Skip to main content

Wendall Thomas Interview

Presented by MIFF 37ºSouth Market & Accelerator, celebrated LA-based developer, writer and lecturer Wendall Thomas returns exclusively to Melbourne for more of her hugely popular series unlocking the secrets of film writing with four stand-alone all-day seminars. Thomas has written and developed projects for Disney, Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal, Showtime, PBS and NBC. Her recent client films include Any Day Now (Winner Audience Award Tribeca 2012), The Truth Below, The Space Between and The Republic of Two.

Why is it that in most ‘buddy’ films, one character normally appears to be more important or more likable than another while the other one is only seen as a ‘side-kick’?

I have to say that I don’t completely agree with this assessment. Although in many buddy films there is one slightly dominant character, or one who carries an additional subplot (Steve Martin in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; Robert DeNiro in Midnight Run; Melissa McCarthy in The Heat), I’d be loathe to call Thelma, Louise, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, or either Joe or Jerry in Some Like It Hot a ‘side-kick.’

The most successful buddy films divide the action fairly evenly between the characters: both characters’ flaws complicate the plot and it requires both their skills to solve the problem of the story. In terms of likability, this comes down to the vital character polarisation that’s needed in these films. Whether it’s a drama like Of Mice and Men or Thelma and Louise, an action thriller like In Bruges or Tango and Cash, or a comedy like Trading Places or Superbad, the buddy structure only works if the characters are radically different in a multitude of ways. And because of this, there is often a “straight man” and a jokester or a high maintenance/low maintenance character in the dynamic. 

Given personal taste, people may respond more to one of those types than the other, but as the characters are transformed by their association or their joint approach to the problem, they take on more of each other’s qualities, so the more hard-nosed character – like Nick Nolte in 48 Hours – often softens, at least marginally, by the end.

Do you agree that the archetype of the mentor not only provides directions to the main character, but also to the audience, in terms of interpreting the film?

Yes, often the traditional mentor figure expresses the theme of the film, but it depends on the genre. ‘Unreliable’ mentor figures exist as well, particularly in romantic comedies and action films. Frequently the ‘boss/mentor’ in an action comedy or thriller gives the advice that we want the characters to ignore. The partners in 21 Jump Street have to defy the advice of Ice Cube’s Captain Dickson to solve the case and move forward as partners.

In romantic comedies, often the best friend who serves in the mentor role is the mouthpiece for the status quo or the safe road, which is never the road any great character should take. Think of Joan Cusack’s Cyn in Working Girl, Ryan Gosling’s Jakob in Crazy, Stupid, Love, or Cheech Marin’s Romeo in Tin Cup, who all give the wrong advice. Romeo’s recurring mentor refrain of “Sometimes par is good enough to win,” in Tin Cup is definitely not the lesson we’re supposed to take away from the film.

In comparison to films with only one on-going narrative, how does a multi-protagonist structure minimise or maximise the audience’s pleasure?

By nature, a multi-protagonist film requires a bit more concentration and engagement than a single protagonist story, so sometimes that structure doesn’t offer the kind of pure escapism that a viewer may want from a film experience. However, if the story is written skillfully and held together around a strong central idea, like Short Cuts, Magnolia, Lantana, Blessed, Traffic, or Crazy, Stupid, Love, it can offer a more nuanced and complex experience, giving the viewer a series of different perspectives on the central theme and allowing the audience to come to its own conclusions.

Do you think it is possible to create a successful character in a not-so-good story, or a great narrative with an unimpressive character?

Of course this is always a matter of personal taste, but in my opinion there are lots of great characters and performances trapped in indifferent or unsuccessful narratives. I found Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher compelling within what I found to be a very disappointing script for The Iron Lady, for example. It seems to be universally agreed that Tim Roth’s character in The Planet of the Apes far transcends the narrative in that film, as does Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sidekick in Along Came Polly or Woody Harrelson’s complex, nuanced cop in the uneven Rampart. Of course, this may be largely due to the talents of the actors, but there had to be something in the character writing which drew these great actors to the parts to start with. 

Since characters are our way in to a great narrative, I feel it’s more difficult to create a compelling, memorable film without strong character writing. However, the recent wave of superhero films, which emphasise the cartoonish nature of their protagonists, still manage to be wildly successful with audiences. 

Thinking about the Australian film industry, what advice do you have for emerging writers and filmmakers on how to craft a world-class script that can compete in the international market place?

There’s no simple answer to this question aside from the obvious: an original idea with a universal theme, compelling characters, perfect structure and sharp dialogue. 

But in terms of breaking into the international market, it’s not only about personal craft, but about content. First, it depends on what international market you’re shooting for.  If you want to garner accolades at Cannes, that requires a completely different approach than wanting to have an international box office hit or something that fully crosses over in America, China, etc. 

I’m not the best person to speak to what works in Cannes or Berlin, but I do know a bit about what does and doesn’t work in the US. This year’s The Rover got a great response at Cannes, but here in Los Angeles, even with a strong independent cinema audience, I was one of only five people in the theatre the first week, and, after two weeks, it was already relegated to one screening a day at outlying cinemas. This is a real shame, but it’s the reality.  ‘Grim’ scores at Cannes, but doesn’t always travel elsewhere as well as ‘redemption’.

If you’re looking to create a story that will score at the box office, I have to say underdog or fish-out-of-water stories with at least some kind of triumph or hope seem to have the best luck crossing over. If you look at British cinema, with the exception of The Queen, most of the films that have become international hits fall into one of the categories above, including:  The Full Monty, Billy Elliot, The Exotic Marigold Hotel, Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech.

Many Australian films that have been successful worldwide seem to follow this formula as well. Crocodile Dundee, Babe, The Dish, Muriel’s Wedding, Strictly Ballroom, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Sapphires are all underdog or misfit/fish-out-of-water films that combine that universal theme/construct with a specifically Australian sensibility. So, it’s worth breaking down the structure of those films and learning from them. In particular, I feel a memorable, empathetic protagonist and a strong, quick set-up are helpful for crossover.

For detailed information on each of Wendall Thomas' seminars, please click the links below. All tickets $85* per seminar (MIFF passes not valid).

Genre – The Road to Bromance: Writing the Buddy Film

Character – Mentors, Trickster & Paul Giamatti: Writing Unforgettable Secondary Characters

Scene By Scene – Multi-Protagonist Structure: Crazy, Stupid, Love

Story & Structure – The Vital First Act: "Grab 'Em by the Throat and Never Let Them Go