Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Why You Need To Play With Your Characters’ Status

I’m currently having great fun reading Keith Johnstone’s book Impro: Improvisation And The Theatre. It’s a book of improvisation techniques and exercises for theatre actors, and it’s full of enlightening insights for screenwriters. In his chapter on status, for example, Johnstone sets out how he gets actors to understand, through practicing different roles, the importance of the various characters’ status in a scene. He gives some hilarious examples of students playing high and low status to each other, to the space around them, to objects and so on. But always with the intention of making students aware…

… that we are pecking-order animals and that this affects the tiniest details of our behaviour.

It’s essential for actors to understand what status characters have in the scene, and to what extent this conflicts with what they and the other characters believe about themselves. Is it a master-servant relationship, a subtle difference of rank, do the characters have superiors as well as minions, etc.

The issue of status is also important for screenwriters, though. Even a scene with no dialogue can show the characters’ attitudes to themselves and each other in terms of status. A character who feels in charge, who is on their own territory, will move and occupy the space differently from someone who feels intimidated and powerless. Equally, in terms of dialogue, characters constantly reinforce or challenge each other’s status with the subtleties of their language.

Above all, status is expressed in behaviour. It’s not just some abstract notion of social standing or military rank. One character may formally have a lower status than another, but they can still play high-status, in order to bluff or to reassure themselves, or for some other reason.

Here’s a brief example from The Departed by William Monahan. In this scene Billy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is trying to infiltrate into the mob run by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). He’s been called in to meet with Costello at his home. He’s wearing a wire and he’s very scared of being discovered. Also present is Costello’s right-hand man Mr. French (Ray Winstone), a ruthless killer.

Costello sits down in the breakfast area in his bathrobe. He has a bowl of cornflakes.


.....Have a seat Billy.

.....Thank you.

.........(he looks up)
.....You know John Lennon?

Billy sits. Mister French is nearby.

.....Yeah, he was president before

.....Lennon said “I’m an artist. You
.....give me a fuckin’ tuba and I’ll get
.....you something out of it.”

.....I’d like to squeeze some fuckin’
.....money out of it.

Costello and Mr. French look at each other.

.....Smart mouth. Too bad.

Costello lifts a piece of plastic on the table revealing a severed human hand. Billy tries to conceal his shock.

See how that’s done? Costello receives Billy in his pyjamas while eating his breakfast. He is so much higher in status that he is completely unthreatened and totally at ease. He also has his lieutenant at his side. He gets to determine when Billy sits and Billy confirms the relationship by politely thanking him. Then Billy shows he’s more than just another hoodlum for hire by being flippant, and it’s clear that Costello registers this and appreciates it. He does this first of all by smiling, and when Billy is flippant again, by looking at his lieutenant before speaking, as if to say: Do you see how much guts this guy has got?

Costello’s judgement, passed as perfunctorily as Caesar at the games, “Smart mouth. Too bad,” expresses amusement and concern. These both reflect his higher status. He’s saying: I like this guy and I might consider hiring him, but he also might just be too clever for his own good so I might just have to put him in his place. So to finish off, just to show Billy who’s really boss, Costello uncovers the human hand on his desk.

This scene would have played very differently if Billy didn’t try and up his status by being clever. He takes a huge risk, because his flippancy can be construed as a sign of strength (I’m not scared of anyone), or of nervousness (I’ve got something to hide). We the audience feel his anxiety. We feel hope as he impresses Costello and then despair when Costello cuts him back down to size.

Great insights from Keith Johnstone, great writing from William Monahan. Don’t you just love this profession?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Screenwriting Technique #429D: Reverse Engineering

Often screenwriting isn’t a neat linear process. You don’t necessarily sit down and think up A followed by B and therefore C, etc. Perhaps you wake up one morning and you know what C is, but you still haven’t a clue why.

Sometimes the best way to write a beat or a scene, is to start at the end and work backwards in small steps from there. Reverse engineering, as it were. For example, as I’ve found in recent weeks, if you’re working towards a cliffhanger, it can help to know in advance what the cliffhanger is going to be.

For whatever reasons, it makes a difference when your focus changes from, “What happens next?” to “What happened before?” It’s perhaps a more logical, conscious approach, because you’re looking at the result of an action and trying to decipher what the cause could have been. Like a detective reconstructing possible scenarios from clues at a crime scene.

The principle is the same whether you’re writing for animation or live action. You have a specific image or turning point which you feel just has to be in the script. Perhaps the genre demands a particular set piece. A car chase, a first kiss, a murder. Maybe you have an important reveal that needs to be cleverly hidden. A hidden identity, a family secret, a betrayal.

At a less detailed level, perhaps when you’re outlining, reverse engineering is sometimes also the best way to plan out a sequence or even an entire screenplay. Maybe you just have a few big scenes in your mind, tent poles on which you want to hang the rest of the story. In that case too, looking back at how the action in the scene came about, can be enlightening.

Whatever the reason that you know your narrative destination, what happens when you work backwards is that your options are pleasantly narrowed. I say pleasantly, because sometimes an endless number of options can be daunting. Knowing the result before the action that led to it, focuses your creative faculties on possible causes, which by definition is a more limited set of choices than possible outcomes. Especially given the nature of your story world, the point in the character’s development, and other limiting aspects of your story.

On the other hand, the danger of this approach comes from precisely the same place as the benefit: its rationality. If the outcome is predetermined, and therefore your options limited, there’s a risk that you might not come up with the kind of unexpected twists that you otherwise would. But hey, sometimes an element of predictability is precisely what you want in order to be able to play with the audience’s expectations.

Of course, this being a screenwriting technique, it’s not a rule and it’s not always the appropriate method to choose. It’s just one of many ways to approach the task at hand. The bottom line, as always, is: whatever works for you.