Into each play, some life intrudes

Special to The Times

Writers believe they can fix the world with a sentence. But it’s always the next sentence. Salvation, redemption, the perfect last kiss -- they are all but one elusive word away. So we search. We can’t help it. We search. We try. We throw out. We search again. It is a noble effort if you are writing a book. On the other hand, if you are doing a play or a movie, it can make you, with all due literary respect, a hefty pain in the butt.

I learned this firsthand during rehearsals for the stage version of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” which began two winters ago off-Broadway. I was watching the two actors, and something wasn’t right, so I started scribbling in the margins of the script. The director, David Esbjornson, must have noticed my pencil smoking because he slid over and gazed at my notes.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“They’re not doing it right,” I said. “It’s not whimsical enough. You see, if we just take out this sentence and put in this new one here, I’ve just written it, I think we can ...” He held up a palm.


“Tell me what you want to see,” he said softly.

So I told him. He nodded. He walked over to the actors, whispered something in their ears, then returned.

“Run it,” he said, sitting down.

They did the scene again. Same words. But this time, with a turn of the head, with a pause, with a look, it was perfect.

“That gonna work for you?” David asked.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, shrinking in my chair. “That’ll work.”

The less-is-more school

There’s a great expression attributed to the late jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. It goes, “It took me my whole life to learn what not to play.” If I’ve gleaned anything moving from nonfiction to fiction to playwriting to screenwriting, it’s that you can always leave out a few more notes. If you don’t, you’re liable not to hear the music you heard in your head.

This summer we filmed the ABC-TV movie version of my novel, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” The great Jon Voight, an Oscar winner, plays the lead role of Eddie, an aged World War II veteran. One day on the set, he approached with my script and a bothered look on his face.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I said.

“This moment here.” He pointed at a page. “I’m saying the same thing three times.”

I looked down. I nearly gasped. It was a “critical” scene (“critical” meaning that I felt it mattered tremendously to the telling of the story, and I only felt that about 80% of the scenes. OK, 90%.). Anyhow, the thought of him touching this was too much.

“Well, yes, Jon, you are sort of saying it three times, but that’s because it’s really important! You’re confronting your violent father. Look, here in the book,” I said, flipping the pages of the novel. “See? I say it three times here as well. It has to be.”

Jon nodded patiently, but he had the look of that kid in “Hoosiers” who knows he can make the last shot, only Gene Hackman won’t give him the ball.

Well, in “Hoosiers,” Hackman gave in too, and that kid hadn’t even been nominated for an Oscar. You think I wasn’t going to cave to Jon Voight?

The thing is, he was right. He did the scene -- after we scratched out two of the sentences -- and it blew away everyone. I may have said it three times in the book, where I control the rhythm, the crashing of the waves on the reader’s cerebral shores, but in the movie, Voight was able to say it three times by saying it only once. His inflection. His eyes. His halting voice. It was the notes he chose not to play that made the music work.

Control issues

People often ask, “What’s harder, writing books or writing scripts?” The knee-jerk answer is books, because obviously you must write everything, the smells, the sounds, the lighting, the mood. A script, meanwhile, allows you to write “1940s restaurant -- interior” and -- ta da! -- someone builds you the interior of a 1940s restaurant. You don’t even waste an adjective.

On the other hand, in scripts, when you surrender the prose, you also surrender the reins on your dialogue. Just because you write “No, please don’t go!” doesn’t guarantee you hear it the way you dreamed.

During a performance of a play I recently wrote called “Duck Hunter Shoots Angel,” the lead actor speaks of a lost love. He says she made him feel special. Then he muses, “They’re the worst kind, aren’t they? The ones that make you feel special?”

I always intended that to be a bit heartbreaking. But the way he says it, it gets a laugh, every night. And you know what? It works that way too. After quietly pulling 2,000 hairs from my head, I have accepted that.

I guess the difference comes down to, in a word, trust. You can live without trust as a novelist or a journalist. You hammer at your work until its sculpture satisfies. But writing for stage or screen means at some point you hand your words over in faith, you become Miriam in the weeds, watching baby Moses go down the river in a basket.

Which makes your actor, I suppose, Pharaoh’s daughter, and the director Pharaoh himself. No wonder writers on the set are often viewed as a plague! Directors fear they’ll whisper in baby Moses’ ear, and a revolt will surely follow.

So you let your director whisper, and if the cast is good, he or she will say, “That gonna work for you?” I’ve been lucky. The sets and rehearsals I have attended have been open and welcoming. Still, I have learned not to walk around with a pencil in hand. It’s safer that way.

Mitch Albom wrote “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” and writes a column for the Detroit Free Press.