Thursday, February 18, 2016

Storyteller’s Rulebook: The One Great Character Intro Scene

As I mentioned last time, Michael Lewis creates great characters from real-life material. He interviews his subjects at length, interviews their friends and family, collects piles of information, then culls that down to ten great “formative anecdotes” about each one. Each of these is pithy, ironic, funny, and a little sour. Let’s look at the book of “The Big Short” at some of the formative anecdotes of Steve Eisman (who was renamed Mark Baum in the movie)
  • He considered going to Yeshiva just so that he could poke holes in the Talmud.
  • The main “charity” he supports is one that helps people flee Hasidic life.
  • He leaves his high-stakes job every Wednesday afternoon to be there when the new comic books come in a Midtown comics, and he’s obsessed over the parallels between his life and Spider-Man’s.
Now let’s look at the job of the screenplay adapters. Screenwriters don’t have the luxury of ten background anecdotes: We have to select just one to do the whole job in one surgical strike. Which one do we choose? Of the ones listed above, the first two (though great) might be considered “too Jewish”, but it must have been tempting to include the third. Ultimately, however, it’s not ideal. Out of character moments are great, but in a movie with this many characters, where you only have time for one intro scene, it’s better to use one where he remains in character. The one they chose, which is right out of Lewis’s book, is brilliant:
  • The Scene: At a therapy group for Wall Street types, a sad broker is telling a painful story, when Baum breezes in, ignores him, rants angrily about a colleague screwing over the poor, realizes he’s acting inappropriately, tries to listen for one second, fails, then gets confronted about his own tragedy, refuses to talk about it, then takes a cell call and breezes back out with a “Bye, folks”.
This is the ultimate surgical strike: We breeze through the checklist in two entertaining minutes: language, attitude, flaw, strength, philosophy. Instead of the “out of character” moment of humanity, we get one that is funny, oddball, compassionate to victims of his profession (though not to those around him), and comically vain, which is just as good. It was brilliant of Lewis to dig up and identify this anecdote as worth including, and it was great work of the adapters to choose it as an ideal intro scene.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thought it was a very poor scene. At the time it arrives, the character means nothing to us, and the scene comes and goes without context, objective, or intrigue. Not only that, it feels over the top (whether it really happened or not). I found this movie unwatchable and couldn't get to the end.