Friday, August 10, 2007

Crutches and Assumptions and BS

The other day I got one of those infuriating "you've got to read this" emails that get forwarded to entire address books all over the place. It was a sincere appeal from an American Airlines pilot to Muslim Americans. He can't tell them apart from the terrorists. And he wishes he didn't feel this way, but the rules have changed since 9/11. And so he needs them to pledge allegiance to the flag.

Now I'm as susceptible to easy answers as anybody. And anybody who's seen the marvelous, undeniable success of George W. Bush knows that wrapping yourself in the flag is the answer to any difficult question. A drunk once accosted a dark-skinned friend of mine with this exact same demand for a pledge of allegiance at a Raiders game, so clearly the pilot was onto something. While we're at it, maybe we could ask all law abiding minorities to pledge not to mug nice upper middle class white people? Freakin' moron.

Oh yeah, screenwriting. If it teaches you anything, it's that characters rarely conform to what they want you of them. The answers will usually surprise you. The audience will ALWAYS question the assumption you're making. Even if your main character is a little blond-haired orphan who sings like an angel, you need to work hard to make sure the audience believes her, engages her, likes her.

In other words, the audience will always call you on your bulls***.

One of the fun parts of being a script consultant is that you have to work on a lot of stories that you would never write. You have to engage a wide range of assumptions that are not your own. I've worked on right-wing apocalypse militia type scripts. I've worked on Christian inspirational scripts for African-American audiences. I've worked on homophobic action scripts. It's my job. I need to put aside my own assumptions, and find what works for the client and the target audience.

One thing I've always found a little comforting working with homophobic scripts is that the opposite of the happy singing orphan problem is also there. The action lines invariably describe the bad guy as the gay homosexual leering at our hero. But simply being something, rather than doing something, won't make a character negative in a viewer's mind. The writer never tests his own assumptions, and so the negative character doesn't really come into focus. I'm thinking of a particular case where a poor, unsuspecting Christian teen accidentaly sits down next to a bisexual classmate. A fellow student shakes her head and mouths "No!" silently. But alas. The poor teen sits within easy grasp of the bisexual.

The writer doesn't actually give any visual cues for the movie audience to know that this character is bisexual, and the viewer can only speculate as to why this unnamed fellow classmate is so concerned about the seating arrangement.

Beyond that, the bisexual never quite gets around to doing anything that bad. There's an assumption on the writer's viewpoint that you simply shouldn't associate with homosexuals. I pointed out that this supposedly bad character was actually a better, more understanding friend than many of the character's assumed friends. If her message is that you shouldn't hang out with homosexuals, she was just going to have to dig a little bit deeper. I'd like to think that's why the relationship ended up being more complex, interesting and realistic in later drafts.

I'm gay, but I'm not what you'd call a gay writer. I just don't write many gay characters. It's probably for the very same reason. The assumptions around a positive gay character in "Queer as Folk" or the like are no more real to me than the assumptions around a negative gay character in a Christian script. I don't want to get locked into a particular genre read of my work. There's always something deeper, more immediate, and more compelling staring you in the face as soon as you get past your own assumptions. It helps you write more interesting characters.

And it keeps you from spouting embarrassing buls*** in emails that get forwarded to thousands of strangers.

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