A new feature on First Person Plural begins today: workshop leader Jonathan Eig's once a month post on film. Eig is a teacher, 1995 Austin Heart of Film Festival Winner, Nicholl Fellowship Semi-finalist, CINE Golden Eagle recipient, and 2001 Recipient of Artists Fellowship from the Montgomery County Arts & Humanities Council. He's currently teaching the feature film screenwriting workshop.
When Mike Figgis released Leaving Las Vegas in 1995, the brutal character portrait of an alcoholic screenwriter resolved to drink himself to death struck a real emotional chord – and not just with alcoholic screenwriters. A common debate amongst film people at the time was the lead character Ben’s (Nicholas Cage) absence of motivation. Figgis only gives us the briefest of glimpses into Ben’s past, leaving us to fill in what may have triggered his self-destruction. Figgis used the following metaphor: when you are driving down the street and witness the aftermath of a horrible car crash, do you really need to know where the driver was coming from in order to feel sympathy?
The increased use of character back story has been one of the (many) ways mainstream Hollywood movies have changed over the past several decades. Brian Helgeland’s screenplay for the recently released remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 provides a case in point. The original version, scripted by Peter Stone in 1974, eliminates almost all back story. We learn nothing about Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) besides the immediate fact that he is a transit cop caught up in a hostage negotiation. The bad guy, Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw), barely speaks to him. Mr. Blue is some vaguely defined “mercenary” soldier. But in 2009, Denzell Washington’s Garber has a well defined past involving scandal, humiliation, and punishment, all of which he reveals to John Travolta’s bad guy, Ryder, in one of their lengthy conversations. Ryder also has a more well-defined back story as a Wall Streeter who got caught and did time.
You will find that absence of back story far more common in films of the 1970s. I recently presented the horror classic Alien (1979) to an audience and was struck by how little we actually learn about the pasts of any of the seven crew members on the ship. Hollywood filmmakers in that era were far more likely to be influenced by the iconic indie director John Cassavettes, who developed a theory which essentially stated that everything we come to know about the characters should be learned from watching what they do on screen. As with any artistic theory, this one needs to bend sometimes. Sometimes, we need to learn a little something about the past in order to understand the present.
So which approach is better? For my money, I prefer the original Pelham and I think back story may figure into it. Well crafted back story can be a powerful piece of a narrative, but too often, I think it feels contrived. Or it feels as if the writer is actually more concerned with revealing a secret from the past than with revealing a character in the present. So use it at your own risk. The key I think is to remember that characters are not defined by their pasts. Whether you use back story or not, you need to make sure your characters have enough to do in the present tense story.