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.


Shaula Evans said...

Doug, I'm reading through your archives and just reached this post. Thank you for all the helpful, detailed information about screenwriting you've put online.

As far as character introductions go, have you ever read the pilot for The West Wing? Bartlett's introduction, which takes place well into the pilot a la Hannibal Lecter, is awesome--in the original sense of the word.

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Could you please do the post about Alfred Hitchook movie Psycho because main character died in the middle of the movie.