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Organic Character Choices: Michael Clayton

By Patrick Kirkland · November 23, 2011

EXT. THE FIELD – DAWN

MICHAEL getting out of the car. Standing there.

THREE HORSES poised at the crest of the pasture. Hanging there in the fog like ghosts.

MICHAEL jumping the fence. Walking slowly into the field. Behind him, the MERCEDES with the engine running.

THE HORSES aware of him now. Watching him come.

On MICHAEL’S FACE as he walks. And later on we’ll understand all the forces roiling inside him, but for the moment, the simplest thing to say is that this is a man who needs more than anything to see one pure, natural thing, and by some miracle has found his way to this place. The wet grass and cold air and no coat none of it makes any difference to him right now  he’s a pilgrim stumbling into the cathedral.

And he stops. Just standing there. Empty. Open. Lost.

Nothing but the field and the fog and the woods beyond.

THE HORSES staring at him.

MICHAEL staring back. And just like that…

THE MERCEDES EXPLODES!

Michael Clayton (2007), Pages 15-16.

Character choices. There are two ways they can be made:

1) You write them to a certain place. You make the character your puppet. He does what you want. He says what you want.

2) You get out of the way to find out where your characters are going. You may point them in a direction or lead them through an arc, but by and large, they make their own decisions.

Every character has to be a full and complete person. Dreams, goals, regrets. A full and complete brain, with the capability of making organic decisions. How do you achieve this?

Creating a background is a good start. A childhood with parents who somehow messed them up. Another way is a character interview, where you, or another character, asks them questions. Another way is to throw as many complications at your character as possible, and to see how they react.

Michael Clayton's reaction is to get out of that car. But is that an organic character choice? In other words, did the character make the choice, or did the writer?

Because this particular scene is still inside the prologue for Michael Clayton, we don't actually know what the issue is, yet. We know that Michael Clayton is Kenner, Bach, & Leeden's fixer, and it seems to be a position he no longer wants. The firm thinks of him as a "miracle worker", but he knows differently.

Page 13:

MICHAEL

There’s no pay here. There’s no angle. There’s no champagne room. And I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor. So the math on this is simple: the smaller the mess, the easier it is for me to clean up.

When the Mercedes explodes one minute later, we get the idea that this guy has had a bad day. Admittedly, however, on first viewing, it looks like screenwriter/director Tony Gilroy is calling all the shots. "Guy sees a horse, then his car blows up." Doesn't seem all that organic.

Then Gilroy pulls back to FOUR DAYS EARLIER, to say, "Hang on, let me explain." What happens next is a tale of corruption and murder, and the corporations that are trying to cover it up. The law firm of Kenner, Bach, & Leeden, who should be fighting for the American way, has become what Arthur Edens declares:

Page 4:

ARTHUR EDEN’S (V.O.):  

not through the portals of our huge and powerful law firm, but rather from the asshole of an organism whose sole function is to excrete the poison — the ammo — the defoliant — necessary for even larger and more dangerous organisms to destroy the miracle of humanity —

For the next ninety minutes, we see complication after complication thrown at Clayton, and we watch how he reacts. He is a single dad, unable to be a Hero for his child, a terrible and indebted business owner, a bad friend to a murdered mentor, and the fixer of U/North's corporate catastrophe– a chemical pesticide that has killed people.

At the point that Clayton steps out on the side of that Westchester road, he has already become indebted to a job he hates and retreated back to his gambling addiction in the pits of Chinatown. He's back to his old job, cleaning up clients' messes, but he sees it for what it really is: the chance to be insulted by a rich client that ran over a guy with his car. At the point that he steps out of his car, he might as well already be dead. He's covered in the same amniotic film that Arthur found himself covered in standing on 6th Avenue. And it's at that point — not a moment to soon — when nature throws something beautiful at him: three horses standing in a grassy field.

And then BOOM. He is inches away from actually being dead. It's that moment where everything changes for him. It's that moment where he decides to bring everything out into the open, makes himself appear dead to U/North and KB&L, and goes to his cop brother for help.

Was this an organic character choice? Or is it a way for Gilroy to get Clayton out of the car?

On page 15, it does feel like a clichéd moment. But when we see it again in the third act, it makes sense. It does feel organic. It does feel pure. After going through the grime and sludge of corporate New York City, horses and green grass – nature — comes not only as a relief to Michael, but to the viewer as well. This is an instance where the character of Clayton has taken over, and he's telling the writer what he wants. It's his decision. He wants peace. It's Gilroy's job to write it down.

Any writer can make a character do something. After all, we're the ones in control. But if you step out of the way, you will find that once you fully know your characters, and how they feel about the complications you're putting them through, they will make the decisions for you. You just have to sit back and watch, and then trust them. Creating your characters is like any real-world parenthood. You create them, give them the rules of society, and then let them move on their own.