Monday, March 28, 2011

Managing your characters - who are these people?!

I'm at that delicious stage in a script where I'm building a community of people from the ground up. It's the very first point in the a screenplay's life. No line of script has been written, but the character constructions have started. And there's so much to decide!

Where should our hero first be discovered? What's his sense of humour like? How does he react in a crisis? What would he order in a bar? Etc, etc...

Of course, the hard part with any character is keeping them consistent. Yes, they must change as the story progresses (or at least, some of them must). But their change has to suit their temperament, their moral compass, their personality.

A film I saw recently was a perfect example of how inconsistent characterisations can sink a story.

Country Strong is the "Star is Born" story of washed-up country superstar Kelly Cantor and her ill-fated comeback tour. Also on the tour are her lover, musician Beau Hutton and promising female singer Chiles Stanton. They are on the way up while Kelly's career has hit the skids because of her out of control drinking. But her manager husband James can't afford to let her stay in rehab and has bounced her out to put her back on the road.

Gwyneth Paltrow has a perfectly competent voice, but it is not the voice of a country megastar. Oddly enough, her husband is played by genuine country star Tim McGraw, who never gets to sing a note!

There is nothing particularly wrong with the performances in general and Leighton Meester, who plays Chiles, is an excellent singer who could easily be a real recording star.

The problem is with the way the characters are written. One minute James is a ruthless manager who is determined to use his wife until he destroys her. Next minute he's a good guy with a crazy drunk to contend with. Beau is romancing the vulnerable Kelly while trying to talk Chiles into bed - and he's meant to be the hero! Chiles is an idiot one minute and slyly clever the next. And as for Kelly herself, Gwyneth Paltrow is forced to run the gamut of emotions from A to way past Z. She's the most unpredictable and inconsistent movie heroine I've seen in a while.

The result is a bit of a mess, with the characters impossible to identify with because... who are these people? Do the actors even know? Does the writer?

Know your characters - and make sure they act like their natural true selves. Otherwise, you end up with a movie like Country Strong...


Managing your characters - who are these people?!

I'm at that delicious stage in a script where I'm building a community of people from the ground up. It's the very first point in the a screenplay's life. No line of script has been written, but the character constructions have started. And there's so much to decide!

Where should our hero first be discovered? What's his sense of humour like? How does he react in a crisis? What would he order in a bar? Etc, etc...

Of course, the hard part with any character is keeping them consistent. Yes, they must change as the story progresses (or at least, some of them must). But their change has to suit their temperament, their moral compass, their personality.

A film I saw recently was a perfect example of how inconsistent characterisations can sink a story.

Country Strong is the "Star is Born" story of washed-up country superstar Kelly Cantor and her ill-fated comeback tour. Also on the tour are her lover, musician Beau Hutton and promising female singer Chiles Stanton. They are on the way up while Kelly's career has hit the skids because of her out of control drinking. But her manager husband James can't afford to let her stay in rehab and has bounced her out to put her back on the road.

Gwyneth Paltrow has a perfectly competent voice, but it is not the voice of a country megastar. Oddly enough, her husband is played by genuine country star Tim McGraw, who never gets to sing a note!

There is nothing particularly wrong with the performances in general and Leighton Meester, who plays Chiles, is an excellent singer who could easily be a real recording star.

The problem is with the way the characters are written. One minute James is a ruthless manager who is determined to use his wife until he destroys her. Next minute he's a good guy with a crazy drunk to contend with. Beau is romancing the vulnerable Kelly while trying to talk Chiles into bed - and he's meant to be the hero! Chiles is an idiot one minute and slyly clever the next. And as for Kelly herself, Gwyneth Paltrow is forced to run the gamut of emotions from A to way past Z. She's the most unpredictable and inconsistent movie heroine I've seen in a while.

The result is a bit of a mess, with the characters impossible to identify with because... who are these people? Do the actors even know? Does the writer?

Know your characters - and make sure they act like their natural true selves. Otherwise, you end up with a movie like Country Strong...


Monday, March 14, 2011

Bad villains = bad movies

I saw Mr and Mrs Smith for the third time on TV the same week as I saw a preview screening of The Adjustment Bureau. Now, people will slay me for this because many of my friends - and the critics - love d'Bureau, but I think both movies are pants, and for exactly the same reasons.

Both lack sufficiently high stakes, for starters. Mr and Mrs Smith is about two professional assassins who go on the run when they fail to kill each other and their bosses put out a hit on them. And we are supposed to care about them... why exactly? Not only do I not care about their fate, it's an inevitable done deal that they will survive, because they are super, highly-trained killers. So they can't die, and I don't really give a crap either way.

Plus, the bosses are faceless shooters. We never get to properly see the people the Smiths are up against - just endless black-clad bad guys. And you really miss a well fleshed-out villain like Hans Gruber. Big time.

In the Adjustment Bureau, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are at least a likeable lead couple. Early on, Matt is kidnapped by the Bureau men and threatened with getting his brain fried if he continues to pursue his girl. Great - now we have people we care about and high stakes to go with them. Except that the rest of the movie proceeds to totally water down the threat. Matt keeps getting caught by the Bureau, and at no point do they follow through on the brain-frying, or even look like they're about to.

The result? Toothless bad guys and as a result, no real fear factor. The stakes dissipate, I start snoring.

The moral of the story is, raise the stakes as far as they will go and when you have a bad guy, make him bad, but with a personality! Hans Gruber from Die Hard quotes Alexander the Great AND shoots Holly Gennaro's boss in the head within his first five minutes on screen. We can see that he's ruthless and totally evil, and there's still a whole movie to go!

What about YOUR villain? Can he compare with Hans, or is he all talk and no action?


Bad villains = bad movies

I saw Mr and Mrs Smith for the third time on TV the same week as I saw a preview screening of The Adjustment Bureau. Now, people will slay me for this because many of my friends - and the critics - love d'Bureau, but I think both movies are pants, and for exactly the same reasons.

Both lack sufficiently high stakes, for starters. Mr and Mrs Smith is about two professional assassins who go on the run when they fail to kill each other and their bosses put out a hit on them. And we are supposed to care about them... why exactly? Not only do I not care about their fate, it's an inevitable done deal that they will survive, because they are super, highly-trained killers. So they can't die, and I don't really give a crap either way.

Plus, the bosses are faceless shooters. We never get to properly see the people the Smiths are up against - just endless black-clad bad guys. And you really miss a well fleshed-out villain like Hans Gruber. Big time.

In the Adjustment Bureau, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are at least a likeable lead couple. Early on, Matt is kidnapped by the Bureau men and threatened with getting his brain fried if he continues to pursue his girl. Great - now we have people we care about and high stakes to go with them. Except that the rest of the movie proceeds to totally water down the threat. Matt keeps getting caught by the Bureau, and at no point do they follow through on the brain-frying, or even look like they're about to.

The result? Toothless bad guys and as a result, no real fear factor. The stakes dissipate, I start snoring.

The moral of the story is, raise the stakes as far as they will go and when you have a bad guy, make him bad, but with a personality! Hans Gruber from Die Hard quotes Alexander the Great AND shoots Holly Gennaro's boss in the head within his first five minutes on screen. We can see that he's ruthless and totally evil, and there's still a whole movie to go!

What about YOUR villain? Can he compare with Hans, or is he all talk and no action?