WIN WIN: Make The Truth Work For You
By Jacob Krueger
If you read Joe Tiboni’s blog, you may be surprised to discover that the real-life lawyer who inspired Paul Giamatti’s character in Win Win never assumed guardianship of a client (for money or otherwise), never committed a client to a nursing home against his will, and never was on the brink of losing his law practice. What you will learn is that Joe Tiboni is a good guy, who used to wrestle with screenwriter Tom McCarthy, who did once have a water heater blow up in his office, and who does have a true passion for representing the elderly and bringing attention to unfair elements in the law that cause them suffering.
Write a movie in which the “real” Joe Tiboni waxes poetic about the ins and out of the laws of elderly care, and you may feel like you’ve done a great deal to awareness about some very important issues.
But you probably won’t have an audience that’s listening.
Even “issue” movies are never about the issues. At least not for most of your audience. To make an audience care about the finer points of elder-care law, you’ve got to make it personal. And that means it has to deeply affect the life of your main character, and force that character to undergo a life-changing journey. As discussed in Part 1 of this series, The Lincoln Lawyer accomplishes this by forcing its character to personally deal with the horrifying complications that result from an “unfair” law.
Win Win takes the opposite approach.
Rather than making Paul Giamatti’s character the victim of an unfair law, Win Win makes the law matter dramatically by (spoiler alert): allowing the main character to exploit it for his own gain– by taking guardianship of a mentally disabled elderly client for money, and then committing him against his will to a nursing home.
Every main character needs to have a problem.
Even if your character is based on someone as wonderful as Joe Tiboni, unless they have some kind of unresolved problem they need to deal with, there’s no reason for them to have to go through the experience of the movie. (As you know if you’ve ever written a main character, movie life tends to treat them pretty harshly). Now that doesn’t mean you have to turn your main character into a bad guy at the beginning of the movie. Do that, and you’re going to lose the thing that made you want to write about a person like Joe in the first place. We’re not talking about completely fictionalizing a character. We’re talking about looking more closely at a real life guy like Joe, and asking yourself “under what circumstances would a guy like this make a mistake?”
Make The Truth Work For You
Using the real world stuff that connected him to Joe Tiboni: the broken water heater, the high school wrestling they were never any good at, and the genuine dedication to the elderly and his family that makes Joe worth writing about, Tom McCarthy simply sets up the rules of the world to create circumstances in which it would be believable that a guy as good as Joe do something as wrong as exploit his own client.
To do this, he must change some of the facts: transforming Joe from a successful lawyer into a struggling one, putting him into a crisis where he truly needs the cash to survive, and then creating the moral dilemma of the law in a way that a good guy like Joe could reasonably convince himself he wasn’t hurting anyone. Once he’s done that, he really gets to have his fun, by making the character deal with the ramifications of his mistake when he finds himself first saddled with his client’s troubled grandson, and later unable to protect the boy he’s come to love without risking his own legal career and his last chance of providing for his family.
By allowing his main character to make and struggle with a mistake, Tom McCarthy takes the law out of the intellectual realm and makes it visceral for the audience– forcing us to wrestle with the law as powerfully as his main character does.