WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

I HAVE NO MOUTH (AND I MUST SCREAM)*


Screenwriting is communication, but what happens if you have a character who can't communicate? What if you're doing the Helen Keller story? What if your protagonist wakes up one morning as a giant cockroach? What if your script is a sequel to JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN? How do you tell your story?

The first thing I'd consider: is this really a movie story? Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and discovers he's a giant cockroach, and is forced to deal with the world as a giant insect. That story works well as a short novel because we can get inside Gregor's head, but on screen we can't see what he's thinking. Unless you can find a way to show his thoughts through actions and decisions, maybe you'd be better off telling your story in a medium that allows interior monologue? Match the story to the medium.

BE A BUG!

But let's say your protagonist wakes up one morning as a giant cockroach, how can he communicate with the other characters? In that movie where Chevy Chase turned into Benji (OH HEAVENLY DOG), they used voice over after the transformation. The "rules" of voice over still stand - you need to tell your story WITHOUT the voice over, and use the VO to add an additional layer to your story. In OH HEAVENLY DOG, Benji's actions tell most of the story - he's sniffing around, trying to uncover a murderer. Benji DID things that told the story... and Chevy Chase's VO was mostly smart-alec remarks.

Though I don't remember if they used VO in the similar movie FLUKE, where Matthew Modine is killed and reincarnated as a dog... who travels cross-country to be with his family again. I do remember the way the film used actions to tell the story and make the dog seem absolutely human. The dog collects things that remind him of his family and when he becomes his family's pet he does many of the actions he did as a human - tucks in his kids, etc. When the dog does human activities, it's easy to see that it's really Matthew Modine under all of that fur. His actions serve to show us what he's feeling.

If you can find some way to have your transformed character do specific things that you've set up earlier the audience will know that big cockroach is really Greg... and your supporting characters may be able to figure it out, too. In ROBOCOP Peter Weller does a quick-draw gun-spin thing for his son. He explains to his partner (Nancy Allen) that the cop on his son's favorite TV show does the gun-spin thing, so he had to learn it in order to be a "real cop" to his son. Later in the movie when Nancy Allen is partnered with Robocop, he does the gun-spin thing and she knows it's Weller under all of that metal. It's a great moment where she realizes that the robot partner she doesn't like is really the human partner, Murphy, she did like. There are also some great scenes where Robocop remembers his past and tries to go back to his wife and son - only to find that everything has changed. That idea was lifted from the movie SECONDS where a middle aged man gets plastic surgery and becomes a young man again... the realizes how much he liked his old life. By watching films with similar situations, you can get some ideas on how to handle your human-to-cockroach transformation story.

JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN 2 - THE REVENGE!

If your protagonist goes into a coma... you're probably in trouble. Here you have a situation where the character can't communicate with us through dialogue OR actions. The guy's just a lump. You have the ultimate passive protagonist... so maybe the wrong character is your protagonist? One of the smart moves Charles Pogue made in his script for THE FLY was to make it a love story with TWO protagonists - so when Brundle turned to Brundle-fly we could ease over to Geena Davis' point of view. If you don't have a love story, maybe you end up using a buddy character as the audience's doorway into the story... wasn't DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE told from the good doctor's friend's point of view? Basically, you need a protagonist who can do things, so maybe you need to pick a mobile communicative character to be your protagonist?

There was an episode of SHEENA that I really liked where she changed into the Drachna (this Hulk-like monster) and couldn't un-change. It was a cool idea - the super hero trapped in their powers - unable to change back to their secret identity. That episode was told from the two supporting character's POV - they were trying everything they could think of to change her back to herself. She was a monster... but we cared about her because THEY cared about her. Sort of second person empathy. One of the reasons we care about Jim Carrey in LIAR LIAR is because of his son - the kid loves his father, so we want Carrey to get his life together for the sake of the kid.

The other possibility with coma-guy is that his actions don't take place in the physical world. In THE CELL we have Vincent D'Onofrio in a coma... so we go INSIDE his mind where he can still talk and move around. Dalton Trumbo's JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN does something similar, dramatizing the memories of the coma-guy. He may be laying there in the hospital, but in his mind he's replaying the past - and we see the replay.

If your character has transformed into a monster like Larry Talbot or Brundle from THE FLY you may use the FLUKE and ROBOCOP method of using actions or physical objects from the past to trigger the audience's memory of what a nice guy they were before they grew all of that hair and started eating people. Also, show the STRUGGLE between the good side and bad side in every scene where they do bad things. Make the audience root for the good side to take control... because that involves us in the character's struggle. This is done by dramatizing the struggle through choices. Show the audience the good choice and bad choice, show the character struggling to make a decision - going back and forth between the two - then seemingly deciding to do the right thing before the monster inside forces them to do the wrong thing.

No matter what method you use, you must find a way to open up your closed character - to create a way for them to communicate with the audience. To give us access to what is going on inside their mind, to find a way to dramatize whatever struggle they are going through. Film IS communication - and if you MUST be able to figure out how to get information to the audience... even if your character has no mouth.

* This is the title of a swell Harlan Ellison short story.

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Screenwriting books have been around as long as films have. This series reprints vintage screenwriting books with a new introduction and history, plus new articles which look at how these lessons from almost 100 years ago apply to today’s screenplays. Anita Loos book is filled with information which still applies. In addition to the full text of the original book, you get the full screenplay to Miss Loos' hit THE LOVE EXPERT, plus several new articles on the time period and women in Hollywood.

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Expanded version with more ways to create interesting protagonists! A step-by-step guide to creating "take charge" protagonists. Screenplays are about characters in conflict... characters in emotional turmoil... Strong three dimensional protagonists who can find solutions to their problems in 110 pages. But how do you create characters like this? How do you turn words into flesh and blood? Character issues, Knowing Who Is The Boss, Tapping into YOUR fears, The Naked Character, Pulp Friction, Man With A Plan, Character Arcs, Avoiding Cliche People, Deep Characterization, Problem Protagonists, 12 Ways To Create Likable Protagonists (even if they are criminals), Active vs. Reactive, The Third Dimension In Character, Relationships, Ensemble Scripts, and much, much more. Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is once again around 205 pages!

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