Thursday, June 27, 2013

What is it that makes some characters memorable?

And why are there so few of them?

Let’s face it: if you could remember even ten characters from a year of watching movies regularly, you’d be doing well. And if that year happened to be 2012, with its particularly mindless blockbuster line-up, you’d really be challenged.

Off the top of my head, the most memorable characters from the last six months (of movies I’ve seen) are:

  • Tommy, the bereaved, tormented single dad in Citadel. Brilliant character, exceptionally well played by Aneurin Barnard.

  • Christophe Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained. By far the best thing in or about the movie.

  • Ditto for Killer Joe, played in truly disturbing fashion by Matthew McConaughey in the eponymous movie. He was pure evil, and it broke McConaughey right out of his nice-guy, romcom rut.

  • Robert Miller in Arbitrage. Richard Gere clearly had a ball playing this venal, amoral banker, and boy did it come across.

  • Tiffany, played by Jennifer Laurence in Silver Linings Playbook. In my opinion she was a more interesting character even than the main character Pat Solitano – so maybe the Academy judges were right?

  • On the other hand, Bradley Cooper’s character Avery Cross in The Place Beyond the Pines was an amazingly-written part – definitely stuck in my head long after I saw the movie.

  • And last but not least – for now – female Israeli soldier Segen in World War Z. Am I the only person to think that the movie would have been WAY more interesting if she had been the main character? The woman is a bad-ass: she endures a limb amputation with nothing more than some airline bottles of vodka and kills way more zombies than Brad Pitt (at least by my count). I was dying to know more about her and really hope she’s in the (mooted) sequel , which is surely the sign of a good character?

That’s seven memorable characters in six months, and that’s despite the fact that I have a ridiculous, Asperger’s-like memory for movies.

Obviously all the characters above are played by brilliant actors, which helps. But even a talented actor can’t do much with a poorly-written character – see the usually-great Mirielle Enos struggle to bring her insipid wife character alive in World War Z.

So it comes down to good writing and decent character work on the writer’s part. I think great characters have to have the following:

  • An identifiable, recognisable, compelling goal. It’s crazy how often I come out of a film having no idea what the main character actually wanted.

  • A truly awesome obstacle in their path. This can be a brilliant bad guy, or an awful situation to get out of, or both. Without this, we can’t root for them, or get caught up in their story. They can also BE the obstacle themselves – Killer Joe and Robert Miller, for example, are the architects of their own different, but similarly unpleasant ends.

  • They have to have their own unique take on the world. Tommy is agoraphobic and his whole life is ruled by fear. Tiffany has had mental issues and has come to believe that she’s unworthy of happiness. Dr. Schultz has a very original approach to bounty-hunting and loves old German myths. Avery Cross is ferociously ambitious and this quality dictates all of his actions, good or bad. At the end of the day, these quirks and ticks are what make these characters real.

Seeing one good movie with a character that stands out is what I love about cinema and what keeps me coming back again and again. Now I just have to follow my own advice and aim to write a character that other people will remember as much as these ones…

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The scriptwriting process - and how to do it with your sanity intact...

Scripts are a bit like men (or buses). You wait for ages and then… well you know the rest.

At the moment, I have 3 different projects going on. There’s a script idea I’ve been developing for a while (a sports comedy set in Ireland) which I ultimately want to submit to the IFB for a First Draft Loan. Right now it’s just a promising treatment, but it still needs work. There’s also a jewel heist/rom com set in Europe and a thriller TV pilot (both at the early, early stages). I’m absolutely DYING to write one of these. It’s like a pain in my heart. But for the moment I have to be content with developing the ideas and making sure they’re bombproof. I know what happens when I set off without doing this initial prep, and it involves gnashing of teeth and wailing (literally).

I’d much rather concentrate on one thing at a time, but you have to go with opportunities when they appear. And let’s face it, it’s better to be busy…

Here’s what I do at this stage, the very first part of a project’s life:

  • What is this script about? What’s its essence? Sum your idea up in a sentence or two. This is obviously going to change as you develop the project, but it helps to know where you started from.

  • I also like to come up with one word that the story is about, which then acts as a sort of touchstone during the writing process. For the sports comedy, it’s “acceptance”, for example – because this is what all the characters in it are really seeking. With the thriller, it’s “trust”. Every script is ultimately about one thing, one element that drives it.

  • At this point, I also like to do a two to three page character portrait for the 5-6 main characters. Who are these people? Where are they coming from, and what do they want? And more importantly, what do they need?

  • These portraits always give me loads of plot ideas, so at that point I write a quick summary of the plot. I like to know how it starts, what the midpoint is and how it ends, but the rest will be pretty vague for now.

  • Then I outline, using a beat sheet to flesh out the structure, theme and basic plot. At this stage, story problems or character inconsistencies usually become clear, so I fix these as much as I can before moving on to…

  • The infamous first draft. The draft I love the most, until 3 days after it’s done. Then I hate the script with a passion. It’s flat, and lifeless, and is generally like a curry with no spices added, if that’s not too weird an analogy.

  • So after an interval of mourning, it’s time to add those spices in. This can involve anything between 2 and 10 drafts, with loads of “Aha!” moments in between where it occurs to you that the two henchmen could be one, and that the hero could have a terrible fear of dogs. Basically, these drafts are hopefully where things start to get shape and where the characters turn into flesh and blood people.

  • Repeat until you’re confident that it’s a decent draft, after which it’s time to expose your baby to the cruel world. In my case, it’s time for my screenwriting group to take a look and poke holes in it with their swords (pens). I’ve also asked friends and family members to read drafts and if you’re very brave, put it online and let total strangers annihilate it. And there’s always professional script consultants. Whoever you allow to read it, make sure you listen carefully to their feedback and try not to snort, cry or scream at them. They’re very often right, and if a bunch of people mention the same thing, it’s a fairly safe bet that there’s a problem.

  • After another suitable mourning/incubation period, it’s time to look at everyone’s notes and at your script. Take the notes that make sense and that ring true. Make the necessary changes – punch up your script until it’s a lean, scrappy machine. Then it’s definitely time to get it to a pro for feedback, if you haven’t already.

  • After that, and more rewriting, once you’re sure that this is the best possible version of your script, the ultimate evocation of your original idea, it’s time to get it out to the people who can get it made. Which is a whole other ballgame, and one I will deal with v. soon in a post.

Good luck and get writing!