewhere, will affect your directorial style.

Action Verbs - The action verb is what a character is doing to get what she wants. Sometimes a scene will work with only one action verb. Often verb changes when the "beat" changes. Translate result based direction into an action verb. For example, if you want the character to shout with a raised fist, perhaps the action verb you want is "to threaten" or "to incite" or even "to beg". Playing the opposite verb from what you would expect can have good results and loosen up an actor.

Adjustments - Using a metaphor or parallel by saying "let's pretend", "as if" or "it's like when" is a powerful tool. By adding and adjustment to an actors choice an undercurrent can be added to add depth to the performance. Some "quick fix adjustments"; parent/child, high status/low status, good news/bad news, bug/suppress.

Subtext - Using an adjustment to change subtext can help when a performance is getting heavy-handed, loosing its connection and humor or what is at stake.

Physical Life - Pay attention to the physical objects and activities of the characters' world. Objects interacting with the characters' can become characters in the scene. It is through their physical life that actors create characters who live in a different time period from their own.


Every scene has a central emotional event, something that happens between the characters who are interacting. It can be subtle, but if nothing happens in the scene, the scene doesn't belong in the script. A helpful way of identifying the event of a scene is by breaking it down into beats. The procedure in figuring out beats is first to identify every change of subject, no matter how brief, then we want to identify three major beats: beginning, middle, and end. Look at each beat, it's subject and who brings it up, this will help you then identify the major beats. Each major beat has a domestic event (what the characters know they're doing) and an emotional event (the emotional subtext). As a director you must create the emotional event to keep the audience involved in the story without forgetting the domestic event which gives the scene it's texture of life.

Don't be distracted by stage directions - concentrate on relationships. Replace adjectives with verbs, images, facts, events and physical life. Know what the movie is about, who the characters are, and be able to back up your ideas with evidence. Have alternatives, in case your favourite ideas don't work. Keep rereading the script and rethinking and deepening your ideas. The directions that I think most actors respond to best are the ones that show insight.