Looking After the Little Fella
Screenwriting tip #2: Walk-on parts ☛
Over Christmas I found myself re-watching for the umpteenth time Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life. For me it’s one of those films in which you see something new with each viewing. On this occasion it was the extraordinary quality of writing of the incidental characters. I’m thinking of the bank examiner who, when faced with George’s pride and delight that his brother is being presented with the Congressional Medal of Honour by the President, replies “Well, I guess they do those things”. This attention to detail is characteristic of golden age Hollywood screenwriters: giving personality to small roles, sometimes only with one line, that would otherwise be mere functions of the plot. Most modern screenwriters have forgotten this trick, but I think it’s worth re-examining.
First off, let me define my terms: what do I mean by ‘a walk-on’? I’m thinking of characters who appear only in one scene, who have no more than one or two lines, and whose role is either plot-based or is incidental. The cop who tries to stop our protagonist from entering the crime scene, the waiter who spills coffee on our heroine, the desk clerk who reveals that so-and-so checked out of the hotel late last night.
Screenwriters today usually pay these characters little heed: to them they’re just functionaries doing their job. The writer wheels them on, gets them to do their bit and wheels them away. Good screenwriting is about economy. Paring down to the essential.
But, for me, Hollywood scribes of the ’30s and ’40s demonstrated that it’s possible to combine character with economy. Just because the waiter only has one line, doesn’t mean that the line has to be boring. Take the female taxi driver in The Big Sleep who flirts with Marlowe; the street vendor who tries to sell Ilse lace, while she has an uncomfortable conversation with Rick in Casablanca; the Military Policeman who, in The Third Man, reveals his sympathy with Anna while confiscating her papers. None of these characters have one line more than the scene needs, but all of them bring unexpected delight, poignancy or texture to the drama.
So why have we lost this art? Putting aside any discussion of “they don’t write them like that anymore,” I think it may be something to do with naturalism. If we consider our own interactions with coffee shop workers, ticket collectors, librarians and the like, we’d probably conclude that we don’t pay them that much attention. We’re too busy in our own wider drama, perhaps planning our next screenplay, to give the guy bringing our cappuccino a second thought, nor he us (if you’re in Los Angeles, he’s probably busy thinking about his next screenplay too). The world of the movie feels more real and everyday if these people just get on with their jobs the way they do most of the time in reality. There is some truth in this; the bit parts in a classic Hollywood film don’t feel strictly naturalistic, but then – it’s a movie. Many if not most films, then and now, are set in worlds that are bigger, brighter, darker or weirder than our own. If you’re aiming to write the script for Ken Loach’s next film, this technique may not be for you. Otherwise: live a little.
Contemporary screenwriters might also argue that giving too much prominence to a tertiary character would risk them drawing attention away from the protagonist, perhaps even stealing the scene. Certainly the protagonist does need to be the centre of the story, but if we fear that the audience might lose interest in them because of, say, a sarcastic courtroom usher, we show weak faith in the strength of our hero’s personality. In fact, part of the joy of these smaller characters is that they can give the bigger characters something unexpected to play off. Take the young bell-hop in Some Like it Hot who flirts with the dragged-up Joe (Josephine): he’s certainly a larger-than-life character. But Tony Curtis finds fun balancing an outward display of prim femininity with a hidden disbelief that the young man will run after literally anything in a skirt.
Indeed, these characterful day-players are rarely just there as decoration. The exchange with the bell-hop is fun, but it also adds to the drama, helping to heap the pressure of comic discomfort on our hapless heroes. The flirtatious cab driver in The Big Sleep may add to the hard-boiled noir feel of the film, but she also gives us a sense that this world is full of women who have their own agendas, which they’re not scared of pursuing – a central idea of the story.
There is an example in a later film, Charade (1963), where Audrey Hepburn’s character asks directions of a guard at the gates of the US Embassy. She addresses him as ‘soldier’ and he corrects her “Marine, ma’am”. She accepts his correction graciously. A scene later she discovers that Cary Grant’s character has lied to her about his identity. She’s angry, but ends up accepting it. Even under a different name, Cary Grant is still Cary Grant. A guard is still a guard, whether he’s called a soldier or a marine. The little throw-away scene has set us up for a major story turn.
It’s also worth remembering that bit part players don’t always have to be strangers to the central characters. When Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) strides through the newspaper office at the start of His Girl Friday she’s greeted with a litany of “Hiya Hildy!” from a collection of journalists, copy boys, switch-board operators. They all know her, they all like her, but there is variety too in those one-line relationships. What they add up to is this: even though she’s left the paper, this is the place where she belongs – these are her people. Pre-existing relationships are a great way to help build the character of a protagonist. It doesn’t have to be work-mates, it could be the next door neighbour, the guy who runs the corner shop or the local barman. Our protagonist might be known and liked, they might be tolerated or even greeted with hostility. Whichever is the case, we get a better sense of who they are through their interactions with these smaller characters.
A good writer will use all the means at her disposal to help tell the story. Economy is essential, so the more rich and telling detail she can pack into the available space, the better. Stanislavski once commented that there are no small parts, only small actors, but there’s only so much that even the best actor could do with lines like “We’re closing the bar now” or “I’ve spilt coffee on you.” A good director knows that he’ll get a lot more out of his day-players if they are given some reward, some hope of getting noticed, in return for their cold feet and miserable pay-packet. Adding personality to walk-on characters makes the world a better place for writers, directors, actors and audiences.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2014
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge