On Character, part the first

Writers love to rabbit on and on all day about their characters and how they develop their characters and how they decide what characters do and all that kind of thing. I, of course, am no different. This will, though, require more than one post, hence “part the first”.

So, where to start?

Well, with someone else’s thoughts on characters, of course! In this case, screenwriter William Goldman.

This is occasioned by a post by blogger Lance Mannion, in which he reviews the movie The Ghost and the Darkness. I never actually saw this film, but I know of it; it is a historical adventure movie about the two man-eating lions that terrorized the British railroad crews in Africa many years ago, and the struggles the railroad chief had with killing them. (The lions themselves, after being killed, were stuffed and are now on display in a Chicago museum, believe it or not…and they are a bit scary. But this post isn’t about the lions; it’s about Goldman’s thoughts on the characters in the movie.

The Ghost and the Darkness is not terribly highly regarded, either by critics or by Goldman himself. My impression is that it’s not seen as a bad movie, but mainly as a meh movie. Goldman has some very definite thoughts as to why this is, and he lays some of that blame at his own feet in the chapter on this movie in his book Which Lie Did I Tell? (which, by the way, I consider essential reading for fiction writers, even if they’re not writing for film).

By way of background before I excerpt Goldman: it took the railroad chief, a man named Patterson, nine months to kill the two lions, and he mainly did it by waiting and sitting vigil at night and laying traps and that sort of thing. Goldman’s problem, in scripting a movie about the lions of Tsavo (where this all happened), was that the real story doesn’t make for compelling film. So Goldman had to add a second, entirely fictional, character whom he dubbed “Redbeard”, to add excitement and drama to the story.

Here, now, is William Goldman.

Redbeard was always and forever only this: a plot point. I needed, for today’s audience, to make Patterson, my hero, more heroic. So I came up with what I thought would be a suitable device.

Redbeard would be a professional who came, did his job, moved on when the job was over. There were, in point of face, people who lived that way. Hunting was popular among the very rich, and there were men for hire if you were a Russian prince and wanted to shoot in America. Or Africa. Or the mountains of India. You hired them for weeks or months, and they saw you get the best chance at game. Protected you in the bargain.

What made Redbeard different was he was a legend even to other professionals. In other words, the greatest hunter in the world.

In the very first draft, his part was relatively small. Patterson was in terrible trouble. The lions had stopped the railroad. Redbeard entered, sized up the situation. Now, I couldn’t have him win immediately, because that would have denigrated the lions. So…he came up with the notion of putting Patterson high up, all alone, in a clearing, on a rickety wooden support. Patterson is alone and helpless. Redbeard is in the area. The Ghost [one of the lions, the other being The Darkness] comes. Then the Ghost attacks, Redbeard wounds it, together they kill it and triumph.

The point now was for the audience to relax. The cavalry had come to the rescue.

Then, the next morning, when Redbeard is eaten, Patterson, poor helpless fellow, would be alone against The Darkness, what chance could he possibly have if even Redbeard had failed?

The fact is this: Redbeard worked as a device.

My problem, Doctor, was he worked too well. In all the succeeding drafts, the powers that be wanted more of him. Obviously, they saw a costarring part. Fine for them.

Biiiig problem for me.

Let me try and explain why.

[In this telling, Redbeard sounds similar to Quint, the grizzled fisherman in JAWS. Or, that’s how he should have been. Reading on….]

One of the great exchanges in movie history — I don’t mean ‘great’ in the sense of Shakespearean, because screenwriting isn’t about that; I mean ‘great’ in the sense of being supremely helpful, of defining character — anyway, it’s in Casablanca, by the Epsteins and Howard Koch. Probably you remember the moment. Bogart is talking to Claude Rains in front of his club.

RAINS: And what in heaven’s name brings you to Casablanca?

BOGART: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

RAINS: Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

BOGART: I was misinformed.

Let’s talk about this for a moment. First of all, it is wonderfully elegant dialogue. Witty, plus it makes you laugh out loud. I wish to God I’d written lines as glorious as “I was misinformed.”

But what does it tell us? Well, it could be telling us that Rick is geographically challenged, coming to the desert for a water cure. But I think “I was misinformed” tells us he knew exactly where he was.

What it tells us is this: Don’t ask. What is tells us is: Bad things happened, it’s dark down there, and I will die before I tell you. A lot of that comes from the dialogue, a lot from the speaker of the dialogue.

The character of Rick, of course, is very old — he is the Byronic hero, the tall dark handsome man with a past. Most movie stars — actors, not comedians — have essentially all played the same role. And they have to always face front, never turn sideways–

Because, you see, there’s nothing to them. Try and make them full, try and make them real, and guess what? They disappear.

Let me rewrite that exchange for you now. Let’s say Rains is talking not to Bogart, but to Dooley Wilson.

RAINS: And what in heaven’s name brought Rick to Casablanca?

DOOLEY: You don’t want to know.

RAINS: But I do, I asked the question.

DOOLEY: His life turned to shit, Claude. He hated his job, but he should never have sold insurance in the first place. And then his wife, she died having their hid, who died too. He got so depressed, y’know? [This continues a bit…snipping it down.]

Think about what that does to one of the greatest of all Hollywood movies. It makes Rick a wimp. It makes him a loser. Kills the flick, ruins it, destroys it, makes it an Adam Sandler flick. Never forget the following:

Hollywood heroes must have mystery.

OK, Back to Billy’s little Redbeard problem. I had written a Byronic hero. He’s Shane. The village is in trouble, he rides in, saves it, rides out. For that very great Western directed by the very great George Stevens, it is crucial that we know nothing about the guy. Ever.

The bigger Redbeard’s part became, the more risk for me, because the more you expose that character to the sunlight, the more he starts to fade.

Skipping forward a little, Michael Douglas comes on board as a producer and to play the Great Hunter role, originally named “Redbeard”. This is where Goldman finds things going awry:

The first thing that went was the name.

No big deal, you are probably thinking, and of course, you are correct. It is not a big deal. Except writers are nuts — that is a law in the State of California as you no doubt know — and we love the names we give our made-up friends and acquaintances. A lot of us can’t even start until we know our people’s names.

I loved “Redbeard.” I thought it was a terrific name; and I thought it was helpful in trying to make the guy mythic. Just that single word, those two syllables and you were talking about someone whose exploits had filled the nights beside a thousand campfires.

I lucked into the name Remington pretty quickly. Sold myself that if not as good, at least it didn’t suck. Still the one word, and there was the echo of the gun that was so famous in settling the Wild West.

Sigh of relief.

Then, sharply, I was into nightmare.

Michael wanted Remington to have a history.

 

This next scene is one of the worst things I’ve ever written. I actually remember my stomach cramping when I did it. It comes the first night Michael Douglas has arrived to save the day. In the background, a bunch of warriors are getting ready  to jump around and give themselves courage. Douglas is talking to Kilmer and Samuel, who is the narrator of the film, a native helping Patterson as best he can. Another native comes up and indicates to Remington that they are ready. Remington leaves and the camp doctor, who has also been present, comments that Remington is indeed a strange man. Here is what Samuel replies to that — get ready, hold your noses.

SAMUEL: Two great tribes of his country fought a terrible civil war for many years.

VAL KILMER: And his side lost?

SAMUEL: Everything. Land and family. The very young ones and the very old ones. All lost. He buried his family and left his country forever. Now he hunts all over the world but he always returns here. He says Africa is the last good place.

Remember my made-up speech about Bogart taking a course in nightclub management? Same thing here. This is what that speech and ensuing references to Remington’s past do to this legendary figure: They make Remington a wimp. They make him a loser. He’s just another whiny asshole who went to pieces when the gods pissed on him. “Oh, you cannot know the depth of my pain” is what that seems to be saying to the audience. Well, if I’m in that audience, what I think is this: Fuck you. I know people who are dying of cancer, I know people who are close to vegetables, and guess what — they play it as it lays.

This little speech may not seem like much but not only does it cast a pall over everything that follows, it destroys the fabric of the piece. Every ensuing mention of Remington and children and loss is all so treacly you want to whoopsie. Never forget the following:

Movie stars must have mystery.

Now, Goldman is primarily concerned with movie characters here, and while there are different concerns when writing for movies as opposed to writing novels or plays or teevee or whatever, storytelling is still storytelling. You’ve got to do right by your characters and you’ve got to do right by your audience, whether they’re sitting in the dark watching your tale or sitting by the sea reading it. Every character has a backstory, but there really are times when it’s best to not delve too deeply into it. (This is one reason I’m a little nervous about the idea of one of these one-shot Star Wars movies being a “Young Han Solo” story.)

I will, of course, return to the subject of characters in the future. This was only a start, dear readers!

 

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