House of Cards writer Beau Willimon on the centrality of the underlying need of the character

In this podcast episode of the BAFTA’s Screenwriters’ Lecture Series, screenwriter Beau Willimon of the series House of Cards talks about the distinction between plot goals and the character’s fundamental need, which is a central distinction in class at Andrew Wood. His discussion starts at about 58:30, in response of to a questions posed by the audience.

From the transcript:

The one thing I always go to, and I mentioned it before is, what does the character need more than anything in the world? Because I believe characters’ behaviour, that’s it. You can talk to death what they’re thinking about, what their psychology is, what their motivations are, but ultimately all the character is is what they do, because that’s all we see. And if you know what they need, and they don’t have to know what they need necessarily, but if you know what they need then all their behaviour will be dictated by that. And then their needs will conflict with other people’s needs, and that’s where you get the conflict of drama. And the honesty of that conflict is completely determined by the brutal honesty you have about these characters’ needs. And these needs tend to be things, they’re not plot driven. It’s not like this person needs to get a new job, that’s plot. A need is, this person needs respect, this person needs love, this person needs validation, this person needs warmth. And all of the sort of tertiary needs that derive from that usually go back to that same core need, and I guess that’s as much as I can say about it.

H/T Jared Canfield

House of Cards writer Beau Willimon on the centrality of the underlying need of the character2018-02-26T21:48:25-08:00

the Islamic State and acting

Like many people, I have been poring over reportage about the Islamic State, and I came across a discussion of what makes people vulnerable to ISIS recruiters, and ultimately prompts them to join ISIS:

The appeal of Islamic State rests on individuals’ quest for what psychologists call “personal significance,” which the militant group’s extremist propaganda cleverly exploits. The quest for significance is the desire to matter, to be respected, to be somebody in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others.

This quest for what these psychologists call personal significance is what we call underlying objective in the approach taught by me and by Evan Yionoulis at the Yale School of Drama. In this approach, every scene, and in fact every moment of every scenes, has to be understood as a bid for this personal significance, in a manner that it is independent of the medium- and long-term goals that the character has for changes in his circumstances. These medium- and long- term goals, which we call plot objectives in the approach, are easier to spot, and tempting to fixate on as a way of articulating something to pursue as a character, but they are insufficient, generally, for the purpose of helping the actor to activate her own visceral need for personal significance, her need to matter, to be meaningfully connected to others.

It’s striking to see that even in the case of people who join such an alien and horrific organization, we can understand something about what motivates these people with this notion of underlying objective.

It’s a revolution in the way in which scenes from dramatic texts, and indeed human encounters more broadly, are understood. Sign up for a class at Andrew Wood and plug yourself into this amazing source of acting power.

the Islamic State and acting2018-02-26T21:48:33-08:00

STOP! in the name of doing it better

Interesting piece on NPR this morning about a photographer who has photographed every New Hampshire primary since 1980.

What caught my interest was this:

Cole has a rule he follows when out on assignment: No matter how crowded the press gaggle gets, he never takes a picture while he’s touching another photographer. The point is to force himself to think of a different approach to each shot.

Take, for instance, a campaign appearance by George H.W. Bush at Nashua Airport in 1988: All of the other photographers followed the then-vice president on board an airplane.
Vice President George Bush waves from the cockpit of a World War II B-17 bomber at a quick campaign stop at Boire Field in Nashua, N.H. on Wednesday, July 15,1987.
Jim Cole/AP

“I stayed outside, and with all the luck in the world, Bush stuck his head out the pilot’s window and waved to everybody,” said Cole. (click here to view the picture)

With this rule, which does not allow him to take a picture if he is touching another reporter, (in other words if he is stuck in a scrum of reporters all taking the same picture ) Cole is practicing what in the Alexander technique is called inhibition. While inhibition might not sound like a good thing, in the context of the Alexander technique, it is. In the Alexander technique, inhibition is the ability to suppress one’s habitual response to things in order to open up the possibility of a different kind of response. Since many of our physical habits are the results of trauma or other kinds of negative input, it’s important for actors to engage with their physical habits and develop new habits that maximize expressive capacity and presence.

While the Alexander technique works with physical habits, in class at Andrew Wood, we work in part with mental habits, particularly the habits that we have involving how we understand and frame human motivation. Knee-jerk attempts at stating the motivations of characters often entail negative judgments and are focused on goals about the future (what we call plot objective), rather than on the present moment. At Andrew Wood, we learn to “inhibit” these initial ways of looking and thinking, and to find ways of understanding and framing what characters are after that are empathic and oriented towards the here and now of relationship rather than the future. Actors are forever enjoined to “be in the moment”, but aren’t asked to think about motivation in ways that promote this focus them on the here and now of interpersonal dynamics.

It’s what makes this kind of difference.

STOP! in the name of doing it better2018-02-26T21:48:37-08:00

ivana chubbuck and objective

When I came across Ivana Chubbuck’s book The Power of the Actor a few years ago, I was pleased: here was the first book on acting that I had seen that discusses the all-important innovation created by some of my teachers at the Yale School of Drama. The innovation has to do with the notion of objective. Objective is a concept that has been around since Stanislavsky, and it is in fairly widespread use in one form or another. The concept of objective is, most simply, this: that the actor can be liberated from self-consciousness by focusing on a goal that she, as the character, wishes to accomplish in a scene or situation. By focusing on the goal, the actor partially forgets that she is being watched, and is, as a consequence, free from the paralyzing effects of self-consciousness.

So far so good. The innovation created by David Hammond at Yale, and developed by Mark Brokaw and Evan Yionoulis, was to distinguish between two kinds of objectives: plot objectives and underlying objectives. The “plot” in plot objectives refers to the plot of a story or play or screenplay: a character’s plot objectives are the changes in the world that she wishes to bring about. A plot objective expresses the way in which a character wants to change some piece of their world. Plot objectives might include getting you to buy my house, to accept my marriage proposal, to stop playing the drums at night in your room so I can have some peace and quiet, or to join me in robbing a jewelry store. All of these involve my attempting to change my circumstances for the better, or, put differently, to solve a problem. Pursuing a plot objective activates those parts of an actor that are involved in solving problems: the mind, and to some extent the heart, as often solving problems involves influencing others emotionally.

What these teachers at Yale recognized, though, is that the mind and the heart is not all there is. There is also the gut. In the gut lives the appetites, and also, our capacity for locomotion, for fight or flight (in the hips). It’s entirely possible for an actor to be engaged as a problem solver, in the head and heart, and to be asleep in the gut, at the visceral level (viscera is Latin for the guts, quite literally, the bowels, so to eviscerate someone is, colloquially, to rip them a new one).

So these teachers recognized that a conception of objective as a problem that you need to solve, a change in the circumstances surrounding you, is incomplete, by itself. Solving these problems is important — that’s part of the fascination of stories, is seeing people contend with adversity. But we as spectators are not going to be viscerally engaged by this problem-solving alone.


We conceive of another type of objective. Let’s call it the “underlying objective.” The underlying objective is is the NEED that lives in the belly, the proverbial fire in the belly, that drives us to enter into the fray, influence people, and solve problems. It is the motor that drives us forward, the motor of appetite, hunger, need. My teachers recognized that the underlying objective was the thing that impels us to take up plot objectives, and then to put them down in favor of other plot objectives. The underlying objective is the need which stays constant, even as circumstances shift and plot objectives change accordingly. One of the consequences of this is that the underlying objective is not phrased in a way which involves another person, because other people are part of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and so an objective that involves another person will be some form of a plot objective. If my underlying objective is to get “respect as a true healer”, then the plot objective “getting you, my client, to confide in me, your therapist” will give me a piece of the underlying objective, but the underlying objective is something that exists in me APART FROM who or what is around me. The changes I will seek to bring about in the world (my plot objectives) are ways of getting my underlying objective met, of ANSWERING that need. We always look for the need to be met from others, but naming the need itself is saying something about us, not about what we want other people to do.

This distinction between plot objective and underlying objective is very powerful, and it is not simple. I realize I have provided only a very preliminary sketch of it here. And I don’t intend to to try to say too much more about it here, because I believe that a classroom setting is where it can be best presented and understood. Without the context of a scene and actors to work with, there is a limit to how much can be made intelligible about it. But I think I have said enough to be able to make clear what Ivana Chubbuck gets right (not that much), and what she doesn’t (quite a bit).

She does say “Always Make the SCENE OBJECTIVE about Relationship, Don’t Play the Plot”, and with that, I am in 100% agreement. And she says that a scene objective (which is another form of the underlying objective, any distinction between them is not important here) should not be “rational” or “cerebral”, that it should be “basic”, “needy”, and “primal”. I’m down with that. She also says the scene objective doesn’t change– that’s good. And that every scene has one, good too, and that it is an actor’s most important tool. But that’s about where my agreement with Ivana Chubbuck ends. I fundamentally disagree with her on her criteria for what makes an underlying objective. I don’t want to do a big recap of her criteria for picking an objective, because I think it is mostly foolish. So I will focus on one important point: she says the scene objective (or underlying objective) should be worded in a way that requires a response. From her examples of what that would look like, I am going to go through a list of “good” scene objectives (underlying objectives) that she provides, and say specifically what I think is wrong with each of them.

  • “To get you to love me”

    The problem with this is that it describes what we want the other person to DO (love us). We want, with an underlying objective, to say what it will mean to us or give us if the other person loves us. It will give me my…(something). By knowing that we need our (something), we can constantly be monitoring in the scene to see whether the other person is giving us our “something”, we can HARVEST our “something.” To get the other person to love you? So what if they don’t? THAT is the question an underlying objective needs to answer.

  • “To get you to give me a job”

    Plot, the whole plot, and nothing but the plot. This is nothing but an attempt to impact our circumstances, our situation in the world. It says nothing about what is AT STAKE in the situation, what it will cost us if we don’t get the job, what we will GET if we do get the job. Chubbuck might argue that this is addressed in what she calls the “overall objective”, but she muddles things badly by saying that the actor should not play the plot in the scene objective, and then suggesting…wait for it…PLOT OBJECTIVES…as scene objectives. She speaks of the need to get beyond the plot to the relationship, but her scene objectives ARE the plot.

  • “To make you validate me”

    In my class, we call “validate” “the V word.” I write off “validation” as what I call “Oprah talk”, which is a particular form of what Chubbuck calls the “rational” and the “cerebral”. Validation is not a part of our everyday ways of describing our needs. Can you imagine any advertiser (advertisers understand all about language and the visceral) asking you to see a movie described as “one man’s quest for validation”? I didn’t think so. Also, we don’t look on validation as a very legitimate thing to pursue: someone who needs a lot of validation is considered needy, insecure. Not buying it.

  • “To make you my ally”

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record, an objective that gets beyond the plot, whether you call it overall, underlying or scene, needs to not be phrased as a way of changing our circumstances, as changing our circumstances IS the definition of the plot. An objective that goes beyond the plot is something you can HARVEST in pursuing your plot objectives. What will you get if you make the other person your ally? Not only what will you be able to accomplish if you make the other person your ally, but what will it mean about you that you succeeded in making someone your ally? That is getting beyond the plot.

I think I’ve made my point. Chubbuck talks a good game about the need to move beyond the plot, that is, beyond problem-solving, but her recommendations about how to do that are confused and misleading. Getting the gut activated involves something beyond naming what you want to see other people do, and yet Ivana Chubbuck seems to think it involves precisely that.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio
ivana chubbuck and objective2018-02-26T21:51:40-08:00
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