Ordinary people, big dramas

Writers find fine fodder in plain folks

Portrayals of extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances — from Queen Elizabeth and Edith Piaf to plutocrat Daniel Plainview — regularly and readily get award attention, filling the bigscreen as the protagonists chew on momentous events and (quite often) all available scenery.

But 2008’s roster of screenwriting hopefuls include several films that embrace the commonplace: ordinary folks confronting everyday, but no less grave, concerns of food, shelter and social intercourse.

“I know, in my whole body, that life is so full of adventure, and there’s a lot of heroism going on with people staying in their homes,” says “Frozen River” scribe-helmer Courtney Hunt. “The challenge is to have elements of danger and risk without becoming melodramatic.”

In Hunt’s film, for example, a single mom runs illegal immigrants to afford a trailer home.

Among other films getting award buzz: a traveler who loses her dog and her way (“Wendy and Lucy”); a recovering addict who sucks all the air out of her sister’s wedding (“Rachel Getting Married”); and a lonely academic who finds himself while aiding guests from abroad ( “The Visitor”).

Such mundane subjects lack obvious drama, so finding a compelling screenplay in them requires considerable skill.

“The Visitor’s” auteur Tom McCarthy believes these portraits-in-miniature “have to be seamless in writing and execution. With a larger-than-life figure, you’re overwhelmed, you go along for the ride. But with ordinary people, there has to be a great attention to detail. You can’t afford to lose the audience at any minute.”

Any character, no matter his or her station in life, is more interesting with an urgent objective.

As “Wendy and Lucy” co-writer Kelly Reichardt puts it, “We provide a coherent and precise set of problems to deal with — money problems, logistical problems.”

Most of these films put the central figure up against the law in some way, though McCarthy says ” ‘The Visitor’ barely has a proper antagonist. Here it’s the bureaucracy, the authorities. I really like the challenge of that.”

Several use a ticking clock to makes their characters’ quests more urgent, as in “Frozen River,” where the heroine has an urgent need to pay off the ruthless mobile-home dealer. “There are deadlines in the world,” Hunt says, “so putting them in the script just reflected reality.”

Even a seemingly aimless slacker like Wendy has deadlines, according to Reichardt’s co-writer, Jon Raymond: “The sand in the hourglass is her dwindling money.”

Close to home

Picking a familiar subject helps.

“I knew these people so well,” says “Rachel Getting Married” writer Jenny Lumet, “that I was never worried about losing their reality. I based Kym (Hathaway’s role) on people I knew who were just as much a pain in the ass, people whose house you go to on Thanksgiving and everyone’s insane.”

Scribes do worry, though, about how audiences will relate to their characters. Since their dilemmas are close to home, if they strike a false note, viewers are likely to be unforgiving.

When writing of Walter’s discovery of the squatters in his apartment, McCarthy says, “I asked myself, ‘How would I handle it? And how would others handle it?'”

Hunt had concerns on that score. “I was worried people wouldn’t care about Ray’s goal of buying a double-wide, but I relied on the idea that everyone has his own palace. And yours may not be mine, but I can relate to it. People have no trouble making that leap.”

On the other hand, Reichardt feels personal films have built-in audience relatability. “My sister said to me, ‘I like to see shows where people are a lot better off than me, or a lot worse off than me.’ That made me realize that a film can be your way of finding out where you are on the success ladder.”

In the end, Hunt believes, “Our job is to determine the characteristics and then set the characters in motion, truthfully. I let them drive the car.”

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