Casting for Writing
Written by Jon Zelazny
My first real crack at professional screenwriting was assisting the writer, the director, and the producer of the HBO film, TYSON, a fight biopic based on the book, FIRE AND FEAR, by Jose Torres. HBO in the nineties was the go-to port for smart nonfiction and biographical adaptations in the $10 million budget range.
We had a good script in hand, and further developed it during the ten weeks of preproduction. Our process was simple: 1) Would including this particular incident from Mike’s life improve our story? 2) If so, what’s the strongest way to depict that incident in a dramatic scene?
The first lesson in adapting real life is that you may find additional sources. Our movie was legally based on Torres’ book, but lots of people had written about Mike Tyson, and we tried to absorb as much as possible. And quickly found every account didn’t necessarily agree when it came to who said this, who did that, and why. How to resolve these discrepancies? By talking it through. Weighing the likelihood of various versions, determining what struck us as the most likely to be true. At this point, of course, you are now fictionalizing. You weren’t there, and you’ll never truly know how it went down. Welcome to the world of “based on actual events.”
Working on that film, I fell in love with the adaptation process, and went on to write a host of biographical projects, some for hire, others on spec. Once you have the scenes worked out, you move on to dialogue. On TYSON, we had some major advantages: our lead characters were all contemporary public figures, many others had filmed interviews, and some were even willing to meet with us. If you can hear and see somebody talk, it’s a lot easier to put words in their mouth.
On a later job though, my characters were far less accessible. It was to be a biopic on German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his role in the plot to kill Hitler. There was no live footage of the man, nor of his friends, family, or colleagues. Even if there had been, they’d be speaking German, and I was writing an English-language screenplay. Structuring the story was a familiar task, but how to characterize all these obscure foreign names from long ago?
Out of necessity then, I began “casting” the project to focus and clarify the characters in my mind before I started writing. Assigning a definable persona to main and supporting characters further provides a roadmap to writing character-specific dialogue, and it’s a method I’ve used ever since, in screenwriting, and now fiction.
How to cast Dietrich Bonhoeffer? The producer was hoping to land Kevin Spacey. I’d certainly have no say in the actual casting, but after weeks of research, I knew the cold, aloof Spacey was the last guy I’d want for the part. To write the script then, I needed a better model. Hugh Grant was closer to my vision… but still a bit vague. And then it struck me how much Bonhoeffer was like my pal, Chris. Both were brilliant academics, raised in families of sophisticated thinkers with a heavy interest in church matters. As a scientist, Chris’s interests were not limited to his field, nor he did he confine himself to the academic world, or lord his big brain over us common folk. He was social, outgoing, and took a genuine delight in people from all walks of life. This was the Dietrich Bonhoeffer I’d been reading about, sympathized with, and wanted the audience to see: a brilliant German theologian you’d love to hang out with.
With Chris “cast” in the role, scenes came to me far more easily: Bonhoeffer with his family, his girlfriend, colleagues, superiors, even facing his Nazi interrogators. Because I knew how Chris would handle himself in such situations. How he’d react emotionally. When he’d ease tensions with a joke, or turn stern. By casting Chris, I was able to write a clear, distinct, more fleshed-out, and consistent Dietrich Bonhoeffer from beginning to end. All of which increases audience identification. He becomes their friend because I was really telling them about my friend.
The question arises: is this, strictly speaking, historically accurate? Aren’t I just superimposing a bunch of traits onto a real guy who had his own personality? Undoubtedly. And my reply is that I’m not a journalist, and I’m not writing a documentary. A screenwriter is a dramatist, and I was hired to create a Dietrich Bonhoeffer who engaged the audience. I used the record of facts and known events as my start point, then colored in that story outline by fictionalizing the personal.
We won’t always be lucky enough to personally know somebody who fits the bill. If I can’t think of someone I regularly interact with, I go to the people we all know best: our favorite stars. Not every actor has a definable persona, but if a name alone conjures a very specific character type—a McConaughey, an Amy Schumer, a Robert Downey, Jr.— it’s probably worth assigning to someone in your script. And the more familiar you are with the known person, the more you can fashion your character specifically in their vein. Which is also a lucrative skill in Hollywood: as stars come in and out of movie projects, touch-up writers are tapped to go in and “adapt” the role to better suit the incoming actor.
Stars of the past work equally well. My latest novel depicts the British prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, and as I worked my way through books and film clips, it slowly dawned on me, “Man, she totally reminds me of Audrey Hepburn.” Having seen at least a dozen Hepburn classics, I had a pretty good idea how she spoke, moved, acted, and reacted. Meanwhile, Fonteyn’s lover in the story seemed to fit one of my old high school buddies, so what I hope readers will regard as an uncanny period recreation of an affair between two notable public figures in fact began with me pacing around my apartment, acting out loud all these imaginary conversations between the young Audrey Hepburn and my old friend Drew. Kind of weird to picture it, sure. But it works.
A graduate of Syracuse University and the U.S. Army Airborne School, JON ZELAZNY spent a dozen years in Hollywood, from Joel Silver’s office boy to creative support for acclaimed German director Uli Edel, then screenwriting. Now working in fiction, his crime stories have been published in Thuglit, Switchblade, and Econo Clash Review, and his literary offerings in The Binnacle, Literary e-clectic, and Opossum. More fun facts at jonzelazny.com!