With Anna Blundy at FiveBooks, he discussed the best five books on writing a blockbusting screenplay, including:
Plots and Characters by Millard KaufmanRead about the other books on Walter's list.
So, what does Millard Kaufman say in his book?
Kaufman is underappreciated. His book is called Plots and Characters and plots come first. Story is first. There are many dilettantes who think it’s about characters because it’s easy to come up with some zany character. Everyone has a ditsy spinster aunt, but it’s the colourful adventures that count. It is our actions that define us as characters and not the other way round.
What kind of character am I? Well, I was coming of age during the Vietnam war and I believe that what America did in Vietnam was a terrible mistake. But I was a good German. I exploited being a moneyed white guy and I went to film school and the government thought that what I was doing was so important that I didn’t have to go to Vietnam and they sent one of my darker brothers instead. This tells me about my character that I am a bit of a coward and I’m not sure that I’ve grown more courageous as I’ve grown older.
Too many writers think: ‘Gee, let me define this character.’ Creating these character biographies like, What would my character be if she was a tree? What kind of candy bar would my character eat even though she doesn’t eat a candy bar in this movie? This is worse than useless – it's destructive. It suggests that the character can live outside the context but, in fact, the context defines the character. Don’t wonder how they’d act – just have them act. See what they do and that will tell you what kind of character they represent.
I had Neil Simon (writer of The Odd Couple and a zillion Broadway hit plays) visit our class and I asked him: ‘Do you laugh at your own jokes?’ He said: ‘The first time I hear them I do.’
I don’t know of a writer who hasn’t had his characters do and say unexpected things. You have to stop intellectualising and see how it unfolds. Let them be and don’t drag them back to your preconceptions. Stay open to surprises! It’s good advice for life too. Shut up your mind and get into the flow of things. It’s hard to do.
Putting words down on a page can be a way of distancing yourself from the emotion. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion says that to be a good analyst you have to listen without memory or desire.
That’s perfect. When I lecture I tell people not to take notes. Just listen.