Enter the Big Guns: Once Upon a Time in Character Development World
The introduction of a character is one of the most important moments of that character’s life. Doing it in a sophisticated way for maximum impact will set you apart as an advanced writer. Here are a few lessons from Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.
This is another post prompted by somebody’s question on Facebook. People still get extremely insecure about the darndest things. I keep saying: experiment, experiment, experiment. Try it. See if it works. It takes a lot of time? Of course, it does! But if you want to succeed you need to invest your time and creativity. Look at the Italians. In the 1960’s they had a hunger for westerns — people just loved them, maybe because they had good memories of the Americans who’d come for the war of 1940, who knows? But would they wait for the American Film Industry to produce westerns in quantity and quality? No, they didn’t. They did the unthinkable: they made them themselves. Using sometimes American actors brought to the studios of CineCitá, the villages on the Italian countryside, and the desert of Almeria, they produced dozens of movies of what we now call the Spaghetti Western. Some very good westerns came from that absurd and insane phase of Italian filmmaking, including one of the very best western movies of all time: Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. This is one of my favorite movies — in particular, the first 25 minutes of the film are some of my favorite moments in the whole History of Filmmaking. So what was the question somebody asked me on Facebook? Of course, it was: How to introduce your characters? ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, written by Leone and Sergio Donati, does it masterfully. The first four scenes are the introductions of the four main characters and here is how Leone made them memorable — I’m describing them from memory and actually summarizing, so please forgive me if I forget any detail or I’m not completely faithful to the movie.
The movie starts at a Train Station, in the middle of the desert. The wind blows outside and we hear the screech of the water pump’s windmill and the telegraph clicking like a drug-crazed woodpecker. A thin man in a train company’s uniform is working at the desk. The dirty wooden door opens and a hard-looking pistolero comes in. The thin man doesn’t like his looks — the thin man is scared. He offers the stranger a ticket for the train. The pistolero carelessly pushes the thin man into a closet and closes the door. He’s not interested in a ticket. Outside, two other men are getting comfortable on opposite sides of the platform. The first man sits on the porch and pushes his hat over his eyes, trying to rest. The second man, by the water trough, is playing with the water. The third man found the shade below the water pump and is surprised by a drop of water falling on his head — he decides to let it drop, and drop, and drop on his hat. The first man hears a fly humming around — he gets troubled by it and finally decides to take action, as he sees the fly landing on the wall he manages to trap in inside the barrel of his gun. He now finds solace in the humming of the trapped fly. The second man is cracking his knuckles, in a creepy way. The third man is still feeling the drops falling on the hat in on his head. Suddenly, the train whistles. It’s arriving. The men get ready. The first pistolero lets the fly go and gets up. The second gets up as well. The third takes his hat to his mouth and drinks the water on top of it. The train arrives. The men wait. But nobody gets out. Somebody throws the mail onto the platform. The train whistles again and starts moving. The pistoleros look at each other and decide whoever they were waiting for has not come in the end, so they start moving towards their horses and… that’s when we hear the harmonica. It’s a loud out-of-tune disturbing sound. The men stop and turn around. The train keeps going and finally gets out of the way. On the other side of the track, there’s the figure of Harmonica (played by Charles Bronson). He has his luggage hanging from his right hand and he’s playing the harmonica with his left hand. When he lowers the harmonica he looks intently at the pistoleros. «And Frank?» he asks. The men smile at each other. The first man replies: «Frank sent us.» Harmonica looks behind them. «Did you bring a horse for me?» The men look at the horses and back at him. «It seems we brought a horse too few,» says the first man. Harmonica shakes his head — «You brought two too many.» We all know what’s going to happen next. It happens in a flash — the pistoleros draw their guns and Harmonica drops his luggage, he has a gun in his right hand, he shoots the three men but the last one manages to shoot back — Harmonica falls. The desert wind goes through the Train Station. Harmonica opens his eyes. He is still alive. And that’s the protagonist’s introduction.
See the technique Leone uses in this scene? He builds the tension through the scenery, the details, by building up supporting characters. Those three pistoleros only show up in this scene, but they are still some of the best characters in the whole movie. Leone makes them human and special for us. He takes his time and lets us breathe in the whole situation. As Robert McKee would say, each scene has three acts. The first act of this scene is the introduction of the pistoleros. Then, the second act is the men waiting for the train and deciding to leave. The third act starts with the sound of the harmonica. The introduction of the protagonist happens only at the opening of the third act — and so his introduction is powerful because of the great impact his appearance has on the situation. Leone carefully paints a whole situation and then, late in the scene, he introduces the MC. And that’s brilliant.
Cut to… Next scene. An 8-year-old boy is hunting with his father a few birds for lunch. It is a bare farm in the middle of the desert. They are preparing a party. All three of the man’s children are helping — the young woman is cutting bread slices, the young boy brings the hunted birds and takes them inside the house. Suddenly, the ever-present cicadas stop their noise. The man and the young woman find it strange — but then they start singing again. The man and the young woman exchange a few meaningful words. Where is the other young man? «Has Patrick left for the Station?» finally asks the man. The young woman smiles «He’s getting ready, dad.» «Dammit, Patrick!!» shouts the man. The older son comes out running, cleans his boots with a rag and climbs onto the two-horse rig. The man, meanwhile, goes to the well to get fresh water. The cicadas stop singing again. The man and the young woman find it strange again. They see a few birds flying to the sky. The young woman smiles. There’s a shot. The man looks around trying to figure out what is happening. And then he sees the young woman is hit. He calls «Maureen!!» He starts running towards his daughter, but then another shot — he’s hit — he keeps running — a shot, he falls — he makes a desperate last attempt to get to his revolver, but a last shot kills him. Then the older son, coming out on the rig, gets shot. Cut to: the POV of the 8-year-old running inside the house toward the open door. As he gets out and he is struck by the horrifying image of his whole family dead, the electric guitar music starts. We see the shocked little boy embracing a liquor bottle as he looks at the scene. We are moved by the sheer surprise and anguish in his face. And then, slowly, the killers start appearing from behind the bushes. One man, then two, then three and four. They wait for Frank to come out. Frank (played by a wonderful Henry Fonda) approaches the house. He gives the smoking rifle to one of his men. He looks at the little boy and smiles. The boy and Frank look at each other. Then, off-screen, one of the men asks: «And this one, Frank?» Frank loses his smile — he is annoyed. «Now that you called me by name…» he says. He slowly takes out his revolver, he points at the kid… and he shoots. And that’s the antagonist’s introduction.
Here Leone uses the same technique as before: he paints a whole interesting scene with supporting characters and then, on the third act, he powerfully introduces the Main Character by the cheer impact he has on the situation. In the next scene, he will do a variation of that. He wants to introduce the love-interest, the girl, Jill McBain. He needs a powerful intro, but the scene does not have the same strength of content. Yet, Jill McBain has a symbolic part: she represents Progress coming to the West. So Leone uses that by slowly introducing Progress. Here’s how it plays out:
Act 1: Beautiful Jill McBain (played by Claudia Cardinale) comes out of the train in town. There are a lot of things happening as all kinds of people with all kinds of American accents come out of the train. However, there is no-one waiting for Jill. She looks around but no-one.
Act 2: The Train Station platform is now deserted. The train is quiet on the tracks. Two black boys wait with her, guarding her luggage. She looks at the clock. She finds it strange that no-one appeared for her. She looks at her watch. The lovely voice of a woman starts to sing off-scene.
Act 3: Finally, Jill decides. She is going to find transportation herself. As the beautiful music goes on, we see her get inside the station followed by the two black boys with her luggage. Through the open window, we see her talk to the station master, probably asking where she can find transportation. She finally leaves the station through the front door and, in a brilliant shot, the camera pans up and the music expands to a climax until, over the roof of the Station, we finally see the whole town bustling with activity. And so, again, Progress is introduced to us in the third act. Jill will get a ride off the town and cross with the train works going West.
Still another variation comes on the fourth scene. On her way to the farm, Jill stops at a Bar in the middle of nowhere. The first act is her arrival and her curious conversation with the curious bartender. The whole scenery is picturesque and peculiar, with horses and people drinking and eating in the same space. She asks for a bath and the bartender responds: «We have a tub filled outback and you’re in luck: only three people used it this morning.» Suddenly, at the outset of the second act, here comes the new character: everything stops as we hear a gun battle outside. When it is finished, another main character comes into the bar at the sound of a banjo: the criminal Cheyenne (played by Jason Robards). In the second act, we feel the impact the character has on the whole situation — everyone is paralyzed as he comes in, armed, and asks for someone to help him relieve himself of his chains. In the process, we meet Harmonica again, who’s sitting at the back in the dark. The third act, however, as his gang comes in, the movie really establishes the importance of Cheyenne: he interacts with Harmonica and we understand that it’s their relationship that matters. Harmonica looks at the characteristic dusters of the gang, says to him: «A while back I saw three of these dusters. Inside the duster, there were three men. Inside the men, there were three bullets.» And Cheyenne replies: «That’s a crazy story, Harmonica. Around these parts, only Cheyenne’s men have the guts to use these dusters. And Cheyenne’s men don’t get killed.»
So Leone introduces these three characters by maximizing the impact they have of a certain situation, or by maximizing the symbolism. Leone is a master of these types of introductions. I would highly recommend you look at how he does it if you’re struggling with introducing characters. Hope you liked it.