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THE CRIME: SOMETHING’S WRONG
The last time I wrote an article, it was about a problem that walks into my office occasionally—“the feathered fish.” This time, I’d like to talk about another problem that’s darkened my door on a few occasions—the lack of compelling characters. To paraphrase the zen koan, what is the sound of one studio exec passing? And if a studio passes on your script because of the lack of compelling characters, does it make a sound?
THE EVIDENCE: WHAT’S HAPPENING? Three different instances occurred: The first little piggy went out pitching a series, but the passes kept coming back saying that the plot was emphasized over the characters. That piggy is now seriously rethinking, taking the earlier advice we and the producers had given: Work on the characters. That little piggy has none.
The second little piggy had an excellent pitch with a compelling device and arena, but we hardly knew anything about the characters. With a couple of tough questions posed about them, the personalities of the leads began to emerge, and the pitch took a shape and dimension it previously lacked. The development work helped it stand out from the pack. That little piggy and producer are now going to market.
The third little piggy had a feature pitch which sold in the past few months, in no small part due to 80 percent of the development work spent on the characters. The high concept took only a short time to develop and made it easy to pitch; but this town is filled with high concepts, and what the pitch needed was a way for us to be invested in the story. That little piggy went wee wee wee all the way home, flush with cash.
With these three examples in mind, I read about 15 scripts and saw a couple of tapes last weekend, all potential clients or open assignments. The best things I read were two open assignments: a Stephen King short story called Everything’s Eventual and the children’s book Sylvester and The Magic Pebble by William Steig (author of Shrek!). King’s story was about 20 pages of text, and Steig’s was about 20 pages of simple illustrations with a few sentences per page. Both of these pieces evoked a real emotional response with an economy of words. I had just finished passing on 13 scripts of 110 to 120 pages apiece. Even though I knew King’s fundamental premise was something difficult to adapt cinematically, the character was so compelling that I stuck with it: A character who had been picked on by a bully was made an offer he couldn’t refuse by people who recognized his power. He took the offer, not knowing the consequences of his actions and feeling anger for using his power and regretting that he’d essentially sold it and trapped himself. Steig made me choke up and feel genuine sorrow for this poor donkey who had, in a moment of fright, made the wrong wish and for his parents who grieved for their son—a character dealing with regret and loss.
THE MOTIVE: WHY DOES THIS CRIME OCCUR? Expectations: We’re storytellers, right? So we want to pitch stories, and we tell them around the campfire with plot beats. Ed Neumeier (RoboCop and Starship Troopers) told me how, when he launched into his series pitch, the exec peered over his glasses and said disdainfully, “You’re not going to tell me the story, are you?”
Ed Neumeier (RoboCop and Starship Troopers) told me how, when he launched into his series pitch, the exec peered over his glasses and said disdainfully, “You’re not going to tell me the story, are you?”
Some writers just think that way: They start with the plot. As I said in my prior article, Stephen King advised to not let the plot lead, but to write a story born from an interesting situation. In the case of King’s short story, his preface indicates he began the process with nothing more than an image of a guy throwing currency down a sewer. What an odd image. Why would anybody in his right mind do that? What would make a person do that? What is he feeling in that image is my question—is he feeling elation or fear? Is he concealing or showing off? What neurosis could be at play? How did it come to this?
Screenwriter Paul Haggis started with characters in his recent film Crash. I particularly enjoyed Matt Dillon’s and Terrence Howard’s characters from the film. The racism they’re projecting or receiving is sometimes circumstantial and inconsistent because other forces are battling for their attention—Dillon’s caring for a dying father who employed minorities routinely only to lose his business to a minorityfriendly piece of legislation. At the same time, his duties as a cop to serve and protect some people battle with his inner demon to harass others. Paul Haggis’ many years in television have been a great boon to his work in features. I’ve greatly enjoyed his last two films because of the character work. TV demands attention to character; features have been focused on spectacle of late and could use more character work. I’ve been obsessed, as well, with Edward G. Robinson films for a couple of weeks now. In the comedy Brother Orchid (the inspiration for Sister Act), I was amazed again at how the man was able to take a voice and mug that would seem to limit him to few roles and play the leading man. I could see his fears and vulnerabilities, even as he’s ever vigilant in casing every angle as his old bad habits taught him. My theory is that he and Bogart were able to corner the best character writers under contract to their studios in those days to provide the fuel for their natural charisma and talent. It doesn’t matter how big the budget, set pieces, concept, etc.—the best actor is nothing without a great character.
Pixar Animation, for all the spectacle surrounding their films, knows at the core it’s all about fully fleshed-out, living, breathing, very human characters, even if they’re anthropomorphic. They’re imbued with the ambitions, yearnings, fears and neuroses with which we all must deal.
Pixar Animation, for all the spectacle surrounding their films, knows at the core it’s all about fully fleshed-out, living, breathing, very human characters, even if they’re anthropomorphic. They’re imbued with the ambitions, yearnings, fears and neuroses with which we all must deal. Pixar is six for six with successful features, and Wall Street can’t figure out how to value Pixar versus the other animation houses because there’s no metric for character development and story sense at JPMorgan.
For a couple years now, TV has been more compelling than going to the megaplex because of the characters: Huff, Weeds, Lost, Desperate Housewives, Veronica Mars, Rescue Me and Entourage are the things filling my TiVo these days. The characters and their attitudes, no matter what the arena, feel authentic and I respond. I am transported there; I want to have them over for dinner, I want to spend extra time with them, and some I want to avoid. They all get a strong reaction.
THE DEFENSE: HOW DO WE BEAT THE RAP? When you’re thinking about a new spec or pitch, research the character first then find the genre that best serves the story and tell it. I can’t think of the process any other way than that taught to me by screenwriter Jordan Roberts (Around The Bend), as he learned it from author Betty Flowers: There are four drafts—madman, architect, carpenter, judge. The madman draft can be anything; back of a napkin poem or 200 pages of prose. Once you’ve spat out the madman draft, look for the characters that are compelling. Flesh them further. Ask the tough questions as their therapist: What are they afraid of? What is on the line? What has been or could be their greatest humiliation in their quest? The scary questions work best, whether in comedy, drama, action, etc.
In television, likewise, find your character first. With a feature film, there will be 90 to 120 minutes, and that’s it. Its finiteness invites the writer to skirt questions of character and just fill the time with interesting plots and twists. Television is limitlessness; the idea that you’re pitching the underlying fundamentals for what everyone hopes will be at least 88 episodes over four years is so daunting that it forces the opposite discipline. Because you can’t really pitch at least 3,872 minutes of programming in 20 minutes tops, you’ll be forced to pitch POTENTIAL. And potential is all about compelling characters in an interesting arena.
Linda Seger, whose books I reach for every time I’m stuck, writes in her book Making A Good Script Great about creating dimensional characters from three aspects: philosophy/attitudes, decisions/actions, and emotional life/emotional responses.
I would add that you must also become an amateur student of psychology. Regardless of genre, ask, “Why is my character so f’ed up?” This exercise will help you more than asking, “Why is my lead so heroic, great or funny?” Go back and read your psych 101 textbooks—they’re filled with characters you’ll recognize from movies.
Eavesdrop on real life as much as possible. Find out what makes people tick. Too many writers are trying to be the center of the universe rather than being a participant. They try to control their world’s results through characters who end up sounding stereotypical or flat, rather than being open to the curveball of human action. Every one of us is unique and will surprise you if you’re listening.
A recent survey printed in Variety laid the blame for declining admissions at the boxoffice and poor summer movie performance. Their finding was not DVD, videogames or anything else competing for time or distribution channel … it was simply bad movies. I would argue that we will go through another cycle where feature films look to TV writers to bring back the essence of why we go to the movies—characters!
Look at the evidence in the recent Emmy® nominations: Hank Azaria (Huf f ) , Hugh Laurie (House), Ian McShane (Deadwood), James Spader (Boston Legal) and Kiefer Sutherland (24); Patricia Arquette (Medium), Glenn Close (The Shield), Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under), Jennifer Garner (Alias) and Mariska Hargitay (Law & Order: SVU). The majority of these characters are more flawed, compelling and entertaining than many whom we see in features these days.
THE PRESS CONFERENCE
A recent survey laid the blame for declining admissions at the boxoffice and poor summer movie performance. Their finding was not DVD, videogames or anything else competing for time or distribution channel … it was simply bad movies.
Many working writers have one script early in their career that never gets made, but breaks them into the business. They dine out on it for years while getting other jobs. These singular scripts are usually great character pieces, but the arena or story is too small to support a studiobudgeted film. The studios know they can come up with scenarios and arenas and battle for intellectual properties that support the size and scope their audiences want; but getting inside the psychology of a great character is rare, and that’s where these gifted writers come in.
Paul Haggis is my favorite recent example of a writer with this talent. You can spin through his Imdb.com bio and credits to see why his talent is so in demand in features these days. It was incubated in television on shows like EZ Streets, L.A. Law and thirtysomething. Zach Helm wrote Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, a script that garnered many jobs while laying about unmade—until now. Jesse Wigutow’s Urban Townie has been on the brink of getting made a couple times while it earns him accolades and many other jobs.
Write compelling characters and the town will find your voice authentic, your stories more interesting, and your career flourishing.
Originally published in Script Magazine November/December2005
BRANT ROSE owns the Brant Rose Agency which represents writers and directors in film and television, from Oscar®-winners to fresh- out-of-film-schoolers. Brant loves ice hockey, animals, working with children, and travel- ling. He spends his weekends defending his own character to his wife.
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