Sunday, January 24, 2010

Things I Learned from DIE HARD, Part III: Quick Roads to Character

As soon as a screenwriter begins the first page, the clock is ticking when it comes to establishing everything the audience needs to know and understand about the characters. If you wish your plot to stick to a strong, traditional three-act structure (as 99.9% of successful screen stories do), your inciting incident, (the event that creates your story's main conflict and launches the story into motion), must occur somewhere between twelve to seventeen minutes into the film. Do it too late and you risk your putting the audience to sleep before the story even starts to get going. This means you have only about fifteen pages to create your story's entire SETUP. If your story is going to work well, it is a must that your protagonist (at least, if not more characters) be firmly established by then. The audience must have a good idea of who this person is, what they want or need out of life, and how they tend to behave in given situations.
Why? Because the inciting incident is a point of no return. Once it occurs, the story is now in motion and must stay in motion. We will no longer have the time to stop and casually get to know the people who occupy the story. Secondly and more importantly, the audience needs to get to know these people before they see them in action. If you expect the the audience to understand and care about what the characters are trying to do, you must make an effort to make your characters the audience's “friend” before the main conflict gets moving if you expect the audience to root for them.
To do this, you need to find ways to communicate to the audience a lot of character information in a quick, easy to understand way, while at the same time keeping the story setup steadily moving towards that inciting incident. Die Hard demonstrates three devices that should be in every screenwriter's toolkit to do just that.

Die Hard shows that the quickest and easiest way to establish just what kind of person your protagonist is, is to put him face-to-face with exactly what he is NOT.
Die Hard's protagonist John McClane is a blue-collar New York cop. He lives by working-class values and is proud of it. Like most of his ilk, he doesn't like to talk much and definitely does not discuss his emotions. But he is also a man of integrity, a guy who sticks to his guns to the point of stubbornness. Now, we can see bits and pieces of this information throughout the setup from John's actions and reactions to the world around him. However, John's most basic characters traits are never communicated in sharper focus than when John is forced to interact with another character who embodies the exact OPPOSITE trait as John.

Throughout the setup, John is forced to interact with characters who could not be more different from John in some way or another. And just as the color white looks brightest when put next to black, just as noise seems the loudest when it follows silence, the contrast of these traits makes John's personality stand out far more than it would on its own.
John's “strong, silent” persona never seems more obvious than when he is with the loquacious Argyle. We see clearly how low-cultured John is when put side by side with refined and charming Mr. Takagi. John's silent integrity speaks loud when he's with the sleazeball Ellis. His working-class pride is obvious by the patronizing manner that he uses towards the yuppie traveler next to him on the plane.
It's like that old joke about going to the club with your ugliest friends so you look more attractive. The quickest way to make your character traits clear and obvious is to contrast them with their opposite.

Director John McTiernan does not like to open his scenes with faces. He likes hands. He likes feet. McTiernan tends to start scenes emphasizing the action being performed over who is performing it. Most of the time, a face proves unnecessary because the audience can figure out who the hands or feet belong to. (Count how many scenes in Die Hard begin with John McClane's bare feet. Since the audience knows that John lost his shoes and socks, every time they see bare feet, they know it is him.)
This technique becomes capable of communicating a large amount of character information whenever Die Hard introduces a character for the VERY FIRST TIME. The creators of Die Hard have sought to do something impressive with the audience's first impressions. Instead of first showing a neutral shot of a person's face, they open with the character doing something that in some way sums up what type of person we are about to meet. They introduce them with a TELLING ACTION.
Take the introduction of Sgt. Al Powell. We learn in the preceding scene that the police dispatcher will send a single cop to check out John's distress call from Nakatomi Tower. Cut to a convenience store where we see the front of a police uniform, it's owner loading up his arms with gooey, unhealthy Hostess snack cakes.
The audience can safely assume that this is going to be the cop who is going to get the call. But what do we immediately learn about this guy from his first shot? He's soft, out of shape. Like the cakes he eats, he's probably gooey, sweet, and sort of an overgrown kid. Definitely not the top cop we would want to get the job. It also makes the average person in the audience automatically relate to him more than they would a top cop. He's an everyman. He craves the same tasty junk we do. If health were not a concern, we would probably be loading up our arms with this stuff every time we went into a convenience store as well. We get all of this info before we even see Al Powell's face.

We don't get to see Holly Gennaro's face for almost her entire opening scene. Instead, we get the back of her head. But we can tell a lot about what kind of woman she is by what she is doing- she is bustling through the corridors of Nakatomi Corp, keeping a laser focus on her work in the middle of the office Christmas party. Before we see her face we know that she is driven, tough, and may put way more focus on her work than her relationships.

I find John McClane's opening shot to be the most interesting because rather than communicating what John is, it tells us what he is NOT. When an audience comes to the theater to see an action film, they come with certain predisposed ideas about the protagonist. They expect the stereotypical hard-as-nails badass, a man without fear, always willing to shoot first and ask questions later. But our first shot of John McClane is of his hand gripping the armrest of his airplane seat in FEAR. Although John may act tough and stoic when he relates to people, we know from this opening action that John does not have nerves of steel. He is capable of fear, anxiety, indecision. This one shot helps establish the type of person John is at the start of his character arc compared to what the events of the story turn him into in the end. (Remember that John remains reluctant to take on traditional action hero behavior until halfway through the movie. Until then, he tries to hide from the terrorists, arrest the terrorists, and avoid shooting the terrorists.)
Supporting characters also receive quick and easy character establishment from a telling action. We first meet ethically-challenged reporter Dick Thornburg on the phone, trying to impress a woman with how his phony connections can get them dinner reservations. The reckless and foolhardy Lt. Robinson is first seen dangerously flying onto the scene in his car and immediately barking orders even though he does not yet know what is going on. Theo's twisted sense of humor is quickly communicated when he comes in talking about a Laker's game seconds before they execute the lobby guard.

Some character information has to be spoken aloud for the audience to receive it. It is never ideal, but often there is important backstory that cannot be communicated in another way. The worst way to do this is to have a character just come out and say it. Many mediocre writers present character background with “cocktail party” scenes. Two characters meet, and they just voluntarily tell each other person everything the audience needs to know about them. Not only is this poor dramatic writing, it is implausible. Outside of an actual cocktail party, you will rarely meet someone who will just volunteer personal information to another person, whether that person is a stranger or someone they have known for years. If you ever do encounter a person like this, most people will be put off by it simply because it is so unusual.
This leads to a hard and simple rule about exposition. No character must ever volunteer information. Whatever they give, they should do only because a situation FORCES them. Your characters are people. And most people like to keep their mouth shut and just live their lives. If you have a piece of information you need you character to tell the world, the writer's duty must be to put that character in a situation where they are FORCED to do so.
As an example, one essential piece of John McClane's background is that he is an experienced officer of the NYPD. Now, John would never be the type of guy who would say “Hi, I'm a cop.” Instead, the situation forces him to reveal this. In the opening scene, John gets out of his airplane seat to reach his luggage. As he does this, the yuppie traveler in the next seat sees that he is carrying a gun- something that would scare anyone on an airplane. When John sees this, the situation forces him to say, “It's okay. I'm a cop.” Then, to riff off the yuppie's previous line, “Trust me. I've been doing this for eleven years.”
At this point, we have met our protagonist, but we have yet to learn his name. He does not volunteer this either. Once again, the writers put him into a situation where he is forced to reveal this information. John is in the Los Angeles airport. Pan over to a limo driver holding sign which reads, “MCCLANE”. Now if John wishes to get his ride from the airport, he must walk up to this man and proclaim, “Hey. I'm John McClane.”
For tougher exposition, information where a simple forced situation won't do, forcing information with conflict works wonders. One of my favorite scenes of the entire film is John's limo ride with Argyle. Here, John spills the entire backstory about why he's here and why his marriage is in trouble. But again, he doesn't volunteer it. He is forced to do so through conflict.

(sorry about the crappy formatting. I can't figure out how to get it right on blogger)

Both Argyle and McClane are in the front seat.

Relax, man. We got everything in here:
CD, CB, TV, VHS, telephone, full bar.
He looks in the back seat, which is occupied by the bear.
If your friend is hot to trot...I know a couple of
mama bears we could hook up with.
(turning to McClane)
...Or is he married?
He's married.
McClane tries to get comfortable, scowls as a RUSTLING NOISE reveals wrappers and styrofoam from Taco Bell.
Sorry about that. It's the girl's day off. Hey, I
didn't know you were going to sit up front.
(back to the topic)
So, your lady live out here?
For the past six months.
Meaning, you still live in New York?
You always ask this many questions, Argyle?
Sorry, man. I used to drive a cab, People would
expect a little chit chat. So are you divorced?
Just drive the car, man.
Come on! You're divorced, you're separated?
She beat you up?
McClane gives up.
She had a good job, it turned into a great career.
But meant she had to move here.
You're very fast, Argyle.
So, why didn't you come?
McClane declines to answer.
ARGYLE (cont'd)
Why didn't you come with her man, what's up?
'Cause I'm a New York cop, and I got six
months backlog of New York scumbags
I'm still trying to put behind bars.
I don't just can't pick up and go.
In other words, you thought she wouldn't
make it out here and she'd come
crawling on back, so why bother to pack?
Like I said, you're very fast Argyle.
(popping in a cassette)
Mind if I play some tunes?
This scene work so well expositionally because the information is communicated through conflicting scene objectives. Argyle is the type of person who loves to talk, and isn't comfortable around people if they are just sitting in silence. So, Argyle's scene objective is TO GET JOHN TO TALK. John on the other hand, does not like to talk and definitely doesn't like to talk about personal issues. His objective is to GET ARGYLE TO SHUT UP. And, just like in any scene conflict, the character who is more dedicated to their objective wins. Jon figures out that the only way to get Argyle to be quiet is to give in and give Argyle what he wants. Also take note that this confession is not just John spilling his guts. Most of what we learn about John comes not from John, but Argyle. Argyle's character acts liket he audience's guide in this scene. He asks the questions the audience needs to know, and he puts together the clues for them. We learn what we need about John, and at the same time John's dominant trait, his tough, non-communicative nature, remains intact.


andrew said...

I saw "Live Free Or Die Hard" at a premiere screening last night at Radio City Music Hall. The place holds about 5,000 seats and it was packed.

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Virtual Stranger said...

Hey, M.W.,

I like your observation about characterization through contrast. That's a great, quick way to show what people are like.

One question for you, though. You bring up some neat points about telling actions and many of the shots in Die Hard that show this. Are these all scripted moments, though, or were they solely the creation of the director?

Just curious, as it looks like you have the script.

M.W. Schock said...

I have a version of the script that is available online, but it is not the final draft and can't be relied on too closely. Early versions of Holly & Powell's opening moments are included in the draft though, so the answer would be yes. However, the penchant for starting on hands & feet seems to belong to the director. Die Hard also shows that McTiernan is extremely skilled at using camera movement to communicate information. It gets to a point where as soon as the audience notices the camera moving they know something important is about to happen.