MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

JOB DESCRIPTIONS


Whenever I'm at a party and I meet someone new, the first question they always ask me is "What do you do for a living?" I usually tell them I'm an insurance salesman, because if I say I'm a screenwriter they inevitably have a "great idea" for a movie script... and none of these ideas are never really any good. My friend John, who directs live theater, always tells people he designs custom septic tanks to fit your unique personality... and even made up business cards on his computer to confirm this unusual occupation. We are defined by our jobs in American society. A stockbroker conjures up a much differnt image than a sanitation engineer (garbage man). We are all partially defined by our jobs and past jobs. I often think of myself as a warehouse guy turned screenwriter.

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Your CHARACTERS will also be partially defined by their jobs, so what they do for a living will be very important to your story. That doesn't mean every character in your script needs to have a GLAMOROUS job - but they should have a job that is part of the story rather than some arbitrary decison. In REAR WINDOW Jimmy Stewart is a photojouranalist - a photographer who ends up using a telephoto lens to spy on the people who live in the building across the courtyard. Eventually he crosses the line - becomes involved in the story rather than an impartial photojournalist... and the conflict escalates. His job is a critical part of that story.

But if you decide not to give your protagonist a glamourous job, remember that the audience goes to the movies to escape their boring lives, so they usually like to watch movies about people with interesting jobs. Those interesting jobs also put them in interesting situations - a story about a spy will probably be more exciting than a story about a dentist who specializes in fitting people for dentures...

Unless that dentist has fit a serial killer's dentures - and is now the only one who knows the killer's identity. The serial killer comes after him, and he must stay alive long enough to connect with an FBI Agent who is investigating the killings. Now you have an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. His boring job is at odds with the exciting story he is thrust into...

But notice how he ended up in trouble in the first place - his job!

CHANGE THE JOB - CHANGE THE STORY!

A character's job is integral to the story. Change their job and you will change the story. If we have a story about a plane load of people who crash in the desert and are forced to survive, their job skills will figure into what survival method they choose to use.

In another Jimmy Stewart movie, FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, the key to their survival is the jobs of the people in the plane wreck - we have the pilot & co-pilot, some soldiers, some mechanics, some oil workers, and... a guy who designs flying model airplanes. So each uses THEIR SKILLS to solve the problem. The skills they have from their jobs. The key to survival ends up being that guy who designs flying model airplanes - he figures out a way to salvage parts of the crashed plane and build a new plane with them. The mechanics and oil workers provide labor... if they had crashed with fashion models and Martha Stewart they'd be dead (but probably look stylish).

WIN WIN - JOB JOB

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Tom McCarthy's great film WIN WIN is about a completely not-glamorous small town lawyer (Paul Giamatti) who is also coach of the high school wrestling team - and is a loser in both. The story not only focuses on his two jobs, the story *grows from* his two jobs. He is in financial trouble but doesn't want to tell his wife (a great Amy Ryan) and two cute-but-real daughters. Small town lawyers don't get much business, and he seems to specialize (by choice or accident) in issues of the elderly. The copy machine in his office is broken, the boiler in the basement needs a thousand dollars worth of work and could explode at any minute (so his case files get wrapped in plastic tarps just in case). He complains to his wrestling buddy from high school (Bobby Cannavale) that the other lawyer in town does nothing but chase money... and Cannavale replies that is why he has so much of it. Giamatti doesn't chase money, and is broke. Cannavale suggests he take a bartender job in a friend's bar. Giamatti doesn't want to do that, he's a lawyer not a bartender. He is his job.

So when a chance to do something slightly wrong to get an extra bit of money every month presents itself - Giamatti reluctantly takes it. He isn't robbing a bank or anything, he just becomes the legal guardian for an elderly client (Burt Young) who has dementia... and collects $1,500 a month. If someone isn't the old guy's legal guardian, the state will be forced to put him in an old folks home, so Giamatti is doing the right thing... for $1,500 a month. The old guy's *daughter* should be the legal guardian (and get the $1,500 a month) but she's a drug addict and can not be found. What he's *supposed* to do as legal guardian is make sure Young is taken care of in his own home - hiring in home nurses and taking care of the old guy's finances and basically being responsible for his life. But that's a lot of work, so Giamatti puts the old guy in the same nursing home the state was going to put him in. He would not have this opportunity to make an extra $1,500 for doing nothing if he were not the old guy's lawyer.

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But complications arise - the old guy's teen grandson (Alex Shaffer) shows up - a runaway from that drug addict mother - and wants to crash with gramps. Only gramps is in an old folks home. So Giamatti has to take in the troubled kid... and that creates all kinds of complications. The problem is, he can't go through the courts to send the kid back because that might expose his little scheme with gramps. To complicate everything, his wife does not want this troubled teen in their house, and he must talk her into it. Just temporary... until they can locate his mom. But they can't go to the police to locate the mother or any of the normal channels. He has to make sure his *job* and his home life don't bump into each other or they'll discover gramps is in the old folks home and he'll lose his $1,500 a month... and maybe his licence to practice law.

Now, this may sound like Giamatti is an unsympathetic character, but that's not the case. He *does* visit Young at the old folks home and treats him as he would a family member. Young has personal items he wants from his house, and Giamatti brings them. He like CoCoa Puffs for breakfast but the old folks home doesn't serve them, so Giamatti makes sure he gets his CoCoa Puffs. And the old folks home is a nice place - Young has his own apartment and is well taken care of... he just wants to live in his own home, the home he's lived his whole life in. Will the grandson find out that it was Giamatti who put gramps in the old folks home rather than the state?

But the bigger complication: the kid was a wrestling champ in the high school he ran away from, and Giamatti could use a good wrestler on his perpetually losing team. So he convinces his wife and family to continue taking care of the kid during wrestling season... which creates even more problems... but also gives us some great high school sports scenes and brings the second part of his life into the story. The story is all about Giamatti being a lawyer *and* a high school wrestling coach. Though it seems like it should feel contrived - what are the odds of the grandson being a wrestler? - it's handled well in the film and comes off very natural. Part of that is because the kid being a wrestler is a blessing *and* a curse - it creates so much additional conflict to basically kidnap the kid and convince his wife to feed and house him, that the audience *doesn't want* Giamatti to put him on the wrestling team. And the more time the kid spends with gramps, the more he wonders why he has to live in this old folks home when he has a perfectly good house sitting vacant in town. We realize it's more greed on Giamatti's part - and now he is taking advantage of both the grandfather and grandson.

The troubled kid gets his life back on track through wrestling and a good home life, and the lawyer gets his life back on track... except he's kind of kidnapped the grandson and is kind of stealing from the grandfather and eventually all of this is going to come out and he knows it. Which builds suspense and creates all kinds of loose end conflicts that Giamatti constantly has to deal with. He's constantly having to put out some fire somewhere to keep from getting disbarred and maybe arrested.

And that is the set up for the film - we get a wrestling sports story and all kinds of conflict from bending the law thanks to his day job as a lawyer. The story comes from his job, and his job comes from the story - the two are connected. If he was still a wrestling coach but *not* a lawyer, the story wouldn't work. Bending the law and putting gramps in the old folks home and pocketing the $1,500 a month is what makes everything else that happens possible. If gramps wasn't in the old folks home, his grandson could just crash at his house and would never become part of Giamatti's family or wrestling team.

JOB SKILLS - PLOT POINTS

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But your protagonist's occupation may influence aspects of your script that you've never thought of. In Ernest Lehman's NORTH BY NORTHWEST Cary Grant plays an advertizing executive who doesn't believe in lies. "In the world of advertizing there's no such thing as a lie, there's only the expedient exaggeration", he tells his secretary. Three and a half minutes into the film he is mistaken for a spy and can't get anyone to believe he's just an a Madison Avenue pitch writer. His glib manner and natural lying abilities, assets in his occupation as an ad man, become liabilities in the story.

Lehman takes a list of things involved in the advertizing occupation and uses them to tell the story. Those three martini lunches? Cary Grant is held down, forced to drink a bottle of liquor, then tossed behind the wheel of a speeding car. The character's occupation becomes part of the story, and even part of the theme: The liar who no one will believe on a quest for the truth. Everyone in NORTH BY NORTHWEST lies, no one is who they seem to be. Each character in this film is a different aspect of Grant's central problem of untruthfulness... like the characters in REAR WINDOW.

Your Screenplay Checklist:

* What is your protagonist's job?
* How does that job fit the story? Grow from the story?
* How does the protag's job create complications in the story?
* What are the tools or skills that are part of that job?
* How do those skills or tools come into play in the story?
* Does your protagonist's job enhance the story?

The character's job fits the story. It's not an arbitrary choice. Is your character's occupation a meaningful part of the story?



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