So there I was, reading this week’s screenplays, minding my own business, and it occurs to me that there’s an interesting question emerging. On Monday, I had this quirky character driven dramedy about a family of grown-up siblings who realize they’re all adopted, and on Wednesday I had a script about an unlikely friendship between an old drunk and a 12 year old geek.
There were some similarities here. Both were small independent films that put the focus on the characters. But more significantly, there was very little plot to either one of them. I’d almost say they were “plotless.” That got me thinking just how hard it is to break into the business with one of these types of scripts. I mean let’s be honest. These are the kinds of scripts that can end a logline’s career. Which REALLY depresses loglines because they live to impress people! This is likely why so few people have actually read these scripts. Even if they’re recommended, whoever got them probably said, “Errr…Why the hell would I read that??”
I remember, at one point, writing in Relativity’s review, to NEVER write a script like this if you wanted to get reads. Then two days later, I’m propping up St. Vincent like it’s the second coming. So which is it? Write’em or don’t write’em? Well, I do stand by my original statement. You shouldn’t write a script like this if you’re trying to break in. When it comes down to it, Hollywood is a numbers game. The more people you can get to read your script, the better chance you have of finding someone to buy it. And when you throw a low-concept character-driven idea out there, the amount of read requests you’re going to get is going down by 80% – AT LEAST. Not only do producers and agents avoid these things like the plague because they never make money, but as a reader, I can tell you, a bad character-driven drama is the worst kind of script to get stuck in. These things can get soooo boring soooo fast if they’re not written well. And most of the time they’re not written well.
But, I’m guessing you’re reading this, pointing your fingers at the screen and saying, “Yeah, but I’m DIFFERENT.” You Angus T. Joneses of the world want everyone to know that you’re an amazing writer and therefore don’t need to be held to these lame Hollywood standards. Your character piece is going to be that powerball winner, because it’s THAT good. Okay, okay. I know we writers didn’t come to Hollywood because we’re the smartest lot. We chose one of the riskiest professions in the world cause we’re kinda nuts. And if we’re already risking embarrassment and ridicule from our much more successful family and friends, why stop taking chances now? So if the dramatic character-piece route is the one you’re going to take, it is my duty to prepare you for it. Here are five essential elements to include to give your indie character piece the best shot at success.
A BIG INTERESTING MAIN CHARACTER A BIG ACTOR WOULD WANT TO PLAY
This is one rule that doesn’t change no matter what kind of script you’re writing, whether it be The Disciple Program or St. Vincent de Van Nuys, you still gotta nab a big actor, because the film’s gotta get financed, and you’re not going to find financing without a star, and a star isn’t going to attach himself to your script for some “sorta okay” role. So you gotta write someone intriguing, different, someone who’s going through some major internal shit, someone who does weird things or is unique or retarded or deranged or strange. Look at De Van Nuys. Vin is an asshole, says what’s on his mind, gets wasted all the time, gets to act post-stroke, is full of repressed emotions about his wife. This is a character someone’s going to want to play, something an actor would see as a challenge. With Relativity, there was craziness, but there was zero depth to the characters. It was skin deep. What actor wants to play a skin deep “wacky” character? You gotta give them more.
STAY AWAY FROM ‘QUIRK FOR QUIRK’S SAKE’
Call it the Garden State or Little Miss Sunshine effect, but after those films, lots of writers started writing things like guys dressed up in 17th century jousting armor pouring cereal in the kitchen because it was a neat quirky image! Look, I have no problem with 17th century jousting armor characters pouring milk into your script AS LONG AS IT FITS THE CHARACTER AND THE STORY. If the ONLY reason you’re putting it in there is because you think it will be cool or neato, prepare to meet some reader backlash. Readers want things to make sense. They want every choice to be organic to the story. They don’t want a bunch of random wildness that has nothing to do with anything. If your main character keeps a white tiger in his living room, he better be a failed circus trainer who got booted out of his Vegas show recently and not an average 20-something slacker who just happens to live with a tiger. “HEY! WHAT IF OUR HERO HAD A WHITE TIGER??!” “Why?” “CAUSE THAT WOULD LOOK SO COOL ONSCREEN!” “But why would he have a white tiger?” “Who cares about why! It’s quirky. It’s crazy. People will love it!”
ARC YOUR MAIN CHARACTER
If you’re writing a character piece and your main character doesn’t have a flaw that’s holding him back in life, then don’t bother writing your indie character piece because this is what writing indie character pieces is all about – exploring the flaw inside your main character and watching his journey challenge that flaw. So in De Van Nuys, Vincent has cut himself off emotionally from the world. He refuses to connect with others. That’s his flaw. But in the end he finally learns to move past his wife’s death and allow others in again. Or in American Beauty, Lester’s flaw was his need to live life without responsibility. When he rejects the opportunity to sleep with Angela in the end, he overcomes that flaw. So yeah, do some character arcing dude. Or else write something a lot bigger that has a lot better chance of getting you noticed!
ALL YOUR CHARACTERS SHOULD HAVE SOMETHING GOING ON
Don’t let the term, “character piece” fool you. A better term would be “characters piece,” cause if you’re only trying to make one of your characters interesting and different and flawed, then your script is going to feel thin. The thing with character pieces is they have to have depth – there’s gotta be more going on there. That’s why we read them, because those other “big idea” specs don’t have enough going on under the surface. For this reason, ALL of your characters should be going through something, trying to get past some roadblock in life. Vincent has his whole “refuse to connect” thing. Maggie, the neighbor, is trying to move past her broken marriage and deal with the lack of time she has to spend with her son. Even Charlisse, the hooker, has to learn when it’s time to clock out and be a friend as opposed to only being there when she’s getting paid.
YOU GOTTA TAKE SOME RISKS WITH THESE SCRIPTS
There’s that word again: RISK. Here’s the thing. You’re writing something that has very little shot at being read. So don’t disappoint the reader who DOES pick up your script by giving them a boring predictable indie character piece. Take some chances. Go to some unexpected places. Alan Ball wrote a four minute scene into American Beauty with a bag blowing in the wind. The writer of De Van Nuys has his main character slap a homeless legless beggar’s coin cup out of his hands. If we’re going to take the time to read a script that we’re betting is boring, you have to make some risky choices to prove that your story ISN’T boring. Or else you’re better off writing commercial fare, where it’s easier to get away with safe choices.
In summary, I still say you stay the hell away from an indie character piece as your break-in script. I mean even De Van Nuys had some extenuating circumstances. The writer was a commercial director for the past decade. He’d been in the business for awhile. He was directing this script AS WELL as writing it, which meant he didn’t have to go through the traditional channels of getting the script read, of having to come up with a logline that excites someone enough to take a chance on you, the unknown amateur screenwriter. But I get it. You still believe in your script. And you know what? YOU SHOULD! If you don’t believe in yourself, who will? But I’ll make one last plea. If you do write one of these, try to give the script ANY kind of hook, any kind of angle that makes it stand out from the boring character piece pack. Give us a janitor who’s smarter than everyone at MIT (Good Will Hunting) or a couple who don’t know they used to be a couple because their memories were erased (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind). And then follow the guidelines I’ve laid out above. They’re going to give your indie script an actual shot at getting some attention! Good luck!