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Introducing a character in a film or screenplay is often an underutilized opportunity. More often than not a situation is merely contrived to allow the necessary character to appear at the appropriate time. But, just as it is important to ensure that every thing in a film needs to be there (meaning, it’s not just there because you think it’s cool), it is equally important to maximize every moment of your film. Take every opportunity to give the viewer the necessary imagery and information. That does NOT always mean MORE information. Sometimes it means more thoughtful, intentional and effective information.
I want to be clear that I understand it is not always necessary to give a character a grand, exciting, or even a memorable entrance. In fact, there are times when doing so would be counterproductive due to the narrative demands, or current character status and dynamic within the scene.
What I am referring to is being effective in a character introduction; maximizing the opportunity to show the audience as much as they need to know about that character. So, ask yourself the question; how can you enhance your character introductions in a way that does not interfere with the dynamic of the scene?
Let’s look at some examples. Keep in mind that what is discussed here comes from writing, directorial, performance and editorial choices. Film is COLLABORATIVE.
THE DUDE from The Big Lebowski.
This may seem like a no-brainer because it is the opening scene of the film and we are listening to Sam Elliot’s voice over describing the Dude. So here we are not necessarily worried about messing with the narrative. The Dude strolls down the aisle of the grocery store dressed in slippers, boxer shorts, an old t-shirt and a tattered robe. He sniffs a container of half and half and then writes a check for the mount of .69 cents. He doesn’t steal it, because that would be too much of a risk, or maybe too much of a Karmic infraction. This is a guy built for comfort. He has no status and
no apparent skills. He is not buying beer or whisky. He is buying half and half for white Russians.
Not a ‘manly’ drink, but an easy one. But this is our protag. This is the guy that has to go up against gangsters,nihilists and nutjobs. Can you imagine a further journey for a hero? What a great set-up of both the character and the movie.
CAPTAIN QUINT from Jaws
Arguably my favorite character introduction of all time. He doesn’t give a shit if people like him. In fact, he probably prefers that they don’t. That keeps his life simple. He also likes to hear himself talk, and the sightly lyrical language he uses indicates that maybe he fancies himself a bit of a poet, although he would never describe himself that way. But it does foreshadow his “Indianapolis” speech later on. He sits casually, like he’s holding court; eating an apple, like the shark eating a person. The nails on the chalkboard is an obvious dig at the ‘civilized’ gathering. He could whistle, clap his hands, or just shout like a normal person. But Quint wants to make people feel uncomfortable; maybe because he’s uncomfortable in that environment. It’s an attack. And then he retreats before he gets an answer. It could be confidence in their response, it could be that he’s afraid of the rejection, but most likely it’s because he really doesn’t care. Quint won’t do anything that he doesn’t want to do anyway. If he wants to go after the shark, he will. You can argue the point of whether the money really matters to Quint. What is certain is that he has no doubt that he is not the best man for the job, he’s the ONLY man for the job. They can ask him now, or they can ask him later. But nobody will be able to kill that shark but him. You know he’s coming back into the story.
The other reason I love this introduction is because is enhances the narrative in a way that is absolutely organic to the scene. Yes, it draws attention to itself, but that is exactly what the scene needs. The mood is chaotic with multiple agendas vying for attention. Quint’s entrance brings FOCUS to the scene and to the people in it. That tells you that he is going to command nearly every moment he is on the screen. What chance does a shark have against that?
CAPTAIN JACK SPARROW from Pirates of the Caribbean
Confidence or insanity? Well, I think that’s the point. When we see Jack, standing on top of a mast set against the sky, we see confidence. When we see the next angle and see that the boat is mostly underwater and Jack would be joining it if he were not meeting the dock at just the right time, we see insanity.
Not because he was at the top of a mast of a sinking boat, after all that’s a logical place to be. But because of how confident he appears in a situation most other sailors would consider mortifying. It sets up that Jack does not think or act like the rest of us do. He has different expectations from the universe. He seems to have no doubt that the boat will sink at precisely the right rate to deposit him gently on the dock. We know Jack is a pirate from the way he is dressed and the tribute he pays to the dead pirates at the opening of the harbor. We then find out that he is like no other pirate we have ever seen. He can be heroic and selfish; crafty and yet lack judgment; compassionate yet criminal; incredibly astute yet totally insane.
This opening not only sets up a specific paradox of character, it leaves the door open for a host of other paradoxes that we will now not question. Three (soon to be four) films later, I still love the character, but I still can’t figure him out. That mystery is established right at the beginning and it enhances every single scene the character is in.
THE SUNDANCE KID from Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid
The scene starts off with a 90 second, static shot of Robert Redford’s face, where he only utters one line. That tells you this is an important character (Nowadays we would know that, but this was before Robert Redford was Robert Redford). Then Butch comes in and we get an immediate sense of the contrary nature of the men (If he asks us to stay, we’ll go), but also the irreverent, yet deep, nature of their personal relationship. These men have a history, and they have each other’s back. You see how they as a pair fit into the world (theworld is something to be played with at least, and cheated out of cash at best), but also how the two men fit together. Butch has the mouth, but Sundance has the guns.
You get a sense of the fear of the other man Sundance faces once he learns his identity. That tells us how dangerous Sundance is perceived to be. The scene ends almost anti-climactically when we actually see what he can do. Not incredibly original, but very well executed.
LT. KAFFEE from A Few Good Men
Is it coincidence that in a film so strictly about military codes and conduct that we first see Kaffee in civilian clothes and playing softball? I think not. It shows that he may not be a stereotypical military man. He has an obvious cavalier attitude towards procedures, but he is obviously considered the leader among the men he is playing ball with. It also shows him as being very good at negotiating. He is cocky and expects to get what we wants. How will he react when things don’t go as smoothly as he expects them to? In this one scene we are establishing what he is good at and what he cares (or doesn’t care) about.
The very character traits that make him so attractive actually turn out in part to be his Achilles heel. His confident assumption about outcomes, and his desire to take an easy path are why he gets the job. Those traits must be modified and transformed for him to succeed once he begins to realize he is being played. It shows the raw materials that make up Kaffee, which are shaped through out the story. The end result is a version of Kaffee that can get the job done in a way that no one else could. But all of that is shown to us here.
ROCKY from Rocky
It’s a dimly lit slice of hell where a middle aged-woman in the seats seems more of a man than our hero. Rocky is beat down, going through the motions of the fight. When asked if he feels strong, he replies that he does, but everything about him tells us otherwise. Is he lying? If he is, does he lie only to the other character, or is he lying to himself? When he re-enters the ring he seems lost, with the other fighter in control. But then after a head butt, Rocky goes into a rage and pummels his opponent. He seems a sleeping giant, who rationalizes his choices until he has something to fight for; something that matters to him. This scene is a microcosm of the whole film. Very simple and very effective.
FRANK from Once Upon a Time in the West
Shots rain down on a homesteading family from nowhere. Three people lie dead with no evidence of how or why this happened. It almost seems like the wrath of God. A child emerges from the house, witness to the carnage. Then a group of men emerge from the brush, guns drawn. Their leader is
none other than clean cut Henry Fonda, cast completely against type. We’ll never know if Frank would have killed the boy anyway, but when one of his gang mentions his name, he calmly draws his pistol and, with a hint of smile, shoots down a child. Frank shoots from the hip from 30 yards
away. He doesn’t raise his gun to aim. He doesn’t have to. This is a man who knows how to kill and is obviously capable of anything. Danger in a duster.
RICK BLAINE from Casablanca
Part of what makes this so effective is that we don’t see Rick until almost 9 minutes into the film, but people talk about him. But even if you take those conversations away, you still get a strong sense of who Rick is from just a couple of shots and ABSOLUTELY NO DIALOGUE from Rick. He is playing chess, so he is a man who thinks ahead, but he is playing alone. What does that tell you? He signs a voucher for a 1000 francs with just an “OK –Rick”, so his name means something. He nods allowing select people entrance without a word, and we see that is very discriminating. All of these elements are played with through out the film. Some are played straight and others are used as subterfuge. But nearly everything you need to know about this man is right here.
LT. SOMERSET in Se7en
An extremely brief scene, with no dialogue, shows the meticulous and analytical nature of this man. He makes sure to put water in the coffee pot to soak, there is a chessboard in the room, his badge, knife and pen are neatly laid out. He makes the effort to pick a piece of lint from his jacket before he puts it on; there is a metronome by the bedside. All of these things add up to a man who can analyze, understand and even predict the behaviors of others. It might also show a man who leans far more on thinking than feeling in his life.
I’ll admit that some of this is very obvious, and perhaps even trite. But it is done so economically and organically that it doesn’t feel like it is played for effect.
LUKE in Cool Hand Luke
Yeah, he’s drunk, but there’s something that runs much deeper than that here. Luke is cutting the heads off of parking meters, but he seems to be making no effort at all to get the money out. Heck,
he’s not even in a rush, nor is he trying to be quiet. This is a man who is daring the world to come down on him. But how is he doing it, with a grand bank robbery or kidnapping? No, with a steel box of nickels. This, we come to find out, the nature of Luke. Cavalier in his inevitable self-destruction. That is the soul of the character. You see his self-destructive nature,but he is so charming that you still root for him, even before you find out anything else about him.
HANNIBAL LECTER in Silence of the Lambs
We hear terrible things about this monster of a man. The kinds of things that nightmares are made of. Then we are put into Clarice Starling’s head as the door opens into something more like a cave than a prison. Then we pass some disturbing (to put it mildly) characters. It is a dramatic anticipation that we share with this rookie FBI agent, waiting for this horrifying creature to be revealed.
So what do we see? A slobbering, rabid animal? No, a polite, smiling, meticulously groomed gentleman. This isn’t a gimmick. It’s not just about doing something unexpected for effect, although the film has a field day with misdirection. This shows us the most important and defining characteristic of Hannibal Lecter: he will never do what you expect him to. He will never allow you to pin him down. That is what makes him so incredibly frightening. I cannot imagine a more effective way to introduce a maniacal killing machine than to make him look this controlled and benign.
Please share your thoughts on this subject and share your insights or examples.
I just assumed that it was some latent angst against Lucas for Episodes I - III, and was going to let you slide. I don't blame you.
I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the introduction of William in "A Knight's Tale" tells me everything I need to know about him to cheer him on in the first turn at the lists. I say this is out on a limb because it's a total popcorn movie but hits the fundamental story beats.
I love that movie. I just watched it again a month or so ago and it is really fun.
Break down that introduction for us. Tell us what you learn about William from that scene.
Ouch, calling me out.
So, I fired it back up before I attempted this. I forgot all about the opening text and so that may break this exercise a bit.
We know a lot situational stuff. They're starving. They depend on the knight's winnings to eat and be clothed. These tournaments are literally the only thing that they have. So what do we know about William? He's a lowborn son of a thatcher. He's not the smartest of the squires, or arguably the toughest, not the quickest to anger, or the oldest... but they follow him. The other squires follow him because of that intangible something, or charisma, regardless of the danger. Then of course, we get the line, "I've waited my whole life for this moment." How can we not be hooked? We've got an underdog, against impossible odds, serious consequences for failure or obstacles to even try, but our hero still squares up and tries to climb the mountain.
It's a hard movie to turn off.
I agree. I think one of the most impressive aspects of that film is how it attempts to give you a contemporary context. We know that people in the middle ages didn't listen to Queen or David Bowie, but they must have had something that felt as fun for them as that might for us. Tournaments were probably like a combination of a rock concert and football game. Helgeland gives us that impression using things that we can relate to, but don't really intrude on the film (at least to me).
Anyway, I think your character assessment is spot on. We see William's charisma in how they follow him in doing something very dangerous, but which is really their only option. You definitely get the sense that the other two guys would never even think of that option, let alone attempt it. We also see exactly how the dynamic of this trio will play out for the rest of the film. Mark Addy is like the mom in many ways. Wiser and more gentle. Alan Tudyk is like the crazy brother. Traits that they show in this scene (both as separate characters, and in the way they relate to WIlliam directly) come back in spades through out the film.
Good "popcorn" films are as hard to make as a good pop song. When they work, they seem simple and easy, but they really aren't. In fact, they are probably more difficult in many ways than an "art" film. After all, "art" films are usually a singular vision that have to appeal to a specific, and sometimes small, demographic. Popcorn films have to balance many visions and yet still appeal to millions. Which one of those sounds tougher to you?
John Candy in "Uncle Buck"...Smoking a stogie in a smoking, backfiring bomb of a car while the music is stompin' with some wicked baritone saxaphone blasting away. Sets up an entire vibe around him before he says a word.
He's an old school, no jivin' around Chicago character.
Great example. Thanks. It's been too long since I've seen that gem.
William Goldman cites a great example in Adventures in the Screen Trade - using his script for Harper (1966).
His script began with the private detective, with his beat-up car, standing in front of the gates of a mansion. He's tough, he's broke, he's Paul Newman. Pretty basic - here's the guy.
"Great!" Goldman is told, "now we just need a title sequence...." A what? He wasn't THE William Goldman at this point.
So he uses this title sequence to introduce the character. Goldman is at sea, so he thinks, what's the first thing the guy does in the morning.... Blackness. The ticking of a clock. Fade in on Harper's eyes blinking open. Credits roll. Crummy apartment; the TV still playing from the night before. Harper washes his face in the sink. Shaves. Goes to make coffee. Out of coffee he drags the previous day's filter out of the garbage and runs water through that. It's worse than he could even imagine. By a salute to a photo we're introduced to his ex-wife, whom he still loves. Oh, and here's the gun. He leaves the office labeled "Private Investigations" and takes his battered Porche out into LA traffic. He pulls up to the gates of a mansion and rings the bell. Credits end.
Goldman gave the character a lot of life before the story even started. He noted that at a general preview (real people in seats) the audience started to laugh on the bit with the coffee, chucking along through the empty can and the wastebasket until he filled the empty cup. When he took a swallow and nearly gagged the audience exploded in laughter and from there on the film could do no wrong. The audience knew, and liked, Harper.
I can't believe I am just seeing your reply now Nelson. I haven't seen Harper, but now I have to. Thanks!