“Most of my character development comes from people watching, being slightly introverted and sitting back in social situations, and having an acute awareness of what’s going on around me. Characters are built through trying to make sense of people’s actions.”
The following are excerpts of a conversation between Laura Parnes and Forrest Davis.
LP: The protagonist in your feature film defies viewer’s expectations in that he refuses to transform no matter what situation he finds himself in. Was that your intention?
FD: The goal in A Watched Pot was to show a character that’s fairly quiet and unlikeable. I was interested in how we connect with a lead character that is pretty reserved.
LP: In terms of story structure there is a cyclical element to it. It starts in the way that it ends.
FD: It is built around questioning if he has the ability to change or not. In traditional films you see a character go from point A to point B where in real life I don’t think that happens. With him it’s left ambiguous whether he has changed or if he ends right where he begins.
LP: What is your process of writing a script?
FD: I start with a stream of consciousness of writing, but with the understanding that in this scene, I need to cover certain points. Then inevitability I begin walking around and saying the lines to myself. From there I send it to an actor I’m working with. That’s when most of the improvisational work comes in, when we get together and read the lines. Then ask, “What doesn’t sound right?” “How would you say this?”
LP: You workshop it?
FD: Exactly. I’ve always worked with actors to try it the way we’ve rehearsed. But then if there is something else we want to say, or a certain emotion we want, we’ll try another take and see what happens. That’s where things change and come together. There are situations where something is still off and we’ll rewrite it right there. Being open to working with stuff that is staged but also being open to working with improvising to the extent to push so it doesn’t feel like actors are just reading what’s on the page.
LP: It definitely brings out more realistic dialogue, and it becomes a collaborative process, especially if you’re working with a talented actor who can really add something to the character.
I love improvisation. The activity of a groupthink, where everybody is working together and very interconnected. The writing process afterword is the real battle. It requires a lot of room for experimentation and the possibility of failure. It also requires lots of labor! I have to be steeped in this other world and focus large amounts of time and somehow know it backward and forward. Then I can finally solve the puzzle. It’s a struggle but it’s a fascinating struggle.
FD: My process is much more traditional. I like writing. It usually starts with a certain person or person’s action I saw and can’t understand. I’m trying to figure out what was in their mind that made them do it and build a story around that. The next piece I’m writing started with a specific shot. It was like, “How do I incorporate this into a story?” The whole film is based on one shot being placed at the most pivotal moment.
I also like working with the same people, primarily professional actors playing the main characters in the film where smaller parts are often played by non-actors. The merging of these two creates an authenticity that I believe an all-professional actors cast cannot bring. The actor I worked with for A Watched Pot has become a good friend and I'll write specific things for him now that we have worked together. We understand what each is looking for but are still willing to challenge each other.
LP: I like writing for specific people too. Right now I’m working with musicians and it’s a little like herding cats. They’re really brilliant and hilarious in front of the camera but you can put as much tape as you want on the floor and they won’t necessarily hit a mark. It requires having multiple cameras and being prepared for the unexpected. Sifting through things and to find that one performance gem is an essential part of process.
FD: Inevitably, when working with scripted material, going from paper to shooting is where some of the biggest struggles occur. But of all the satisfying moments, one is during production. It’s the moment when you’ve set up the scene, you have all the lights, you've done the blocking, and you just sit down and look at the monitor. It’s that realization that the picture you had in your head is really happening–the words you wrote–and every time you sit down and look, it gets very real all of a sudden.
Being able to recognize that the script is not necessarily going to be what I shoot exactly. It’s going to change. Trying to recognize where the character is going, or how the actor is working while shooting, can be where major changes need to happen. Scaling that back in post is where it becomes closer to what was written. When I’m editing, it’s not as much adding anything to the character, but taking things away. It’s wiping away dialogue and using more silences to get a character.