It’s been a while since I directed. My last film was Not Much, and that was a few years ago. But I remember in detail some of the problems we faced in pre-production. In particular, I remember sitting around with the cast during rehearsals and trying to discover the inner workings of their roles. One day, instead of going over the scenes line by line, we just sat around and talked about the characters themselves. I probably should have had a series of questions prepared but I could only think of one thing to ask: “What is your character most afraid of?”
It ended up being the right question, and it is now one that as a writer I ask all the time. Before doing anything with a character, whether major or minor, I come up with an answer to this question. It always helps me determine what kind of person I am dealing with, and how they will behave in any situation. In a lot of really great movies, a character’s behavior and actions says much more than the words they use.
At the moment I am reading through Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. In a few chapters, Syd draws examples from an interview he did with screenwriting legend Robert Towne in the 1970s. When asked how he goes about creating characters, Robert replied that the first question he often asks himself is “What is this character afraid of?” Syd then applies this to the character of Jake Gittes in Chinatown (1974). It’s an interesting anecdote and a useful lesson. Jack Nicholson’s character is clearly born out of his deep-seated fear of appearing foolish or not being taken seriously.
Syd’s analysis reassured me that I am already on the right track for creating characters. By first determining what someone fears most, you are unlocking the characters psyche that will manifest itself in every word and action that finds its way onto the page. Even though most people will do their best to hide their fears, hiding something is also a form of behavior. That contradiction is something that a good writer can illustrate in a well-thought out script. It certainly works out that way in Chinatown.