There’s a million things that a character can want, in a writing sense, or a psychological sense.
But much of the work of directing or writing or acting isn’t actually working on the subconscious wants. Once you’ve got those worked out (or, in a director’s case, a script that presumably has those built in), you’ve got to physically realize the scene itself.
Then I think there’s a limited number of things in terms of a physical want. Maybe this doesn’t work for every scene, but I think it might be a useful lens through which to see every scene.
Let’s keep the traditional maxim – there’s only two directions in a scene: toward and away. (I’ve had the privilege to learn this a few times over from my professor and early mentor at USC, Barnet Kellman, who teaches a masterful class on working with actors, rehearsing, and blocking – this next bit is something of an expansion on things I’ve learned from him).
The physics of the wants then probably break down into these:
A thing you want to hold or get rid of
A place you want to get to or escape from
A person you want to be close to or far from
Maybe we could define it as simply as this: the physical want of any given moment in a scene may be defined as the person, place or thing a character wants to move towards or away from. (Maybe there’s an action of “maintain the current distance” as well)
I had another two basic actions that I initially thought might count as fundamental on this level:
A thing or person you want to destroy
A thing or person you want to create, heal, or repair
And I thought that they may count as fundamental. But now I don’t think so. It’s hard to call the physics of repairing a car, wielding a hammer, or fixing a computer a basic action – they’re typically obstacles overcome in service of the initial three. R2-D2 messes with the computer in order to open the door so the characters can move away from the soldiers and towards the ship.
But there are scenes in which the primary action of the character is somehow poured into making something — scenes of Michaelangelo painting a masterpiece or Hunter S. Thompson furiously writing…but are these scenes? Or do scenes just involve them somehow, and the primary drama of the scene still boils down to that simple dance of towards and away? A painting scene is hard to interpret as drama. But if Michaelangelo is painting the Sistine Chapel, and drops his paintbrush to the floor far below, and has to climb down a rickety ladder to get there, a ladder that, unbeknownst to him, is slipping against the floor, maybe that’s physical drama.
Is there more to human drama than this? Sure, on an abstract, psychological, dialogue level. But when you turn the sound off on the tv, the fundamentals of the scene still play out in a grammar that boils down to something like this.