Summary: Character-driven stories rely on unique and honest dialogue to keep the audience engaged.
Yesterday I watched Breakfast Club for the umpteenth time. I adore that movie. Admittedly, being a child of the 80’s I’m totally biased, but the fact remains that any time it is on, I will at the very least entertain the notion of watching it from beginning to end.
For those unfamiliar with the movie, it follows four teenagers- a geek, a jock, a rebel, and a socialite- as they endure eight hours of Saturday school under the watchful eye of their jaded principal.
The BC falls solidly in the genre of what I like to call “Two People Sitting Around a Dinner Table.” Obviously there are more than two people and, no, it does not take place in a kitchen. So, let me explain. Especially now, with the rise- even overflow- of independent filmmaking, producers with limited budgets use what they own to cut down on costs. Most people live in some kind of domicile- or know somebody with one. So, many filmmakers shoot entire films in a single room. Because special effects and large casts are expensive and many projects are either Kickstarter or funded entirely out of pocket, action and other high-budget genres are quickly forced out of the picture. Thus, we are often left with three genres to chose from: drama, comedy, and horror. Also, because filmmaking is often considered “art” and art is supposed to be meaningful, drama usually take the cake- that, or dramedy served with a heavy dose of irony.
Breakfast Club, though it is a major motion picture, fits solidly into this category. There is no overt sex or violence. Just people talking. Despite its simple premise, it is able to keep its audience engaged for its entire 97 min. running time. Not an easy thing to do. I’ve seen shorts- heck, I’ve written shorts- that fail in less than 10. Therefore, it is important to note what “Breakfast Club” does right, especially if you are writing your first low budget film
1. Honesty is the Best Policy
Here is a no-brainer: a character-driven story is all about character. So, make every effort to ensure that the characters gallivanting through your script are interesting and there for a reason. In Breakfast Club, even the janitor, who plays a very small roll in the movie, makes a meaningful contribution to the plot.
It is important to note also that each of the characters do begin as stereotypes, but they do not stay that way. Stereotypes are useful in the sense that they establish voice. If all of your characters think, act, and sound the same, things get dull quickly. The clash of wills causes drama, and drama keeps the story going.
But- and there is a huge “but” (insert giggle here)- these characters do not stay stereotypes forever. As you will notice even among your friends and colleges, when you put people together, they very often start to take on each other’s character trains and mannerisms. (This is also a good case for choosing your friends wisely.)
As the plot unfolds, the characters in the BC start to come out of their shell. They communicate honestly, emerge from their stereotypical selves, and even start to merge- both physically and emotionally- with others.
This device has been carried on since the very first novel, Don Quixote, where the adventuresome knight and the timid squire flip personalities by the end of the story, with the knight becoming more defeatist and the squire egging him on to keep “fighting for the right, without question or pause.”
The final lines of the BC are no different (spoiler alert):
Brian Johnson: [closing narration] Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us – in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain…
Andrew Clark: …and an athlete…
Allison Reynolds: …and a basket case…
Claire Standish: …a princess…
John Bender: …and a criminal…
Brian Johnson: Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club
Unity or disunity must be earned. If we start that way in the beginning of the story and stay that way, stagnation occurs. But a fully developed character arc is literally worth its weigh in gold.
2. Divide and Conquer
Another useful trick, employed masterfully here, as well as in other movies such as Twelve Angry Men, is taking a larger space and cutting it up into smaller sections, creating the perception of location change without really going anywhere.
Only at the very beginning and end of the movie do we actually leave the school. The rest of the movie is spent indoors. In fact, most of the movie takes place in the library.
In this limited space, when we change small things, like where the characters are sitting, it matters. When the rebel storms off to the second floor of the library, for example, it is like he is a million miles away. Now and again a character or two will go off together to perform a simple task. This leads to a major bonding moment between the characters in question. Thus, movement of any kind makes the story visually and emotionally dynamic, which is important to remember considering the fact that cinema is a visual medium.
3. Quality Above All Else
Last but certainly not least is- and I can’t stress this enough- technical precision in microcinema. When you’re dealing with so few shots and so few actors, make sure that the shots that you do get are sharp, the sound is perfect, and the performances are flawless.
Please don’t fall to pieces if you make a mistake in any of those areas. Trust me, I know all about working with limited resources. My point is to do the best you can with what you have. Especially if you want to pursue a career in filmmaking, always keep in mind that you are not just doing this for yourselves, but for your audience and future employers.
A small project done in a big way can win you the respect of people who can take you places you previously only dreamed about.
So go for the glory and care about what you do.
That said, thank you as always for your time. I hope you find these insights useful.
Blessings to you in Christ,