Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Great Character Intros

First impressions make or break a job interview, a blind date, pretty much any form of social interaction. This goes 100-fold for movies. The introduction is PRICELESS. I think we can all agree on that.

The answer always seems to be stated that it is not what the character looks like, but what they are doing that contributes to their character. I couldn't agree more. However, the majority of examples simply add an activity thinking that's all that is needed.

JOHN TOUGHGUY smokes a stogie and spits.

That's not enough. The introduction of a major character needs to be incorporated wholly into the scene. Not just four lines of description after you write his name in caps for the first time.

Watch HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE. Could you care less when Cedric dies? Why?

How was he introduced?

Can't remember?

Harry and Co. are looking for someone. They wander through the forest and find him. It is Cedric's father. All of a sudden, Cedric falls from the sky. "Ah, there's Cedric. A strapping young lad."

So far, so good. But this is the equivalent of "JOHN TOUGHGUY smokes a stogie and spits." We don't really KNOW who this character is... yet.

And we'll never get the chance. Cedric immediately walks off screen with everyone except Harry and Cedric's father. What should have been a scene about the introduction of Cedric (a character that play a rather significant role in the supposed drama of this film), it instead turns into a scene about Harry. A pointlessly expository one at that.

I can't tell you if it is the writer's fault or the director's. Frankly, I could care less. The scene doesn't work.

Let's go with a good example. Like his writing style or not... Shane Black knows how to write an introduction. Here's the scene that introduces Riggs for the first time in LETHAL WEAPON.


FOUR TOUGH-LOOKING DOCK WORKERS are camped out under the pier, warming themselves around a small bonfire, laughing loudly. Christmas decorations dangle above them from the pier, and empty beer cans litter the sand around them.

CAMERA PUSHES IN to discover an old collie tied to one of the pilings. Then we realize that the dog is being tormented by the dock workers. They flick lighted matches at him. Shake their beers and spray him in the face. These guys are not rocket scientists.

The dog cowers, tugging bn the rope. Tries to get away. All to the great amusement of its tormentors.

One of them turns, laughing --

As a shadowy FIGURE strides calmly up to the fire:
Long hair.
Cigarette dangling from-lower lip.
Shirt-tails hanging loose below the waist.

Nothing threatening in his manner as he plops down beside the men, smiling. They are immediately on their guard.

Happy holidays. Mind if I join


Fuck off.

Riggs smiles at him innocently. Strokes the collie's fur with one hand. With the other, he reaches intb a paper sack and produces, a spanking new bottle of Jack Daniels, possibly the finest drink mankind has yet produced.

I need help drinking this. Cool?

The dock workers exchange glances. There seems to be no harm in this. One of them frowns:

You a homo?

Do I look like a homo?

You got long hair. Homos got long

I hate homos. Arrggh.

Riggs shakes his head, laughs.

Boy, you guys are terrific. You
make me laugh, you just do.

At which point, appropriately enough, Punk #4 shakes a beer and sprays it in the old collie's face.

The DOG pulls away, WHINING.
Riggs leans forward.

This your dog? Nice dog.

And then, he proceeds to do a peculiar thing:
He starts to talk to the dog --
in what seems to be the dog's own language.
Very weird, folks...
He coos, snuffles, barks softly, then withdraws, listening, his ear to the dog's muzzle.
Riggs nods. Frowns.
The others look on, puzzled.
Then Riggs looks at each of the four dock workers.

Huh- You know what? He says he
doesn't want you to spray beer in
his face. He says he just hates

A pause. Uncomfortable. Then --

Oh, he does ... ?
Well, mister, why don't you ask
him what he likes...?

The others snicker. Riggs simply nods.


And once again, begins to confer with the dog. Listens intently, piecing together what he is hearing.

What ... ? You want ... oh. Oh,
hell no, I couldn't do that ...
Nossirree bob, you little nut.

He ruffles the dog's hair.
The men are more puzzled than ever as Riggs turns and says:

Get this: He wants me to beat
the shit out of you guys.

Everything stops. A cloud passes over the assembled faces and a pin-dropping silence ensues.

Riggs, completely heedless, once again attends to the dog:

What's that ... ? The one ... in the
middle... 'is a stupid fat duck'...
What ... ?
(listens again)
Oh ... Oh! A 'stupid fat fuck!'

He looks up, shakes his head.

Boy, this dog is pissed.

The one in the middle grabs Riggs by the collar. Hoists him to his feet. Gulp.

Stands, staring down at Riggs, whose eyes are completely neutral, like a snake's.

Buddy, you're shortening your
life span.

He flicks open a mean-looking switchblade.

Riggs is dead meat.

So why then, does he choose this moment to execute a Three Stooges' routine, consisting of nose tweak, eye gouge, and rotating fist that bobs the dock worker on the head... ?

He's nuts or something ...

Riggs steps back and adopts a neutral fighting stance. The others begin to circle.

The DOG BARKS. Riggs turns to the dog, but his eyes never leave his grinning attackers.

(to the collie)
What's that ... ? You want me to
take the knife away... and break
his elbow... ?

Circling ...

Riggs, watching them, his eyes beginning to dance ... Breathing slow and even...

But that would be excruciatingly
painful ...

Something inside Riggs is gearing up ... the others can perhaps sense it, their smiles falter a bit, they crouch, combat-ready...
Riggs, eyes blazing ...

And if I separated the fat one's
shoulder... he'd probably scream...

No doubt about it. We know from the look in Riggs' eyes he's nuts. He wants the fight, badly, all four of them at once ...

And then Punk #1 springs...
Big mistake.

Needless to say, mincemeat is made of the four meddlesome dog-torturers.

The beach is littered with their writhing forms as Riggs does, finally, what he set out to do:

Unties the dog.

Starts to go.
As he does, he pats his shirt ...

Pats his jeans ... Realizes his wallet has flown free during the fracas.

Scoops to retrieve it from its resting place on the sand, where it lies open, and as it lies open, yes, folks, that is a badge we see.

Riggs, we realize, is an officer of the law.


oneslackmartian said...

love it!!

Emily Blake said...

Good point about Cedric. I cried for a long time when he died in the book. In fact, that was my favorite of the HP books, mostly because of the way he died and how it elevated Harry's dilemma.

The movie didn't have remotely the same effect.

Olaf Legend said...

But in the movie, they blew away all of that and replace it with scene of Mel's nude arse as he walks to fridge - For the chicks obviously!

Remember writing advice from i think Shakesphere? "1 arse shot is worth 1000 words. Forsooth. Verily."

Great blog, much intelligent.