I watched the Tony Gilroy lecture on the BAFTA site recently.
If you haven’t seen it already, then I would recommend you watch it. The only fault I can find with it is that it’s too short.
Tony – ‘We need anything, we need a spark, we need some place to start, and for me – for us, me will be us now – we need something really small. Small is good, small is really, really good for me. Something small and very, very specific. The big ideas don’t work. It’s death if you say ‘I want to do a movie about class warfare’ or ‘I want to do a movie about corporate malfeasance or I want to do a movie about paradise… You’ll just drown.’
The process of taking a small idea and developing it into something bigger is something that has always fascinated me.
Gilroy says that he starts with a scene and then builds a world around it. In the BAFTA lecture, he shows the scene where Michael is called to fix a hit and run car accident for a wealthy client. This is an excellent example of how to deliver exposition through conflict and dialogue. It tells us so much about the Michael Clayton character, what he does, what he thinks and where he is at that point in his life.
I wanted to figure out how to get to this point, so I took one step back before the development/writing of this scene and started with…
Something small: A man working in a New York legal firm.
I know what you are thinking – ‘I can feel my ass getting sore already.’
The original quote is ‘I can feel my butt getting’ sore already’ from Barton Fink.
With no context and no conflict to define him why do we care?
We don’t and we won’t until we put this man in a pressure situation which shows his character and moral values. We need to put our man in a situation, he’s a lawyer, so let’s give him a case to work on. While it’s tempting to give him a real estate closing in Queens, this is a movie, after all, so he is working a million dollar high profile Manhattan-based case.
So this adds context and stakes to the story but where’s the conflict?
Our man, let’s call him Arthur (Michael Clayton is not the antagonist or protagonist of this story), is working the high-profile case representing a large corporation involved in illegal activities. Arthur decides that he can’t be a part of criminal activity anymore and must expose it.
And now we have some conflict.
At this point, you could ask yourself about the point of view of this story. Is this going to be a personal story about Arthur? A story about legal process? The victims? Or something else? Will it be resolved in court or through scandal?
The right answer to this question is: don’t worry about it for the moment and explore the story in all directions.
But what is really at stake here? Money? Fees? a legal firm’s reputation?
If this (money, fees, reputation) is all the legal firm and the overpaid lawyers are going to lose then is the audience really going to care?
No, why should they? We need to get to know the victims of the evil corporation and how their lives have been impacted. These victims are the everyday working man and his family, which the audience can now relate to as this could also happen to them. This also defines the level of evil the large corporation is operating at as we have a tangible result of their wrongdoing to work with.
But this solves one problem and creates another. To define the victims, we need to give them screen time. (Erin Brockovich is a case in point). But this has to be handled carefully; otherwise, it will splinter the main story-line, which is a story of redemption for a legal fixer and not about the victims. In this particular case, we experience the victims suffering through Arthur and how he reacts to it.
This is not Arthur’s first morally questionable case, so why now?
So Arthur has been doing this for years and the pharmaceutical company, let’s call them U-North, have killed the parents of a young country family. And the daughter is also sick from chemical poisoning.
Arthur’s relationship with his daughter has broken down, and she doesn’t talk to him anymore. We want to know why characters do things and the reasons for it. When we understand their motivation, we understand them at a deeper level.
We start to piece together the motivations behind Arthur’s character and why he is doing things. But even better we can now empathize with him on a new level which makes the impact of his murder more intensified.
Gilroy has given Arthur a psychiatric condition and taken him off his medication. This works well for many reasons. He can rant these long monologues like a crazy man and take his clothes off in meetings providing drama and entertainment. But more importantly, it casts doubt and suspicion over his behavior. This is crucial as withholding information from the audience will increase the power of your story, and they don’t need to know everything.
We could use this as this basis for Arthur’s motivation to derail the U-North case and stop there, but Gilroy ties the young girl and Arthur’s daughter together. This makes it very personal for us, and we can empathize now again with Arthur at a deeper level. We have to remember that Arthur technically is not a very likable person. He has acted immorally, just like Michael Clayton, but the audience still needs to connect with him.
David Mamet uses the same technique in the Untouchables. You think it’s a coincidence that a young girl is murdered in the bar bombing and Elliot Ness has a newborn child? Caring for a child is a basic human emotion granted to every parent, and we experience this through Ness and subsequently relate to him at a deeper level.
Gilroy then ups the stakes one more step by connecting the U-North case to the future of the legal firm.
It’s really about making your script tight.
So where does that leave us?
We now have an inciting incident: Arthur reacting to U-North killing people takes his clothes off in a deposition meeting.