We collected your questions from the AFF at Home: Character page and social media for Brian Helgeland for a virtual Q&A about creating character.
Who is your favorite movie character and why?
My favorite movie character of all time is Lucas Jackson (aka Cool Hand Luke). Luke is a Korean War hero, but he comes out of that conflict the same way he went in – a private: “Like I was just passing time… Boss.” His escapes from the chain gang are almost vain in their glorious and maybe pointless defiance. His softspoken and ridiculous declaration, “I can eat 50 eggs,” is an absurd example of the power of one until he turns the eating of those eggs into a gladiatorial contest against the system. Luke is a man swimming upstream every moment we watch him, until he isn’t at the heart-breaking moment where he can no longer defiantly dig his own grave. He is a man with a private, never explained expectation of himself that he would rather die to uphold than violate to live. Does that make him an idiot or does it make him a stunning hero? Maybe both, but it also makes him the greatest film character to ever grace celluloid. It is worth mentioning he greatly benefits from having screenwriting giant Frank Pierson there to help guide him along.
I always struggle with naming characters in my work. Do you have a process for this in your scripts?
How do you write characters who are different from you ideologically/politically?
In my screenplay Man On Fire, Denzel Washington and Chris Walken play men of dubious honor who have done questionable things in their past. These are not ‘good’ people by our civilian definition, probably not by certain professional definitions either. They have probably done despicable things and Denzel’s character Creasy, in particular, is looking for peace and deliverance from his past actions. At a barbecue, Creasy asks his buddy, “Do you think God will forgive us for what we’ve done?” Walken pauses and then simply answers, “No.” Then they actually laugh at the absurdity of the thought. But the real thought, that there is no redemption for what they are, of course, plagues Creasy and explains his actions all through the movie. It makes him human. If I took umbrage with how he diffred from me ideologically as a person, I could never have been a part of it.
Have you ever changed a character when adapting a project? How and Why?
How do you determine your protagonist’s flaws?
I have to say I don’t really see flaws as flaws in movie characters. It’s the flaw that makes them memorable, isn’t it? Dirty Harry is a character whose humanity has been placed on the far back burner. However, it is that ‘flaw’ that makes him uniquely qualified to hunt down the Scorpio character. Without that flaw, there is no movie. It’s that old saying that our greatest strengths are also our greatest weaknesses, and vice versa therefore. It’s the flaws that make us interesting. It’s why (for me) the nature of the character of Superman is so limiting, so dull really. What makes the Richard Donner version of that movie so good is that Superman falls in love. Falling in love turns out to be his ‘flaw’. Being allergic to kryptonite is just biological; it’s no flaw.
Anyhow, that’s it for answers. Anyone who is reading this knows writing is hard. My hat is off to anyone who won’t quit doing it. There’s more Cool Hand Luke at work inside you than you know. Stay healthy!
Questions submissions have been edited for length and clarity.
Have a question for a writer? Submit your questions for next week’s Virtual Q&A on Thursday 4/9 for AFF at Home: Dialogue and join the conversation on social media with #AFFatHome.