Surviving the screenwriting food chain, one revision at a time

Archive for July, 2011

Rescue Me

How unlikeable characters make the best protagonist…

This is a very exciting week for me. The final installment into my favorite saga will be presented to the world. I am not talking about the Harry Potter movie that will have little girls running and screaming for the theaters, but rather the final season of Rescue Me, a show that would likely make little girls also run screaming. Unlike Harry Potter, whose moral compass never strays, Rescue Me’s protagonist Tommy Gavin throws the middle finger to morality as he bangs back a shot of vodka, before things really get interesting. He is a foul mouthed, egotistic, womanizing, violent, abrasive alcoholic, and I love him. He is one of many in a long list of anti-heros who have snatched up the hearts of audiences and ran with them. From Bill Munny to Hank Moody, these hugely defected characters have made for some of the most fascinating protagonists.

The Ultimate Badass: Has he really played any "likable" protagonist?

We learn from the get go that in order to write a script, or even a bedtime story for that matter, you have to have a likable protagonist. This, clearly is not the case. These anti-heros not only win our sympathy, but let’s face it, they’re way more fun to watch. It’s like watching that stupid friend that you have who always get’s himself in trouble. As much as you enjoy laughing as gets yelled at by his parents, you still hope he gets away with it. But the reason that these characters have won our hearts goes much deeper than that.

A major part in film and television’s success is that it provides a fantasy for its viewers, while still offering them something to relate to. What keeps swarms of tweens rushing to the theater (and forkin over the dough), is that recognition of a teenager just like them, doing magical and brave things that they could never. It’s also what kept more mature audiences tuned in to Friends for a decade; the idea of people and friends just like them who lived lovely lives in Manhattan, never had to work, and always got along. Its almost as magical as Hogwarts to be honest.

It is this same principle that makes us so intrigued with these Anti-heros. We recognize that we are flawed, as every one is, and as they certainly are, but they are also doing incredible things. Plus,as far as the female demographic is concerned, no matter what your parents say, girls DO love bad boys. This is a fundamental principle of the anti-hero; they have a substantial redeeming quality. In Tommy Gavin’s case, he saves people from terrifying fires. No matter how devilish he is outside of that inferno, he still drags innocent people to safety by running in to life threatening fires. He also suffers from PTS while mourning the losses of 911, a national tragedy, so he gets brownie points for that as well.  So viewers tune in and realize that everyone has a shot at redemption, something that is nice to think about, as they watch him terrorize everyone around him.

(In this scene Tommy just saw his dead son who he sorta killed… yeah, Id fall off the wagon)

What I think attracts me to these characters, however, is that they make for very complex protagonists with very complicated stories. While everyone who’s ever heard of Harry Potter instantly wants him to defeat Voldermort (sp?,whatever…), even the most loyal fans of shows like Recue Me and Californication, who have rooted for this protagonists for season upon season, still have to question where their sympathy lies from time to time. This makes for interesting themes, conflicts, and plot lines. It also keeps those loyal fans tuning in time and time again, as they subconsciously hope that Hank Moody gets away with statutory rape .

So while “likability” may generate some really successful protagonists, Im going to say screw likability. Give me complex protagonists, with the human tendency to hit on the wrong girl, drink too much, but do it all with the best intentions. Put ’em in a complicated situation and I say you have yourself a story!

We all fall for legs like that...

I’d love to hear who some of your favorite protagonists are (no matter how likable), and what you think makes them so great!

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Sticks and Stones…

Giving your dialogue that extra punch.

Dialogue is for many the most intimidating part of writing. FInding a way to breath life and pizzaz into their character’s can discourage anyone from making their master piece come to life. Even successful Hollywood writers would agree that dialogue is a daunting component of a script. And why shouldn’t it be? After all, who really reads scene direction any way? Relax, of course people read scene direction, but the dialogue is what makes or breaks a good story.

I was recently re-watching Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, a great film that is among my bluray collection for good reason. I’d always enjoyed the movie, but upon my most recent viewing I realized that the story itself was pretty predictable, the character very typical, and the world totally plain. So what is it that makes this movie so gripping? Ive seen it time and time again, know exactly what happens, yet I still can’t turn away. The answer is the electrifying dialogue. Every word is delivered with such intensity and force that you feel it in your own bones.

So I got the screenplay, hoping for the same effect, but was greatly disappointed. The dialogue on the page is bulky and awkward. It has only glimpses of the impressive nature of the words that jumped out of my TV. The opening monologue is an excellent example of this. What sounded great in the movie read as muddled garbage. It had lost that edge that made me think “wow, this character knows exactly what he wants to say and how to say it.” Even as a lunatic’s rant, this monologue still had power in its well chosen words, once chut down in the production and post production phases.

This is an excellent example of over writing dialogue. It’s so common that even Tony Gilroy couldn’t avoid it, so don’t be too hard on yourself when you catch this in your next revision! Great dialogue, in my mind, consists of three key elements:

1) Originality – find a way to deliver your message in a way that hasn’t been used a million times. This is what makes for great movie quotes that stick in your audience’s mind, and make up killer trailers.

2) Subtext – We all know how awful on the nose dialogue can be, so dont do it.

3) Brevity. I can’t emphasize enough the power of lean dialogue. Get your point across and shut up. This is what made the dialogue in the film so great was you really got the impression that the characters, mostly successful lawyers, thought at a faster pace. Not a word was wasted, misused, or underpowered. The violence of the film came across more in the brutality of their words than the car bomb and murder.

So, next time you sit down to write some dialogue, pay attention to every word. Does it say exactly what you want it to say? Does it need to be there? Can you scour your vocabulary for a more efficient way of saying it? Chances are you can, and Im not saying everything needs to be one word answers, there are times for long winded rants and confusing tangents, but choose them wisely. It will serve you well by making for more powerful dialogue, and by improving the flow of your script.

http://www.afi.com/100years/quotes.aspx

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