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Monday, January 24, 2011

Screenwriters Are Not Casting Agents

The questions are coming thick and fast at the moment, so here's one from scribe Ashley Wills via Twitter:

Is it necessary within character descriptions to appropriate a character's race?

Saying a character is black (or any other colour) is no more enlightening in terms of that character's personality traits than saying a woman is blonde, a man is fat or a child has freckles. We all know a character is far more than what they look like, the clothes they wear or the colour of their hair - so, by the same logic, a character is far more than their skin colour.

I went to a seminar with the God TJ aka Tony Jordan DONKEY'S years ago above a Waterstone's in London (Peter Bowker was on in the afternoon, it was ace). During that seminar Jordan gave the following fabbo advice:

"Screenwriters are not casting agents."

Jordan revealed he had not only had serious misgivings about the casting of Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt in Life on Mars (can *you* imagine anyone else? REALLY?), he had been against the casting of Adrian Lester as Mickey Briggs in Hustle. Not because either were not good actors, nor great guys, he said - but because they simply were not what he had *seen* in his mind's eye when he'd dreamed up the characters or written them... In comparison to someone like Jessie Wallace, who he'd said was "perfect" as Kat Slater.

But, he said, he made an important realisation: he was not the right person to decide! Philip Glenister and Adrian Lester were PERFECT for their roles, every bit as much as Jessie Wallace was in hers. And of course the rest is history.

So, when it comes to race - or indeed ANY OTHER PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTIC - instead, it's necessary to consider not whether one "should", but whether the STORY NEEDS IT, simply because we are not casting agents. Besides anything, a reader will automatically go to "default" anyway: ie. they will read characters as their *own* colour in their mind's eye and any attempt to describe said characters physically will be seen as semantic noise, especially if the story doesn't DEMAND a specification on race.

But how do you know if your story demands it? Well consider these things:

1) Is your story *about* race? If your story actually places race at the heart of its conflict, then yes - you probably do need to specify individual characters' skin colour. Films like American History X, Dangerous Minds, etc specify characters as particular colours and there are good reasons story-wise for this.

2) Is it an adaptation? There are characters in certain books who *must* be transported from their source material in the colour they started - ie. Blade (the first black comic book hero), Red in The Shawshank Redemption or alternatively, Harry Potter. Audiences *expect* to see them that way and their expectation (particularly of bestsellers) can weigh very heavy. However, that's not to say this must or *should* always be this way; Will Smith has appeared in roles such as Charlton Heston's in the remake of I Am Legend or Spooner in I, Robot. Smith's son Jayden played the Karate Kid recently and it's said Smith is keen to have his daughter Willow cast as the new Annie, too. And why not?

3) Is it just for differentiation's sake? Sometimes it is good to have characters with different skills or life experiences so they can hinder or help the protagonist and different races and cultures can be a handy shortcut of achieving this. Action films in particular do this via martial arts skills or mentor figures of characters with Oriental backgrounds; similarly crime narratives can make use of Mafia types or organised gangs of Eastern European origin. However, even then, the characters' names or the **way** they speak can often give us FAR more clue of their origin and their character traits than simply writing "Chinese Ninja" or "Eastern European Henchman" in the scene description. The test of good writing I always think is that secondary characters - and even peripherals - have memorable lines and/or moments, even if only fleeting; they are not "throwaway".

But otherwise? Unless your story is *about* race or your character has a specific back story or function in the narrative that makes it necessary to specify race, stick to his/her personality, not what s/he looks like.



If memory serves, Red was actually white in the original Stephen King novella that was adapted into The Shawshank Redemption - specifically a middle-aged man of Irish descent with red hair that's turning grey.

John H said...

I agree, but similarly I once had feedback on a pilot where I was criticised for all my characters being white.

Two of my core cast were black in my head (but not the script) simply because I had written them with certain actors in mind, but had made sure to not put a wish-list in.

The script was set in London so you would expect a bit of multicultural casting as a given, even when all characters are British. I guess it flags up that your cast needs to be diverse in terms of characterisation - not just physical attributes.

Lucy V said...

David, now you mention it I think you're right! I read it before the film and read DIFFERENT SEASONS plenty of times since watching the film and seen Morgan Freeman in my head however, which is a compelling argument on how media images "manipulate" our thought patterns... I recall thinking Patrick Bateman must be some kind of monster when I first read it (ages before the film came out), but having read it since I see only Christian Bale in my head.

John - definitely. I think it's a question of how the characters *feel* and getting that across to the reader though - names/life experience/skills all reflect that though better than saying "black", "white", "Asian" etc IMHO.

Richard Cosgrove said...

This applies to everything you write about characters: only include what is relevant to the story you're telling and what is going to tell the reader - and so the director and actor - something about who the character is, what their personality is, and how their mind works.
The applies to the character's race, accent, hair colour, clothing, taste in food.

@John: Personally I find British TV's habit of rainbow casting in every circumstance to be annoying at best, and insulting at worst.

I've lost count of the number of screenplay readings I've been to where the writer seems to have followed an unofficial equality opportunities checklist in that they include one Asian, one Afro-Caribbean and one homosexual character, seemingly for no reason other than the writer had suddenly realised that they had to include one Asian, one Afro-Caribbean and one homosexual in the script to please a producer.

When we're writing about the multicultural sections of UK's society we should reflect that. But it has to be done accurately, with respect, and it has to be part of the story we're telling.

Ashley said...

Thanks for this rundown Lucy, great guns and very helpful indeed - Cheers! :-)