Tag Archives: character

Beyond the chick-flick: 8 ways to improve female-driven films, by Pilar Alessandra

18 Nov

Pilar-Alessandra-ready-to-speak-at-the-LSFPilar Alessandra is one of my favourite film lecturers: bright, engaging, great at audience participation. I recently bought her book The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Writing Your Script Ten Minutes A Time, and it’s full of useful exercises to give you a deeper understanding of character and plot. At the London Screenwriters’ Festival recently she held a seminar on Beyond The Chick Flick: Writing The Female-Driven Screenplay. Here are the best bits:

1. Films with women as leads sell. At long last. There’s Bridesmaids, The Heat, Hunger Games, Gravity. And TV, Pilar points out, is even better at giving meaty parts for women.

2. Embrace the difference. Famously, the part of Ripley in Alien was written for a man, but changed at the last minute to a woman. That created one of the most enduring and strongest heroines in modern cinema. But, says, Pilar, to adopt that strategy wholesale means missing out on gender differences and expectations that can add depth to a screenplay. In Aliens, knowing now that the protagonist was a woman, the writers used that fact to create an instant bond with the young girl Newt, which might have been less convincing in a male protagonist.

Another example Pilar used was Kill Bill, in the scene where Uma Thurman fights Copperhead in her home: they use frying pans and kitchen knives as impromptu weapons; then, when a schoolbus pulls up and Copperhead’s child enters the living room, they both stop fighting and pretend nothing’s wrong. “So have a fight scene, but don’t forget they are women, as that can bring something extra to the scene.”

3. Use gender stereotypes – but flip them. Pilar asked the audience to shout out some negative stereotypes associated with women. Most men in the audience kept very quiet at this point! The women, however, had no problem shouting things out. Then Pilar flipped showed how negatives could be re-read as positives. Emotional could be read as caring; bitchy as forthright; indecisive as cautious; gossipy as well informed.

She then used the example of Juno, which was aware of the stereotypes but inverted them all to make a more interesting and surprising film. You expect pregnant teens to be uneducated; Juno was super-articulate. Cheerleaders are usually shallow; in Juno she is supportive. The boyfriend of a pregnant teen is usually a womaniser; here it’s him who was seduced by Juno, and he’s willing to help. Parents of pregnant teens are meant to be ashamed; here they are resigned and amused. “Flipping the stereotypes on their head was enough to make a popular movie.”

4. Ask yourself: “What would a guy do?” Pilar encourages the writer to look at “masculine activity” and see if it works better. So: a female protagonist might be expected to make a careful plan and manipulate a key character into giving her information. A man might simply break into the office and steal the computer. Confounding expectations is always interesting to the audience. By the same token, when writing a male character, ask yourself sometimes what a woman might do.

5. Spin the male-driven template. Million-Dollar Baby could be pitched as “Rocky – with a female lead”. How about trying that with The Godfather? Or Star Wars?

6. Spin the female-driven template. Cinderella saves the world; Pocahontas leads a movement.

7. Don’t be flowery. When writing a female-driven screenplay, be especially careful not to be flowery in the descriptions: make the scene directions “macho”, a bold, sharp read.

8. Don’t be frightened of flaw. “Flaw is interesting. Don’t make your women too perfect.”

Read Pilar Alessandra on Creating Character, from last year’s London Screenwriters’ Festival.

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LSF report #5: The Art and Craft of Dialogue

4 Nov
Claudia Myers, Professor of Film and Media Studies at the American University's School of Communication

Claudia Myers, Professor of Film and Media Studies at the American University’s School of Communication

One for the writers among my readers. At the London Screenwriters’ Festival, I attended a seminar on The Art and Craft of Dialogue, given by Claudia Myers, professor of Film and Media Arts and writer of three produced feature films. She started off with what makes a good scene:

1. Each scene (unless it’s just crossing the road to the grocery store!) should have a beginning, middle and end, mirroring the structure of a play.

2. It should centre on conflict. And the essence of that is competing agendas – eg two dogs, one bone.

3. Start in one place and end somewhere else. If you take the scene out and the story if unchanged, you don’t need it.

4. There should be a polarity shift – like the “plus” poles and the “minus” poles. So if it starts off with things looking bad for your character, maybe it finishes by looking good. Or vice versa: you go expecting a romantic dinner, but in fact it’s been arranged to break up with you.

5. Build towards a climax, which should lead to a resolution.

Okay, now – on to what makes good dialogue within that scene:

1. It can advance the plot. If the scene is a break-up, that will be likely verbalised in some way.

2. It can reveal character. The way people say things tells a lot about who they are: their level of education, where they’re from. Maybe they’re pedantic, or use big words, or reveal someone who’s always looking on the bright side – like in Happy Go Lucky, where what she says after her bike is stolen is “Aww, I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye!” Sometimes not speaking, not answering a question, can be revealing. You can express the way characters feel about each other, whether it’s contempt or admiration. In The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft are sleeping together, but he’s still calling her “Mrs. Robinson”.

3. It can give exposition. There’s really only so many newspaper articles you can have conveniently lying around, or diplomas and picture of their past on the wall. Ideally a scene should give exposition and reveal character. Here’s a bad way to give exposition: “I’m so glad you’re my brother and it’s your birthday.” Better is “Happy birthday, sis”, or if they both talk about “Mom” it’s pretty obvious they’re siblings.

4. It can set the tone. It you’re writing a comedy and the dialogue is not making me laugh, that’s a problem.

So, those are the pillars of good dialogue. Now, always remember that good dialogue works subtextually. Subtext is when people don’t say exactly what they mean. We do it every day. “I’ll think about it” usually means “no”, politely. Actors love playing subtext, too. And good dialogue revolves around conflict.

So let’s say a girl wants to break up with her boyfriend. Bad dialogue is: “Tom, I want to break up.” “Okay.” A better start would be: “Tom, before you say anything, I just want to say that these have been the best six months of my life.” At the climax of a scene, usually, a character can’t hold back and is forced to say bluntly what they were trying to say politely, as a result of the pressure the scene puts them under.

We closed with an examination of some terrific scenes from Erin Brokovich and Fargo. None of the above is rocket science, but it’s a very useful check-list to have to hand, if you are writing a script. Go over every scene you’ve written, and the dialogue within that scene, and ask yourself: could it be working harder, and doing more of the things on that check-list?

LSF #10: Creating character with Pilar Alessandra

8 Nov

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I hope you’ve enjoyed my blogs from the London Screenwriters’ Festival: this tenth post pretty much exhausts the good material. I want to close on character, and the excellent workshop by Pilar Alessandra (left), director of the writing programme On The Page.

But first, a confession. My earlier screenplays, I realised after far too many years, were plot-based. That is, I had a good premise, puzzled it through a variety of twists [my first was a time-travel movie eerily reminiscent of Looper], and then tried to shoehorn the characters into them. As Julia Roberts would say, “Big mistake. Huge.”

Drama is conflict that emerges from character. It is not clever plotting. And as any writer will tell you, when your characters are alive, in your head, they do all the work for you: they decide what to do and say; you just take dictation.

My grandfather was a famous novelist: Richard Hughes, author of A High Wind in Jamaica and The Fox in the Attic. There is a family story that he came out of his study one day, white as a sheet. My grandmother rushed up and asked him what was wrong. “It’s Molly,” he said (Molly was a character in the book he was writing). “She’s just fallen from her horse. I rather think she might die.”

Back to Pilar Alessandra. She took us through an intriguing exercise in brainstorming a film structure from scratch, based on character. You can do it yourself, now. You’ll see you have the framework for a workable film within minutes.

First, pick a flaw, any flaw – vanity, laziness, wrath, mendacity, greed, whatever. Then give it to a character.

Now: what’s the worst situation a character with that flaw can find themselves in? So a lazy person might have to win a race; a wrathful person might have to control their temper; a mendacious person might have to tell the truth. [Having written those three things, I realise they already are movies: the first might be Simon Pegg’s Run, Fat Boy, Run; the second might be Jack Nicholson’s Anger Management; the third, Jim Carrey’s Liar, Liar. See? It’s working already.]

And now: what does he/she do about that situation? Then: how does this backfire?

Next: what is their overall goal? Next: who would be the absolute worst/least likely person to help them out with it? Now, what action might this person push the protagonist to take? And who or what might now get in the way?

The protagonist needs to be learning something, maybe helping someone else – so now, how can that flaw be turned into a skill? What final action can they take that is the least likely thing they would ever previously have done to take us to the resolution?

Try it. You’ll see it generates plot; interesting/funny scenes; and of course has a built-in character arc.

Two more things I liked from Pilar’s workshop.

One, her description of “3D” characters. The three dimensions she identifies are A) Public: what is your character like when out and about? B) Personal: in one-on-one scenes? C) When he or she thinks no one else is looking? [Contrast with Graham Linehan’s distinction between “above the line” and “below the line” character in post 7.]

Two: her simple rule for introducing a character in a script. You must express essence, and action. An example from one of her students: “EMMA BALE, tough by necessity, furiously packs the crabs into straw boxes.” From that short line we have character, location, employment, history and some idea of looks without just describing the heroine as “pretty” or “brunette”. Note that the less specific detail about physical attributes you give, the more widely open to casting the role is, and the more actors who might be interested in playing the role.

And th-th-that’s all for now, folks! But y’all come back now, y’hear?

Tickets to next year’s London Screenwriters’ Festival are currently available to pre-book at a £70 discount. There are also monthly instalment plans to spread the cost. http://www.londonscreenwritersfestival.com/lsf2014/. For my other blogs from the festival, including a lot of wildly entertaining stuff from Basic Instinct writer Joe Eszterhas, start here.