Friday, February 22, 2019

Lessons in Revealing Character from Oscar Nominated Films

(SPOILERS: Green Book, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Favourite, BlacKkKlansman, Roma)

It is nearly impossible to have a good story without good, three-dimensional characters. Characters who are fully realized and specific feel like real people, people we can care about. But it’s not enough to just create three-dimensional characters. You have to reveal the nature of those characters to the audience in believable, dramatic ways. We can learn some techniques for doing this well from this year’s Academy Award nominated films.

Dramatize with Behavior

In writing, there’s an old adage: Show, don’t tell. In film, this means dramatizing an idea rather than delivering it in expository dialogue. Here are some great examples of scenes that dramatize character traits:

In Green Book (written by Nick Vallelonga &Brian Currie & Peter Farrelly), we don’t need Tony to spout racist opinions (though he does a bit of that) to know he’s prejudiced. We see it when he throws the glasses in the trash after his wife gives two Black workmen a drink of water. After the Black men have used them, the glasses can never be clean enough for Tony. And the writers trust the audience – Tony doesn’t yell and scream, he just quietly puts the glasses in the trash.

That early scene in Green Book allows the writers to dramatize Tony’s character arc. Nothing Tony could say shows us he’s changed more than the act of inviting Dr. Shirley to join Tony’s family Christmas dinner at the end of the movie. By comparing these two scenes – the one where Tony throws away the glasses and the one where he invites a Black man to his table – it is obvious that Tony is not the same person after the experiences of the story.

In Can You Ever Forgive Me? (screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty), we learn a lot about Lee Israel from an early scene where she goes to a party held by her literary agent. The party is fancy and we learn Lee didn’t RSVP. Lee is only interested in pitching ideas to her agent, who brushes her off – that’s not what the party’s for. Lee soon leaves, stealing someone else’s coat on the way out. This scene, while not very important to the plot, shows us Lee’s disinterest in socialization and her lack of honesty or integrity. We sympathize with her because we see how much she’s struggling to make a living, but we can also easily believe this is someone who would graduate from stealing a coat to forging papers. And this comes mostly from her behavior, rather than from dialogue.

Similarly, in The Favourite (written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara), we don’t need a scene of Abigail telling someone her thoughts about marriage. We see exactly how she feels on her wedding night, when to satisfy her new husband’s amorous advances, she gives him a hand job, barely looking at him and continuing her monologue plotting her next political move uninterrupted. The writers found a way to show us that Abigail is not marrying for love or sex, but as a political ploy. And the scene demonstrates how little she cares about her husband through her behavior, rather than through her dialogue.

Using Contrast

We can also illuminate character by contrasting one character with another. This is often a major purpose of supporting characters – they offer alternative points of view on thematic issues. Here are some examples:

In BlacKkKlansman (written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee), we learn a lot about Ron Stallworth in his contrast with his love interest, Patrice. While Ron is trying to fit in with mainstream society and relying on the law for justice, Patrice believes that only resistance and rebellion will work. She rejects mainstream society and embraces her culture. Ron is forced to hide his job from her, an act that illustrates the complicated line he is trying to walk. Meanwhile, the character of Flip is going through his own arc – he’s never really thought of himself as Jewish (though he is), but encountering the KKK’s anti-Semitic attitude, he starts to reconsider that aspect of his identity and what it means. Contrasting these various characters and their perspectives on race and assimilation allows us to more fully understand the attitude of each one individually.

In Roma (written by Alfonso Cuaron), we see a nice bit of character behavior from Antonio (the father of the household) when he arrives home. His car barely fits between the walls of their driveway, so he has to carefully inch it in, adjusting frequently. We can contrast this later with Sofia (his wife) pulling the car in carelessly, scratching and denting it badly. Where Antonio is cautious, Sofia is emotional. This may not be so much an illustration of Sofia’s character qualities, but a sign of her emotional state within that scene. The point is, it illustrates her psychology through contrasting her behavior with Antonio’s in the simple act of parking the car.

There’s a scene in Green Book that uses contrast to delineate the two main characters. Tony buys fried chicken and convinces Dr. Shirley to eat it in the car, because Dr. Shirley has never tried it. We learn a lot about these two characters from this scene. Most obviously, we see that Tony is looser, happy to eat greasy food with his hands. Meanwhile, the idea of eating in the car without silverware is appalling to the uptight Dr. Shirley. At the end of the scene, Dr. Shirley makes Tony go back to pick up a cup he threw out the window. This shows Dr. Shirley’s respect for the rules and cleanliness – and Tony’s lack of such qualities.

On a more subtle level, this scene in Green Book is telling us something deeper about Dr. Shirley. The fact that he’s never had fried chicken – a stereotypical “Black” food – shows us that he is removed from the predominant Black experience of the time. And it’s a plant that’s paid off later when a host at a fancy dinner party serves fried chicken because that’s what the Black servants he polled thought Dr. Shirley would like. The latter scene dramatizes how the primary characteristic most people notice about Dr. Shirley is his race, and both scenes highlight his isolation.

It is useful to analyze successful movies like these to see the techniques they use so we can apply them to our own work. I’ll look at other lessons from this year’s Oscar nominated films in posts over the next few weeks.


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Friday, February 1, 2019

The 10 Best Written Movies of 2018

We’re already into February and I’m only now posting my list of the ten best-written movies of last year. I’ve been spending the last week bingeing a lot of the awards season movies. I’ve managed to see a lot, but I haven’t seen everything. For example, I still haven’t seen The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which was nominated for a best screenplay Oscars! So keep that in mind.

Also keep in mind that this is a list of the best-written movies, not necessarily the best movies or my favorite movies. For example, I really enjoyed Mission Impossible: Fallout and A Star is Born, and their scripts were certainly solid, but the joys of those movies mostly came from things other than the writing.

Overall, 2018 feels like a year with many solid, well-scripted movies, but few that really feel fresh and vital, at least in terms of the writing. Still, any year with a wealth of good movies to choose from is a good year. So without further ado, here are my top 10 best written movies:

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (story by Phil Lord, screenplay by Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman) – This movie was fresh and fun and reinvented the superhero movie while still delivering everything we want from the genre. Characters were complex, dialogue was funny, and the set pieces were great.

2. BlacKKKlansman (written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee) – This is one of the movies that does feel fresh and vital. There’s a strong, relevant message that is intellectually challenging, but also great characters, tension, and humor that make it extremely watchable. I think we’ll be talking about this movie for a long time.

3. Roma (written by Alfonso Cuaron) – This is not a flawless screenplay. It starts way too slow for my taste. But once the drama gets going, it’s a powerful story about a compelling, multi-dimensional character, told with subtlety and nuance. And, it is one of the few this year that is intensely personal and original.

4. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty) – This is an excellently constructed black character comedy that pulls off the feat of keeping us engaged with willfully unlikeable characters. Both entertaining and emotionally deep.

5. A Quiet Place (story by Bryan Woods & Scott Beck, screenplay by Bryan Woods & Scott Beck and John Krasinski) – A well-constructed and original thriller that doesn’t rely on dialogue (although despite some reports, it’s not technically dialogue free – there is a fair amount of dialogue done in subtitled sign language). It works as both a horror movie and a compelling family drama by giving us complex, well-rounded characters.

6. Leave No Trace (screenplay by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini) – This was an emotionally complicated story of the relationship between a father and a daughter that also forces us to examine our attitudes toward those who choose to disengage from society... and with our views of society itself. And this is another movie with sparse dialogue, which shows how much of screenwriting is not just writing lines for actors to speak.

7. Sorry to Bother You (written by Boots Riley) – This screenplay has a few flaws, but it’s also wildly clever and interesting, with complex characters and thematic ideas. In a year that most movies felt kind of traditional, this one breaks the mold.

8. Black Panther (written by Ryan Coogler & Joe Robert Cole) – I debated where this movie fits into this list. It definitely had an impact on the industry and the culture, but a lot of that came from its conception rather than from a particularly revolutionary screenplay. If there were a lot of superhero movies with largely Black casts, would this one stand out? But it was well constructed, entertaining, and it has one of the most interesting villains in a superhero movie, so I ultimately decided it deserved eighth place.

9. Eighth Grade (written by Bo Burnham) – This screenplay deserves a lot of credit for capturing the voice of kids at this age and particularly at this time in history. I found some of the supporting characters a little underdeveloped, but the central character is one of the most complicated of the year, right up there with the lead in Roma.

10. Deadpool 2 (written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick & Ryan Reynolds) – It would be too much to expect this sequel to be as fresh and revolutionary as the first one, and it isn’t. But it does capture the same irreverent spirit and humor. Plus, it adds the amazing character of Domino, who is worth the price of admission herself.

There were several other excellent movies that could easily have made the list. I’ll give honorable mention to: The Incredibles 2, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Green Book, Annihilation, First Reformed, and Private Life. I also want to highlight The Rider – it was a fantastic movie, though it seems to be unclear when it was released – even IMDB lists it as both a 2017 and 2018 movie. I saw it in 2017, so didn’t include it on my list, but if you count it as a 2018 movie, it would be.

One more observation: this list is for movies, which I have traditionally defined as having theatrical releases. I’ve kept it that way this year, though the line is blurring. Roma, for example, only got a token release to qualify it for awards. But since it was in theaters, I accepted it. On the other hand, the HBO movie The Tale would have definitely made this list, but it only played theatrically at festivals, so I left it off. It will be interesting to see how the line continues to blur in the years ahead.


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