October 6, 2009


My premiere blog will kill a few birds with one stone. This will answer the A-List Quiz of the week I posted on Facebook. Check out the clip below from The Dark Knight. Nolans are great at just packing in character, theme and details into all of their films. I want to show you how their specificity and attention to detail allowed Heath Ledger to stumble upon a brilliant character moment.

Whether you credit the Nolan boys or Ledger for this genius, it’s clear that we can all learn something from looking at their craft. A-List Screenwriting and I are all about the details. Every single screenwriting book out there about structure is pretty much all true. Stories have to twist, turn. Every 15 pages? Sure? Every 8 pages? Sure, too. Ever 8 seconds? Probably. Characters have to have arcs and subplots have to echo the main plot. True. Characters have to hit low-points, rock-bottoms, dark (k)nights of the soul. Of course.

But what do these moments look like? How does writing a great scene help define the meaning of a character’s worst mistake/regression? How can a line of dialogue make clarify a protagonist’s dilemma? And then how does that line of dialogue help to define a subplot, a mentor and the antagonist even better? Well, keep coming back here and you will find out.

If you want to take your screenwriting all the way, aim to be the best screenwriter in the world, aim for the A-list. The principles I discuss here can be applied to masterpieces and blockbusters. There is no reason, genre and Hollywood films can’t be fun, captivating AND smart. I hope this blog gives you a chance to take your screenwriting from A to Z to A-List.

So what’s so special about this moment?

Okay, first of all, notice the Joker’s speech about killing the cops. On the page, it’s only a few lines but because Ledger savors every moment, it actually seems like a bit of a showy monologue. Kind of like when Mamet or Tarantino have characters use rhetoric or storytelling as dialogue. So are the Nolans being lazy here? Are they just showing off?

Let’s put it through the most basic of tests. Is what the Joker saying interesting in and of itself? Sure. Is it true? True enough or plausible. Does the dialogue at least have a purpose on the very basic level? Yes, he is trying to antagonize the cop. Not just to be a jerk or to cause chaos but to get him so mad that he hits him or gets close enough to hit him, which is part of the Joker’s plan. He needs the cop to hit him like Dennis Hopper NEEDS the Christopher Walken character to KILL him FAST in True Romance.

For what little we and the Joker know of the cop, picking the legacy of his dead friends, seems like a pretty good initial stab to get under his skin. When I ask students what the cop’s dilemma is, their first guess is that it’s whether or not he should lose his cool and beat up the Joker. Well, that is, for him, A DILEMMA. But it’s not THE DILEMMA for that character. Back to that in a second.

Another great thing the Nolans do is that they cut away before the beating? Joker getting beaten up by minor character is not interesting (and it would be repetitive because of the ass-whooping Batman gave him). The point of the scene was to get him to try to rough him up, so the actual beating is pretty irrelevant.

Then in the next scene, the Joker now has the cop as a hostage and is holding him at knifepoint. Come on. How many times have we seen THIS scene? A guy has a gun or a knife to his head or throat and he encourages cops to take the shot anyway. (It all comes back to my not so guilty pleasure 48 Hours.) Well, the Nolans quickly end the scene with the surprise revelation that the Joker only wants a phone call. It’s a nice way to surprise us. This sort of surprise or twist would be the bare minimum required to even touch a been-there-done that scene like this.

But that’s not the magic. The really cool moment that’s not even in the script happens because Heath Ledger is paying attention. During the ruckus the cop is telling his buddies to shoot him but then when the noise fades, he is suddenly quiet. And Ledger notices, looks at him and (the sound mix keeps it subtle) says, “What? Sorry?” He implies, “Now that it’s quiet are you really going to put your life on the line and encourage them to shoot?” The Joker is giving him a chance, now that the knife is to HIS throat to be a coward or not a coward.

This is THE DILEMMA for him. And he chooses, in this context, to be a coward. The Ledger adlibs are so small and seemingly inconsequential but they come organically from his character, they are a pay off to the set up, they are in conflict with the cop character and they make the cop’s choice clear. These adlibs are huge. They are magic. The way to destroy clich├ęs and to elevate your stuff is through attention to details. And the details in this case happen to be the attention to character.

In a matter of a minute or so half a dozen really cool things are going on: sassy dialogue, set up, character conflict, pay off to the dialogue and the culmination of the character in his final dilemma. So many scripts are weak on what I playfully call: Story Density, which is the amount of cool stuff in any given section compared to its length. Make sure you jam pack your story full of, well, story.

This cop is in the movie for only a couple of minutes yet he has a BIG CHOICE, one whose meaning is foreshadowed with dialogue and given to him by the Joker. The Nolans put all of their characters--even the minor ones--in major dilemmas: Uncredited Shooter (who aims for Coleman Reese), the Ferry Boat Passengers (mother, captain, tattooed prisoner, etc.) as well as the rhyming dilemmas of Detective Anna Ramirez and Officer Berg. Give your characters and their character that much attention.

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