Circumstance

What are the circumstances for the three characters in A Piece of Apple Pie? Let's start with the seemingly easiest one, Female Cop. She likes apple pie, right? Wrong! She loves apple pie! She adores apple pie! It is the highlight of her day. And she eats it on an exacting schedule at this particular diner that she has come to expect will deliver precisely what she wants. She has yet to be disappointed!

Just think for a moment what would happen to the conflict in our story if Counterman felt he had an out from the very beginning — that he could satisfy Female

Cop with a piece of key lime pie. To generalize this specific: Never give your characters an easy way out! Difficulty! Difficulty! More difficulty!

Counterman's circumstance seems obvious on first reading. He is in love with Female Cop and does not want to disappoint her. And he knows absolutely what would disappoint her. No apple pie would disappoint her. And then, who knows, she might never come back. But is there anything more than that to Counterman's circumstance this night? And if there is, where can we find it?

A place we often find more is in raising the stakes. What if Counterman had finally decided that tonight he was going to escalate the relationship — to metaphorically leap over the counter that separates customer from counterman and ask his love object for a date? Of course, it has taken him weeks — maybe months — to get his nerve up, so tonight he will allow nothing to get in his way! Counterman, then, is filled with expectation — one of the most powerful dramatic devices we have in our storytelling arsenal.

Now, what about Customer's circumstance? I have found over the years that the tendency for most beginning directors is to not push relentlessly toward the most dramatic situation, but instead to gravitate to the most obvious. For example, Customer comes in to eat a piece of apple pie and when he is told he can't have it he resorts to the threat of violence. Why? Because he is a bully. Or the other alternative is that he is simply crazy.

Is that the best we can imagine: someone who slinks into the diner in the throes of raging paranoia? How interesting can he be if he is that one-dimensional?

Suppose we imagine a man who is definitely not crazy, certainly not in the certifiable sense, but rather has been pushed around all his life — by his peers, by his wife, by his boss, maybe even his kid. Like Rodney Dangerfield, Customer gets no respect, and he has finally gotten sick of it! And today, with the nudging of his psychiatrist, he has come to a momentous decision. He is not going to take it any more! So he is actually in an expansive mood when he walks into the diner. He has come out on the town to celebrate the birth of a new man — the first day of the rest of his life. And what about the gun? Well, one of the people who pushed him around recently — literally — was a mugger. He bought the gun just to be absolutely sure that nothing will spoil this evening. Through this invention of circumstance we have come up with a clear understanding of the Customer's character. But how to explain Customer's compulsive cleanliness regarding the fork? For this film the director needn't go any further into the genesis of that trait, although the actor who plays the part will have to justify it for himself.

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