You’ll often hear people talk of gray characters. Meaning they are neither black nor white, complex, surprising, challenging, resisting cliches. How do you go about doing that, exactly?
The toughest part is finding the balance between the good in someone and the not so good. You want a multidimensional protagonist, so you sprinkle in some pepper, some badness, maybe even—at first glance—some downright evil aspects. The difficulty is adding that complexity without making an audience hate your lead. Unless hate was what you were after in anti-hero style, the question you need to ask is how far out do you go tearing down a character before you build them back up to where we see and understand the journey, and look at it as something real, something truthful.
Saw an instructional movie on this last week, FLIGHT, with a killer performance by Denzel Washington. Let’s look at the script and see how the screenwriter, John Gatins, wrote the complex character Whip Whitaker.
Spoiler alert! If you haven’t seen FLIGHT and plan to, you might want to stop reading now.
Page 1 sets the tone…
Back to the bed as WHIP WHITAKER rises into frame and inhabits the room like a lazy ape at the zoo. WHIP wears his 40 some years of life experience like a medal. Smoke hangs in the air and empty beers, a pint of vodka and two empty carafes of cheap hotel wine clutter the table as WHIP snatches up his phone and answers…
VOICE: For the love of Christ! Look…just hold… HOLD ON.
He aggressively drains the last four inches of beer from a clear bottle and cracks the last fresh one that bobs in the hotel ice bucket.
The naked, YOUNG WOMAN bends over to pick up her clothes. We witness her ass as a tanned glass vase with a perfect crack down the middle. Whip smiles, taking it all in…
TRINA is still naked but she holds a navy blue skirt and a white blouse as she hands WHIP his pants. WHIP can’t help but pat that perfect ass as TRINA tries to skip away.
ON THE RADIO We hear the opening bars of a familiar rock anthem…JOE COCKER’s “I’m Feeling Alright”
WHIP: Yeah, I’m feelin’ a little lightheaded. I shoulda ate somethin’.
WHIP leans over the motel table, picks up a soda straw that’s been cut in half. He efficiently sniffs up a line of coke.
This dude is a party monster! Booze, coke. Blood alcohol limit of .02-whatever, three times the legal limit to drive a Subaru, and he happens to be flying a JR-88 commercial airplane that very morning. Damn! Great conflict set up from page 1.
They take off and find themselves in very rough air right from the start. Whip remains calm, instincts take over and he leads the plane out of it. It takes him about two minutes to release himself from his Captain duties, and find the bar cart:
INT. CABIN – GALLEY – DAY
WHIP opens a bottle of orange juice and takes a big swig. He then pours half of it in the sink. WHIP places the open juice bottle on the liquor cart, reaches up, and grabs the cabin mic to address the passengers.
WHIP: Folks, this is Captain Whitaker. If you look up, I’m here in the galley. I will wave to you.
WHIP steps into the aisle so the passengers can see him. WHIP waves with a calm smile that would put anyone at ease.
WHIP (CONT’D):Good Morning. I apologize for the bumps, but Florida just doesn’t seem to like us Georgians. Must be the beatin’ the Bulldogs put on the Gators last fall.
Titters of laughter from the passengers as WHIP moves the half step he needs to put himself behind the liquor cart.
WHIP (CONT’D): Stretch out and relax. The air might stay a little cranky so I’m gonna ask that you sit tight if you can, with your seat belts fastened.
We now watch from behind WHIP as his free hand reaches into the top drawer of the liquor cart and pulls three small vodka bottles out.
WHIP (CONT’D): We won’t have beverage service but the girls will walk through with water and snacks and I’ll have you in Atlanta in about 40 minutes. Thank you.
WHIP puts the mic to its hook. Alone in the galley and out of view, he quickly empties the vodkas into the orange juice bottle and replaces the cap. Whip shakes the juice as he tosses the little empties into the galley trash. Whip takes a healthy pull from the spiked juice, downing nearly half.
This movie is about addiction, and the lies those addicted tells themselves and others. We see this guy from page 1 as the drunk he is, but to the folks around him, he seems solid, even inspirational in the heat of the moment as he saves the plane and all lives. What is vs. what appears to be. That is the essence of character complexity. Speaking of saving lives, I have to show you the pages where, after the instrumentation blows out, he saves the airplane. The sequence is long so I’ll trim some for the sake of brevity. A great action sequence:
The G-force of the roll presses Evans away from the console.
EVANS: I CAN’T REACH THE GEAR!
WHIP: WHAT’S OUR ALTITUDE?
EVANS: 3,000…I think.
WHIP: Let it roll. I got it!
Whip quickly retracts the speed brakes, then PUSHES HIS YOKE FULL FORWARD! The clumsy liner does a slow, ungraceful roll.
INT. PLANE CABIN – SAME
WE WATCH as the PASSENGERS scream as the plane rolls over and they are suspended upside down…
EXT. SKY OVER ATLANTA – SAME
The JR-88 finishes its barrel-roll, skimming over suburban rooftops and trees. A CLOUD-TRAIL of Jet-A SPEWING from its wings…
INT. FLIGHT DECK – SAME
THE PLANE IS COMPLETELY INVERTED!! THRU THE WINDSCREEN — THE PLANE LEVELS OFF — IT’S INVERTED NOSE RISES TO MEET THE HORIZON.
EVANS hangs in his harness straps as dust and smoke swirl around him. The inverted wings make an EERIE WHISTLING SOUND as the plane SHUDDERS violently side-to-side.
EVANS: Oh Lord Jesus! We’re inverted!
WHIP reaches over and pulls the throttles back. He suddenly seems strangely calm, comfortable with his fate…
THROUGH THE WINDSHIELD WE SEE — the landscape and the church steeple getting closer and closer…
INT. COCKPIT — SAME TIME
Whip frantically spins the trim wheel!
THRU THE WINDSCREEN –THE CHURCH SPIRE IS COMING RIGHT AT US — BOOM! — THE RIGHT WING CLIPS THE STEEPLE, SHEARING OFF THE CROSS!
WE HEAR A HORRIFIC, METALLIC GRINDING — followed by a TERRIFYING SILENCE — RIGHT ENGINE STOPS.
EVANS:WE LOST ALL POWER!
An unnerving quiet descends over the passenger cabin. The only SOUND is the wind RUSHING past the air-frame.
THROUGH THE WINDSCREEN –WE’RE DROPPING RAPIDLY TOWARD THE GROUND — A GROUP OF PEOPLE GATHERED NEAR A POND IN THE CHURCHYARD SCATTER — some are wearing long white robes.
CLOSE ON WHIP –
WHIP (CONT’D): WE’RE IN A GLIDE! PITCH FOR GLIDE!
THROUGH THE WINDSCREEN — THE BEAN FIELD RUSHES UP AT US…
CLOSE ON WHIP –
BRACE! BRACE FOR IMPAC…
ALL SOUND FADES AWAY AS THE SCREEN BLEEDS HOT WHITE –OVEREXPOSED. IN GRAPHIC SLOW-MOTION — THE INSTRUMENT PANEL CRUMPLES AND COLLAPSES AROUND WHIP –
And in a final, ironic, cosmic gesture –
WHIP’S CONTROL YOKE HURDLES TOWARD HIM — IMPACTING HIM BETWEEN THE EYES –
Inverted! Unreal image. Whit saves the day and 100 lives. Only one problem…he was drunk doing it. Blood is taken, lawsuits readied, and a fall guy all picked out. Despite his heroics, Whit could go to jail for 20 years.
Enter the Don Cheadle lawyer character. Talk about grays…brought in by the pilot’s union, he works to clear Whit, but for all the wrong reasons. He gets the blood work report tossed out, works to get Whit clean for his NTSB hearing but he doesn’t much care for Whit at all. His motivation is all about $$$. In the determination of whether the airplane manufacturer or the airline was responsible, tens of millions are stake. They place Whit in solitary confinement the night before the big hearing, not a drop of booze in sight, place him under armed guard, but Whit—like any true addict—finds his way to a stash in the refrigerator of the room next door:
HOTEL ROOM CONNECTING DOOR — SAME TIME
The connecting door is unlocked. WHIP arrives and waits. He now watches as the connecting lock-bolt CLICKS against the frame — the door swinging in a draft. He looks up to see the culprit — a heating vent. WHIP flips the vent closed.
Whip now pushes the door with his finger, opening it a few inches. Nothing. Darkness.
WHIP: Hello? Anyone?
INT. CONNECTING HOTEL ROOM — SAME
The room is vacant. The bed is made. The drapes are pulled open.
WHIP walks quietly on the carpet towards the window. The night is clear. Quiet. Whip takes in the city lights.
WHIP’S POV –Among the glass and steel office buildings, Whip spots a church spire. A simple cross is perched on top. Whip looks at the church, deep in thought. Then suddenly…
We HEAR A HUM. THE GENTLE HUM OF AN ELECTRIC MOTOR.
WHIP turns from the window and scans the room…
It’s the MINI-BAR refrigerator — HUMMING to life.
Whip stares at the gleaming black box. The WHIR of the motor seems to get LOUDER. Calling Whip. Beckoning him…Whip looks at the fridge. His face is blank, His eyes tell us nothing. Then… Whip steps toward the box.
CLOSE ON THE MINI-BAR. Whip swings open the door.
WHOOSH — OUR DARK SCREEN LIGHTS.
COLORS SPARKLE as a cadre of tiny liquor bottles GLOW like jewels in a chest.
WHIP stares at the “glimmering gems” for a long, long time –vodka, gin, wine, bourbon. The bottles SHIMMER — AMBER,
CRYSTAL, EMERALD, RUBY.
WHIP reaches for a frosted vodka mini bottle — he gently pinches the neck of the bottle and lifts it out of the fridge. He holds up the mini vodka and considers it. Now Whip slowly removes the stopper and smells the White Whiskey. He looks at the bottle once more, then slowly twists the tiny cap back on. With a look of solemn resignation, Whip places the frosted mini bottle on top of the fridge and walks away.
WE STAY CLOSE ON THE BOTTLE. The CAMERA FOCUSES on the small bottle as a small droplet of condensation runs down its side– ever so slowly, slowly. Then suddenly…
WHAP!!! In a flash, WHIP SCOOPS THE VODKA OUT OF FRAME!!
Talk about dark night of the soul! Anyone who has ever struggled with substance abuse or known anyone who has will recognize the truth in this scene. You want complexity in a character? Find the true double bind—cannot take that drink, cannot stop himself from taking that drink…what does he do? The essence of conflict.
So they find him crashed out, utterly wasted, bloody, having drank not just all the gin but the vodka, rum and whisky too. Everything! The President of the Pilot’s Union and this upstanding lawyer then call John Goodman—aka Dr. Feelgood—for a cocaine hangover treatment (talk about gray characters!) slap him in a suit and get him to the NTSB hearing.
Whip is flying through, looking free and clear, able to carry on with his career, able to keep lying about his addiction, unless this happens:
A picture of Trina’s beautiful smiling face FLASHES UP ON THE BIG SCREEN.
ELLEN BLOCK: Is it your opinion that Katerina Marquez drank the vodka on the plane?
WHIP smiles at the photo of TRINA as if she can see him. He then shakes his head to snap from the memory of her great spirit. He gets serious as he bears his look down on ELLEN.
WHIP: Can you repeat the question?
ELLEN BLOCK: Your opinion Captain. Is it your opinion that Katerina Marquez drank on that flight?
Whip shakes. He runs his trembling hand through his hair.
WHIP: I’m sorry. My what…
ELLEN BLOCK: Since her toxicology report is the only toxicology report that is admissable in this hearing, and she in fact tested positive for alcohol, is it your opinion that Katerina Marquez drank those 2 bottles of vodka on the flight?
Whip drops his head and MUTTERS SOMETHING INAUDIBLE.
ELLEN BLOCK (CONT’D): I’m sorry Mr. Whitaker, I couldn’t hear you. What did you say?
WHIP: I SAID…God help me…
A confused MUMBLE rises in the room. Whip’s response flusters ELLEN for a moment, but she recovers quickly.
ELLEN BLOCK: Yes, well. However, is it your opinion…
WHIP: It’s my opinion…Trina DID NOT…drink the vodka.
ELLEN BLOCK: Excuse me, Mr. Whitaker…
WHIP: (softly, to himself) She saved that boy’s life…
ELLEN BLOCK: Captain Whitaker can you speak louder-
WHIP: (loud again) I KNOW FOR A FACT THAT SHE DID NOT DRINK THAT VODKA…
Whip stops. His whole body trembles, his face tightens. He looks right at ELLEN…
WHIP (CONT’D)… because I did. I drank the vodka.
The crowd gasps, unsure of what they just heard…
WHIP leans close to the microphone.
WHIP: I drank the vodka bottles on the plane.
ELLEN BLOCK: Mr. Whitaker, in light of that remark, would you like to readdress…
WHIP: You don’t have to readdress anything. I DRANK THE VODKA!
ELLEN BLOCK: On the three nights before the accident, October 11th-
WHIP: On October 11th, 12th and 13th and 14th I was intoxicated. I drank alcohol on all of those days. I drank to excess.
Chaos erupts further as REPORTERS outnumber SECURITY. Flash bulbs pop repeatedly and large lights are aimed at the fracas on stage as video is taken of the bizarre melee.
ELLEN BLOCK: Mr. Whitaker, on the morning of October-
WHIP: I was drunk. I’m drunk right now, Miss Block…I’m drunk right… (Whip finally breaks down) I’m drunk now, because… Because I’m an alcoholic.
We have pushed into a tight shot on WHIP’s face as the sound in the room fades away. We stay tight on WHIP’s face as he lets the moments unfold.
Suddenly the noise cuts to silence. WHIP is looking at the assembly. WHIP wipes tears from his eyes. We hear WHIP’s voice as the dialogue pre-laps the image of his face.
WHIP (V.O.): That was it…I was done. It’s as if I’d hit my life long limit for lies.
A new angle shows WHIP speaking these words…
WHIP: I could not tell one more lie. And maybe I’m a sucker. Because if I had just told one more lie? I could have walked away from that whole mess and kept my wings and my false sense of pride and most importantly I would have avoided being locked up here with all of you nice folks for the last 13 months.
We hear laughter as we pull out from WHIP to realize that he is in fact wearing a white penal jumpsuit and leading an AA meeting in a Federal Prison.
WHIP (CONT’D): It looks like I will serve every day of the remaining 4 plus years of my sentence. And that’s fair. I betrayed the public trust. I did. That’s what the judge explained to me. I had betrayed the public trust. The FAA took my license. And that’s fair. The chances of me flying again are slim to none. And I accept that.
INT. MCRAE FEDERAL PENITENTIARY — GEORGIA — DAY
A large room houses an AA meeting for about 50 inmates wearing white jumpsuits. WHIP continues his story.
WHIP: I’ve had time to think about all of it. Doing a lot of writing. I’ve written letters to each of the families that lost loved ones on my flight. Some were able to hear my apology, some never will. I’ve also apologized to all the people who tried to help me along the way, but I couldn’t or wouldn’t listen, like my wife, I mean my ex wife…(he gets emotional) …and my son. Again, some were able to forgive me…some never will. (collects himself) But at least I’m sober, and I’m grateful for that. And this is gonna sound really stupid coming from a man who’s in prison…but for the first time in my life…I’m free.
Whit is convicted and sent to prison for five years. He’ll never fly again. The life that he knew is over. And he speaks happily about being free for the first time? Yeah, it’s called a gray character, compelling and true.
Forget that the script is 149 pages. Never mind that John Gatins writes in endless camera angles, unfilmables, we sees and we hears, capped screen direction, dialogue, and character names throughout…when you conceive imagery like a plane flying inverted or plumb the depth of substance abuse to give us powerful, complex characters—you’re going to sell your script.