Chris Riley is a screenwriter whose first film, After The Truth, an award-winning courtroom thriller written with his wife and professional partner, Kathy, sparked international controversy in 1999 when it was released in Germany.
Other credits include 25 To Life, a dramatic thriller for Junction Entertainment and Touchstone Pictures; The Other White House, a political thriller for Sean Connery’s Fountainbridge Films and Intermedia; Aces, an action-adventure romance for Paramount Pictures; and a screen adaptation of the book Actual Innocence for Mandalay Television Pictures and the Fox television network. A veteran of the Warner Bros. script department, Riley is the author of The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style. He serves as professor of film at John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego and previously taught in the MFA program in writing for screen and television at Pepperdine University.
He served as creative director at Yellow Line Studio where he executive produced the web series Bump+ and produced the feature Red Line. He is a founding partner of the online Story Masters Film Academy.
His new book is The Defining Moment How Writers and Actors Build Characters.
Aimed at both the head and the heart, The Defining Moment plumbs the depths of the most memorable characters ever to appear on the screen, the stage or the page. The book focuses on those moments so pivotal in a character’s formation that they create a distinct boundary of before and after, moments without which the character couldn’t exist and moments through which characters can transform before our eyes. Writers, actors and storytellers of all stripes will discover a powerful new key to unlock any character they seek to develop, write or portray. They may even unlock a deeper understanding of themselves.
- The first in-depth study of the essential principles that will redefine the way storytellers understand their characters and themselves.
- Essential insights into the forces that create character
- Dozens of examples of character-defining moments from film, television, theater and literature
- An exploration of pivotol moments: birth, death, discovery, decision-making, injury and healing
- An examination of how writers and actors employ defining moments in their deepest and most unforgettable works
- Insights into how directors, editors, cinematographers and composers dramatize key moments
- Practical exercises for defining and redefining character
- Tips for discovering the moments that matter most
- Deeply personal stories from the authors’ lives to illustrate the variety of moments that define us.
- For every storyteller, no matter their medium, The Defining Moment will redefine the way they understand their characters and themselves.
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- The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style
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Chris Riley 0:00
Well, I think you do start with that kind of question. Like I know I have a character who's going to dress up like a bat and fight crime. Why?
Alex Ferrari 0:08
This episode is brought to you by Bulletproof Script Coverage, where screenwriters go to get their scripts read by Top Hollywood Professionals. Learn more at covermyscreenplay.com I'd like to welcome back to the show returning champion, Chris Riley. How're you doing, Chris?
Chris Riley 0:24
I'm doing well. It's good to see you again Alex.
Alex Ferrari 0:26
Good to see you. My friend. Last Last we spoke we talked about formatting and the Hollywood standard and how to format a script properly. And it was a very successful conversation and episode people really loved it. And when you wrote your new book, The defining moment how to write was it how writers and actors build character, I had to have you back on the show to talk about it. Because it's a really fascinating book on the process of character development.
Chris Riley 0:55
It's been a fun book to write. And it's, it's fun to talk about. Talking about script format is a little dry topic. But yeah, in this book, we get to sort of go straight for the heart,
Alex Ferrari 1:10
The more sexy parts of writing, it's like, that's the formatting not so sexy.
Chris Riley 1:14
Yeah, without, you know, it's necessary. But that's not what draws us to stories. It's the characters. And that's what this book is about.
Alex Ferrari 1:22
Absolutely. So let's get into it. How do you build deep characters in your pitch?
Chris Riley 1:28
Well, it's a, it's such an important part of the work we do. as storytellers, characters, are the most interesting thing. And it's, it makes sense characters represent people and people are the most interesting thing. So the challenge for a storyteller for a writer is the people and characters are complex, there's an infinite amount of stuff you could know about them. But what do we really need to know to go deep with characters and the idea of the book is that there are a small number of moments that define each one of us that define a character. And if we know what those moments are, that have been the moments that have most profoundly shaped a character, then we can get a deep understanding of them without knowing a million details about them.
Alex Ferrari 2:28
So you're, you're talking so so that so that the definition of a defining moment, or what is the defining moment,
Chris Riley 2:34
So a defining moment would be one of those moments that creates a before and after for us that, you know, we were one thing before that moment, where something else after it, so it can be a moment of birth or death, like literal or figurative, can be a moment? You know, we're talking to filmmakers here, the moment when the birth or the dream of making movies was born. And you're one way before that, and then after that, you're you're hustling, you're obsessed, and, and you but like nobody really could be said to understand you deeply. If they don't know what that moment was.
Alex Ferrari 3:18
So So Bruce, Wayne, was hunky dory until that night of the theater.
Chris Riley 3:24
Exactly. So that's a moment where something died, literally, his parents died. But something else was born in him what which was his drive, to stop crying to prevent other people from suffering, the way he suffered, it was also the birth of his lifelong emotional agony.
Alex Ferrari 3:48
I mean, he's got some issues. I mean, he's dressed up to the bat. So there's, there's other psychological things that he's going to have to deal with growing up. But but you know, I think the great defining moments in in Hollywood history are in films. A lot of it comes around death, the death of of a parent the death of Uncle Ben for Spider Man and Star Wars, the death of his his family, and forcing him to go with a with the Obi wan to, you know, train and so on. That seems to be the big catalyst. Can you give me example of birth and how birth? I mean, obviously, when a child is born into your life, life changes. That's in real life because I know I was one person before my kids were born. I'm definitely a person after the kids are born. A few more wrinkles and a few more gray hairs. But, but in movies, though, are there examples that you can kind of give for the audience as
Chris Riley 4:49
Well, so we can think about the events in Finding Nemo surrounding the birth of Nemo? There's deaths that precedes that Um, it's it's really a traumatic scene to open a children's movie with a barracuda shows up and eats mom and several 100 of the babies and just leaves dad Marlon, and one little egg Nemo. And so Nemo is birth represents the opportunity for life to go on for Marlin to build a family. But he also carries with him the damage of his losses. And so often, you know, birth and death are linked deaths, clears the decks for something new to come. The death of Bruce Wayne's parents leads to the birth of Batman key as you can understand, Bruce Wayne, if you don't know that moment of death that has defined him,
Alex Ferrari 6:02
Yeah, because if you look at you know, I use Spider Man as example. I mean, he was so brilliant at what Stan Lee wrote in that first step. And that first issue was, what would you do if you had superpowers as a kid? The first thing you're going to do is not fight crime. First thing you're going to do is like show off, and how can I get rich? How can I get chicks? How can like that's a teenage boy's mind is exactly what he did. And he went to go fight and he won. But when he was so self involved, he let that that burglar or that robber run by him, and then later that guy kills servitor. Spoiler alert, everybody kills Uncle Ben, which then sets him on his paths. So that was so brilliantly done, because you needed that catalysts are else who knows where spider man would have gone without the death of Uncle Ben, he might have gone into debauchery, and gone down a dark path, where he could have very easily turned into a villain. If he wouldn't have if he would have just kept going down the self indulgent ego state stick way of going about things. So Uncle Ben's death was absolutely necessary for his character development.
Chris Riley 7:11
Yeah, it was absolutely defining. And really, we've got two defining moments there. In that story, we've got the death of Uncle Ben, which sets Spider Man's course. But before that, we have the moment when Spider Man is born in response to the bite of the spider. So we have to understand both of those moments, if we're going to have an understanding of what's up with Peter Parker.
Alex Ferrari 7:37
And why and why does he do what he does and how he does it, and so on. Yeah, it's fat. And what I always find fascinating about story it is it's such a complete analogy for our own journeys. The Hero's Journey is our journey, we everything that characters go through in movies, and books, and novels and comic books. I mean, you know, to a certain extent, we go through in our own lives, we all have birth moments, we all have death moments, we all have defining moments of what makes us who we are. I was so funny when I wrote my first book shooting for the mob, which is about me almost making a $20 million dollar movie for the mafia. I said, we could talk about that later. I said it when I announced it on the show, I go, if you guys want to know what my origin story is, this is why I do what I do. And if it wasn't through that horrific experience that I went through, and all of the shrapnel that I've picked up since being in the film industry, that's what prepared me to do a show like this, to speak the way I speak about the business because I'm speaking from a place of being in the trenches, and going through it and and also having an urge to help others not have to go through those things. So if I said it out loud, this is my origin story, if you want to know where the grizzled voice comes from, this is it.
Chris Riley 9:03
Yeah, and it's, you know, it's so fascinating when we learn those things about one another or even about ourselves. And so I think it's fair to say that your closest friends, the people who understand you most deeply know that story about you. And if they don't know that story, they're more of an acquaintance. And to the extent that we can excavate our own defining moments, and face up to them, sometimes they're painful moments that we don't want to look at. We we understand and know ourselves more deeply. And we can then draw on those things. When we shape and develop character. So whether we're actors, directors, writers, we are then drawing on the real stuff of life rather then being derivative of something that we saw someone else do.
Alex Ferrari 10:04
I mean, those moments in our lives when we are tested, you know, like, the metal gets stronger. The more that you beat down on it, the more it's heated, the more it's beaten, the more it's it gets stronger and stronger. So those defining moments in our lives really do shape who we are. And if you could take those, those experiences in your own life and add them into your story. That's when you have really deep characters really deep story. That's not like you said, derivative. I always and I've said this 1000 times in the show, and please forgive me audience but Shawshank Redemption, again, it's one of those movies that has no reason to be as good as it is on paper. Not anything, particularly, you know, mind blowing, horrible name, one of the worst titles of a movie, ever. And yet, when you watch it, it touches you in a way, and it touches everybody no matter. I saw it when I was a knucklehead in my early 20s. And my knucklehead friends even felt something, you know, and I was like, if it can connect to that kind of mentality, what did Darabont do in the script that made those characters so, so vibrant, to the point that they connect with us on such a almost spiritual level, honestly. And if we want to look at Andy the frame, I mean, his defining moments, the finding of his wife, his wife is cheating on him to find the moment number one, to being charged with a crime he didn't commit, I pretty much said those are two big defining moments. But there are some defining moments within the story that he decides I'm going to fight back. And I'm going to, and then also the the moment that he finds out spoiler alert, that the rock is weak. Those are those defining moments in that movie,
Chris Riley 12:03
I think they are, you know, some of them have to do with plot finding out that you can you can cut into the rock wall is the, you know, the opportunities are different after you know that. There's this, you know, beautiful, defining moment when he makes his escape. And it is, it is a we can think about all the ways his life is different before and after. He's a prisoner. He is without hope. We actually believe that he may have taken his own life.
Alex Ferrari 12:45
Oh, that's a beautiful
Chris Riley 12:48
Yeah. And so he has at a moment of death. But he goes through this. We can all different kinds of transformative imagery. He passes through a birth canal. Oh, yeah. Into life. He has a baptism. It's a baptism in the sewage,
Alex Ferrari 13:07
Of life the sewage of life.
Chris Riley 13:10
And then he comes out, he comes out clean, he says, that is a that is a life transformed when we see him. Next on the beach in Mexico. He's a new he's a new man.
Alex Ferrari 13:24
Yeah. And so it's red. And so it's red.
Chris Riley 13:28
Yeah, red is also transformed. And red is also at that place where he could tip into death for a while. And and so he, and he has wrestled with this idea of hope and the danger, how dangerous is hope. And he's a guy who rejects hope and the before version of himself. But when he decides that he is going to go and get that message that's buried in the wall, he is choosing hope he's choosing life, that is a defining moment of healing. Now, I think the reason that it reaches us knuckleheads is because it's credible, I think it's drawn from life. And that's the great thing if if I can identify not only moments where I got broken, or where I got damaged, but moments where I actually grew and experienced some restoration or healing, then I can draw on that and create incredible moments for my characters that the audience will recognize and say, oh, yeah, me too. That is how life is.
Alex Ferrari 14:51
Yeah, I've said that as well that I feel that that story specifically is an analogy for life in many ways that we many times feel like Things are thrown up, like we're accused of things we didn't do, which could be or things happen to us. And we're punished and it's not our fault. And how he's able to transcend that almost again, it almost be I love the spiritual imagery that you use is like going through the birth canal, being baptized, you know, being coming up free. There's such there's so much subtext in those that imagery, and and that story that connects with arguably, almost anybody watches it, because I mean, it's not considered one of the, you know, ranked according to IMDb, even sometimes higher than the Godfather, you know, so it's really interesting, I always love using that as an as a movie to look at. Because on paper, it makes no sense that it's just like, it's a very basic, it's not a horror, like, okay, guy, you know, he, he's accused of something he didn't commit those through jail, escapes. Life is good. It's not, I mean, complex on paper and the pitch.
Chris Riley 16:05
The plot is not what's great about it, is the characters with the character transformation. So we both reveal character, but we also then transform character and defining moments are the basis of who we are when the story begins. But they are also the way then that we are transformed. So there, they both form the character, but also transform the character and storytelling concerns itself with both of those processes.
Alex Ferrari 16:38
So when you're writing a character, how do you discover what their defining moment is? So like, when when Bob Kane or I forgot, they just discovered someone else who wrote Batman? You know, writes Batman, like, what's the thing like I got, I want to dress this guy up isn't bad. But what does it cause this guy? What is what has to happen to this guy to dress up isn't bad, and fight cry? So like, how do you discover that moment for your characters?
Chris Riley 17:06
Well, I think you do start with that kind of question. Like, I know, I have a character who's going to dress up like a bat and fight crime. Why? Why? So that's both a a dream or a drive a goal. But it's also there's, there's damage. And so what sort of moment what sort of experience gives rise to that? The way that you find the answer, I think, is not by resorting to reading other people's comic books or watching movies. Because then your work is just derivative, I think you look to your own life experience. Why do I do what I do? Why do I go to the crazy lengths I go to achieve my goals? And why am I so messed up? And how did how does that happen? And out of that, you end up with something that is real? And that is relatable? Because, like, don't we all swim through a river of sewage hoping to come out clean? On the other end? Aren't we all? Yeah, as you say, we're suffering with shame, much of which somebody else dumped on us? And yet, how do you get clean? And so we can look to if, if we will do the hard work, first of looking at our own moments that have defined us and then pausing when we have this great idea of a man who dresses as a bad what a great vigilante, and we can just rush headlong, without pausing and asking ourselves the question you asked, why, how did he get to be this guy? And if we do that, and we think, yeah, there's probably a handful of moments that have defined him. And we look for those until we recognize a moment that rings the rings true to us. And then you grab on to that.
Alex Ferrari 19:17
It's fascinating. I'm gonna I want to bring two characters to the very famous characters into the conversation, Indiana Jones, and James Bond. Now, James Bond had multiple movies, without really is knowing anything about him. Indiana Jones had two movies, before we really truly knew why he does what he does. And which was going to bring me to my next question, can a character have a defining moment outside of the current story that happens before the story? And I think the answer is I'm going to answer my same question, I think is yes, if we use those two examples, because if you look at Indiana Jones The third part, we discover his relationship with his father And that that one moment when he was a kid, where he did the cross and all of that stuff with a guy in the, in the quasi Indiana Jones that he met when he was a kid launched him on his path. And then with James Bond, it was Casino Royale. And those are two probably, I argue, because it was probably the best Bond movie because there's so much character in it. And it's not just, I'm cool. I have a gun. I sleep with a lot of women, which is basically what James Bond was for decades. And then Indiana Jones you have that loving back and forth between him and Sean Connery is probably one of the most beloved of the Indiana Jones series. Do you agree with what I'm saying?
Chris Riley 20:37
I do. And I think that when you you know, when you find out the defining moments for your characters, you don't do it in a in a sort of a cynical Oh, that'll be a good scene and that I can put that you know, great ending back to, but you're seeking to understand the character, you don't know how you're going to play those moments, or if you're going to play those moments. In the book, I talk about my experience on the set of the movie Twister. And that movie was rushed into production before the script was finished. Helen Hunt plays this obsessive storm Hunter who's trying to place scientific instruments inside a killer tornado, which is a dangerous, obsessive thing to do. And there's a scene from her childhood in the movie where you come to understand why she does that. Well, that scene had not been written when I was on location with them. And they had decided we'll write that later, because we're not going to shoot it until later. So you can imagine, Helen Hunt the actor, running around chasing tornadoes, putting herself at risk. And you could imagine that it would actually help her performance,
Alex Ferrari 22:05
She might have done it in her own head that she created that.
Chris Riley 22:08
She's a yeah, she's an Oscar winning great performer. So she probably created that for herself. But wouldn't it be better? If she knew that, wouldn't it potentially shape her performance? If she knew that moment, even though it might never appear on screen, and for for writers and directors as well as actors? I think that knowing those moments that have shaped your characters, whether or not they appear on screen, helps you know what they'll do, what they'll say, and why they will say and do it. Many of those moments do end up coming into the story one way or another. But I would say maybe half of the moments that I developed for my characters. Really, I'm the only one who will ever know them. But I can write that character so much better. And I have more compassion for that character. So I'm not writing even my antagonist, I'm not writing with contempt for them. I'm writing with a sense of empathy for them, because I know what they've been through.
Alex Ferrari 23:22
Well, and that's the thing about writing good villains, and is that a good villain is not a villain in their own store. Nobody is the villain in their own story. We're all the heroes in our story. Even if you're doing gnarly stuff in the world and bad stuff in the world, you are that you're the villain. So I always find it. When you have the villain that is twisting their mustache at the railroad tracks. That's not very interesting. But you got someone like Thanos, who truly is actually trying to help the universe, but he's going about it the wrong way. Snapping half of it in existence is probably not the smartest way of going about it. But he actually has good intentions, if you will. The Joker, his I mean, the movie Joker, my God, you go into such deep understanding of the torture of that soul and you get it. You just you actually identify Joker as the hero of that movie. Which is is the antihero, Wolverine and other anti hero, Deadpool The Punisher, these kinds of superhero characters. But the greatest villains are always the ones that have the most traumatic or damaging backstories that you feel for them. You feel for Darth Vader, you don't feel for him in Star Wars, then you hope when you first see him, you start to feel a little bit more an empire and then you truly feel in return to the Jedi. And then when you go back to the prequels which we generally don't like to talk about. But but there are some moments in those films that you go, Oh, okay, I get why he is the way he is. So those are listening, please, when you're writing villains write something they have to have. They want it, they have to have a good reason for doing what they're doing.
Chris Riley 25:18
They really believe in the justice of their cause, even though it may be twisted, completely evil and destructive in its outflow. Michael Corleone is another great example of someone who does horrible things, destroys his family in the name of saving it. And yet, because that storytelling so brilliantly brings us along his journey, including in that moment in the middle of the first Godfather film where he picks up a gun, and guns down, the two men responsible for his father's shooting. That is the moment that that makes Michael, the godfather. And without that moment, you don't understand it with that moment. You go with him on that journey, even though you're kind of, you know, you're watching through your fingers, and you're recoiling at what he's doing. And with K, at the end of that first Godfather film, you recognize, Oh, Michael is now a monster. But like, I'm fascinated, and I get it. And it's because I was privy to the moments that shaped and transformed him.
Alex Ferrari 26:37
I mean, well, Tony Soprano, I mean, look at Tony Soprano. And there's a scene in, I think, episode five or six, that HBO had a major problem with it was a moment, it was a defining moment in his character, where I think there was a rat, or something along those lines, and he found the rat, and literally killed him on screen choked him to death. On screen, vividly, the camera was in, no one had ever done that before. I'm on a television show. Like, it was so brutal. And that's the defining moment for that character in the series, because it's also a defining moment for the audience. Because you gotta go, am I gonna follow this gut? Like, am I gonna keep watching this, this, this monster, you know, because he's not a good guy, and the whole shows about him and his family, what he goes through. So I feel that there was that that was such a wonderful moment that David Chase brought in, and he fought for it big time. That because the HBO says, like, you're gonna lose the audience. And he's like, No, we're not, he knew more about the character in the audience than, than anybody else did. Even the audience didn't even know what they wanted until they saw it,
Chris Riley 27:51
You know, exploring interesting characters who are like us in some way, revealing their secrets. I mean, that's such a draw to us, as an audience. I, I really think that, you know, one of our, one of our giant drives as people is to, to know to connect. And that's really hard in real life. People don't share their secrets with us. You know, you're at Starbucks. And you got so, you know, what was your most wounding moment that defines
Alex Ferrari 28:26
Those conversations all the time, Chris, I don't
Chris Riley 28:29
Tend to edge away from you. Right, but great storytelling, great movies, great television, allows us to know some characters better than we know, our closest friends. And I really do think we're hungry for that.
Alex Ferrari 28:45
And I think that's, I think that connection is your right, we all want connection, you know, we're all striving to connect with other human beings, and in a deep, meaningful way. And when there's lack of that, in our lives, we connect with the characters in movies. I know I did when I was growing up. You know, when you don't have friends, you can still pop in a VCR tape. That's how old I am. And and watch Indiana Jones or watch a movie and go on an adventure and connect with those characters. I mean, look at the Brockie I mean, I mean, Jesus, you you know, a movie like that, that still holds up from that there's very few movies from the 70s that can be watched today. And it still has the same impact that it did back then. Rocky is that that story? I mean, if you want to talk about defining moments in his in his story, I mean, the moment Apollo Creed shows up and says, Hey, do you want a shot? Pretty, pretty big, defining moment.
Chris Riley 29:45
Absolutely. He was he was a failed boxer sleepwalking through life, and someone opens a door of opportunity for him and he would He would talk about his life, if you, you know, interviewed him later on, he would say, well, before Apollo came along, this is me after, this is me. And that, for me is the great telltale sign of any defining moment that it creates this boundary of before and after. So, you know, your family would talk about, oh, that was before the house burned down. That's that was after the house burned down before the diagnosis after the diagnosis, before we met, after we met, not, it's not all sad. Some of them some of the stuff is good, you know, before therapy after therapy. And it is in discovering those things that we we recognize the person and we also recognize ourselves and and realize, Oh, I'm not the only one, I'm not alone. And that is, that's the great relief that comes from connecting with characters is just discovering. Like, oh, other people are, are struggling, like me, and then when Rocky Balboa is able to find meaning and triumph in life. Maybe I can do maybe I can't tell exactly
Alex Ferrari 31:31
What I mean. Isn't that interesting, though, that story is something that is so integral to us as a species. We're the only ones on the planet who tell stories. Truly tell stories. I'm going to show what some of the Apes do, but I don't think they'll you know, they're not they're not telling Batman stories. But we tell stories, it's not only that, we tell stories, it's that we need story in our life, we need that expression of this journey to help us understand what the hell this whole life thing is, it's a way for us to grasp on to something because we show up. And it's a this is a mess. And most of us walk through life as this is a mess. All this stuff is happening to me. I'm going through tragedy and going through highs and lows. What does this all mean? You're trying to find meaning in what you're doing. And story provides that, and it doesn't have to be a complex novel or movie or comic book. It could be like, Did you hear what happened to Bob down the street? That little little gossip of what might have happened? A tiger ate them around the corner? Well, there's a value to that concept, like don't go down the corner, because they're Tigers down there, and that can eat you. So there's that that function of it. But I think that I mean, without story, I don't even know how we function as as as a human being. Yeah,
Chris Riley 32:51
I don't I don't think we can. And I think that one of the insights of neurology is that when we lose track of our own stories of ourselves, and we can't remember, if we've got say Alzheimer's disease, we can't remember our stories. We're not just losing contact with our history, we're actually losing contact with our identity. Because our our identity is built out of our stories, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. And as you say, we're also looking at the cause and effect of like, why did that happen? And what does it all mean? So a story that could look like a very lightweight comic book story may really be like, philosophically, undergirding our whole sense of the meaning of life. That's, that's what it's getting at is, what does it add up to? And the most satisfying stories help us understand what the events of the story add up to?
Alex Ferrari 34:02
And also, when you are able to go on a ride with a character and live vicariously through the character, it's a way for you to kind of almost disconnect as well, obviously, from your day to day stuff. But there's some times there's some times when especially when you're younger, you watch a movie and it just hits you in a way that you can't let go. I mean, Shawshank was not for me, believe it or not, I mean, I know it's it's just one of those movies that doesn't let go of me. The Matrix was one of those films, doesn't it doesn't a Fight Club was one of those from they don't let go of you. There's concepts in it that connect with you in a weird way you, you know, I don't connect with Tyler Durden. You know, but a lot of the concepts and ideas that Fincher and Jim rules and the writer Chuck was trying to portray in that story, connected with me personally. And in The Godfather and those kinds of things. There's just those things, but at the end of the day, it always comes back down again. Correct, because how many people say how many people can truly remember? plots from James Bond?
Chris Riley 35:07
Yeah, I mean, interesting.
Alex Ferrari 35:09
How many plots do we really remember from James Bond other than maybe something you just saw? You don't really remember plots? I vaguely kind of remember the plot of Temple of Doom, vaguely. But I remember key moments that have to do with character.
Chris Riley 35:26
Yeah. Yeah. Kathy, my wife and co author of the defining moment, and I draw heavily on Band of Brothers. Yeah, World War two series. There's so many life lessons from those characters. We think about there's a battle scene with a terrible leader, who, who sort of bogged down in the middle of battle. And winters, our main character, just keep shouting at him keep moving forward, you have to keep moving forward. And that refrain of keep moving forward in the face of Battle of danger of resistance. That's, that's something that we we draw on. And then there's, during the Battle of the bolts, there's the troops that just been there being shelled, for days, and days and days. And there's just a little line in narration that says, If a man could just get off the frontlines, even for an hour, it made such a difference. And, and we will, sometimes when we're engaged, and it feels like we're on the frontlines of the Battle of life, we'll look at each other. And so I think we need to get, you know, 45 minutes away from the front lines just to catch our breath and decompress. Yeah, and so those, those lessons of life, don't stay on the screen, we incorporate them into our actual lives.
Alex Ferrari 37:14
I mean, I mean, George Lucas said it very, very distinctly when he wrote Star Wars, and he used the hero's journey that Joseph Campbell laid out, he did it so perfectly, according to Joseph Campbell's work. He's like, stories are the meat and potatoes of society. And, you know, that's what keeps these big lessons, these big ideas moving forward. You know, there'll be generations who will watch that movie or read that that story about Star Wars, and there's obscene amounts of life lessons, that maybe you and I will look at and go, Oh, that's we completely understand that we know that we've been through, it's not that big of a deal. But imagine you're 15 Watching that for the first time. And you really haven't had those kinds of lessons before about life. That's pretty profound. It really is.
Chris Riley 38:02
Yeah, for me, when I was in that age range movies are some of my defining moments, because they taught me things about life that I didn't know. They were the first really well made. movies that I had ever seen. And the impact on me was, was life changing. I can say, you know, there's, there's me before, I saw ordinary people in the deer hunter, and there's me after, yeah. Wow. And the me, the me after, wants to make movies. And to do that, the me after also understands that I'm not the only one who struggles because those movies taught me that. And the me after also understands that because other people struggle, even though they don't look like it, they look like they have it all together. I gotta treat people with more compassion. And so I'm a different person in those three important ways after watching those two films, but I mean, these are defining moments,
Alex Ferrari 39:11
But according to Instagram, everyone's having a fantastic time. It's just me that's having horrible life. I'm just saying.
Chris Riley 39:19
Right, right. And so Instagram will not tell you the truth. That's either a news flash or a spoiler alert. But yeah, but stories can I mean, I think stories can also lie to us and send us chasing after mirages. But good storytelling can tell us the truth about us about life.
Alex Ferrari 39:46
Now, you speak about in the book, the awakening of longing in a character How do you awaken longing in a character? Because I know so many of us just as human beings walking the earth in so many ways where we're lost looking for that meaning in life looking for that thing that we're here to do. And it's so painful, become bitter and angry because you're not getting what you want. But when you happen to fall into the thing, that the door is open, that you happy, you wake up in the morning, and you're happy to go do it. That's what we're all searching for. We're also searching to be happy with our day to day business. Truly, I mean, in every way possible in our relationships with our family, you know, career based, we're looking for happiness. And but to find that meaning, and to also awaken the longing to find that meaning is not very easy. Took me a minute to figure out some get it when they're born, they get there, they know at four years old, I'm gonna sing and they become Mariah Carey, or they're 65 and start KFC. Like the Colonel Sanders did you know he started at 65? He's like, I'm thinking I'm gonna start a new company. And he was 65 when he started it. So obviously, it took him a minute to figure out what his purpose and purpose was to make chicken.
Chris Riley 41:10
Yeah. delicious chicken.
Alex Ferrari 41:13
Yes, very healthy, very healthy.
Chris Riley 41:14
I think that was one of the characteristics of defining moments is that we don't make them happen. They sort of happened to us. Bruce Wayne's, the death of his parents happened to him. But, and so the like a moment that awakens, deep longing in us, is not something that we can order up. But I, as an example of a moment where a longing was awakened, I think of my wife, Kathy's story of as a child. She had a dad who was not warm, who she cannot recall him ever saying the words, I'd love you. And I don't know that she knew what she was missing. Because, you know, life is normal to you as a kid, whatever it is. And then she was at a wedding sitting between her uncle and her aunt. And her uncle was the handsome uncle, the cool uncle. And he looked at that Kathy, he looked at his own wife. And he said, I'm sitting between the two most beautiful women in the world. Kathy had never been spoken to that way. And as soon as she heard those words, something woke up in her that said, Oh, that's the kind of man I want to spend my life with. Now, this is a little bit of a self serving story. Since I'm the husband,
Alex Ferrari 42:55
I was about to say, How did you how did you how did you end up in this story, Chris?
Chris Riley 42:58
So we'll leave it to her to say whether that longing was satisfied. But that was something that stayed with her. Forever. Sure, it wasn't there, the moment before. And then it was there the moment after, not because she chose for it to be because that experience, awakened that longing at her now she can write characters who have a moment like that drawing on her own experience. And it will be credible, because it draws on that authentic emotional experience of her life.
Alex Ferrari 43:40
It's so funny, because I look back when I was 18. And I was like, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. And one day, I literally sit that sat down in my bedroom. I looked around, I had 3000 VHS tapes that I had collected, I worked in a video store. So I collected about 3000 in my collection at the time, I looked around and I said, I like movies. I guess I'm going to be a director. And that was it. And that was the moment. And this was also in a time that it wasn't cool to be directors. There wasn't YouTube, there wasn't a lot of information about writing or direct. I don't think so. I think Syd field might have just come out. Like there wasn't a lot of information within
Chris Riley 44:17
The first one though. And it was it was tough to learn anything, right?
Alex Ferrari 44:20
There was just it was not so it wasn't like in the zeitgeist of like, filmmaking, that's a that's a career option. You know, my parents were like, what do you what? Like so, but that was the moment I never forgot that moment. I was like, I guess I'm gonna be a director. And that was, I was before that moment. And after that moment, and that was it.
Chris Riley 44:41
Right. And it's, and it's lasting. I mean, it's we're here we are sitting about
Alex Ferrari 44:45
For better or worse, better or worse, or for better or worse. It's because it has been and it's, you know, I've documented well, and I think every filmmaker and screenwriter goes through this. It's not an easy path. It is not an easy path to go down. How to be an artist in general, it's not an easy path. But that is speaking of defining moments. That was the moment that I decided. And then there was other defining moments that you decide, do I want to keep going or not? How do I keep going or not? And that's also very difficult to, to understand. And like, again, we'll go back to Shawshank How does and it uh, Frank keep going 20 years of, or 30 25 years, whatever it was, he was in there. Going through that day in and day out and read just that little, that little montage, so beautiful one red light. Some days were good. Some days were bad. You know, some days he fought off the sisters. And one, some days he fought off the sisters and lost. And he goes, I would have feared that he wouldn't have made it if things kept going that way. But one day this happened. And then this character gets introduced, and his whole life changes inside the prison because now now he can go off and he needs someone needs to cook the books. He's good at that his life change that from that moment on. But those are those things.
Chris Riley 46:08
Yeah, I'm life, I'm that quality of life, that there are these seismic moments of of shifting, right. And then there are long periods of silence. And that life consists of both things. The moment the volcano erupts, or the default ruptures, and we have an earthquake, those are the exciting moments. They're terrifying, dangerous, but exciting. It's much harder on film to render the long expanses of just keep at it, just keep scraping away with that rock hammer, dig in that tunnel. And yet life, you know, to be fair, consists of more of those moments. But those are not generally the ones we tell. I talked to students about that. So you can look at my CV or my list of credits. And it looks like I've had this, you know, great, exciting life. But I have to tell you, you know, look at the dates, there are gaps. Five years here. I talk about my Time Warner Brothers in the script department, and I was able to write the Hollywood standard based on all that I learned there. But there were long days of me, you know, just reading script after script. That's, that's finding finding typos or sitting alone in the middle of the night. We've got 300 copies of script revisions for the Dukes of Hazzard and someone has to paperclip them. And that doesn't end up in the credits list. But most of life is that in between stuff. And so yeah, I admire Shawshank Redemption, for finding a way to give a nod to that because that's where like most people listening to us right now are in those in between moments. If they're in the middle of a defining moment. They don't have time to talk listen to
Alex Ferrari 48:21
Maybe this podcast is a defining moment. For them.
Chris Riley 48:25
It can be I think it can be.
Alex Ferrari 48:27
It can be like wait a minute, I listen. I've listened to podcasts before and I'm like, I've never thought of story that way before. You know, I remember talking to John Truby. And I was like, oh my god, he just something clicked after I talked to him. I was like, I never thought of story that way the plot the way he he explained it. I was like, oh, and other people will read other books and other people will watch a movie and go, Oh, I get I get something now. So there are moments that could be this could be a defining moment. I'm not putting any pressure on this episode, Chris.
Chris Riley 48:55
But I think it can be and, and and if you know if today is one of those in between days, then we have to take that lesson from Band of Brothers and keep moving forward.
Alex Ferrari 49:10
Yeah, it's like Rocky Balboa says How Hard Can you get hit and keep moving forward? And that's what in many ways, what life is all about. It's about being able to take the hits, and keep moving forward. And it's such a great talk. He doesn't end the movie Rocky Balboa, he does this like three minute monologue. And it's all about life and how hard life hits you and it brings you to your knees. And what are you going to do? Are you going to get up and keep going? Are you just gonna lie there and in your, in your story, all that mundane work that you did in the story department sometimes sometimes I'm sure it was a lot of fun. But all those in between moments. That is what prepared you to write the Hollywood standard. Without that stuff. You couldn't have moved in the direction that you are right now.
Chris Riley 49:52
That's That's exactly right. And all of those scripts I read are what taught me how to You write scripts. So I couldn't have gotten to where I am now, without that, and you know, writing a book, there's a lot of sittin alone. I wonder what the next word is? And oh my gosh, there are a lot of words on the page of a book compared to a script page. That's mostly air.
Alex Ferrari 50:24
Yeah, I remember it's like, how many were 50,000 55,000 words? I gotta do. Okay. A lot of words. All right. But we're trying to do 500 to 1000 a day. Let's just start cranking it out and just start, keep going, keep moving, keep moving and keep moving and keep moving. Take a bite of the elephant a day.
Chris Riley 50:40
Yeah, exactly. There's, I don't know where this phrase came from. I heard it from my wife. And the phrase is embrace radical, incremental ism. You're just going to take one bite of the elephant a day, you can eat a whole elephant that way if you keep it up over time, so I've learned, even working a full time job at Warner Brothers. If I, if I wrote every day in whatever minutes, I could scrape together, I could write a movie every year. And over time, that added up to my career breakthrough. And the script that was the one that we sold first. But we were, you know, overnight successes after 14 years of taking a bite of the elephant. And that's, that's the difference between the people who get there. And the people who don't is the people who get there just kept going.
Alex Ferrari 51:43
Well, and I think you can attest to this, in this business. It's not the most talented that wins. It's the one who doesn't stop. Because there's a lot of people who are not as talented, who are working in the business right now making big movies, who aren't the best writers in the world. But they're the ones that just kept showing up. And they just kept pounding it and kept pounding, kept pounding, grinding it out, where someone who was very talented, just maybe didn't have it in them to keep going. It was too hard for them. But they were more technically more talented. And I've seen it, I've seen it.
Chris Riley 52:19
Yeah, no, I see that as well. Though, the one who quits cannot when they definitely take themselves out of the running is only the ones who keep going, who are in the place where they can develop their skills. So level, they need to be there, and they've done the work. And they you can't sell a script that you didn't finish. And and in almost any case that I'm aware of you can't sell a script, you didn't finish a bunch of drafts. And you know, if you're a director, it's so many things that you have to figure out and get to go right to to finish any film to finish a good film. Oh, my gosh, it is a miracle. And then that there are great films is that shouldn't be possible. And yet we know there are great films.
Alex Ferrari 53:18
Yeah. And I just want to put a myth to rest. The rocky story of the script being written in five days or something like that. You've heard that story, obviously, right?
Chris Riley 53:27
I've heard other stories along those lines, but usually involve like the back of a cocktail napkin,
Alex Ferrari 53:34
Where he wrote that he apparently wrote the script according to sly, he's like I wrote, I wrote rocking five days. That was draft one. But he did get the first draft out because it was so he just he just didn't stop. And it wasn't like three hours here, two hours there. He sat down for 12 or 15 hours a day and just beat it out. And then beat the hell out of the drafts again and again and again and again afterwards. So there is no, there's no genius. There's no one who just there's no Mozart's of screenwriting, there's a couple who feel like it like Tarantino and Sorkin and Kaufman. But all of them work at all of our people.
Chris Riley 54:17
People work really hard. And I I think any good movie or television episode consists of hundreds of really good ideas. And it takes time to have those good ideas to collect them to squeeze out all the hot air all the stuff that's not brilliant. And so you end up like reading a great script, seeing a great film and going oh my gosh, that person's a genius. No, they just work harder than you. And they just kept at it until they had enough good ideas to fill the thing up.
Alex Ferrari 54:52
Well, I mean, if you look at Tarantino who everyone's like, everyone tries to emulate his writing. No one can ever emulate his writing because he had what 20 years of reading, every novel watching every movie doing, the amount of work that he put in, to be able to have the the bass and the ability to retain all that information in his head and retrieve it at will, is a talent that doesn't exist. He's a he's an anomaly he is. He's a genius in that sense. But even that I know people who work with him, and he is fairly brilliant, but he does work. Like he doesn't just Inglorious Basterds wasn't written in one pass, like he could go back, you know, Eric Roth and write Forrest Gump and one pass, he goes back and beat it up again and beat it up again and beat it up again. But someone like Tarantino like that you all those years you're reading at Warner Brothers. It's him working at a video store him reading every novel. Without all that information. He can't she can't be who he is. You can't write Pulp Fiction.
Chris Riley 55:59
That's yeah, no, that's exactly right. I, I was at the Disney Concert Hall recently to hear Itzhak Perlman play his violin. And for him, it looks like it's effortless. And in that moment, I think it's sort of is effortless. But that's because it's built on decades of practice, work, mastery. And then yes, you get to go and you get to play. And you you're able to do it, but only because you've done all of that work, to reach mastery, where you can sort of dance on top of all of the skill and the discipline.
Alex Ferrari 56:48
I listen, I feel very comfortable having a podcast now after doing 700 plus 800 podcasts at this point in my career. And I can I have no no issue in first first year, a lot different conversation much more nervous much. But you start building skill sets on how to talk to people how to feel them out, all the all this stuff, just, it just comes in, but it's just grinding it out. It's just grinding it out to the point where now they're like, oh, I can jump on with it. I'm not intimidated by anybody. When I interviewed and trust me, I've interviewed a couple intimidating. But you feel very comfortable in the space, you're in like, no one's going to come to you. You're not going to feel uncomfortable about format. There's nothing really that can be thrown at you about format that's going to shake you generally speaking.
Chris Riley 57:38
Yeah, yeah, that's right. I'm very comfortable. I'd stand up in front of any audience and and feel formatting questions because I spent 14 years fielding formatting questions. And so I have learned how to answer those.
Alex Ferrari 57:54
Now, in the book, also you talk about Dr. Showers, eight character traits. Can you talk about those?
Chris Riley 58:01
Yeah. So Sidney showers is a Minnesota based pediatrician who came to LA to learn TV writing, and is really a very good writer. And she talked to me about these eight character traits that she just kind of collected this list, they come from different places. And some of them overlap. You know what other people talk about. But I think it's a really useful grid to use to think about a character just to get prompt yourself to have more good ideas. So she thinks about what is the character's drive. And that's not that's different from their goal. Their drive is just what keeps them going. Whether or not there's a story happening. So for Michael Corleone she thinks his drive is to please his father, whether or not anything else, whether or not his father is still alive, he's still driven to please his father. And then the characters goal character, you know, has to be going after something. She thinks about a character's genius, which is really interesting to think that every character is really strong in some area. So Forrest Gump genius, obviously is not high IQ. But he tells us what it is. He says, I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is. So Forrest Gump genius is love, the way he loves Jenny, his purity of heart. That's a great thing to think about. And then what is the character's most closely guarded or embarrassing secret? That assumes that we all have one and I'm going to think that's probably a safe bet. You know, what do we most not want people to know what question do I most hope you don't ask me. What What will reveal me as a fraud and So that sometimes will certainly motivate a villain to protect a secret might motivate a protagonist to protect a secret. And then there's what's the character's flaw? What is their weakness? So the flaw might have the more of a sort of a moral failing, there's selfish, they're arrogant, whatever their weakness is the Achilles heel. It's not a moral failure. But it's, you know, it's their kryptonite. What is that? What's their redeeming quality? Why do we forgive those other things the way we do our friends? Yeah, he's a bit of a jerk. But he was there for me when I was in the hospital. And so that redeeming trait is is also useful to know and I don't know if I've hit all eight of them, but it's just an example of a way that we can give ourselves prompts when we think about a character to give ourselves the opportunity to discover more.
Alex Ferrari 1:01:02
So Hannibal Lecter, what, there's something so beautiful about his character, because we'd like him, but he's a cannibal and a murderer. Some others that yeah, there's that. But yet, there's something redeeming about him. What is redeeming deeming about Hannibal Lecter? Why do we? Why do we cheer that he's going to eat somebody at the end of the movie? Yeah. It's insane. But you're sitting there going? Yes. That's
Chris Riley 1:01:36
Alex Ferrari 1:01:38
There's that's a superpower he does.
Chris Riley 1:01:42
He's really smart. Yeah. Right. So his genius is his genius that. And so we admire someone he's working his plan. You know, Clarice is using him. He's using her. And that's brilliant. And so we will be attracted to somebody who is very smart, and who has a plan. Now, you know, why do we want him to eat someone at the end, I think that has more to do with will root for someone if they're up against someone who's even worse. Even more horrible. And that's just sort of the the sense of justice. There is a little bit of justice. Yeah, I will root for any football team. That is, you know, going up against Tom Brady, because for me, Tom Brady is the ultimate supervillain. Sure.
Alex Ferrari 1:02:37
And the Yankees were that for the Yankees were that?
Chris Riley 1:02:40
Exactly. And you know, and I have to, I have to admire the guy. He is a great, great athlete. But, you know, for me hearing that he's coming back. It's like, well, of course, it's the zombie movie where he's just you can't kill the guy. And I said,
Alex Ferrari 1:02:56
Listen, as as a guy who's just a couple years older than him. I'm rooting for him. And I did not like the Patriots. I'm a dolphin fan. I'm a very depressed dolphin fan, for many, many years. And when he said when I heard he was coming back, I'm like, you know, what, just makes me feel good. That dude in this age is out there doing it at that level. And that's just my connection to that story.
Chris Riley 1:03:15
Well, and that's another huge key to understanding why we connect with characters we we relate to them, we identify with them. And now there's a bit of an underdog quality to he's he's fighting the clock, he's he's fighting age.
Alex Ferrari 1:03:32
He's, he's not, he's not Superman. He's an aged Superman, who is now fighting against youth against other other football players who are in better shape, I guess. But he's at such a level of mastery, that he can pull off what he's doing that nobody had ever pulled off and has ever pulled off in the history of the sport. So even though I wasn't a Tom Brady fan growing up, as he's now passed over that level, and you're right, he's now an underdog. I'm like, can he take a team back to the Super Bowl? At his age? Can he fight that 22 year old kid from Kansas City? Like, who's arguably one of the best quarterbacks playing in the game today? So it's, it's fascinating, but you're absolutely right, I think. And I guess the older guys are looking at it a very different perspective than the younger guys are. Because they don't understand what he's going through. They're like, ah, get him off the field. He's old. And we're like, Nah, man, look what he's doing. He's giving us all hope that they're still caught for the rest of us.
Chris Riley 1:04:36
Yeah. Right. And so because we identify with him, then we were able to project ourselves into him as a character. And yeah, and then we, for me, like, I know people are gonna hear me say this, and I am so I shudder to say it, but I think I might route for a little bit of, of Tom Brady's success too, for that reason, in a way I never would have in the past.
Alex Ferrari 1:05:00
And same and same here. I mean, he's caused me more heartache over the years with my dolphins. Anybody else as and you were speaking about, we are attracted to you genius. I mean, I think one of the reasons genius or superpowers of one's word, and it doesn't have to be fifth like real, real superpowers, like superhero superpowers like Superman and things like that. But someone like Maverick from Top Gun, who's the new Top Gun movies coming up? Who's I'm really interested to see what they do with that character. Because in the first Top Gun, his superpower is his abilities. But he's arrogant. And there's all these flaws and weaknesses that he has to deal with. He has a fight the defining moment of his father's history, that baggage of him carrying his body. But but we're, we're attracted to greatness. We're attracted to highly skilled characters. So Rain Man, you know, Dustin Hoffman, who is you know, artistic is artistic. Right? Yeah. It's artistic, artistic. We, and he has no other superpower, other than what he's able to do. He completely deficient in every other way, socially, that he can be. But yet we are attracted to him because of what he's able to do with his mind. That no, that seems on, it seems super power like, and we're so attracted to that. And it was just like that, that movie. If you people who are younger, have not seen rain, man, please go watch it. It's it's an It's a masterpiece.
Chris Riley 1:06:32
It's fantastic. And it's a script that we had in the the came through the script processing department of Warner Brothers as they were working draft after draft after draft to crack the ending. So that's an example of a movie that was written over a long period of time. And then paradoxically, why we're attracted to people's genius, we're also attracted to their vulnerability. And going back to Tom Brady, he's now vulnerable, he never was before. And now because of his age, he's vulnerable, and that for the first time, to me, it makes him seem approachable and relatable to me. And so then that, that sort of combination of his genius and his humanity is vulnerability makes him interesting. And maybe James Bond is another example, you read my read more interesting to me when he's vulnerable than when you know, bullets bounce off of him, then how can I worry about him? Or relating?
Alex Ferrari 1:07:40
Well, this is one of the reasons why it's so difficult to write for Superman and make a good Superman movie because he's a god, he's walking around as a god and, and that's issues with all the DC characters. They're all very godlike, you know, and where Marvel characters are much more, much more vulnerable. There's not really many Marvel characters who are Superman indestructible at all levels. They all have powers, but they all have weaknesses, you know, Peter Parker, super strong, but he can get shot. He and he also has acne. And he's a teenage boy dealing with teenage boys stuff.
Chris Riley 1:08:19
So make him relatable to teenage boys.
Alex Ferrari 1:08:22
Right. And that was the genius of Stan Lee that he was able to do with all of his the characters he created. He made it. Even Thor, who was a god are literally a god is very vulnerable, extremely vulnerable. And in a way that Superman has difficulty being. I think it was one I think one of the writers of Superman said, you know, we knew we had a problem when we had him blow out of star. Because at that point, you just like, it's not interesting seeing someone win all the time. You need to have some sort of adversity to make it interesting.
Chris Riley 1:08:59
Yeah, you want a fair fight you you don't want to know how it's going to turn out.
Alex Ferrari 1:09:04
Exactly, exactly. Now, Chris, where can people pick up your new book, The defining moment?
Chris Riley 1:09:10
Well, they can find it on Amazon, they can find it at the publishers website, mwp.com. Or they can go to thisdefiningmoment.com, which is the books website.
Alex Ferrari 1:09:25
Chris it's been a pleasure talking to always have a great time talking to you. This is more interesting than formatting. I'll give you that, as far as a conversation is concerned, but I appreciate you putting this book out and hopefully this episode will be the defining moment in some screenwriter filmmaker slots. So let's help him pray.
Chris Riley 1:09:41
I would really hope that that's true. Thanks for a great conversation Alex.
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