Boulevard: A Very Good Lesson on Torturing Your Protagonist
Writer and story analyst Douglas Soesbe talks about character arcs in Boulevard and working with the late Robin Williams
By Shanee Edwards.
Written by Douglas Soesbe and directed by Dito Montiel, Boulevard stars Robin Williams as Nolan, a married man who embarks on a secret life when he meets a vulnerable street urchin named Leo (Robeto Aguire). As Nolan’s love intensifies for the young man, his entire life, including his marriage, comes crashing down.
The powerful engine that drives the story of Boulevard is Nolan’s secret. Despite being married to his wife Joy (Kathy Baker), Nolan is a gay man living in a very large proverbial closet. He and his wife sleep in separate bedrooms, but enjoy their life together, for the most part. Things seem pleasant enough from the outside, but big changes are coming.
“Secrets are essential in this movie,” says Soesbe. “It provides a mystery to the character and it also encourages writing that’s not real on-the-nose because the character, for obvious reasons, is not talking about how he or she really feels. We get a real indirect access to that person. It’s a very interesting way to get inside your character, thinking about those things that they may not want to talk about or admit.”
Soesby himself is in his late 60s and can relate to Nolan. “I came out very late and with a great deal of guilt. This movie is not about me, but I really understand that character. “
After writing a first draft of the script ten years ago, Soesbe says he never expected it to get produced. “I knew it was small and had a controversial subject matter for some people. Two or three times over the course of the next five years people would option it, but then I gave up on it. Then, interest and financing came along about three years ago. The four producers and I sat down with the script and they gave me notes. I did several rewrites, so really the script is only three years old in terms of what’s on the screen.”
The major changes to the script were somewhat inspired by the cultural shift in attitudes toward homosexuality that’s taken place over the last decade, causing Soesbe to change the location of the story from Los Angeles to a small town. “We couldn’t afford to shoot in LA but we also wanted a more featureless town that was more constricted than Los Angeles.”
But he claims that Nolan’s journey isn’t so much about getting in tune with current attitudes about being gay. It’s that he has to change his entire life.
And Nolan does. It’s painful to watch but a very good lesson on torturing your protagonist and creating a clear character arc. But there wasn’t one single thing that led to his arc according to Soesbe, it was a series of events.
“A number of things are happening. His mother died six months ago, which Nolan refers to in the scene at the motel. My own mother died about a year before I wrote this and so I think his mother’s death releases him from the past. Maybe he was afraid she would find out he was gay and reject him. Nolan has this father who can’t speak, so that’s happened. Then, when this passion is reignited by Leo, it’s almost like he’s twenty-two again and infatuated with someone. That infatuation is another element of his change and that brings him more into contact with who he needs to be. When he’s exposed as being gay and when he tells his father, that’s a huge change.”
The monologue, where Nolan reveals his sexuality to his dying father (Gary Gardner), had originally appeared earlier in the script, but Soesbe says placing it so early was a mistake. “Once Nolan tells his father he’s gay, the big problem in the movie has essentially been solved, the second problem being that he has to tell his wife.“
Williams gives a stunning yet haunting performance that must feel bittersweet to Soesbe, due to Williams’ untimely death. Soesbe admits, “It’s difficult to watch this movie about a sad, depressed man and not go there. Robin was just the sweetest man in the world and when this horrible thing happened, I just couldn’t believe it.”
Soesbe says now that the film is out, the reviews are more about the eerie similarities Williams had to his character Nolan, than a critique of the film itself, but said this about Williams, “I will testify that when he made this film, a year and two months before he took his life, he was not depressed. He was really into that role and if anything, he was really in character. He was looking forward to his TV series and he talked about his family and his pets and he was funny. I picked none of this up. He’s very shy and it’s difficult sometimes to penetrate the shyness, which you wouldn’t expect from him. But I didn’t pick up the depression at all.”
From his years as a story analyst for Universal, Soesbe shares some practical advice about writing screenplays. “It’s important to make sure your script is friendly to the eye. Be very aware of format. You’ve got to realize that your reader may pick up your script at ten in the morning. He or she may have had a rough night, maybe hasn’t had enough coffee yet, and when he or she opens that script and sees a mass of words or a sloppy presentation you already lose point. Why not give them a beautifully formatted script, one that’s appealing to the eye with no more than four or five lines of text, and start off by making your reader feel comfortable and allow the quality of the script to take over.”
In terms of length, Soesbe says the ideal script should be about 110 pages. “Under 120 is always good. If you’re writing something historical, or very heavy sci-fi, you may go over 120, but that’s always a red flag. Genre scripts, like a horror film, can be as short as 102 or 103. Boulevard was kind of long actually, but that was because I had a lot of “cut-tos” in it. Once I cut the “cut-tos” it was about 111 pages. You’ve got to watch those ‘cut-tos’,” he said with a laugh.
On the more inspirational side, Soesbe adds, “Never give up and don’t listen to people who say you can’t do it. Be tenacious and realistic about what your markets are and to write to market.”
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