The weekend before Thanksgiving our sister organization, The MovieMaker Institute, traveled to New York City to put on what we billed as “The Ultimate Screenwriter’s Workshop.”
The event was an unqualified success, thanks in large part to the world-class speakers who participated. We asked one of our favorite actors, Tim Roth, to give the actor’s perspective on the screenplay. Not only was he good enough to oblige, but afterward, over beers at a comfortably seedy little neighborhood cafe called Donahue’s, he granted us this interview.
Tim Rhys and Tom Allen, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): (Referring to film clip of Little Odessa) So Tim, what was it like to beat the shyte out of Max Schell? (Laughter)
Tim Roth (TR): Actually, he beat the shit out of me. That’s the reality.
MM: What in particular is it that you look for in a script?
TR: With Little Odessa, for example, I thought it was one of the most dark and strange stories. It’s a world I knew nothing about, which interested me. It had that sense of filmmaking from the early ’70s in America—which is why I came here—and it seemed like more of a painting than a film, which by the time we put it on the screen, that’s how I still feel about it. And also [director James Gray] was 22 when he wrote it and 24 when he directed it and I thought that was kind of amazing. But I don’t think that answers your question really, does it. I mean, I read it and I had a gut reaction to it, and then I didn’t read it again until I was preparing for it. It just gave me a good feeling.
MM: When did you become acclimated with the screenplay format?
TR: I’ve been acting for about 16 years, but the first screenplay I became involved with wasn’t for the cinema, it was for television in England, and was called Made in Britain. It was written by David Leland, and was one of four hour-long segments which studied the education system in Britain. Alan Clarke, who’s dead now, directed it, but he was one of our great filmmakers.
MM: Through what channels do screenplays get into your hands?
TR: Generally they go to my agent and then get sent to me, and there’s stacks of them, not because I have any great prowess, but people generally know that I’ll read their story, eventually. A lot of independent filmmakers or first-timers send me scripts. I know for a fact that agents block scripts, and sometimes get themselves fired in the process. For example, James Woods came up to Quentin [Tarantino] and said, “You know, I really loved Reservoir Dogs. I wish I could have been in that.” And he said, “We sent it to you.” So his agent went bye-bye. An early warning sign for me [with new directors] is when they want to be in it, too. That’s always an early warning, red lights flashing. I also get scripts from the studios, but I find it really hard to plow through them. It’s depressing.
MM: Are many of the scripts you get from independents also boring and bad?
TR: Yes, most of them.
MM: So do you stay with one that just doesn’t have legs?
TR: I try to, because scripts always tend to be works in progress, you know? So you try to see if it’s going to surprise you. But there are some that you just have to put down. Generally when they come with a cover note saying it was inspired by Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs they go in the trash. There’s a glut of material out there right now. There are a lot of good ones, too, and I can’t do them all, and I really want to do them all, and that’s when you have to start making choices.
MM: Could you comment on the qualities of the successful reading draft?
TR: Sometimes they’re just bloody awful, but you feel there’s something in there worth pursuing. When we did Vincent and Theo, which I did with [Robert] Altman a few years ago, he wouldn’t show me the script until I said yes — and with good reason, because it was atrocious. (Laughter) It was really appalling. But he said it was a blueprint, and we improvised and rewrote nearly every scene. We’d write it the night before and then present it to him the next day. So every process is different. When you first read a script sometimes it’ll be perfect. I felt that Reservoir Dogs didn’t need anything, it just needed to be filmed. With Woody Allen, you’ve done all your preparation and you’re terrified and you show up and he says, “Well, just say that line because that’ll get you a laugh, and then say whatever you want, just make it messy and interesting, and then say that line as well.” And that’s it. A wing and a prayer. You don’t know if you’re doing good work. And then he says, “Okay, moving on.” You’ve shot two takes and there’s no coverage and you’re just out on a limb, really, but you have to trust him. He’s earned that position. Altman’s earned that position. If a first-timer came to me and said that’s how he wanted to work, I’d be very dubious.
MM: So you’re not always excited about the prospect of improvising out a character or a storyline?
TR: With most young directors when they say they want it to have a very improvisational feel, generally it goes, “Fuck you./No, fuck you./No, fuck you./No, fuck you.” And then someone pulls out a gun.
MM: Yeah, usually you. (Laughter)
TR: That’s the truth, though. I mean, you see a lot of those films on the festival circuit. Most of the films I’ve done have been directed by the writer, so the script is usually like a blueprint, and as you’re filming you make changes accordingly. There’s generally room for improvisation. I try to respect the writer’s work, especially if it’s a first-timer. I like to let them make their film. Good or bad, it’s their shot.
MM: So does good dialogue equal a good script?
TR: For me, I would say, yeah, I like the dialogue. I love to receive scripts that are pure dialogue, without any description at all. Just scene numbers, the room that they’re in or the street that they’re on, and then the dialogue. Seeing how the person writes is generally a good indication of how he’s going to direct. I think direction is about manipulation of actors a lot of the time, and I think the skillful director will make you feel like you’ve arrived at the right decision yourself, whereas in fact that’s what they planned all along. It’s like therapy, I suppose.
MM: How do you get into a character’s head?
TR: (Pausing) It doesn’t matter, really, what gets me there. The thing is, I don’t want to isolate it or analyze it in any way, because then it’ll lose any kind of mystery to me. And I don’t like the whole method thing, really. I think that that’s over. I think a lot of young actors think they have to go live in a tin hut in the tundra to get in their character, and I think it’s bullshit. And I also don’t believe that they do it. I think it’s something they tell the press that they do, but I don’t buy it for a second. I can see why it still exists, though. A lot of actors want to do it because they see that DeNiro and Brando and Pacino and those guys still work like that, or I believe that they do. But I’m a a big fan of just inventing your own method. I tried not to read any books about acting, because I don’t really want to know how it works. I don’t really want to get involved in that.
MM: It’s like Olivier said—
TR: Oh, to Hoffman? Yeah.
MM: Just act!
TR: He was in a pretty powerful position to be saying stuff like that, though. And also, the other side of that, is do whatever it takes. For some people that works. So you can’t deny them that.
MM: Whose work do you admire?
TR: Actors: Charles Laughton, Cary Grant, what DeNiro used to do, Harvey Keitel, Chris Walken, Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford. Directors: Kubrick, Fellini, Passolini, early Scorsese, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, earlier Robert Altman. DeNiro and Scorsese’s early ’70s stuff was extraordinary. And those were studio films, too. Age of Innocence, though, just doesn’t appeal. I have that whole Merchant-Ivory stuff back in England; I don’t really need to see it from him. This is terrible because I’d love to work with him, but I don’t think that anything of his has equalled Raging Bull. I don’t know where he’s gone. I thought Goodfellows had real promise, you know? But I thought the central character was really weak, to be honest. It had a little from back then, but it was taking it to a different place, and I didn’t really like it very much.