I was reminded last night of the Coen Brothers’ passion and ability to create rich story worlds in their films through their use of dialogue (among other things.) I watched their recent version of “True Grit” again and I thought to myself, I’d watch this film again just to enjoy individual scenes because of the unique voices given to each character. Mattie Ross is a force of nature in a 14yr/old girl. Rooster Cogburn is a force in his own right, but they are polar opposites in their social manners. The story brings them crashing together and it’s a joy to watch. I can watch the scene where Mattie negotiates for her father’s horses over and over as an example of great dialogue and fun scene dynamics.
But this isn’t a review of True Grit or any other particular Coen Bros. film. (You can say the same things about The Big Lebowski, Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou, etc.)
It is about creating rich story worlds by using all of the tools in a filmmaker’s bag. Visuals and production design are on everyone’s mind, but if your characters aren’t created with the same care, the film will not succeed at the same level.
I see films and read scripts that nail character arcs and important beats with precision, but don’t rise to their full potential because their characters are too flat. They may be extreme, active, loud, quirky, and all that. But they are usually stuck in a stereotype and are ultimately predictable by the time we get past the introductions.
I’m trying to work on this in my own work. I need to back up continually to listen to my characters, to hear them as individuals rather than ‘types’ I know. I ask myself how I am creating individuals who live in a unique (even if it’s familiar) story world. There are no “normal” people or worlds.
Do you wrestle with this too? Do you settle to describe your Hero as ‘a typical suburban housewife’ or ‘slacker dude’ and settle for that? If you are depending on quick dialogue and witty comebacks or just keeping the audience on a ride with your action scenes, you are depriving yourself and your audience of a richer story experience.
I’ve mentioned the Coen Bros. (love them or hate them) as filmmakers who have a passion to create rich cultural worlds. I can think of others who are less quirky, but no less rich.
If you’ve never seen the Coen Brother’s version of True Grit, here’s a sample scene (the trailers don’t capture the dialogue well): “Not Going”