What’s in a name?
by Barry L. Levy
This past weekend, I had the good fortune of sitting down with a mentor of mine from college. Dr. Eric Nuetzel has always been a lot of things. A husband (his wife’s awesome, btw). A father of two. A professor at Wash U’s medical school. The head of the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute.
Years ago, while his kids were still school-age and because he didn’t have enough on his plate, Eric decided that what would make life complete was to become a graduate student at Washington University’s theatre program. This was where I first met him. As you can already tell as I list off his bio, I have often been in awe of all things Eric.
What few people know though about Eric Nuetzel is that he has also been a lot of other things. Among them a cop, a coroner, a low level drug dealer… one day, I hope to make him a pimp.
I suppose the above paragraph ought to have an asterisk beside it: none of this is true. He has been those things in my screenplays. By my last count, he’s appeared in six of my scripts.
Which naturally leads me to the subject of character names. I can’t speak for other writers — although I will. But character names are a challenging endeavor. The truth is, as silly a subject as this might seem, I’ve never sat through one screenwriting class that didn’t get caught up in this very subject. If they’re too bland, well, they feel artificial. Flat. Boring. If they’re too, shall we say, colorful (like the James Bond character, “Pussy Galore”), it is a challenge to take them seriously. Somehow, you want the name to resonate and yet at the same time feel real.
For me, I tend to take a different tact. In every script I’ve ever written, I use at least one name of someone I know as an Easter egg to my friends and family. And by every script, I mean every single one.
My kids. My wife. Friends. Parents. Three of my five groomsmen. Even our pets. They’ve all appeared in them. I even used the name of an ex-aunt, which pissed off my now-aunt. It was a small moment in a script but I needed two characters to blow up, so I selected my uncle and his ex-wife. Let’s be clear, this was not well thought out. Hell, this was not thought out at all. And so I understand why the unintended consequence would be that someone might get upset. My sense is that there was a meaning read into my action. One that was deemed hurtful. In reality, I suppose the only thing I had ever intended was to give a shout out to those close to me; a private laugh and nothing more. It’s probably the same reason I have always wanted to make my esteemed mentor a pimp. For a laugh.
I still remember sitting in the theater at the premiere of Vantage Point… knowing that my wife and my folks would all get a private chuckle at the end of the film. If you’ve seen the movie, at the very end — Forest Whitaker pulls out his cell phone and calls his son, Nate. Who, oh by the way, was our family cat at the time. And Whitaker says to him, what we — verbatim — would say to our cat every morning when he woke us up.
In an early draft of Paranoia, it was my father-in-law who got the shout out.
I realize that this an odd quirk. But I’ve always had a bit of a struggle playing it straight when it comes to names. My wife had always loved the name Jordan. At first, I blanched. I had this idea that we should name our kids entirely after folks who had passed away and there wasn’t really a relative or loved one close to us with a “J” name to acknowledge. What is more, the Jewish tradition is crystal clear about how we’re never supposed to name kids after anyone who’s still alive. And the only “J” in our family is my mother, Judy.
However, after standing by my father’s side in the hospital for my mother’s second mastectomy, I watched as she began to hemorrhage. I saw her internally bleeding, saw the blood swell within her chest. Saw the tears in her eyes as she was returned to the operating room for an emergency second procedure. I knew then and there that I had to name my daughter after her — even if I was breaking with Jewish tradition to do so. My mother’s strength deserved to be honored.
Since that time, things have changed. I don’t seek the private chuckle or laugh I once did in the scripts. I still include names of loved ones in all of my scripts; I even named villainous twins after my own twins. Not because I see my daughters as evil — cruel to their younger brother sometimes, but never evil. Now I do it, out of love.
Which brings me back to Eric. I really don’t know why it is that he has been the most significant beneficiary of my “quirk.” Maybe it’s because he has a great character name, Nuetzel. It brings so much to the page.
Perhaps, it was also that Eric truly guided me through years of life. When I pitch new TV shows or movies, I know I am a great pitcher — because of Eric. Because of what I learned from him about focus. When I try to find what motivates my characters and how I can express this — I know it is because of lessons Eric taught me about character motivation and expression.
Maybe that’s why his name finds his way onto my page so frequently. Because it grounds me. But largely because of the impact that he had on me, I was excited to bring my wife to meet him before we were even engaged… and then to introduce him to our three kids in the years that followed.
The question I have often asked myself is what did, or does, any of that mean to him? Is there some small measure of satisfaction that he receives from seeing how his guidance and support has helped me?
The question hung over me like a cloud on this trip. See, my mentor has lung cancer. As a protege, I genuinely don’t how to give back to a mentor all that he has given to me. How do I say thank you to a man who has had such an effect on me?
Perhaps this is the only way I know how… to find a way to make him a pimp.Tags: Barry L. Levy, Character names, Dr. Eric Nuetzel, Hollywood, Mentor, Paranoia (film), Screenwriter, Screenwriting, Vantage Point (film)