Article / Creating Real Characters for Film




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D.O.A. I have little doubt the whole D.O.A. concept came from the Kung Fu film Yang Chi, 1974. D.O.A. , however, did manage to keep the ladies clothes on- though periodically skimped at the very least. Hard to watch Yang Chi without a chuckle, which was really the point. Can’t say I’ve seen the ass used as a weapon before. Lol.

If you are going to have weapons in your story, and especially one handled by your main character/s, give some though to what kind of weapon they will have – does it match their personality? And how much, if any, firepower comes with it.

Do they have a gun they never use or are afraid to use (Die Hard)? Do they have several weapons (Navajas in Deperado)? Are their weapons built in (X-men)?

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Lee Young Ae plays Lee Geum-ja, sporting a double-barreled pistol in the South Korean film Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Okay, so I’m not really into all this shoot ‘em up stuff – at least in the Transformers and Rambo body-count kinda way. But, weapons are a part of out lives, like it or not (I don’t), and will most definately plays a role in film. Be creative, and look for new ways to smite thy enemy.

PERSONALITY

One’s disposition needs to be considered. Are they an old, catankerous man, Like Melvin in As Good As it Gets, or like the ever affable Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird? The character’s personalities really drove a large part of these two films. Imagine switiching these charaters and you have the makings of yet another reality show.

Thee are so many personality types out there: impatient, charming, arrogant, demanding, easliy excitable, wary of new things, high-strung, boring, etc. Compare Jody Foster’s character in Inside Man with Gena Davis’ character in The Long Kiss Goodnight. Two very different women. Interchangable? A big maybe, but it would undoubtedly change the chemistry of all interaction with other characters. Could you switch Gena Davis Hero character with her Long Kiss Goodnight character? I think you could. There is good reason certain actors are cast in particular roles. Jennifer Lawrence is a nice example.

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I don’t think there is another actor who exhudes personality quite like Jack Nicholson, seen here in ‘As Good as it Gets’.

A look at Thelma and Louise and you really get a nice snapshot of how important personality – and backstory – is when defining one character from the other. While they were two very different people, they did have some things in common, which is one element that brings people together. They also shared some ugly history with men, which acted as an additional bonding agent betweeen them, yet through the entire film, it was clear they were nothing alike. When you are developing your characters, this is so essential, especially in character-driven plots, and especially when you have two, or more, characters sharing equal screen time.

This is also evident in The Shawshank Redemption. Two very different men brought together under one extraordinary circumstance – prison. The film never loses control of keeping these two lead character’s personalities clear and distinct.

When developing your character’s personality, consider carefully how it will help or hinder them in their quest. Will being impatient make their pursuit of love or a dream career all the more difficult? Will being demanding make them successful in business, or successful on a field of battle?

The personality really drives the chemistry between characters. Bringing two unlike characters together, either with the same goals, or with conflicting goals, is paramount to good storytelling. The Devil Wears Prada, with Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway, is a solid example.

This is not to say that paying close attention to personality, or any other attribute for that matter, will guarantee a great story, a great film, or a script sale. I have seen many a film that really nails one consideration or another, or many, but somehow it still never really comes together. This is why fine-tuning that backstory is so essential, and making sure the attributes you choose to utilize actaully fit together, even if they seem at odds. There is a certain vocabulary of charcter – not unlike the vocabulary of architecture – that needs to work as a whole.

One film I think was pretty successful with this is The Princess Bride, 1987. I’d clasify this as an ensemble cast, and each and every character was so completely differerent, and split into three camps having three distinct goals. It picked a few awards and nominations, including best casting for a feature film. I agree, and think the actors each nailed their respective roles. I think it is worth a watch on how this was handled so well.

The screenplay also picked up a nomination. I read the book long ago, but admitedly have not read the screenplay as yet. I’m guessing, however, with the book and a nominated screenplay combined, that the character’s personalities were very well defined, all of which coalesced once it was cast. As mentioned before, if you are writing spec screenplays, casting is likely out of your hands. If you write and film your own material, however, or work closely with a screenwriter, and visa-versa, then matching cast to the written characters will be one of your greatest considerations. Bad casting is not unheard of by any means.

In my humble opinion, one of film’s greatest fails in casting was The Aviator. DiCaprio had no business playing Howard Hughes. That role should have gone to Hugh Jackman, hands down. And don’t get me stated on Kundun. I also think that Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster really didn’t connect – or like each other -  in Inside Man, much like the characters they played. Seems like this would be a good thing, as the animosity was real, not acted, but alas, this is not the case. When he called her a cunt, I got the feeling he meant it, at least from his opinion. I could be wrong.

There are many a flat character out there, and you feel you have never really gotten to know them once the film is all over. Other attributes, like maybe a limp or a chronic health issue, a fear, or a particular body type were all worked out, but they have no personality. Someone asks you, ‘What were they like?’ and the first thing that comes to mind is marshmallow.

Still working on this …

INTERNET PERSONALITY

I added this section because of things I have read in forums and YouTube, heard from from friends, and from bits in the news: how we behave in an autonomous venue such as the internet, things we say that we would never say to someone’s face, or tigs we would never do and say if we knew it could be traced back to us.

Online bullying comes to mind. Like saying ‘I can’t beleive that whore killed herself’ written in Facebook or MySpace after a teen girl committed suicide after nude photos of herself were uploaded to the internet. This is testament to how low the huma being can go when given the opportunity to degrade another, often just to shock for the sake of boredom and a complete and utter indifference for humanity – except their best friends of course.

If you want to see the lowest of the low, the real gargabe of your fellow man (usually teen boys), then read some of the comments posted in YouTube memorials. Families and friends put these together, and read the comments, most of which are sincere sorrow over the loss, usually of teens killed in accidents or who died an untimely death for one reason or another.

Imagine, if you dare, reading this following comment after your teen daughter was killed when the car she was riding in was run off the road by a gang.

‘I’m glad she’s dead. She would have grown up to …’ – and the rest I just really don’t want to put here. It was seriously ugly. I found that in the YouTube memorials. The girl was 15.

Here’s another one. Flip through a few pages of comments.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTSzi7OEI3Y&feature=related

Or this one …

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a82pnVC9qEI&feature=related

Another I read – ‘Who the fuck gave a gimp an Ipad’? was posted under a video of a young woman who was dying, and for her last wish she wanted to meet the firemen and paremedics who pulled her from a wrecked car, an accident from which she never fully recovered, and this was her farewell video.

Tragically, it appears this is a personality type that is here to stay. The troll, as they are often called. Absolute cruelty and degradation – and they get a real thrill out of it. Racism, sexism, religious hatred, or just shock for a few laughs. Surely they must know the permanent damage this does. It isn’t like flipping someone the bird on the highway.

Point is, if you are developing a character – and I would argue this would fall under antagonist, hands down – that uses the internet to hide their real identity to stalk, shock, or otherwise creat an internet persona for whatever reason (like the mom who created a MySpace page pretending to be a boy who liked a girl, then told her to go away, only to have the girl, who was 13, commit suicide. What a piece of shit for a mom, huh?) then I really recommend surfing comments in forums, news pages, YouTube, FaceBook celebrity pages (especially those for reality contestants) etc., to get a grip on how this invisible but all-too-damaging persona thrives and multiplies.

In the not-too-distant past, there were some studies done on drivers, and how they have one personality out of the car, and a complete jeckyl and Hyde change once in the car, and especially those who are alone when behind the wheel. Road rage grew out of this phenom. Point is, when we are where we think we are anomonys, we change personalities, sometimes subtley, other times to some n-th degree that defies logic.

MYSTERY

We all have something private we keep to ourselves, be it a dream to be somewhere else, a love interest, singing in the shower, or something that happened to us in the past. You don’t need to lay everything about your character out for the world to see. keep something mysterious about them, whether it is a mystery to the audience, or to one or all of the other characters – this is a nice way to add some tension and intrigue, by the way: the audience knows something a character does not. How and if the character ever finds out is part of our attachement to the story. Sleeping with the Enemy comes to mind. Chocolat works as well. The Green Mile, obviously.

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When you feel your character needs a little more depth to the backstory, add some mystery about them, something they don’t want to share with the world. Then decide how and why we find out.

Make sure this mystery fits the story. It can be something that comes as a shock, and maybe even change our minds about the character, or it can add some lovability to what we already know about them.

PHYSICAL CONDITION

Is your character physically fit, or in need of a gym visit? Do they eat well, or over eat? Can they hop a fence on the run, or have to go around? What is their endurance like?

In the film Entrapment, with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones, tip-top physical condition plays a big role in driving the story (though I like the script version a little better). In Crocodile Dundee 2, our cop in pursuit runs out of steam trying to tail Dundee.

Then of course there are the over-achivers, such as Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider, where believability takes a back seat to beauty. Compare that to Will Smith’s believable physical abilities in Men In Black – both work in the realm of entertainment and storytelling – or Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Arc.

In the short film The Butterfly Circus, our hero, despite he is limbless, is quite fit. This film, by the way, is highly recommended.

If your character is going to be in some kind of physical confrontation, or on the run from one, you need to decide if his or her condition will be a plus or a disadvantage.  It could also be that your character believes him or herself more fit than they really are, and get themselves in over their head. There is an interesting take on this in A Bronx Tale, with some rough-and-tumble bikers looking to bust up an Italian joint, only to get their butts royally kicked by the old guys, including one very fat man who used his obecity to his advantage.

A short list of other films where physical condition played a part …

Rocky and The Wrestler come to mind, as well as Bend it Like Beckman.

Decide in what phtsical shape your character will be in, and why, and how it will play out in the story.

MUSIC

Try if you will to imagine a film without music. The rhythms and energy it brings to any film and scene is apodictic. I am of the school that music is used two ways in film: the music included to add to the overall ambiance through appropriate lyrics or tempo that reinforces a scene, be it a car chase, a love scene or suspense. But there is also the music your character chooses to include in their lives, be it what they collect and listen to, the music likely to be heard in the places they visit. You can also include music they do not choose to include in their lives, and avoid when possible.

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One of the most powerful short narrtives I have seen is this 4+ minute Pantene commercial out of Thailand. You’ll be doing yourself a grand favor by watching it. If only all commercials were like this!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Um9KsrH377A

Good Morning Vietnam’ was very successful in the use of music. His dichotomic choice of Luis Armstrong’s ‘It’s a Wonderful World’ in the middle of a bloody war zone was pretty powerful stuff. Compare it to the polka his nemesis chose, and you really reinforce the worlds apart these two men lived – somewhat mimicking the two worlds of the American soldiers and the Vietnamese people. Always look for those kinds of oppotunities in your writing!

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From ‘Amadeus’, 1984

Let’s say your character likes to dine in upscale places, where a jazz quartet might be found. How might she or he be different then, say, a character who lives for rock concerts, the louder the music, the better? What about either of these scenarios will reinforce what it is you want to project to the audience?

A fave scene of mine comes from ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, where Tim Robbin’s character Andy locks himself into the office and plays Mozart’s Canzonetta sull’ aria. Great, great scene. Music as a means of subversion.

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Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’

There are numerous films using music the character chose to listen to – or didn’t choose – to reinforce a character’s back story. This scene with Andy tells much of the life left behind without having to say a word about it. And while it’s certainly possible Andy could have been a minimum wage earner supplementing his wages with petty crimes, by the time we see this scene, we already know enough about Andy to make this the powerful info infusion that it is.

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Clothilde Baudan as music prodigy Clara Bauman in L’efronteé, France 1985. In this film music played an important role in the main character’s – Charlotte Gainsbourg as Charlotte Castang – rough and tumble coming of age. Excellent film that picked up some awards and nominations.

The film ‘August Rush’, with Robin Williams. had a nice music theme. Though it ended a little heavey on the sap for me, I think it’s worth a watch for solid peformances and a nice take on music, combining your folksy rock, dreamy classical, and subway station harmonica.

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From ‘The Red Violin’

Not all music-themed films are bound for glory. The Private Lesson, with Carroll Baker, 1975, is one of them. If you can get past the droll dialogue and ridiculaous nieveness of the characters, there is a chance you’ll enjoy the period costume and settings. And the music. And Ms. Baker’s classical beauty. Fave scene? When two never-been-laid students shave the pretty and prim piano teacher’s armpits, because she doesn’t know how. Right.

Written during the B-movie ‘show us your underpants’ craze of the 70s, the too-few music scenes are mingled with intimite fem display, albeit tastefully done. That with a few other not as tastefully done nude scenes that seem tossed in for ticket sales – and give us a clear reminder that these kinds of films were made long before depilation caught on.

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Carroll Baker as Piano teacher Laura Formenti, during one of her private lessons

In the who-done-it comedy You Never Can Tell, 1951 with Peggy Dow and Dick Powell, the song Molly Malone (Cockles and Mussles) played an important role in connecting the past with the present, where a murdered dog comes back as a private detective to finger the one who slipped him the poison. The song was something his then owner Ellen Hathaway, played by Peggy Dow, would always hum. This is a nice element to consider when deciding how music plays into your charcter’s backstory.

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Peggy Dow

Of course, no conversation on music in film is complete without mention of The Sound of Music, 1965, with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Creme of the crop! When creating your character, certainly consider their music tastes, or lack thereof, as part of their back story.

ADORNMENT

I know I touched on this already, but felt it needed a more in-depth look.

This is your jewelry, your bling, body piercings, microdermal piercing, and other beauty or status enhancements.  The expensive watch, the pearl necklace, the belly-button stud, and toe rings. I would add to this list scarves, brooches, waist chains, and chokers.

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Hoop earrrings for men

In truth, much of this detail falls in the hands of the wardrobe department, especially for those writers working (starving) on spec. If you introduce a Goth Chick, for example, wardrobe will work out the proper adornment. If you want a specific type of look, say heavy on the blue colors, wardrobe will also cover that.

If you film your own material, however, or work directly with a writer and visa-versa, and pretty much handle your own wardrobe needs – as well as set design, lights, etc , then this kind of detail is important to note. In the German soap ‘Verbotene Liebe’, the attention to jewelry – and other details such as hair ties and so on – is really top notch, and classy.

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Jasmin Lord as Rebecca von Lahnstein in the German soap Verbotene Liebe (Forbidden Love)

Of course, no discussion of bling is complete without mention of Mr. T, from the series ‘The A-Team’, and arguably the father of Bling, though it did take a few decades to really go mainstream, even if temporary.

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Mr. T

The film ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring‘, with Scarlett Johansson, focuses on jewelry as a main prop. Undoubtedly there are others. Characters like your soldier wearing the dog tags of his kills (Inglorious Bastards), the Hippie festooned in beads and flowers, the diamond lover showing off her ice, the choker craze of the 70s, and so on are all fodder for character adornments.

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Scarlett Johansson in Girl with the Pearl Earring

Certainly your period pieces would need to pay attention to adornment – maybe toss in the mink stole here, and the chinchilla muff there, as were common in the 30s and 40s and on.

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Alida Valli in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Paradine Case’, 1947. Superlative elegance.

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Maylia in ‘Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture‘, 1949. Understated adornment, and yet more superlative elegance.

In Kind, there is also the absence of adornment that can be striking, especially where you would expect to see it (Inglorious Bastards).

Depending on the rating you want, you could also include more intimate piercings. You can show these via inference or tight clothing – a tight T-shirt over a pierced nipple, male or female, is sufficient to get the information out there. Societal norms, be they blessed or cursed, will pretty much require the female to be more modest, however.  Any graphic footage of genital piercing, male and female alike, would most certainly push your film into a hard R rating or higher. Be creative if you feel this is a necessary part of your character’s big picture. Remember, you can always infer it via dialogue. As body piercing becomes more common, and even mainstream, it is certain to find more literal expression through film as well. Every few years the envelope gets pushed along a little further, and what is permssible content, and I am certain this will eventually include intimate piercings in one manner or another. Just avoid the raunchy, unless, of course, that’s part of the character’s persona.

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Intimate body piercings can be shown via tight clothing.

I would add glasses to this mix as well. We do choose our glasses, be they corrective, fashion or sun glasses, to fit our personality. John Lennon is a great example. Steve Jobs comes to mind as well. In the film ‘As Good As it Gets’, who can forget Melvin’s bit with the sun glasses in the car. And ‘The Professional‘. I mean, how cool was that?!

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The briliant luninary, Steve Jobs. We assocciate him with these glasses.

Culture can play a big part in how much, if any, jewelry one might wear. In a conservative context, head scarves might be a required element, but there is an enormous variety in them. Frankly, I think there is an intrinsic want to adorn ourselves, even where it is frowned upon (Amish).

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From Iranian film by Riza Mirkarimi with detail on headscarf

Pay attention to the adornments as you dress your characters. It does tell much about them, their style, a hint about their economic nitch, their cultural drivers, etc. You have those draped in shiny things, and those more reserved, and the less-is-more approach. Think it through.

COSTUME

This is another area that will fall into the hands of specialized crew, unless you’re a do-it-yourselfer. I does need serious attention, and even research if you are doing period or cross-cultural films. You can. of course, keep it basic with something like ‘simple but elegant attire’, and wardobe will select the right clothes based on the scene and character. You could also introduce an idiosyncracy, such as ‘sloppy dresser, always wears something blue’, and then run with it. Probably one of my fave character costume is that of Billy Bob Thorton as Darrell in U-Turn. He’s the weird mechanic, and a film worth watching just for his game of solo twister.

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Billy Bob Thorton in Oliver Stone’s ‘U-Turn’. He wears that distributor well.

Like hair and makeup, there is a good reason costume has its own awards. It really can make and break a film. While an overwhelming number of films have unremarkable costume – and appropriately so based on story – there are those precious few that really stand out, and make the film all the more entertaining and authentic. I’ll toss in ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ here. Nothing really stunning as far as costume goes, but thoroughly authentic. Also keep in mind the need to have Ms. Robert’s character, Miss Watson, dress somewhat unconventional to reinforce her free-thinker attitudes on life and art.

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Scene from ‘Mona Lisa Smile’, with Miss Watsom sporting an ahead-of-its-time hairstyle.

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Scene from the film ‘Häxan’, 1922.

HAIR

This is one of those details that needs a good reason to include in a script. I have read plenty of noobie screenplays that will have something like  ‘Two teen chicks, one blonde and one brunette’, but the hair color never plays out. No reason for it. If, however, the hair is of consequence, be it an inportant character attribute, or somehow affects the story, then you should mention it. Also, if one of your characters changes their usual hair style for some reason during the course of the story, say going out to an upscale club, then you would mention it. Something like: ‘Emanuelle, her hair now up in elegant fashion, pulls on an evening coat, exits’.

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The beautiful – and tragic – Chinese silent film star Ruan Lingyu. Love the hair style here.

Most certainly if you do a period piece, you will need to take hair into consideration, whether it’s a Hippie story, a 40s Noir style, or even back to the Dark Ages or the ancient Mediteranean (Agora, 2009, with Rachel Weisz).

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Madonna as Eva Peron, in ‘Evita’, a splendid period musical. The hair style is based on that worn by Ms. Peron.

There is also the absence of hair, with a few well-known actors setting the bar on that some time ago: Yul Brynner and Telly Savalas to name just two.

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LL Cool J plays Sam Hanna in NCIS Los Angeles

THE OTHER DRESS CODE

I have touched on how clothes, and the accessories such as shoes, purses and hats, need to be considered when developing your characters.  But what about their underwear? Does the subject even come up in your screenplay / film?

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Underwear fashion of the 40s

Underwear has a few functions, to include hygiene, comfort, or enhancement of one’s physical attributes, sometimes meant for the eyes of one special person, or a select few. Or, sometimes it is just to feel good or beautiful, and with no intention of display.

For whatever reason, there does seem to be a facination with underwear, beginning with elementary school children and the ‘ol ”I see Paris, I see France, I see Mary’s underpants”. It is prevalent in advertising, jokes, and even used as a way to demean. There are dedicated collectors of panties and up-the-skirt candids, and a billion-dollar industry in underwear fashion. Much as it is intended to be ‘ropa interior’, it is, all kidding aside, in our face every day – quite literally for those who visit the friendly bikini bars, which is the whole reason for going to such a joint in the first place (From Dusk to Dawn, Powder Blue, Elektra Luxx)

If you write a historical piece, and want to add authenticity via the clothes, then undergarments should be considered, even if it is just a quick scene to further emphasize fashion sense of the period.  The docu-drama Babi Yar is a wonderful, yet wholly tragic, example.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8AuXQ1GJ0g&feature=player_embedded

You can use underwear to add passion and sensuality, comedy, trust, vulnerability, etc. ‘Risky Business‘, with Tom Cruise comes to mind for underwear as comedy. Classic stuff. ‘The Sweetest Thing’, with Cameron Dias and Christina Applegate, is another example of a comedic approach to underwear-clad characters.

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Tom Cruise in ‘Risky Business’

There is, as always, that fine line between the scene adding an important layer, be it a key piece of information or just a small patch in the quilt, and slipping in a little titillation for no real reason other than, well, titillation.

Underwear can be an important prop in the film.  ‘Electra Luxx’, with Carla Gugino comes to mind. Interesting story, well filmed, maybe rides the fence on what is key, and what fluffs up the film’s overall theme – which does have some value.

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Déborah François in ‘Mes chères études’ (Student Services)

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Will Smith in ‘I.Robot’

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Eva Longoria in ‘Without Men’. A tastefully done scene.

As in beauty and nudity, underwear scenes are not limited to the perfect 20 and 30 somethings. While I can think of few films depicting the well-over-thirty and the elderly in their undergarments – ‘Something’s Gotta Give’, maybe – there have been numerous films/scenes with the under eighteen crowd, and younger children. Your coming-of-age films, summer themes, dance themes, etc. ‘Alice in the Cities’, a black and white German film released in 1974, with Yella Rottländer and Rüdiger Vogler, is a solid example. Just a few scenes that feel perfectly natural in the cultural and period context, and where a child in this context is not really self-conscious about it. These scenes can include girls in dresses not at all concerned about their underwear showing (‘Den Vita Stenen’ (The White Stone) out of Sweden, and ‘Motyle’ out of Poland – and I mention these two – of many – because it appears to be intentional on the filmmakers part, for whatever reason), kids at the beach (Red Agate, Lord of the Flies), and kids in a safe environment such as home or a camp or school (Tato, The Lover, Diabolo Mente, Lawn Dogs). Then there is the somewhat bizzare (Le Necrophile). I will add, if you do include an underwear or beach attire scene with children, do so with retraint and clarity of purpose.

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Yella Rottländer In ‘Alice in the Cities’

As in any age, be it five or a hundred-five, the appropriateness of the scene is always paramount.

I suppose we can add beachwear to this section, as often it can carry similar information about our characters, either them personally, or those around him or her.  The film ‘10’ (1979) with Bo Derrick pushed the then-boundaries on how much to show and under what circumstances. Her suit was sheer and snug enough to give a fairly complete anatomy lesson, more or less a first for the time, at least in the vacilating puritanism that occasionally puts a condom on American mainstream culture. Mandingo, 1975, did portray full-nude characters, both male and female, but it did not have nearly the same widespread appeal that 10 had, and its R17 rating that certainly cut into its viewership. The B-movie biz was a whole other phenom. And, pop over to Italy at around the same time, for just one example of many, and you’ll find a differernt attitude. La Orca, 1976, with Rena Niehaus, is a prime example.

A nice, contemporary  scene with both male and female is ‘Knight and Day’, with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. ‘Point Break’, with Patrick Swaze, is another fine swim attire example. And of course there are numerous poolside scenes, hot tub scenes and such that call for swim attire.

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Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High

It may not really matter what kind of underwear your character is wearing. You may have a scene where they are just waking, or changing clothes, a locker room scene, etc. You can just say …

‘He strips to his boxers’, or ‘She changes into her sweats’.

That’s enough, and the wardrobe department can choose something appropriate for the character and period (the ladies in Charlie’s Angles would likely wear something different than the ladies in The Apostle) . But, what if you want to add some detail beyond non-descript underwear? Are they comical, with little hearts? A woman wearing boy’s underwear, or visa-versa? Raggedy? Hardly anything there?

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Eléonore Klarwein in ‘Diabolo Mente’ (Peppermint Soda)

Underwear scenes are everywhere, and often for fluff, or in lieu of what the filmmaker would rather be a nude scene, but has to hold back for one reason or another – ratings, culture, can’t get an actor or actress to drop trowser, or their mothers are on set. When it works, and done for story, it does add an authentic layer to the overall film. ‘Payback’, ‘Womb’, ‘The Professional‘, ‘Cocoon’ and ‘Krasnyy Agat‘ (Red Agate) with Lyudmilla Dyatko all come to mind.

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Scene from Cocoon

As I mentioned in Adornment, every few years we see the envelope pushed another notch. For whatever reason, the female pretty much leads the way in the afore mentioned envelope pushing, and has done so even in painting, sculpture and fashion on through the ages. There were more than just a few ‘scandolous’ films and scenes in the pre-code era, with women in some state of undress or another, and we made the leap to the unabashed shots of camel toe, the tonga, and sheer fabrics long ago (L’infermiera di Notte, 1979, Satanik, 1968, The Night Heaven Fell, 1958, with siverscreen icon Brigitte Bardot, to name but three of many). 

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Brigitte Bardot with Alida Valli in ‘The Night Heaven Fell‘, 1958

Nowhere is envelope pushing more prevelent than in music videos. Seeing how many a film maker finds themselves shooting music videos, either just to make ends meet, or by choice, this is likely to come up. Granted many a video is ‘fully clothed’, but even a cursury surf through YouTube music, and you will come across the scantily clad, the raunch, the sensuous, extreme bikini, etc. And what are many music videos but mini narative films? In this same vein, you have your pseudo documentary material covering Spring Break, Mardi Gras, and any other venue that guarantees lots of skin, some dirty dancing, and so on. And, many have high production values and are, for what it’s worth, entertaining.

In my opinion, as long as it is done tastefully (by whose standards?), and for good reason, then let art imitate life. Just don’t turn your project into a casting couch opportunity.

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Annabelle (Jeanette MacDonald), Dora (Sally Blane) and Mabel (Joyce Compton) in the pre-code film Annabelle’s Affairs, 1931

This includes your baggy pants and your whale tails, and wearing your undies on the outside – the art and fashion of showing the world your underwear – whether they want to see it or not.

I guess my concern is, will the envelopes pushed by music videos, and even niche video and indie film that live and breathe in cult followings and streaming circles, will influence mainstream, or even not so mainstream, film, and add pressues that talent will need these music video bods to stand a chance at getting roles. We are seeing some pretty blantant underwear scenes that end up on YouTube as pure eye candy. So many known actresses (and actors, and not-so-known) have been there – Jessica Biel in ‘I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry’, and ‘Powder Blue’, to name just two, Jessica Alba in  ‘Into the Blue’, Christina Applegate in ‘The Sweetest Thing’, Halle, obviously. Jennifer Beals in ‘Vamipre Kisses‘. Vanessa Ferlito in ‘Death Proof’. Salma Hayek in ‘From Dusk to Dawn’. Barbara Stanwyck in the pre-code era film ‘The Purchase Price’. On and on it goes. It is a cultural thing, of course. Not all regions of the world embrace the panty scene, for reasons of modesty or strick codes and outright bans.

I am curious if there will be another backlash like we saw that brough the pre-code ‘Vaudevilling of film’ to an end, as well as the replacement of the Production Codes that spelled the demise for the 60′s and 70′s exploitation B-films. I think probably not, at least anytime soon. I think there will be even more pushing of the envelope, and a softening of the line between PG13, R and X. It’s already not altogether uncommon to see close-up panty shots of women dancers in music vids, and, seeing how some boast a censored and an uncesored version, I wonder if they purposely look for women with a certain anatomical clarity to add to the erotic intent of said shot. I’m just sayin’, is all.

Okay, a small digression here. I’m probably harping, but this whole ‘other dress code’ issue really does play an important role in film, and especailly – though not exclusively – in Westen culture. I’m not saying it is a good or bad thing. It’s just one of many elements that pervade entertainment, influences attitudes, and reflects mores. It is also the first thing that disappears when a change in these mores comes along, usually with religion at the lead. No surprise there.

I mentioned above the film La Orca. This film indeed raised a few eyebrows in its time, with some critics calling it pornographic. It was made during the 70′s surge in B-movie exploitation films, where entire scripts were written to keep women in some state of undress, with a heavy dose of panty. Some of the films actually had a decent story, and I think La Orca, though falling short on development, was one of them. Some of the sex scenes (Flavio and his girlfrend) were a tad gratuitous, but there is an authenticity to the grittyness of them, and especially those scenes with the main characters. Undoubtedly this was difficult material, and I think the performers did a good job with it.

Read more about exploitation films here …

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B_movies_%28The_exploitation_boom%29

Keep in mind that there are also sub-genres of the exploitations film that get into the extremes. ‘Cannibal Holocost‘, 1980, comes to mind, and without a doubt where ‘The Blair Witch Project’ picked up a few ideas.

Underwear played an pivotal role in the scenes with Rena in La Orca, with an almost surreal balance between gritty and bruttish, and sensitive. I did mention underwear scenes can have a sense of vulnerability to them, and this is one of those occasions.

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Rena Niehaus and Michele Placido in La Orca

If you are considering a gritty film where underwear, or even partial nudity, plays a part, then I do recommend watching this film. While I do suggest to avoid the cheesecake just for the sake of cheesecake, it has given us sub-generes in film, and been a constant in pushing innovation, so it has not been altogether useless. And yes, some of it is good for a chuckle, especially when you have a gander at the fashion of the day, particularly the men’s. And let’s be honest; Vaudeville did give us a bevy of great stars, including cultural icon Mae West. What I don’t like is the bad habit of mixing this underwear business with violence, as is often done in your cheap, B-movie stuff.

The 70′s was not wholly unique. Exploitation films popped up in the 30s as well, often billed as educational to skirt production codes on taboo subjects not openly discussed in these times. Anyting to get women in the underwear. Jimminy. Humans.

MONSTERS, FREAKS, THE POSSESSED, AND THE JUST PLAIN WEIRD

These are your Frankensteins, your Draculas, creatures from one lagoon or aother, and your Linda Blairs. They are your Hunchbacks, your Dr. Frank-N-Furters (Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975), your Alex DeLarges (Clockwork Orange, 1971), and your M. Mantaldos (Lé Necrophile, 2004). And they are your Alucardas, played by the stunning Tina Romero, 1978. These are you Freddie Krugers, and I’ll toss in Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker. He really took it to a new and beautiful diabolic leverl.

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Boris Karlof as Frankenstein, 1931.

I like my mosters, freaks and weirdos to have some sense of history: how they became what they are, and what course of events brought that character to the screen as we see them? Chemical distaster? The invention of a madman? Your monsters need a backstory like any other character, and it needs to be believable.

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T’he Creature From the Black Lagoon‘, 1954

For films about the possessed, I think The Exorcist, 1973, really set the bar back in its day, but my personal favority is Alucarda, 1978. The location and the theatrics are superb if not a tad overdone.  It is, saddly, a relatively unknown horror classic, which features the strong and beautiful Tina Romero.

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Tina Romero in ‘Alucarda’

As a general rule I don’t watch much horror. Just not my cup of tea. Nor do I write much of it. But, I do appreciate the genre and its sub-genres, and think it has a legitimate place in film – well, except maybe those gore-fest, bloodbath slasher travesties with not much story. Muderous Santas, killer trolls. Yawn.

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The cockroach-eating M. Montaldo, in ‘Lé Necrophile’, 2004, France. Just plain weird. Brilliant film!

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Cloverfield‘, 2008

I’m not including your robodics here, such as Transformers, I.Robots, and even the early stuff. I’ll save that for a section on AI. 

As mentioned somewhere above, a writer should know what tools are at the disposal of the entire process. In the film Alucarda, for example, the set had to be constructed and detailed 3D, down to the last spiderweb, whereas something like Cloverfield would be largely CGI. When creating your monster, keep in mind these tools, from costume to CGI to supporting set design.

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From Alucarda. The color palette in this film is delish, if not Rembrandtian, and it seems pink, yellow and gold, and blue favor strongly.

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From ‘The Mummy’, 1999

The FX just keep getting better and better, and what we can do as story tellers seems endless, but my bitch is this: even with the fancy bells and whistles, the stories remain largely unchanged. You have a bad guy, or gal, or thing that goes around unleashing evil and havoc upon the world, or at the very least, just scaring the crap out of a few kindly locals. I really am ready for a new level in horror, or just the very weird. Lé Necrophile is the freshest take I have seen in some time, and even that is not so wildly outside the box. Enough, though. Other than that, I need to go back to the obscure vintage stuff that made their rouds in small grindhouses, then pretty much fell off the planet. And I like an occasion re-visit with Carrie.

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From ‘The Beach Girls and The Monster‘, 1965. Hands down, the worst so-called monster I’ve seen. Just so bad.

Final Destination, where we never see the ‘monster’ is pretty interesting, but again, the story is fairly predicatable.  I think there is a stagnation in this genre, with too much dependance on a shopping list of attributes that need to be included. All I can really say is, really go outside the box on this one, and first and foremost, develope a backstory that gives your monsters and freaks and weirdos a solid foundation from which to wreak their evil. Or their good.

OFF THE CHARTS

There are freaks and the just-plain-weird. And then there are those characters that mess with reason. This borders on your fantacy characters, like talking rabbits or Mad Hatters found in the likes of Alice in Wonderland, or flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. But these kinds of characters are created for children and young adults – though there are mature-audience versions – and as a kid, The Wizaerd of Oz scared the crap out of me. But I’m not talking your Harry Potter creations here either. I mean the truly out there characters. I suppose if I had to pick one film that covers this, it would have to be ‘The Master and Margarita’, out od Russia, with  my fave version being the 2005 mini-series. Black crows driving old cars, weird cats, centaurs, naked witches on brooms, and so on. I suppose M. Montaldo would fall in this catagorry as well.

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One of numerous covers from the book that inspired the film and series ‘The Master and Margarita’

AN ENSEMBLE CAST

There is a unique chemistry to consider when creating an ensemble cast, where the actions are distributed pretty evenly over a group of actors. There is still a central character that needs to be recognizeable as such, but they don’t function complete without the rest. Million Dollar Baby comes to mind. The Departed, Ocean’s 11 and No Country for Old Men are also good examples.

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Working as a group, what mischief could these three get into? What mystery might they solve? Who of the three would likely be the leader, and why? What character traits would set them apart to lead, and the others to follow?

The Sound of Music, is in my opinion, the epitome of an ensemble cast. While we know the film focuses on the relationship between the Captain and Maria, the story moves with the entire Von Trapp family. If you plan to write the next great ensemble flick, this is a must to watch. You can’t master the new without studying the classics.

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From The Sound of Music, 1965

I would also urge you to watch Crash, 2004, which incidently won the Screen Actor’s Guild Award for best Ensemble cast.

*****

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