Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Casting characters for conflict [and fun]

The last few days I've been thinking about the cast for my final MA Screenwriting project. I'm creating a returning TV drama series that revolves around two families, but show will need a broader supporting cast to work. Almost inevitably, the local pub will provide one of the interior sets, so I'll need a publican and their bar staff. Any pub needs customers, so that's at least another speaking part or two. Someone gets arrested in the pilot episode, so that requires a police constable. Someone's going to discover they're pregnant or is getting ready to have a baby, so a nurse or midwife would be useful, or even a doctor. The two families will each have five or more members, so that's another ten characters. It doesn't take long to build up a core cast of at least 15-20 characters, and that's just for the pilot.

All those characters need to have names, attitudes, their own unique voice and point of view. They need to have backstories filled with secrets and lies and troubles, to help generate intrigue and conflict for subsequent episodes. They need to have complex interpersonal relationships with the other characters. Some tortured sexuality may be required. Adultery is almost a given. Violence and the threat of violence seem likely. I know there's a riot and injustice, secret assignations and heartbreak. My pilot script will be 60 pags long, but I'm thinking of it in four acts with a break for advertisements in between, so each section requires a strong, suspenseful hook and the final cliffhanger has to be a doozy.

But it all starts and ends with the characters. Let's face it, most TV drama you watch because you care about the characters and want to know what happens next. Can you remember all the plot details of the medical cases in the Casualty episode broadcast three weeks ago? Probably not, but if you're a regular Casualty watcher you'll know that's when one of the cast had an abortion. She's been grieving about the procedure ever since, dealing with the consequences of her decision. The medical stories in Casualty drive the plot, but it's the core cast of characters that make you keep watching. How will they cope? What [or who] will they do next?

When I'm planning a novel, I'll cast my characters, borrowing the faces and quirks of real actors as a visual shorthand. Flinty-eyed Ed Harris often features in my character breakdowns, as does Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz. Ryuichi Sakamoto gave a striking performance in the film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence that's stuck in my head, so he's a useful templaate for certain Japanese characters. Dennis Franz from NYPD Blue fits a particular type well. Steve Buscemi makes a great weasel.

When I start writing a novel, the true characters of my cast quickly emerge through their actions, they develop their own voices. By the time I've finished the first draft, the character has formed their own personality, far removed from the visual shorthand of casting established actors in the role. But it's a useful trick for getting them started, giving my cast that initial spark of life.

So today I'm going to be casting my characters, using my imagination to hire real actors to play the roles in my pilot. The beauty of this is they don't even need to still be alive to work for me. Would Fulton Mackay be perfect for this part? Then I can cast him, disregarding the fact he's no longer working. How about Sir Sean Connery when he was still in his late 20s, or Dirk Bogarde, or Claire Grogan when she was a teen imp in Gregory's Girl? All available to me, at least in my imagination. I think today's going to be fun, playing casting director.


Jay said...

"Ryuichi Sakamoto gave a striking performance in the film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence"

Wasn't he the composer? ; )

Did you mean Takeshi Kitano?


David Bishop said...

Nope, I meant Ryuichi Sakamoto. He did compose the score for the film, but he also played Captain Yonoi - the character David Bowie snogs.

Lucy said...

I leave you boys alone for five seconds and there's talk of snogging. For shame!

A midwife? When you're pregnant?? Don't be RIDICULOUS David, you don't need one of those, NHS says that nowadays you can get 'em out yourself with the aid of a sink plunger and a pocket knife.

Pillock said...

Cool. I'm going to try that out. Pretty sure there will always be a part for Jack Lemon and Peter Falk in my stories.

Lucy said...

You're gonna try the sink plunger and pocket knife Pillock?! :S

Jay said...

"Nope, I meant Ryuichi Sakamoto."

Blimey. You learn summat new every day, don't you...

I stand corrected, sir!