What I learned from David Milch and/or Vince McMahon
how NYPD Blue & pro wrestling helped me get my lead character over with the audience
A common mistake, no matter your experience level: assuming that your audience is going to be invested in your lead character simply by virtue of them being your lead character.
Now, this isn’t a “save the cat” sort of deal. Or “pet the dog” or whatever. Or is it? I don’t know. I don’t really have first hand knowledge of those sorts of guru screenwriting guidebooks — I happen to think Alexander Mackendrick’s On Filmmaking and that Craig Mazin podcast where he talks about Finding Nemo provide about 90% of what you really need to know as a screenwriter. Then you can fill in the rest by reading a lot of scripts, watching a lot of shit, trial and error on your own scripts, and then maybe sprinkle in other random resources (like this substack) to fill in the last 3% or whatever you need to learn.
Anyway, your lead character. I think the best thing you can do is make your audience actively curious about them and invested in their journey. My go-to example here is Tony Soprano. It’s not just that he’s this badass mob guy that makes him interesting. I think it’s that he’s this badass mob guy who gets endearingly emotionally invested in the family of ducks living in his pool.
Lesser scripts give you the equivalent of the badass mob element of their lead character. But they forget to also give you the ducks. Or, vice versa. It’s the archetype and the hyper-specific deviation from that archetype combined into one character that’s compelling to me. That’s what makes a lead character specific, mysterious, fascinating, addictive. But so often, as storytellers, we get lazy and try to get away with just the archetype, or just the ducks. And that leads us to Vince McMahon.
Getting someone over is a term I take from pro wrestling. It simply means getting the audience invested in a wrestler’s character, by whatever means. This is often a trickier proposition than you would think.
Nowadays, Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson is like the biggest movie star in the world. And I’m pretty sure everyone knows that he first came to prominence in the WWE as one of the most popular pro wrestlers in history, up there with Stone Cold Steve Austin, Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, John Cena and maybe one or two other figures in terms of pure ubiquity.
But unless you’re a pro wrestling fan, you’re probably not aware that The Rock was a total, complete flop when first introduced onto the wrestling scene as Rocky Maivia, the “blue chip” scion of a legendary wrestling family. He arrived as a goody-two-shoes, always smiling and positive clean cut babyface, full of positive energy.
And how did the pro wrestling audience respond to this obviously gifted, wholesome, handsome new hero? Very quickly, he was greeted with chants of “Die Rocky Die.”
Why did the audience reject the hero? Partially, they resented how quickly WWE boss Vince McMahon was pushing Rocky as a champion, essentially short-cutting the process of winning the fans’ respect. But I think part of it was that this Rocky Maivia character offered no real deviation from the good guy prototype. He said the right things. He smiled. He was respectful. He was handsome and positive and boring as fuck.
Eventually, WWE turned Rocky into a heel and he started berating the audience. And in this villainous role, Dwayne Johnson was able to infuse his own singular verbal gifts and wit into the Rocky character, who became known as The Rock. So by the time that The Rock became a babyface hero again, he wasn’t some smiling do-gooder. He was a hyper-verbal insult machine full of bravado and charisma. He was both a buff-handsome heroic archetype and a specific smartass deviation from that archetype. He was full of human complexity. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him.
Vince McMahon keeps making the same mistake over and over again: trying to force new lead character heroes onto the wrestling audience simply because they fit his retro idea of central casting. So he keeps introducing these big beefy buff dudes with traditional good looks and jock attitudes, but who on first iteration have very little else to offer. It’s as though Vince McMahon believes that the sheer fact that he selected Roman Reigns to be the new big hero of his story should be enough to make the audience care about them. But the audience actively rejects these pre-annointed heroes, over and over again.
It sounds like the height of storytelling folly. Except…I did pretty much the same thing.
When I first wrote the pilot for Damnation, I was nervous about its dusty period setting — it’s set mostly in Iowa, at the height of the Great Depression — being an obstacle to it ever getting made. Somehow, as a total nobody, I had to get a series of LA and NY based network and studio executives enchanted enough by this dusty, distant world of farmers, workers, miners, and agitators to finance the multi-million dollar production of the show.
My problem was that most people think of 1930s Iowa as being boring and dusty. My creative solution was to lean into this world's potential for action, violence, and surprise. Therefore, my pilot script starts off with a violent action scene.
In my original pilot, we see this blockade of armed Iowa farmers stopping the truck of another local farmer who's trying to take his milk into town to sell it. The only problem is, all of the farmers are supposed to be on strike in an effort to raise milk prices so they can make enough money to keep the bank from stealing their farms. (This is all loosely based on actual events, by the way.)
So, the striking farmers are pissed off at this milk farmer, whose actions threaten to undermine the entire enterprise. The strike leader pulls a gun and tells the milk farmer to dump out all of his milk. But suddenly, a cowboy dude pops up from hiding in the back of the milk truck and shoots the farmers' leader square in the forehead, killing him.
This is our introduction to Creeley, the cowboy strikebreaking Pinkerton sent to stop the farmer’s strike.
Next, after this encounter, we then go to a small country church, where a well-liked, unconventional preacher is giving a pro-labor organizing sermon in favor of the striking farmers. Afterwards, he's distraught to hear that the farmer leader — a friend of his — has been killed.
This is our introduction to Seth, a man with a violent past who is masquerading as a preacher in his effort to start a homegrown working class revolution in America.
Preacher Seth is our protagonist, our flawed hero, the man with a high stakes goal: start a worker's revolution or die trying. Creeley is our antagonist, a dastardly villain, the man trying to stop our hero.
In script form, when the Damnation pilot circulated, we got great reactions. The immediate sudden explosion of violence in the opening pages set the tone for the rest of the read. This wasn’t a boring history lesson. This was an old school Clint Eastwood western set in the world of John Steinbeck. The first director I sent it to signed onto the project. We pitched it around town and had multiple networks interested in buying the project and we finally ended up at USA Network and got the green light to film the pilot. We made a casting list for Seth and Creeley, and the first actors we sent the script to signed on to play the parts. Great momentum all around.
We filmed the pilot. I worked and worked on fine-tuning my cut of it, inviting different studio and network execs into the cutting room to preview the pilot as I went along. I incorporated their feedback where I could. More and more people got on team Damnation. It had great buzz in the studio/network complex.
Finally, it was time to do a test screening of the pilot for a small group of everyday people. We screened it and it did....just ok. At best. It had two main problems.
Our lesser problem was that the test audience members had trouble understanding the situation in the Iowa town. Some of it was due to the pilot jumping right into the action without establishing what was going on with the farmer strike. It didn’t help that multiple test screening viewers didn't even know what being on strike meant, while others — mostly younger viewers — said they didn’t know what the Great Depression even was.
Now, there’s only so much you can do about some of that without overhauling the American education system. But — the situation between the farmers and the town could’ve been better dramatized. This was a price I paid for starting off the show with an immediate burst of action. My creative action-sequence solution to my "dusty 1930s" problem had created a new problem. Fair enough.
The bigger problem was that after this test screening, significant more viewers were rooting for Creeley (our villain) to crush the farmers’ strike than for Preacher Seth (our hero) to help lead them to better lives.
That is, I suddenly realized that I managed to go all the way through the writing, filming, and editing process on Damnation without giving the audience a personal reason to get invested in my main character. Uh oh.
Thankfully, this is where a David Milch DVD commentary ambles into the picture to save my ass.
When it came out in 1993, NYPD Blue was a huge hit. People loved the combo of Dennis Franz’s Sipowicz and David Caruso’s John Kelly. They especially loved Caruso’s Kelly, who was an unexpected sex symbol and breakout character. But apparently Caruso was a huge pain in the ass and famously walked off set on the last day of filming season one, quit the show, and got into a limousine that was waiting to whisk him off to a big time movie career that never really happened.
For season two, David Milch had an impossible situation: introducing Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) as Caruso’s replacement. If there was ever a situation custom-built for a character to tank, this was it. It’d be like if Stone Cold Steve Austin walked away from wrestling and the next week Rocky Maivia was forced upon the audience as his replacement.
In the commentary to the NYPD Blue DVD set, Milch talks about this impossible situation. He knew viewers wouldn’t give Simone a fair shot at replacing a beloved character. For all intents and purposes, Caruso’s departure threatened to tank the entire show. If Milch couldn’t get Simone over, people would stop watching. So how could Milch do it?
Should he make him a carbon copy of Kelly? Or the exact opposite? Should he make Simone a mixture of Kelly’s best qualities and Jimmy Smits’ considerable actorly strengths?
Milch had a different approach. In the very first scene, when Simone arrives at the station, Simone simply introduces himself and offers to shake Sipowicz’s hand. Sipowicz immediately goes to his superior and says, essentially, “I can’t work with this son of a bitch. He walks in here like he owns the place, offering to shake my hand. I can’t stand him.”
Why did Milch do this? He anticipated how the viewer was going to feel about Simone. But instead of running away from it, he had another character actually say those feelings aloud and act out the audience’s distrust right there on screen, with a little exaggeration for effect. And all of the sudden, without even being fully aware of it, the audience starts pulling for Simone to win over the unfairly distrustful Sipowicz, the communicator of their very own feelings about Simone.
It worked. Milch and company successfully overcame the departure of their breakout character. Over the next five seasons, Simone became a beloved, cherished character in his own right. NYPD Blue itself became an institution and ran for an astonishing 12 seasons.
Apparently, one way to solve a nagging problem with one of your characters is to put that problem right onto the screen and dramatize it.
After our middling test screening for the Damnation pilot, all of our momentum stalled. In fact, the network declined to order us to series. But luckily, myself and my Damnation team and our biggest studio and network advocates are all the hard-headed and relentless types. So instead of accepting defeat, we came up with a strategy: we’d recut the pilot with test screening results in mind, we’d make a sizzle trailer designed to show how to market the show, and I’d write new pages that would address any remaining issues coming out of the test screening.
The number one issue was getting Preacher Seth over with the audience. It wasn’t a problem with actorly performance any more than Rocky Maivia’s debut was the fault of Dwayne Johnson. Killian Scott crushed the scenes he was given. I just hadn’t given him the right scenes.
After the test screening, I knew I needed to write Seth-centric scenes that would come before the farmer blockade shootout and Creeley’s dynamic introduction. But what kind of scenes? How could I get Seth over in just a couple of pages?
This was about as practical as screenwriting problems get. I had to find a way to recalibrate audience feelings about my protagonist in just a few pages. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t get to make the show. And I might not ever get another chance like this again.
After the test screening, I realized that I had stacked the deck, structurally, against Seth: he was introduced after Creeley, and in a passive manner (sermon). It didn’t help that he was a preacher, a profession that Hollywood often portrays as the milieu of monsters and frauds. So of course folks preferred the active, dynamic Creeley — he’s a highly capable guy with no pretenses of respectability who was introduced to them first.
I’d made the Vince McMahon mistake. I’d assumed, because I’d chosen a character as my lead, that the audience would support him. I didn’t give my lead character a chance to actively win the viewer over, or at least deeply intrigue them, on screen.
So when I was writing this new Seth material, I thought about what Milch had done when introducing Bobby Simone to a skeptical audience. I decided I’d dramatize the viewer’s skepticism right there on the screen.
After the screening, I realized that modern test audiences were so cynical about men of the cloth that they were instantly skeptical of Preacher Seth when he was introduced as a Rocky Maivia-esque good guy. For the first half of the pilot, until his violent side came out, Seth was pretty much just a good guy, with no specific deviation from that archetype. By the time his violent side was revealed, most people had already decided that they were Team Creeley. I had to change this significantly.
So I wrote a new opening scene: Preacher Seth is nailing up a religious pamphlet. He hears gunshots. He walks over to see an old guy shooting his rifle at a chicken coop. Weird. What’s going on? It turns out, there’s an egg thief hiding in the coop and the old guy is trying to kill whoever it is.
Seth checks and sees that the egg thief is actually a hungry young woman who only wanted to take one egg. The old man still wants to shoot the thief anyway.
And this presented my first opportunity to dramatize the audience’s skepticism of my main character. Seth wants to stop the old man from shooting at the girl. Seth starts off by offering spiritual salvation to the old man—if the old man shows mercy, Seth is sure God will show mercy in return. But the old dude is not persuaded by mere spirituality. He still wants to shoot the damn thief.
Instead of lecturing or scolding the old man, Seth laughs and pivots. Instead of salvation, he now offers to deliver some fresh buttermilk if the old dude will just chill out. Now the old dude finally relents.
So, Seth does a good deed, saving the girl. But more importantly, he demonstrates that he’s not some haughty, tight-ass preacher. He’s a practical guy willing to meet people on their level. This is a small but key element of his character that I could only dramatize by having the other character actively refuse Seth’s man of God routine.
Next, Preacher Seth gives a ride home to the egg thief. It turns out, the hungry young woman lives in the woods. Seth says she should come to his church, where they serve meals. The young woman says she'd rather live in the woods and go hungry than listen to some preacher tell her how to live.
This was my second opportunity to get people's prejudices about preachers and suspicions about Seth on screen right away: they're snooty, they're hypocrites, they're useless when it comes to worldly matters. For him to get over, the viewer has to think Seth is a deviation from this type.
So, to show that he's not like most preachers, Seth gives the girl advice: she shouldn't settle for just stealing eggs. She should steal the entire hen (simple economics).
Then Seth gives her something: while he was rescuing the girl from getting shot by the old timer, he managed to swipe a couple of eggs himself. "We're all a part of God's body," he says, "All I did was shift these eggs from His right hand to His left."
He takes the eggs from his pocket and hands them to the girl, then drives away to give his sermon.
Now, these two scenes aren’t anything anyone will be writing big thinkpieces about. But — they worked. Along with a new edit of the pilot and the sizzle trailer, this new script opening convinced the network that a viewer would get behind Seth. And it mostly did so by giving him opportunities to show that he didn't inhabit the bad shit people associate with men of the cloth. These scenes were dramatic little scenarios that demonstrated how Seth was a deviation from his archetype. He was a preacher, yes. But also a thief and an agitator. Maybe there was something here to get invested in.
There’s no one way to get a character over. So much depends on the story and the character and the genre and everything else. But I do find the “archetype + specific deviation from the archetype” rubric to generally be a useful one. If your character is the hero, what’s the specific way that they deviate from just fitting the heroic prototype? Same with a villain, or an anti-hero, or a femme fatale, or what have you.
And as a practical tool, if you find yourself getting honest negative notes about a lead character, consider incorporating those notes into the script itself. That is, if people tell you that your lead character is a little boring, or too passive, or too much of an asshole or pity-party type, then put those notes into the mouths of other characters and force your lead character to deal with it, or overcome it.
There’s more than one way to get your character over. And for me, I don’t usually even think in these terms until the revision stage. But whether it’s Rocky Maivia or Seth Davenport, just being presented as the lead character isn’t enough. Your lead’s gotta win over the viewer and get their investment. Such investment can’t just be assumed or granted. It’s gotta be earned.
Insightful, entertaining and extremely valuable. Thank you, Tony. You unexpectedly filled both my wrestling AND screenwriting needs.
“It didn’t help that multiple test screening viewers didn't even know what being on strike meant, while others — mostly younger viewers — said they didn’t know what the Great Depression even was.”
Out of curiosity, how does one become a test screening viewer? I’ve heard so many stories like this and, aside from weeping over zoomers not knowing anything about the Depression, it makes me wonder if just anyone can do it.
That first scene subtly yet efficiently sparked my affection for Seth because a) he was so clearly unafraid of a farmer irrational enough to blow away his own valuable chickens, b) his proselytizing to the homeless gal was clearly more a statement of personal philosophy than the residue of dogma, and c) the actor had great energy. The pilot hooked me immediately, and I learned a lot. Though I’m still kind of amazed you were able to sell anyone in Hollywood on your poverty-laden political western!
Thanks so much for inviting us into your process. I’ve written a feature length screenplay and now I’m working on a pilot for a series (contemporary adaptation of a classic). I can’t tell you how helpful it is to read your POV on the elements that inform the first impressions of both a busy studio executive and an average audience.