THURSDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

CHARACTER MOMENTS


visitor DVD - Buy it!

A few years ago SPOTLIGHT won Best Picture, so let's take a look at one of the director/co-writer's previous films, shall we?

In film reviews and coffee shops people always talk about gratuitous violence or gratuitous cursing or gratuitous special effects or gratuitous nudity or gratuitous everything. They take something exciting that has nothing at all to do with the story and paste it onto the film... you could remove that scene and no one would notice. It is extraneous stuff that isn't really part of the story (though characters from the movie are the ones getting naked or blowing stuff up). But people seldom talk about gratuitous characterization... even though I see it in movies all the time. Some scene that has absolutely nothing to do with the story that has been pasted into the film to give an actor a chance to do something really dramatic (but ultimately pointless). If you can remove the scene and it doesn't change the story at all, what is the scene doing there in the first place? It's really no different than that pointless car chase - just some artist doing good work in a scene that isn't really part of the story. In one case the artist is an actor, in the other the artists are a bunch of stunt men. This is different than a scene where the action or nudity or drama is required to tell the story. Since we're storytellers, we want all of those car chases and nude scenes and big dramatic moments to be integral to the story.

But story grows from character. Without characters and characterization and drama we wouldn't have any stories to tell. There may come a time in your script where you want to show us your character with a brief action or line that shows the very essence of the character or gives us a quick peek inside their mind... but may not seem directly related to the story. There's a funny character moment in ROAD WARRIOR where the Feral Kid sees the gyrocopter for the first time and is fascinated by the blades of the propeller... which are similar to the blade of his boomerang. It's a quick moment, but it always gets a laugh. It's both character (for the Kid) *and* story (it establishes the relationship between the two, which impacts the whole story).

THE VISITOR was one of my favorite little movies from a few years ago, and a great example of using small moments to show us character... and all of those moments are not just character related, they are *story* related. It's a nice little art house film, that takes a stuffy upper-middle class college professor and immerses him into a world of immigrants trying to make it in America.

Character actor Richard Jenkins plays a very uptight college professor who is practically forced to give a presentation in New York by his college. He seems to be suffering from inertia, and would rather just stay in his suburban home and take piano lessons. But, since he has an old apartment in New York that he hasn't been to in years, he's elected to give the lecture. station agent DVD - Buy it!

When he arrives at his unused NYC apartment... there are fresh flowers on the table. Someone's belongings in the living room. Someone is squatting in his empty apartment. Then he hears a noise from the bathroom... there's someone in the tub! A woman taking a bath! She screams and wants to call the police. Ends up a young immigrant couple have been living there - and they think *he's* the intruder. They have been playing rent to a "landlord" who seems to be a past super for the building with access to the keys. Jenkins even acts like he doesn't belong there - he almost allows himself to be run off. Once he proves it's his apartment, the couple agrees to leave... but when he sees them on the street and realizes they'll be homeless (and not by their fault - they did pay rent) he decides to let them stay temporarily. Until they can find a place to stay.

The woman (Zainab) is from Senegal, the man (Tarek) from Syria. She makes jewelry, he plays the bongos in several night clubs and in the park for donations. Completely different than Jenkins' stuffy college prof. Talk about an odd couple - these people are from completely different worlds.

The movie opens with Jenkins taking piano lessons, and not doing well. So we know he has some interest in music. He also has many CDs of a female pianist playing classical music that he listens to often... is it the music or the performance of the music that is important to him? When Jenkins comes back from his event to find Tarek playing his bongos in the living room, he's interested in the music. They may be reluctant roommates, but they have music in common. Tarek offers to teach Jenkins how to play the bongos, and it's funny to watch the stuffy guy playing a wild instrument. This is a great *visual* way to show an introverted and closed off character slowly opening up.

McCarthy's previous film, THE STATION AGENT, was about accidental relationships, and so is this film. Though Jenkins has nothing in common with Tarek, they bond over the drums... and a scene where Tarek takes Jenkins to play in the park with a few dozen other bongo players is a high point of the film. But just when you think the story will be about a closed off man learning to loosen up and the healing power of music, the story takes a major twist... and nothing is the same. I've decided not to reveal the twist, because you probably haven't seen the movie - and it's worth a rent.

One of the great things in THE VISITOR are those the small character moments - Jenkins delivers a letter from Zainab (wife) to Tarek (husband) at one point, and turns away as he reads it to give him privacy. This is not only a story scene (the letter) it is also a great character moment that tells us about Jenkins' character. In another scene, Tarek's mother prepares dinner, and measures salt into her hand. The way she has a million times before. Little bits of reality and character. There's even a nice little reveal about why Jenkins is taking piano lessons - it's the big character moment of the film and takes your breath away. Won't spoil that moment for you. Though the story may seem like McCarthy is making it up as he goes along, that life is just playing out; in reality this is a carefully constructed script where some minor thing early in the film plays off later. Little moments like the piano lesson are actually set ups that pay off in story later in the film. All of seemingly random bits are actually *not* random - they are part of the story all along. You can almost look at THE VISITOR as a "character mystery" - we don't realize that all of these moments are *clues* that will result in the audience being able to solve the mystery by the end. And clues have to be carefully planted so that the audience doesn't spot them as clues... and that takes skill and planning. This is a carefully planned story that seems like real life unfolding. That's great writing.

notting DVD - Buy it!

There's a great character moment in Richard Curtis' NOTTING HILL where Hugh Grant spies his best friend Max carrying his paraplegic wife Bella up the stairs. It's a tender moment that exposes how much these two love each other. A moment of insight into their relationship. Though that moment doesn't seem to be moving the story forward, it's what gives the Hugh Grant character the motivation to continue pursuing Julia Roberts. You can't really remove that moment from the story.

In THE FUGITIVE Harrison Ford has just lived through a massive prison bus/train wreck and is now on the run from the law. He sneaks into a hospital to treat his injuries... but there's a moment where he stops to tell an Emergency Room Doctor about the injuries to a patient brought in on an ambulance... one of the guards on the prison bus who was injured in the accident. Ford plays a doctor who can't stop helping people... even though it may result in his capture. That's a great character moment! Later in the film he is in disguise as a maintenance man in the hospital he used to work in, trying to find clues to the one armed man who murdered his wife. He overhears a doctor (Julianne Moore) telling another doctor to check a boy's ex-rays... but the doctor isn't listening. Ford blows his cover by checking the kid's ex-rays and changing the diagnosis on the kid's medical charts based on the ex-ray information. Then he tells the boy that he's going to be alright. This is a very brief scene that shows us that Ford is a good man, someone who would put his own freedom in jeopardy in order to help someone. Of course, he gets caught for his efforts - Julianne Moore grabs his ID badge and calls security. So the character moment ends up being critical to the story. By showing his true nature... Ford is captured! This scene shows us the key to creating a character moment that is integral to the story: The character contrasts with the story so that when character is revealed, conflict is created.

My Big Fat DVD - Buy it!

In ROGER DODGER Campbell Scott plays a womanizer who is teaching his 16 year-old nephew how to be popular with the ladies. But Scott has become the war between the sexes version of those movie cliche crazed Viet Nam vets who can't stop killing once the war is over. He sees women as an enemy that must be conquered or destroyed. All we really see of Scott's character are his defense mechanisms... until one great character moment in a house of prostitution when we're allowed to see the essence of his character. A moment of self-realization. A couple of seconds that expose the man beneath the defense mechanisms.

Think about ways to give the audience a concentrated look into your character - a moment of character that helps us to really know who they are. And if you can find a character moment that is secretly part of the story - you have struck gold.


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