American Beauty (Part 1) — The Art of Character

American Beauty (Part 1) — The Art of Character

Hi, I’m Michael. This is Lessons from the Screenplay. I consider American Beauty to be a perfect
movie. As close as any movie can get to perfect, anyway. It’s a great example of a character drama
that’s gripping, funny, and profoundly moving. Since so much of the film is character-centric,
I want to talk about their design, and how screenwriter Alan Ball uses dialogue to reveal
their personalities. And finally, I want to briefly touch on how
close American Beauty came to being a very different movie. Let’s look closer at the screenplay for
American Beauty. All Characters Are Variations of the Theme I’m going to begin with a quote from John
Truby’s “Anatomy of Story.” “The single biggest mistake writers make
when creating characters is that they think of the hero and all other characters as separate
individuals…The result is not only a weak hero but also cardboard opponents and minor
characters who are even weaker.” In a good story, the characters aren’t selected
at random. They each add something to the story and demonstrate an aspect of the theme. Let’s look at the characters in American
Beauty to see why. The protagonist, Lester, is on a journey of
re-awakening. As he says in the beginning of the film: “In less than a year, I’ll be dead. And
in a way, I’m dead already.” He’s tired of putting on a show for the
sake of appearances, and he is trying to find his true self. Now let’s examine all the other characters.
We’ll see they’re also on a journey to find their true selves, and each embody a different
aspect of appearances in our society. Carolyn defines her self worth based entirely
on how successful she appears. As Lester points out: “This isn’t life! This is just stuff.
And it’s become more important to you than living. Well, honey, that’s just nuts.” On her journey to find her true self she’s
searching in the wrong places and looking for quick fixes. Jane is surrounded by people who think that
image determines your worth. “Jane, honey, are you trying to look unattractive?” “There’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary.” On her journey, Jane begins looking in the
wrong place, but finds someone who allows her to see how special she already is. Colonel Fitts is so terrified of his true
self that he locks it away, aggressively putting forth an appearance that is counter to his
real nature. And Ricky has already found his true self
and completed the journey. He uses his video camera to see through the appearances people
put on, to see the beauty that is underneath. On Lester’s journey, he bumps into all these
characters and gets glimpses of how to live. “I think you just became my personal hero.” If you think about it, all this should be really obvious. If you’re making a movie about a thing, why include characters who have no relation to that thing? Who have no opinion about it? Who aren’t struggling with it? This kind of character web is one way to show
your theme to the audience. Now that we’ve seen how the characters all
compliment each other on their journeys, let’s look at how screenwrtier Alan Ball uses dialogue to reveal details about those characters. Let’s start by writing a scene. A bad version of a scene from early in American
Beauty. And then compare it to the actual script to see what the differences are. First let’s describe our goals. Number one: establish what a normal dinner
is like in the Burnham household. And number two: let the audience know Jane’s
parents have been ignoring her, especially Lester. We want them to be motivated to take
a more active interest in her. Let’s begin. Interior, dining room, night. JANE: I want us to change the music that we
listen to at dinner all the time. CAROLYN: No. I do all of the cooking, so I
choose the music. LESTER: Well, I’d like to talk about my
terrible day at work. I’ve been assigned a task I hate, and your mother didn’t agree
with me, so Jane I want you to take my side. No. We haven’t talked in several months,
so I’m really upset at you. Jane stands. I really wish you would take a more active
interest in me. And scene! So obviously, this is terrible. Tommy Wiseau
terrible. But why? The characters are just saying what they want.
There is no consideration of the power dynamics, of their insecurities. There’s no subtext. And the way they speak is so generic, we get
no insight into their personalities. So let’s look at the actual scene as written,
and break it down line-by-line. “Mom, do we always have to listen to this
elevator music?” This lets us know four things. Jane hates
this kind of music, wants to change the music they listen to, her mother has the power,
and her use of “always” implies this is a typical dinner with the Burnhams. “No. No, we don’t. As soon as you’ve
prepared a nutritious yet savory meal that I’m about to eat, you can listen to whatever
you like.” Carolyn doesn’t just refuse Jane, she does it in a way that reveals her personality. She’s passive aggressive and clearly feels
underappreciated. Now Lester wants to complain about work and
for Jane to take his side. But he doesn’t say this directly, instead: “So Janie, how was school?” “It was okay.”* Note this parenthetical. Her suspicion implies
he doesn’t ask this very often. She detects an ulterior motive. “Just okay?” “No, dad. It was spectacular.” After weakly attempting to ask about her
day, Lester launches into complaining. “Well, you want to know how things went at my job today?” Now the stakes are raised and the conflict
builds. “You couldn’t possibly care less, could
you?” “Well, what do you expect? You can’t all
of a sudden be my best friend, just because you had a bad day.” “I mean, hello. You’ve barely even spoken
to me for months.” She is direct, firm, and and throws the truth of their situation back at him. And in doing so reveals the exposition that
is also intended for the audience. Alan Ball consistently writes dialogue that
feels natural within the world of the film. It has layers of subtext when appropriate, and
reveals the psychology of the characters. “I’m so proud of you! You know, I watched you very closely — you didn’t screw up once!” The last thing I want to very briefly touch on
is the role of intentionality in filmmaking. Director Sam Mendes said, “The movie you
see is not the movie I thought I was shooting… I thought I was making a much more whimsical,
comic story, kaleidoscopic, almost like a Coen brothers movie… And what I found in the cutting room was a
much more emotional, haunting animal than I had imagined.” What does it mean if a creator thinks they’re
making one movie, but ends up making another movie? A better movie? I would love to examine all of this more,
but, there just isn’t enough time. I wanted to talk about some of the screenplay’s
flaws. I wanted to reveal what is in the twenty-seven
pages of script that Sam Mendes cut out of the final movie, and how they change the whole
nature of the film. But, all of that just couldn’t fit into
one video. So I decided to make two! And I’ll be back next week with part two of American Beauty. Hey guys, Michael here, thank you very, very much for watching this video on American Beauty. I’m really, really enjoying making these videos. I love it and I would love to keep doing it. But to do so, I need your help. So if you’re enjoying these videos, please considering supporting this channel on Patreon. The link is right below me. And please like, and share, and subscribe! And I will be back next week with part two of American Beauty.

100 thoughts on “American Beauty (Part 1) — The Art of Character”

  1. holy shit, now I see why people get done with scripts so quick (ie. the original, bad script.) All the depth, the wit, it isn't there until heavy editing takes place.

  2. The text under the screen, the dialogue, is sometimes incorrect. Just wanted to point that out because it is a little bothering.

  3. anyone know the page in the book for the Truby quote about characters? Want to use it for a school assignment, but dont have the book at my disposal…

  4. Why wasn’t Angela included in the character analysis though?? She definitely had a façade that she portrayed, then who she is truly is somewhat reviled at the end.

  5. You are so amazing Michael!! Thank you very much for your work, means a lot to us! Free education, really great work!

  6. Shame you didn't cover the character of Angela. She's also a great example of someone trying to be someone who she really isn't, then at the end stops pretending. And like the other characters, as soon as she stops pretending, she becomes quite likable.

  7. american beauty has a great screenplay I analyze it and I know why it won because of the film structure and how the characters all related to theme is this right?

  8. Everyone keeps saying how insightful and smart he is but anyone can do what he does.

    Get an editing program, some good graphic design and read straight off the pages of books while barely adding your own input and you can achieve exactly the amount of "insight" LFTS does. Very surface level stuff.

    I would like to see a video by him that isn't literally just copied off of the pages of the two books he seems to own on screenwriting

  9. would you consider doing an analysis for the film "Girl, Interrupted"? I think it's one of the best films.The topic of mental illness, the unique characters and even small characters who each have one scene that's memorable, the screenplay/script and ending were amazing.

  10. That’s very true about characters. They’re not individuals…they’re all representations of the theme or themes. I think comic books are no different because the biggest theme in comics (superhero comics), is good vs. evil. The heroes represent good as the villains represent evil. It’s basic, simple and effective.

  11. Love your channel…I have binge-watched all of your videos…I am an actor and aspiring writer…to become a better actor…also…LOVE John Truby…Im working my way through his book….its heavy!

  12. American Beauty creeps me out now. I also can't rewatch house of cards without feeling weird. If It was sexual harassment then that'd be annoying but what Spacey did ruins absolutely everything he's ever done.

  13. The good script basically just shows instead of tells. That's something that someone like Tommy Wiseau literally never does. All of Tommys characters just straight up say who they are and what they want, but they don't act accordingly.

  14. This channel is literally my favorite channel in all of YouTube. If the video is about a movie you haven't seen it doesn't even matter, you don't need to watch the movie and if you do watch it after watching the video, it makes the movie even better to watch and think of what you remember all yourself. But if it's a video to a movie you've already seen, it makes the movie seem even more amazing as its being broken down in a way you didn't think of when you first watched it. It's honestly a cycle of great video to great film to even better video to even better film, I love it so much I'm not even sure if I'm coherent in my explanation of why.

  15. "What does a mean if a creator thinks they're making one movie but ends up making another movie?"

    Poor creator that doesn't understand the nuances of the script?

  16. Your script analysis is SO interesting and insightful, it’s so cool how learning about the screenplay takes the all aspects of the film to another level !!

  17. umm I watch all of your episodes multiple times because I'm such a huge fan of its dopeness. My question lies in theme. I'm creating a webseries, but am having difficulty nailing the theme. I want it to be about critical thinking vs intentional ignorance, but that sounds WAY too cerebral to be a theme. If you have any pointers please help a brotha OUT lol.

  18. Uh did you not include Angela on purpose or not? I mean it's your video do what you please, though I'd like to give my input. First of all; she is one of the core characters that Lester deals with, albeit mostly in his mind. She also is a perfect example of if you treat others like they're trash to make yourself feel like a treasure, you'll be alone with an ugly heart. She's young and craves to be seen as beautiful and even pretends to be sexually experienced to be cool. She uses Jane to feel better about herself but treats Ricky like a threat because she doesn't know his story and because he's not drooling over her but rather over Jane. In a lot of ways? She's hiding the fact she's a common surface vale rose and uses people and appearance to feel better like Carolyn and Ricky's father do.

  19. Your video made watching American Beauty less painful. I know it's an unpopular opinion but I've tried watching this movie a couple of times and could never finish it. None of the characters are likable and the mc is so cringeworthy. Thanks to your video, I was finally able to finish watching it.

  20. it can be the perfect movie. The style – and the scenario… It have a place in my favorite list on boxxy software. Nice one.

  21. American Beauty has been my favorite movie for so long. Now it`s number two on my list, only behind Interstellar.
    But it`s still the movie I`ve watched the most, and gladly done so.

  22. I found this movie disturbing and disgusting in so many ways. A middle aged man fantasizing about a teenage girl, to the point where he is literally on top of her, taking her clothes off, and about to have sex with her (ie, statutory rape her)… it's just revolting. It's not profound, it's not artsy, it's not compelling, it's just sick.

  23. The bag scene gives me douche chills every time I see it, and it's all I can think about when this movie gets brought up.

  24. I don't know what it is but if I see another John Truby quote I'm going to lose it. I personally have nothing against with him though. You bring out very good quotes into your videos but I wish there was other books that you could draw reference to when sourcing.


  26. Please do the screenplay of the Before Sunrise Trilogy. I've always been fascinated by how it was portrayed realistically.

  27. Okay, but what about the screenplay of joy, where the characters speak what joy believes is what they think of hers? I would love to see a vídeo about that script, even though it haves it's flaws

  28. I love the bad script and good script comparison. Amazing work on this video. I'd say this movie and Mulholland Drive are probably my favorite films of all time.

  29. I think I’ve lost a few IQ points just by listening to your reciting the bad screenplay. Thank Golly the actual one washed away the bitter aftertaste.

    You’re doing the screenwriting God’s work.

  30. American Beauty is a disgusting display of Hollywood's grotesque worship of perverted sex. Even though it is eventually displayed as wrong, there is much talk about underage sex and shameless lust. Regardless of the story which, in my opinion, is not good, the movie is about sex. Even the poster is perverted! Films like American Beauty should be used as examples of how not to make a film. Excuse me if I come off a little strong, but I'm just so tired of hearing about these "great" films that are filled to the brim with disgusting sex, violence, profanity, and a depressing, "what the heck did I just watch" story.

  31. i have few questions?
    why does jane plan on having a surgery if she hates appearances?
    the main theme is that we should sacrifice our freedom for the sake of these tiny but beautiful moments right?

  32. I love this. I recently watched another youtubers analysis of this movie and it was so cold and judgemental. American Beauty is my favorite movie. It makes me cry, but it makes me feel like maybe I can continue (living) because something finally makes sense and for once its not being covered up.

  33. could it be a great idea to wright a script this way here.
    First you make a script for your movie, but you intensionally wright it to be bad. On other words, all the characters say what they feel, and the script tells instead of showing.
    Then you wright a second script where you translate all of this exposition to great dialog.
    Then you finish with a third script where you try to perfect your second script.
    thats my theory at least.

  34. American Beauty really is a near-perfect movie and therefore a near-perfect teaching tool. I happily obsessed over it myself, and was thrilled to have it brought back into my life to teach me some more. Thanks!

  35. Still can't get past that the catalyst for Lester to be motivated to start living again is a 16 year old girl

  36. For those who don't know, the American Beauty Screenplay by Alan Ball won an Oscar in 1999(I've read it like 5 times and I love it). Along with the film winning Best Picture.

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