When it Comes to Characters, Fewer is More

I recently sat down to work on another draft of a script. I had an idea for a new character, a professional mentor for my protagonist, someone who was really in his corner. And the kicker was, right when the going got tough, she would die, leaving our hero on his own. It’s a pretty standard movie trope (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Vitruvius, Mufasa), but I ultimately decided against it.

The problem is, it would have required me adding three more characters: the mentor, who was our hero’s boss, the mentor’s replacement, and the person who would appoint the replacement. Yes, I would have gained something, but at what cost? Like the timeframe of your plot, which I discuss in my previous post, you want your script to achieve its goal with as few characters as necessary.

Aristotle didn’t discuss a “Unity of Character,” but Greek theater had other conventions to restrict the number of characters in a play. Unity of Action also implies some Unity of Character. In any event, Unity of Character or the “fewer the better” has become an unofficial rule of thumb for effective screenwriting.

To be clear, you want the worlds you create to feel authentic. Your protagonist needs a family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, cashiers, and bank tellers. But it’s going to be easier to create that realistic world inhabited by three-dimensional characters if you have fewer, not more characters.

There’s a basic math problem. With any script, you’ve only got so much screen time. Do you want it to go to your main characters or a bunch of walk-on roles? Let me illustrate my point with two pictures of Amy Adams.

The first is an absolutely enchanting photo of Amy staring dreamily into space.

enchanted-3

Then we have a shot of her in the background(?!), out of focus, crowded out by extras, and upstaged by a bunch of Muppets!

muppets-screencap-2

Both pictures are the same size. One is a great photo of Amy Adams. In the other, you can barely see her. Fewer characters means more screen time for your lead roles.

The problem isn’t so much with secondary characters (the best friend, the love interest) or tertiary characters (the boss, the comic relief), but with bit parts (the valet, the cashier, the security guard). How important is the line, “Here’s your receipt. Have a nice day.” or “Place all metallic items in the plastic dish.”? Blake Snyder calls this “place holder” or “Hi how are you I’m fine” dialogue. It’s the kind of thing anyone can say, and it contributes nothing to the story. Unless the receipt or the items going through the metal detector are critical to the plot, you don’t need to mention them. What if your security guard has some critical piece of information to deliver to your hero? Consider giving that line to a more important character. It gives them more screen time and makes them more integral to the plot.

Fewer characters makes the writing and acting better as well. Say your valet has one line. “Your car is ready, Mr. Anderson.” How do they deliver it? Earnestly? Concerned? Full of contempt? Deferentially? What kind of valet is this? A kindly old man who loves cars? A college kid with a summer job? An undercover secret agent?

The thing is, if your actor imbues this character with any personality, it will detract from the scene. The movie is not about them! But why would you write a character who you want to be as bland and forgettable as possible?

“But my protagonist is a rich snob who always stiffs the valet!” you’re saying. “I need that dialogue.”

Aha! Well, in this case, your “bit part” has a bigger role to play in your story. The way your protagonist treats your valet is a defining character trait. Gauging this interaction throughout the course of the script will show the audience how your protagonist has changed. Is he still stiffing the valet in the middle of the script? What about when the love interest is present? How does he treat the valet at the end?

Now that your valet has three or four scenes, it’s no longer a bit part. You have the opportunity to give him some personality. Maybe he even plays a role in your protagonist’s journey. Either way, the actor has something to work with, and your world is going to feel a little more realistic.

For my script, it wasn’t feasible to create three more fully fleshed out characters. I would have needed to add another ten pages or take screen time away from my main characters. For what it would have added to my script, it wasn’t worth it.

For your script, you’ll have to make your own judgment call. But remember, fewer characters means more screen time for the characters who matter. It’s going to make a more realistic world and engaging story. When it comes to good screenwriting, there are no small parts, only poorly written walk-on roles.

TAXES FOR FREELANCERS

Like all forms of employment, freelancing has perks and shortcomings. But without a doubt, filing your taxes as a freelancer is one of the most obnoxious and time consuming ordeals you’ll have to deal with. I hate filing taxes so much, I made a video about them last year. (President Obama did write me back, but he never paid the invoice…) The point is, never have I ever—not even in TVF 361: Working in Film as a Freelancer—received any education about filing taxes as a freelancer. So if you do plan on going down this dark and terrifying path, I’d like to give you some pointers.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a tax expert. Anything you learn from this article is for informational purposes only. Do your own research and consult with a tax professional for your own specific tax situation.

OVERVIEW

If you earn money, you pay taxes. You generally owe taxes to 3 governmental agencies: the federal government (IRS), the state government (in my case the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue), and your local city, town, borough, hovel, whatever. Usually, your employer takes these taxes out of every paycheck. That’s why when you received your first job in high school, you were shocked to find out how little money you actually took home.

SMALL PAYCHECK

However, even if your employer doesn’t take this money out, you still owe taxes! At some point, someone’s going to come looking for that money. It’s up to you to make sure you’re paying the right amount of money on time. Keeping detailed records is the name of the game.

As a freelancer, you’ll have 2 basic kinds of employers: W-2 and 1099. Both are named after the tax forms you receive at the end of the year.

W-2

When it comes to taxes, W-2 jobs are a little bit easier. These are the jobs where the taxes are taken out for you. In the biz, they are also called timecard or payroll jobs. These are the kinds of employers that most of your relatives and friends with “real” jobs have. For us, things are a little confusing.

The thing is, most production companies don’t want to pay for accountants. They use payroll companies to take care of their paperwork. CAPS, Entertainment Partners, and Cast and Crew are three of the big ones. So even though you work for Mom & Pop Productions, The Josés Film Co., and Hollywood South, LLC, you might get W-2s from CAPS, Entertainment Partners, and Cast and Crew. To make it even more confusing, Mom & Pop and The Josés may use the same payroll company. Then every job you did for both of those companies will appear on the same W-2.  (Last year, which was a slow year for me, I worked for 17 different companies and received 6 different W-2s.)

1099

If your employer just hands you cash or a check, this is called 1099 or invoice work. Generally, you’ll have to send the company an invoice, and then they’ll send you a check. This check will be for the full amount of the job. (If you invoiced them for $250, you’ll receive a check for $250.) Even though your employer didn’t take taxes out of your paycheck, you still owe taxes!

QUARTERLY PAYMENTS

You may think tax season is early April, but for freelancers, it’s always tax season. The thing is, you owe taxes as you earn money, not at the end of the year. For W-2 work, those taxes are taken out every paycheck, and you’re golden. But for the 1099 work, you need to estimate how much money you’ll make and send out those estimated payments quarterly. (Remember, you owe federal, state, and local taxes.)

The four payment dates this year are April 18th, June 15th, September 15th, and January 15th. The perplexing thing is that quarter two is 3 months long while quarter four is 5 months long. Clearly no one at the IRS had my mother for math, since “quarter” implies four equal parts, but I digress.

unequal quarters

Your estimated payments aren’t what you will actually owe because your tax rate is based on what you earn, and on April 18th, no freelancer I know has any idea how much money they’ll earn in the next eight months. There’s a lengthy form to help you estimate your quarterly payments (which I have found utterly useless) called the 1040-ES. I’ve included a link to it below.

FILING YOUR TAXES

If you haven’t had enough fun yet, there’s tax day! When you “file” your taxes, you’re squaring away all of those uncertainties you’d had from the previous year. You find out what you actually earned, deduct what you can, and end up with your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI). Some people use accountants or tax professionals. Most tax professionals charge more as things get more complex. Since I didn’t make much money when I started in this business, I began filing my own taxes with the help of TurboTax. So far, so good.

For the most part, you just enter all of the data from your W-2s and 1099s. Remember to report income even if you didn’t receive a 1099. (Keep in mind, Al Capone was ultimately arrested for tax evasion, not murder.) And remember to report those quarterly payments you made. The software will do the rest.

DEDUCTIONS

Everybody is allowed to take a variety of personal deductions. Charitable donations, student loans, and mortgage interest come to mind. Many people will take the standard deduction because it’s easier and often bigger than an itemized deduction. But as a freelancer, you also have unreimbursed business expenses. Even if you take the standard personal deduction, you have plenty of additional business deductions.

These deductions may include, clothing, food, work tools, mileage, and even your house. There are rules and regulations for each thing, but a general rule of thumb is, if you use it exclusively for work, it’s deductible. I’m writing this from my home office, where I do all of my paperwork. I could potentially deduct the utilities for this room, but I use it for a guest room as well. Sadly, no deduction for this one. But that rain gear I bought exclusively for set? Deducted. Flashlight, surveillance headset, and Leatherman? Deducted. That Box of Joe I bought for the locations department to ensure I had good parking on the last shoot? Deducted. Make sure you save those receipts!

Mileage can also be deducted, whether that’s driving to another state for a job or running out to pick up lunch for the crew. As with all of these things, however, you need to keep detailed records.

And of course, if your employer reimburses you for any of these expenses, you cannot deduct them.

STATE AND LOCAL

Generally speaking, state and local taxes operate similarly to federal taxes. There are slightly different rules for each, so you’ll have to do your own research on that one. But here’s one small positive; programs like TurboTax have software for states, and most of the information transfers seamlessly from federal to state forms. One caveat, if you work outside the state where you live, you may need to file taxes in both states.

Local taxes are generally the easiest. You’ll simply need to transfer numbers from your federal or state tax form onto your local tax form. Unfortunately, W-2 employers will deduct local taxes from where you work, not where you live. It may take a bit of arithmetic to figure out what, if anything, you owe your local government. (For example, my borough has a 1% tax rate, but if I work in Philadelphia, Philadelphia takes 3.5% of my paycheck. I’m never going to see that 2.5% again. However, I can use it to offset the taxes I owe to my home borough from my 1099 work.)

DEATH AND TAXES

Taxes suck, no matter who you are. But if you plan to make this filmmaking thing work, they’re one more unforeseen hurdle you have to jump over. The most important thing is to keep detailed records and save paperwork. And speaking of paperwork… below are links to some of the forms you’ll encounter in your illustrious career. Check them out so you know what you’re looking at.

Finally, I’d like to reiterate that I am not a tax professional. If anyone who reads this post has other thoughts and comments, feel free to reach out or respond.

PAPERWORK

W-4

When doing W-2 work, the W-4 tells your employer what to withhold in taxes. You’ll receive this on set either when you’re hired or when you fill out your timecard. There’s an obnoxious worksheet to calculate how many allowances to claim (probably 1 or 0). If you claim 0, your employer will withhold more taxes, which means you’ll likely get a refund at the end of the year, but see less money in your paychecks.

I-9

When doing W-2 work, the I-9 verifies that you are allowed to work in the U.S. Most people only fill out a handful of these in their lives. You, however, have to fill one out every year for every employer. That is why I have my driver’s license number memorized. However, if you work for a new company, you’ll want to be sure to bring your 2 forms of I.D. (Click on the second link on the USCIS website to view the form.)

Timecard

Here is a blank, sample timecard from CAPS. Generally, you’ll only fill out your personal information and the hours you worked. Your production manager will help you with any questions.

W-2

You’ll receive this in January or February. It shows how much money you earned, what you paid in taxes, what you paid for Social Security, Medicare, state, and local taxes, etc. from the previous year. It’s very easy to transfer this information into a program like TurboTax. (This W2 is blank. Yours should come with numbers on it!)

W-9

This is identity verification for a 1099 job. (I-9 is to W-2 as W-9 is to 1099… where’s 3 through 8 in all of this?) Generally, you’ll need to send production one of these when you send them your invoice. Unless you are incorporated as a business, check the box that says “individual/sole proprietor” and fill in your social security number.

1099

This is what you get at the end of the year for your 1099 jobs. As with the W-2, it’s very easy to enter the information from this into a program like TurboTax. (And again, yours should come with numbers on it!)

Invoice

I’d say this is where you can flex your creativity because you get to make your own invoice, but that would probably just annoy your production manager. Generally, you just need your contact info, the company’s contact info, the job name and number, and days and hours worked. This is what I use. It’s not pretty, but I always get paid (except for the one I sent to Obama…).

1040-ES

This is the monstrosity that “helps” you estimate your quarterly taxes. In the least it shows you what is legally required and gives you a place to write down when you sent the money in.

A Good Premise

The hook, or my preferred term “premise,” is what “hooks” your audience. It’s also what hooks your investors, your producers, your significant other if you’re looking for a movie to watch, and what’s going to drive your script. If you’ve got a good premise, you’ve got a marketable idea. If not, well, keep writing. Below are some things to keep in mind when you’re working on a premise.

Potential

When you say your premise, people should immediately think of the possibilities. If you’re writing a comedy, the potential for humor should be obvious. (Two men join an all-girl band to avoid the mob.) Thrillers should sound, well, thrilling.

Your premise is the reason you’re writing this script! Not everyone has the same idea of a premise. Use the word alien, dragon, or time travel and some people will immediately tune out. If I hear “struggling with cancer,” I’m probably going to pass. (I’ve had enough real-life experience with cancer.) At the same time, I think a cancer subplot is a requirement of most Lifetime scripts. And plenty of people watch those. Whatever genre you’re going for, your audience needs to see potential.

One of my friends came up with a fantastic premise a few years ago: Killer Cardboard Box. It’s ridiculously straightforward and even conveys that genre blend of horror and comedy. (There’s a killer—terrifying, but it’s a cardboard box—laughable.) You can visualize it, too. Box flaps clamping onto an unsuspecting victim’s head, or the heroine fighting for her life with a dollar-store box cutter. It’s brilliant. The script (penned by yours truly) hasn’t been produced for a few reasons, but potential isn’t one of them.

Jurassic Box

Short

On the other side of the spectrum is this heaping pile of beauty: six frenemies are trapped in a shopping mall with a killer. Another (amazing) script penned by me, but I’ve found it hard to explain to others. It’s a little too clunky. What’s a frenemy? Why are they trapped in the mall? Why not just text 911? All great questions, which are revealed in the thrilling final act, but not necessarily a great way to get people excited. Lord of the Flies in a shopping mall? Not necessarily any better.

When you go back to “why” I wrote this film, it was because I wanted to do a teen horror movie in a shopping mall where no one was sure who they could trust. Unfortunately, the premise shows that the production considerations were just as important to me as the story considerations. And unfortunately, I think the script suffered for that reason.

 Unique

A friend of mine challenged himself to watch 366 movies last year. I asked him what the worst one was. He answered that, by far, Thor: The Dark World was the most bland and boring. He said he actually forgot he watched it.

The problem is, there are just so many superhero movies now. They’re predictable. They run together. So if you’re writing a script for Lifetime (and it has the obligatory cancer subplot) how do you make it interesting? What is it about your script that we’ve never seen before? How will your gangster movie stand out from The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Untouchables, etc? How will your Superhero movie stand out from X-Men, Superman, Spiderman, Batman, and Birdman? How about you make it ridiculously gory and full of profanity? Poke fun at the other superhero movies and break the fourth wall. Sounds a lot like the best selling R-rated movie of all time (Deadpool).

Are there going to be any dinosaurs in this, uh, dinosaur film?

When you actually get to writing, you need to fulfill the premise. It’s one of the most common mistakes I’ve found with first time screenwriters. If you write a script “about” outer space and your characters don’t make it into space until the script is three quarters over, well, your script isn’t really about space, is it? If you write a script about dinosaurs, you better have some dinosaurs in it. Jurassic Park expertly mocks this mistake when they fail to see any dinosaurs on their “dinosaur” tour.

Writers of horror films have probably heard the adage “Don’t show the monster.” Psychologically, once you see and identify something, it loses its fear factor. Practically, if you don’t have a budget, your monster probably isn’t very scary looking. But just because you can’t show your monster doesn’t mean it’s not there!

Creepy sounds, footprints, and severed limbs should litter your script. Remember, the premise is the reason why you wrote your script. You better include that reason early and often.

A great premise sets your script up for success. What drama, comedy, or horror does your premise bring to mind? How many ways can a cardboard box kill a person (eat them, paper cuts, fall on them)? What kind of weapon would you use to fight a cardboard box (box cutter, fire, box crusher)? Who’s the best protagonist to fight this unlikely killer of yours (Dwight Schrute)?

The premise is only the germ of an idea. It can come from watching another movie, a news article, a conversation with a friend. Depending on your genre, some things may be more appropriate than others. Hostage situations are a bit of a stretch for RomComs. Alzheimers doesn’t work that well for comedies. But no matter what, if it’s unique, short, and full of potential, you’re on the right track. And a good premise is going to make writing your script a little easier and a lot more fun.

Dressing for Success on Set

A coworker of mine was going camping once and (since I’m an Eagle Scout) he asked me what he should wear. “Well,” I told him, “just pretend you’re going to work.” When you show up to set, you need to be ready for everything, and nothing will get you through a sixteen hour day better than your own comfort. So working from ground up, here’s my fashion advice. (Even if you’re supposed to stay in the office, you’ll be surprised at the number of times you end up in a muddy field to deliver paperwork.)

SHOES

Wear comfortable, closed toe shoes. You’ll be on your feet most of the time, and you don’t want your little piggies run over by a dolly. Steel toes aren’t really necessary unless you’re building or striking something (Art Department, Grip). You’ll also want a good pair of waterproof hiking boots in your wardrobe for the non-metaphorical quagmire you’ll end up in someday. I’d also recommend a pair of NEOS. This is a shoe that goes over your shoe for filming in a torrential downpour/snow bank, etc.

PRO TIP: A boom operator I work with always brings a second pair of shoes and socks to set. He changes them at lunch. You’d be amazed at the difference this makes in the afternoon.

PANTS

This one’s pretty simple. Wear sturdy, weather appropriate pants that facilitate a belt. No skirts or dresses (or kilts, Sean!). I know cargo pants/shorts aren’t high fashion, but if you’re behind the camera, no one cares. When you’ve got batteries, a water bottle, pens, markers, cell phone, phone charger, call sheets, schedules, your wallet, three sets of keys, sunglasses, a walkie talkie, work gloves, a Leatherman, and a flashlight on you, the extra pockets come in handy.

BELT

Wear a belt. With all of the stuff in your pockets, your pants will fall down. Some people with even more stuff (crescent wrench, screwdriver, tape measure, volt meter, range finder, etc.) go so far as to wear two belts or a harness. Hopefully, you won’t need that on your first day, and you’ll have some time to shop around before you do.

SHIRT

A little personality in your wardrobe is fine, but try not to offend anyone. Remember this shirt from How to Lose Friends and Alienate People?

how-to-lose-friends

T-shirts are the norm. Button down shirts are fine. Ties (or dangling jewelry) are a no. (They’re actually a safety hazard.) Generally, you’ll want to avoid bright colors and large logos. You never know if you’ll be hiding in the background of a shot, and you don’t want to stand out. (On the other hand, I hate being on camera and may have occasionally worn bright colors to set specifically to avoid pulling background duty. I don’t know that this endeared me to anyone, however.) People who are required to be on set (camera operators, assistant cameramen, boom operators) often have a completely black wardrobe on standby to avoid being seen in reflections of cars, windows, pictures frames, etc. If they don’t, they the grips will make them a robe of duvetyne, which is always good for a laugh.

GLOVES

Depending on the size of the shoot, you may be asked to pick up cable, lay down floor protection, or move set pieces. A cheap pair of leather work gloves (usually around $10) goes a long way. You may see grips wearing fancy, form fitting work gloves, but I’m not a fan. For one thing, they take too long to put on and take off. But they’re also expensive. On that special day when you gloves get completely covered in fish guts, dog shit, or motor oil, you don’t feel so bad chucking $10 gloves. (And yes… all of that has happened to me.)

HEADGEAR

Not a requirement, but if you’re filming outside all day, sunglasses and hat will make you much, much happier. Don’t be afraid to pull out a crazy straw hat or cowboy hat when you’re filming in the middle of an open field. Yes, it may look silly, but people will recognize that you’re someone who thinks ahead and comes prepared.

RAIN GEAR

Buy a waterproof coat and pants. Nicer gear can be a little expensive, but it is tax deductible. ALWAYS BRING YOUR RAIN GEAR TO SET!!! Even if there’s a zero percent chance of it raining, you may end up blocking off a street corner while the art department wets down the street. You’ll be a lot happier throwing on your NEOS and rain pants than walking around in wet socks all day.

And speaking of that…

EXTRA CLOTHES

It’s not a bad idea to have a change of clothes in your car. You may fall into a creek (happened to me), have coffee spilled on you (happens to me regularly), fall down a muddy hill (heard about it), set your jacket on fire (seen it happen surprisingly often), or just perspire a lot. A friend of mine actually texted me this hilarious mishap from a commercial set earlier today.

art-pants

In any event, it’s a lot easier to change your clothes and get on with your day than be miserable for the next ten hours. I’d also point out that anything you wear to set has a high probability of getting ruined. It will definitely get dirty.

LAYERING

If you follow me on twitter (@PremiseAmiss) you’ll know I was recently rigging a car in twenty-five degree weather. Everyone tolerates the cold differently, (Two of my coworkers wear shorts in well below freezing temperatures.) but layers are the easiest way to deal with it. A long sleeve T-shirt, vest, and fleece will treat you a lot better than a halter top and ski jacket. Part of it is thermodynamics. But it also just gives you more options.

Going to spend two hours outside? Put all the layers on. Babysitting holding? Take all the layers off. Running in and out? Keep the vest on, but lose the fleece. Sweatshirts with a full zipper (as compared to pullovers) will also make your life easier.

Don’t forget to layer your legs! Long johns make a world of difference. For those really frigid days, go wool. Wool socks retain heat even when they’re wet. Or if you’re working in the 30-40 degree range, try some knee high socks. They’re a little easier to take off than long johns if it starts to warm up.

BUT I’M GOING TO LOOK LIKE SURVIVORMAN!

Yes. Yes, you will. In fact, you’ll probably want to shove a bunch of this stuff in a back pack and bring that to set, too. It may seem excessive, but you’ll be prepared and comfortable for whatever comes up. As an added bonus, you’ll look like everyone else, and you might just fool them into thinking you’ve done this before. After all, isn’t that what dressing for success is all about?