Five Character-Defining Opening Scenes

With Adam Kempenaar & Sam Van Hallgren

Throughout the next two months, we'll be talking to screenwriters, playwrights, critics, and gurus, asking them to school us on all things script-related.

Today's guests are two of our favorite film commentators, Sam and Adam from WBEZ Chicago's "Filmspotting" (also an eponymous podcast). Adam and Sam have seen more films than is probably healthy, so we challenged them, on this opening day of our Cameo series, to come up with their top five character-defining opening scenes. Take it away, Sam and Adam!

Many great movies open with the main character doing something that cuts right to the heart of their personality and gives a clear sense of who the person is, while also telling the audience what sort of wild ride they're in for. Here are five of our character-defining favorites:

1)The Dude in The Big Lebowski
Written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

The Stranger: Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's the Dude. The Dude, from Los Angeles. And even if he's a lazy man—and the Dude was most certainly that. Quite possibly the laziest in all of Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin' for laziest worldwide. Sometimes there's a man, sometimes, there's a man. Well, I lost my train of thought here.

With their opening monologue, impeccably delivered by Sam Elliott, the Coen brothers employ a screenwriting convention that's often regarded as the crutch of the lazy screenwriter. Of course, used to introduce a hero who's "high in the runnin' for laziest [man] worldwide," it's perfectly appropriate.

And when we are finally introduced to Jeff Bridges' "The Dude," we find him the very embodiment of human sloth: dressed in a dirty t-shirt and pajama bottoms, shuffling in his flip-flops through the dairy aisle, checking the expiration dates on milk cartons. At the checkout, he wears a milk mustache and writes a check for $0.69. It's a hilariously sorry sight.

What we see in this first scene is a character just sharp enough to maintain his lifestyle of weed, bowling, and some Creedence. The rest of the film is The Dude's desperate attempt to get things back to the status quo that he was so content with.

The monologue manages to undermine its own grandiosity, while at the same time establishing The Dude as the story's heroic figure. The Coens don't make the mistake of showing contempt for their character. By elevating the Dude to the status of Greatest Lazy Person of All Time, they give us a reason to pay attention to him.

So if you've got a voice-over in your heart as good as the opening to The Big Lebowski, then sing it! Sing it, brothers and sisters!

2) William Somerset in Se7en
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker

Did the kid see it?

Sometimes less really is more when introducing a character. Take David Fincher's 1995 film Se7en, which begins with detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) deliberately going about his morning routine. He carefully puts on his tie and grabs his keys, badge, switchblade knife, and pen (all in a row). He flicks a speck from his perfectly pressed sportcoat, gently lifts it from his perfectly-pressed bed, and shuts out the light. On his nightstand we spy a metronome. Whatever horrors he may witness outside his apartment, Somerset will make sure that the world he can control is pristine and orderly.

When, in the following scene (also before the opening credits), he arrives at the site of a grisly murder involving a woman who has shot her husband, he wonders whether the couple's young child saw it happen. "What kind of a [expletive] question is that?", another detective responds. "We're all going to be real glad when we get rid of you, Somerset." We know Somerset lives alone; now we learn that he works alone, too. He's retiring not because he doesn't care enough but that he cares too much.

3) John L. Sullivan in Sullivan's Travels
Written and directed by Preston Sturges

John L. Sullivan: I want this picture to be a document. I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity. A true canvas of the suffering of humanity.
LeBrand: But with a little sex in it.
John L. Sullivan (reluctantly): But with a little sex in it.

Preston Sturges single-handedly invented the concept of the writer-director, and all you have to do is watch the first scene of Sullivan's Travels to see why. It's a brilliantly written, brilliantly acted, hilariously rapid-fire, three-character scene. That was shot in a single take.

It also establishes the Hollywood director character of John L. Sullivan as a naive, arrogant idealist—the very qualities that set the film in motion and allow Sturges to satirize the sanctimoniousness of Hollywood, while simultaneously making a good case for comedy. In fact, the first scene accomplishes in four minutes what the rest of the movie takes 90 minutes to do.

As a bonus, take a look at Sturges's The Lady Eve (my favorite screwball comedy) for another pair of great character introductions, as well as an example of how to make a wildly implausible premise totally believable. (Watch as the brilliant Barbara Stanwyck manages to seduce Henry Fonda twice—as two different people!)

Sturges' characters are always more than the sum of their foibles and self-deceptions, and his films always take surprising and unconventional turns. With both films, part of the fun is watching Sturges write himself into a corner and then watching him write himself out of it.

4) Primo and Secondo in Big Night
Written by Stanley Tucci & Joseph Tropiano

Secundo: Make it, make it, make it, make the pasta!

A middle-aged couple are the only customers in a small, but well-appointed restaurant. The waiter, Secundo (Stanley Tucci), fusses over them because he has nothing better to do. In the kitchen, his brother Primo (Tony Shalhoub) prepares the food. The woman is served her risotto. She wants to know if she gets any pasta with it.

The ensuing (hilarious) argument between Secundo and Primo ("You don't serve pasta with risotto!") establishes at least three opposing forces that the movie will explore: food, family and home. Do you compromise food for financial success? Do you side with your brother or with the customer? Do you choose comfort and anonymity (Italy) or risk failure for a shot at fame and fortune (America)?

The reason this scene—and the movie—works so well is because Primo and Secundo are not only at philosophical odds with each other; they also love and respect each other. Too often, movies feature two characters (husband and wife; best friends, etc.) who are so perfectly at odds that you spend the whole movie wondering why they spend any time with each other in the first place. Not so in Big Night.

(As a bonus, Big Night also features my very favorite "last scene" of all time.)

5) Fitzcarraldo in Fitzcarraldo
Written and directed by Werner Herzog

I'm going to build an opera in Iquitos and Caruso'll open it. It will be the greatest opera of the jungle the world has ever seen.

With one brief exchange, Werner Herzog reveals everything you need to know to understand the peculiar madness of Fitzcarraldo's titular character, a man who will devise a plan to successfully haul a huge boat over a mountain with nothing but pulleys and manpower, all in the service of his "one dream"—to build an opera house in the jungle.

The movie opens with Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski) frantically rowing a ramshackle boat along the Amazon. He and his lover, Molly, are late for an opera they don't have tickets to. "We come from Iquitos," he implores the door guard. "1,200 miles down the Amazon. I had to row because our motor broke down." Molly adds: "Can't you see this man needs desperately to go in there. He hasn't got a ticket but he has got a right."

The rules of the civilized world don't apply to a man with a transcendent vision, a passion for opera so strong that he would come 1,200 miles by boat in order to see his idol Caruso. Exhausted and with bloodied hands from rowing, the delusional, determined Fitzcarraldo convinces the guard to let them in. His hubris—along with his powers of persuasion, regardless of how ridiculous the request may be—will serve him well in the pursuit of his dream, just as it will eventually (and inevitably) lead to his undoing.