How to Create Character History In One Line

It’s not hard, just very difficult.

Here’s one of my favorite scenes, with one of my very favorite lines, in the last 30 years of film.

Specifically, it’s this exchange:

Reuben: Look, we all go way back and uh, I owe you from the thing with the guy in the place and I’ll never forget it.

Danny: That was our pleasure.

Rusty: I’d never been to Belize.

Look what’s happening there.

  1. It establishes history: Sure, we already get that the three guys know each other, but this cements that they’ve worked together before and trust each other.
  2. It’s vague enough to mean anything: Reuben never states who “the guy,” “the thing” or “the place” are so the audience can fill that in for themselves. We can imagine all sorts of scenarios.
  3. It was a big deal: Rusty dropping Belize in there makes it clear that whatever trouble Reuben was in, it took Danny and Rusty off their usual turf. And Belize is likely such a unknown to most people that it doesn’t immediately bring to mind any specific memories or images, again allowing for all sorts of situations to be imagined.
  4. It establishes a hierarchy: Danny and Rusty are there kissing the ring and looking for Reuben’s help, which puts him above them on the pecking order. But they hold a favor over him that they’re not overtly referencing even if they all know it’s hanging over the conversation. Still, Danny waves it off as being a non-factor, not anything Reuben feels should compel him to agree to their plan.

Danny and Rusty are, in some way, running a small con on their friend Reuben here, hoping that the chit they still hold comes into play in getting his agreement to join their scheme. But that’s not how they approach the situation, which allows for this masterclass in establishing character history to take place.

And it’s so subtle and well-done, all without needing to segway into a 15 minute flashback or long explanation of what happened in Belize. We don’t need to know what it was, we just need to know how it affects the characters and story we’re following now.

That kind of writing is a major reason the movie sizzles with as much energy as it does, because everything we need to know is on the screen, not waiting down some digression. It’s the kind of thing screenwriters, who too often feel the need to explain every little bit of barely relevant backstory and connection down to the tiniest detail, could stand to do more frequently.

Celebrate Elliott Gould’s Birthday With These Four Essential Roles

Elliott Gould turns 79 today, providing as good a reason as any to revisit some of my favorite screen roles of his.

Gould has had an interesting career. A frequent collaborator with director Robert Altman, Gould was often cast as the comedic, slightly schlubby everyman. As the years changed so did the prestige of his roles. While he’s consistently worked, it’s hard to match the avant garde heights of his 1970s, particularly those Altman films.

Here, then, in no particular order are four of my favorite Gould performances:

M*A*S*H*

I’d been watching reruns of “M*A*S*H*,” the TV show, for almost a decade before I ever saw Altman’s original movie, which cast Gould in the role of Trapper John McIntyre. So I was unprepared for his much darker, more reserved take on the character, which contrasted with Wayne Rogers on the show. But it’s a deeper character, one who’s more obviously using gallows humor and the occasional moment of relief to survive the horrors he’s faced with daily. Gould glides through the role, though, not missing a beat of the dialogue or the interactions that go along with it. His is a tragic, funny Trapper John powered by an effortless-seeming performance.

The Long Goodbye

Another of his four films with Altman, this time Gould was cast as Phillip Marlowe, the same character played by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. Gould plays Marlowe as a world-weary Los Angeles detective who gets mixed up in a mystery he has no knowledge of. His slouched shoulders and fast talk keeps the story moving along at a pace that’s both lackadaisical, taking its time to get nowhere in particular and speedy, everyone getting there as fast as they can.

“Friends”

I always felt Gould was a bit too broad in his recurring role as Jack Geller, father of Monica and Ross, especially compared to his earlier, much more restrained work. But it kept him in front of the camera and hopefully helped younger audiences discover him and then explore his earlier roles, so it has to make the list.

Ocean’s Eleven etc

Reuben seems like a cast-off character in this and the following sequels, but it was his expertise and savvy were essential to the story and the dynamic of the group. Here Gould was back to his effortless, breezy performance style, which was in keeping with the story and style. He, along with Carl Reiner, brought a sense of old Hollywood to the production and went toe-to-toe with all the young bucks vying for dominance, commanding the screen away from Clooney, Pitt and the others by virtue simply of knowing how to play to the camera without breaking a sweat.