I had to cut off my last discussion on character introduction. I wanted to give you a few more examples of how the pros write character descriptions that make an impact. Remember, this is the first glimpse every producer and actor get at your characters so let’s pack up those 35, average height, wearing jeans descriptions and get this right. What we’re looking for is visual essence. Here we go…
We talked about characters defined by their surroundings. Here’s a great example from High Fidelity.
INT. ROB’S APARTMENT – NIGHT
Not a minisystem, not a matching set, but coveted audiophile
clutter of McIntosh and Nakamichi, each component from a
different era, bought piece by piece in various nanoseconds
of being flush.
What came first? The music or the
misery? People worry about kids
playing with guns and watching
violent videos, we’re scared that
some sort of culture of violence is
taking them over…
Big thin LPs. Fields of them. We move across them, slowly…
they seem to come to rest in an end of a few books… but
then the CD’s start, and go on, faster and faster, forever
then the singles, then the tapes…
But nobody worries about kids
listening to thousands — literally
thousands — of songs about broken
hearts and rejection and pain and
misery and loss.
It seems the records, tapes, and CD’s will never end until…
we come to ROB — always a hair out of place, a face that
grows on you. He sits in an oversized beanbag chair and
addresses us, the wall of music behind him.
Did I listen to pop music because I
was miserable, or was I miserable
because I listened to pop music?
The visual essence of a character can also be found in their surroundings outside of where they live. For instance, here’s the first look we get at the Nick Cage character in Leaving Las Vegas.
1 INT. SMART BAR IN BEVERLY HILLS – NIGHT
It is the kind of bar where the well-to-do folks of LA go
to pick up – or be picked up. Lesser-known actors, agents
and executives of all ages.
Into this bar comes Ben.
Ben is in his thirties. He is wearing an Armani suit
that could use a visit to the dry-cleaner’s. He hasn’t
shaved in the last twenty-four hours (but neither has
any of the actors in the bar). He is a good-looking man
but is clearly in trouble of some kind. Although still
in control of his faculties, it becomes clear in the
following scene that he is much the worse for wear with
drink. He looks around the room until he sees someone he
recognizes and then walks over to a table where two couples
are seated. The men are young execs, the girls, both blonde
and busty, have very white teeth and smile all of the time.
The camera follows Ben over to the table. One of the execs
looks up as Ben gets close. He recognizes him but delays
his recognition until the last moment in the hope that Ben
is not looking at him.
So L.A.! No dialogue needed for us to see this character as being this close to out of control. The journey of this tortured character study will take him all the way, and us with him. I love the SERA description too, from the same movie. She’s a Vegas prostitute but look how the description downplays that…
Into the lobby from the street comes Sera.
It’s hard to tell how old Sera is – somewhere between
twenty-five and thirty-five. She is a beautiful American
girl. Her face has the freshness of a model in a Sears
catalogue. She is dressed simply in a short black skirt
and matching jacket. High heels complete the picture.
Heads turn as she passes a group of businessmen and it’s
clear they find her very sexy. She acknowledges their
glance with a half-smile and steps into the elevator.
She could be a secretary, or a PA to one of the many
execs here in Las Vegas at a convention. The body language
is a bit different, though.
Check out this description of WILSON from THE LIMEY. Almost entirely “cheated”–meaning unfilmable. The camera can see little of this internal description but the actors and director will love it, the stuff of a 3D portrayal from the very start. Pick your spots to cheat on the unfilmables, like when we first see the protagonist.
WILSON steps out into the late sunlight and the heat of the
day. A slow-motion moment while he gets acclimatized. He
wouldn’t have ever felt quite this kind of heat before.
After such a rigorously air-conditioned interior. Or seen
cops wearing guns on their belts. Or black cops, for that
matter, with guns on their belts. Or seen people as fat as
Americans on their home turf. Things someone from England
notices immediately, whether consciously at first or not.
This flea won’t bite the heel of Martin Scorsese. Especially the pre-DiCaprio Scorsese, the Mean Streets Scorsese…but…
A couple of the character descriptions in the screenplay may have taken a liberty of two too many. You be the judge. Here’s the Keitel character:
CHARLES CAPPA JR. (CHARLIE) is 25 of Sicilain origin. He
was educated in Roman Catholic Parochial schools with one
year and a half at a Jesuit college. CHARLIE was raised
sternly in the Roman Catholic tradition but now has rejected
many of the religion’s tenets. He is very intelligent and
has a sharp sense of humor. He is always well dressed. His
favorite authors are Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Hardy, and
Theodore Dreiser. He likes reading but enjoys films more.
He is very fond of the New Testament and often exchanges
quotes from it with his friend TONY.
The Roman Catholic backstory? Sure. His favorite authors? Uh…. He likes reading but enjoys films more? Nope. Too far into the unfilmable, and not specific enough in defining. Billions on the planet like movies more than books–what’s that specifically tell me about Charlie? Now to Johnny Boy, one of the great Scorsese characters….
EXT. STREET – DAY
A deserted warehouse area in lower Manhattan. Prominent in
the frame is a brightly painted red white and blue mailbox,
contrasting with the drab hues of the neighborhood.
JOHNNY BOY walks down the street toward camera. JOHN
CIVELLO (JOHNNY BOY) is 23 years old. He is an only child
and lives with his mother, a divorcee. He is clean cut
looking, yet slightly radical in dress. He was expelled
from high school for vandalism and consequently spent
several months in reform school. He is reckless,
unambitious, nihilistic, and was classified a psychiatric 4-
F. He is first cousin of TERESA RONCHALI who lives next
door to CHARLIE. He has adopted TERESA’S family as his own
and spends more time with them than he does with his mother.
JOHNNY is carrying a package wrapped in plain brown paper
under his arm, and he is smiling. He drops the package into
the mailbox and keeps walking. But he is moving a little
faster now and smiling a little more.
Suddenly the mailbox explodes. Dozens of red, white and
blue fragments shower down on the street. The impact of the
blast knocks JOHNNY down. TITLE APPEARS on bottom of frame:
The physical action stuff is great. It defines this guy from the very first shot. But the backstory stuff above it runs about five lines, everything from whose cousin he is to him being unambitious and nihilistic. A psychiatric 4-F works as far his psycho side but where do you draw the line? I don’t really care if his mother is a divorcee. Could we argue this point? Sure, but I’d drop a couple lines from the above.
That’s the point, Good Reader. This isn’t brain surgery. No single way to pull this off. Read a thousand screenplays, see how the best do it, and go and do likewise. OK?