Thursday, May 27, 2010

American Beauty – Character Voices

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

One of the strongest tools we have as writers is dialogue. And one of the many things good dialogue does is reveal character. This is done by establishing a strong “voice” for your characters. There’s a saying in screenwriting that in a well-written script you should be able to black out the names above all the dialogue and still be able to tell who’s speaking just by the way they talk.

Let’s look at how this is done in American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) with the three Burnham characters, Lester, Carolyn and Jane.

I would quickly summarize Lester’s voice as smarmy and phony; Carolyn’s as sarcastic and rhetorical; and Jane’s as surly and put upon.

We'll begin with Lester. Lester’s voice changes somewhat over the course of the movie. He starts whiny. He complains loudly about his life (to Brad in the office and Carolyn on the drive home) but ultimately lets people push him around.

He also says things that seem friendly but are clearly insincere, such as when Brad asks him if he has a minute and he replies, “For you Brad? I’ve got five.” Look at this short monologue to Jane from the first dinner scene (as always, Blogspot does not allow me to format this properly):

Well, you want to know how things went at my job today? They've hired this efficiency expert, this really friendly guy named Brad, how perfect is that? And he's basically there to make it seem like they're justified in firing somebody, because they couldn't just come right out and say that, could they? No, no, that would be too... honest. And so they've asked us--

(off her look)

--you couldn't possibly care any less, could you?

By the end of the movie he’s become more direct and forceful. He doesn’t complain because if he doesn’t like something; he takes action. Consider the second dinner scene where he throws the asparagus against the wall and says simply, “Don’t interrupt me, honey.”

Lester actually has two voices – one in voiceover and one in dialogue. If we consider that the voiceover is coming from beyond the grave and looking at the story in a kind of flashback, then this is actually an example of the changed voice. As a result, the voiceover is more direct and observant.

But there is some consistency in Lester’s early and later voices. He remains detached and cynical throughout. He only becomes heartfelt at the end of the movie when he talks to Angela after the aborted sexual encounter and in the voice over when he talks about the images that flashed through his mind just before he died. This dialogue gains added weight because it is not his normal way of speaking.

Now let’s look at Carolyn. Carolyn constantly speaks in sarcastic rhetorical statements. Consider this early exchange:

Jane. Honey. Are you trying to look unattractive?


Well, congratulations. You've succeeded admirably.

Lester, could you make me a little later, please? Because I'm not quite late enough.

And look at the second dinner scene when she carries on a rhetorical and sarcastic conversation with herself. Here’s just one bit of it:

No, no, don't give a second thought as to who's going to pay the mortgage. We'll just leave it all up to Carolyn. You mean, you're going to take care of everything now, Carolyn? Yes. I don't mind. I really don't. You mean, everything? You don't mind having the sole responsibility, your husband feels he can just quit his job--

There are plenty of great examples of this quality in Carolyn’s way of speaking, and it stays consistent through the movie because Carolyn never really changes.

Jane’s voice is more the typical surly teenager. She’s unhappy and supremely embarrassed by her parents. Her one word response to Carolyn in the exchange I used earlier is a great example. And look at Jane’s response to Lester in the first dinner scene when he complains that she doesn’t care about what he’s saying:

Well, what do you expect? You can't all of a sudden be my best friend, just because you had a bad day.

She gets up and heads toward the kitchen.

I mean, hello. You've barely even spoken to me for months.

The use of teen slang of the period (“hello”) also differentiates Jane from her parents.

Ricky and his dad and Angela all have very distinctive ways of speaking as well. I won’t break down each one, but you might think about what makes their dialogue unique to them.

Many things affect a character’s voice. In this case we have three characters from the same family, meaning much of their demographic characteristics – class, ethnicity, etc. – are the same. What distinguishes their voices are primarily personality traits, with Jane having the added distinction of being a different age.

You want to think about all these things as you develop your characters and let their personality, attitude and background come out in the way they speak.

Monday, May 24, 2010

American Beauty – Character Introductions

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

I’ll continue my discussion of American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) by looking at the character introductions. The way a character is introduced is crucial for a variety of reasons. First impressions matter. In the relatively short time we have to get to know a character in a movie we need to reach conclusions about them quickly.

Let’s take another look at Lester’s introduction. At first glance it’s not the greatest. We see him wake up and start his relatively boring day in a fairly cliché way. Lester’s voiceover is really what makes this work. It puts some of the mundane material in perspective – such as when the VO says masturbating in the shower will be the high point of his day. This contrast of the wry commentary makes the more commonplace events interesting. (I’ll discuss voiceover more in a later post.)

The voiceover also helps establish Lester as the main character. Though we can’t always assume the person doing the voiceover is the main character, it focuses our attention in that direction. Another hint is the opening videotape segment where Jane talks about her Dad’s obsession with her friend and asks Ricky to kill him. This is known as “advertising.” We become interested in who the object of Jane's hatred is before we see him.

Perhaps the most revealing scene of Lester early in the movie is when he gets called in to Brad’s office and told he’s going to have to justify his job. When showing a character’s status quo you want to give us a little conflict. Conflict, as they say, is drama. The period of the movie before the catalyst is a potential danger zone. You need to find some drama to grab the audience.

The other nice thing about this scene is that it helps us sympathize with Lester. We like underdogs. In this scene he’s being unfairly hassled by “the man.” Up until now he’s not a particularly likeable character, but suddenly we’re rooting for him. (The witty voiceover also helps us like him.)

Let’s look at the introduction of some of the other major characters.

Caroline is introduced briefly pruning roses with shears that match her gardening clogs. That’s a nice detail that immediately tells you she’s both a perfectionist and concerned about appearance. There’s a lot of other good details about Caroline in the early scenes (her discussion of the tree that she claimed part ownership of because a substantial portion of the root structure was on their property is a particular favorite). The more specific you can be with your characters the more they will feel like real people.

Caroline also gets her own private status quo scene when we see her trying to sell the house. That scene gives us nice insight into the character by showing us her behavior when she’s alone. We get to see both her type-A determination and her insecurity and vulnerability.

Jane is first introduced in the video opening the movie. The clip we see implies that she wants to have her boyfriend murder her father. Later, of course, we learn this is a false impression. So we’re being misled by this introduction – which plays into the theme of the movie that seemingly normal people are not always what they appear to be.

Jane is reintroduced in the opening “morning routine” sequence looking at a web site for breast augmentation. The voiceover describes her as angry, insecure and confused. This seems to be a pretty accurate description.

Angela is introduced in the dance scene. We get a few typical teenager lines (“gross”) before we switch to Lester’s fantasy image of her. For the bulk of this scene and the parking lot scene that follows we see her mostly as the object of Lester’s lust. Her button* line to Jane that she thinks it’s been a long time since Jane’s Dad has slept with her Mom gives us a hint that Angela is wise about sex. We will later learn this is also a false impression, but it’s important at this point for us to see Angela as a sexual being for Lester’s arc to work.

Though we hear Ricky’s voice on the opening video, we don’t really meet him until later. Our introduction to him is while he’s filming the goings on in Lester’s house through the windows. The next time we meet him, Jane catches him filming her. He comes across as both creepy and dangerous. And I think it’s significant that he’s introduced as someone who doesn’t fit into this world of Americana. Eventually we’ll see him as perhaps the wisest person in the movie, though not totally sane.

Ricky's first dialogue scene is in the introduction of his family – the Fitts. The entire family and their relationship are defined here. Ricky’s mother, Barbara, is not mentally present – she makes bacon for Ricky who gently reminds her he doesn’t eat it. We also meet his father, the Colonel, a gruff, straight-to-the-point hard ass.

It’s important here that the scene revolves around the gay neighbors bringing a welcome basket. It allows the Colonel to express his disgust toward homosexuals – another false impression (or is it?) that will become important as the story progresses.

Meanwhile we see that Ricky placates both his mother and father. We get a much more telling scene when he comes up to Jane and Angela at school. Again he’s advertised as Angela informs Jane that Ricky spent time in a mental institution. But Ricky is confident and unflappable. This arouses Jane’s curiosity…and ours.

Next I’ll continue the exploration of these characters by talking about their individual voices. After that I’ll get to how they reflect the theme of the movie.

*We call a final line or gag that ends a scene with a little zing a button.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

American Beauty Analysis - Lester

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

Now in my analysis of American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) I turn to character. We’ll start with the main character of the movie: Lester.

The first thing I look for in a character is their want and need. Want is the motivating force that is driving the external story of the movie. Need is what the character needs to change about themselves in order to achieve happiness or success. Need drives the internal story (often called the character arc). Occasionally a character’s want and need are the same, but in most good movies they are different and often even in opposition to each other.

If you look at how I broke down the structure of American Beauty Lester’s want is pretty obvious: sex with Angela. This is the kind of good, specific want that’s useful for a writer.

You can also see a broader want for Lester in the scene where he buys pot from Ricky and describes how happy he was at eighteen, working in a burger stand, screwing around with girls and generally having no responsibility. It would be true to say that Lester’s want is to be eighteen again, or at least live like he did at eighteen.

That would also be a serviceable want for a writer to use. But finding one specific goal to illustrate the broader want is helpful. The more specific you can be, the easier it will be to come up with scenes. American Beauty uses Angela as the illustration of Lester’s broader want. This leads to such scenes as him spying on the sleepover and starting to exercise when he hears Angela would be more attracted to him if he were in better shape.

You could also argue that what Lester wants is happiness. That’s true but it’s not very useful to the writer. Everyone wants happiness. It’s too broad and non-specific to lead us through the writing process.

Lester’s need is a bit subtler which is appropriate for a movie that is exploring character. You want your character to be complex if you’re going to sustain this type of movie for two hours.

You could say Lester needs to take responsibility. In the beginning he doesn’t accept responsibility for anything. His daughter feels he’s ignoring her and he makes excuses. He resents having to go to her performance. He whines about how he’s being treated at his job but doesn’t do anything about it. As the movie progresses he becomes more selfish, unconcerned with hurting his family or Angela. Then at the end when he finds out Angela’s a virgin he finally makes the responsible decision.

Not bad, but it doesn’t feel reflective of the positive changes Lester makes in his life. In truth, some of his "irresponsible" behavior is justified. We could also make the case that he needs to appreciate what he has. This is shown in how he finds parenting his daughter a chore in the beginning of the movie, but in the end he realizes how much he loves her and how important her happiness is to him.

But Lester also clearly needs to stand up for himself. He’s pushed around a lot in the beginning and we root for him to tell his boss off and to stand up to his wife’s bullying and materialism (even as we’re also somewhat sympathetic to her.)

I think all three of these needs – to be responsible, to appreciate what he has, and to stand up for himself – can be summed up in one: He needs to own his life. In the beginning of the movie other people are making the decisions for him. Over the course of the movie he starts to make decisions for himself. At first they’re selfish. But as he takes more control of his life he finds the responsibility that comes with ownership.

The want is illustrated in the progression of the structure, which I’ve already discussed. Let’s look at how the need is illustrated. Bringing the internal story into the external world is one of the challenges of writing for film, which is, after all, a visual medium. (This movie uses voiceover, of course, which is another way to explore the internal. I’ll discuss the voiceover in detail in a later post on narrative techniques.)

In the opening of American Beauty, like most movies, we see the character’s status quo. I generally avoid opening with my character waking up and getting ready for their day. I believe that you should show the most interesting part of the character’s status quo and that’s seldom their morning routine (think of Raiders of the Lost Ark…we meet Indiana Jones deep in the jungle going after an idol in a trapped cave. It’s his status quo and it’s interesting as hell!)

American Beauty, of course, introduces Lester going through his morning routine. But part of the point is that his life is boring. And they do give us something we don’t often see in these kinds of openings – he masturbates in the shower. That’s a way to make his morning procedure more interesting to the audience! This opening also allows Lester to introduce us to his suburban world and the characters in it.

As the family loads up the mini-van we see Lester as a schmuck whose briefcase spills. He gets into the back of the van and sleeps on the drive to work – almost like he’s the child of the family. From there we move to his depressing job in a cubicle, and the threat that he might lose it. After work he fights with his wife then fights with his daughter. Then we learn that he would rather watch a marathon of old James Bond movies on TV than watch his own daughter doing a dance performance.

In short, we learn that he is miserable and ineffectual.

Contrast that to the end of the movie when he’s in the kitchen with Angela. He asks Angela how Jane is and we see that he really cares about the answer. When Angela asks him how he’s doing, he responds, “I’m great,” repeating it after she leaves. Then he looks happily at a picture of his family. A brief time later when he’s describing what flashed through his mind before his death, he ends the montage with Jane and Caroline.

In short, after the journey of this movie, Lester is happy and he’s rediscovered his love for his wife and daughter.

I want to point out two particular scenes: the dinner table scenes. The first one comes in the status quo part of the movie. The second one comes around the middle of the movie.

In the first, Lester gets no respect from his wife or daughter. Jane walks out when he tries to engage her. And Lester avoids confrontation with Caroline. At the end of the scene he insults her under his breath and when she demands to know what he said he goes to get ice cream.

In the second scene Lester stands up for himself. When Jane tries to leave this time he orders her to sit down and she does, shocked at his harsh tone. When Caroline is berating him he throws the plate of asparagus against the wall. This is not the same Lester from the first scene.

This is a great way to illustrate character change. Set up two similar situations and show how the character reacts differently to them at different points in their journey. You can see the same thing in scenes with Angela. Early in the movie she flirts with Lester and he acts like a puppy. But when she feels his muscles in the kitchen at the end, he comes on to her in a way that is clearly more serious. Both Angela and the audience sense the change.

Next post I’ll talk about some of the other characters in the movie and about how the different character perspectives are used to explore the theme.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

American Beauty - Further Thoughts on Structure

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

Last post I analyzed the three-act structure of American Beauty (written by Alan Ball). But this is a blog on writing movies, not analyzing them. So I’d like to continue that discussion with a more critical analysis of how effective the structure is for the movie.

I have no idea what Alan Ball thinks of three-act structure or if he wrote with the beats I outlined in his mind. However he did choose to have Lester’s midlife crisis start when he falls for Angela and concluded Lester’s arc with his decision not to sleep with her. So consciously or subconsciously he decided to make that tension the framework for his story.

Now, I don’t want to imply the movie would have been better if I wrote or rewrote it – I doubt that’s true. But let me describe what I likely would have done differently if I had written it and, like Mr. Ball, decided to use the Angela relationship as the primary structural element.

The “weakest” point of the movie from a structural theory standpoint is the midpoint so let’s start there.

There is no real interaction between Lester and Angela in the center of American Beauty. The challenge is that there isn’t a whole lot of room to develop their relationship. Lester is really only interested in sex with Angela and we can’t let the story get to that point until the resolution. So adding more scenes between them could get repetitive

I would have still tried to create some kind of scene between them. The midpoint should parallel the ultimate resolution, so I’d want something where Lester’s chances to sleep with Angela seem in jeopardy (since he doesn’t sleep with her in the end). Either she’s less interested or he shows some moral doubt.

Ideally I would try to tie it to Lester quitting his job. Maybe Angela could come into the burger joint where Lester decides to work after quitting. She could look with disdain on a middle-aged fast food worker, maybe mocking him to her friends. This is also about the time Jane ditches Angela to hang out with Ricky. I might try to use that in the scene as well.

You can decide for yourself if you think this would be a good scene to have included. I think the movie works without it because we do see big changes in Lester’s life. His character arc is progressing and things are happening even if there’s no change in his relationship with Angela for a while.

Ultimately the primary purpose of the midpoint is to provide a twist to the story and increase the stakes so it doesn’t get boring. Lester quitting his job serves that purpose adequately.

The other part I might have changed is the end of Act Two. I probably would have made Lester more lecherous and Angela’s rejection of him bigger. But that might not have been better…this is a fairly realistic movie and subtlety can be the better way to go.

I suspect Alan Ball used the character arc to outline the story milestones more than the structural beats of the plot. American Beauty is really a story of character arc. Most movies have character arc of course, but in this case the stakes for Lester are almost purely internal. They are about his happiness and his relationship with his family. The external plot is a way to make this internal journey visible (see my post on want and need for more on internal and external stories.)

I think it is always critical that a clear dramatic question be laid out at the catalyst and resolved at the resolution. American Beauty uses Angela as a device to create an active, external dramatic question that reveals Lester’s internal journey. Though that dramatic question may sometimes fall into the background, the movie succeeds anyway by finding other ways to reveal that internal journey.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Structure of American Beauty

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

I’ll begin my in depth analysis of American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) with a discussion of the structure. This is an extremely interesting movie from a structural standpoint. I’ve heard many people say – either with acclaim or derision – that it doesn’t follow traditional three-act structure. But I disagree. There’s a definite beginning, middle and end to the movie so it must have some kind of three-act structure.

One of the things that may confuse the issue is the amount of time the movie spends on each character. Lester is clearly the main character – he has the biggest problem and his decisions drive the story – but we spend a significant number of scenes following his wife Caroline, daughter Jane, and the family next door with Lester nowhere in sight. Doesn’t matter…it’s Lester’s story so we must look to him for the structure.

I believe any coherent story follows some form of three-act structure. It’s possible, though, that American Beauty doesn’t use the standard screenwriting book approach to that structure. I believe, as I’ve said before, that the only rule in screenwriting is “don’t be boring.” All the rest are simply guidelines. Of course it’s possible that American Beauty might be worse off for violating some of those guidelines. Let’s see what we think.

To me the most critical part of the structure of any movie is the Dramatic Question. It’s what binds the story together and tells us where the story begins and ends. It’s the question asked at the Catalyst and answered at the Resolution.

American Beauty is about the false masks the seemingly ordinary suburban dwellers hide behind. But that’s theme. It’s also about Lester trying to regain the joy that’s gone out of his life. But that’s character arc. The dramatic question needs to be something more active.

I think the dramatic question of the movie is this: Will Lester sleep with Angela (his daughter’s friend).

The catalyst then is when Lester sees Angela for the first time and immediately falls for her. As he says in voice over afterward, he feels like he’s just waking up from a twenty-year coma.

The catalyst is the moment where our character has a problem. Some would argue the catalyst of American Beauty is when Lester is asked to fill out a job description to justify his position. That’s a potential problem, sure, but really it’s just part of the miserable, unfulfilling life we see in the opening sequence – Lester’s status quo. He doesn’t actually do anything about it other than complain. At this point we probably assume he’ll write something pandering enough to keep his miserable job.

When Lester sees Angela he has a problem he can’t ignore. He’s fallen for someone who is not his wife. Even more, she’s underage. It’s a completely inappropriate fantasy. But it leads him to take actions to change his life. This moment inspires his mid-life crisis.

The resolution then is when we have the answer to our question: Angela agrees to sleep with Lester but he calls it off at the last second. Which is nearly the end of the movie…right where the resolution should be.

It’s an interesting choice for dramatic question because, though the tension of what Lester is going to do about his attraction to Angela is maintained throughout the film, much of the action involves other issues. I’ll touch on why this works more when I discuss character (probably in the next post.)

This dramatic question also does an interesting thing to the audience’s hope and fear. We want Lester to break free of his stultifying life but we definitely don’t want him to sleep with this teenage girl. Despite her apparent sexuality, we are never made to feel that anything good would come out of actual consummation.

So with that in mind let’s look at how the movie might fit into typical three act beats.

Domino: The argument between Lester and Jane over dinner. This leads to his need to see her dance performance, which leads to his first encounter with Angela.

Catalyst: Seeing Angela for the first time.

End Act I: When Angela comes to sleep over Lester spies at the door and overhears her say that she would sleep with him if he “built up his chest and arms.” This prompts him to start lifting weights. Also just before this scene Lester meets Ricky, smokes pot with him, and watches him tell off his boss. Lester is inspired by all these events to start making changes in his life. The concrete goal of these changes is to be able to sleep with Angela.

Midpoint: At the midpoint we’d normally look for something that reflects the resolution. There aren’t really any scenes with Lester and Angela in the middle of American Beauty, though. Not every movie has a strong midpoint, of course. But I’d identify the scene where Lester quits his job and blackmails his boss for severance. This is a major event in the arc of Lester taking control of his life, and it also shows that he isn’t thinking much about his responsibilities to others (particularly his family) anymore. In that sense it has considerable thematic relevance to the dramatic question.

End Act II: Comes in two pieces. In the first, Jane tells Lester that she hasn’t been inviting Angela over because she’s embarrassed by how Lester stares at her. Lester blows up at his daughter, revealing he may not be as laid back and in control as he thinks. Then, when Angela comes over that evening she playfully flirts with Lester, but when he flirts back she quickly retreats. Combined these two scenes show the “lowest point” of the dramatic question. Lester has decided to sleep with Angela no matter who it might hurt, but it may not be as easy as he assumes.

Twist/Epiphany: On the verge of Lester and Angela finally having sex, Angela tells Lester she’s a virgin. Immediately he realizes how much damage he could do to this young, innocent girl who is not at all what he thought she was.

Resolution: Lester decides to do the right thing and not sleep with Angela. But his life has changed. He’s happy. And he realizes he does love his family. And then of course moments later he’s dead.

So I would conclude that American Beauty does follow a fairly straightforward three-act structure. It’s just that this structural skeleton is kept thin to allow for more emphasis on character and theme.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

American Beauty Analysis

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

I’ve had a request to do an in-depth analysis of American Beauty (written by Alan Ball). I love to get feedback on this blog, though I don’t promise to honor every request! American Beauty is an interesting film to look at though, so I will take this request and spend the next several posts on it.

American Beauty was released in 1999 and grossed about $130 million domestically. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Cinematography and was also nominated for Actress, Editing and Original Score. In other words, it was a critical and commercial hit. It’s also one of those Best Picture winners (like Crash) that has a vocal group of critics who think it’s very overrated. Personally, I like it.

Several things make American Beauty interesting for screenwriters. First, it’s the definition of an “execution dependent” script. The story is a fairly basic tale of a midlife crisis – a married middle age loser falls for a younger woman, quits his job, buys a fancy car and tries to get in shape. All kind of cliché if you think about it. It gains a bit from the satire of modern suburbia, but again that’s pretty well trod ground. There’s a murder mystery thrown in but it’s not really the draw either.

What makes the movie really work are the well rounded characters and the insightful scenes. In other words, the writing! Oh, and the performances and cinematography are pretty spectacular, too. But it’s the character and scene work in the script that cause this movie to rise above so many movies with similar concepts.

And that’s why it’s execution dependent. You couldn’t sell this as a pitch (unless you had pretty strong attachments and even then it would be considered a risk). People would need to read it to see its greatness.

Another thing of interest is the original script contains a trial element that was not in the final film. It changes the emphasis of the film considerably. And the film uses several narrative devices that are worth some consideration.

I’m not going to do a sequence-by-sequence breakdown as I did with E.T. Instead, I’ll look at various subjects I’ve covered in this blog and discuss how they’re used in the movie. I’ll start with structure in my next post.

(Hey, by the way, the last post marked my 100th post in this blog!)