WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

UNDERSTANDING UNLIKABLE PROTAGONISTS


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Not all protagonist's are nice guys and gals. Sometimes your lead character may be a complete bastard - how do we keep the audience from hating him?

We only hate those we don't understand... so make sure we understand those bastards. I always say to “take us inside the character” - to show the audience the world as they see it, so when the character makes a decision or does something we may find repulsive, at least the audience understands the reasons behind the actions. They may not do those terrible or crazy or extremely risky things themselves, but they understand why this particular character would do them. This is the difference between a movie that they audience watches and a movie that the audience experiences... and it’s all a matter of providing the audience with the information they need to understand the character.

There is already Oscar buzz surrounding Melissa McCarthy’s performance in CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME, which shows the power of the “Creative Bastard” character. 2000's Oscar contender in the "Creative Bastard" category was Ed Harris in POLLOCK, in 2002 we had Russell Crowe in A BEAUTIFUL MIND. These three films have similar subject matter - creative people driven to madness and the people who love them (Maria Gay Harden won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for POLLOCK and Jennifer Connelly won Best Supporting Actress Oscar for MIND and Richard E. Grant steals every scene he’s in and will probably get a Best Supporting nomination). This movie makes up for McCarthy’s HAPPYTIME MURDERS and LIFE OF THE PARTY, and allows her to play the ultra-prickly Lee Israel, who is the quintessential “Creative Bastard”. Israel was a writer of celebrity biographies with absolutely no people skills - it’s probably fair to say that she hated people - who became a convicted felon when she used her writing skills to become a forger of collectable celebrity letters. She is an unpleasant character who does terrible things... and yet the audience understands why she chooses this path of crime, which seems crazy for a middle aged woman in New York City’s literary world.

How did the writer do this? Let’s look at the beginning of the story, when Lee Israel is introduced to the audience...


TAKING US INSIDE

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The movie opens at 3:30 in the morning in some nameless glass and chrome office building where frumpy middle aged Lee Israel is working at some entry level proof reading job for some publishing company. She is also drinking a scotch on the rocks. A pair of well dressed young women pass her desk in endless the cube farm, and one of them says, “She’s older than my mother. Kill me if I’m doing that at her age.” Lee grumbles, “I’ll kill you, if you ask me nicely.” One of the other proof readers asks her to be quiet, another comments that it’s against the rules to eat or drink at her desk, to which Lee replies loudly, “Fuck off!” A voice asks what did she say? And she repeats herself and turns around, ready for a fight. There is a nice bit of suspense here as the camera holds on her as her expression changes when the unseen person gets to her cubicle. When we finally see that it is her boss, he tells her to “Pack up *now*!” - she is fired from this crappy job. She drinks the rest of her scotch, throws the ice in her glass in the direction of the wastebasket, and leaves.

In her ancient and extremely messy apartment, she tries to feed her cat - but it won’t eat, then climbs into bed as the sun is rising... and the construction workers are using jack-hammers somewhere nearby.

That’s our introduction to the character, and notice how for every terrible thing she does there is also a relatable thing. Due to her terrible attitude, we can guess why she has this crappy job, but it is still a crappy job and she is fired from it. And as someone who has worked a graveyard shift before, those morning jack-hammers provide some sympathy. She’s not a pleasant person and she probably brought all of this upon herself, but she still has to deal with “all of this”. She is a 51 year old woman who likes cats more than she likes people.

She sits down to the typewriter... and can’t write.

Later, she puts on lipstick, still dressed mostly frumpy, and takes the subway cross town to her agent’s luxurious house where there’s a party. A very fancy literary party. An alcove has been turned into a coat check area with a uniformed attendant. Hey, free top shelf booze and free food - shrimp and other gourmet goodies. She drinks glass after glass of single malt scotch, fills her pockets with food for later, and even steals a couple of rolls of toilet paper from the bathroom cupboard. What’s great about this scene is that all around her are other writers who are successful, which serves to point out her failure. One blow-hard male writer, maybe supposed to be Tom Clancy, talks about how writer’s block is just an excuse for lazy writers. So the background conversations all point out Lee’s problems - they are like voices in her head calling her a failure. Her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtain) spots her and goes up to her - Lee is kind of crashing this party - and they have a tense conversation about how Marjorie will not return her calls. Lee claims she has new, interesting stuff. Marjorie says she might return call her - no promises. Lee leaves, stopping at the coat check and pointing to a coat, claiming that it is hers. The uniformed person gives her the coat and she leaves the house... which builds some suspense as we wait for her to get caught. She gets away with it.

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At home she tries to share some of her stolen shrimp with her cat, who still won’t eat. Something is wrong with the cat.

There’s another thing in that scene that sets up her later criminal activities: there’s a movie based on a play by Lillian Hellman on TV, and Lee is making comments that show her knowledge of Hellman’s work and voice.

Lee takes her cat to the vet, where they refuse to do anything because she still owes them $82, they will settle for half, but all Lee has is $14. Where will she get the rest of the money so that she can save her sick old cat?

She goes to a used bookstore to sell two huge bags of books, but the snooty clerk behind the counter only wants two of them and calls the rest “garbage” (and the books *are* in very poor condition). She gets angry and says the book store sells her books. The bookstore clerk points to the remaindered table - 75% off - where her latest book can be found. He offers her $2 for the books he is accepting and she takes it. Still not enough to get her cat to the veterinarian...

At home, her building manager stops her and says she owes three months back rent. He doesn’t want to evict her, but... She says she will have the money soon. But the audience knows that isn’t going to happen. Lee may be a complete bastard who hates everyone except her cat, but she is a middle aged woman who will probably be thrown out on the street.

She has $16 towards the $41 she needs for the vet to probably save her cat’s life, so what does she do? She goes to a neighborhood bar to get drunk... where she meets Jack “Handsome” Hock (Richard E. Grant) an aging Gay man who may be homeless. He recognizes her from a time they met years ago (when she was a successful writer) at a party where he got so drunk he though the closet was the bathroom and pissed on thousands of dollars of furs owned by other party attendees. This is the beginning of a great friendship subplot between the two that is directly related to the story (he becomes an accomplice in her forgery scheme) and gives her someone to care about. She hates everyone in the world... except her cat and Jack.

But her cat is dying. Lee looks at her most prized possession, framed on the wall of her apartment: a letter from Katherine Hepburn. She decides to sell it to save her cat.

But how will she pay her back rent to keep from being evicted?


CRIMINAL ACTIVITY

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She barges into her agent’s office, and is told that nobody wants her current project - a Fanny Brice biography - and that nobody really wants *her*. Marjorie tells her that her blessing is her curse: Lee has an amazing ability to disappear into her work - to perfectly mimic the voice of the celebrities that she is writing about... but she has no voice of her own. That’s the problem with trying to sell a Lee Israel book - there is nothing distinctive about Lee Israel.

Lee goes back to the Fanny Brice book anyway, and while doing research finds a letter written by Fanny Brice hidden in a book. She makes sure that nobody is looking before sliding the letter into her purse.

Okay: what is Lee thinking when she steals that letter? And why does the audience know what she is thinking? All of this has been set up, step-by-step, throughout these opening scenes from the film. The audience has been brought inside the character and understand the character - hey, she may be a complete a-hole, but she’s going to be a middle aged homeless woman if she doesn’t do something. And finding that Fanny Brice letter allows her to do something. Something criminal.

When she takes the letter to a buyer thinking that she will make enough to pay her back rent, she is told that the letter has only a small value because it’s kind of boring. If it had been more personal and more interesting, it would be worth more. Lee decides not to sell the letter and leaves...

Okay: what is Lee thinking when she leaves? That curse/blessing of Lee Israel is the perfect tool to take this bland Fanny Brice letter and, um, embellish it. Making it worth more money and maybe allowing her to prevent being thrown out onto the street. By giving the audience all of the pieces, they can assemble them and understand what Lee is thinking and what Lee is planning to do. The audience has been taken inside the character by showing us their life and also showing us all of the things that they know, so that we know. When the character makes a decision, we understand that decision. We have seen all of the elements of that decision.

So when Lee sees an antique typewriter in a thrift store window?

When Lee buys a box of really old paper from a stationery store?

When Lee begins studying the typeface and letterhead and paper stock of very expensive collectable letters written by literary celebrities?

When we see a shot of Lee’s apartment with a dozen antique typewriters each labeled with a literary celebrity’s name?

The audience knows why Lee is buying old typewriters and old paper and studying expensive collectable letters because they have been taken inside her life by screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. Nothing needs to be explained, they opening scenes of the film allow us to understand this “creative bastard” so that the audience can think the same way that she is thinking and know what she is planning to do... and doing.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Has great performances by McCarthy and Grant and Dolly Wells as Anna - a shy bookstore owner who provides a possible love interest for Lee Israel... except she sold some forged documents to her, so we are always waiting for the other shoe to drop... and it does as the FBI moves in on Lee. Because our “Creative Bastard” is involved in criminal activities, the screenplay uses suspense to help create an additional emotional bond between Lee and the audience.


LEAVING US OUTSIDE

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POLLOCK (2000) shows painter “Creative Bastard” Jackson Pollock abusing everyone around him. He's a tortured soul who spends much of his time getting drunk. He openly cheats on his wife, and dies when he drunkenly plows his car into a tree - killing an innocent passenger and seriously injuring his mistress. But unlike FORGIVE ME, in this case the audience hated him. Why? Because the story never took us inside the character - we never understood WHY he did these things. At an IFP screening of the film, one audience member asked Harris how he could make a film about such a vile, despicable person. Harris said he didn't see Pollock that way - he saw him as a tortured artist. The problem is - the audience didn't. We just saw him as a bastard... and we didn’t understand his creativity at all. We saw what he did, but with no understanding of why he did it.

I believe if we had understood Pollock, we could have felt sorry for him when he struck out at those who loved him.

We never understood the painter's frustration - which may have been the reason for his anger. There's a point in the film where Pollock accidentally dribbles paint, and has an artistic "breakthrough". His wife sees the dribbles and says "You've done it! You've broken through!" This could have been a big emotional moment in the film, but instead it provoked unintended laughter. The audience didn't know what Pollock's goal was, so they had no idea when he had achieved it. So the wife's comments seem incongruous and psychic - as if she KNEW what Pollock's style was going to be all along.

What if we had been taken inside the character's thought process? What if the film had opened with Pollock drunk with his artist pals, talking about how the mechanical aspects of painting get in the way of the artist - how the brush controls the work instead of the artist. "If there was some way to remove all of those things that come between the artist and the canvas..." Then we would have understood Pollock's rage when he was unsatisfied with his paintings. We would have understood his frustration. If we understand the goal, we FEEL the frustration of not achieving it. We also can feel the joy of the breakthrough... and the anger when some members of the art world don't understand what you have achieved. It’s all about giving the audience the information to understand the character, as they did in FORGIVE ME. In early scenes we see Pollock experimenting with applying paint from the tube, without a brush... that would make sense to us and been a very exciting scene if we understood Pollock's goal.

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Compare that to A BEAUTIFUL MIND where we are taken right inside the character of John Forbes Nash from the very beginning. After a prologue speech by Judd Hirsh on the importance of mathematics during the Cold War, we're introduced to Nash as a man of genius. Not through exposition from some other character, the film takes us right inside Nash's mind to SHOW us genius at work. Nash finds the pattern in chaos - sees things that the rest of us can't and makes logical connections between completely unrelated objects. Instead of POLLOCK's paint-drip breakthrough that we are not given enough information to understand, Akiva Goldsman gives us a simple scene that illustrates genius. Nash notices a fellow math student with a particularly ugly necktie standing on the opposite side of the punchbowl. Nash turns a glass until the sunlight forms a prism pattern on the table near the punchbowl. He moves the glass until the prism stripes fall on some slices of orange floating in the punchbowl... using only the objects around him he manages to perfectly replicate the pattern on the other student's necktie. We have seen how Nash's mind works. How it can take unrelated things and find the connection. We never saw the similarity between the necktie, punchbowl and glass... until he took us step-by-step through his thought process.

Step-by-step is the key. You need to show the audience how a character thinks so that they can understand what they are thinking. We need to give the audience all of the pieces so that they can assemble them and understand. If we don’t give them the pieces, it’s just stuff happening and the creative bastard ends up just being a bastard.

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Where POLLOCK tells us that Ed Harris is struggling with demons, A BEAUTIFUL MIND shows us Russell Crowe struggling with demons (including Ed Harris, oddly enough). Again, we are taken right inside the character's mind and shown the world through his eyes so that we can UNDERSTAND the character's emotional problems. After Nash helps the FBI crack some Communist codes, his life is in danger. We are put right in his shoes so that we feel the same paranoia that he feels... and when that paranoia becomes madness, we see the same shadow figures and delusions that Nash sees. Goldsman script falters only once - when Nash gets into a car with a delusion who seems to be able to drive - but other than that the film perfectly shows us the paranoid world Nash falls into. We reach a point in the story where we are unsure which characters are real and which are delusions. What voices are real and what voices are only in our heads.

At the end of the film, when Nash understands that some of the people he sees and hears are not real, Goldsman gives us a great scene that forever changes the way we will think of homeless people babbling to themselves: We see Nash having a serious disagreement with some people... who are not there when we see him from another character's point of view. What seems like rational behavior from Nash's point of view looks crazy when we are taken outside his character. We not only understand Nash's insanity, we sympathize with him. His violent outbursts are motivated - we might act the same way. Compare the way you feel about Nash after seeing A BEAUTIFUL MIND with the way you feel about Pollock after seeing POLLOCK or the way you feel about Lee after seeing CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

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And this problem isn't an exclusive with Creative Bastards in Oscar-bait flicks, AEON FLUX (2005) suffered from the same unemotional, impossible to understand protagonist issues. It just *stars* an Oscar winner, in an action movie made boring by a complete lack of emotions and understanding. Lots of shoot outs, but you don't care. The audience is an outsider. Theron is one of the producers on A PRIVATE WAR which has similar problems when it comes to the protagonist's PTSD issues.

It doesn't matter if a character on screen is emotional... what matters is if those emotions are experienced by the audience. Bring us inside your troubled lead characters and make us feel what they feel. We only dislike people we don't understand. Even a Creative Bastard like Lee Israel can be an interesting character - while still being a bastard - if we understand them.

There's a basic choice in your script - to take us INSIDE someone's life, or to just observe them from the OUTSIDE. Write about PEOPLE or write about THINGS.

I don't think there's any choice at all.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Does a great job of taking us step-by-step into Lee Israel’s life so that we understand her decision to begin a life of crime, and we even understand her in the prison sentencing scene when she says that she has enjoyed her criminal period more than what came before it. We enjoyed watching it! She turned her curse into a blessing... of sorts... and made a lot of money, before being sent to prison.


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GREAT SUPPORTING CHARACTERS!

*** SUPPORTING CHARACTER SECRETS *** - For Kindle! (Exclusive)


Expanded version with more techniques to flesh out your Supporting Characters and make them individuals. Using the hit movie BRIDESMAIDS as well as other comedies like THE HANGOVER and TED and HIGH FIDELITY and 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN and many other examples we look at ways to make your Supporting Characters come alive on the page. Print version was 48 pages, Kindle version is around 170 pages!

Only $4.99 - and no postage!


bluebook

THAT STAR PART!

*** CREATING STRONG PROTAGONISTS *** - For Kindle!

*** CREATING STRONG PROTAGONISTS *** - For Nook!

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!

Only $4.99 - and no postage!


bluebook

THEY SOUND DIFFERENT!

*** DIALOGUE SECRETS *** - For Kindle!

*** DIALOGUE SECRETS *** - For Nook!

Expanded version with more ways to create interesting dialogue! How to remove bad dialogue (and what *is* bad dialogue), First Hand Dialogue, Awful Exposition, Realism, 50 Professional Dialogue Techniques you can use *today*, Subtext, Subtitles, Humor, Sizzling Banter, *Anti-Dialogue*, Speeches, and more. Tools you can use to make your dialogue sizzle! Special sections that use dialogue examples from movies as diverse as "Bringing Up Baby", "Psycho", "Double Indemnity", "Notorious", the Oscar nominated "You Can Count On Me", "His Girl Friday", and many more! Print version is 48 pages, Kindle version is over 160 pages!

Only $4.99 - and no postage!



hcd

FINAL DRAFT SOFTWARE

Use your creative energy to focus on the content; let Final Draft take care of the style. Final Draft is the number-one selling application specifically designed for writing movie scripts, television episodics and stage plays. Its ease-of-use and time-saving features have attracted writers for almost two decades positioning Final Draft as the Professional Screenwriters Choice. Final Draft power users include Academy, Emmy and BAFTA award winning writers like Oliver Stone, Tom Hanks, Alan Ball, J.J. Abrams, James Cameron and more. * * * Buy It!

copyright 2019 by William C. Martell


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SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING

bluebook IT'S BACK! SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING
Over 460 pages packed with tips and techniques. How to write a plot twist, the four kinds of suspense (and how to create it), reversals, ten ways to invent new action scenes, secrets and lies, creating the ultimate villain, five kinds of love interests, MORE! CLICK HERE!

CLASSES ON CD

Class CDs CLASSES ON CD! Take a class on CD! GUERRILLA MARKETING - NO AGENT? NO PROBLEM! and WRITING THRILLERS (2 CDs). Full length classes on CD. Now Available: IDEAS & CREATIVITY, WRITING HORROR, WRITING INDIE FILMS, more!
Take classes on CD!

MY OTHER SITES

B MOVIE WORLD
Cult Films, Exploitation, Bikers & Women In Prison, Monster Movies.

FIRST STRIKE PRODUCTIONS
Producing my own scripts, investment possibilities, pipe dreams.

NAKED SCREENWRITING CDs

Naked Class The NAKED SCREENWRITING CLASS ON CD! The 2001 London Class on 8 CDs! Recorded *live* the morning after the Raindance Film Festival wrapped. The two day class on 8CDs, plus a workbook, plus a bonus CD.
The 2 Day Class on CD!

ONLINE CLASSES
Furious Action Class
BILL'S CORNER

My nineteen produced films, interviews with me in magazines, several sample scripts, my available scripts list... And MORE!
...............................BILL'S CORNER


Available Scripts

E BOOKS PAGE

bluebook E BOOKS: New Blue Books and Novelettes!
I am expanding all of the Blue Books from around 44 pages of text to around 200 pages! Some are over 250 pages! See what is availabale and what is coming soon!Also, I've been writing Novelletes and there will soon be novels.
E BOOKS: BLUE BOOKS & NOVELLETES

BOOKLETS & PRODUCTS

bluebook FIRST STRIKE BLUE BOOKS
Each Blue Book is 48 pages and focuses on a different aspect of screenwriting. Dialogue. Visual Storytelling. Your First Ten Pages. Act 2 Booster. Protagonists. Great Endings.
Seventeen Blue Books now available!

THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING OUT OF PRINT!