Monday we looked at how characters are introduced, studying the first sequences from The Godfather Part III, and in the afternoon I had a meeting with my script consultant, who gave me this book by John Trudy that I'm very much looking forward to reading.
The following two days we studied the western True Grit, both the John Wayne picture from 1969 and the Coen Brothers version from 2010, the latter a much darker and heavier-themed movie, right from the opening shot. It was interresting to watch the very different takes on the same source material. The 1967 version was very clean-cut and wholesome, more a heroic tale of the slightly flawed marshall Rooster Cogburn, with an ageing John Wayne going broad comedy with the role. The Coens version takes place in winter, a much bleaker, moodier look at the old West. Mattie's journey into the wild to catch the man who killed her father is also a psychological journey with Mattie's soul at stake. The consequences of hiring Cogburn is blood on her hands and the risk of loosing her own life. In the 1969 version it's an adventure that brings Lassie to mind.
The last two days we've been talking character with tv-writer Hanna Lundblad (Krøniken, Lykke). We saw clips from movies such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Thelma & Louise, About Schmidt and As Good As It Gets, the latter a perfect example of introducing a character; Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is portrayed as a complete bastard in the first scene where he throws his neighbour's dog down the garbage chute. In the following scene we learn; his job (writes romance novels), his social status (wealthy, but disliked), his demeanor (insults everybody, a recluse, has OCD, control freak), his intelligence (extremely well-articulated and sarcastic insults!), his political standpoint (racist, homophobic), his want (to be left alone) and need (to find love) - all of this within the first 10 minutes! Udall's entire problem/theme of the movie is also clearly stated through his neighbours's remmark "You don't love anything". Right on the nose. And it works!
With Lundblad, we did little 5-minute interviews with each other about our protagonist, answering questions such as "what about your character reminds you of yourself?". We also had exercises, like writing a childhood scene in 10 minutes where our character takes a stand, and describing a real life character who has made an impression in our lives, then together creating the direct opposite of that character. After this we wrote a scene were the two meet, in the least comfortable location for one of them.
So, what did I learn this week?
- When introducing characters it is important to differentiate them, make them stand out in the crowd, through actions, looks, even their name.
- Characters are defined by the reactions of others. In Godfather III, Vincent is not on the guest list and is almost thrown out, but the girls love him. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, everyone is scared of the calm and controlled Nurse Ratched when she arrives the morning after a wild party on the ward, even though she's not physically a threatening figure.
- Be sure to state the want and need of the main characters in the first sequence. In Thelma & Louise, the need for Thelma is to get away from her loveless relationship and be in control of her own life, while Louise clearly needs to let go and allow herself to have a meaningful relationship.
- Take character traits to the extreme. Melvin Udall is not just rude, he is incredibly rude.
- The most intriguing characters are the ones that have contradictions and "cracks" in their persona, a clash of traits or values.
- The characters themselves are not aware of their need until the midpoint or point of no return. After that, the realization may come with a bang or slowly seep in, but it is after the midpoint that they are finally able to act upon their real need.
- The images themselves carry meaning and add to the theme. In the John Wayne version of True Grit, the landscapes are shown in big, wide technicolor with majestical music as score. In the Coen brothers version the landscape is cold, barren and desaturated, more a threat than a beautiful backdrop. The theme is clearly stated with the very first image of the film; a warm light from inside the Saloon, but no one comes out to help Mattie's father who lies shot on the street. In the last image (before the epilogue) we see the same warm light but now the door opens and the occupants of the house come out to help Cogburn and the deadly wounded Mattie.