Brian Koppelman: That part of the process remains mysterious to me. And I’m glad it does. The less I am aware that I am thinking, and the more that the subconscious takes over, the better. I think I understand the characters and how they think. But again, none of that is conscious. Great impressionists talk about thinking at different speeds when doing certain voices. It’s like that. You just write from the characters perspective because in those moments, you are fused together (when it’s working, flowing, alive. The other times you feel like Barton Fink).
Mark and Jay Duplass: On the movies that we improvise, we spend a ton of time on backstory. On the ones we fully script, we don’t fuss too much over it.
Weber and Neustadter: For us, creating backstories isn’t as helpful as, say, asking what a real person would do in the situation and jumping off from there. If your character wouldn’t do what a normal person would do, then why not? What’s the deal with that? We’ve always found bringing it back to reality to be the most helpful tool with every project.
Feig: I think you pretty much have to play out all sides of your personality in your characters. Otherwise, I don’t think you’re truly able to know what they may or may not do. “Write what you know,” as the saying goes. As a writer, you tend to compartmentalize different parts of your personality so that you can pit those various personalities against each other in your head as you’re writing. It’s sort of the fun part of the process, the therapeutic part that can be more productive than therapy.
You just have to be very honest with yourself when you’re doing this so that you get true responses and decision making from each side of yourself. There’s an unconscious tendency a lot of us have to make characters do things that we’ve seen in other movies or television. So, you constantly have to ask yourself, Would I really do that? What would I actually do if I was in that situation? You’d be amazed how many times you end up calling bullshit on your first idea.
Lindsay Weir on Freaks and Geeks was always my favorite. She was the mouthpiece for who I really was at that moment in my life. I was a 35-year-old man and all the problems and insecurities and questions about life I was having fit perfectly into the mind of a mature 16-year-old girl. She wasn’t based on anyone I knew. She was basically the big sister I always wanted. (I was an only child.)
Wain: Lead character certainly need to be thought through all the way back so there’s a cohesiveness and depth to what is presented on screen. Although sometimes it’s interesting (or funny) to purposely leave certain questions unanswered.
Curtis: I think the leading character is the sort of model usually between me and my best friend Simon and the circumstances of that character, as it were. It’s very interesting how the other things occur to you. They’re very rarely based on anyone, but they’re aspects of people who have really interested you or touched you.
Sometimes, you start with a line. I think Emma Thompson’s character [in Love Actually] — I never thought this before, I never said it — came from a line in a novel. Someone in a novel finds out that her husband’s been unfaithful, and she suddenly realizes that who she is is a completely different person. Suddenly, in the course of one minute, and she hasn’t done anything. That was such an extraordinary bold thought, and then I built up my version of that, but that character was based on that one moment of discovering that your whole life has changed and you haven’t done anything, you’ve just unwrapped a Christmas present.
Feig: I start out many characters based on people I know or have met but then once you start mixing your personality into them and adjusting the characters to the story you’re telling, they start to get further and further away from the person who was the initial inspiration for them. Which is good because you never want somebody coming up to you and saying, “That bad guy was based on me, wasn’t he, you son of a bitch?”
I want their journey through the world to be what drives the story. I’ve always been less a fan of movies that are event-driven, meaning external events happening that our characters are then thrust into. I like my stories to be driven by the decisions my characters make. And so in order to do this, I have to know those characters pretty intimately so that I can be surprised by their decisions and let those decisions drive the story and relationships forward.
Holofcener: Definitely in Walking and Talking, at one point in my life, Catherine Keener’s character was very much me. So many things in that movie were kind of autobiographical, more than other movies. I guess, in Please Give, Catherine Keener’s character, not in all respects, but many respects. Eva, in Enough Said, I’m kind of all over the place. Sometimes I’m even the daughter of somebody. Like in Please Give, the daughter with the acne, she really felt like me, or I felt like her, when I was a teenager.
I feel like, well if I’m going to make fun of other people, I’m going to make fun of myself, and I always want to make fun of myself. If anything, that feels more cathartic than writing about other people, because I can show the world and myself that I know how inadequate I am, and that somehow I’m kind of forgiving myself a little bit. If I know I’m a really guilty person and I know that my guilt makes me act like an idiot half the time, it’s kind of entertaining to put it out there.
Cody: I relate to my characters, yeah, but at this point I’m hesitant to talk about it. Because for some reason — maybe because I’m female and chatty and accessible — everyone thinks EVERYTHING I write is completely autobiographical. It’s weird.
I like Jennifer in Jennifer’s Body! She had it all figured out. And I love Juno’s stepmom; she’s a badass. As for relating to a character, I think Loray (Octavia Spencer) in Paradise is an obvious extension of me. She has a lot of cool wigs and she drinks a ton.