MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

PULP FRICTION


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Martin McDonagh's SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS came and went without making much of a mark - it was kind of a shaggy-dog story that seemed like he was making it up as he went along, but his first film IN BRUGES was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar... and deserves a larger audience. One of the reasons why it's both and entertaining film and a film worthy of winning awards are the complex characters, so let's take a look at the characters and what makes them riveting and interesting.

Any character who is all good or all bad is all boring. Realistic characters are like real people - layered with both positive and negative traits. That's what makes them interesting and three dimensional. The ability to create and destroy lives is in all of us, and an interesting protagonist has a foot in each camp. They are both hero and villain in one - and an internal war often rages within each character. Will they do the right thing? Will they screw up and ruin their own lives? Story is conflict... and interesting characters are conflicted. The more conflicted they are, the more interesting the character.

A character is battling their own nature is fascinating, but we need to externalize the battle that rages within. Samuel L. Jackson's hitman looking for redemption in Quentin Tarantino's PULP FICTION is a fascinating juxtaposition of light and darkness. His job is the opposite from his needs. He is a walking, talking, conflict. A deep contrast between what he does and what he wants makes every scene he is in interesting and unpredictable. Will he kill Honey Bunny and Pumpkin in the restaurant, or let them live? Using the quest for redemption as the theme in a film about low-life criminals is what separates PULP FICTION from all of the Tarantino clones that followed.

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This is why Jason Bourne is an interesting character - in his past life he was an assassin who killed just about anyone he was sent after... but in his post-amnesia life he is a good man, struggling to deal with his past and find his future. The Bourne movies usually give us a revenge scenario - where searching for the person who killed the woman he loved or framed him for a crime leads him to the answers to "Who am I?" Which part of Bourne will triumph? The assassin or the good man?

The trailers for IN BRUGES made it look like a comedy with gunplay... and it is that, and much more. Both the story and the characters are complex, often contradictory, and the story does a great job of pealing back the layers one-by-one and revealing the unexpected.

When the story begins, it's like the Odd Couple as hit men. Ray (Collin Farrell) and Ken (the always great Brendan Gleason) are British hit men for mob boss Harry Waters (Ralph Fiennes) sent to the picturesque tourist town of Bruges in Belgium to cool off after a job. We are not given any of the details of the job, just that they are to stay in Bruges for 2 weeks, then Harry will call them with further instructions. Maybe another job, and maybe that job is in Bruges - which would explain why they're there. "For two weeks? In fucking Bruges? In a room like this? With you? No way!" Ray complains.

Collin Farrell has made a career in Hollywood playing cool and sexy leading men, but Ray is something completely different - a twitchy loud mouth who has a bad thing to say about everything and everyone. He *hates* Bruges. And that is our first clue that Ray is a character at war with himself.

EXTERNALIZING

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When a character has a conflict raging inside of them, we need to find a way to externalize it and turn that conflict into something we can *see*. Film is a visual medium, and out job is to turn anything we can't see into something that we can see. Though the reason for the battle inside Ray is a mystery to us at this point, we need to see its wake trailing behind the character... like the little wakes behind the tour boats in the canals of Bruges. So Ray's anger at himself becomes an anger at everyone around him. I think it was Hermann Hesse who said the only person we can ever really hate is ourselves. So to show Ray's war with himself, McDonagh has Ray at war with the world around him... in a funny, sarcastic and very amusing way. He *hates* Bruges, and is constantly finding some cutting remark to make about the city and its landmarks."Ken, I grew up in Dublin. I love Dublin. If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn't, so it doesn't." He *hates* the tourists that wander through the city, calling a group of obese Americans "Elephants" and explaining why they can't visit the city's famous tower - not only would they have trouble fitting in the narrow hallways, they'd probably all have heart attacks before they reached the top of the tower.

Ray lashes out at everyone around him in the film, and always seems to find the perfect thing to say to someone to make them furious at him (like starting off a conversation with Jimmy (Jordan Prentice) with a list of all of the midgets who have killed themselves, and punching a Canadian Tourist (Zeljko Ivanek) and his girlfriend in a restaurant. Ray lashes out at everyone around him - which externalizes the war raging within. He is bitter and angry about everything. Including himself.

To contrast this, Brendan Gleason's Ken is the perfect tourist. He loves visiting all of the landmarks, loves going from museum to museum and riding in the little tour boats. He is completely at peace with himself and the world around him. This contrast between the two not only creates comedy, it helps to define both characters... and point out Ray's self hatred. Later in the film when Ken is supposed to visit the tower, it has been closed early (an American tourist had a heart attack the day before trying to climb to the top - punchline to a joke set up earlier), even though the ticket seller is difficult, Ken doesn't get angry. He accepts the world around him. Because Ray is such a boor, you easily identify with Ken... and spend the first half of the story wondering how he's going to put up with this jerk for two weeks.

REVEALING INTERNAL CONFLICT

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Then we get the reveal - the reason why Ray is at war with himself - and he ends up everything that is human and tragic. You find yourself caring deeply about him after the big reveal. The reason why Harry Waters sent them to Bruges to cool off. The huge mistake that Ray has made that he can not live with. Just when you think it's a really funny buddy movie, something happens that turns it into a serious film about emotionally conflicted characters... who happen to be these two guys. The timing of the reveal is perfect - it is not only the best possible moment for the scene, we are given a *visual* reveal, so that we don't have any clunky, expositional and confessional dialogue. No telling... showing. It's a visceral scene that makes a maximum impact on the viewer by creating a reveal within the reveal. What we think is Ray's problem with himself is really much deeper after the second reveal in the scene. As we peel back layers of Ray's character, and discover why he's at war with himself; we also peel back layers of Ken's character and discover why he has come to accept his own dark side... and the tragedy that has forged his character.

The surface is funny - but these characters have so much depth we keep peeling back layers and learning more and more about these two guys and we feel the tragedy of their lives... and yet they're still funny. The reason why the good side of Ray and the bad side of Ray are fighting each other is directly tied to his job as a hit man. Just like in PULP FICTION and the BOURNE movies, the most dramatic way to show the good in a character is to put them in a world of bad... and contrast their humane nature with their occupation - which is often another facet of their nature. Which makes a "straight drama" probably the wrong genre to fully explore a conflicted character. For some reason pulpy stories about hit men seem to be full of the type of life and death decisions that will tear a character apart from the inside out... and leads to a more layered character. McDonagh - a playwright - has jumped into genre as a way to more deeply explore and expose characters.

WHAT GOES AROUND, COMES TOGETHER

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One of the great things about IN BRUGES is the "small town" feeling of Bruges - everyone Ray and Ken meet they keep meeting again and again. They go back to the same locations again and again - and we see the changes in the characters of both Ray and Ken when they revisit some past location. Though there's an element of coincidence involved in bumping into the same characters, it's really well set up - you believe these people would all be in the same restaurant or the same pub in this small village. A comedy character later becomes the key to resolving a serious plot element - and you might look back and think that the whole reason this character was in the film was that resolution element... except the character has become such an important part of the comedy side of the story that the film would fail if you removed them. The script is so well constructed, that you would never expect a character or situation that is part of the comedy story would later be revealed to be part of the more serious side of the story. Each story layer works on its own, so when a new layer is revealed it is completely unexpected. The film is filled with connections and call-backs. The fat American tourist family is good for a few jokes... but later they impact the big end shoot out!

For a comedy film filled with all kinds of violent shoot outs, the thing that had the deepest impact on me were the relationships. It's really about one man who is at peace with himself, and another who is not. The scene where Ken talks about his late wife is one of the most powerful scenes I have even seen on film.

How do different elements within your characters - both good and bad - create a struggle within... and how do you externalize that struggle so that we can see it on film?

Contrast between how a character looks and acts is also important. Clark Kent isn't a big musclebound guy... he's a geeky reporter who wears glasses and is kind of a klutz. The marked difference between Kent and Superman is what makes the comic book fun. Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy's Remo Williams is another character who isn't what he appears to be. An average looking guy with thick wrists, what bad guy would ever guess that he's a martial arts master? The fun of the "Destroyer" series of novels is waiting for some big brawny guy to pick a fight with Remo... then get his butt kicked. Contrast between a character's appearance and his abilities can create unexpected scenes and events in your story that are character related. Not tacked on from the outside, but grown from the character themselves.

Great movies are about people... people with serious problems. The more emotional the problems, the deeper the character... and the more emotionally involving the story. IN BRUGES works as a buddy comedy, a violent crime movie... and a deep character study.

What are the factors battling it out inside your character? What are the positive aspects of your character and the negative aspects? How have you made that visual? How do situation and environment help expose your character's inner struggles?

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