Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Scripts: American Character

by Ola Zaltin

As a newcomer to the craft of writing literary prose, I was somewhat surprised to hear of the term ”Show, don’t Tell”. As in, when writing Novels, have your characters show their character through their actions. Tell the story with images and actions.

Which totally threw me. I come from screenwriting, and the first thing you’re learnt in American screenwriting 101 is this: Film is Action and Images, and Action describes Character. Tell your story in images and actions, and at all costs avoid dialogue, voice-over and similar cheap tricks attempted by Europeans, auteurs and other such riff-raff.

Which is why about every screenwriter I know is a closet novelist. People like us have x-rated fantasies about telling, telling, telling and showing fuck all. Interior monologues by the chapter, exposition running for pages and dialogue by the yard. This be the stuff our dreams are made of.

Because in screenwriting, space is premium, and action is king.

I once had the good fortune to participate in a screenwriting master-class held by the novelist and screenwriter Richard Price. He recounted his journey from successfull young author (The Wanderers, Bloodbrothers, etc), to budding screenwriter. A big-time producer contacted him with the idea of transforming Price’s first novel into a film. He received a sum ten-fold what he had earnt so far on his first two novels together, and got a deadline of six months for a first draft. When the six months were up, he turned in a 490 page screenplay, correctly formatted, on time.

This is when the kindly Hollywood producer called Mr Price up and informed him that the screenplay was exactly 400 pages too long, had no forward momentum, and zero plot.

Richard summed it up in his laconic Bronx patois: “What I learnt that day was this: a screenplay is maximum 90 pages long, every scene has to carry the story forward and the plot has to be tighter than a crab’s ass.”
With infidelity, the three golden rules may be Deny, Deny, Deny. But let me tell you, with Hollywood, it’s: 
Momentum, Momentum, Momentum.

Going back to character.

Character Presentation

Film is images and action, character serves these two and plot is the natural born child of the three aforementioned. Amen.

Anyone casting a glance at a screenplay page will immediately realize that very few words actually get to go on it. The font has to be Courier 12 pt, and the line-spacing 1.5, and that’s before you get to the narrow middle space you have to write dialogue in. Screenplay formatting is structured in such a way that one page is roughly one minute of screentime. This way, producers can directly flip to The End on page 96 of your labour of love and declare without reading a word of it: "Aw, I can’t make this shit!” And they will.
For short, you need to be smart about setting up your character and do it in the most economic and visual way you can think of. Screenplay space is scarce.

In the opening of Red Rock West (1993), Nicolas Cage is a lone drifter in some American desert, out of gas, out of cash and out of luck. He finds a seemingly abandoned petrol-station way back of beyond, walks into the store and flips open the cash-register: it’s full of cash. He has none. There’s no one around. He closes the cash-register without taking a bill out of it.

Voil√°: he’s a good guy. No dialogue, just action, not five minutes into the movie, we know who to root for, no matter what may come.

During the opening sequence of SE7EN we are visually told the morning routines of detectives Mills and Somerset. Mills (Brad Pitt) is the young pup, who pulls on his shirt with buttons buttoned and selects his tie at random amongst a variety of pre-tied ties and runs out through the door. Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is the older gentleman who has everything laid out neatly ironed, chooses every item carefully and with deliberation.

Mills will turn out to be the impulsive, daring, intuitive character, battling throughout the story with Somerset’s analytical, cool, considering character. Again: characters presented through action and images.

The Character Arc

Having thus introduced your main character, you’ve got to present us with his or her inner-conflict.

This is something that’s bugging them at the core of their very being. What is stopping them from expressing their true potential as human beings (if this sounds eerily like a recruitment folder for Scientology or the US Army, fear not; we’re still in the la-la land of movie suspension of disbelief. That being said ... yes, there are similarities).

At the outset, you have to present the public with the antithesis of what is to come:
•      Jerry Maguire can’t stand what his job is and what he has become. (Jerry Maguire)
•      Dewey Finn is an irresponsible kid in a man’s body. (School of Rock)
•      Frankie Dunn believes women have nothing to do in the ring. (Million Dollar Baby)

They need to change, right? No? Well, according to American storytelling 101, they do.

Basically, what happens in all three films is that these three white American males (imagine that ...) round about 20 pages into the screenplay do something life changing; write that memo about the failed business of sports-agenting, take a teaching job, accept a female boxer as his charge.

From then on and for the next 60 or so pages, the protagonists go through every kind of hell and obstacle on his (or her) journey of adversity, understanding and finally change (cue the Burbank Philharmonics).

Classic example: From the starting point of hating kids and loving his house and solitude above all else, grumpy old Carl Fredricksen at the climax of UP has to let go of his house (literally!) to save the kid. His inner conflict is illustrated in action by him hanging onto the house, floating in the air, and having to let it go to save the boy. (Okay, you have to see this film to get the just mentioned). Brilliant piece of inner-conflict resolved through image and action.

The Character Transformed

The transformed character is the opposite of what he was in the opening of the film. He - or she - but most often he, alas and alack, has Learnt something and Changed.

Now, if this happened as much in real life as in the movies, for one thing, there wouldn’t be a 3 billion dollar a year diet-book industry in the USA. Because if people in real life really did read the book, followed the advice, got slim and stayed slim, well, then ... why buy another book?

For short: people don’t change very much in real life, so we seek hope, faith, and the possibility of Change for an hour and a half with a bucket of popcorn, a barrel of Pepsi and five hankies. Then we walk out into the light and enjoy a triple bacon-whopper-heart-stopper-mega-everything meal with none of that green stuff and extra cheese, please.

Now, back to the world of tinseltown make-believe:
•      Jerry Maguire mans up and takes care of both business and his lady love and has her at hello.
•      Dewey Finn keeps on rockin’ but now as a responsible adult teaching kids to roll with the rocks.
•      Frankie Dunn takes Maggie Fitzgerald into his heart in lieu of the daughter he never knew.

(NB: In American films, if the character fails to conform and to change in a cute way, they’re killed off at the ending. Forrest Gump’s girlfriend - AIDS gets her for leading a hippie lifestyle, Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty has to die because he steps out of the bourgeois norm, Thelma and Louise rebel against patriarchial American society and drive off a cliff smiling. Etc. Same could be argued in Maggie Fitzgerald’s case: she tries to take the fight to the male-dominated boxing society, and - surprise - dies. Etc)

In the end, I have but one piece of advice tacked to my wall. At the end of that master-class we asked Richard Price’s advice to us (then) young and hopeful screenwriters. What had his dismal start taught him and how had he become so good. He paused, then looked at us and growled: “Go to the movies. Pay attention!”
Amen. 

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