Surviving a Live Reading of Your Screenplay or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Deliver a Good Show

Photo by Kurt Kuenne.

Photo by Kurt Kuenne

On June 14th, 2014 the Black List and the Los Angeles Film Festival hosted a live reading of my script 1969 A SPACE ODYSSEY OR: HOW KUBRICK LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LAND ON THE MOON. Kathryn Hahn, Jared Harris, Thomas Sadoski, Lance Reddick, Clark GreggAaron StatonRich Sommer, Shannon Woodward, Tessa Ferrer, Troy Ruptash and Cooper Thornoton performed to a packed audience of over 700 people.

Photo courtesy of The Black List

Photo courtesy of The Black List

It was amazing, it was thrilling and it gave me a whole new appreciation for live theater, which is f-ing hard. There are no second takes on the stage.

So how the hell did I end up with a fancy live reading of my Black List script at the Los Angeles Theatre in downtown LA?

Fancy theater in downtown LA.

Photo by Kurt Kuenne

Franklin Leonard, the mastermind behind the Black List, contacted me back in May. He read and was a fan of 1969, which had landed on the 2013 Black List, and he wanted it to be the first in a series of Black List Live! events. Powerhouse casting director Deb Aquila and her associate Lisa Zagoria would wrangle the talent. And I would be granted an opportunity to direct the show. Of course, I said “yes!”

Deb and Lisa worked hard to bring together the perfect A-list cast for the read, and I couldn’t have been happier with the results.

1969 Live Read Cast

The night before the official event, we brought the cast together for the first time to rehearse. I couldn’t believe I was hearing actors I’d admired for years bring my words to life. It was intoxicating… and then I sobered:  the dialogue was playing well, but  a film script does not easily translate to the live stage.

All the tricks of the screen trade: montages, cross cutting, action sequences, visual transitions, match cuts… none of them work in a live venue. In a movie, all the fancy scene descriptions are transformed into engaging visuals. If the scene descriptions are only read out loud, they slow down the dialogue and ruin the pacing. I suddenly understood why Jason Reitman only used produced screenplays in his live reads — you already had a visual reference for the scenes. Unproduced screenplays don’t have that luxury, which is why Quentin Tarantino blocked out the live reading of his new script THE HATEFUL EIGHT.

Given the cast’s hectic shooting schedules, we had no time to stage the scenes in 1969. So how was I going to turn my film into a live theater experience? By not sleeping.

I spent the entire night rewriting the script, removing and changing scene descriptions so that it would work in a live venue. Megan Halpern, event director extraordinaire for the Black List, helped me collect archive footage, photos and music to give the reading more of a cinematic feel.

Photo courtesy of The Black List

Photo courtesy of The Black List

On the day of the live read, I was stressed and sleep deprived, hoping the added visuals and editing the script would bring the show together.

By the time Franklin introduced me to the audience,  I could barely see straight. Seriously, I have no clue what I’m saying here:

Photo courtesy of The Black List

Photo courtesy of The Black List

When the show started, I sat in the back of the theater and held my breath. Then, the cast started to read my script…and it worked. The audience was laughing and clapping in all the right spots. Somehow the whole thing came together. We put on a really good show.

Photo by Kurt Kuenne

Photo by Kurt Kuenne

Would I do a staged reading of one of my screenplays again?

Probably. It’s a good way to find out if your dialogue works.

Would I do it in a high-pressure event where my unproduced work is compared to Jason Reitman’s and Quentin Tarantino’s (WTF)?

I would do it all again without hesitation.

Sending out a huge thank you to Franklin Leonard, The Black List and the stellar cast for making the fantastic reading of 1969 possible. I’m thrilled to see what BlackList Live! does next.

 

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