Thursday, June 25, 2009

Character Introductions

(SPOILERS: Silence of the Lambs, The Godfather, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Notorious, Some Like it Hot, Alien - though I'm mostly talking about early scenes in these films so they're not big spoilers.)

When writing screenplays it’s a good idea to think a bit about how you want to introduce your main characters. First impressions matter. The way the audience meets your characters will put an idea into their head about what kind of person the character is that’s hard to shake. There’s a reason why Indiana Jones is introduced as the swashbuckling adventurer before we seem him as the slightly bewildered college professor.

And think about how Marion is introduced in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) – the lone American in a bar in Tibet engaged in a drinking game with a very large man. A game she wins. We immediately learn that she is feisty and tough, perhaps an equal match for our hero.

Or take a look at Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond). We meet our heroes, Joe and Jerry, playing hot jazz as part of a band in a Chicago speakeasy. Jerry asks if they’re getting paid that night which leads to a debate about what to do with the money. Jerry wants to see a dentist about his tooth while Joe wants to bet on a dog race. We also learn they’re in debt to half the people they know. Very quickly we establish what their lifestyle is and see the difference between the anxious, neurotic Jerry and the confident playboy Joe.

There are other reasons to give your character a good introduction. For one thing it alerts the audience as to who they should be paying attention to. Also, the reality of the business is movie stars are critical to getting most movies made. By giving your character a great entrance, stars will more likely want to play the part. They'll want to make that entrance!

There are a few techniques you can use to heighten your character’s entrance. The first is “advertising.” You advertise the character before their introduction by doing things like having other characters talk about them, anticipating their appearance, so the audience is anxious to meet this fascinating individual.

A great example of that is the introduction of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally). In the ten minutes or so leading up to his entrance, all we hear is how dangerous Lecter is and the safety procedures that must be used in dealing with him. That’s matched by the visuals as we see Clarice led ever deeper in the psychiatric prison until she’s brought to a dungeon like hallway. When Lecter is finally revealed, standing primly in a neat cell, and greets her politely, we’re already terrified of him. His good manners come off as creepy!

You can also give your character a physical entrance. Have them appear dramatically from a doorway, for example, drawing everyone’s attention. Or in a comedy they might accidentally stumble into a room where they aren’t supposed to be, bringing everything to a grinding halt.

The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) accomplishes this with a surprisingly common technique: not showing the character's face until deep into their introduction scene, building curiosity in the audience. If you watch the first scene of the movie, you’ll see that it opens on a minor character, apparently talking to the camera and making a speech about America. But we come to realize he’s talking to an unseen individual whom he’s appealing to for justice – justice he couldn’t get from the cops.

The first thing we actually see of Don Corleone is his hand gesturing. And that gesture causes a shot of booze to appear out of nowhere for the on-camera character. The unseen Don seems to have almost God-like powers. By the time we actually see Don Corleone’s face, we know he’s a man of power and importance. And as the scene continues we learn he’s a man who values loyalty over money… a very important element to his character and the movie.

Raiders of the Lost Ark introduces Indiana Jones in a similar fashion. We only see the mysterious man-in-the-hat from the back as he leads his small band through the jungle. It’s not until one of his men draws a gun and prepares to shoot him that Indy’s whip cracks out, disarming the man, and Indy turns, steps into a beam of sunlight and reveals his face.

The movie Notorious (written by Ben Hecht) provides examples of many of these techniques. Alicia, Ingrid Bergman’s character, is introduced coming out of her father’s trial. Her appearance is advertised – everyone’s talking about her and someone shouts “here she comes” just before she appears in the doorway. Her importance is emphasized by the reporters surrounding her, taking pictures and asking questions, and the cops keeping an eye on her from the corner – even though she doesn’t say a word.

Then we move into a party scene. We discover that Alicia is a notorious party girl. But there in the foreground is a mysterious figure. We only see the back of his head. He doesn’t speak, but Alicia talks to him, calling him a party crasher and letting him know that she’s attracted to him. The scene continues and then finally dissolves to later that evening where the camera comes around the mysterious stranger and we reveal Cary Grant’s Devlin. Now that's an entrance!

There are occasions when you don’t want to give your character a big introduction, however. There may be reasons why you don’t want the audience to be able to immediately identify your hero. One example is Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon). Ripley is the main character and takes all the important actions from a structural standpoint, but the filmmakers try to hide that fact from us early on.

We first see the crew waking up, then in a meal scene all gathered around a table. Ripley first appears during that meal, but she's in the background with no lines. The first character who gets a big solo scene is Dallas, the captain, when he goes to get an update from Mother, the ship’s computer. As the movie continues all the other characters are given small bits of dialogue and business that reveal their personalities, but Ripley still stays mostly in the background. Her first scene of any significance is when she goes to check on the guys fixing the damage to the ship – over twenty minutes into the movie!

Why do the filmmakers do this? Because they’re trying to get the audience to focus on Dallas – played by Tom Skerritt, far more famous at the time than Sigourney Weaver who was doing her first major film role. That way when Dallas is killed about a third of the way in the audience is thrown completely off kilter. If the movie star ship’s captain can die, anyone can die!

Even though Ripley ultimately drives the story, making her the clear main character, the filmmakers want to distract us from that fact early on so we don't immediately guess who will survive and who won't. But they do this because they have a good reason given the genre of the film they’re making.

Most of the time you’ll want to give your main characters a big, juicy introduction.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Mythology Structure in Silence of the Lambs

(Spoilers: Silence of the Lambs)

I’ve been talking about the mythology structure the last few posts so let’s look at how it works in a film that’s not an obvious “fairy tale” type story: Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally).

Our hero is Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee. The FBI Academy is her normal world. The special world she’s going to enter during her journey is the world of investigating a real life serial killer.

The inciting incident is Clarice getting assigned to interview Hannibal Lecter. Lecter is the mentor character in this movie – and what an unusual mentor he is! But despite his obvious evil, he is the one who trains her in the ways of serial killers, who teaches her how to survive the special world. So the Meeting the Mentor stage comes when Clarice goes to interview Lecter.

The Call to Action comes from Lecter himself when he gives Clarice the Miss Mofet clue that leads her to the severed head in the public storage facility, which is a link to the Buffalo Bill case. Clarice doesn’t resist this call but embraces it. (Actually, in some drafts of the script, she simply passes the clue on and goes back to school until Crawford reprimands her for not following up.)

She enters the special world when she is invited by Crawford to help with the Buffalo Bill case.

We aren’t given a lot of Allies and Enemies. We have Dr. Chilton (Lecter’s warden), Jack Crawford (Clarice’s boss at the FBI) and Clarice’s friend Ardelia.

We do have an Oracle scene – when Clarice goes to visit the entomologists to identify the moth they found in the victim’s throat. They are typical oracles – they have special information and Clarice makes a journey to acquire it.

The Innermost Cave is when Clarice agrees to a quid pro quo with Lecter. She agrees to open up about her past in order to get his help on the case, something we’ve been told it would be very dangerous to do. Now she’s in the heart of serial killer land.

The Supreme Ordeal is when she tells Lecter the story about the lambs, laying bare her soul to this dangerous man. The Elixir she eventually wins for that confession is the case file with his notes and the instruction that “everything she needs to solve it is inside.”

The metaphorical Death and Resurrection is when Clarice and Crawford are pulled off of the case. Clarice's investigation has seemingly died. But now Clarice acts on her own, against the rules, to visit Lecter and save the next victim. We see that Clarice is no longer the student; she’s now a true investigator.

The Return is when Clarice, after receiving the file and getting kicked out of the building where they’re holding Lecter, returns to the Academy. And there, with the help of Lecter's notes, she figures out Buffalo Bill's identity.

The Final Conflict comes when Clarice, sent on what everyone thought was a routine background interview, realizes she’s actually in Buffalo Bill’s house. She has to fight him alone, the power cut off, and rescue his intended next victim. She succeeds by killing Bill.

Which makes her Master of Both Worlds. She’s solved the crime, saved the victim, and in the end we see her celebrating graduation – she’s mastered the student part of her life as well. She even receives a "congratulatory" phone call from Lecter.

In terms of archetypes, I’ve already mentioned the hero (Clarice), mentor (Lecter), and oracle (entomologists). The shadow is Buffalo Bill. Where Clarice is analytical, organized and sure of herself, Bill is slovenly and deranged. Plus, she's a cop and he's a criminal.

The Shape Shifter is Dr. Chilton, someone who is technically on the side of the law but betrays Clarice for his own glory. You could make the case that Lecter is also a shape shifter – a highly unusual shape shifter/mentor combo. Though personally I tend to think of Chilton as the primary shape shifter and Lecter as mostly a mentor.

Chilton also seems to do double duty as the trickster. He’s a buffoon and the source of the little bit of humor in the movie. (This story is pretty tight with few characters so it isn’t surprising that some do double duty.)

Crawford serves as a Herald bringing Clarice news from the world of the investigation but not really mentoring or assisting her very much.

Among the Threshold Guardians, I see Lecter himself – testing Clarice repeatedly to see if she’s up to the challenges of the journey. One example is the Miss Mofet clue; another is his demand that she reveal personal information. Chilton also does additional duty as a Threshold Guardian that Clarice must get past to see Lecter. And then there’s the cops she must trick to visit Lecter later after she’s been kicked off the case.

Even though Silence of the Lambs is a gritty crime story, the mythology structure still fits. And I think it’s useful to look at the story as a journey of a young FBI trainee entering the special world of a real serial killer case. The mentor-mentee relationship is a particularly myth-rich aspect to the movie. All of which illustrates how the ideas of the mythology structure transcend genre.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Mythology Structure - Part 3

(SPOILERS:  Star Wars)

The past couple of posts I’ve talked about the stages of the hero’s journey structure.  Another important element in the mythology approach is archetypal characters.  Here are the key archetypes (I’ll continue to use Star Wars, written by George Lucas, as an example film):

Hero:  The main character, the one going on the journey.  In Star Wars it’s Luke.

Shadow:  A character of opposite nature to the hero.  Often but not always the antagonist.  In Star Wars it’s Darth Vadar.  Where Luke is naïve and emotional and swathed in light colors, Darth Vadar is worldly, mechanical and dressed in black.  The shadow is meant to be the thematic opposite, but often is also opposite in personality and visual look.

Shape Shifter:  This is a character whose loyalties are unclear.  They may seem at one point to be helping the hero on their journey but at another point hindering them.  They can ultimately be either good or bad.  For some reason the love interest often plays this role.  In Star Wars Han Solo is the shape shifter character.  It is unclear whether he will be there for Luke when push comes to shove or is only out for himself.

Trickster:  This is a character who primarily acts as comic relief.  In Star Wars it’s C3PO. 

Mentor:  The Mentor character helps the hero learn about the special world of the movie.  In Star Wars it’s Obi Wan Kenobi.  Important to distinguish this archetype from an oracle (for more on the oracle and the special world, see the previous post, The Mythology Structure – Part II)

Herald:  The Herald brings the hero messages from the special world or from the shadow.  The herald is not necessarily aligned with either the hero or the shadow.  In Star Wars R2D2 serves this purpose, most notably when he projects the hologram message from Leia and also when he discovers Leia’s imprisoned on the Death Star.

Threshold Guardian:  There can be many of these.  They are characters who challenge the hero’s readiness to move on to the next stage of the journey.  There are several natural thresholds along the journey where you might find these characters – the entry into the special world, entering the innermost cave and the return.  They also crop up in other places from time to time.  In Star Wars the two alien goons at the bar who harass Luke are threshold guardians testing whether he’s prepared to be in that rougher environment.  So are the storm troopers who guard the detention level of the Death Star.

Like the stages, the archetypes in mythology structure are flexible.  Sometimes characters can perform two roles and sometimes a role will be filled by multiple characters.  For example, the mentor often doubles as a threshold guardian, such as a drill instructor who requires a young soldier to complete an obstacle course before he goes off to war.  I would not, however, call someone a mentor just because they give the hero one piece of advice.  Look for what the character’s primary purpose or purposes are in the story.

So how is this useful in the writing process?  Once you identify the archetypal roles your characters are playing look to see if any archetypes have been left out and ask yourself if your story would be improved by including a character to fulfill that function.  And often recognizing a character’s function can give you ideas for strengthening their role.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Mythology Structure - Part 2

(SPOILERS:  Star Wars, The Matrix)

Last time I talked about the stages of the mythology structure that tend to fall in Act I.  This time I’ll discuss the ones that usually fall in Acts II and III.

If you’ll recall, Act I ends with the hero entering a “Special World” that is unfamiliar to the hero.  This special world can be an actual place (the dangerous realm of Imperial controlled outer space in the case of Star Wars – written by George Lucas) or an emotional state or even an ideological situation.  Once in the special world, we reach the stage known as… 

Allies & Enemies:  The hero goes through an initial period where they explore the special world and learn about it.  This includes meeting allies and enemies that will help and hinder them along the course of their journey.  In Star Wars, Luke meets Han Solo and Chewbacca and personally encounters Storm Troopers for the first time.

Visiting the Oracle:  In some movies the hero makes a visit to an oracle.  Don’t confuse this with a mentor character.  An oracle is someone with information the hero needs, but not someone who is really coaching or guiding the hero.  The hero has to journey to the oracle and sometimes even pass a test in order to get the information.  Star Wars doesn’t have this stage, but one of my favorite Oracle scenes is in The Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally).  In it, Clarice must go to a museum to get some entomologists to identify a cocoon that is a crucial clue.  Those entomologists are oracles!

The Innermost Cave:  At some point the characters enter the deepest heart of the special world.  In a romantic comedy this might be the love interest’s bedroom.  In Star Wars it’s the detention level of the Death Star.  In Imperial controlled outer space, the prison at the center of the most powerful Imperial space ship is the most dangerous place imaginable.

Supreme Ordeal:  In the innermost cave the hero faces a supreme ordeal.  Personally, I don’t care for this term because it implies it is the biggest moment in the movie and that should actually be the climax.  But the idea is the hero faces a big challenge.  In Star Wars, that challenge is rescuing Princess Leia and fighting off the Storm Troopers. 

Seizing the Elixir:  When the hero succeeds at the supreme ordeal, he is given a reward.  This reward is the thing he will ultimately need to solve his problem.  He may not realize that fact at this point, however.  The Elixir can be an item but it can also be a crucial piece of knowledge, a person, or an emotional revelation.  In Star Wars the elixir is Princess Leia.  She is what Luke needs to get the information out of R2D2 that will reveal the flaw in the Death Star design.

Death and Resurrection:  Somewhere in here the hero experiences some kind of death and resurrection.  It can be a near death experience or a metaphorical death, such as a loss of virginity, the destruction of a home or the hero passing out.  The point of this scene is to reflect the character’s change.  It’s the death of the old character and the birth of the new.

In Star Wars this stage comes in the trash compactor scene when Luke is dragged underwater and we fear he might be dead.  In Star Wars the death and resurrection are purely metaphorical, but sometimes the death scene is actually tied to the character’s change.  For example, in The Matrix (written by Andy & Larry Wachowski) Neo actually appears to die but then comes back to life as the One as a direct result of the experience.  Other times the character may have to demonstrate or prove their changed thinking to “resurrect” themselves.

Return to the Normal World:  Act II ends with some kind of return to the normal world.  In Star Wars, Luke and company escape the Death Star and reach the rebel base.  This isn’t the normal world Luke started out in, but it is a safe, friendly environment where he fits in.  This is often the case - the character doesn’t exactly go back to the beginning, but goes instead to some similarly comfortable place or state of mind.

Final Conflict:  The hero must now face the final challenge which will mean ultimate success or failure.  This is the climax of the movie.  In Star Wars, Luke must destroy the Death Star.

Master of Both Worlds:  When the hero wins the final conflict he now becomes master of both worlds - the normal and special.  In Star Wars, Luke has become a successful space adventurer and also has formed a new family, which we see in the denouement at the end when he is united with Leia, Han, Chewie, and the robots at the medal ceremony.

Next time I’ll discuss the archetypal characters of the hero’s journey.