Screenwriting 101: Creating Better Roles For Women

 “There are hundreds and hundreds of scripts yet to be produced that are just sitting there. Maybe we should go back and look at those scripts and say, ‘Which of these characters can we actually change to a female?'”

–Jessica Chastain

June, 2017, presented a confluence of events which reignited a perennial controversy in the film industry. First, the Cannes Film Festival wrapped up its seasonal soiree with a customary press conference featuring members of its jury. Cannes’ annual “presser” is typically a congenial affair; love and kudos for the winner of the Palme d’Or, appreciation extended to the also-rans. But 2017 was quite different, primarily because two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain took that opportunity to highlight a glaring disparity in the programming she saw—and in the film industry in general. Following are excerpts from her remarks:

“One thing I got to take away from this experience is how the world views women, from the female characters I saw represented. It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest.”

“…I hope that when we include more female storytellers, we will have more of the women I recognize in my day-to-day life,” Chastain said. “Ones that are proactive, have their own agencies, don’t just react to the men around them. They have their own point of view.”

Chastain’s comments were not unprecedented; hers is a frequent lament. It is not just the paucity of roles available to actresses in film. When a role is offered, when an intelligent, dimensional, and emotionally mature woman reads the script, she often finds none of those qualities represented on the page.Put a pin in that for a moment while we contemplate the second, coincidental June event: the release of DC Comics’ summer tent-pole picture, Wonder Woman. The film, starring a woman (Gal Gadot) and directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins), streamrolled its opposition (Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and Baywatch) on its way to a $103 million opening weekend. Wonder Woman garnered a 93% score on rottentomatoes.com. Most reviewers rhapsodized—while acknowledging the seismic implications of a woman protagonist succeeding in a genre defined by its male filmmakers and its fanboy audience. Case in point, Chris Nashawaty, writing for Entertainment Weekly:

“….(The film’s) setting also helps to make the film’s resonant feminist subtext feel more organic and less forced. At a time when women were still without the right to vote and were subjugated to a position of being seen and not heard, the fearsome Diana becomes a spokeswoman in word and deed of resistance and empowerment. She refuses to be treated like a second-class citizen by politicians and generals. No one puts Wonder Woman in a corner.”

Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, wrote in The New Yorker:

“…(Wonder Woman) is disadvantaged by the impossible standards and fixity of malice that attach to work by women entering fields dominated by men; and vulnerable, too, to the condemnation of women, whose complaints about the film have so far included something to do with armpit hair. Merciful Minerva.

Gadot’s Wonder Woman doesn’t fight for rights because she transcends that fight; she is unfettered by it and insensible to it, an implausible post-feminist hero.”

Clearly, Wonder Woman’s success inspired lots of cultural reflection. Reviewers and pundits also grappled with the question, Why did it take so long? It’s a reasonable question, considering   Wonder Woman debuted as a comic character in 1941. There was, to be fair, a campy television series in the 1970s starring Lynda Carter. But elevating this particular superhero into the elite, blockbuster class of picture was 76 years in the making. Could the lag be driven purely by sexism, by Jill Lepore’s “fixity of malice”? Is the patriarchy in Hollywood so threatened by female incursions that it would forgo a $103 million weekend just out of spite?

And what, if anything, does the hysterical success of a DC comics movie have to do with Jessica Chastain’s admonitions? I believe these two events are inextricably yoked. One is a depiction of what could be, and the other is an indictment of how it is. Chastain highlighted a travesty that begins not with the titans of the industry, not with studio chieftans, but with screenwriters. (And occasionally, with writer-directors.) If—as the WGA would have us all believe— every great film begins on the page, then every deficit, every flaw and failing begins there as well. And if the industry as a whole is failing women, if we are relegating them to crumbs at the Big Boy’s table, then it follows that the remedy, the recompense begins with the writing.

The true dimensions of the problem.

Depictions are hard to quantify: Traits like intelligence, relevance and emotional maturity are difficult to chart in a survey. How a film character “presents” is subjective, and often related to cultural norms. Surveys can, however, measure ubiquity; that is, how often female characters appear onscreen, and what percentage of dialogue is devoted to them when they do.

For instance, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University published a study in Variety that of the 23,000 roles in the 100 biggest movies of 2014, only 12 per cent had a woman lead. According to Martha Luzen, who directed the study, women accounted for just 30 percent speaking roles in films released that year.

In 2016, Polygraph analyzed 2000 contemporary films in all genres, tracking how much dialogue women characters utter, versus the men. Writing in The Guardian, Megan Carpentier described the study’s conclusions:

“(The Polygraph study) found that women between the ages of 22 and 31 spoke 38% of all female dialogue. The figure fell to 31% for actors aged 32 to 41 and 20% for those aged 42 to 65.

By contrast, male actors got more lines the older they became, right up to the age of 65. Men aged 42 to 65 got more dialogue (39%) than those aged 32 to 41 (32%) or 22 to 31 (20%). However, both sexes suffered once they hit 65, with male actors getting 5% of dialogue, and female actors just 3%.

Polygraph also found that women often struggled to win dialogue even in ostensibly female-led projects. In the Disney films Pocahontas and The Little Mermaid, men spoke at least 70% of dialogue…”

The Heroine’s Journey.

Professional acting has always been a distressingly random, capricious endeavor. It’s an art form, certainly, but one in which the artist is both the medium and the material. That makes the rejection (which often comes in waves) very personal. For women, the campaign toward gainful employment includes perils of exploitation that men seldom confront. And for those fortunate few who succeed, there is not a whole pie awaiting them, but rather a 30 percent slice. Or a 12 percent slice, if you’re a major star.

So, for a variety of arbitrary reasons, the film industry has either marginalized or neglected a huge percentage of its talent pool. Part of them problem is how we, as consumers of material, are conditioned to think about story. Joseph Campbell, the great oracle of the Power of Myth, called it the hero’s journey, not the heroine’s. Starting with the Greeks, and working forward through the canon of eastern, middle eastern and Norse mythology, the protagonist is persistently male. If there is a quest to be undertaken, if there is justice dispensed or vengeance exacted—it is nearly always performed by a man. Thus, the female experience in western culture may be universal, but it is not universally depicted. At least, not in the movies.

Every little script helps.

So, let’s suppose that the remedy for this travesty, for this marginalization, begins with the writing. It begins when you type FADE IN and usher your protagonist onto the page. One needs to be flexible enough, be feminist enough to imagine that flinty, world-weary antihero as an antiheroine. I know: easier said than done. Genre is a brutal taskmaster; men of action have historically driven action-adventures. For every Lara Croft there are 200 Indiana Joneses. A franchise character like Alice in the Resident Evil series competes against the last 57 iterations of Tom Cruise and Matt Damon.

But even a (seemingly) ageless and prolific star like Cruise can’t play every juicy role, can’t replicate himself ad infinitum. Because stars like Afleck and Pitt and Clooney leave plenty of fallow projects in their wake, there exists a secondary market, a reclamation of scripts in turnaround. Granted, it takes a lot of influence, lots of arm-twisting to reassign gender in a script. But, as referenced by Ms. Chastain, it is worth exploring.

There are several instances in recent years wherein actresses effected the gender swap. The women either optioned material themselves or else persuaded executive producers to think outside the codpiece, as it were. These projects include:

  • Ripley, in Ridley Scott’s classic, It was supposed to be a last-man-standing proposition until Scott decided to mess with audience expectations.
  • Jodie Foster stepped into Flight Plan, playing a character initially written for Sean Penn. (Foster also achieved a gender swap in Elysium in 2013.)
  • Sandra Bullock persuaded producer Grant Heslov to give her the role in Our Brand is Crisis that had been developed for George Clooney.
  • Charlize Theron took the role of a CIA operative-turned-assassin when Brad Pitt detached himself from The Grey Man.
  • The role of Evelyn Salt in Salt was initially developed for Tom Cruise, and
  • Jessica Chastain took her own advice in Interstellar, persuading writers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan that Cooper’s son ‘Murph’ could just as easily be a daughter.

Were it not for the lobbying and the arm-twisting, these roles would have either languished in turnaround or been played by second-tier male actors. If the films make money it’s a win-win for the industry—except that it is a band-aid solution at best. Swapping genders via rewrite perpetuates a callow mentality; the idea that there is an equivalence in motives, perceptions and persona. Granted, either gender can shoot guns and kick ass in a fight sequence. Women bosses can be every bit as ruthless as men. And of course, women can be sexually aggressive, they can objectify the male body and play serial adulterers. (Don Draper…meet Donna Draper.)

Sanctioning a rewrite does not change a creative culture. The remedy for our disparity in available roles for women is to 1.) Option and produce more scripts written by women, and 2.) Ditto for scripts featuring women, written by men. Again—easier said than done, especially when the producers and studio executives are averse to quotas, or gender-based affirmative action.

Of course, the industry has its excuses and rationales. When pressed, production chiefs will cite the lack of female-driven material at the source. They can’t greenlight it if they don’t encounter it in development. Then there’s the foreign distribution dilemma; that is, comedies and character-driven dramas don’t translate nearly as well as action and crime thrillers. Because women characters appear most frequently (and most prominently) in family dramas and rom-coms, then it follows that foreign revenues diminish whenever a woman takes the lead.

That formula tends to break down, however, in light of a Black Swan event like Wonder Woman, or The Hunger Games, Gravity, La Femme Nikita—or even My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which cost approximately $5 million to make and grossed $368 million worldwide.

Some pitfalls to avoid.

David Mamet’s rules of scene structure include a proviso against depictions of two characters discussing a third character who is not present. Mamet asserts that “absent third party” conversations are static and frivolous. This sin is compounded when the scene features two women talking about an absent man. The specter of frivolity, however, has not deterred hundreds of screenwriters over several decades from doing precisely that. The “two gals discussing the absent guy” scenario is endemic in film—especially in romantic comedies. Whenever possible, reveal character through that character’s own behavior. Entertain, don’t explain.

Great film characters reflect the virtues I mentioned earlier—intelligence, dimension, emotional maturity. These elements are gender-blind; that is, you should strive to imbue all of your characters with backstories and emotional depth. Would that it was so. In the real world, in the films that are persistently getting made, we find…Deborah, the central love interest in Baby Driver. What is she? A waitress. What is her backstory? Dunno—writer/director Edgar Wright didn’t offer one. What is Deborah’s central motivation? To shed her frilly apron, ditch her nametag (A guy’s nametag!) and drive off into the sunset with Baby.

As played by the beguiling Lily James, Deborah is cheeky and sassy and cute as a button. But she’s also a vapid cipher of a human being. As rendered by Mr. Wright, she is a kind of generic placeholder. I get that Baby Driver is Baby’s story. I get that screen time is short and that the heist-film genre demands that we get on with it. But if you’re placing this woman at the center of your film, if she’s the living manifestation of a Better Life, then you should at least try to elevate her to a stature beyond “nubile”.

Remedy.

Any professional reader, any development executive will tell you that submissions follow trends in the popular culture. The advent of social media yielded reams of social media-driven stories. Wikileaks? Whistle blowers? Got it covered. Speed dating…smart cars…Slenderman. Done and done. Each of these commanded the news cycle for a day, a week; they burned brightly and then fizzled. Jessica Chastain’s provocative statements could easily suffer the same fate.

The remedy for this disparity, for the appalling percentages of spoken dialogue and available starring roles doesn’t lie with women. Sadly, there are simply not enough women in power positions in Hollywood to turn the ship around. The remedy lies with men. Men with production credits, with influential agents and three-picture deals will have to step up, have to devote their imagination and their industry to this issue. We are conditioned to think about stories in a particular way, with a persistently male point of view. The hero’s journey is always explicable, familiar, and lucrative. The heroine’s journey—not so much.

Changing the creative priorities of an entire industry will be difficult, but not impossible. You do it one excellent movie at a time. Joseph Mankiewitz did it with All About Eve. Paul Mazursky did it with An Unmarrired Woman. John Cassavettes gave us his Mad Housewife; Michael Hirst gave us Elizabeth. Woody Allen had done it at least 30 times, dating back to Annie Hall. Jos Allan Heinberg did it with Wonder Woman, and so can you.


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