WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

REALISTIC REACTIONS


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A while back someone asked a question on a message board and my flip answer was "What Would Paul Schrader Do?" Even though Paul Schrader was one of the writers of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and was raised in a strict Calvinist family, I suspect he would have a different reaction than Jesus to a problem. His reaction would probably involve alienation, sudden violence, and the loss of fingers (I can name three Schrader films off the top of my head where fingers are removed in unpleasant ways). Everyone reacts differently to situations, and it's part of our job as writers to know *how* each character would react and to make sure that they *do* react. As Sir Isaac Newton once said, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If your character doesn't react to a situation, you stop your story's momentum dead in its tracks.

The thing that will kill a script in a heartbeat is having your characters react in some strange way the audience can not identify with, or having them not react at all. I saw a screening of an unnamed horror movie (I know the writer-director) where a group of kids have car trouble in killer country and get picked off one-by-one. Early in the movie they are exploring one of those old dark houses where killers tend to live and one of the guys finds a few suspicious cars parked behind the house... and then finds the killer, who chops his head off. A couple of scenes later, the rest of the group are searching for the missing guy, and his *girlfriend* begins poking around the cars behind the house, opens the trunk of one car... and there is the decapitated body of the man she loves! What does she do? She calmly yells to the others that she has found him.

Now, this is not some scene where the victim's girlfriend goes into shock and is practically catatonic - that's a reaction that we understand. Instead, she acts as if seeing the headless body of the man she loves is an everyday event...

About the same level of emotional reaction as if she had found her lost car keys.

And when the others show up? They also take the head removal of their friend as a boring, every-day event. They have a calm discussion of what to do, and because this is one of those films, they decide to keep poking around the old dark house. Another reaction that makes absolutely no sense at all.

For the rest of the film, these close friends are killed one-by-one and never seem to react to any of it. It's as if they are just going through the story motions - nothing really matters to them.

If a guy I know gets his head chopped off and I open the trunk of the car and see his bloody body, I would probably puke. I can write scenes of violence, but I can't deal with them in real life. If *I* get hurt, I'm pretty calm... if someone else gets hurt, I'm a mess. When I saw this woman discover her boyfriend's bloody headless body and then react as if she's found her car keys, I stopped believing this character was real... and began to actually hate the film as every character had no human reaction at all to witnessing the deaths of their friends. Robots have more reactions... and more emotions. Without realistic reactions and realistic emotions, the film was dull. Did they really want a dull horror movie?

WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

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So what would *you* do if you found the decapitated body of someone you love? That is probably the easiest way to get rid of strange reactions - put yourself in the character's shoes and imagine that this was happening to you. That's usually what writers do, anyway - we live a strange vicarious life through our characters. But often the fantasy life takes away the real reactions, and we don't want that. Look at every character in every scene and make sure they are reacting as if it is really happening to them... even though you made them up.

Every death in a silly horror movie like this is a great place for a character scene. Movies are about people with problems, and every scene exists to explore character - to show how these people react to their problems and deal with them. Character is exposed through conflict, and having some dude running around cutting off people's heads is a pretty good conflict. So the writer should have *used* the conflict to show character. How does each character react to the death of their friend? How is each reaction *different* and *character specific*? The writer should have made a list of different reactions to the death of a friend and then given each character a different reaction that shows us the character beneath the surface... and made it interesting!

Have the tough guy puke, then say he's okay as he wipes his mouth. Someone could say "That's not real, it's just a trick... someone playing a trick on us. It's not blood, it's nail polish." Someone could be unable to look. Someone could suddenly become take charge - *emotionless* and businesslike (but not the victim's girlfriend - that's not the right reaction for that relationship). Someone could become catatonic and has to be taken care of for the rest of the movie (that works for the victim's girlfriend). Someone could cry and be unable to stop. Someone could... you get the idea. The biggest problem I had with the movie was that none of these people seemed to care that their friends were getting brutally murder by a killer in a mask. You know, that doesn't happen every day.

Each reaction is a way to show what makes this character different.

Yes, some of this is the director's problem and the actor's problem - but if it ain't on the page it ain't on the stage. It all starts with our screenplays.

FALSE REACTIONS

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The most annoying part of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL are the character's reactions to the events of the story. All they do is scream at each other for no reason. It reminded me of TEMPLE OF DOOM - a film that had the most annoying screaming woman ever put on film. In CRYSTAL SKULL Indy is reunited with the love of his life, Marion Ravenwood, and all they seem to do is scream at each other... about *nothing*. They are over reacting... and not reacting at all to the situation of being reunited. Just pointless bickering. Doesn't tell us anything about the characters or about theme or about their relationship. Just bickering. Compare this to the clever banter in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK between the same characters.

A dozen years after you break up, you are reunited with the love of your life - how would *you* react? Make a list of all possible reactions - is screaming even on that list?

And compare the reactions to events in CRYSTAL SKULL to RAIDERS. There's a great scene in RAIDERS where Marion has been kidnaped and put in a wicker basket. Indy is chasing the basket to get her back - and we get a great rif on the Hitchcock "Redcap Spin" scene from NORTH BY NORTHWEST (one of many cool scenes in RAIDERS swiped from great films - like the STAGECOACH chase scene) - where Indy is popping the tops off wicker baskets looking for her... and finally chases the basket she is in down an alley where it is tossed in the back of a truck filled with explosives... which Indy causes to wreck and *explode*. Killing Marion. The woman he loves. He caused her death. Wow! That's an intense and emotional scene that pushes the character to react.

You may be responsible for the death of the woman you love - how would you react? Make a list of possible reactions.

How does Indy react in RAIDERS? He becomes a drunk. He's an emotional mess. His eyes are teary. He's sitting in a bar pounding down drinks like crazy. He killed the woman he loved. It's *his* fault. And that's where Belloq finds him and ends up accidentally nudging him back on course. But characters in RAIDERS have real emotions and real emotional reactions, and the story explores them. When something happens, they react the way a normal person would react. Indiana Jones may have that jacket and hat and whip, but underneath that he's a human being. Hey, it's still an adventure film - but the people don't just bicker without reason, everything they do and say is about their relationships. Indy and Marion. Indy and Sallah (some of the greatest buddy exchanges on film). They act and react like normal people in some pretty wild situations.

CONGRATULATIONS - YOU'RE A DAD!

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In CRYSTAL SKULL, when Mutt is revealed as Indy's son, there is no real drama, no real emotions, no human reaction... just more pointless bickering.

Put yourself in the character's shoes - You are Indiana Jones (cool) - and you discover you have a long lost son. How would you react? Make a list of possible reactions - all of the different things you might do if you found out you were a father, and you meet your son for the first time - is pointless bickering on your list?

I'm liable to get a bit emotional about it - and get emotional with the kid. This is my son! But Indy doesn't react as a normal person would - he just bickers with Marion.

RAIDERS has real demonstrations of emotion between Indy and Marion - when he finds out that she's alive, they have a big moment together... before he ties her back up and leaves the tent. Even their first meet at her bar is emotional - she slugs him. Then we get a chunk of scene about their past relationship, how she feels that he used her and dumped her... and he apologizes, and genuinely seems to feel bad about the way he treated her. Though slugging Indy may not seem like something on your list of possible reactions, when you factor in that he was the love of her life and dumped her, and factor in Marion's character (she's introduced as a woman who can drink any man under the table); slugging Indy fits perfectly. She's had all of this time to stew about the way he treated her and she reacts to those emotions. She reacts.

They hadn't seen each other for a couple of years in RAIDERS and they have this big emotional relationship scene... but in SKULL they haven't seen each other in over a decade... and we get zilch. That is not real human behavior.

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Hey, Indy has a son... nothing emotional about that. No emotional reaction at all. Instead we get a quip about how he should stay in school or something. A gag, but no hug. Hey - I don't want to turn this into some touchie-feelie chick flick or something, I just expect the same level of father and son emotions we had in LAST CRUSADE between Connery and Ford. Tender but prickly. But Indy has no emotions for his own son! Is he a human being... or a cardboard cut out?

Reactions and emotions *are character*, and in INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL we get neither. The characters come off flat and uninvolving and unrealistic. Instead of being pulled into the story, we are pushed away from the story. They don't act and react like real humans , so they become action figures - made of plastic and fake. Instead of experiencing the story, we just watch it.

CRYSTAL SKULL doesn't even give us a single real dramatic scene about the family... let alone incorporate the family into the adventure story (the way RAIDERS incorporates the Indy/Marion relationship into the adventure). We just get bickering. Cartoon characters and cartoon situations - no real people involved, no realistic reactions. You know, as a real person who paid real money to see the film, I want it to be about real human emotions and real human reactions to situations. I want adventure, too - but I want to believe the people involved are real... not some sort of lifelike animation.

OVER REACTIONS

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Everything in moderation... You want your characters to have real emotional reactions, but you don't want them to over-react - that can be just as bad as no reaction.

The the swearing or crying or jumping up and down on Oprah's sofa *isn't* what you would do in that situation and is probably too much for the situation. Another frequent problem is characters who show too much emotion, to the point of seeming false. No one would really jump up and down on Oprah's sofa just because they were in love - that's trying too hard to sell the emotion. You want your characters to react the way the average audience member IN THAT SITUATION would react if they were THAT CHARACTER. If a cop is crying at a crime scene, that's just wrong. If the victim's mom is crying, that's what we expect. You want characters to react, but not to over react - that makes it melodramatic.

Sometimes the problem may be that characters are too OTN (On The Nose - obvious) and they don't have any shading. The mom crying at the kid's murder scene is so plain, it's boring. Maybe more interesting if the Mom isn't crying, but talking to the dead kid about where they're going on vacation next month. That rings true because we understand the Mom doesn't want to believe her kid is dead... and can be a really emotional scene on screen. Better than the cry scene - and still a realistic reaction. Think about how different people use different methods to deal with painful situations... and how this may be a way to show character, too. Brainstorm up a list of possibilities, pick the most interesting one - the one that best matches your specific character.

You want your characters to ring true, to have real human emotions and real human reactions. The first step is to create a dramatic and emotional *situation*, then to make sure your characters react realistically to that situation, so that we can *see* their emotions. If you discover the headless corpse of the man you love, you don't calmly tell your friends that you've found him... unless you are in serious shock and that plays out over the rest of the film and impacts the scenes that follow. Look at each point in your story and make a list of list of realistic reactions, then find the one that best fits the character and is also interesting (not OTN). Movies are about people with problems, and the more realistic those people seem and the more realistic their reactions; the more their stories can affect the audience. We want to provide an emotional experience for the audience, and that starts with our characters.


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