Characters with Something On Their Minds: the brilliant writing inside Deep Impact

Recently, I re-watched Deep Impact, one of two “asteroids-going-to-hit-Earth” movies that came out simultaneously (the other being, the poor-in-comparison, Armageddon).  Deep Impact builds slowly, and has amazingly drawn characters.  It’s worth it to watch just to pick up some tips on character development.  These are my thoughts after watching it.

1.  Every character in the movie has their own worries or concerns BEFORE their first scenes.  Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni) wants to make a name for herself as a reporter and move up faster than the news organization’s corporate ladder will allow.  Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) is falling in love.  Jenny’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is achingly going through the news of the marriage of her ex-husband to a younger woman; and the ex-husband has just married, and in the process, estranged his daughter.  Others are having babies, concerned about parties coming, or debts, or something.

It’s very easy for me as a writer to create characters who come into my scenes to do my bidding and then exit, stage left.  This makes them one-dimensional and cardboard–it also makes them a bit robotic, there to get my plot done for me.  BETTER are characters who have had something JUST happen to them when they come into your story, in other words, they are recovering from a cold, they are dealing with bills, parents passing, daycare that’s too expensive–something.  These scenes were really short, but they helped me care about the characters quicker because they had outside interests, outside agendas besides the imminent needs of the PLOT.

2.  They make CHOICES based on their previous problems or worries.  I was very surprised to see what kinds of choices they made, choices bound by the plot, yes, but could only have happened because of the natural cause-and-effect of the plot.  Someone chooses not to be saved; someone chooses to rescue someone else; someone kills themselves; each new choice brings about other choices–but choices that build on one another.

Sometimes writers (like me) create plots that are heavily structured because of what we want to see but we don’t quite take into consideration the kinds of choices  the characters would make—we make their choices from who they are in the beginning, not who they are BECOMING as the story progresses.  Events change us, and I was reminded that characters in the movies could not have made certain choices without having gone through the events in the movies. It’s a good thing to remember that the events of your story change your characters–and they do it gradually.

Change doesn’t happen because of one event, usually.  It happens because we are exposed again and again with events and choices.

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2012: The Last Movie Explosions and the End of an Era

Well, just saw a clip from the movie 2012, out in theatres in November.  After this movie, there will be no bigger explosions.  Hurray!   

I remember when Independence Day blew up the White House, and much of New York.  It was a cool special effect.  I remember when the Titanic split in two.  Wowzers!  But now, there’s not gonna be a special effect left to do using real places after 2012.  We’ll have seen the Eiffel Tower destroyed so many times, seen a realistic crumbling of the Rio Jesus, seen California being pushed into the sea, or dribbling into it as is the case here.

I mean, after that, the real end, when and if it does come, will seem like a rerun.  I bet when an earthquake hits California, one day, God forbid, but if it does, people will say “It looked just like 2012.”

Now, imagine filmmakers discussing options after 2012 comes out:  

“Well, there goes my next volcano film.  Can’t get more realistic than that!”

“And they just sunk Iowa into the ground.”

“We can’t redo the crumbling of the Statue of Liberty–we’ll be copying!”

“Exactly, boys.”  They’ll sigh.  Nod their heads.  “You know what this means?”

They’ll look around nervously.  

“We go back to plots and characters.  People won’t expect it.”

“What you mean is–they’ll yawn through another White House implosion.  No,” someone will shake his head, “we’ll go back to those all right—there’s nothing left to blow up, or blow up more realistically.  There’s nothing left but characters.  Damn.”

And this will be the END OF SPECIAL EFFECTS DRIVEN MOVIES.  Relief.  

It’s like the last ten years–post Jurassic Park–that directors have been like little boys with a new Chem Set and a set of bottles—what can we blow up?  Or Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy in Wargames, playing “Global Thermonuclear War.”   “What will we nuke first?” Broderick asks Sheedy.  “Las Vegas!  Seattle!” 

So many films destroying highways and bridges and houses and monuments…like Godzillas of the Green Screen.  Well, we’re all done with that!  Who can follow 2012?  The special effects people will be looking around for things to do and they’ll have to morph bodies on screen or something else….cause we’ve seen every conceivable iteration now.  Reality won’t be half as good! 

Either we move on now to plot/character driven movies whose special effects serve the moment, or this really is the end of the world….

God:  “Well, they’ve blown up everything they can on screen.  If I don’t cash in my chips, and call my peeps home, they’ll get bored…”