It was W.C. Fields who famously cautioned fellow actors against ever working with animals or children.
After all, who can resist that scene-stealing cuteness, projection of vulnerability and unabashed mirth that seems to come to them so naturally? This month’s screenwriting exercises turn the spotlight on animal costars that know how to speak volumes with their eyes, steal audiences’ hearts, play matchmaker and sometimes even save the day.
These discussion questions provide a good foundation prior to choosing which exercises to try first.
1. How many movies can you think of that featured an animal in a major role?
2. How many TV show characters can you think of that have pets? If your favorite TV character doesn’t have a pet and asked you to choose one for him/her, what would it be and why?
3. What kinds of animals have you seen in commercials and why are they effective as advertising icons?
4. Do you have a pet? If so, what kind of movie or TV program would be a good fit for your pet’s personality or talents?
5. Who is your favorite animal actor and why?
6. Do you think that animals in movies should talk like humans, have subtitles or say nothing at all? Why?
7. To evoke audience anger, fear or sadness, filmmakers often resort to the cliché of killing off an innocent creature. How do you feel about that?
Against the frozen backdrop of the Antarctic, Emperor Penguin parents have adopted unique roles when it comes to bringing new life into the world. Specifically, the female lays a single egg and then hops off into the ocean with her gaggle of gal pals for two months of fishing. Dad, in the meantime, must delicately balance and cradle the egg on top of his webbed feet so that the shell’s surface never touches the ice. To do so would cause the developing embryo to die. Although this significantly reduces the male’s ability to do much more than stand around in a chilly huddle with his peers and wait for his spouse’s return, this degree of self-sacrifice for the unborn offspring has led to Emperor Penguins having a higher survival rate than other penguin species.
Your assignment: The lead character in your movie is a lazy teenager who refuses to help his single mom take care of his baby sister. A passing enchantress hears about this and decides to teach him an important lesson in responsibility. He awakens the next morning and finds himself at the South Pole in the body of a penguin. The curse can only be broken if the egg in his possession successfully hatches. Write a one-page film treatment that addresses the obstacles, distractions and threats in his new environment and how he experiences a character arc that transforms him.
DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES
BUT PARROTS ARE NATURAL BORN YAKKERS
It seemed like an odd but lovely gesture when an anonymous fan sent an Amazon parrot as a gift to one of Hollywood’s most talked about celebrities. Although s/he isn’t really a bird person, the parrot is obviously a very expensive token of someone’s admiration and it is, thus, ensconced in a fancy gilded cage in the star’s living room where everyone who drops by can see it. Soon thereafter, the tabloids suddenly start running stories that only the celebrity and a small handful of trusted associates could possibly know were the truth and not just gossip.
Your Assignment: Identify who the sender of the parrot was and the motivation behind their “talkative” gift. Write a two-page scene in which the sender divulges to someone else how s/he came up with the plan and what the ultimate objective is.
A FACE YOU CAN TRUST
Who can resist a charming and articulate lizard with a plucky Cockney accent telling you how much you can save on car insurance? Apparently Martin’s popularity with viewers has the competition worried and they realize they need to come up with a spokes-critter of their own that will win fans and influence sales.
Your Assignment: The advertising agency you work for has given you the assignment of finding a clever mascot. You have it narrowed down to three non-human candidates that can be any species of your choice. Write a one-paragraph “audition” piece for each one that reflects their individual personalities and your ability to deliver vocal variety.
RINNY TO THE RESCUE
When I was growing up, I wanted to join the cavalry. I’m pretty sure that cavalries were no longer in existence in the 1950’s but my weekly exposure to The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin made life at Fort Apache look pretty exciting. I think I probably also had a crush on Lt. Rip Masters because he looked so dashing in that uniform. Mostly, though, I wanted to have a big dog like the fearless Rinny who could easily match Lassie in the heroism department.
Your Assignment: You’ve been hired to write for a new TV series about a cavalry unit holding down a fort in the Old West. This is a very low budget production company, however, and the cost of getting a trained dog is more than they can afford. Your instructions are to be creative and come up with a different animal that will serve as the fort’s mascot. Write a one page overview of the first episode in which you (1) introduce the animal actor, (2) describe its attributes and (3) explain how it saves the day and endears itself to the cavalry.
In 2012, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to a black and white “silent” film called The Artist. One of the costars of this film was an engaging Jack Russell terrier named Uggie who walked away that same evening with The Golden Collar for Best Dog in a Theatrical Film. The premise of the movie revolves around the advent of “talkies” and how they impacted the careers of actors who had previously been able to make a nice living by not having to speak any lines.
Your Assignment: Write a two-page scene in which a 1920’s director tells his star that the only way the latter can save his/her career is to start acting with a dog. The star, however, is either allergic to canines or terrified of them. Write a second version of the same scene in which the entire exchange is pantomimed by the two actors.
As part of my ongoing commitment to supply great lesson plans for today’s classrooms, I always enjoy getting feedback on how the material is used and what kind of new content you’d like to see in future columns. I’m also happy to answer any questions related to specific problems your students may be struggling with. Just drop me a note at or through my website at http://www.authorhamlett.com.
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, professional script consultant, and ghostwriter. Her credits to date include 26 books, 144 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.