The Ending’s Seed by Ron Moskovitz

One thing I’m always doing is looking at movies I know and love, trying to see them in new ways, to improve my understanding of story. There’s always something new to learn, and it’s nice to see that I’m not the only person who thinks this way (see, for example, Steven Soderberg’s recent blog post about “Raiders of The Last Ark”).

I recently had an epiphany about character, and how the seed of a character’s ending is set in the character introduction.

One great example of this is the 2009 Jason Reitman movie “Up in The Air.” The opening sequence shows George Clooney’s character, Ryan, lying through his teeth. We see people expressing real pain and frustration (in fact, the filmmakers brought in recently fired individuals to tell their stories – those aren’t actors!) and Ryan lies through his teeth to them, showing no real emotion. This culminates with Ryan telling Zach Gallifinakas’s character that he’ll “be in touch” only to turn around and tell the audience that he’ll never see that person again.

Watch this scene, and pause the film. Ask yourself what you know about this character.  Is he married? You may say you don’t know, but don’t accept that answer.  Make your best educated guess: he’s not married, or, at least, not happily, don’t you think? Close friends? Not really. What’s his apartment look like?

That’s an almost absurdly specific question, but when I do this exercise with my students, they always have strong opinions: His apartment is sterile. He doesn’t have pets or houseplants. Modern and expensive, but lifeless. It’s staggering how many details of his life people who have never seen this scene before get right, which is a testament to the work Reitman and Sheldon Turner did on this opening scene.

All this is clear because the larger question, “What is this character’s problem?” also has a clear answer. The opening scene shows us a character who isn’t connecting to other human beings on a meaningful level. He is refusing to engage with them. He’s superficial and dismissive, resorting to catch-phrases instead of real interaction.

So the next question is:

What does a happy ending for this character look like?

At first it seems like an impossible question, but ask yourself, what do I know about him? If we can make accurate guesses about his apartment and marital status, surely we can guess what his happy ending is?

Ultimately, the only answer that makes sense, given what we know, is that this is a character who will have a happy ending if he learns how to form meaningful connections with other people, and will be unhappy if he doesn’t.

And sure enough, as the plot develops, we see Ryan challenged by his attempt to form meaning relationships with characters played by Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga. How does it work out? Well, go see the film. It’s worth it.

The point is that if this were a film about something else, this would be the wrong character introduction. If this character’s happy ending were about being financially secure, we wouldn’t tag the opening scene with his admission that he’s a liar, but the focus would be on money. Here, the focus is clearly on the character’s superficiality, and that is what will be tested by the story.

The opening scene plants a seed of what the ending has to look like.

Staying in the filmography of George Clooney, we can find another sort of seed planted in the opening scene to Ocean’s 11.

This isn’t a movie about a guy with a character-based problem, it’s a movie about a guy with a unique talent.

In this scene, Clooney is asked a bunch of questions … but he doesn’t answer them. He tells the truth (justifying his famous line, later in the film, that he “only lied about being a thief.”) The trick is that while he is not answering the parole board’s questions, they think he is. They hear the answers they want to hear.

This is Ocean’s great talent, and in his case, the movie’s happy ending will hinge on his ability to apply that same talent to bigger and bigger problems. The film’s ultimate heist hinges on the villain asking the question “what’s going on in my vault?” and thinking he’s getting an answer, thanks to his video cameras. Only later he learns that the answer he got from his cameras was misleading … just like the answers Ocean gave the parole board. So in this case the seed that is planted for the movie’s ending is the skills that Ocean will use to win the day.

What I try to do, after I’ve written my first draft, is reverse-engineer my character introduction scenes. I look at my ending, and figure out why the hero succeeds or fails. Then I go back and make sure my opening scene plants the seed of that success or failure. And then, of course, I go through and make sure that the character is tested on that particular talent or problem throughout the whole screenplay.

The result has been consistently more powerful, dynamic characters. It hooks the audience right away with a promise of the movie to come.  Give it a try!

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