MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #12
If you were a casting agent and met a frail, petite waif of a wispy, longhaired blond, who weighed maybe ninety pounds, and on tiptoes stood four-ten , how would you cast her? As a live-action Tinkerbell or a bouncer in a biker bar? Read on to see why the latter is precisely the way to go.
BIKER BAR BOUNCER – OR –
I met a woman at a dinner party, a new writer whose day job—actually her night job—is bouncer at a biker bar.
Imagine what she looks like.
Do you see a butch, brawny, broad-shouldered, buzz-cut bull of a woman?
In fact she’s a tiny longhaired blonde, a waif who might weigh ninety pounds. She stands—on tiptoes—four-ten. She’s a wispy Tinkerbell with a breathy, whispery voice. You could pluck her off the ground with a pair of tweezers and tuck her into your vest pocket. The gentlest breeze would lift her off her feet and blow her clear to Cucamonga.
“How does someone like you bounce a biker from a bar?” I asked her.
“It’s easy. Management instructs me whom to evict. Inevitably it’s some hulking guy who’s drunk, disruptive, belligerent, argumentative, over-the-top loud. Anyone can see he’s one millimeter away from a fistfight with broken chairs, glass, and bones. I walk up to him and, all bright-eyed and perky and breathy, I say, ‘Hi! I’m Alice-Marie! May I buy you a drink?’”
“You offer to buy the guy a drink?”
“I do. I hand him a card and I tell him, ‘This coupon is good for a drink. Tomorrow. Or any other day. For now, though, you have to leave. If I can’t persuade you to leave, I’m out of a job. You seem like a decent guy and, if I may say so, in a subtle way sort of hot. I really, truly would love to see you back here for a drink tomorrow or any other time. At the moment, however, you have to go. Would you do that? As a personal favor just for me? Will you leave? Please?’”
“Every time. Since it’s not a man but a woman making the bounce, there’s no macho standoff. When confronted by another a man, a drunk can’t back down without a fight. But he can do a personal favor for a woman. It saves wear and tear on the customers and the bar.”
“That’s amazing,” I said. “But then you have to deal with him again when he returns for the drink.”
“He never returns for the drink. Alcohol obliterates recollection. Isn’t that its purpose? And even if he remembers, once he’s sober he’s too embarrassed to show up.”
Why do I write about this in a column designed for screenwriters?
It demonstrates the value in avoiding stereotypes. Isn’t our dainty female bouncer far more engaging than the predictable, beefy security guard? Stereotypes are by nature flat and familiar. Writers are well advised to turn stereotypes on their head in service of creating richer, fresher characters.
Now let’s take it the other way.
Instead of citing a job and asking about the character holding it, let’s cite a character and ask about the job.
Not long ago I was conducting master screenwriting classes in Sydney, supporting well-established Australian writers. One among them, a gay novelist and screenwriter, invited me to have dinner with him and his partner. The writer was a deep-voiced manly fellow. The partner, however, was markedly feminine in his style. A Malay, he dressed stylishly and groomed himself immaculately. He spoke with an airy, high-in-the-throat, rising-and-falling sing-song inflection. He even had the slightest hint of a lisp. He was diminutive in stature. In short, he was a bad standup comedian’s bigoted caricature of a homosexual.
What do you guess he does for a living? Hair dresser? Fashion designer? Interior decorator?
He was a pediatric cardiologist.
He specializes in neonatal heart surgery. Through his extraordinary training and talent he had already--early in his medical career--saved the lives of countless newborns.
Isn’t that a lot more interesting than one more gay hair dresser?
When screenwriters stoop to stereotypes we not only perpetuate prejudicial images. We commit an offense that is even worse: we create characters who are boring.
Behind the Screen: Getting to Know Michael Colleary
Michael Colleary is a graduate of the UCLA masters screenwriting program, and now one of its most popular professors. He has been a professional screenwriter and film producer for more than 20 years. A frequent collaborator with fellow UCLA alumni Mike Werb, his feature film credits include Face/Off which The New York Times named one of the best 1,000 movies ever made, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. In 2007, with Mike Werb and UCLA alum Claire-Dee Lim, Colleary co-wrote and produced the family film Firehouse Dog which has won multiple awards from family advocacy groups. He also recently wrote for the Cartoon Network live-action series Unnatural History.
In 1995 Michael was invited to return to UCLA as a visiting instructor to teach in the Professional Screenwriting Program and in the Masters Program. In 2002 UCLA honored him with the Lew and Pamela Hunter/Jon and Janice Zakin Chair in Screenwriting. Michael and his siblings also sponsor the Bridget and Bob Colleary Award for screenwriting excellence which is presented annually to a deserving UCLA writing student.
Michael got his start in Hollywood by becoming obsessed with movies – read on to see how your obsessions can also lead you to a successful Hollywood career.
Q1: What led you to Hollywood to pursue a career in entertainment?
Michael: In college I became obsessed with movies. I was an English major at Cal, and Berkeley in those days was packed with art houses and revival theatres. This was in the ancient era before home video, DVDs and DVRs. A lot of these theatres changed their programs 3-4 times a week, ran film festivals, double-features, etc. - so I could (and did) go to the movies every night of the week and always catch something new.
Between that and film classes at Cal, I was exposed to all the great filmmakers as they were intended to be experienced - on the big screen. So it was a very inspiring, exciting immersion in cinema.
I was also fortunate because my father was a TV writer. He started his career writing for the baby-boomer classic "Captain Kangaroo" in New York City. Later the whole family packed up and moved to LA, and my Dad became an Emmy-winning sitcom writer/producer. That said, he and my mother were not necessarily thrilled when I announced that I wanted to be a screenwriter. They knew from long experience how challenging and frustrating a career in showbiz can be - especially for writers. But by growing up in a showbiz home, I learned early about the problems and peculiarities specific to making one's way in Hollywood.
I didn't want to be a TV writer (nobody in Hollywood works harder) but I was fortunate enough to be accepted to the UCLA screenwriting dept. at a time when the competition was not so fierce. (No way would I be admitted today - considering the number of hugely talented and accomplished people who apply now). By the time I graduated, fellow UCLA writers like Greg Widen and Frank Deese and Shane Black were selling scripts and getting movies made - so I figured I would give it a shot too.
Q2: How did you start your writing career?
Michael: I actually got my first writing job while I was still at UCLA. I won a writing award, and the school put out a little press release in the trades. Soon after I got a call from Roger Corman's office. Roger had filmed the crash of a 707 in an FAA-controlled test, and wanted to use the footage in an action-movie. Alas, the movie never got made - but it was a great and hugely entertaining experience.
After graduating from UCLA, I struggled to remain productive without the built-in structure of classes - and deadlines. Finally fed up with myself, I called Richard Walter and asked him if he would be willing to let me sit in on his current 434. He very kindly said yes. The script I wrote in this class led to my first agent who promptly sold it to MGM. So I learned a(nother) big lesson - ask for help!
That script led to a re-write or two - but nothing produced. Around that time, my fellow UCLA writer Mike Werb and I decided to write something together. That script turned out to be "Face/Off," which was produced in 1997. I never saw myself having a full-time writing partner - but I found it to be enormously inspiring. I've been Mike's writing partner ever since - and that's been my career. (Another lesson learned - keep an open mind!)
Q3: What is your favorite movie of all time and why?
Michael: Impossible to answer! But I'll try to narrow it down: I was an Apocalypse Now fanatic - saw it 100s of times (before home video!). American Graffiti. Seven Samurai. John Woo's The Killer. Goodfellas. Broadway Danny Rose. Rushmore. The Third Man. Chimes at Midnight. The Mask. City Lights. Batman ('66). Star Wars (yes - all of them!). Empire of the Sun. Annie Hall. Alien & Aliens. Child's Play. Die Hard. Come and See. Gunga Din. The 400 Blows. Pretty much everything by Preston Sturges. Same for Sergio Leone. Spielberg's serious stuff: Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich. Apocalypto. Broadcast News. Red Beard. Casablanca. It's a Wonderful Life. Battleground. There's too many!
Q4: What advice would you give to new writers who have the dream of making it big in Hollywood?
Michael: Painful as it is for me to say it, I think the era of the stand-alone screenwriter is long over. As Roger Corman famously said, "Screenwriters don't have careers - they have jobs." Unfortunately, even the jobs have become scarce. Fewer and fewer movies are made each year. Development funds have been gutted, meaning fewer opportunities.
But it's not all bad news. Believe it or not, there was once a rigid caste divide between TV writers and feature writers. TV writers were considered unqualified to work on movies! Today, it seems like the most successful writers working in movies started out on TV shows. The digital revolution means that creative people have more ways to produce their own work: ebooks, graphic novels, web series, etc.
My advice would be to add a hyphen to one's career identity as soon as possible: writer-director and/or writer-producer. Better yet - get into TV, where the writer's contribution is recognized as central to a show's existence ... which translates into more creative power! And that's what it's all about.