Monday, March 9, 2009

Story Starts with Character (or Everything I Learned About Life I Learned from Indiana Jones)

I got tipped off to a blog by The Mystery Man from John August's site which links to where you can download a transcript of George Lucas, Steven Speilberg and Lawrence Kasdan talking about the intitial story ideas for the Indiana Jones movies.

I just got the transcript but Mystery Man has a nice summary and excerpts of the content.

What's particularly fascinating is not just the idea of being a fly on the wall in that room filled with that much talent, but where they spend their energy and focus. First of all, they spent nine hours a day for five days and this transcript is just the meat of the meeting. That's a long time to spend brainstorming and planning but look at the finished product. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the most streamlined and exciting blockbuster movies of all time, using a filmic vocabulary that remains true to an ideal of the past, yet still firmly planted in the aesthetic of the present.

What's also fascinating is that they spent a majority of time working out who the character of Indiana Jones was, not just what he was going to do (his actions) in the movie, but his ideals, his morals, point of view of acadamics v. adventure, his relationships, education, etc.

Here's George Lucas talking about him:

He's the guy who's been all around the world. He's a soldier of fortune. He is also... Well, this gets into that other side of his character, which is totally alien to that side we just talked about. Essentially, I think he is a, and this was the original character and it's an interesting juxtaposition. He is an archeologist and an anthropologist. A Ph.D. He's a doctor, he's a college professor. What happened is, he's also a sort of rough and tumble guy. But he got involved in going in and getting antiquities. Sort of searching out antiquities. And it became a very lucrative profession so he, rather than be an archeologist, he became sort of an outlaw archeologist. He really started being a grave robber, for hire, is what it really came down to. And the museums would hire him to steal things out of tombs and stuff. Or, locate them. In the archeology circles he knows everybody, so he's sort of like a private detective grave robber. A museum will give him an assignment... a bounty hunter.

What's great about this description is that you don't have this told to you, you SEE IT in the first ten minutes of the movie. And then you see it later because its basically what the entire movie is about--will Indy get the Ark before the Nazis?

One of the best peices of advice I got was from a CS podcast of scribe Michael Arndt (who wrote Little Miss Sunshine) who said that the best way to start your movie is to show characters doing what defines them (thus you see each character in that movie actively doing something, like practicing for a beauty pageant, giving a motivational speech, etc.)

By the way, this doesn't just apply to movies, but to all dramatic writing.

Even in theater, the best way to show character is through action, especially as it relates to imagery.

Like two tramps waiting by the side of the road. (Waiting for Godot)
A man stranded in a desert trying to bury his dead horse. (Kicking a Dead Horse)
A salesman trying to get the good leads from his supervisor (Glengary Glen Ross)
A writer in prison defending his stories as he's being interrogated (The Pillowman)

I could go on, but you get the point.

A brilliant opening scene and a well-defined character in a story is not an accident. It is a result of kicking around a lot of ideas, spending a lot of time with the character and what he/she wants.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have Lucas, Speilberg or Kasdan in the room.

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