MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
CONFLICT REQUIRES CHARACTER
Before the new OUIJA prequel I saw a couple of days ago there was a trailer for the latest
RESIDENT EVIL movie - I have no idea what number they are up to now - and it's great that Milla has a job
where she can kick ass... but are these movies anything more than time-killers? Are they just an excuse for action scenes,
or is there a story involved?
Conflict requires character. You want your action scenes to have juice, excitement,
sparks. Big drama, big emotions... move that audience gear as much as you can. When
you are writing an action scene, remember to make it emotional as well as physical...
we're exploring character through actions. We want the action scenes to be ABOUT
character - to demonstrate character through actions and reactions to events. Without
character we just have mechanical scenes that we can't care about.
The first RESIDENT EVIL film was about an accident in an underground lab owned by the top
secret Umbrella Corporation that turns all of the middle management folks and
scientists into flesh eating zombies (stolen from a George Romero movie). A team of
commandos which includes assassin-with-amnesia Milla Jovovich (stolen from LONG
KISS GOODNIGHT) and kick-ass Hispanic babe Michelle Rodriguez (stolen from
ALIENS) have to bypass an insane computer named The Red Queen (stolen from 2001
- A SPACE ODYSSEY) to... Well, it's not really clear what they are trying to do. Since
the computer has shut down the facility due to contamination, you'd think that "breaking
the seal" and going inside would be the exact wrong thing to do - but this script never
really tries to make sense.
It also doesn't try to make characters. The film was wall-to-wall zombie attacks...
and that's the problem. We never got to know any of the commandos - and three of the
guys looked enough alike that you couldn't physically tell them apart in uniform. There's
a scene where a guy we though was zombie-lunch pops up alive... but we aren't sure
WHICH guy it is (even though they call him by name).
None of the characters have any personalities, none of them are given any
CHARACTER, and none of them are given any CHARACTERIZATION.
This might not have been so bad if they were all cast with actors we knew, but
they're all unknowns... so we don't even have the "actor's known personality" to fall
back on. The two exceptions are Michelle Rodriguez, who brings so much tough-babe
attitude to her role that we almost forget Vasquez in ALIENS; and Milla Jovovich who
wears an evening gown and fires a gun, so we mentally give her Charlie Baltimore's
character from LONG KISS. Rodriguez and Jovovich flesh out non-characters with their
personalities, but neither have any actual character in the STORY - they just run from
When characters are captured and eaten... we don't care. We don't even know their
names, why should we care if they get chomped?
I kept comparing it to ALIENS, where I DID know the character's names. Hudson
("Game over!"), Bishop ("I prefer the term synthetic person"), Hicks (who gives Ripley a
gun - he's the romantic interest), Sgt. Apone (the tough Black guy), Lt. Gorman (who
has done hundreds of drops - simulated), Vasquez (the tough chick), Drake (Vasquez's
pal), Wierzbowski (interested alien sex - doesn't like the ship's food), Spunkmeyer, the
evil Burke (my favorite Paul Riser role), heck - I'll bet I named all of them! Who did I
The reason why I remembered their names is because I remembered their
characters. "Hey Vasquez, you ever been mistaken for a man?" "No. Have you?" Then
she slaps Drake's hand - she and Drake are buddies, and the movie establishes their
bond... and establishes that Vasquez thinks Lt. Gorman is a fake... they all do, but she
really digs into him. Once it's established that Vasquez thinks Gorman is a pussy - once
we know there's a conflict between the two - the script just has to put them in the same
room and we have a dramatic situation. If Gorman orders her to do something and she
says "Yes, sir" there's attitude and drama in the exchange because it has been
previously established that Vasquez thinks Gorman doesn't know what he's doing. By
the end of the movie, Vasquez and Gorman are trapped together in a tunnel with aliens
about to attack and they sacrifice themselves so they others can get away... but they do
it TOGETHER as a TEAM as two people who have grown to respect each other.
ALIENS is a script with a dozen people in uniform, all being chased by aliens, and
we get to know each of them... get to care about them, and get to see their character
arcs. RESIDENT EVIL has LESS characters, but I didn't know their names, and when
they got munched I didn't care at all.
ALIENS makes the action situations dramatic by creating conflicts and friendships
between characters FIRST, then letting those play out in the action scenes. If two
characters who dislike each other have to work together to survive, that's DRAMA within
the action scene. If two people who are pals are in a situation where only one can
survive, that's DRAMA in an action scene.
RESIDENT EVIL had all of the action scenes and none of the drama. The scenes
were bland because we didn't know any of the people involved. None of them had any
identifying character traits, none of them had any relationships with each other, they
were all just faceless soldiers about to be eaten by zombies. Who cares?
The lesson here: Movies are about DRAMATIC situations. Without the dramatic
part, it's just stuff happening to people we don't know. So create relationships between
characters, then have the story test those relationships. Create conflicts between
characters, then have the story make characters with conflicts work together. Make
sure these things are established EARLY so that every scene with your characters has
MORE THAN A LABEL
A character is more than just a label like "Tough" - a good character is what's underneath whatever label others may apply. It isn't that Vasquez is tough that makes her a great character in ALIENS, it's that she's secretly vulnerable. It's what the toughness is hiding. Like a turtle... or even an alien... the surface of the character is the armor that protects what is underneath, and our job as writers is to know what is underneath and expose that to the audience. To use the story to break away the shell.
And the problem with "Tough" as the label for a soldier engaged in practically non-stop battle even if it is a woman like Michelle Rodriguez is that it is *expected* that a soldier be tough and the battles don't provide contrast. A "tough soldier" would be great if that soldier were suddenly surrounded by babies in a maternity ward (like the tough cop played by Chow Yun Fat in HARD BOILED). Tough on tough is as invisible as black on black. For the *character* of the character to show we need to place them in a situation that is at odds with who they are. "Tough" works if it's just a mask the character is wearing to hide who they really are, and the battles strip away the mask to expose what is underneath - which is not tough. That's one of the reasons why Vasquez is such a memorable character - she wears her toughness as armor to protect her true self, and that true self is eventually exposed by the events. Yes, she's still got that armor - she's still a tough broad - but the vulnerable part underneath makes her real. Makes us care about her.
"Tough" and other short hand character labels are easy for a writer to type, more difficult for an actor to play for 2 hours. It becomes one note, with nowhere to go. We want to peel back the layers, to show different aspects of the character as the story progresses. But even some labels are just impossible for an actor to play - yet very easy for us to type. For most of those babies that tough cop Chow Yun Fat has to deal with in HARD BOILED, there is a new father... so let's say one of our tough zombie (or alien) killing soldiers is a "New Father" - that is the label they have to play. The good thing about that label is that it contrasts with killing zombies (or aliens). The bad thing? Well, how do we ever know this guy is a new father? Does he tell baby stories while blasting away at zombies? That will seem pasted on - inorganic to the situation. It's easy to type "New Father" and for the writer to see that as a character, but it can not be played. It stays on the page. Our job is to get our words off the page and onto the screen. Does a "New Father" shoot zombies in a different way than an "Eager Soldier"? You can slap a label on any character, but it doesn't necessarily bring any characterization. This is why labels are a bad idea. You want fully formed characters - dimensional characters - even if they are not the leads. Sure, a great actor might take "Eager Soldier" and find some way to make that work on screen, but creating the characters isn't the job of the actors, it is *our* job.
CRACK THE SHELL
We want to create scenes that break open the shell that the character has built around them to expose whatever is inside. Though we are talking about RESIDENT EVIL and ALIENS, where characters shells may be some different form of toughness (Lt. Gorman begins as official and by the book - which is a form of toughness seen as weakness by the other soldiers), a character's shell can be anything. We all wear masks to hide our true selves. Your character's shell may be that they are kind and forgiving, when underneath that they are mad as hell and long for revenge. Though the shell may be hard to crack, that doesn't mean that the character has to be hard. *Softness* may be your character's shell. It can be anything! But whatever the shell is, the situations in the story must actively be breaking away at that shell. You want to create the drama and conflict that force the character to do the opposite of whatever is comfortable for them.
If you find an organic way to establish that your zombie killing soldier is a "New Father", you want *him* to be the one who breaks into that maternity ward filled with ZomBabies and have to bring himself to kill them. That's dramatic. Having a New Father kill a bunch of babies will naturally bring out character because it is the opposite of what he is comfortable with... he's going to hate every second of this experience. But to make this character even more uncomfortable, we want to build up that external shell - make "New Father" into the softness underneath and ramp up his hatred of zombies or belief that they are not human or whatever else makes that moment where he must kill ZomBabies even more of a dramatic moment. The problem, here, is that this character is still based on this odd, arbitrary label - so pulling this off without the scene feeling contrived isn't going to be easy. Better if you begin with a real 3D character instead of a label. A big problem with the label thing is that it's only a thin layer of shell to break through - you want several layers that allow you scenes throughout the script that chip away at that shell - not one scene with ZomBabies.
LAYERS OF CHARACTER
Instead of one scene, you want different stages for your character - with different scenes cracking away a little more shell and exposing a little more of the character underneath the shell. And as each bit of the shell is removed, the character is slightly different. We can see a progression of character after each challenging scene. That is more realistic. Each conflict exposes more character, and makes us understand and care about the character more as a result. The conflicts are a way for the audience to learn about the characters plus a situation for the audience to worry about the character as they struggle with that conflict. Will they survive? We need to *care* about the characters... and for that, they need to be more than just a label.
It wasn't until the sequels, focusing on Jovovich's character battling zombies, that we actually got some character and drama... and the series became more fun. Maybe this new one will be great!
Your Screenplay Checklist
1) Set up your characters.
2) Make sure the character isn't just surface - they have layers (often with a hard protective shell).
3) Put them in a conflict situation.
4) Make sure the action is designed to BRING OUT THE CHARACTER or to BRING OUT THE CONFLICT BETWEEN CHARACTERS.
5) Crack their shell... expose their vulnerable interior!
6) Don't avoid the drama - let it rip! You can't help but have drama.
Remember that action without drama is boring... and movies where the
characterization is so shallow that we don't even remember the character's names is
not going to involve us as audience members. Even a stupid video game movie needs characters - in fact, maybe it needs
characters more than some other movie because when we play the video game WE are
the lead character (and we know who we are). Let's see if the new film (in 3D) uses the conflict to create drama and characters who are 3D.
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