Notes on Craft: Characters
October 27, 2010
Guests: Howard Rodman, Richard Walter (dueling heads of USC and UCLA screenwriting programs) and an MIA Jennifer Salt (she never showed up)
So I’m two weeks late. The cold weather has made me a little lazy. And these things take forever to write.
Dan Petrie began by mentioning that John August believes that, most of the time, the hero, the protagonist and the main character are the same person. If they aren’t, the hero is the character the audience roots for, the main character is the one the audience is mostly with, and the protagonist is the one that changes. He asked the guests if they agreed.
Walter said he mostly agreed, but that you have to root for all the characters, even the villains. Think of Judas. If Judas hadn’t done what he did, then there would have been no crucifixion and we would have no salvation. The audience must connect with the villain. All of the characters’ humanity must come across during the story. From now on, I’m going to start saying “Thank you Judas!” instead of “Thank you Jesus!”
Rodman disagrees with August. He said there's a misunderstanding in Hollywood as to what the audience needs. The insistence on heroes is bad for the movies. All the characters that made him want to write films were schmucks, not characters who change. Change is only sometimes useful. It’s a huge Hollywood hoax that the hero must change. Patton didn’t change, but he was a fascinating, flawed character and the audience is interested in seeing what he’s going to do next. Walter added that Steve McQueen usually turned down parts with arcs. He said: “I don’t want to be the guy who learns, I wan to be the guy who knows.”
Petrie then asked if we should start with character.
Rodman’s starting point is fear of the blank page, maybe also an image or a person but rarely premise and NEVER plot. He goes from poignant, to melancholy to regret to deep disappointment. But then again, the movies he writes are hard to write, hard to make and even harder to watch. He writes for himself and added that “Spec” is a horrible word. Do painters call their oeuvre “spec paintings” or “spec poems?” Petrie tried to comfort him by saying that it’s not that his films are hard to watch, they are hard to market.
Walter said it’s a big mistake for writers to break up premise, structure, character, theme, tone all the things that are involved in screenwriting separately. It’s less about construction than it is about discovery; the discovery of character. Hamlet is the richest character in drama and he is only described in three words: Prince of Denmark. The rest comes from what he says and does in the course of the play. Just you try to find a parenthetical in any of Shakespeare’s plays.
He recommended the book “Plots and Characters.” In it, Millard Kaufman explains that action defines character, not the other way around. Walter suggested we simply have the character act and figure out who he is. It’s a huge mistake to try to build a protagonist around the needs of a plot.
Rodman said screenplays that are not character-driven are not screenplays, but “charts.” You’re not really writing a screenplay until the character surprises you, when she does something you wish she hadn’t done and when the character is dictating to you. He admitted that when he’s writing on assignment he can’t see life beyond the page. The difference is that now he’s experienced enough to know he's writing dead crap.
Petrie, Walter, Rodman
Petrie then asked them if they could share some trouble shooting techniques.
Walter lamented that the screen is littered with stereotypes because they are efficient and it’s easy to play it safe. But this is the death of originality. Resist the urge to write stereotypes. Instead, turn the stereotype on its head. Have the character do what the audience would never expect and you’ll surprise them. Audiences are very well acquainted with movie formulas and structure; they know what’s going to happen on minute 30. Change it up and don’t give them what they expect.
Rodman had a great suggestion I intend to use. (I still can’t believe it never occurred to me.) When a scene is not coming alive and you’re afraid to damage what’s already been written, take your characters to another document and let them play there. It takes the pressure off. The characters are no longer in the screenplay; they are “over there.” You won’t be worried about outcome and instead will focus on process. Remember, bad writing begets bad writing begets good writing. Eventually.
Walter said changing venue is very effective in extracting interesting and unexpected behavior from your characters. Lazy writers give business to actors, not actions. You want characters to act, not talk, so take them out of the cars, bars, restaurants and put them in places where the scene will be driven in an unexpected direction.
Rodman likes it when characters surprise and seduce the audience, so he tries to have the characters make a big entrance; he has them do something indelible to let the audience know really early why they should follow the character in the story. Take for example, Once Upon a Time in the West. Even though the opening sequence at the train station is beyond brilliant, Frank’s entrance is definitely my favorite scene in the movie. I can see Fonda's blue eyes and I remember the line. (I won’t describe the scene since I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen it.)
Both Rodman and Walter agreed that we have to stop over thinking characters. If you know too much about the character when you sit down to write, she becomes an illustration. Be intuitive and don’t try to understand. Instead, feel and work it out as you discover through the writing. I bet those of you who hate writing backstories for your characters love this advice. I do too but that’s because I’m too lazy. It’s weird. I use to write elaborate histories and psychological profiles. Now, I write a few stream of consciousness pages from the character’s point of view to figure out how this person sees the world.
Rodman said the first draft is hardly ever more than the discovery of one or two things about your story. (Yes, that’s right. You’re going to write 120 pages to discover just a couple of things and throw the rest away.) I identified with Rodman’s process, which is pretty much banging head on the wall until it bleeds because he can’t approach characters from a psychological and/or philosophical point of view. It took him 12 drafts to discover Joe Gould was not the protagonist of Joe Gould’s Secret. You have to leave room for those realizations that are going to hit you suddenly. It might take three drafts, it might take 12. And isn’t this true when it comes to real people too? You can never really know the truth about someone.
Stop trying to be satisfied. You will never be satisfied. Walter illustrated this by telling a couple of stories. A while back he ran into Julius Epstein at a writers conference in Hawaii. Walter brought up Casablanca and Epstein interrupted him with a “Don’t even. They ruined my script.” Casablanca. Ruined. Ruined by Michael Curtiz, Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains and Ingrid Bergman.
At another writer event, Walter ran into Ron Bass and Bass told him about a visit he paid Snow Falling on Cedars author David Guterson (Bass adapted the novel). Bass spotted a copy of the published novel on Guterson’s desk. He thumbed through it and saw that Guterson had written all over it. Bass asked him about it and Guterson said he thought it needed some rewriting. Bass asked him if it was for a next edition and Guterson responded that it wasn’t; it was just for him.
You will never be satisfied.
I was very happy to hear that it’s perfectly all right to get lost in uncertainty. For Rodman, it’s a good day when he deviates from his intentions. What you start out with is never the end result. They talked about Dr. Strangelove and its evolution. It was supposed to be a drama, but Kubrick saw it as a comedy. Also, the fact that the drama Fail Safe had just come out, sealed its fate. Flexibility is a good thing.
I completely agree with Rodman who thinks a story is about relationships. Characters (and most people) cannot exist independently. Writers have to learn to stay out of their way and let the characters interact and create conflict.
Every time Rodman sits down to write he thinks “This is it. This time, this is it.” (Don't we all?) But it never works out. That’s why it’s so hard to sit down to write. It’s that Impostor Complex again. Writers feeling guilty for being paid to daydream. You have to get over “getting it right.” It will never happen. And if you’re enjoying yourself at the computer too much, something is terribly wrong.
There’s no such thing as a minor character, only those with less screen time. Remember, for each character, that story is her story. For instance, there’s this story where paramedics take a crazy woman to an insane asylum. It’s called A Streetcar Named Desire. Think The Sopranos, think Kurosawa. Great characters result in fantastic found moments in film that are memorable. Drama should play in the mind of the audience.
Forget about likeability; the best characters are dreadful people. The Greeks knew it. When Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex, he was thinking about the cringe factor and making audiences feel uncomfortable, not lessons in philosophy. The end result was a play about a man who made two trips up and down the birth canal. Eww.
Someone asked about Larry David and his improvisational method. Petrie answered that David’s screenplays are the most requested comedy scripts from the WGA. If you look at them, they are screenplays, they are just lacking dialogue. Only the dialogue is improvised. The least of what we do as writers is write dialogue. Dialogue is just an inevitable result from everything else in the screenplay. Petrie acted out a funny story to explain exactly why writers need to put dialogue in a screenplay.
Petrie was invited to a wedding that Oscar winner Jeff Bridges was also attending. Bridges (as played by Petrie) got up to give a toast and hesitated. He turned away from the guests and bit his lip. He got lost in thought. He started to utter a word, but stopped. He pondered some more. This went on for a few minutes. Then, he said: “I wish you a happy life.” And that was it.
Petrie then added that a lot of actors ad lib because they can’t memorize their lines since they smoke too much weed. He also said that he laughs when he hears actors say “We improvised the whole thing.” Yes, in most shoots, crew and actors get in the equipment trucks and drive around until they find a location they like. Then they stop and unload the equipment. Then the camera crew improvises the lighting and the camera position. Then they improvise where and when they will have lunch…and so forth. It was pretty funny.
Walter said that he was sick of writers saying “they ruined my movie.” That’s usually not the case. Writers should be happy to be invisible; that the writing is invisible. That’s when you know you’ve done a great job.
An audience member brought up something that Robert McKee said about characters. I didn’t write down the question because I’ve never cared what McKee has to say and I can’t remember what it was. Anyway, Petrie interjected by saying that the Notes on Craft series had a secret agenda. It was to demystify screenwriting. They felt there was a need because there’s this whole industry of screenwriting gurus and consultants who make their living out of mystifying screenwriting. Rodman told us to think about the person/character first, not what McKee says the character should be or do. Gurus look backwards by analyzing a screenplay that has already been produced. Writers have to look forward when they are writing.
As you can see, a lot of this advice is quite contrary to what managers and gurus tell us. I suppose it’s up to you to see where your process fits in. If you should worry about arc, likeability, and all that bullshit. Walter and Rodman (and some of the other writers at this series) pretty much reinforced my process and beliefs. For me, it’s okay not to consider the bullshit.
Off to the next installment, Dialogue and Scene. G'nite.
P.S. I think I fixed typos. One of them was calling McKee McGee. That's how much I care about his thoughts on screenwriting.
P.S. I think I fixed typos. One of them was calling McKee McGee. That's how much I care about his thoughts on screenwriting.