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Just Saw [Insert Movie Title Here]...

...or how my MFA in screenwriting ruined any chance of enjoying a movie like a normal person. If I apply what I've learned to existing films, would it have made a better film?

SPOILER WARNING: Please be advised, I plan to discuss plot points in detail so if you haven't seen the movie and don't want the surprise ruined, stop here.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

What Does 'Pedestrian' Really Mean?

A note that comes up once in a while is your script/character/story is too pedestrian. Pedestrian is one of those terms that means something different to each person who uses it.

I like to think of pedestrian as the opposite of driving. Instead of being in a car speeding down the road, you're standing on the sidewalk watching the cars go by. A recent example I can think of is Eva Longoria's character in The Sentinel.

Jill Marin is a rookie agent on her first day on her new assignment. Unfortunately, she's the exposition character. In a story with a complicated plot, the advice writers are often given is that we need a character who is in the dark and needs events explained.

This character is usually a neophyte in the world we're exploring so we the audience have a way to understand what's going on around them.

Unfortunately, in the case of Jill Marin, that's all she does. David Breckinridge is forever explaining to her what's going on and what the context is of the events happening. She rarely participates. She's along for the ride.

What is her character's problem? Does she have an arc? Does she have any sort of emotional journey? Granted, she is a minor character but if we're ultimately seeing the story through her eyes, then we need to feel what ever she's feeling and neither George Nolfi nor Clark Johnson have layered that into her character.

As a result, she's on the sidewalk observing. She's passive. Her purpose is nothing more than being a cipher for information. Things are explained to her for the benefit of the audience.

Early in the film after agent Pete Garrison has fallen off the grid, David Breckinridge tells his agents that they may have to shoot a friend and to prepare themselves for it. For me, this was the theme of the film. Could you shoot, possibly kill, a friend to protect the President? However, it played itself out around the midpoint when Breckinridge failed to shoot Garrison. Then the film had nowhere to go because we had our answer.

In a film like this, "whodunit" is the device that carries the theme. Whodunit is not nearly as important as what would you do to figure it out? Since we're seeing the film through Jill's eyes, it would have been interesting to put her through that decision process late in the film.

Unfortunately, her character doesn't have any strong emotional attachments that would put her in this dilemma. She never questions Breckinridge nor does President Ballentine inspire this kind of loyalty. It was a missed opportunity. As a result, the last half of The Sentinel was plot driven with no emotional stakes.

By design, an audience watches the film. The real trick is to get us involved where we feel like we're going through everything the characters as going through as if we were them. Pedestrian means that we're still on the sideline, emotionally detached from what's going on. We're rubberneckers passing by an accident with no relationship to the victim.


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