WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

DRAMATIC DECISIONS


Whether your script is a drama, a comedy, or a thriller there's always a decision that must be made in order to solve the external (plot) problem. If your protagonist doesn't have to make a decision that alters the course of the story, your protagonist isn't INVOLVED in the story. He's just along for the ride. Oddly enough, this is often a problem with character oriented screenplays - the character doesn't have a major decision to make in the course of the story... and that makes them unimportant! You could substitute ANY character into the story with the same exact outcome. The decision your protagonist makes is the most important part of your screenplay - it reveals the theme. The meaning of your script.

One of the big problems I often see in screenplays are "instant decisions" - a major decision that will forever change the character that is given absolutely no thought, no discussion, no importance. And that means no drama. After the decision has been made there are no ramifications or repercussions - as if no decision were made. Again, this robs the script of drama... not to mention credibility. In real life the big decisions in our lives are those moments that forever change us. Those moments that haunt us.

The higher the emotional stakes in the decision, the better the story... and the deeper you can explore the protagonist. The more difficult the decision, the more dramatic the scene.. Instead of a typical black hat/white hat Hollywood movie scenario, you want to create decisions with real moral issues. Decision where both choices are wrong and the protagonist must decide which is the lesser of two evils. This becomes a major decision, a life altering event that's loaded with drama. The audience has to think. They have to deal with big questions, rather than just sit back and be entertained. And the protagonist will probably regret his decision for the rest of his life. You want to bring the conflict to a head, forcing your character to make a tough decision and deal with gut wrenching emotions.

GONE BABY GONE will make you believe an Affleck can act (Casey, not Ben). The screenplay, co-written by Ben (who also directed) and Aaron Stockard from a great novel by Dennis Lehane (MYSTIC RIVER) is about private eye Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) who shares a license with his girlfriend Angela Gennaro. They specialize in missing persons - "skip tracing" people who have run away from creditors or spouses or other responsibilities. The Lehane novel is one in a series that has taken private eye fiction to a new level - the stories are *very* character oriented.

CAUTION: SPOILERS

A little girl named Amanda has been kidnaped from her working class Boston duplex while her alcoholic mother was at a friend's watching TV. She's four years old and impossibly cute. The media jumps in, turning her into a major news story. But after three days, the police have few leads. Amanda's Aunt Bea (Amy Madigan) who lives in the other half of the duplex with her husband (the always great Titus Welliver) approach Kenzie and Gennaro to "augment the police investigation". Kenzie grew up in this neighborhood and knows everyone - people are more likely to talk to him than the police.

Gennaro begs him not to take the case. She doesn't want to be the one who finds the kid's body in a dumpster somewhere... and after three days, odds are the kid is dead. No ransom note. No word from the kidnapers. Mom's a drunk, isn't exactly the kind of person who can afford to pay ransom. That means the kid was taken for some other reason. Even if she's still alive, well, Gennaro doesn't want to be the one who finds her.

Big decision. Dramatic decision. Do you want to be the one who finds a dead 4 year old? Or would you rather tell the mother you aren't going to help find her child?

This is a great dilemma - and that's what any good dramatic decision will be - no right answer, only wrong ones.

Kenzie tells Gennaro he's got to at least go see the mother, he went to high school with her, he knows her. This makes the decision more difficult - he's going to make it face to face with the mother. Not in his office - his safe territory. Not telling the Aunt that he's not going to find the girl - that would be kind of second hand. Not on the phone or any other "conflict condom" that puts a barrier between the people involved. Kenzie and Gennaro go to the mother's duplex, where she's in seclusion, and tell her to her face that they are not going to help look for her kidnaped 4 year old child. How can anyone do that?

Gennaro breaks, and tells the mother (Amy Ryan - Oscar level performance) that they will help find her daughter. But when she says it - she instantly regrets it. She wants to help, but knows this is a story without a happy ending... and now she's part of it.

To add to the regret, the mother's side of the duplex is a hell hole. Dirty dishes and garbage all over the place. Mom's with her loud, foul mouthed best friend - both are drinking even though it's probably before 9am. Do you really want to work for this drunk Springer-guest of a mom? But they've committed - too late to turn back.

Morgan Freeman plays the head of Boston's special Child Abduction division of the Police Department, and tells Kenzie and Gennaro that the child is probably dead at this point. Freeman's character is a driven man - his own child was abducted and murdered many years ago. Kenzie wants police cooperation, Freeman doesn't want to give it to him. There's a nice scene where Kenzie forces him to make the decision that allows them access to the police files on the investigation - and the two detectives working the case...

Detective Bressant (Ed Harris) and Poole (John Ashton) are just going through the motions. They know the kid's dead, everybody does. Their only lead - a pedophile and his two junky friends have a very tenuous connection to the case. They are looking for the trio to question them. But not looking too hard.

DOWNWARD SPIRALS

Kenzie gets snagged by the drunk mother, who begs him to find her daughter and bring her home. She wants Kenzie to say it. He knows the kid is probably dead, and just says he'll try... but she won't settle for that. She pushes him, crying, until he promises to bring her child home. This is a great dramatic scene, and it forces Kenzie to commit to his the decision he now regrets making. But what else can he do?

Kenzie has used his neighborhood connections to uncover that the mother wasn't at her friend's watching TV, she was at a local bar getting hammered and doing drugs with her sleazy boyfriend. How irresponsible can you get? Kenzie regrets getting involved. Regrets his decision to help find the probably dead daughter.

Next he uncovers that the mother and her boyfriend were drug couriers for a local drug kingpin.... and they ripped him off for $130,000. Yikes! The girl was probably kidnaped by the drug kingpin to get his money back. This makes the mother *responsible* for the kidnaping of her own daughter. Kenzie's regrets grow... but maybe the kid is still alive?

When Kenzie tells the mother what he knows... she shows no regret at all. Sure they ripped off the drug lord for $130,000... but, you know, he never figured out they took the money, so they're safe. What's great about this story is that once Kenzie attaches himself to the case, it begins this downward spiral where one thing after another makes him wish he has never gotten involved, That he had never made the initial decision.

DECISION AFTER DECISION

Kenzie decides to take this information to the two Detectives, even though he doesn't trust them. They go with the mother to find the money... and now the big decision is - trade the money for the little girl? It's illegal as hell. It's giving money to a drug lord. It requires trusting the two detectives not to run away with the $130k. It requires trusting the drug lord to give them the girl. This is making a deal with a whole bunch of devils... and Kenzie has to make a big dramatic decision.

And bad things happen.

One of Kenzie's neighborhood connections - a drug dealer - grabs him off the street and drives him to this really cruddy part of town (even cruddier than Kenzie's neighborhood), where the pedophile's two drug addict friends are hanging out. The drug dealer asks if Kenzie wants to go in with him, while he delivers some drugs, and maybe search the house for the pedophile and the kid? This is not a legal search. This is basically *helping* this drug dealer make his delivery. Not an easy decision... and the drug dealer wants Kenzie to carry his gun and be his backup if the drug deal goes south. Which side of the law is Kenzie on? There's a great line in the film where Kenzie says that half of his friends are criminals... and the other half are cops. That sums up the character - he's half cop half crook - and each side tugs at him throughout the story. Kenzie grabs the gun and becomes the drug dealer's back up in order to search the house.

The Pedophile is hidden in the apartment along with... well, maybe a kid. The missing little girl or some other kid? Kenzie can't be sure. A few decisions later, Kenzie is alone in the room with the pedophile who has done an unspeakable act. Kenzie can call the police... but he has a gun in his hand. This is a huge messy moral decision. In most movies, characters just do something... in GONE BABY GONE characters make very difficult decisions... then act... then regret the act for the rest of the movie. Kenzie agonizes over what to do... then puts the gun to the back of the pedophile's head and kills him in cold blood... then regrets his action.

REPURCUSSIONS AND REGRET

A great, meaty conversation between Kenzie and Detective Bressant about morality. Kenzie was raised Catholic, and the priest says killing is never justified. Bressant says sometimes you do bad things for the right reason, and that's okay. Bressant then talks about something from his past - the time he planted evidence on a suspect. He thinks it was justified... but all of these years later it still haunts him. He still worries that he made the wrong decision - and that's why he's so adamant that he made the right one. This is a great scene, because it's all about being stuck with whatever decision you make... and living with the guilt and regret. You try to do the right thing - you weigh one awful possibility against the other - you do what seems best... and it never works out.

A good dramatic decision gives you three big meaty scenes: weighing the decision, the decision itself, then living with the result of the decision. Don't rush through the decisions, use them as big dramatic scenes. Milk them for character moments. Allow the audience to think about the decisions - what would they do? GONE BABY GONE gives all of its characters one tough decision after another. It's a very subdued film, but filled with big decisions that haunt characters for the rest of their lives. The characters, locations, and situations show us an authentic part of Boston we haven't really seen on film before. Ben Affleck shows that he can direct a movie, and that his Oscar for co-writing GOOD WILL HUNTING wasn't a fluke.

EVERY character in this film has to make a huge life altering decision... then deal with the regrets from that decision.

The movie ends with a really tough decision - both answers are wrong. Kenzie picks the one he thinks is less wrong... but is it? You know he's going to spend the rest of his life wishing he'd picked the other possibility. That this is the event that screws him up forever - he will always regret this decision. Always. How often do you give your character that big decision? How often do you give them scene after scene where they must wrestle with their decisions? Deal with the aftermath of their decisions? How do those decisions change the story... and the character? A tough decision is a great way to create big dramatic moments.

Note: Some story elements have been disguised to prevent spoilers.



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