Michael Lee Simpson
FROM FORREST GUMP TO HAL IN “2001”—WHAT MAKES A CHARACTER MEMORABLE
A white feather floats through the air, drifting high in the afternoon sky. As it drops, fluttering through clouds, “Paramount Pictures Presents” fades in with opening titles—“A Steve Tish/Wendy Finerman Production”—“A Robert Zemekis Film”—and the feather travels further on its journey, whisked away by the breeze, hovering over a busy Savannah, Georgia street. The feather falls even further, brushing against a man’s shoulder and whirling over the hood of a car before landing on a mud-soaked Nike shoe. A hand reaches down and picks it up, meeting the face of a movie legend, although we don’t know it yet. Sitting on the bus stop bench, Forrest Gump, like all timeless and remarkable characters, has a story to tell.
“There are two things that draw me to a character,” said writer/producer Carla Kettner (The Blacklist, Zoo, Bones, The Mob Director, Judging Amy). “First, I love a good risktaker. I like my fictional characters to dive headlong into trouble. Secondly, I’m a big fan of smart dialogue. Again, that’s probably wish fulfillment because in real life it’s so damn hard to say the right thing in the right way at the right moment. Combine a risk-taking, smart-talking character with an actor who understands the words they’re saying, and that’s as close to magic as I’m ever likely to get.”
Carole Kirschner, Director of the WGA Showrunner Training Program and the CBS Diversity Writers Program, and author of Hollywood Game Plan: How to Land a Job in Film, TV or Digital Entertainment, has read over five-thousand scripts in her lifetime. “The characters I fall in love with are multidimensional and they surprise me in some way. They might be a type of character I’ve seen before, but they’re written with a fresh twist. A high school nerd who secretly writes steamy blogs. A brilliant lawyer who’s womanizing, a drug-addicted gambler, but is still somehow likable. And a character doesn’t have to be likable. They just need to be compelling in some way so I’m dying to know what they’re going to do next.”
Information about a character’s past is sometimes told in subtle ways. In the Forrest Gump script by Eric Roth, before Hanks says “Hello. My name’s Forrest. Forrest Gump,” items are shown in the suitcase he opens: A box of chocolates, clothes of many time periods, a ping-pong paddle and a “Curious George” book. We see a story of many stories crafted in a small space. You would never guess the unassuming man is a war hero, world ping-pong champion, Apple Inc. stockholder, Watergate whistleblower, founder of Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, and a key participant in world history, who today would be worth $49 billion.
“They refuse to be forced along the writer’s preconceived ideas about the plot,” said Dan McLellan, writer for the Netflix sci-fi series Lost in Space. “Their personality and character flaws will deviate them from the path the writer had in mind. This is good. Ideally, you always want a character’s inherent qualities to change the story, and this will help you avoid cliché…That’s the reward for creating richly drawn characters: Story.”
“I want to see and feel authenticity,” stated Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning producer Ross Katz of Sui Generis Pictures, who started out as a grip on Reservoir Dogs before moving on to produce gems like Trick, Marie Antoinette, In The Bedroom, Lost in Translation and My Dinner With Hervé, and write/direct Taking Chance (Kevin Bacon, who won a Golden Globe), Adult Beginners (Ross Byrne) and the Nicholas Sparks romantic drama The Choice. “I like messy people, and especially appreciate when they are written from a place of truth—regardless of genre. It takes years to get movies made. And a ton of emotional energy. I like so many genres but won’t take something on unless the passion is there. I have a really simple litmus test: I ask myself ‘will you lose sleep if you don’t do this?’ And, ‘When I am old, will I look back in the rearview mirror with regret—regret that I didn’t fight to get something made?’”
“Early in my career I was fortunate enough to be reading scripts by people like Quentin Tarantino and Scott Rosenberg as they were being turned in,” reflected producer Richard Potter (Scream 2, Mimic, Phantoms, Allied Forces, The Prophecy and former Dimension Films/Miramax executive.) “The characters in those screenplays were real and believable in the context of the world the writers had created. However, in the real world, those characters would be ridiculous. The characters have to feel like they really live in the world of the script. As a writer myself, I always had a set context rules for my own characters that I also applied to scripts I read. I had it on a post-it note on my computer monitor for a while. It said ‘Is it real? Is it fair?”
“A well-written, well-acted character is everything for me when it comes to reading a script or watching a film or television show,” said longtime literary agent, producer, former partner at CAA and Wicked Curve president David Styne, who among others represents screenwriters Caspian Tredwell-Owen (Beyond Borders, The Island), Ken Kaufman (Space Cowboys, The Missing), Vincent Ngo (Hancock) and Ray Gideon and Bruce Evans (Stand By Me, Starman, Mr. Brooks). With an eye for complex characters, notably the tortured obsessive-compulsive billionaire Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, Styne has taken on powerhouse clients in his career, pioneers like Oliver Stone, Michael Mann, Taylor Hackford, and John Logan, packaging films like Any Given Sunday, World Trade Center, American History X, Inside Man, and Black Swan. “What draws me in is authenticity, edge, a past, a present that he/she is dealing with, and a future to get to. I am drawn to depth in a character, and characteristics that I can relate to, aspire to, and try to connect with.”
The list is long—just a handful, Charles Foster Kane, Norman Bates, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Tyler Durden, Hannibal Lecter—but not all of them are human, either, or even resemble a human-like The Terminator. Empire published an article titled “100 Greatest Movie Characters.” Number 90 was HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, also number 13 on AFI’s list of greatest villains. The little asteroid, a glass circle with a red dot, speaks in a monotonous computerized voice. Its presence, however, maybe even with a hint of evil, is more than its dull traits.
“I have a movie [Blackbird] which was given to me at a dinner party,” said The H Collective President of Production/producer Sherryl Clark (Cloverfield, Morning Glory and action film Jolt starring Kate Beckinsale, to be released next year). I was seated next to the screenwriter and we were talking about his career and he asked me to read an adaptation he did of a Danish film, entitled Silent Heart. I was skeptical at first…given that the film was about euthanasia. Tough subject matter to be sure, but once I read his Americanized version, I knew I wanted to produce the film. The characters were so rich, the themes were beautiful and the writing was captivating. I immediately sent it to Roger Michell. I had been sending him about a script a year since we made Morning Glory together in 2009. It only took a decade to find another project to do together. Once Roger was on board, we found the financing almost immediately and then were lucky enough to get Kate Winslet attached to play the oldest daughter…quickly followed by Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill, Mia Wasikowska, and Rainn Wilson. I am so proud of the film and excited for people to see it.”
“I read a lot of books and it’s this kind of magical feeling that comes over you, said Mark Perez, screenwriter of Accepted and Game Night. When you’ll be caught up in a book that shouldn’t be all that interesting. I’ll stop and go, ‘Why the F am I so locked in here? It’s a story about a copier salesman who hates his life.’ And so, I think it just comes down to the following: everybody has a story to tell…If it’s told with honesty. Through the opaque prism of humanity.”
Many times, before anyone is introduced, a film will launch into the time period and setting before anything else—establishing the world where they will live, walk, and talk.
“When I’m watching a film, I look for a hook in the opening or in the first few minutes,” said screenwriter and The Death Of Francis Stevens author Randy Maizuss. “It doesn’t have to be a car explosion, but something interesting needs to occur to keep me watching. For example, in Boogie Nights, my favorite film, the movie opens with a marquee at a movie theatre and we discover, immediately, that we’re in 1977.”
Much of the time, actors or actresses giving a memorable performance make it their own. Daniel Day-Lewis, even with heartless oil tycoon Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood, practices method acting for every role. Christian Bale withered down to 110 pounds as Trevor Reznik in The Machinist, a daily diet of coffee, tuna, and an apple. Legend has it that the Joker drove Heath Ledger to madness, killing him at the age of twenty-eight. For better or worse, they take the risk and jump into the character’s soul.
“What really matters to me is that they are the manifestations of an original voice,” explained Starlight Runner CEO Jeff Gomez, who has worked on blockbusters including Avatar, Halo, Pirates of the Caribbean, Magic: The Gathering, Men in Black, and Spider-Man starring showy, flashy characters. “I want to see characters that could only have come from this writer because she has had a specific life experience, or he has been exposed to some aspect of the world that few others have encountered or imagined. I’m less interested in ‘types,’ even if they are amusing. If you are integrating people of color or other kinds of diversity in name only, don’t bother. Let the casting agents take care of that.”
Thuc Nguyen, Considerate Content and TheBitchListScreenplays.com creator, Contributing Writer at The Daily Beast and founder of StartWith8Hollywood, said, “I’m drawn in by flawed woman characters who are leads and not conventional girlfriend/wife characters. They have to be relatable enough to follow for over an hour. They can be ordinary, as long as they either go through extraordinary experiences or do extraordinary things.”
Oritte Bendory, founder of writing/coaching service The Pitchsmith, recognized the value of complex characters and capitalized it in her storytelling, now with a sci-fi film in development at Amblin Entertainment and a thriller in pre-production with STX Films. “If the stakes they are up against are formidable and clear from the get-go, in a way that is authentic and believable, even if they may be a deeply flawed character.”
During a brief stint at ICM, Styne explored writing himself and wrote a buddy comedy spec script titled Carnival, optioned by Stone Village Productions. He continues: “Write to the market, but to also focus on characters that are rich that can drive multiple seasons of television or compel people to go to the cineplex once they all re-open!”
-Creative Screenwriting Magazine