I’m so, SO excited to announce this guest post, everyone! 😀
Today, our very own Jesse is taking the stage (page?), and he’ll be shedding light on some of the nuts and bolts of the workings of our beloved dramas.
This post was born of a comment that Jesse had written in response to Beez, breaking down some of the practical variables that contribute to (or detract from) the chemistry that we see on our screens. I loved what he wrote, and asked if he’d be willing to expand that into a post for us, and he graciously said yes!
Granted, Jesse’s exposure has been in the US film industry and not in Korea, but from what I understand, the processes that he describes are also practiced in Korea, if not down to the minutiae, then in large part. I personally found his post illuminating and very educational, so I hope you’ll enjoy it too!
It’s a genuine pleasure to be able to share this space with all of you, and I’m thrilled at the opportunity to start a discussion about the intersection of two things near and dear to me: dramas and filmmaking.
I took on my first producing role at the age of nine when I attempted to cast the neighborhood kids in an adapted version of “Return of the Jedi,” and tried to wrangle their parents (and mine) into making or procuring the required costumes and props. Due to an overwhelming lack of enthusiasm from all parties, stifling budgetary constraints, and the absence of a suitable venue and working script, production quickly ground to a halt. But I knew what I wanted to do with my life!
I did some small community, church, and school plays growing up, but I got serious about theater my sophomore year in high school. I continued to frequent the stage through college, though I slowly began dabbling in video projects as my focus shifted to a more accessible medium. When I graduated I got an agent, and though the projects I got involved with didn’t exactly beef up my reel, they familiarized me with the production process.
I continued piecing together experience and education through various projects, and eventually my focus shifted from acting to directing. I was never drawn to Hollywood – neither the system or the lifestyle – which left me in a quandary for awhile. How do you pursue a career when you don’t want anything to do with the predominant industry?
It took me awhile to find the answer, but eventually I began pursuing filmmaking full-time. I was fortunate to get plugged into a small but formidable group of professionals in a market that facilitated commercial work as well as small independent films. I wrote, financed and directed a short film of my own, and while I consider it to be a mediocre product at best, the experience and relationships that came out of it were invaluable.
After that, I got involved with whatever I could in any way I could as long as it was paid work. I wrote scripts, spent time in front of the camera in featured roles and as background talent (extra), and was frequently hired for G&E (Grip & Electric) work. I bought some basic equipment and began teaching myself cinematography and sound design via fun little side projects in my free time. Those allowed me to familiarize myself with the editing process as well, and eventually I started providing that service for a gradually expanding list of clients.
Currently I’m a writer/producer (of sorts) and editor for a company in Indiana, doing freelance work on the side as time allows. The projects I’ve done aren’t anything close to the scope of Hollywood’s films and TV shows, but the principles and mechanics of productions are the same – just more money, more politics, and more people. My hope is to one day shift into directing full time, telling stories that entertain, edify and resonate with an audience.
HOW I GOT INTO DRAMAS
Which brings me to dramas! 🙂
I distinctly recall the inciting thought that put me on the path to these fantastic shows. It was the fall of 2017. I was watching a slice-of-life anime that took place in a suburb, and I thought, “I wonder if the buildings really look like that in Japan?” My curiosity went far beyond that, of course; I had often wondered how much of what I saw in those stylized cartoons was a reflection of the people, values and culture there. But for some reason, my curiosity about the apartment buildings on a quiet street was what triggered my brain to seek out the answers.
The next thought was, “I wonder if there are Japanese sitcoms?”
That search lead me to “Good Morning Call” on Netflix, which was my gateway to the entire drama experience. I was immediately taken in by the relative innocence of the romance, the depth and scope of the stories, and the embellishment of small details like waiting with anxious anticipation for a text from that guy/gal who has recently enveloped your world.
It was quite literally unbelievable that a genre could resonate with me so strongly on so many levels. I remember thinking I had discovered a brand new niche and figured there were probably only a dozen or so shows out there – but I hoped more would be made soon!
Good gravy, I can’t believe I was that naive!
I was doing freelance at that time and had a lot of time off, so I would watch 12-16 hours a day for three to four days in a row. It soon became apparent that there were more than just a few shows out there, and after a kinda lukewarm experience, I decided I needed to seek out quality reviews to make good decisions on which shows to invest my time in.
I found The Fangirl Verdict, read one of KFG’s reviews, and experienced the same euphoric feeling that I got when I discovered the dramas for the first time. I was entertained, engaged, and given the educated opinion I was looking for, but it was mixed with a thoughtful analysis I didn’t expect. These were reviews written by an expert I could trust! (D’aw.. you are too kind, thanks Jesse! ❤ ~kfangurl)
After reading several reviews and browsing the blog over the course of several days, I finally reached out and asked for a recommendation based on my fledgling experience. I don’t recall the exact exchange, but after a warm welcome to the drama world, KFG suggested several shows. First among them was “Healer.”
The rest, as they say, is.. a well-worn cliche that I’ll avoid restating here. But ya know what I mean. 🙂
I am grateful for the joy I’ve found in these shows, and the comfort I’ve found sharing that joy with the good folks here at The Fangirl Verdict. 🙂
THE THING ABOUT CHEMISTRY
Nothing sells an OTP like chemistry. If we’re going to believe a couple should be together after all the struggles, shenanigans, missteps, and twists the story can conjure up, we need to see frequent glimpses – promises – of what their relationship can become when it’s fully realized, and we need to feel the profound, unique attraction between them. Sadly, as many of us can attest, that attraction doesn’t always show up on our screens the way we’d hoped it would.
Sometimes chemistry flares up, flickers, and fades several times throughout a show’s run. Sometimes it doesn’t even make a cameo. Even more perplexing, an OTP may be electrified in one show but abysmal in another. Real life couples might light up the screen with their authenticity, or they could meander through the narrative with all the razzle-dazzle of pocket lint.
How is that possible? Where does chemistry come from and how can it be infused into a couple’s interactions?
Ironically, there is no formula for this kind of chemistry. It’s an intangible phenomenon that can’t be practiced or rehearsed, though it can be strengthened, weakened, or destroyed by external forces. It’s a hard concept to pin down and deconstruct, but I would suggest that chemistry manifests when the actors are comfortable in their roles, immersed in the moment, and true to the nature of their relationship.
CHEMISTRY FOR EVERYONE!
As you may have surmised, this concept of chemistry exists outside of a purely romantic context. Comedy duos like Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Chris Farley and David Spade, and to a lesser degree Jackie Chan and Chris Rock, had notable chemistry that made their films fun to watch (if their brand of humor was your cup o’ tea, of course).
There is also chemistry between friends, and this genre is filled with some of the best examples I can think of. Though many folks mourned a lack of the OTP’s chemistry in “Descendants of the Sun” I enjoyed the heck out of watching Si-jin and Dae-young interact as long-time compadres and brothers in arms.
That’s a particularly noteworthy example, but the more I think about it, the harder-put I am to think of shows that don’t feature some really solid friendships, particularly amongst the leading lady and her gal pals. The same goes for familial chemistry – at least the families that aren’t inherently rotten to the core by virtue of being aligned with (or comprised of) the villains. There’s even chemistry that can exist between antagonists and protagonists. Take, for example, the dynamic between Ji-An and Kwang-il in “My Mister.” I’ll dig into that a little more in bit, but their scenes together were certainly compelling, feeding off each other in a clash of fire and ice.
The point is that while we typically think of chemistry as the romantic draw between two leads, it can inhabit virtually any relationship. We usually don’t credit it as “chemistry” though, instead using phrases like, “They play off each other well” or “They’re a lot of fun to watch together” to describe a lively and enthralling interaction. When we don’t see “chemistry” between the leads, it’s more accurate to say that there’s no perceptible love-based or romantic chemistry at work. Most of the time this is merely semantics ’cause we all know what “chemistry” is referring to, but as we dig into the influence of the writing process, that distinction will become relevant. Here’s to splitting hairs!
WRITING THE ’SHIP
When I consider a show’s writing, I typically focus on dialogue, plot points, and the story as a whole. Those factors have a strong impact on my enjoyment, but they have virtually no effect whatsoever on the chemistry. I’d wager if we were to watch a drama without the subtitles, we would still be able to see romantic chemistry – or a lack thereof – between the leads. Heck, many of the most potent moments don’t have dialogue that fits the situation anyway.
Take the reconciliation scene between Se-hee and Ji-ho in “Because This is My First Life” for example.
Se-hee has just gently but suddenly pushed Ji-ho back onto the mattress and is leaning over her as she stares up at him with bated breath. A few tentative moments later, he finally asks, “Do you…need to eat more breakfast?” After taking a pause and a glance down at Se-hee’s tense body pressing against hers, Ji-ho slowly murmurs, “I don’t need to eat more…breakfast.”
I won’t ruin the moment with a crass interpretation, but the subtext and non-verbals make it abundantly clear that neither of them gave a flying fig about breakfast!
Even though the dialogue itself can’t bolster or squelch chemistry, a busy script cluttered with verbiage can certainly detract from it. Most of the memories I have of emotionally resonant moments involve very little action or dialogue. They are quiet times accentuated with pauses, glances that turn to gazes, slight shifts in posture, and gradual contact. Good writing peppers the script with pockets of enhanced emptiness so the space can be filled with connection and longing. If there’s too much action, or if the plot is so complicated that editors have to cut those moments short to fit in another scene, the perceived chemistry will suffer.
Sometimes the problem isn’t the quality of the connection, but how little we see of it. It can be challenging to work in functional scenes that also feed the OTP’s development over the course of 16+ hours, but sustained engagement is key to making the relationship hit us in the feels.
The impetus for this exploration into the nature of chemistry came from a thoughtful post KFG wrote, regarding which OTPs didn’t work for her. Many times a lack of chemistry was cited, and in other instances the relationship was off-putting or disturbing. (And some atrocities included both!) When characters are well-written and have a wholesome foundation, a lack of chemistry (romantic or otherwise) is indicative of acting or directing issues – both of which will be addressed shortly. If, however, the writer has crafted broken, disconnected, or even downright perverse characters, the chemistry may, in fact, exist, but it’s not the chemistry we want to see in an OTP.
To hone in on this concept, let’s take a gander at the aforementioned relationship between Ji-An and Kwang-il in “My Mister.”
[SPOILER] Their history is complicated. Kwang-il hates Ji-An for killing his father, yet pities her for what she’s endured, and, in some way, may in fact have an affinity for her, buried deep down. Underscoring all of that is a fluctuating measure of self-loathing. [END SPOILER]
The richness of the character allows Jang Ki-yong to comfortably insert himself into the role despite its contemptible overtones, and fully engage in the nature of his character’s relationship with Ji-An. IU enjoys the same depth of character, and is also able to settle into Ji-An and her connection to Kwang-il. There is chemistry present, facilitated by great character development and capable actors. But there is no love, no romance – and rightly so! This is a contentious, antagonistic relationship that is beautiful in execution but horrible in nature.
But what if Ji-An and Kwang-il were the OTP? (Shudder) The chemistry that makes their scenes work would technically still be there, but it wouldn’t be portraying the love we’d be expecting. Even if Kwang-il started showing random moments of kindness that Ji-An reacted positively to, the romance would never achieve any significant resonance because the characters are fundamentally opposed.
It’s easy to see the disconnect in this hypothetical example because we already know they aren’t the OTP, but for other relationships, the divide is more subtle.
WRITING GONE WRONG
“Well Intended Love” was a show that made KFG’s list of failed OTPs, citing “middling chemistry” and an “ultra disturbing” connection. For all intents and purposes, the writer stunted the relational growth and made sustained romantic chemistry virtually impossible. The fact that we can see glimpses of it indicates that the actors had the capacity; they settled into their characters and stayed true to the nature of the relationship, but the relationship itself was too rife with actions and attitudes that didn’t align with romance. Lies and manipulation are not hallmarks of love. Infatuation? Perhaps. Desire? Certainly. Lust? Arguably. But not love.
Characters can be written as twisted, as long as the writer knows they are twisted and gradually straightens them out. But having a character apologize for doing something selfish or stupid isn’t the same as changing. Giving characters flaws fleshes them out and makes them more relatable, but embellishing those flaws and using them as a driving force will make it impossible to bring love to the foreground.
In the case of “Well Intended Love,” I would submit that the actors technically did have chemistry throughout, but because the writing made Yi Zhou a jerk that Xia Lin rightly had conflicted feelings for, there were only brief moments when that chemistry could actually come across as the romantic expression we expect from an OTP. In essence, the actors correctly connected as awkwardly as they should have, based on the way they were written. …Yay?
A more subtle example of self-destructive writing is found between Si-jin and Mo-yeon in “Descendants of the Sun.”
[MODERATE HIGH LEVEL SPOILER]
Mo-yeon genuinely loves Si-jin, but she also genuinely doesn’t want to be with him. It’s not a matter of getting her mind in line with her heart or overcoming some trite prejudice; she grapples with the fact that her beau could be killed on any given day due to the kind of work he does. There are plenty of police officers, fire fighters, and soldiers who have spouses, but for Mo-yeon, marrying a man she could lose permanently is a deal-breaker (until the third act, of course). It could have been written as an underlying tension, but instead it was made the primary obstacle keeping the leads apart.
The result is that in almost every scene, the dynamic is both adversarial and romantic. It goes back and forth once or twice, but most of the time the nature of their relationship is a muddy mess. Even if the actors were good enough to stay true to that nature for the duration, it’s too conflicting to come across with any earnestness. I believe the leads had chemistry (their real life relationship seems indicative of that), but with Mo-yeon’s irreconcilable hang-up baked into the relationship, the best they could manage was some kind of distant fickle friendship accentuated by random bursts of affection. How could that not be romantic? 😉
There is a reason why so many dramas contain amnesia, secrets, misunderstandings, childhood traumas and pseudo-pretenses: they are all legitimate, relatively innocent obstacles that maintain tension and distance between the two leads while allowing them to orbit around each other. Their love – hidden, unrealized, stifled, or guarded – is always there, unblemished and gradually revealed in greater measure with every interaction. The opposing forces come from outside, freeing the leads to express their love in glances, sighs, teases, feints, and retreats – all of which can translate into romantic chemistry if the actors and director can facilitate it. But when the points of contention are internal to one of the leads or the OTP itself, the love is either tainted or marginalized, leaving any chemistry bereft of romance.
Basically, actors can only work with what they’re given. Good writing can make it easier for them to connect to their characters, organically relate to each other within the context of the story, and have a clear conduit for chemistry of the romantic persuasion. Poor writing, on the other hand, cuts them off at the knees, limiting the depth of their chemistry.
[VAGUE HIGH LEVEL SPOILERS]
In “I Need Romance 2012,” Ji-hoon was a fantastic guy who treated Yeol-mae with respect, affection, and unwavering support, yet he was ultimately relegated to the friend zone. We’re supposed to be okay with this because he was written to be an ideal match but not the perfect fit. Kim Ji-seok had good chemistry with Jung Yu-mi, but the relationship could only go as far as Yeol-mae’s heart allowed; it never reached the desperate depths of her love for Seok-hyun.
…Or at least, it wasn’t supposed to. INR2012 was one of my early dramas, and I remember really being cheesed off that Ji-hoon got screwed. My dissatisfaction indicates that for me, Ji-hoon and Yeol-mae were written in such a way that allowed them to achieve romantic chemistry during their interactions, and the only reason it didn’t “work” is because they weren’t billed as the OTP. Ji-hoon wasn’t capped at “friend” the way he should have been. The writer could have given them great comedic chemistry, making him the fun guy who treated her well but never really nestled into her heart, but instead he was given all the makings of a viable romantic partner.
On the other hand, we have Eun-gi and Deok-mi’s relationship in “Her Private Life.” Eun-gi is firmly written as a brother from another mother. The two play off each other well enough, but their interactions never skewed towards romance. Eun-gi never had more than a fleeting moment that allowed Deok-mi to look at him “as a man,” so she (and therefore I) always saw their connection as platonic.
In stark contrast, Deok-mi and Ryan were equipped by the script with romantic chemistry as a couple, but Deok-mi’s frequent indulgences of infatuation with her idol tempered things a bit. I also remember more scenes of her being supportive and almost motherly to an emotionally-crippled and insecure Ryan, than her being the focus of his affection. Bonus points to the writer for allowing Eun-gi to be believable as a friend (and nothing more) but a penalty for hamstringing Deok-mi with a genuine adoration for, and fixation on, another man. Kudos to Park Min-young for being true to her character’s dual interests; alas, that her stellar talent made for a watered-down romance!
For a final example of how a writer can potentially subdue chemistry, take a look at “When the Weather is Fine.” Eun-seob is a rather melancholy character plagued by abandonment and loss. Usually the other half of the pairing would be a more upbeat, energetic soul that can help effect some change, keep the interactions lively, and drive the relationship forward (a la Park Min-young’s spunky, outgoing and strong-willed Young-shin to Ji Chang-wook’s introverted and anti-social Jung-hoo in “Healer“).
Chemistry is often drawn out by conflict, good-natured or otherwise, so having opposites attract goes a long way. But in “Weather,” Eun-seob is matched up with Hae-won (also played by Park Min-young), a dejected, embittered character who is also plagued by abandonment and loss. The couple’s progress is kinda like someone walking with two left shoes on. Yes, they can move forward, but it’s a lot slower and much more awkward than it would be, if they were wearing one of each shoe. I found the chemistry to be rather lackluster for the most part, not because of the acting or directing, but because the characters were on the exact same journey.
As with most things, perception of chemistry is subjective and, as KFG astutely points out, perspective is influenced by the lens through which we watch. The point is that writing characters into the roles they need to play is a delicate balance that often relies on very subtle details to either enable or disable romantic chemistry. Even seasoned talent will fail to throw sparks if their characters aren’t given tinder or flint to work with, which is why it’s crucial for the script to provide a purposed foundation that well-cast, well-directed actors can build upon.
ENTER THE ACTORS
Obviously the actors’ performances are where the proverbial rubber meets the road when it comes to splashing chemistry on the screen. Working with a good script that gives them a rich character and motivated relationship to explore, they have the capacity to enrapture an audience. But even assuming that our leads are seasoned, talented, and easy to get along with, there are numerous production hazards that can stymie or ruin their chemistry.
First off, to perform at their highest level, actors have to be focused in the moment. It’s a cliché, but if they aren’t fully present and engaged, there is no way to create and maintain a meaningful, tangible connection. Everyone can have off-days, but there are specific challenges film and TV actors have to deal with including little time for preparation, little energy, and too much emotional entanglement.
LACK OF PREP
While stage actors get the luxury of having several weeks to go over lines and blocking with their co-stars, screen actors get a table read for an overview and maybe a one- to two-hour rehearsal at some point. Most of the time, the scene is blocked out and rehearsed a couple times on the day itself, right before the cameras roll. That’s all the official prep they get.
They are expected to explore their characters, run their lines, and craft their performances on their own before getting to the set. Not only does this limit the amount of time they have to get comfortable with their romantic counterparts as real people, but it means they don’t know what approaches the other actor will use, when they will pause, how they’ll react, or what their initial pacing will be.
These things can gradually coalesce with time and familiarity, but there isn’t always that luxury. How many of us have dropped a show within the first few episodes? Shows need to be on-point from the jump, and that means all the actors (particularly the leads) have to conjure up some pretty convincing performances and form strong connections, with very little time or opportunity to do so.
Even if the leads are able to get to know each other enough to feel comfortable in and out of character, the lack of prep time means they have a lot to deal with as the cameras are rolling. Hopefully they have their lines down pat, but they will still get notes about their performance from take to take, that they have to process and apply on their next attempt.
Some of those notes might make them self-conscious or confused, both of which chip away at their confidence and comfort levels. There’s also blocking (character movement and actions that are worked out by the directors and actors once they have a set to work with) that can either be relatively simple, or be so complex that it might as well be a dance. Add in awareness of camera placement, their position in relation to that placement, where their shadows are falling, whether they’re catching the light consistently, and any hazards or props they have to use or work around, and it’s easy to see how remaining attuned to their performance and co-star becomes quite the challenge. There’s a limit to how much even seasoned professionals can handle, particularly on the days when things are utterly chaotic.
Let’s take a look at a scenario.
Our leading lady walks on set, confident, relaxed, ready to go. She looks around for her counterpart so they can run the scene a couple times and get a feel what the give-and-take will be. But his character’s coming back from a scuffle with his beefy rival, so he’s still in make-up getting latex and corn syrup slapped on his face. Ugh. She hates the smell of latex. The kiss later on is gonna be brutal.
The AD (Assistant Director) approaches her, and she smiles at him until she notices he’s holding a couple of pieces of paper in his hands: re-writes. Crap. Her monologue has been tweaked because the producer decided it was too long. Now it’s broken into two parts, and the emotional apex she’d created for herself is gone. One of the lines is really close to what it was before, but the words are switched around so it’s just different enough to trip her up if she’s not careful. But before she can recalibrate, the director calls her over. They don’t have time to get all the planned interior shots tonight because they need to snag a pick-up of the park scene from a week ago while the weather is clear, so they’re combining two of the set-ups and using a dolly to follow her movement from the apartment entrance to the couch. She needs to walk in, hit her first mark just past the kitchen pillar, say a few lines, turn away from her busted-up beau and lean on the table just to the right of the camera so that she’s on the edge of frame for a rack focus. (A tear would be great if she can manage it.) A couple more lines, a pause, and then she needs to turn and walk towards the couch at just the right speed to allow the camera to keep her in profile until she hits her second mark just after the coffee table. Once there, she is to whirl back around and unleash her modified monologue…after figuring out how to hit the truncated beats so this big moment doesn’t come off flat, of course.
And if she misses her mark, leans into the table too much, walks too fast or too slow, misses her second mark, or screws up that darned line, she’s gotta do it all over again. But not to worry! Once her costar finishes his make-up, they’ll have at least five minutes to rehearse while the crew rushes to finish the lighting set-up.
Admittedly, that is a worst case scenario, but it is not out of the realm of feasibility. Having to keep all of that in mind – under pressure – and pull off a serviceable performance will be difficult; achieving the tense, earnest connection that will make the moment resonate will be a miracle.
It’s hard to be genuinely comfortable and focused in adverse conditions, and it is a credit to the actors that they are able to deliver a solid performance amidst the turmoil. However, they can fake “solid” – but they can’t fake chemistry. They have to slide into their characters, push aside the distractions, move within the flow of the scene, and concentrate on connecting with that person across from them. Not an easy task even if they are energized and functioning at maximum capacity…but many times they’re sucking fumes.
LACK OF PEP
Corpses don’t have chemistry.
If you’ve ever seen a bride and groom immediately after their wedding reception, you know this to be true. As exuberantly in love as they are, they are also utterly drained, emotionally spent, and practically starving. You might catch a glimpse of their eternal love in a quick hand-squeeze, a faint smile, or contented sigh, but they aren’t permeating the air with amorous vibes.
Actors need both physical and emotional energy to make chemistry tangible to an audience. Physical energy is what everyone needs to do their jobs. Adequate sleep, breaks, good meals – these are all things actors (particularly those that aren’t in a union) sometimes have to do without. Days can be 10-16 hours long depending on the shooting schedule and how far behind the production team is. Many times, a key location isn’t available during normal hours, so filmmakers have to shoot in the wee hours of the morning. Start at 2am, go until 8am, strike the set, snag a nap, grab a quick lunch and be ready to shoot again at 1pm. Rinse and repeat. Enough days like that, and everyone’s energy starts to dwindle, and it becomes a concerted effort to stay upbeat and lively.
The crew doesn’t have to worry about it as much; they don’t need enthusiasm to affix a light, go up on stick, throw down some sandbags and wait for further direction. Actors have to stay sharp because they are stepping in front of a microscope; every little action is going to be seen and play into how their characters are perceived. Lethargic chemistry is technically still chemistry, but depending on the scene and context, it can be underwhelming.
Emotional energy is sustained by an actor’s love of the craft, complete immersion in a character (which forces a type of disconnect with their oft-beleaguered selves), and reciprocation from the actor opposite them. Actors revel in the exploration of everything a scene has to offer, and feed off each other’s enthusiasm. If you ever hear a performer say, “He’s giving me nothing to work with,” it means their costar isn’t reacting, or is simply absorbing the energy and not reciprocating it.
They need to see the expressions and believe the emotions as much as an audience does. If they are receiving nothing but indifference or a half-hearted performance, it’s going to suck all the vitality out of their interaction. Even if the actors like each other and are usually good together, if one of them is distracted or exhausted, it makes it nigh impossible to sustain any kind of emotional realism.
This is particularly true when doing solo or OTS (Over the Shoulder) shots, where one of the actors has their back to the camera. Oftentimes these are the crucial close-ups for the ones facing the camera, and they need to see their partner’s full range of reactions in order to go all in (and forget about the ginormous camera lens four feet away from them).
But typically, those close-ups come after the establishing, moving, and technical shots are done, which means the actors could easily have done the same beats and the same lines over forty times (provided there are no outtakes) before they get to the intimate framing. And they’ve been pouring themselves into every take because they never know which one is going to be used, so they are emotionally exhausted. They’ve teared up, composed the same trembling smile, looked away dejectedly, and been ‘surprised’ so much that it’s physically painful to conjure up any more authentic emotion. It’s hard enough mustering the gusto at that point when you’re the one facing the camera, but if your performance isn’t even going to be seen, you’ve gotta dig deep to give your costar the energy they need to shine.
The situation isn’t helped at all by stand-ins. Stand-ins are people who resemble the actors and are typically used in their stead while the crew is setting up lights and the DP (Director of Photography) is factoring the actor’s position, size and movement into the shot. But sometimes stand-ins are used when the actor’s face doesn’t need to be seen, like in the situation just discussed.
The camera is only gonna see the back of his or her head, part of the neck and a bit of a shoulder, so the actor steps out and the stand-in comes in, leaving the other actor to talk earnestly to a virtual stranger. This means we may not have seen chemistry in some scenes because only half of the OTP was actually there!
Granted, most professionals wouldn’t do their costars dirty like that, but it does happen. Sometimes it’s not under their control. The Second Unit may need to shoot a scene with one of the actors while the First Unit finishes the scene, and the actors don’t have a choice. Regardless of the why, it’s a crummy situation for an actor to be in, and it makes achieving chemistry either incredibly difficult or literally impossible.
TOO MUCH PEP
Hey, hormones are chemicals too, folks. Actors are emotionally vulnerable in many scenes to make the moments genuine and touching. No matter how good they are, they can only be but so removed from what’s going on. They are touching, gazing, and flirting as extensions of themselves, and it’s easy to lose track of how far those extensions go.
Even costars who aren’t physically attracted to each other can have the water muddied by staged intimacy and begin to get (or think they’re getting) connected to one another. Confusion and emotional instability are not conducive to comfort, so gradual attraction isn’t necessarily great for character chemistry. Actors need to go into the scene knowing who their character is and what they want, but they also need to know who they are and what they’re doing as professionals.
It gets worse if one of them gets caught up in the moment, takes it too far, and says or does something to make the other actor decidedly uneasy. It could happen on set, during a meal, or during a rehearsal. Remember, long days means a plethora of time spent going through relatively strenuous ordeals. Bonds form, hormones rage, things slip out. (Words. I’m talking about words.) Trying to stay focused and relaxed on a set when someone has made an advance or held a kiss or embrace too long is not easy, and without emotional fluidity, the connection can only be superficial.
Even if both parties willingly decide to take their on-screen romance off-screen, there’s a whole new dynamic they have to work through as a couple and as actors. Shifting relational gears in real life isn’t terribly smooth, and any scene that requires romantic overtones is going to complicate that process – particularly if it needs to be reversed. Couples can’t freeze-frame their own off-screen relationships at an ideal moment; there will be ups and downs no matter how long they’ve been together, and while they can rise above that when the camera is rolling, it doesn’t mean they can always bring that chemistry with them. Comfort is a fickle, delicate state of being, and off-screen conflict can have an averse effect.
The director has both the writer’s capacity for subverting chemistry before the project begins, and the actor’s capacity for eroding the chemistry over time. Yet directors are rarely brought up in conversations about chemistry, and I think that’s because their roles are not always apparent. Make no mistake, they influence an OTP’s success just as much, if not more, than the actors and writers.
Arguably the most important job directors have is selecting the right actors for the roles; after studying the script and crafting a vision for the overall story, they are uniquely qualified for the task. Obviously talent and experience will be considerations, but the main goal is to find people who can comfortably inhabit the characters and can bring them to life as organically as possible.
Great actors are not right for every part because their own personalities will naturally align more with some roles than others. When casting for action, horror, or thriller, alignment is less of an issue because interpersonal engagements will be less important. But the dramas we enjoy here require character integrity to be on-point, which means the director should be choosing actors who require tweaks and fine-tuning to calibrate, instead of constant overhauls.
Given enough time and options, a good director can find the perfect actors for the OTP. Unfortunately, both elements are often in short supply, typically because of superficial – but not necessarily errant – decisions.
Studios and producers frequently require a top-tier actor to reduce financial risk and guarantee a return on investment. But not every A-lister will be interested, and others may not have the availability. The talent pool shrinks, and the result is that a well-known actor who is merely adequate for a particular role could be cast, guaranteeing the show will make money but also ensuring it will have a lot of detractors who don’t feel the OTP.
I have personally seen admissions on this very site of people deciding to watch a drama solely because of the dreamy gentleman playing the lead. …And they finish the drama for the same reason, despite disliking pretty much everything else about it! Nothing wrong with that of course, I’m just sayin’. 🙂
Some studios will push for an OTP from another successful show, neglecting to realize that a wayward script or drastically different character profiles could significantly alter how well the couple gels on screen. Aside from financially-driven restrictions, there’s contractual obligations, politics, and favors that can all hamstring directors and force them into compromises.
And of course, there’s a director’s own proclivities. There’re obvious no-nos like casting based on attraction, but even making a choice because of a healthy admiration for a specific actor can go horribly wrong. It’s not even a safe bet to cast actors with whom they’ve worked before. Characters are, or should be, unique enough that they require a tailored approach. There may be fifteen actors perfectly able to play a type, but the one who relates most truthfully to that specific role and relationship will have the best chance of bringing dynamite chemistry to the set.
The same principles and problems apply when corralling the top choices for each role together for a read. Some actors will only work on a project if they can choose who they play opposite of. Some actors work great together but their heights are too varied. Don’t laugh, it happens. If the pairing is too good to pass up, a director will choose workarounds (raised heels, apple boxes, making sure they’re never on the same level or are almost always sitting down, etc..,), but generally if the framing can’t accommodate the difference, one of them has to go. Sometimes a decision-maker simply doesn’t like how a couple looks together, or they think they look too much like the OTP from another show and want to distance themselves.
The long and short of it is that there are both legitimate and ridiculous reasons on which a studio or director would base casting, other than talent and chemistry. Sad but true. Those decisions may make the process easier and may guarantee a financially successful show, but they could come at the cost of a truly stellar OTP. Ideally though, the director will find a way to get the right actors together; the vast number of shows with heralded leads who present a compelling relationship can attest to overall success in that regard. Once that critical task is done, the director can focus on managing the talent.
A successful collaboration between directors and actors requires a lot of trust. The actor comes prepared with their own take on the character and how they’ll navigate a scene, but no matter how much work they’ve put in, the director has logged far more time figuring out the arcs, breaking down the beats and contemplating how they’ll factor into the overall story. In theory, the right casting, combined with good communication during pre-production meetings, should put everyone on the same page, but every day and every shot is different.
The actor’s interpretations and input are essential to a good performance, but they’re typically only working within the scope of that day, scene, or episode. Most of the time an episode is shot out of order, so actors have to rely on the director for the right context. The director is tasked with not only keeping track of the mood and key moments within the scene, but also maintaining the vision, tone and pacing for the duration; compromising that vision carries the risk of the project floundering and losing its way.
For those reasons, actors ultimately defer to the direction they are given, and have to believe that the director is guiding them with skill and competence. If there is a disconnect between how a director and actor see the scene evolving, it has to be worked out fast without damaging egos or ramping up tension. A skilled director can affirm an actor’s choice while also imparting a piece of the vision to help win them over. Performance notes can ruffle feathers as it is, let alone if they are contrary to what the actor believes is right for the moment.
As I said before, actors need to be focused, comfortable and connected in order to facilitate chemistry, and anything that shakes their confidence, alters a fundamental understanding of their character, or puts them at odds with the one calling the shots, is going to create problems. Good direction can make the (hopefully) small adjustments needed, while allowing the actors to stay immersed and keep the momentum going.
The director also needs to be able to handle being challenged without losing confidence or patience. If he allows himself to become insecure or angry, the whole set becomes tense, and actors pick up on that in a heartbeat. Not only that, but subsequent direction could then be laced with attitude or aggression that will in turn generate more conflict. The goal is to keep conflict inside the frame!
But of course, there’s the other side of it too. Just because a director has explored the characters at length doesn’t mean he or she understands what is needed to make the relationship work at all times.
The actors could be throwing sparks with their first take, but the director either gives an objectively bad note, steers them away from key elements that make their connection work, or guides them in a completely different direction. A wrong direction. In theory the director cast them based on their overlap with his or her own interpretation, but it’s very easy for that interpretation to be warped or changed during the stressful production process. Depending on the actor, that may very well take them out of alignment, generate confusion, and make their portrayal inconsistent. If the director doesn’t adhere to the vision established at the outset, the actor’s performances will suffer.
Even though the actor typically submits to direction, there should be a lot of respectful back-and-forth. Directors need to be as flexible as possible, and if nothing else, at least let the actor give the performance they feel is right. Many directors actually give the actors two takes without any notes to let them explore and try to find the right vibe. That shows open-mindedness, and nurtures the mutual respect and trust needed to get the actors in their zone.
Good directing is not about coddling, pampering, or demanding. It’s about imparting a vision, considering feedback, knowing what can and can’t be compromised, and maintaining trust and comfort with the talent.
If those things are done well, and there is chemistry to be gleaned, it will be brought out naturally through the process. If egos flare and trust crumbles, the nuts and bolts of a scene will be there, but the content will ring hollow. In some scenes, the difference won’t be noticeable, but in others, the vacuum will be obvious and the audience will disengage.
THAT’S A WRAP!
When you see that long credit scroll at the end of a show or movie, you realize just how collaborative these projects are. Every facet of a production is delivered to the screen by multiple sets of hands, including the presentation of the OTP. I won’t say there isn’t a certain mysterious element that defies explanation when it comes to why certain pairings work, but there are many tangible ways a couple’s connection can be supported or ruined by external influences.
The purpose here wasn’t to try and assign blame, but to give an understanding of how entwined and involved presumably separate aspects of production can be. Even something as seemingly intimate as chemistry – regardless of depth or type – is achieved only through the work and talent of several artists. Hopefully this will help you appreciate what works, analyze what doesn’t.. and articulate those thoughts in spirited discourse with others who share a love for drama. 😀