THE ANTI-BLOCKBUSTER: In Praise of Character-Driven Films

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

In an effort to break into the industry, many writers set out to emulate what they are seeing Hollywood produce most frequently, the next iteration of the Avengers series or something like it, for example. In reality, however, these types of scripts rarely open any doors for writers. Even if a big-budget, high concept spec is well-written, those jobs go to established writers who have a proven track record for bringing in audiences.

The type of script that does get noticed and occasionally opens doors is the well-written Anti-Blockbuster – the small character-driven film.

These films do not rely so heavily on what happens to the character at the center of the story as much as who the character is. This is not to say that the basic cornerstones of structure, such as the external goal, should be tossed out the window – quite the opposite in fact. Creating a well-crafted structure that supports a fascinating character whose inner-most layers are explored over the course of the narrative is one of the most assured ways to get noticed by the industry. Here are three small films, Anti-Blockbusters if you will, that manage to explore the depths of who a character is while also taking them on a journey that causes the audience to feel something.

Patti Cake$

written & directed by Geremy Jasper

The story of a white female rapper, the narrative effortlessly moves between fantasies in Patti’s head and the stark reality of the small town in New Jersey she seeks to transcend. Underdog stories of this sort have certainly been told before. However, what makes Patti Cake$ work is the interesting cast of characters embodying the familiar archetypes. Patti’s journey down the yellow brick road includes a most unlikely group of devotees that she transforms into her musical bandmates – including an Indian-American crooner who works at the local pharmacy; her elderly and disabled Nana; and an African-American loner that lives by the cemetery, is rumored to worship the devil, and calls himself Bastard the Anti-Christ. These are certainly characters that we’ve not seen on the screen before.

What makes them effective, however, is not their novelty but rather the way that the writer helps us to see ourselves in these unusual characters. We end up rooting for this rag tag bunch of misfits because we understand their struggle and are reminded of our own dreams that sometimes feel so far out of reach.

Crown Heights

written & directed by Matt Ruskin

Based on the true story of Collin Warner, who was wrongfully convicted of murder, Crown Heights explores the theme of deep friendship. While Warner’s tragic story is at the center of the narrative, the larger theme explored is around his friend Carl King, whose devotion to Warner and unfailing tenacity finally results in seeing the conviction overturned.

While we’ve seen the story of characters falsely accused of murder before, the community these characters are a part of ends up playing a significant and interesting role. It’s a community we rarely see on screen – the West Indian community. Through the nuances of the characters in this world, we are given a glimpse at how universally powerful the bonds of friendship are in both literal and metaphoric struggles. Anti-blockbusters such as this may be unique in approach, but they are universal in theme.

Good Time

written by Josh Safdie & Ronald Bronstein, directed by Josh Safdie & Benny Safdie

Rising star siblings Josh and Benny Safdie worked for years creating short films that pushed the boundaries of cinematic storytelling. Since moving into feature-length stories, they have been set on expanding what has been previously seen in that medium as well. The protagonist in their latest film, Good Time, is a character we’ve seen before – a bank robber with pure motivations, on the run from those who would see his family broken apart and freedom taken away. What is unique about the character is the execution. He never tells us how he feels through dialogue. His deeper layers are instead revealed through the actions he takes and small details about his choices.

While the genre of this story is clearly thriller, the hectic pace and constantly moving plot never get in the way of unpacking who the main character is at his core. We are often reminded that this character will never tell us exactly who he is, but if we watch him carefully, his deepest identity is revealed through how he solves problems, which is a mark of good storytelling and great characters.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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