Introducing Characters / First Impressions

How to effectively introduce a character in a film is something that has fascinated me ever since I first saw the reactions to an early rough cut screening of my first documentary feature, A Will for the Woods.

I love the films I’ve seen edited by David Teague and was happy to hear his thoughts on the subject via this No Film School write up from a talk at Camden International Film Festival / the Points North Institute. I appreciated all the points listed in the article, but the one that really resonated was the advice to "introduce your character, then introduce the complexities." 

It brought me back to that early rough cut screening, where my fellow filmmakers and I found something similar to be true. In our first cut of that film, we were introducing Clark in an everyday scene – hanging out in the kitchen with his partner, Jane, while she prepared a salad for him. The conflict of his terminal illness and the concept of "green burial" were not yet revealed, but details about his life were: he plays the piano, Jane seems to take care of him, they put vegan bacon on their salads, etc. I anticipated it to be seen as a sweet introduction; however, we kept hearing from our rough cut audience that they just weren't connecting, as if to ask "Why am I watching a film about this person?"

Yet, they didn’t specify that the first scene felt that way. Rather, it was expressed as an overall impression. When we switched the opening scene to one that addressed the central issue of the film – Clark planning his own green burial – audience's instantly found him sympathetic, strong, and engaging. Later on in the film, in that same kitchen scene where he just watches as Jane does all the work preparing his food, audiences were more sympathetic to the nuance of the relationship and the characters. It was fascinating to see how the first impression had a ripple effect through the rest of the scenes.