Thursday, July 1, 2010

Reader mail: passive protagonists, genres to avoid, and music

Jake writes in with an interesting question:

My writing partners and I have written a heist script where the protagonist's main flaw is that he's too passive. Of course, by the end of the screenplay he's arced into a much more assertive character who's driving the plot.

The problem is that in the first act he's... you've guessed it, passive.

My basic question: does passivity ever work as a character flaw, or should our protagonist be driving the action, even in Act 1?

This is another call that's hard to make just off the short description. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few films with a "passive in Act One" protagonist.

Star Wars - Yeah, you heard me. Luke spends a lot of time whining about wanting to leave, but he doesn't actively pursue that until his aunt and uncle are killed. That's, what, 45 minutes into the film? R2-D2 does all the heavy lifting of moving the story forward until that point. After all, if it wasn't for R2 going out at night, Luke would never go after him and thus never meet Obi-Wan and even then, it still takes a push to get him going.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off - As either Roger Ebert or William Goldman pointed out long ago (and I could have sworn Emily Blake discussed recently), Cameron is the real protagonist of the film. He's the only one with an arc. And guess what? He's dragged around by Ferris for the first act, until the gang finally heads downtown.

Rocky Balboa - I love this movie, but Rocky really doesn't do anything in the first act. It's all about establishing the state of his life, showing us why he eventually will need that final bout.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin - Seriously, what does Andy do to try to lose his virginity in the first 30 minutes? Does he try to change anything in his life in the first 30 minutes?

I'm sure there are more examples I could come up with if I tried. I think the key is that the film has to establish the main character's "Need" or "Goal" in the first act. Even if they're not actively working towards it, we need a firm sense of what they have to overcome in order for the story to end.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin is probably the best example for your purposes. Right off the bat we learn that Andy's "problem" is that he's never had sex. Then, he's put into situations where that fact causes conflict. We see he has trouble relating to guys during a poker game sex talk and how awkward he is with women in other situations. We don't see Andy trying to solve the problem but we absolutely are shown that the problem MUST be solved.

Since passivity is your character's flaw and you say that by the second act he's become more active, my hunch is that you're on safe ground.

No It's Just a Spaceship (love the name) sent me this email question:

Just as theatre is currently swamped with improvised films, musicals based on the same films, zombies, and parodies of popular TV shows, I'm sure there's plenty of scripts you essentially read over and over. Would you consider sharing, say, the ten most overdone genres/topics of the moment? I'm imagining teenage vampires, conspiracy films, and Avatar rip offs are quite popular right now.

This is going to sound funny but I'm less annoyed by the same concepts than I am by unimaginative executions of those concepts. I've probably read hundreds of slasher horrors. 90% of them had to be utter crap, and yet oddly I'm not burned out on those because every now and then I come across a good one that actually is that much more impressive for the failures that surround it.

Rip-offs of The Hangover are actually more in vogue than Avatar ones, at least as far as my submission pile. And again, the problem isn't that the writers are playing in the raunchy comedy territory, it's that they really don't have a story to go with it. They think that sending four guys on a wild episodic chase through Vegas is enough to sustain a movie, particularly if there's room for an anal sex gag involving a stripper, and possibly a moment where the guys end up in a (gasp!) gay bar and somehow end up performing on stage.

But if there is an overdone genre I'm bored to death by it's the "morally conflicted hitman gets into trouble on one last job." It's usually written like it'll be a low-budget action fest and plays like a mixtape of the first draft of every scene that Tarantino ever wrote. The funny thing is that this concept is so prolific, but it's not like there's been a recent mega-hit in that genre. There hasn't been a studio-killing flop, so it's not "radioactive" either, but it's funny that so many writers are drawn to that.

At the end of the day, guys like me are going to be looking for scripts that we can take to our boss and say "This will make you money." It's not like we are only looking for films that can be easily compared to the current Variety weekly Top-Ten box office listings, but we're going to want something that has an audience. Yeah, it sucks to read yet another rom-com where the couple that's meant to be is somehow about to marry the wrong people, but it doesn't make us any less likely to recognize a good example in that strip-mined genre.

If you're a great writer, don't worry that there are 100 other guys sending out scripts dealing with similar concepts. Strong writing rises to the top, so don't let that stop you from writing that teenage vampire movie, so long as you've got something to say with it.

Having said that, here are genres I see a lot of that no one should waste their time writing. They're not necessarily the hot ones "in-town," but I see these scripts over and over again from unrepped and hip-pocket writers:

Anything Holocaust or WWII related.

Hell, anything that can be described as "period" at all.

Expensive sci-fi films, particularly those with complex mythologies.

The aforementioned hitman trope.

Any film where the comedy is based around a straight guy pretending to be gay.

Any porn-related comedy. Porn isn't as funny as you think it is, assclowns.

Political films that are a thinly-veiled criticism of Bush-era policies. (Been working on this script for three or four years, have we?)

The disaffected quarterlife reflection on how your life (oops! I surely meant to say "the main character's life") isn't what they thought it would be, and how no one will hire them, no one will sleep with them and even their friends are a font of depression. When I read a script like that, I'm often reminded of one of Dennis Miller's best lines before he went all right-wing and unfunny: "There's nothing in the world more interesting to me than my orgasm, and nothing less interesting to me than yours!"

Dylan asks:

My question is what's your take on the putting songs in a script. I'm NOT talking about songs like music in: blah blah blah, but more of things like our character would listen to. Say for example he's riding in his car singong along to his favorite song or even just listening to it. Isn't that ok because the writer is showing us another side to him whereas when you say music in you're putting music in the directors decision area (granted it's all up to the director in the end). Just wanted your take on it.

I'm going to share with you the moment I understood why 50% of the audience loved (500) Days of Summer and 50% of the audience hated it. Ten minutes into the film, there's a scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt have their first real conversation, in an elevator. And what do they bond over? Music.

This is just my personal taste, but I hate hate hate hate scenes that are basically two twentysomethings saying "Omigod! You like [obscure band that establishes my quirky, anti-mainstream street cred]?! So do I! Let's make out and then have wild sex to a Warner Records-approved soundtrack!"

I think it's a little played out. Granted, this might have something to do with the fact that the first words out of anyone's mouth when discussing Garden State were "It has such a great soundtrack." And look, I went through my Natalie Portman phase, but if she ever told me that listening to the Shins would change my life, I'd be looking for a quick way to escape the conversation and try to find a less vapid girl to converse with.

Sorry... you hit a sore point.

Strictly speaking, there's nothing really wrong with the scenario you suggest. I'd just caution that it comes with all the other pitfalls of any pop culture related scene/discussion - it's might be too self-indulgent, too proud of its own cleverness, or feel too much like the writer shoe-horning his own tastes into the script just for its own sake.

Don't NOT do it because I said so, but don't be surprised if some grump like me reacts to it as described above.


  1. I respectfully disagree with either Mr. Ebert or Mr. Goldman (whomever made the statement) ... Ferris Bueller is the protagonist of Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

    True, Cameron arcs and Ferris doesn't, but that's hardly uncommon ... There are those protagonists whose sole function is to change others (see the Gump review on SS today).

    That's what Ferris does. He's the engine of change in others, as Keith at WP notes, his is an arc of "cool". Some protags are so cool, they completely change everyone else and don't change themselves, because they're such unique characters.

    Chili Palmer doesn't arc, either. But he changes most everyone he comes into contact with.

    IMHO, of course.

  2. Regarding Virgin:

    "We don't see Andy trying to solve the problem but we absolutely are shown that the problem MUST be solved."

    I asked my pro mentor about passive Andy a few years ago and he gave a similar answer. He said, Andy HAS the get laid soon or he'll never be right with the world. He's about to turn into the male version of a cat woman. The first act shows us the precipice he's on. The stakes are primal, so it works.

  3. Excellent post, especially since it mentioned me.

    Here's the post you were talking about:

  4. Hey, Bitter, this is Jake. Thanks for the top billing and the thoughtful answer. I feel better about the script because, damn, that passive to assertive arc is now so hard baked into the script I'd just have to leave it if that was a deal breaker.

    We know an A-list screenwriter and are getting set to approach him with the script, so fingers crossed.

  5. 一定要保持最佳狀況呦,加油!!!期待你發表的新文章!.................................................................

  6. "...but I hate hate hate hate scenes that are basically two twentysomethings saying "Omigod! You like [obscure band that establishes my quirky, anti-mainstream street cred]?! So do I!"

    Bitter you just got a shit-ton of street cred points in my book. Haha, "in yo face trendy hipsters!"

  7. I am equal parts cinema freak and music geek. If you made stop putting musical numbers, songs, cues and references in my scripts, ya might as well just cut off my fingers and get it over with.

    let us have some joy in the spec stage.

  8. We never want protagonists to be passive, but as you pointed out, occasionally the arc or lesson for the character to learn is that you need to stand up for yourself. My favorite example is Katherine Heigl in 27 DRESSES...she needs to stand up for herself, not let people walk all over her, etc. - but that doesn't mean she's not trying to accomplish things in the movie. She's actively being a good bridesmaid, going to weddings, planning things for her sister, etc.

    GARDEN STATE is another movie with a protagonist who doesn't do a whole lot, but I think Zach Braff is still actively pursuing happiness and love.

    I think it's okay for your ARC to have to do with passivity, but your plot should not.

  9. Hey Bitter,

    You said not to bother writing "Anything Period" or "Expensive Sci fi" But what if A: these are the genres that draw and inspire you as a writer, thus making them the types of story that you excel at telling B: Shouldn't a beginning screenwriter be trying to assemble the most impressive portfolio of work possible? For sure no producer is going to want to put a 100 million dollar movie in the hands of an unproduced writer, but couldn't exceptional scripts written in either of those genres get a producer or an agent to say, : "well we certainly cant option either of these scripts yet, but based on them we think you could write the hell out of "Insert less risky project".

  10. Looks like George Clooney's new one, The American, is a hitman on one last job flick. But it's set in Italy and based on a novel, if that makes any difference.

    Maybe this'll be the movie to make the concept radioactive since Clooney doesn't have much of a track record of hits, outside of Ocean's. He certainly killed WWII films shot in black and white, with great help from Soderberg.

  11. Shane - these days, I'm lead to believe that a writing sample on a $100 million sci-fi film isn't the sort of work that's likely to land you assignment work on a "less risky project" as you put it. It seems that the script you write is what will become your genre calling card for assignment work.

    In other words, to get an assignment on a horror-thriller, your writing sample will have to be a horror-thriller.

    There's also the fact that with sci-fi, most of the time it seems like studios are more inclined to adapt comic books, video games or novels in that genre (or remake past films in that genre) rather than look for original sci-fi. Expensive sci-fi is just not a genre that's going to do you any favors in launching a career.

  12. Haha your answers to the second two questions made me laugh a lot.