John Hill is an award-winning screenwriter and television producer. His credits include Griffin and Phoenix, Heartbeeps, Little Nikita, Quigley Down Under, Quantum Leap and won an Emmy for his work on L.A. Law. Currently, Hill teaches in the Educational Outreach division of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It’s a visual medium. Use it. And we’ve been conditioned for the last 20 years (thank you MTV and Raiders of the Lost Ark) to take in visual data very fast.
So dream up something in your script that just takes one second to see but reveals TONS of information about your character.
The movie Bullit came out in 1968. In that era, the average car did not have seat belts, and no one stressed using them. A “car seat belt” was for professional race car drivers only. But at a tense point in the movie, when Steve McQueen and the two killers are each in their own muscle cars, McQueen puts on his seat belt, CLICK, and that made you catch your breath. It was a one-second signal to the audience that this was a guy who even HAD a race car drivertype seat belt ready in his personal car, and this moment was one of the reasons why! The determined way he locked and loaded himself into his own car—Bullit essentially chambering himself into his own Detroit weapon—told you volumes about how he lived and what he was always ready for. That CLICK skyrocketed the tension for a great car chase—which was delivered.
A one-second character reveal can be quiet and poignant, stimulating us to fill in great gaps of knowledge about a character.
In the black comedy classic, Harold and Maude, a 20-year-old young man, Bud Cort, has a love affair with an 80-year-old woman, Ruth Gordon, a mysterious free spirit, full of life and positive energy. But you don’t fully realize that she never mentions her background or family or anything about herself. Then, with no preparation for it, there’s a one-second close up that suddenly blows you away and literally says boxcars about a wildly life-affirming woman: a faded concentration camp tattoo is shown for one second on her wrist. But it is never mentioned again or ever dealt with in the rest of the movie. That was a quick kick in the stomach in the context of the film’s hip-for-its-era daffy sensibility and lighthearted fun. Suddenly, we realize there’s a lack of any other historical connective tissue in her life. She’s alone except for Harold, but she’s chosen to fully enjoy every second of life without any self-pity.
Look at how a one-second close up invites us to fill in the blanks, and also gives us a reason to admire her plucky spirit all the more.
In Urban Cowboy, we’re introduced to John Travolta and other pseudo-tough, fake city cowboys in the bar, swaggering, playing dressup as pretend cowboys of another era, but really, they’re sweetheart, urban pussycats. Then the ex-convict, Scott Glenn, appears looking like the other guys. But when there’s about to be another routine bar fistfight, we cut to a close-up as Scott Glenn sneaks a switchblade out of his hip pocket and quietly snaps the blade open, down behind this leg. That’s the moment the ‘ex-convict’ part snaps sharply back into our minds. He’s not a “cute tough guy.” He’s the real thing—Mean—a whole other level of hard. The urban cowboys think a fistfight is a friendly Saturday night ritual; Scott Glenn is ready to make it life or death, no hesitation. The fight never materializes. The knife disappears, but we know something about his character throughout the rest of the story. He’s rattlesnake-dangerous, not like Travolta and the posers. And we got that, visually and viscerally, no dialogue, no long scene just to show it, from a one second close up: death can be in this guy’s hand, ready, in one second.
I saw a movie once that opened with a guy parking his car at a parking meter. He reached into his glove compartment and took out a small paper sack with the words “OUT OF ORDER” written upside down. He then smoothly put the bag over the parking meter, without pausing, and walked on, going about his business. The preparation and the very brazen routineness of this instantly tells you A LOT about this character: he goes through life automatically ready for the tiniest possible scams, even to save a quarter. You sort of knew everything you needed to know about him in that one-second visual reveal.
In Seven, when the two detectives realize that “the seven deadly sins” are the key to understanding the killer, we see a sequence where the Morgan Freeman character goes to a library all night and studies old research books. His concentration, his familiarity with the library security and cleaning staff, tells you he’s done that a lot. But that took film time to set up and establish. By contrast, the next day, we see his partner, Brad Pitt, do TWO one-second reveals on the same subject. He sits in his car and tries to read one of these same thick books about John Milton or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. He TRIES to get it; it’s his job, but can’t, and EXPLODES in rage at himself—screaming, pounding on the steering wheel; he just doesn’t “get” it. That one second of self-hatred at his reinforced sense of his own intellectual limits was very revealing.
A few moments later, there was another equally-revealing one second follow-up. Brad Pitt has a uniformed cop run an errand for him. The cop hands him a package, and then Brad Pitt dumps out his classic salvation: the instantly familiar black and yellow-striped booklets—Cliffs Notes. He’s back in his comfort zone; he’ll now survive this new intellectual challenge. And we know two important things about his character from both one second reveals: his self-hatred at his literary limits (which is the more interesting one) and his usual fall-back solution. Also, look at how this one second contrasts within his key relationship: the older, more thoughtful Morgan Freeman, the plodder, takes his time, patiently working at understanding the case research. Brad Pitt exploded in frustration. He’s a Cliffs Notes kind of guy.
Being interrogated by four or five cops about a murder is a classic scene that normally is quite intimidating for any suspect, innocent or guilty; and there’s usually no sexual tension involved. But when Michael Douglas and four other cops in Basic Instinct interviewed Sharon Stone, she looked them right in the eye, then casually crossed her legs and revealed the shadow of her smile. That one second piece of film immediately told us everything about her character. We instantly knew: she’s not afraid, she’s not intimidated, she uses her sex appeal and attitude to successfully dominate every situation. She knows the guys are distracted by how attractive she is before she flashes; and just in passing, she opted for a no-underwear look before going to the police station. In one second, we’re riveted by her: we know now that she is totally bold and beyond confident—and full of surprises.
The Last Castle is a military prison movie. James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) plays an Army Colonel (who has never seen combat) who is the tough warden and the story’s villain. His character is immediately jealous of the once highly-respected General Irwin, played by Robert Redford, who arrives as a prisoner in handcuffs, but had been a highly decorated military hero. At the start of the movie, in a slow PAN across some of the stuff in the office, as he’s playing classical music, there’s a one-second glimpse of the CD showing the composer he likes: Salieri.
That one-second visual clue to the warden’s character was a brilliant way to foreshadow the dynamic of his jealousy he’ll soon feel towards this famous and respected general, now his prisoner. It was brilliant because of the movie Amadeus, where Salieri, the court composer in Vienna, was quite respected at the time—until young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart came along, a genius for the ages. His presence made Salieri realize how relatively UNSPECIAL he was, and would always be, especially compared to Mozart, not just in his lifetime, but forever. And he knew it, and that jealously was the theme of that play and movie and turned out to be what made Salieri plot to kill Mozart. Colonel Winters (Gandolfini) had his pride in his career, his military mementos, etc., and felt pretty good about himself—until the legendary Robert Redford came along. The fact that Col. Winters liked the music of Salieri was a WONDERFUL little character touch. It was pure cinema and took one second; if you didn’t “get” it, nothing’s lost. But that’s the kind of intelligent screenwriting and filmmaking that fully uses the power of the medium. The use of dialogue that just takes a second can clearly work this same communication magic.
In Sunset Blvd. there’s not only a character defining moment, but a “household/universe” defining moment. That happens the one second in which it’s revealed, when screenwriter William Holden first arrives at Gloria Swanson’s creepy mansion, that the slow, serious funeral is for a monkey. The moment you hear the word “monkey” in this serious context, you know the Gloria Swanson’s character is a pint of cole slaw short of a picnic. You suddenly know, in this house, the usual rules do not apply, so proceed with caution. Had the funeral been for a beloved dog or cat, it wouldn’t have seemed so bizarre at all. But the word “monkey” took one second to say and spoke in proverbial volumes. (Notice that a screenwriter essentially ends up replacing the monkey … but I digress.)
Another piece of dialogue that said so much in one second was in the movie Spartacus. At the beginning when he’s in gladiator prep school, the men are rewarded some nights by having women slaves sent to them. These women are presented in the movie as being as silent and submissive as the male gladiators, slavery being the theme of the movie itself. So Jean Simmons is silently presented to Kirk Douglas in his dark cell. But up above them, guards laugh at Spartacus, taunting him, and finally he yells up at them, “I AM NOT AN ANIMAL.” They laugh and leave; but then Jean Simmons, almost from the shadows, quietly speaks and just says, “Neither am I.” In that one second, in her one quiet comment, we are jolted into remembering she and the women have the same imprisoned spirits as the men we’ve been getting to know even though silent obedience means survival. If the indignities of being a male fighter are this inhuman, what must these women slaves go through, and nightly? We are not only reminded of that by her one second line of dialogue, but also, that her sense of humanity is still strong, her dignity still intact. It made Spartacus start to fall in love with her character at that moment; I was already there.
Another great single moment of dialogue, just one word, was a powerful eye-opening jolt for me but I don’t know the name of the movie. Danny Aiello played a super in a New York apartment building, a wife-beating brute of a blue-collar jerk, an angry loser, a seemingly two-dimensional character who just yelled at his family, drank beer, and watched TV. The movie wasn’t even about him. It was about his teenage son, emotionally estranged from his father for obvious reasons. One night, the son has a date, but to get out of the apartment he claims he’s going to fix a broken window in one of the apartments, so he straps on his father’s toolbelt. The half-drunk Danny Aiello father comes over to him with a drunken grin, and says, “So, you gonna be like your old man when you grow up?” The son safely nods, yes. But then the film catapults itself into being something special because then Danny Aiello, suddenly not so drunk, quietly just says, “Don’t.” He just said that one word, in confidence, before returning to his beer, TV, and his yelling. He was quietly saying, no, don’t grow up to be like me. You sensed he didn’t just mean the part about being a building handyman. He meant the full package. You were thunderstruck with the realization that this guy was SELF-AWARE. He KNEW he was a wife-beating, family-terrorizing, drunken loser-jerk! And he returned to being who he was a moment later but not before this one word, out of the blue, to his son, whom he must really love.
“Don’t.” It took one second and conveyed a world of information.
That’s powerful screenwriting, when you can use one second of a film, a visual or just three or four words as a window to reveal a character’s complex inner landscape. Think how many hundreds of thousands of frames of film there are in a feature film; try to use just 24 of them to reveal a human truth. When you do, the craft of screenwriting doesn’t get any better.
Originally published in Script magazine March/April 2002
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