We talked a few weeks back about the graying of characters—making a difference in your screenplay by working your characters to max out complexity. How do we do that? A few of the way might be to surprise the shit out of your audience in the path you take the characters, and them. It’s to reject the first dialogue choice that comes to you because you probably got it from another movie and it’s likely a cliche. Another is to write characters that you recognize not as good or bad, but as true. That means their actions ring real in terms of plausibility, character choices and dialogue.
Another way to complexity is put characters in a double bind, both with the outer—plot arc, and their inner emotional journeys. Jam their backs to the wall in an absolutely intolerable position where the true character emerges. The world of the screenplay puts the character in a position where he is—essentially—screwed if he does, and screwed if he doesn’t. The issue of morality is ever present. Put what’s in the interest of the character against the interest of one or many people who surround him. What does the character do, protect their selfish interests, or do what’s right for the greater good?
Look at your script as it stands today. Do you put characters in a double bind like this? Need an example? Ok, let’s look at Arbitrage:
Spoiler alert: Still need to see this movie? Stop reading here!
Anyone who saw Internal Affairs knows Richard Gere can be the bad guy. Here, in this screenplay by Nicholas Jarecki, he plays long-in-the-tooth Wall Street shark Robert Miller, who is at a crossroads. A business acquaintance id due money, Robert doesn’t have it. It becomes clear here that he’s made a bad bet that threatens the very survival of his company.
JEFFREY(louder):…what’s not working is my four hundred twelve million dollars that’s
sitting in your account so you can pass your audit, the four hundred twelve million that you needed, you said, for two weeks, and which has been languishing now for (looks down at paper) thirty-two days, while it could be elsewhere invested, earning an actual return, instead of couching the absurd lie that you’re spinning.
ROBERT: What do you want me to say?
JEFFREY: That you’re gonna get a signature from Mayfield, and that my hostage money and my fee are going to be sent to me promptly, say… by tomorrow?
ROBERT: I am solving the problem. I am getting you your money and your fee. You will have them very shortly.
ROBERT: As soon as they sign the contract.
JEFFREY: You know, I’m not the one with the liability, pal. I just made a loan.
You’re looking at jail for a thousand years for fraudulent conveyance and…
ROBERT: …Stop it! You don’t have to talk to me like that!…
JEFFREY: I didn’t get you into this mess!
ROBERT: You were a friend of mine!
JEFFREY: …remember when you asked me if it was a good idea to divert half your liquid assets into a fucking copper mine? What did I tell you?
ROBERT (stands, heading to door with coat): Are we done here? I think we’re done here.
Jeffrey stares at him contemplatively for a moment, then appears to reach some sort of conclusion.
JEFFREY(matter-of-fact): Friday morning I take my money back.
ROBERT (shakes head): You can’t do that…
JEFFREY: …the fuck I can’t, it’s in an escrow bill with one-day call rights…
ROBERT: …I need the money there until they sign, Jeffrey. What if they check again?
JEFFREY: That’s really not my problem, is it?
ROBERT: (stares, fumes) Not your fuckin problem…
Ticking clock loud enough for you? Classic inciting incident, the movie’s entire apparatus set into place by this scene. Not to mention the essence of conflict that exudes from every scene, and the Raison d’Etre of Gere’s character…to keep his company alive, no matter what.
Now add another little complication, the death of his French lover in a car accident, with Gere’s character behind the wheel.
EXT. HIGHWAY – DEAD OF NIGHT
A MERCEDES 450 SEL driving the interstate towards Connecticut. Billie Holiday sings her 1959 “Just One More Chance.” We hold on a two-shot through the windshield: Julie
rests her head on Robert’s shoulder. And the camera moves closer into Robert’s face, Julie snuggled next to him, Billie’s music lulling the moment into tranquility, and finally, just finally, Robert has a moment’s respite, as he slowly closes his heavy eyelids, nodding off into a trance of desperately needed sleep until…
A SCRAPING METALLIC NOISE jolts us back to
Reality — as the car drifts into the CENTER MEDIAN where the tire catches on a small metal SCRAP and BLOWS OUT, flipping the car over and over until it CAREENS to a halt.
Robert’s eyes flutter open as he comes to, groggy. He’s badly injured, but breathing. He starts to feel his body. Movement returns…
He looks over at Julie.
It is instantly obvious she is dead: she’s been nearly decapitated, a deep gash ripping through her neck. Shock, followed quickly by panic.
We hear a DRIPPING sound. A gas leak…
Robert reaches into his pocket and dials 911… He looks at the phone just before pressing “Send”… and hangs up.
He tries to open the door. It’s stuck. He KICKS at it. It opens.
EXT. TWO-LANE HIGHWAY – NIGHT
He drags himself out of the car. Stands. Smoke is still rising from the smashed hood. He pulls up his shirt. A DEEP BRUISE: a broken rib from the steering column. He winces.
He takes a few steps forward, moving around to the passenger side. He looks again at Julie. Horrific. He reaches out to touch her, then stops. Hold on his face. He sinks to his knees, putting his head in his bloody hands. He SCREAMS. Then he rises, and begins hiking to the side of the road.
EXT. FIELDS – DEAD OF NIGHT
Robert walks and walks through tall grass. In the distance behind him, A MASSIVE EXPLOSION lights up the sky in a fireball as the gas tank finally catches, incinerating the car and its contents.
Plot Point 1, right on cue. How do you know? There is no movie without this scene. That takes you from Act 1 to Act 2, the lynch pin scene. Gere’s character is trying to keep this deal together, trying to keep his company afloat, this close to the deal happening, when this thing happens. This is the external plot stuff. What’s going on inside, on the emotional side? Oh, nothing much. He loved this woman Julie, is 100% responsible for her death, and he can tell no one.
The situation is complicated because the cops are immediately hot on his trail, questioning everyone. They don’t much care for Gere’s business matters—they want this asshole in jail for 10+ years. Subplot 1: The cops know he did it and go about trying to prove it. Subplot 2: The African-American kid Gere calls in gets threatened by the cops who lean on him. Subplot 3 is a daughter finding the truth out about Gere’s nasty deal and how her own father has committed criminal fraud that could end both the business and her own career. Lots of moving parts!
No matter that Robert Miller has three broken ribs that he can’t go to the hospital for, no matter that he killed the woman he loved or that he’s this close to being discovered by the cops, or that his daughter discovers is fraud, that he has put everyone he knows including her in harm’s way for the sake of $$$$…he is driven to nail down the deal and save his company, which he does in this great scene:
INT. SHERRY NETHERLAND HOTEL – RESTAURANT – DAY
JAMES MAYFIELD (50s) waits alone at a table. Robert enters. They shake hands, then sit.
ROBERT: You keep sending people to my office to “do business.”
MAYFIELD: They’re just getting acquainted.
ROBERT: With the intricacies of my operation so that you can… not buy it?
MAYFIELD: You remember what it was like on our side of the fence. Everything just moves… a little slower. Plus this whole audit mess doesn’t help. You know, clearing that all up…
ROBERT: Fuck you.
MAYFIELD: Excuse me…?
ROBERT: FUCK – YOU. I’m the Oracle of Gracie Square. You came to me. I did not come to you.
MAYFIELD: Robert, I think we’re getting off on the wrong foot…
ROBERT: No, no, no. Forget it, forget it… Forget the deal. I don’t even care about the deal. No, I run a comfortable — excuse me — I run a THRIVING business, that has returned year-to-date 15.4% percent to our investors, or approximately $583 Million dollars from a trading operation that you don’t have and that we both know that you need, or else you never would’ve called me in the first place. You on the other hand, you’ve taken a salary of 18 Million? And what have you delivered? A falling stock price of negative 14 dollars? Is that what it is? You’ve also lost approximately… THREE AND A HALF BILLION FOR YOUR INVESTORSTELL ME — WHY – THE FUCK – DO I – NEED YOU?
MAYFIELD: Let’s just calm down…
ROBERT: …so we issue a press release today, say there is no deal, never was a deal. You’re not gonna be buying Old Hill, you’re not gonna be buying Quantum- you’re not gonna be buying anything; You? You’re just a browser. Now, me? I’ll continue to enjoy my earnings, and while I SOAR on princely wings, to my next winning enterprise, your stock drops another couple bucks on yet another – failed – acquisition- attempt. Bodes well for your tenure, doesn’t it?
MAYFIELD: Your price is too high.
ROBERT: You have a nice day, James.
MAYFIELD: (quickly) Four hundred.
ROBERT: Five twenty-five. That’s it. Yes or no? (short beat) And if it’s no, send any further communication right to my trash can.
MAYFIELD(extending his hand): It’s a deal.
ROBERT: (grasping it) One other thing — six months and I’m gonna be gone. I’m outta here. My daughter’s gonna take it over. You know her, you trust her.
ROBERT: And you’re gonna have to make my son a VP.
MAYFIELD (laughs): Robert…
ROBERT: No, no. He doesn’t have to do anything, he just gets the salary, he gets the office. Both of ‘em on five-year employment contracts, and my lawyers draft them. Yes or no?
Robert pulls out a pen and jots down the deal points they have just outlined onto the paper menu.
MAYFIELD (CONT’D): What are you doing?
ROBERT: I’m writing the deal.
MAYFIELD: Are you serious?
ROBERT: (ripping off the tablecloth) I’m serious. I’m very serious. Sign it. Mayfield thinks a moment, then reaches over and signs the menu. Robert does the same and then folds it into his pocket.
MAYFIELD: I’ll send over a draft of the press release.
As Robert stands to go, he clutches his bruised rib.
MAYFIELD (CONT’D): Are you all right?
ROBERT: I’m fine… Before I go — how much would you have paid…?
MAYFIELD: Six hundred. And you would’ve taken…?
ROBERT: Four seventy-five.
MAYFIELD: So we made a good deal.
ROBERT: (as he heads away) Yeah.
Robert turns back to the table.
ROBERT (CONT’D): Actually, I lied. I would’ve taken four.
Mayfield shrugs and returns to his paper. Robert walks out of the restaurant, beaming.
Phe-nominal scene! Talk about defining a character through action! He just had to get that last shot in, just had to win. Mission accomplished, 500 million dollar deal written on a restaurant tablecloth, his business is saved, but what’s he do now? The exterior plot arc is nailed down but what about his soul? Can he stand living with himself and never admitting guilt in the death of his lover in that car wreck?
There are a couple nice plot twists when we discover the cops produced a false document to press the African-American kid. When Gere discovers it he thinks he’s in the clear, until his wife blackmails him, saying she’ll tell the cops the truth if he doesn’t cave in and sign her divorce papers.
ELLEN: Okay, uhm, the police have been trying to talk me. I assume they want to know where you were that night. And you know what? I’m not gonna lie for you anymore. Not unless you sign that.
ROBERT: Yeah, this leaves me with nothing.
ELLEN: I think you’ll find a way to manage. I’m sure you have all kinds of things offshore for a rainy day.
ROBERT: This is fuckin’ crazy.
ELLEN: No, if you sign, then I’ll tell your lie. I’ll say you were at home with me that night, all night, together, here, and you’ll be free and clear. And the people who need our money will get it. That’s my price.
ROBERT: You’re out of your mind. I am not signing that. I will not sign that!
ELLEN: Well then… I’ll have to tell them that you came home at four-thirty bruised and bleeding…
ROBERT: Are you trying to blackmail me?
ELLEN: I think we call it negotiating.
ROBERT: You’re not gonna win that one. There’s no fucking way.
ELLEN(finally cries): You broke — our little girl’s heart.
ROBERT: It’s how it all works, Ellen. You know that.
ELLEN: I do, but she didn’t.
ROBERT: She’ll be better for it. The world is cold.
ELLEN (turns and heads out): Then you’re gonna need a warm coat.
And shortly thereafter, we go to big charity event, with Robert Miller’s daughter knowing the guy is a lie and fraud, mouthing her own lies, like father like daughter:
INT. GRAND BALLROOM – LATER
Seated at one of the many round tables are Robert, Ellen, Peter, Gavin, Syd, Jeffrey, and a few spouses and attendants.
Chamber MUSIC plays while everyone eats dinner.
We focus in on Robert as he stares intently out into the room, his eyes a mixture of ferocity and resignation. In the distance, we hear a SPEAKER’S voice fade in. It’s Brooke.
BROOKE:…and to receive this prestigious award, I invite now to the stage the man who led this generous effort, and whose financial trading firm, Miller Capital, has just this morning been acquired by Standard Bank and Trust, a dedicated businessman, family man, scholar, philanthropist and all-around humanitarian, a man I am lucky to call — my mentor, my friend – and my father — Mr. Robert Miller…
Robert stands against deafening APPLAUSE as he makes his way to the stage and, in one continuous shot, gives Brooke a hug, takes the podium, opens his notes, and begins to talk.
FADE TO BLACK.
Thus, unlike Whit Whitaker from FLIGHT who, in the end, does the right thing and confesses, Robert Miller does not, and stands there amidst the deafening applause, a liar who sold his family out, a murderer who will never get caught. Now tha- tha- that’s entertainment!