Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Strength of the Reluctant Hero

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.  ~ Ambrose Redmoon

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear.  ~ Mark Twain

How many of you reading this are fearless? I mean, you are afraid of nothing, from heights to public speaking to snakes to death. Nothing.

My guess is that we all have something would rather not do or face. And there are some things that we don’t even allow ourselves to entertain. For the construction of drama, these fears are fertile ground.

Too often, I see films where the hero is gung-ho for any situation. He is ready with a clever quip, a wink and a smile with lines like: “It’s go-time,” or “Let’s do this thing,” or “Let’s rock and roll.”  Nothing scares this person.

Sure, sometimes these lines can make an audience cheer with a Pavlovian response, but it is a cheap way to get that cheer. And a fearless hero is less of a hero than someone who overcomes fear. It is the facing of these fears that makes one heroic, not the actual deed performed.

The so-called reluctant hero is a hero; the fearless hero is a cartoon. Ironically, a character who has fear but confronts it will feel more real to an audience—even if that character is actually a cartoon. 

Look at Finding Nemo. The father, Marlin, is deathly afraid of the ocean and its dangers, but when his son, Nemo, is lost Marlin faces his fear and conquers it.

In Aliens Ripley is afraid of facing the aliens. She knows how dangerous they are. All of her shipmates were killed—and that was only one alien. I’d be afraid, too. Wouldn’t you?

Many of you who have read the work of Joseph Campbell or Chris Vogler know of the idea of the “Refusal of the Call.” This is the part of the “Hero’s Journey” that follows the hero’s “Call to Adventure.”

Lots of people learn these steps and follow them when they create their own stories, but they seldom ask why these steps are there. I believe it’s because they do mirror life. How many times have you been asked to do something or given an opportunity, and have been paralyzed with fear at the prospect?  It is always much easier to stay in the world and circumstances you know. It’s dangerous out there.

I am reminded of my father wanting to take the training wheels off my bike. I protested and was so frightened that I cried. But my dad knew I could ride without the training wheels and took them off. He steadied me on my bike and held me up so that the bike would not fall. Then I went to look up at him and he was gone! He was far behind me. I was riding by myself. My father smiled broadly—proud of me. And I was proud of myself. I had been reluctant, faced my fear and conquered it.


I’m not saying that I was heroic learning to ride a bike, but the steps and feelings do mirror the mythic steps of the Hero’s Journey. I am sure that without too much struggle you can pull up a similar experience from your own life.

You may have been afraid of a new job or a promotion at your current job. Maybe it was a fear of parenthood. Or a maybe it was a new relationship. Or maybe it was leaving a relationship. Maybe you are reluctant to start that novel or screenplay. You get the idea.

The reluctant hero is true to life. It is true to how we experience life—we are often reluctant to leave the world we know for the dangerous and unknown.

Creating a reluctant hero makes him or her someone the audience can empathize with. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not find myself in a nest of murderous aliens. What makes a Ripley heroic is her fear. The fear is what makes the story worth telling. We learn from the story that we might conquer our fears if we confront them.

In Jaws, the sheriff, Chief Brody, is afraid of the water but must overcome his fear to kill the shark terrorizing his town. His last line in the film is, “You know I used to hate the water.” Just like me on my bike, he faced his fear and defeated it.

Over the weekend I saw the film The King’s Speech—a movie about a man with a debilitating stammer who faces and conquers his fear of public speaking. In this story it makes him an admirable and heroic figure. People clapped at the screening I saw. Like my dad watching me on my bike, the audience was proud of this character’s bravery. They rooted for him throughout the film. They empathized.

Don’t ever forget the power of a reluctant hero; it is a way to draw people into your story. This reluctance makes heroic acts even more heroic and makes heroes more human—and makes your story universal.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Movies I Like: Tootsie

Anyone who has read my first book, Invisible Ink, knows how highly I think of Tootsie. It was one of the many standout films—along with E.T., The Verdict, and Gandhi—that were released in 1982.

I am going to talk here, as I have with other films I like, about how impressed I am with the laser focus of this film. It is a story that aims directly at its thematic target and hits a bulls-eye.

I won’t take up time here breaking down the entire film, but the first act in so well constructed that there is much to learn from it.

The film was co-written by Larry Gelbart, who in his early career was one of the legendary writers of the Sid Caesar shows Caesar’s Hour and Your Show of Shows in the 1950s. Sid Caesar’s writing team included Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Neil Simon. Heavyweights. Gelbart later went onto create the classic M*A*S*H television show in the 1970s.

Comedy writers for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows:" (from left, front row) Gary Belkin, Sheldon Keller, Michael Stewart and Mel Brooks; (from left, back) Neil Simon , Mel Tolkin, and Larry Gelbart. (pbs/file 1956)
Sidney Pollack, who was a brilliant director and actor, directed the film.

If you don’t know the film Tootsie, it stars Dustin Hoffman out an out-of-work actor and acting teacher who—desperate to get a part on a soap opera—pretends to be a woman.

Sidney Pollack did not want to direct the film until he figured out the film’s armature (theme): Wearing a dress could make Dustin’s character a better man.

I know that Pollack always worked hard to find an opening image that had thematic meaning in his films. The very first shot in Tootsie is a long pan-shot of a make-up table. We see fake teeth, wigs, and powders; we end on an actor applying make-up. We don’t know it yet, but this is Dustin’s character, Michael Dorsey.

We see him apply a false mustache. He smiles, proud of his work. The glue unsticks and the mustache lifts off his face. This is not a small thing. For plot reasons we want to know he has some knowledge of stage make-up because later he must become another person.

There is also a thematic component here—the mask will come off.

Nothing is random in this act. The next thing you see is Michael Dorsey teaching students. We start to get the idea that he is an actor who knows what he’s doing. This becomes very important.

Then we see Michael in an audition. In the audition, he reads lines with a male gum-chewing stage manager. As a response to Michael’s line that someone is coming and to put some clothes on, the stage manager reads his line flatly: “I’m a woman. Not Felecia’s mother and not Kevin’s wife.”

Right away we have a man pretending to be a woman. This is solid construction. It may look simple, but it is hard to do well. And you might think an audience would see something so obvious, but they don’t. But they do get a sense that the story has a direction and is not random lines and scenes.

Dorsey is told that he’s not right for the part—they need someone older, they say.

Next we see Dorsey in another audition playing the part of a young boy. He is now told that they are looking for someone younger.

In the next audition he is told that he’s too tall. He says that he can be shorter. He pleads with them telling them he can be whatever size they need. They then say that they are looking for somebody different. And he answers that he can be different.

In frustration they tell him that they are looking for somebody else. He has no answer.

What’s great about this series of auditions is that we get both thematic and plot information. Plot-wise, we know that it is hard for Dorsey to get work. Theme-wise, we see that he would be willing to change anything about himself to get a part. And in fact, he does become “somebody different” to land a part.

We now see him teaching again where he tells his students that they have to be truthful in the parts they play. I’m paraphrasing, but this is essentially what he says.

He then reads from cards as he performs lines from a play for yet another audition. The play seems to be about how you shouldn’t do some things for money. This is thematic because when Michael gets the part on the soap opera he ends up hurting people he doesn’t mean to. All because he wanted money.

Next he is teaching again. In this scene he tells his students that they should not play a part that isn’t in them—they must become the characters they play.

This is also thematic. When Dorsey pretends to be a woman he must be true to that experience. He begins to see life through the eyes of a woman. This is how “wearing a dress makes him a better man.”

Later Michael is rehearsing for a play and in the scene he is dying. He is asked by the director to stand up and move center stage as he dies. This doesn’t ring true to Dorsey and he refuses. This is also thematically relevant—because this is all about Michael being true to the part. If it isn’t truthful, he won’t do it.

This makes it hard for Michael to find work, because he is seen as difficult to work with.

Again, for the sake of space, I will not break down every scene here. But some of the plot things we are told in this act is that Michael’s roommate, played by Bill Murray, is a playwright and they need money to put on this play. We also see, at his birthday party, that Michael is a bit of a womanizer. He lies to women.

So it is established that Michael Dorsey tells the truth when he’s acting, but in life can be a little dishonest.

There is a classic scene, also in the first act, where Michael Dorsey agues with his agent, played by the director of Tootsie, Sydney Pollack, about not getting him work. In the scene we hear Michael argue that he must always be truthful to the character he is playing—even if that character is a tomato.

I will let you find some of the rest of the thematic Easter eggs in the first act of this film. But I will say that this is a thing made with fine precision. This kind of craftsmanship is rare as the dodo in films made today.

By the end of this beautifully conceived and executed first act we find out that our character is a skilled actor who believes strongly that he must tell the truth while acting. We also find that he is not so honest in his life—particularly in regards to women. And we know that Michael Dorsey needs money. He needs a job.

The stage is set. When Michael Dorsey puts on the dress and make-up, and becomes his alter ego Dorothy Michaels we believe it. We know he has the acting and make-up skills.

We also know that he has a lesson to learn—he must become a better man,

And we know that when he becomes Dorothy, he has no choice but to see the world through the eyes of a woman because he has to become the character. He has to be true to the character. He cannot lie when he’s acting. This commitment to character is what forces Michael to change.

If you want to see storytellers working at the top of their craft watch Tootsie; take the time to really study the film, and it will make you a better writer.