Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Describing and Designing the Characters

[These are the original notes, they weren’t intended for publication, and they sometimes contradict themselves.

At this point in the process the voices had already been recorded, so there are references to the actors’ performances.]

Character Descriptions for “We Bombed in Baghdad” [the original title of the script]

I have delayed creating these character descriptions mostly because I have been waiting to hear what the ACTORS will do with the characters. It is said, quite rightly, that, once a script has been produced, the actors know more about the characters than the writer does, so I guess I’ve been waiting to see what the actors know about the characters that I don’t! And I sure learned a lot listening to them record the dialogue over the past two weekends. I guess on an animated film one also discovers what the ANIMATORS know about the characters that I don’t. Therefore, these descriptions reflect what I know but they don’t yet reflect what YOU know. Do NOT assume these characters exist fully formed in my mind, waiting to somehow be exhumed from inside my skull. I am one among all of us in creating these characters. And the actors are important contributors.

1) Osama – Osama is what I call “too cool to move.” He thinks so highly of himself that he needn’t bother trying. He has nothing to prove. He’s Osama and he knows it. He assumes people will flatter him, cater to him, obey him. He’s chilly, arrogant and a little contemptuous, with perhaps something dead about his eyes. He’s good-looking and charismatic, without having to do much or move much. It’s weird to say, but there’s something of Clint Eastwood (back in his spaghetti western days) about Osama.
2) Mullah Omar is head of the Taliban. He’s a ham. He’s a black forest ham with cheese and mustard – loud, bombastic, bullying, theatrical, and in love with the sound of his own voice. In America he’d be a thundering, fire and brimstone evangelical minister.
3) Manny the agent, played by 21-year-old student Todd Banhazl, isn’t really a show biz asshole so much as an operator. He’s very young, but he has the commercial instincts of an old Hollywood mogul. Like most smart agents, he’s looking for the low hanging fruit, so he’s not really pushy so much as nudge-y. An agent wants to make the deals that are easy to make and then move on. He’s not really about trying too hard. He’s a little detached, casual, and cool. Sure, he’d love to make the deal, but the minute he thinks it won’t work out he’ll be gone and never give it another thought. VERY SLOUCHY. Moves fast. Always trying to figure out how to sell. He’s a sales man. He cares as long as he’s saying what he says but then he can switch and care about something else. He has the short-lived but intense enthusiasms of a car salesman with a built in ability to switch gears.
4) George W. Bush is sort of an old cowboy star – charismatic, a bit grizzled and weathered, but definitely wrapped in a good suit. There’s a bit of John Wayne is his casually cocky assumption of power and moral authority. There’s also something of a bad little boy about him. And there’s something a little sad about him. And spoiled. And RELAXED in his movement – inappropriately relaxed. His range of emotion is childish – from exasperation to petulance to glee – he reacts childishly.
5) Jenna Bush, played by undergraduate actress Joey Sandin, is a good-old-gal Texas sorority girl. She’s the type who chugs beer with the frat boys then ends up in bed with two or three of them. The next day she feels slightly bad about it but she doesn’t know quite why. Like her father, there’s something a little sad, spoiled and impatient about her, but we like her a lot. She has a good heart, but she’s definitely a little lost. It’s not much that she’s stupid as that her point of view has been limited by her privileged life. She’s sexy, a sexpot, yet like a lot of young girls who try to act sexy she doesn’t really “own” it. She’s insecure but she isn’t insubstantial.
6) Reporter, as played by actress Chloe Bronzan, is class on wheels. She’s not a dame, a broad, a chick or even a lady – she’s a sophisticated, upper class, well educated, well put-together WOMAN who went to all the best schools, and whose journalism is guided by a firm sense of responsibility and decency. Her taste is excellent and always appropriate. Actresses like Charlotte Rampling, Meryl Streep, or Mary Beth Hurt, or newscasters like Judy Woodruff, come to mind.
7) Mark Bingham is like the most wonderful first grade teacher in the world. He’s patient, kind, and good – as someone who has died and learned the eternal verities would indeed be. But it’s a PRACTICED patience and kindness. A PROFESSIONAL patience and kindness. And like any first grade teacher, he sometimes gets a little impatient and even exasperated. He wouldn’t show that to the kids, but the audience might see it, and it’s never done unkindly. And like any smart adult who works with little children, he sometimes makes remarks that he knows are over their heads – remarks that are a little smart aleck. He’s impatient with the stupidity of living people, and he’s often faintly ironic and sarcastic, but so faint that he doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Perhaps he’s not so much smart aleck as he is world-weary. The burden of understanding everything is a large one for so young a soul.
8) Josh the Roach Boy, played by SJSU undergrad Willy Romano-Pugh, is a good looking little boy, maybe 12 years old, who’s “all boy” – he’d probably been the star pitcher on his roach boy little league team (if only the roaches approved of competitive sports). He’s very likeable and “cute as a bug.” He’s not really disturbing looking.
9) Alison the Game Show Contestant is a nice, average liberal sorority girl who thought it would be nice to do a year abroad helping people and ended up a captive. She’s very American in that she’s very comfortable demanding her rights. The actress has a wonderful, cartoonish “kooky chick” voice that is reminiscent of a young Goldie hawn but without the dizziness.
10) Zareem, poor Afghan war widow Zareem (Regina Melzer) is a little scattered, what with having eight kids, no husband and no money. Starvation has made her a little woozy and desperate. I can imagine her sometimes weak and staggering, other times lunging desperately for opportunities, running on sheer adrenaline and mother-tiger fierceness. She’s a spectral victim who’s trying to fight her way out of a trap.
11) Prakhbar, voiced by New York actress Carolyn Beach, is NOT the zany, scatterbrain played by Lucille Ball on “I Love Lucy.” She’s a dark center of gravity. She’s a cello. Where Lucy was ‘out there,” Prakhbar is hooded, covert, private. You can feel in her low, modulated voice what it means to live inside a burqua. Where Lucy was carefree, Prakhbar is constrained, careful, and so used to living with fear that she has a sort of permanent wariness. What’s interesting about Prakhbar is what she’s THINKING. Her EYES, living inside the burqua, reveal what she’s thinking and plotting. This character is all about the eyes.
12) Fred Schmertz is a pot-bellied middle-aged grump. See “I Love Lucy.”
13) Ethel Schmertz (Tori Truss) is his slightly plump, middle-aged 1950s wife. See “I Love Lucy.”
14) Donald Rumsfeld, a real figure in the Bush administration – in BOTH Bush adminstrations come to think of it -- is a middle-aged politician who’s an arrogant frat boy at heart. He’s also a completely ruthless and rather Nixonian man.
15) TV Announcer (Luke Sharkey) is just a voice on the soundtrack.
16) Opie is a freckle-faced all American little boy, sort of a Howdy Doody type, but then again he might look like an Afghan boy. I’m open. See “The Andy Griffith Show.”
17) Gilligan (animator Januel Mercado) is a dweeby, goofy sidekick type. See “Gilligan’s Island.” Maybe he dresses like Gilligan, but maybe not.
18) Abdulaziz, the guard at the anthrax factory is an innocent young man of 17 or 18 who was recruited by Al Quaida when he was 13 and turned into a “true believer.” He’ll kill for the cause happily, yet there’s something about him that’s not a killer. I mean, he’s just a kid. There’s something oddly, touchingly vulnerable about young men with long necks and big Adam’s apples, and that’s sort of how I see Abdulaziz. But he senses his own vulnerability and his impulse is to compensate for it by having an itchier trigger finger than an older, more “manly” terrorist would have.
19) Ashjaal is wearing so much burqua that we have NO IDEA what she looks like. Underneath she’s probably a young woman.
20) The Hare Krishna looks like exactly that.
21) The Abstract Expressionist Artist looks like an artist. I suspect she has a snooty, Margaret Dumont-type voice – maybe she’s a middle aged woman and little operatic. I’m not sure, and would look at anything.

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