artificial, character's reality, cliche, devil in the details, familiar, small choices, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY -


I have never in my entire life gotten into a cab and had the driver ask me, “Where to, Mack?” In 2022, thanks to the magic of rideshare apps, it’s unlikely there would even be a taxi involved in the first place. Has anyone, anywhere, in the year 2022 a) gotten into a taxi and; b) had the driver ask, “Where to, Mack?” Not impossible. But highly unlikely.

Where does that kind of thing happen? In old black-and-white movies, right? So what does it tell us if a character in a contemporary screenplay jumps into a cab and the driver says, “Where to, Mack?”

It tells us the script isn’t thinking of reality. It isn’t drawing from recent, lived experience. It is instead drawing on movies, and old movies at that. Which is to say: The script is basing its choices on old and artificial sources.

The writer isn’t taking the time to think through the character’s reality. Instead, the choice is based on, “Well, a script is a blueprint for a movie, and this is the kind of thing I’ve seen happen in movies, so into the script it goes.”

But with those three simple words – “Where to, Mack?” – we’ve told the readers that the script is open to old, artificial, familiar, cliché choices. That it’s either unwilling or unable to take a moment and think, “How would this character actually get around? What would I do in that situation?”

That might seem like a big indictment off one little line, but the devil is in the details. Because this kind of thinking should apply to everything that goes into the script.

As with anything, there are exceptions. For instance, if the script was trying to affect a sensibility from older films, a la THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, then “Where to, Mack?” suddenly has a value.

Here’s another example: Human beings nod their heads up-and-down to indicate “yes” and shake their heads from side-to-side to indicate “no.” This is an extraordinarily common truism; it’s universally understood human behavior. So much so that there are only two groups of people in the entire world who do not understand the meaning of nod/yes-shake/no. Those two groups are: a) newborn infants; b) screenwriters.

It is very common to find in screenplays characters who like to “nod their heads ‘no’” and “shake their heads ‘yes.’” On its face, this is such a tiny thing, right? But when this kind of thing appears in a script, it suggests one of two things. Either the script doesn’t understand the meaning of the words “nod” and “shake” as they pertain to head movements, or else the script doesn’t understand basic human behavior.

Either way, are we talking about a good script?

Maybe. A character shaking their head yes doesn’t automatically sink the ship. But it suggests a lack of understanding that is likely to be pervasive. The ultimate point being: Even in very small choices and details, we should be thinking through the characters’ reality.

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