Friday, March 25, 2011

Career Day

Choosing a career for your character is fun, but also hard. Have you noticed that you see the same jobs in TV and movies over and over? I may kill myself if I read another script in which someone works at an advertising agency, magazine or newspaper. Sure, these professions worked perfectly in What Women Want, Never Been Kissed, 27 Dresses and How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, among others - but that's kind of the point. They've been done.

Now, I understand why the magazine/ad agency thing is so genius. In these cases, the career is the B-plot (as opposed to the A-plot, like in cop or doctor shows, CIA/FBI/etc. movies or even something like Black Swan, in which the profession itself is the premise).  The B-plot generally exists so that we may explore our themes, and what perfect way to explore our theme than in a big, splashy advertisement! Film and TV are visual mediums, so it's a good idea to pick a career that we can SEE and instantly understand. Most people in the real world have jobs that aren't so visual, tangible or easily explained. They sit in cubicles and work at computers, generating reports, having conference calls, etc. Boring! Sometimes that's the point, like in Office Space, but usually we want to be watching something interesting and compelling. Also, many professions are entire worlds in themselves - and if this world is not the premise of your movie or show, you may A) get caught up in explaining a lot of boring, unnecessary things, or B) give us a perfunctory, unsatisfactory view of what we know is a complicated profession. I thought No Strings Attached did a good job with professions. Ashton's work on the teen musical show was fun to watch, and Natalie's job as a doctor - which is instantly understood by the audience - also made her slightly abrasive character more likable. Similarly, on House, Hugh Laurie is able to get away with being a douche since he does save lives for a living.

Challenge yourself to put your character somewhere besides a generic desk in a generic office. Here's what I think about when picking a character's job:

1. Is it cliche?
2. Is it visually interesting?
3. Will the audience instantly understand?
4. What is at stake? (This is why doctor, cop and law shows are so ubiquitous.)
5. Does it match his/her personality traits?
6. Does it enable you to explore the theme?
7. Does it function as a metaphor for something else?

What shows and movies have professions that you thought worked well?

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The Bitter Script Reader said...

With you on this... SO sick of seeing ad agency jobs in scripts. I had no idea that those people had to go to such wacky lengths to advance in that field until I read all of those stories...

"I have to pretend I'm gay so I can convince my boss that I'm the right guy for Merkin account!"

And of course, that leads to the writer's brilliant insight into what it means to "act gay" which is an entirely different ball of offensive wax.

Jeff Vibes said...

You are so right! I did it myself too. Finished a draft and one of the leads somehow had a job in an ad agency. My years of commercial shoots put it in my head I guess. Yuck.

Not any more. Not she works in a plumbing supply house which allowed Pinky the plumber to become a character. Way funnier and way better.

Cobblestone Creative said...

So you won't think much of my script "John Whitebread"...he's an itrepid magazine reporter by day, who solved FBI cases at night...on the weekends he works at a bar as the surly bartender and on Sunday mornings...he's a trainer...sometimes hes James Franco..

Dan Williams said...

I think you're sooo right. Cop shows, lawyers, detectives, magazine writers--I love them all but enough! Isn't there a really cool job we haven't seen yet?

Why doesn't the female lead work at a coffee bar, take business courses at night, and desire to build up a chain of coffee shops and make it all the way to head office on Fifth Avenue?

Why doesn't the guy work at an ethanol plant and become a spokesmen for the industry in Washington?

I'd like to see a series entitled "CEO Land." Please, no more cop shows!

Unknown said...

My favorite of recent is the Dan Fogelman script "My Mother's Curse" where he's an inventor traveling across the country with his Mom. Won't spoil it, but basically it all fits in really nicely to the plot. Also, I like Marisa Tomei in "My Cousin Vinny" how she comes from a family of mechanics and her testimony helps them win the case at the end.

Crystal said...

Doctor is just about as cliche as advertising exec. Detective is probably the most cliche job around but it is a genre in its own right. Personally, I don't think a character's job is essential information unless the job makes it into the B or C plot. If it's just there to give the character shape and definition, it only matters if the job fits the character.