Carmen Madden on Watching People, Writing Characters

Lisa Rosenberg November 16, 2009

Writer/director Carmen Madden, whose highly accomplished first feature, Everyday Black Man, won the Best Feature Film award at the Peachtree Village International Film Festival in Atlanta in September, and is now on the festival circuit, calls screenwriters "the first builders of the set" —of that unique world of their story. Her screenplays reflect just how intimately she comes to see and know that world and the characters that inhabit it.

In her directing role, she says that her knowledge of the worlds of her stories helps considerably when she works with actors, especially with blocking. She feels she is acting out her characters’ roles in the directing process.

With Everyday Black Man in circulation, her second feature, Shadow Fight, slated for a 2010 production, and three more films in development, Madden says that she likes to explore different people’s ideas of the American dream, the lengths to which people will go to attain their dream, and what may cause some people to forfeit it altogether. "My characters tend to press on," she says, "when others around them say they should give up." But her characters do not always achieve a generally held notion of that dream; sometimes, they are simply committed to the struggle toward it.

Madden’s writing process is both studied and intuitive. She began as a short story writer, earned a B.A. in Film and an M.A. in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, put in time as a theatre actress and toured with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Her writing process begins with a tendency to deeply observe the world around her and a constant receptivity to thoughts and ideas. "I can get an idea or a feeling from anything," she says, "something I read or see." Her intense people-watching, which has built her understanding of character, sometimes becomes a problem. "I get in trouble for staring at people," she says, laughing.

Once she is constructing a story, she makes a scene by scene outline before she launches into the screenplay, which allows her to focus on blocks or problems before they arise in the script itself. She builds character skeletons from the outside in. When she knows of the qualities and problems she wants to investigate in a character, she asks herself where their behaviors might have come from—what shaped them. "If I want to make a character helpless," she says, "I think to myself—how do I do this?"

The story behind Everyday Black Man was inspired both by the news reports of criminal activity connected with the storied Black Muslim Bakery in Oakland, California, and by a common situation in the African American community—that many children do not know who their fathers are until they grow up, or never learn who they are even then. The father’s identity tends to be such a secret that every unfamiliar visitor to a child’s home becomes a suspected father. Madden wanted to examine this secret from a father’s point of view—how he might have been affected by his separation from his child.

In the film, Moses is the middle-aged, hard-working owner of a vegetable market who struggles financially because he gives away food to people in need. He has a special soft spot for Claire, a lovely young woman whose grandmother is his regular customer. He is also partnered with an earnest, strapping, developmentally disabled young man, Sonny, who can’t help Moses at all with his business worries. The secret Moses is hiding is that he is actually Claire’s father, but he has waited many years—following tragic past mistakes that cost him his wife’s life—to feel deserving and successful enough to reveal this to Claire, which means taking the chance that she will reject his love for her.

Enter handsome, exceptionally charming Malik, who bills himself as an honest young man just trying to make a buck. In exchange for pouring $60,000 into Moses’ business, Moses grudgingly allows Malik to sell baked goods out of his store. But Malik’s plans are much more devious; he quickly begins dealing drugs out of the back of the store, and moves in to seduce Claire. When Moses challenges him, Malik lets him know that the store, and Claire, now belong to him.

A big challenge in the writing, Madden says, was pacing. An important part of the drama was keeping Moses psychologically paralyzed through much of the second act—afraid to reveal himself to Claire now that everything had gone so wrong, and unsure of how to regain the upper hand over Malik. Sure about her main dramatic points and her ending, she rewrote the second act and part of the third act many times, developing side conflicts—Malik’s growing relationship with Claire, for example, and Moses’ prospective romance with a school principal he longs to confide in, but can’t bring himself to, to keep the action moving and involving while the central conflict between Moses and Malik flared to the point of explosion, with Claire wedged dangerously between them.

In Everyday Black Man the story never completely resolves for Moses in conventional terms. The narrative leaves his fate ambiguous in the end. However, his internal needs are fulfilled; he gets everything that he really wanted.

Madden’s next, Shadow Fight, revisits those lost and absent fathers whose stories have rarely been told. This character, however, is a boxer who has to battle his son in more ways than one, just to get the chance to approach him as his father. Her trilogy of films in development—White Space, King Street and Come Home Jimmy Blue— employs a rich, shared story world in which characters in an expanded neighborhood reappear and recombine.

As she grows in sureness and accomplishment as a writer and director, Madden has some simple goals—to continue to become a better writer and to keep growing as a director. "I always think the next one is better than the last one," she says.

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