The Protagonist is Pretty, But...

ROSS PUTMAN (early 30s), handsome and tall, with broad shoulders and sandy blonde hair, walks into a busy coffee shop in Los Angeles. That is one way Ross Putman could be introduced as a character in a screenplay, but one that isn’t very helpful in understanding who he is. And that’s part of the point behind the real Ross Putman’s now globally-recognized Twitter feed.  After reading hundreds of scripts in which female characters were introduced using words like “sexy,” or “beautiful,” or “gorgeous but smart,” Putman, a film producer, started posting those female character introductions on the Twitter feed @femscriptintros. The introductions reveal the misogyny, both overt and not-so-overt, behind how writers often see their female characters. While they may sound flattering, they don’t reveal anything about the characters beyond what they look like. Putman’s Twitter feed has drawn interest from media ranging from NPR to Vogue. I’ve known Putman since we shared an office (supply closet) in a building at Hollywood and Vine, so I was able to snag some of the busy producer’s time to discuss misogyny, lazy writing, and what he wishes screenwriting instructors would stop telling their students. This is a condensed version of our conversation over bagels and coffee cake at Stories in Echo Park.

Synoptic Media: The first character introduction you posted on Twitter had four physical descriptors: “athletic,” “sexy,” “natural beauty,” and “she makes her jeans look good.”

Ross Putman: Jeans. That’s where we focus… jeans.

I noticed in a lot of the introductions there is some common language used: beautiful, attractive, knockout, sexy, pretty, and gorgeous—all very subjective interpretations of people’s attributes.

Nothing but subjective, yes.

What was the impetus for exposing this?

I have been complaining on Facebook about scripts for a long time, and not just the way women are treated but bad screenwriting tropes or clichés or bad typos. I was getting funny feedback from my friends in the film business. It was funny for a while.  And then one of the things I started noticing was just how terrible women were being treated and it went from being funny to being awful. The more I saw it, the more I started to feel that these weren’t outliers. Certainly there are some that are absolutely pornographic but others that are more insidiously subtle, in that women are almost first and foremost described by their beauty, which is subjective and useless to a casting director, by the way. It’s very gross when you think about it. It’s not to say that men aren’t described physically sometimes. But most of these writers are men. Women are an object of desire, an object of beauty. I kept track of them for a few months in a document on my computer and it started to be pretty startling, just how many similarities there were. “She’s a natural beauty.” I posted a ton of those. Everybody uses these same phrases. But they don’t really tell you anything about that character and they certainly don’t help you get into the mindset of the character. It’s a little troubling. And, it was part of a larger conversation that was happening about equality of pay for women in front of and behind the camera.

My favorite is the use of the word “but.” “She’s ___ but ___.”

“Beautiful but tired.”

“She’s smart but—“

 “—but beautiful.”

Can this exist in the world? Can somebody be smart and something else? Or can they only be smart? They make no other impression?

More often smart is the second one. Beautiful but smart. The assumption is that if you’re calling them “beautiful” they’re dumb? Is that what you’re saying? First of all, “smart” is also a very vague term. A lot of this is, and I hate to say it, just bad writing. And I know that’s what you’re talking about here. But there’s casual misogyny to a lot of what we’re talking about. But in addition to that it’s lazy writing. It’s not effective writing. It’s not doing anything for you as a writer to describe someone as “beautiful but smart.” How do you really quantify those things? What, they read books? What does that mean? It’s hard to even describe what “smart” means. Here’s the thing, if you’re telling me they’re a microbiologist I’m probably assuming they’re intelligent anyways. There’s ways to communicate all of these things. I even like more impressionistic things that give you an idea of their personality. I even like offbeat descriptions that aren’t just one-word adjectives. Have more fun with it. Get into the essence of this person. What’s a really interesting way to describe them? Think of the description of your character as having their own logline.

When I read a character description with hair color or dress color I think that these must be critical to the story. It must be important that this character is wearing a yellow sweater or that this character has a certain color hair. I’m taking note of those details because I think they’re going to be relevant, and then I wait for it but it doesn’t materialize.

The difficult thing for writers is that they have an image in their head of these characters because they’ve spent a long time developing the script so they want to put it there on the page. They want to say that she’s wearing a flowing floor-length dress or something because that’s how they would imagine the character would dress but unfortunately that’s not your job and if you did your job properly of creating the character in terms of the essence of this person the costume designer is probably going to say that this character should be wearing a flowing floor-length dress anyways. Why are we even fixating on these details? What is important? The age range of the character, usually, though we break those rules all the time. How they fit in this world and how they see the world is the more important thing about this person. Film is all about point of view. Tension is about conflicting points of view, conflicting goals and ambitions. So that’s what the film is about, it’s about people that want things going up against people who want other things, so what does that have to do with what color your hair is?

Ross Putman, the producer behind the Twitter feed @femscriptintros

I think a lot of screenwriting instructors, or people who write screenwriting books, sometimes say to “write the movie that you see in your head.” I think that’s well-intentioned advice but writers take that too literally and they start describing the color of the walls.

Never doubt that someone will take something too literally. The thing that I wish screenwriting instructors would stop telling people is, “write what you know,” because people don’t understand what that means. They think that means “write my life.” And yes, you know your life. But what that means is take the emotions and feelings and themes from your life and put them into a more entertaining story. I don’t want to read about you and your friends hanging out in LA. Sorry. “Write what you know” and “write the movie you see in your head” – these are abstract concepts but people take them literally. It’s all well and good if you see the character in your head looking a certain way but that’s just helping you write the story because you’re seeing it. But what is this person like? How do they behave? Those are the important things. And that’s what a good script does: it gives you a really clear picture of who the character is.  A script gives me their voice. Voice is not just dialogue. Voice is things that are unsaid. Voice is how they relate to other people. Voice is how they change who they are. That’s what important to me, because that’s also what’s going to be important to an actor.

Are you surprised at how the subject matter of character introductions in screenplays has resonated with people so far out of the industry?

I never thought I’d have to think about the existential consequences of this but I did. I think it’s part of a larger narrative that’s going on about lack of representation for women and people of color in the film business. It continues to be a bigger conversation and people latched on to it. I also think people like insider stuff. I purposely put my name on it opposed to doing it anonymously. I felt like this won’t make an impact if I don’t put my name on it. I certainly had some anxiety that people were going to get mad at me about it—agents and managers—but honestly the response was overwhelmingly positive from inside the business. The fact that it went somewhat viral inside the film industry means that everyone will hopefully have this in the back of their head when they’re looking at scripts and they won’t think that it’s okay to send something out like this. It’s a mix of amateur and professional scripts. And I purposely didn’t say who the writers are because that’s not the point. It’s about systemic, not individual problems. The fact that you could think it’s okay to widely disseminate a script that treats women so terribly speaks to the male dominance of the industry. If there were more female directors, then this shit wouldn’t fly. If I can get people to start thinking about that a little more, then the feed has done something. Look, I love writers. I love writing. I come from a writing background. I fall in love with writers. Every one of my projects I’m doing is because I fell in love with the writing first. Me doing this was a combination of outrage over how women are being treated, which is a bigger conversation and also just because I’m tired of shitty writing. We can all do better.

One thing that bugs me, specifically, is when writers are trying to convey that a character is smart, they have them wear glasses.

Well, duh. Literally all of my friends wear glasses. I’m the only person who doesn’t.

I didn’t realize there was a correlation between nearsightedness and intelligence.

It’s lazy. It’s treading in stereotypes. It’s dealing in easy signifiers. At the end of the day, subverting stereotypes and dealing in more complex characters is the joy of storytelling. Why are we just saying they wear glasses? Get out of here. Everybody wears glasses.

She must be serious because she wears glasses, opposed to everyone who doesn’t wear glasses. They’re not serious.

I have 20/20 vision.

Sorry Ross, you’re never going to be smart in the world of a screenplay because you don’t wear glasses.

That’s a shame.

You know what though? When we write your character description we’ll add some in.


On Craft: The Origins of "A War"

His own life, "only more dramatic." That's how the Danish writer/director Tobias Lindholm ("A Hijacking") described how he came up with some of the home life scenes in his latest film "A War." The film follows a soldier, Claus Pedersen, stationed in Afghanistan (played by Pilou Asbæk, who I will dub "the Danish Joshua Jackson") and his wife, Maria, who is taking care of three young children back home.

Image from "A War" courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Claus commands a group of soldiers who go on patrol in Afghanistan and seem to simultaneously terrify and reassure the locals. In one particular scene, with bullets flying and chaos in the air, Claus makes a split-second decision that will come to haunt him later.

Image from "A War" courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

At a recent Los Angeles Times Envelope screening of "A War" Lindholm described the origins of the story. He had read an article about a soldier who had been on multiple tours of duty and who said he wasn't afraid of being killed; he was afraid of being prosecuted once he got back home, because of the strict rules of engagement and a growing public sentiment that demanded someone be held responsible for the bad things that happen in war zones. I've often said newspapers and magazines are a treasure trove of story ideas for screenwriters. This is a great example of that. Lindholm didn't write a story about that real soldier, but rather he wrote a story about a fictional soldier with that real soldier's fear in mind.

Image from "A War" courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

In the home scenes, in which Maria juggles three young children, each processing and dealing with their father's prolonged absence in their own way. (Variety calls the film "impeccably sensitive.") One of the children gets in trouble at school and another child's mishap prompts a run to the emergency room, with Maria forced to drag the other two along. Lindholm told the audience those home scenes were inspired by his own life, only more dramatic. That's an important point: "only more dramatic." Lindholm, father of three, had himself made a run to the ER for one of the children, with the other two in tow while his wife was out. His own experience wasn't as dramatic as in the film. But he mined his own experiences and then heightened them. All writers have events in their own lives that can be mined for ideas and then made more dramatic.

Lindholm, who described casting real former soldiers and casting real Afghan refugees as villagers, excels at character and authenticity, which go hand in hand. To capture the most authentic reaction, he did not give his lead actor the last five pages of the script. In the Afghanistan-set scenes, his lead actor had to wait for the translators to speak and really listen to what they were saying.

Lindholm's previous film "A Hijacking," which also starred Pilou Asbæk, is about what happens when Somali pirates overtake a Danish cargo ship. It's a character drama mixed with thriller elements. If I were in the business of inventing genres, I'd call it a "character thriller." Asbæk plays the ship's cook, who is used as a conduit, or pawn really, in the pirates' negotiations with the shipping company's increasingly frustrated CEO back in Denmark.

Image from "A Hijacking" courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Image from "A Hijacking" courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

 The cook is at the bottom of the proverbial corporate food chain; the CEO is at the top. One is a physical hostage and the other a metaphorical hostage, and how each deals with the situation and the decisions each make have great impact on the other. It's a great study in character, in a setting that would otherwise be considered prime action territory. Both "A Hijacking" and "A War" are excellent studies in character development and authenticity. "A War" premiered at the Venice Film Festival and will be released by Magnolia Pictures in the U.S. in April. It is Denmark's entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

On Craft: Fashionably Late in "Brooklyn"

The beautifully old-fashioned and cleverly modern tale that is "Brooklyn" has examples of a lesson I'm always hammering on in my script feedback notes for writers: get in late and get out early. In and out of what? Scenes. It means you start the scene "late," or after it would start if it was real life playing out in real time, and get out "early," or before the scene would end in real life. It cuts out the boring greetings and salutations that would occur. That's the pointless, boring, idle chit-chat. And that pointless chit-chat can be deadly in a script. Better to skip it and be fashionably late to the scene.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

In "Brooklyn," adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby, who knows his way around a story, there's a scene in which Saoirse Ronan's character is meeting her new boyfriend's family. She's lovely and charming and will make a good first impression. And the boyfriend's family members are minor supporting characters that don't affect the story much. So, instead of "hi, how are you, nice to meet you" and all that, the sequence goes from a scene in which Saoirse's character and the boyfriend are standing outside his door to them at the dinner table,  mid-meal and conversation. Because it's after everyone is nice and relaxed and the conversation is flowing freely that something interesting happens. The boyfriend let's something slip that affects the story.

No pointless chit-chat. They got in late, and got out early, skipping the "thanks for dinner" and "lovely to meet you" salutations that would happen if the scenes were playing out in real time, but that would have no bearing on the story, and instead resuming the sequence with a scene outside, after dinner and another conversation that affects the story. That's just one example of getting in late and getting out early in this fine film. There are countless others. For writers this is a reminder to take a close look at your script's scenes. Are you getting in late and getting out early?