On Method Writing

Grant Tracey

As a scene unfolds, allow characters to shift tactics, objectives, and follow different, almost improvisational impulses. Explore and enjoy the shifting tones that dynamic scene work inhabits.

Let’s look at an example from cinema to experience how tonal shifts raise the all-important question: what’s emerging here?

John Cassavetes, inspired by James Dean (a descendant of the Method), was an actor/director/writer who sought above all else authenticity. He contended that we all wear masks, shielding our inner selves with protective armor and projecting images of what we want others to see and believe. Through the pursuit of honest impulses, actors for Cassavetes discover a series of mini-epiphanies, sometimes leading to the mask falling away.

His art films always placed the actor first. Rather than have actors hit marks and land lines in order to facilitate the script, Cassavetes insisted that his camera operators follow the actors’ movements because the actors are the story, what’s unfolding before us is the story. He filmed take after take, encouraging actors to follow different impulses, affording them time to find a myriad of truths. The subtleties of his films were lost on many of his era’s critics, especially Pauline Kael of The New Yorker who labeled his art narcissistic, self-indulgent, and slow-moving with nothing much happening. But if a viewer appreciates Cassavetes’s cinema through the lens of literary writing (narratives which are character driven as opposed to plot driven), then his and his fellow actors’ choices create a rich viewing experience of shifting tonalities, like jazz musicians riffing and playing against the original chart and within it at the same time. As a Cassavetes film tumbles forward with all its unexpected impulses, we are charting multi-varied emotional levels, and constantly inquiring as to what’s emerging here?

In 1965, Cassavetes began work on his second indie film and first masterpiece, Faces (1968). Like the previous Shadows, Faces is polyvocal, following four story lines, rich in shifting tonalities, demanding its viewers track variable nuances and outcomes. The film’s mood is tinctured with alcohol, like the later Husbands (1970), with its characters laughing and laughing, their objectives rapidly shifting from one extreme/impulse to another.

Early in Faces, the given circumstances (character roles/context of the film’s story world) are established. Richard Forst (John Marley) is a confident, aggressive executive, crossing over into areas that would have him up on compliance and equity charges today. In the film’s opening scene, he disparages the appearance of one of his secretaries: “you look lousy;” he waits as she places a daubing cigarette to his lips, and then lights it for him; moments later, in an echo of Humphrey Bogart from The Big Sleep, he says, “will you take this thing out of my mouth.” He’s a playboy, movie-star wannabe, full of sexual entitlement. Jeannie Rapp (Gena Rowlands), a prostitute, holds herself back from the world by adopting a mask: Rowlands’s voice is at times slightly guarded, elevated, kittenish, allowing herself to not be totally present as she adopts a variety of playful personas and poses. Her journey will require that she honestly confront her own identity. Richard’s friend Freddie (Fred Draper) is a crude wannabe swinger. Much of his shtick lumbers with turgid innuendo. In the second scene, set at the Losers Club in LA, he touches women in inappropriate places—and later smacks Jeannie on the backside in her home. He is driven by his libidinous id, his dialogue and actions full of overtures. 

In the film’s fourth scene, the given circumstances are enriched. Jeannie entertains the two middle-aged men at her home, and we discover how the men are disgruntled with their marriages. As she exits the room to get more comfortable, Freddie does a sexual jig and sings, “She’s going to change.” In a sweaty close-up, he looks off in the direction of Jeannie’s exit, anticipatory and anxious. He desires a return to his rousing, wayward past, recounting all the girls he and Richard slept with during their youth. Richard laughs it off, saying “it never happened,” but in Cassavetes’s films sometimes what characters say doesn’t match with what they really want. Richard is disingenuous; like Fred, he too desires a return to his lusty past and thus the stage is set for a competition between the two men for the affections of Jeannie.