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CHARACTER CONNECTIONS


Remember when Matthew McConaughey was a punchline? For being a weed-smoking surfer who plays the bongos naked, McConaughey has been making some interesting career choices lately. He could easily just kick back and be a pretty boy lead in rom-coms and the occasional thriller like LINCOLN LAWYER, but instead he shows up in gonzo indie films like KILLER JOE plus brilliant work in MUD and DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and the TV series TRUE DETECTIVE. He seems to realize that he won't be a pretty boy forever, and if he wants to be an actor in his old age he's better get in some actual acting... and has been making up for lost time with some excellent acting in some diverse films. Suddenly, he's an Oscar and Emmy favorite!

MUD is kind of a coming of age story about a pair of boys in that awkward age between doing kid stuff and focusing on girls (adult stuff). Both are high school freshmen, and both are runts. Unpopular. Poor. Living in an interesting world. MUD is one of those films like WINTER'S BONE that takes us into a world we've never seen on screen before and makes it so real we feel like we have been on an adventure vacation for two hours. The story owes a lot to HUCK FINN, and takes place in Arkansas in a community of ramshackle houseboats on an offshoot of the Mississippi River. The story is about adventures on that river and you wonder when our two young leads will run into the Duke Of Bridgewater and the Lost Dauphin from Huck Finn's adventures... instead they run into Mud, who is probably related to those two scoundrels. Though Mud is a wanted criminal, and his story is what drives the film's plot; he is not what this story is about. There is something greater in this film which brings together all of the story's characters and subplots. What is it? What is the *unity* of this story? What connects these characters so that each of the subplots are adding up to one main plot?

Let's look at the pieces and see how they fit together...

The story starts out with our protagonist Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) talking about girls. Ellis has a crush on Mae Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) and Neckbone says he has to *do something*, go talk to her or something. This is a great clue to what the story is really about and what connects the characters... it's not the criminal on the lam, it's male/female relationships and inevitable broken hearts. And danged if one of the very next props which figures prominently in a scene is a book titled "Communicating With Women"! Hey, that's going to be the element which connects our characters and subplots and brings all of the pieces together to make this a single story.

Neckbone's Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) is introduced when the woman he has just slept with walks out on him, angry... passing Ellis and Neckbone who are sitting on the front steps. They witness a big post sex break up argument between them.

When Ellis gets home to his ramshackle houseboat, his father (Ray McKinnon) and mother (Sarah Paulson) have been fighting and their marriage is on the rocks. Ellis must navigate the mine field between his father who believes in traditional male/female relationships and his mother who is looking for something more... a life of her own that isn't defined as only a wife.

Ellis and Neckbone play hooky from life by taking a boat out past the mouth of their little river into the mighty Mississippi... and the little uninhabited island nearby. They only have so much time for their adventure, then must get home (or Ellis will be in big trouble). On the island is a boat way up in a tree, sent there during a hurricane. It's a magical thing, like a treefort made by nature. The boys climb up into the boat and poke around... cool! But then they find the remnants of recent meals... someone is living here. That someone is Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who is a mystery man, hiding out, waiting for his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who has birds tattooed on her hands. Hey, see how these pieces are connected to our difficulties in male/female relationships story thread? Heck, we might even argue that the boat in the tree is the result of a spat between mother nature and man.

Outside the local burger joint the boys are hanging out when Ellis sees a High School football jock named Tyler putting his hands all over May Pearl, and she keeps pushing him away and telling him to stop. So Ellis steps in and *punches* the much bigger kid. Ellis doesn't have size, but he has determination... and becomes May Pearl's savior. This is his first love, and even though Tyler is on the ground it is Ellis who has fallen hard. He tells May that he loves her, and she responds that he's only 14. But May Pearl rewards him with an invitation to call her sometime. That's when Neckbone yells that he has spotted Juniper going into the grocery store.

The boys follow Juniper through the store, and eventually to the motel where she is staying. She is beautiful.

When Ellis gets home to the houseboat, his father needs to talk to him... his mother has decided to divorce him. What's interesting here is that the father is not a very sympathetic character, he's very stern and set in his ways and not educated. He is constantly riding Ellis to grow up and leave the things of childhood behind him. He also *works* Ellis, as cheap manual labor. But he's heartbroken over the divorce... and trying to hide all of his emotions. This is a great performance... and a great lesson in character creation. Every character is strength *and* weakness, good *and* bad, right *and* completely wrong. You want to make sure your characters are not just one thing, but complex. The father doesn't have a method to deal with this heartbreak, and lashes out at Ellis... trying to hold on to him, but pushing him away at the same time. He keeps trying to figure out how a man is supposed to manage these emotions, never realizing that trying to manage them is the mistake. He tells Ellis, "You can't trust love."

Ellis and Neckbone go out to the island and tell Mud that they have found Juniper, and Mud tells the boys that she is his one true love. Every time they break up, Mud tracks her down and they get together again. This can be the only woman for Mud... so he gives Ellis a note to give to Juniper. But be careful, because people who want to hurt Mud will be watching her. They have to *sneak* the note to her.

Ellis gets the note to Juniper, who rewards him with a kiss. This is like, heaven! This beautiful, sexy adult woman kisses a 14 year old virgin kid. Ellis continues to be the go between for Mud and Juniper throughout the story.

Ellis works up the nerve to call May Pearl, and they hang out together. She kisses him, and he asks if she will be his girlfriend. She doesn't say no, so Ellis is sure that means "yes", she is his girlfriend. Two kisses from two different girls!

Mud tells the boys he met Juniper not far from here when he was about the same age as Ellis... and fell in love with her. Mud asks Ellis to get a message to his friend Old Tom (Sam Shepard) who lives on one of the ramshackle houseboats, see if Tom will help him. Ellis goes to see Old Tom who gives him some background on the relationship between Mud and Juniper: "The real reason Mud's in the trouble he's got is because of her. He's been in love with that girl since he was your age. They used to run all around here and it was the same back then. He'd follow that girl wherever she led him. Problem is she don't care about nobody but herself. I've told him as much. She'd bed down with the meanest snake she could find, then when things went bad she'd go runnin' to Mud. Mud would take her back, then go find whatever unlucky sonofabitch last put a hand on her and beat ‘em ‘til they knew to never touch her again. And this time I guess he thought a beating wasn't good enough. Had to shoot that fella. I don't know for sure, but I'd put money on Juniper knowin' he'd do it. And I have a suspicion she might of even told him to. Either way, those two are set for failure. Only chance Mud has is to cut her loose. Cause I'll tell you what, Mud's no bad ass. He's runnin' scared." Ellis argues that Juniper is *not* a problem, that what she and Mud have is true love... Even though Ellis' parents are in the middle of a divorce, Ellis still believes in true love. Heck, he's got a girlfriend now!

In his trailer, Uncle Galen tells Ellis and Neckbone about the stuff he finds in the river, pointing out the furniture and decorations around the trailer. He says: "Works great. Best ceiling fan I've ever owned. This river brings a lotta trash down it. Some a that trash is worth a lotta money, some of it's not. You gotta know what's worth keepin' and what's worth lettin' go. You know the difference?" Is that about ceiling fans, or relationships?

Later Galen explains the lyrics to the song Help Me Rhonda (which he was playing on the guitar): "Help Me Rhonda's just about a guy needing to get a piece to get over a girl that put one over on him. So you get your heart broke, don't walk around with a shit look on your face. Get back in there. Get your tip wet. You hear me?"

Later, Ellis sees May Pearl hanging out with some other girls and says hello, and she completely ignores him... she ends up being his first big heartbreak.

And the night they are supposed to get Juniper so that she can be reunited with Mud out on the island, she doesn't show up. When Ellis and Neckbone find her, she's in some bar making out with a stranger. Adding to Mud's eternal heartbreak.

See how all of the characters in this story share that same elements of male/female relationships and inevitable broken hearts? Every character in the story is dealing with some aspect of the same issue, so they *belong* in this story. Each character's journey is part of the larger journey. We see different ways that characters deal with heartbreak and relationship problems. You may look at some subplot and wonder what it is doing in this story of two boys who discover a criminal hiding on a deserted island, but those subplots are all part of the main plot... each is showing us a different aspect of the Mud / Juniper relationship... or the Ellis / May Pearl relationship... or the relationship of Ellis' parents... every character in the story is connected. The dialogue is connected. Even the locations are connected to the theme and story.

TV OR NOT TV

Characters aren't just created at random, they are created for a specific reason - to illustrate some aspect of theme or the central conflict (which are connected). In my Supporting Characters Blue Book I have a chapter on the Rear Window Theory - how each of the characters in REAR WINDOW illustrate a different aspect of the relationship problem that Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly's characters are dealing with. Each supporting character helps to tell the story and explore the theme. This is true with movies like REAR WINDOW and MUD as well as TV shows like 24...

In the very first season of 24 Keifer Sutherland plays a government security expert trying to stop the assassination of America's first Black presidential candidate, Dennis Haysbert. Though Sutherland is the star, the show frequently splits protagonist duties between the two men - giving a great deal of time to Haysbert's campaign and the election. Both men were workaholics who sacrificed family for career - and that's what the series was about. The central conflict is family versus career, and the decisions each man makes uncovers the theme of the series.

In Sutherland's case, his wife and daughter are kidnaped BECAUSE of his career - and his entire ordeal in the series dramatizes his family/career conflict. In Haysbert's case, his family keeps getting in the way of his career - he's running for President and his son has murdered someone and his wife out-Hilary's Hilary Clinton. Haysbert's story on the series dramatizes his family/career conflict. Both stories and both protagonists tell stories with the same central conflict and the same theme - but each story is different. The characters make different choices and the situations are different. Sutherland's wife is pushing for her husband to spend more time at home, Haysbert's wife is pushing for him to spend more time at work. Because Sutherland has spent so much time at work, his marriage is on the rocks and his daughter has fallen in with the wrong crowd... because Haysbert has spent so much time on the campaign trail, he wasn't around when his daughter was raped - and his son took the law into his own hands. Both men deal with career problems and family problems over the course of 24 hours - and the story explores how family and career pull us in different directions, and how we must chose which is most important to us. A great theme for an hour long action show.

Oh, heck... let's look at the antagonist, too - Dennis Hopper's villain Victor Drazen is also dealing with family and career issues. He's consumed by a need for revenge against the people who killed his wife and daughter - Sutherland and Haysbert. He's another character who explores the family/career conflict... who makes VERY different choices than the other two lead characters on the show. All three are brothers under the skin - dealing with the same issues in their lives, just in very different ways. All three are government employees, all three are motivated by their wives and daughters, all three have put their families in peril because of their job, all three have 24 hours to make a critical choice between their family and their career. All three characters were designed to explore the theme and central question of the story. They are connected by the story.

You may not have seen the connections over twenty-four weeks, but when you see all twenty-four episodes of 24 over a twenty-four hour period it's hard to miss that Sutherland and Haysbert and Hopper are all dealing with the same problems - should I put my career or my family first?

There are no random characters in a screenplay - they are all part of the story. It's all part of Aristotle's theory of Unity in drama. Each element of the story is connected, part of the whole. Everything in your screenplay is telling the *same story* whether that is the story of two boys on an adventure or the story of Jack Bauer tracking down bad guys against the clock. All of the parts are connected and working together. No paste on sub plots. No pointless characters.

What is the connection between your characters?



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THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING The Best Nuts & Bolts Screenwriting Book On The Market!

ONLINE CLASSES
Furious Action Class
BILL'S CORNER

My nineteen produced films, interviews with me in magazines, several sample scripts, my available scripts list... And MORE!
...............................BILL'S CORNER


Available Scripts

CLASSES ON CD

Class CDs CLASSES ON CD! Take a class on CD! GUERRILLA MARKETING - NO AGENT? NO PROBLEM! and WRITING THRILLERS (2 CDs). Full length classes on CD. Now Available: IDEAS & CREATIVITY, WRITING HORROR, WRITING INDIE FILMS, more!
Take classes on CD!