Film production under the old studio system was all about meeting audience expectations. Legendary potentates like Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer were continually asking themselves: What does “our audience” need from a musical? Who do they want to see paired with Clark Gable in an epic period romance? Their market sense was not infallible (case in point: John Wayne playing Genghis Kahn in The Conqueror), but Golden Era filmmakers did have insight, they did have a couple of ironclad certainties. They knew, for instance, that audiences didn’t just want two screen lovers to meet, they needed to meet-cute. Viewers also wanted some fanfare, a bit of stagecraft to herald the introduction of the star—the star, and the arch-villain.
Most writers devote themselves to issues like motivation, backstory and character arc. Screenwriters often abdicate the notion of how to usher a protagonist onto screen; the lighting, framing of the shot, the swell of music is someone else’s department. If that suits you, if that conforms to your idea of collaboration, then go forth and do likewise. I prefer a more hands-on approach. I believe the writer should decide how best to make that crucial introduction. So, is there some criteria, some template for introducing one’s major characters?
The answer to that question is yes and no, and it depends upon one’s choice of genre. You can go big, or you can go small. Big would be exemplified by the spectacular entrance of Xerxes in Zack Snyder’s 300; the gilded man-god being borne aloft on a stone pyramid by a couple of hundred slaves while the drummers wail away. Small would be Rick’s understated entrance in Casablanca; the camera lingering on Rick’s hands while he signs a gambling chit, then following as he ashes his cigarette and draws it upward to his face. There is a wide world of artistic choices between those two extremes. Let’s look at some general categories, and some great examples:
The Ushered-Into-the-Realm Introduction
If you have huge disparities in social stature between two characters, then you might consider bringing one (or both) of them onstage with this time-honored chestnut. It involves ushering your protagonist into some uncharted realm, some fresh hell or exclusive enclave. For instance:
In Wall Street (written and directed by Oliver Stone), rookie stockbroker Bud Fox has assailed billionaire financier Gordon Gekko with calls and ovations. This siege unexpectedly pays off when Bud delivers a box of Cuban cigars on Gekko’s birthday. Gekko grants Bud an audience (“Nice to meet you. Hope you’re intelligent.”), and the ensuing sequence presents a mega-mogul in full flower, a rapacious corporate raider in his rarified element. Bud is thoroughly intimidated, has trouble completing a sentence, but manages to gain a modicum of traction with a stock tip that The Master hasn’t yet heard. Gekko’s decision to act on that tip propels the story into its second act and drives the rest of the movie.
In Barton Fink (screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen), we get a different twist on an ushered-into-the-realm scenario:
Unlike Gekko, studio mogul Jack Lipnick is pre-sold on the interloper (Barton), who is ushered into his particular realm. Lipnick has heard great things about this “fruity” Broadway playwright, and desperately wants him to infuse some of his productions with “that Barton Fink feeling”. That doesn’t make Lipnick any less intimidating than Gordon Gekko; he’s a stream-of-consciousness talker with a dubious sense of Barton’s skills or utility (“Barring a preference, we’re going to put you on a wrestling picture”…) The Coens are masterful as this kind of rapid-fire, soliloquy-style dialogue, and Lipnick’s grand entrance is indelible.
The Misdirection Introduction
Audiences like to be fooled—both a little and a lot. We all enjoy a bit of misdirection in story and imagery and this goes double for the introduction of major characters. If you execute a good misdirection introduction, your audience will have one of those “Ohhhh, so that’s the hero!” moment; or perhaps an “Ewww! Is that the real killer?” moment. For instance:
In Amadeus (screenplay by Peter Shaffer), a crowd of powdered sycophants has gathered in the archbishop’s palace to hear some chamber music from this new young wunderkind, Wolfgang Mozart. When would-be fan Antonio Salieri ventures into a dining hall seeking some exotic chocolates, he finds himself voyeur to an odd exchange between two very irreverent young lovers. The man—possessed of an annoying, high cackle of a laugh—baits the young woman into a vulgar word-pun game (“Kiss my ass? Eat my shit!”). Then the orchestra starts playing and the vulgar little cackler ceases his seduction. It’s his composition, his musicians…they have started without him. Enter Mozart.
Duping audiences into thinking This can’t possibly be the hero/heroine helps invest them, get them engaged in a way that you won’t get just by having your protagonist walk through a door. What if your protagonist is a classic antihero? What if this person is morally and internally conflicted? How soon should those flaws be revealed? The revealed part can come much later, way, the middle of Act Two. However you can foreshadow, you can intimate right out of the gate. I call this gambit…
The ‘there’s something a little off about…’ Introduction
Louis Bloom, the crass opportunist at the heart of Dan Gilroy’s script, Nightcrawler, is about as anti as an antihero gets. Bloom (played masterfully by Jake Gyllenhal) is a poster child for sociopathy; he’s craven, he’s fearless, he’s reflexively devious. There’s definitely something “a little off” about Bloom. But unlike some typical sociopaths, Bloom is also self-aware. He knows exactly what he’s projecting to other people and he’s willing to manipulate that, take it as far as he possibly can. Gilroy foreshadows all of these character traits in Bloom’s very first dialogue sequence. He’s haggling with a scrap metal processor, trying to fence stolen metals:
(from the 6:00 mark)
Gilroy establishes that this character’s personal ambition knows no bounds. Louis Bloom also seems robotic in the way that he processes new information In this intro scene, Bloom has clearly taken a lesson to heart (employers won’t knowingly hire a thief), and will not make that assumption again.
On a more upbeat note, the something’s-a-little-off technique can work equally well in comedy. A person can be off-center in a quirky and endearing way. He or she can project a whole laundry list of minor phobias and still win the affection of both a lover and the audience. Case in point, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall; an Academy Award-winning script with an Academy Award-winning performance by Diane Keaton. Like Louis Bloom, Annie is self-aware, but it manifests in some loopy insecurities and a tendency to scold herself in the third person…
The one advisory I offer here, should you seek to create an emotionally off-kilter comedic protagonist, is try to observe restraint. Annie Hall works so well in part because Annie’s values are relatively mainstream and she (mostly) reacts to obstacles and challenges in ways we can all relate to. Thus, when you’re depicting quirky, a little bit goes a long way.