Friday, May 10, 2013

The Business of Business: Thomas Kaufman Guest Piece

Thomas Kaufman, author of the Willis Gidney series, Drink the Tea and Steal the Show, has a new book of short stories out this week - Erased. A couple years ago, Tom contributed a swell guest piece on technique in writing violence, and I was delighted to have him back with this one on -

- The Business of Business
By Thomas Kaufman

For an author, writing about a character in a scene is often like acting a part. The writer must see things from that character’s perspective, especially if the writer wants to populate her story with interesting characters.  An actor looks not only at the surface of what his character does and says, but also the sub-text, the dark undercurrents that move in surprising ways.

A scene brings together forces in opposition, and there’s an end result that propels the story forward.  Great, but sometimes a scene plays a little, well, flat.  What to do?

When an actor talks about business, he may be talking about box office gross or union dues.  Or he could be talking about business — the actions he takes while delivering lines or listening to their fellow actors.  And the business can be inspired.  Even brilliant. For writers as well as actors.

Drama, after all, comes from the Latin, and means action.  So it’s natural for an actor to request from the director something to do in a scene, or even to suggest a piece of business for themselves.
Making the movie Out of the Past, Kirk Douglas kept trying to steal scenes from Robert Mitchum with different bits of business.  Maybe playing with a coin, or spinning a gold watch fob.  Director Jacques Tourneur had his hands full.  In one scene, while Mitchum and Douglas are sparring, actor Paul Valentine leafs through the pages of a magazine. That’s business too, though it wasn’t discussed beforehand. The next day the cast and crew were watching dailies and Tourneur noticed the magazine business.  He turned to Valentine and said, “Oh, Paul, now I have to keep an eye on you, too?

A great piece of business occurs when Patrick Stewart played Macbeth.  Stewart, age 70 at the time of filming, gives an energetic performance.  He delivers his lines in a way that makes them easily understood. 

At the beginning of Act III, Macbeth meets with two murders and argues them into to killing not only Banquo, but his family as well.  When the killers tell Macbeth that they are men, Macbeth says, “Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men, as hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are clept all by the name of dogs.

While, in a poor actor, this could sound like a laundry list, Stewart makes it great.  Still he felt there was something wanting in the scene. So he went to the director, Rupert Goold, and said he had an idea for a bit of business in that scene. What? Asked Goold.

I make them a sandwich," Stewart said.

Okay, most directors would look most actors in the eye and say, “You must be joking.” But this was no ordinary actor, and Goold was no ordinary director. So they talked about it, and decided the business could be made to work quite well in this scene. Take a look, it’s only a few minutes long.  I’ll just hang out and buff my nails.

Macbeth, and the Business of Business from Thomas Kaufman on Vimeo.

What’s wonderful about this is the way Stewart makes the sandwich ­ how his actions sometimes correlate and other time counterpoint his words. Also, look at how the other actors incorporate the business into their performances as well. Example:  Stewart hands them each some sandwich.  In fact, he’s sealing the bargain for Banquo’s murder. And no sooner do they take the food than Stewarts commands that they must kill Banquo’s family as well. Now the younger killer finds the food is stuck in his throat, he cannot “swallow” what Macbeth is telling him.

So when you write a scene, you should think of what the scene means, of course, and how it’s content drives the story forward. But don’t forget about the business of business too. It can add another dimension to what you’re writing. 

How about you? Have you ever run across a piece of memorable business?

Keep up with Thomas Kaufman at his website and follow him on Twitter @thomaskaufman and get your copy of Erased today.

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