As the old saying goes: you can’t polish a turd.
So many actors have gone wrong on their reels purely because of the material. Whether it’s stealing a scene from a show like ‘Doctors’*, or through writing (or getting someone to write) a scene that does not suit the needs of an acting reel.
You could argue there should be no limitations to what a showreel scene should be, but I think there should be limitations and I think those restrictions serve a great purpose. After all – what is the point of a showreel? It’s to show that you are employable. That you’re a good actor and that can slip perfectly into whatever TV show/film somebody is casting for.
The right material will lead the way.
This piece of wisdom from Aaron Sorkin is advice that I think you should definitely follow.
“I think mostly about intention and obstacle – somebody wants something, something’s standing in their way of getting it.”
That’s all a scene needs to be. Your casting is a professional/lawyer type? Great. One character wants to use a piece of controversial evidence, the other lawyer thinks it’s unethical.
Your casting is romantic comedy lead? You can still keep to the rule. One character wants a date, the other doesn’t. One character is telling the other to go on Tinder, the other one is disgusted by the idea. One character wants to travel to Paris to find romance, the other character warns against it. One character wants something and the other is standing in their way.
This rule is not a shortcut or a hack, it’s the basis of any great scene, of all good drama.
Showreel scenes work best when they are presented simply.
Here’s an example of a recent showreel scene I wrote.
It works because the character has a clearly defined intention. She wants the guy. Michael is not happy because of the timing of it — where was all this a year ago?
Also – there’s a strong sense of beginning, middle, and end. It begins with everything being okay and normal, then she announces she wants him. Then she fights for it, and then we see it ending where the guy has a decision to make.
For comedy, the same rule applies, along with some other things. Have a read first and then we can discuss it.
Writing comedy is difficult at the best of times, but it is especially tricky when writing for a showreel. Actors often want to show they can do comedy, and they spend a lot of time thinking of what a ‘funny’ or ‘quirky’ character might be — but they often forget to prioritise the writing. When comedy is written well, a lot of the work is already done for the actor. In the example above – just by reading it you get the sense that Sarah is completely off her rocker. And we also see how frustrated Mike is. They’re both being put into very frustrating positions, merely because of the level of misunderstanding.
Comedy still needs intention and obstacle. But throwing in a misunderstanding certainly helps things along. A drama is when one character wants something, and the other doesn’t want to give it to them. In comedy, you can play with this a little. Maybe they both want the same thing, but one character is misunderstanding the terms. The essential point being; you can still keep things simple. The scene you just read is about one guy wanting to fire a woman but not being able to because of her perplexing use of the English language.
If I was to boil showreel script writing down to five key points I’d say.
1. Make it about a simple, well defined conflict.
2. Play with the idea of power. Who has power in the scene? Maybe it switches half way through.
3. Make sure we understand the relationship immediately. Are they lovers? Siblings? Enemies? The quicker we know, the more it makes sense.
4. Keep it short.
5. Take it seriously: a showreel script should be as well thought out as any other project.
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* – I am not implying that the scripts from Doctors are bad, merely that they are not what you should be using on a showreel.
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