One of my favorite examples of how a character subtly does things his way is from Three Days of the Condor. Robert Redford plays a guy who is so smart and able to think creatively that his job is to read books and newspapers and sniff out possible terrorist plots/plans/ communications. He discovers some suspicious information and forwards it to his boss, but doesn't get a response. Like any brilliant, free-thinking protagonist, Redford disregards the hierarchy and sends his theory to someone else, which turns out to be a big mistake.
Upon receiving Redford's information, the other boss, our antagonist, sends assassins to kill him and his coworkers in the story's inciting incident. However, our protagonist manages to survive the encounter by literally being out to lunch. He returns to find his office, a sort of conspiracy thriller version of the Jeopardy writer's room, the scene of a complete massacre. All of his fellow researchers have been murdered. The character just happened to leave the building a few minutes prior to the attack. Conveniently, the awesome assassin was probably scoping out the front of the building while the protagonist went out the back. Too contrived? Let's think about this for a minute.
Is going out the back door indicative of a character? Is there some deep meaning that reveals his essence? Not without more information. He goes to lunch at a place he frequents. But because it's raining, he takes a more efficient route to avoid getting wet. He stays true to form - a character who is smart and practical, and effortlessly applies strategy to the simplest tasks. It may seem overly subtle, but this is how THIS character goes to lunch, and it works. Sometimes it's easier to see how the big actions are character-specific. Near the end, for example, Redford interrogates one of the villains to figure out what's going on, and in the process of articulating the clues, figures it out himself. His character stays true to, well, his character in the big moments and the small ones.
|Sean Kanan and David Stanbra act out a scene from Grand Prize winning script. Their adlibs helped us discover some cool ideas. |
In class, we saw A-list actors like Julia Roberts, Sean Penn and Al Pacino make phone calls, say "I'm sorry," and order lunch, respectively, in ways that only their character could. We imagined a dialogue from Sean Penn to the imaginary writers of the imaginary clichéd version of the scene he was in: "I won't say that, that's not special, cut that, give that boring line to her, I am going to ignore this line." The scene he was in from The Interpreter was really simple yet it systematically destroyed possible cliches by sticking to the character. It might be chicken-egg whether this sort of material is what attracts A-list actors or whether their involvement pushes the material to be better, but either way, how can generic and meaningless ever be better choices than unique and character-specific? They can't.
When we look at how actors break down scene we discuss one of the Guideposts from Michael Shurtleff's Audition, a great book for writers who want to learn how to think like actors, called role playing. The idea is that characters will act differently in the same situation depending on the circumstances or the rules of the implicit role they are playing at the moment.
A silly but easy example of this idea is the guy who had a hot date and is explaining it to his best friend on the phone. Then his mother rings in and he clicks over and starts explaining it to her. Of course, after a few clicks, he accidentally thinks he is explaining it to his friend, but he's actually giving the lurid details to his mother. If you need more specifics to see how the principle applies, here, well, don't write comedy.
Don't forget that you have to be careful when introducing characters. For example, if you introduce a character walking an old lady across the street, that might not be an indication that he is nice if he happens to be a uniformed police officer. Along the same lines, you have to be careful when introducing a character to more than one character at a time. The audience will have a hard time seeing the essence of a relationship if it's affected by a third party. Before Julianne meets Kimmy in My Best Friend's Wedding, she has to have a moment with Michael alone for the audience to understand her, otherwise she would be limited by the implicit etiquette of the situation.
Another kind of role playing that we noticed in several movies occurs when blocking changes so that Character A is no longer able to see the facial expressions of Character B. Usually this happens when one character turns away from the other. In this moment, Character B has an opportunity to reveal a hidden expression or emotion. In True Romance, when Christopher Walken turns around to prepare to kill Dennis Hopper after the "eggplant" rant, Hopper drops the false bravado facade. And in class, we watched several scenes where actors were able to let their guard down and express a new emotion while embraced in a hug since they were not being watched.
When you have to try to capture simultaneous opposite emotions and expressions in a scene, instead of relying on a cheat like "Underneath her courageous front, she is actually a scared child," you could instead choose a moment where the character's facial expression could be unguarded and SHOW both of them. Honestly, Tarantino missed some opportunities in Inglorious Basterds to put some of what was in his head as a writer actually onto the page or into the movie. Consider this cheat from the scene where Landa interrogates Shosanna:
The Key to Col Landa's power, and or charm, depending on the side ones on, lies in his ability to convince you he's privy to your secrets.
All it would have taken is one moment where one of them looks away and we could have gotten a surprising glimpse into what Shosanna was really feeling. If Tarantino expected the milk products to be props with which the characters, specifically Shosanna, could interact, and not just motifs, he failed on a craft level because he was only able to show us the facade, not the emotion/thought that she was covering in this situation.
IT'S SMART TO BE DENSE
When I did an interview with ScriptShadow back in the day (Okay, a few months ago), I made up a term called story density. It was a playful scientific measurement of a script's ratio of GOOD STUFF to PAGE COUNT. If your scenes are bloated, your action long-winded, and your dialogue full of monologues, you are going to have low story density. You probably have 85 worthy pages of story stretched out to look like 108 pages.
We found a way to apply the concept of density to action description (BEATS/WORD COUNT and JOKES/WORD COUNT). We wrestled with action description passages and challenged ourselves to say the same thing with fewer words. For instance, we played around with a paragraph from an early draft of My Best Friend's Wedding. We found better words, tightened language, improved some cheats and even played around with style.
Here is the action description from the original script, from the scene where Julianne is preparing to call Michael but is reluctant because she thinks he might be proposing to her because of the pact they made to get married on their 28th birthday.
She turns to continue pacing, and walks straight INTO a dresser. Stuns her, momentarily. Enough, already! She punches up the number, primping absently in the mirror. When it connects...
Original - 29 words
We couldn't use "sees stars" or "birdies fly around her head" because it confuses the reader as to what he or she is actually seeing, but we came up with a slightly shorter and, we thought, better cheat for "Stuns her momentarily," which has a better visual component. And we trimmed a few words.
She turns and SLAMS into her dresser. Shakes it off. Enough already! Punches the numbers, primps absently in the mirror. RIIIIIIINNNNNG!
If we were in a hipper movie like Juno or Scott Pilgrim, maybe we change the tone of the "enough, already" cheat and add a bit of style. This also uses sound to create a bit of surprise and maybe a moment of curiosity around the pretty boring act of dialing a phone.
She SLAMS into dresser. Shakes it off. Fuck it! BEEP BOOP BOOP. Primps absentmindedly in mirror. RIIIIINNGGG!
The OS "Hello" on the other line would pay off and clarify the action. Or, if you like the style but need some clarification, that's fine. But since you have added words, be lean and mean:
She SLAMS into dresser. Shakes it off. Fuck it! BEEP BOOP BOOP. Pounds digits. Primps absentmindedly in mirror. RIIIIINNGGG!
Someone in the class hated "pounds" and if you do, go back to "punches." And then we pondered one last version where we turned the "enough already" or "fuck it" cheat into something we can see and hear.
She turns and SLAMS into dresser. Shakes it off. Looks (determinedly?) down to phone. BEEP BOOP BOOP. Primps absentmindedly. RIIIIINNGGG!
Someone asked, which way is correct. And another asked about how far can we go with style. You should know me by now. I am not a rules guy. These are the wrong questions. Here are the right ones:
- Is the read clear for the reader?
- Does the viewer see and understand all that the reader understands?
- Are you wasting words and telling the story inefficiently?
- Are you repeating in standard prose what your stylish passage already achieves or vice versa?
Keep working at it until you can answer yes, yes, no, no. You can have a lot of leeway in your action description and style as long as you are constantly striving to tell the story in a clear and lean way. Whether or not you love our rewrites here, I want you to see that there are viable ways to turn these 30ish words into 20ish. Put your words through the same wringer.
If Density = Mass/Volume, you see we can increase Story Density by decreasing volume, i.e., cutting words. But we can also add mass. That is, we can put more cool stuff in the same amount of space. A top 20 writer in the lab had a 34-word passage of action description that had, by our mutual agreement, one funny beat/moment/surprise. Well, we reconjiggered the sentences and with exactly the same amount of words, came up with 5-6 funny beats/moments/surprises.
Chopping 33% of the words was impressive in the first part of the exercise, but not nearly as much fun as making a section five times more powerful, funny and efficient by adding/replacing words. I will ask the writer if we can show our little exercise on the blog, but since it is related to her concept, I imagine it will have to be a mystery...one that hopefully entices you to come to next year's Champion Lab. But damn, it was fun to experiment and to show EVERYONE how they have to raise their expectations for every sentence, every word in their script.
Make this your New Year's Resolution. In 2011, vow to be DENSE. With story.