It is only at the first encounter that a face makes its full impression on us.
— Arthur Schopenhauer
We all know the lasting impact a first impression has and it’s never truer than when we first meet a character. But as a filmmaker or screenwriter it can be challenging to come up with fresh ways for a character to make an entrance. At its best, the first glimpse should have 4 elements: be visual, engaging, revealing, and memorable. Memorable doesn’t always have to be high-drama either. Sure, you can make your character do something dramatic — light a bomb, for instance. But what if action’s not your script’s genre? It’s a lot harder to have your character do something more low-key, yet still unusual. Below are four different character introductions that hit the four criteria above.
The most common movie structure relies on plot: something significant happens to our protagonist which sets them on a course toward resolution. To take E. M. Forster’s famous example of plot: The King died, the Queen died of grief. But what if you don’t want to tell a single story? One solution is to give a series of vignettes. Although challenging, the vignette structure can work particularly well when it comes to capturing memories of a time and place. Two masterful examples are Federico Fellini’s Amarcord and Woody Allen’s Radio Days. Both movies are warmly nostalgic looks at the filmmakers’ formative years: Fellini’s as a teenager growing up in a seaside Italian town in the 30s; and Allen’s as a 12 year-old in a working-class Queens neighborhood during WWII. I’m going to focus on Radio Days in this post because it’s fresh in my mind.
Some weeks ago, I caught Peter Weir’s Gallipoli for the first time on Amazon Prime. The movie drew accolades when it came out in 1981. I caught scenes here and there on TV, but never watched from beginning to end. Anyway, from those snatched, distracted viewings, I got the idea that it’d be another bloated epic from the 80s that had been much praised when it came out but that didn’t hold up. But, man, was I wrong!
Gallipoli is a war movie about the disastrous WW I campaign, in which Australian and New Zealander soldiers were slaughtered at Anzac as the Allies attempted to open up a sea route through the Dardanelles. It sounds like an epic, but the emotional power of the movie lies in Weir’s focus on two Australian boys and their friendship. Archie Hamilton (Mark Lee) is 18, a naive, idealistic farm boy, living in the middle of the Australian outback with his family. In contrast, Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) is from the “big city,” a few years older, street-wise and a bit of a hustler. The only thing they have in common is that they’re both talented runners.
To tell a big story, go small and take your time. So I’m going to analyze how David Williamson, the scriptwriter, and Weir structured the script. (This structure, by the way, can also work if your story has two protagonists.)
Jazz musicians “quote”, rappers “sample”, and filmmakers pay homage. They take snippets of other works and incorporate them into their own stuff. It might seem like stealing. I see it more as tipping the hat to the masters. Imitation is the best kind of flattery, right? In that vein, I’m kicking off the “homage sequence” series in which I compare and contrast the original inspiration sequence and the homage version. Sometimes the inspiration is clearcut and other times not so much…
But I’ll start with an obvious example: Spike Lee paying homage to Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter. Laughton’s only movie as a director is a classic, a mashup of a fairy tale and a film noir, in which Robert Mitchum plays one of the best villains in film history, the psychopathic Rev. Harry Powell.
In the state penitentiary for car theft, Rev. Powell’s cellmate is a bank robber and murderer named Ben Harper (Peter Graves). Before the police arrested him, Ben stashed the cash inside his little girl Pearl’s rag doll. Then he swore her and his ten year-old son, John, to secrecy. Before he’s executed for murder, Ben tells Powell he hid the loot — but doesn’t tell him the exact location. Fooled by Powell’s gentle demeanor, Ben begs him to look after his wife and kids when Powell gets out. Rev. Powell readily agrees, secretly salivating over the cash. I’m not going to spoil the rest of the movie. Suffice it to say that it’s a must-see for any film buff.
Anyway, on to the sequence in question: Rev. Powell’s first meeting with Ben’s wife Willa (Shelley Winters), in which he charms everyone with a memorable take on the Cain and Abel story. Everyone that is, except for young John (Billy Chapin).
And here is Spike Lee’s updated take, from his own classic movie, Do The Right Thing, featuring Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem and Lee as Mookie:
Both sequences make a larger, ironic point about each movie’s message and it’s achieved in an entertaining, visually arresting manner.
I recently read that in China people have become so accustomed to seeing closed-circuit cameras everywhere that they get nervous in areas without them. Think about that. The natural world has no ccTV. When it first came out, it made a lot of people nervous they were being surveilled or followed. For most of human existence, people lived without any cameras or recording devices and humankind survived. And now, ccTV cameras are so ubiquitous people are afraid or uncomfortable without them. It’s a powerful lesson about fear and comfort.
That kind of fear is an illusion. There is no real danger, just a lack of comfort or a new experience. But it can feel real and scary! Very often, we’re terrified of something just because we’ve become comfortable to a certain reality — but if you change that reality, you can still survive. Sometimes you can even thrive. And once you get to the other side, the place without ccTV, where you can truly be alone without anyone watching you, you can actually feel liberated. You’ve stepped into a new world and that’s exhilarating.