Thursday, September 24, 2009

DVD Review: The Write Environment - Damon Lindelof

This installment of the Write Environment-series will make Lost-fans very happy. And even for those who do not count themselves as Adepts of the Island, this interview will prove very enlightening. I'm no big Lost-fan - season 1 went too slowly for me and season 2 seemed to lose its way, though by now it's back on track. But it's a hugely complicated series to run, and Lindelof provides an excellent look into the inner workings of the Lost writing process.

He's also refreshingly honest, claiming that in his opinion the series would have been better at 80 episodes rather than at 123, and admitting there were filler episodes in the first two seasons. And it is revealed that there was an idea about what the island was from the start, but that the exact nature of what it is has evolved over the years, though it's still connected to that original concept.

Other topics covered are Lindelof's career, his comic book scripting (and he makes a great point about the difference between screenwriting and writing for comic books), and the Star Trek relaunch.

This disc runs slightly shorter than the others in the series, but it's all excellent stuff.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Protagonist, antagonist & genre

As I mentioned in the review of Reflections of the Shadow, Steven De Souza causes a major scriptwriting uproar by stating in his interview that in genre scripts (action horror, science fiction, perhaps also comedy) the villain of the piece is really the protagonist, instead of the hero fulfilling this role.

Whoa. That kind of sort of invalidates a whole bunch of books and classes right there! But is this statement correct?

De Souza's argument is that in genre scripts, the villain is the active character and the hero is reacting to the actions the villain takes to achieve his/her nefarious goal. And as we all know, the protagonist is the character who is active and drives the story forward.

And when we consider genre movies, we find that in many, many cases it is correct that the villain of the piece is the one who remains active. In Die Hard, obviously, the driving force is the villain's plan. Likewise, all Bond movies start off with a villain with a nefarious master plan committing a criminal act in order to set the plan in motion. The shark in Jaws decides to eat people and continues to do so, always having Chief Brody play catch-up. In Star Wars, the Empire is poised to destroy the Rebellion once and for all, and continues to execute its ostensibly last major assault.

However, if we look at other genres, we find the picture to be less clear-cut. In several Westerns, spaghetti and otherwise, the hero is on the trail of bandits (he might be a lawman or a bounty hunter), and so he's the one hunting down the quarry.
In A Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood arrives in a rundown village run by two clans of criminals living in an uneasy state of equilibrium, and he decides to upset the apple cart and play off both gangs against each other, ultimately eliminating them both. He enters a stable situation and conciously goes about upsetting it.

Similarly, in a lot of police thrillers, the hero is working to catch a killer or unravel a mystery, and often it is this investigation that causes the bad guy to have to take additional steps in order to evade pursuit.
And quite a few horror films have a monster which is unleashed by someone either trying to control and use forbidden knowledge, or by someone innocently breaking some taboo or rule. So there the villain is only activated later in the story - at times quite late, even - and often isn't the real driving force behind the conflict.

It's clear that this 'villain is protagonist'-theory isn't applicable in all cases, even in genre scripts. But there's more.

The protagonist is traditionally described as the active character who takes all the most important decisions in the script. AND - this is really crucial - he or she is the character the audience identifies with and who we 'become' while watching the film.
And there's the missing element in De Souza's claim. Yes, Hans Grüber may be the one who is constantly active in Die Hard, forcing John McClane to react - but while we love watching Grüber, a very well-developed villain played to perfection by Alan Rickman, we certainly don't ever want to be him. Generally speaking, there is no audience identification with the villain of the piece by the mass audience.

Sure, there are some individuals who do identify more with villainous characters, and in some movie series, especially of the horror genre, the villain becomes the main attraction, and the audience doesn't come to watch evil get its comeuppance once again, but to see what gruesome and revolting kills the villain will come up with next (the Saw-, Nightmare on Elm Street- and Friday the 13th-series come to mind). But apart from these exceptions, the villain is not the one who engages the audience's emotions and imagination.

Also, we must not lose track of the fact that the protagonist is the character making the most important decisions during the story, and that the development of their character arc forms the structural spine of the story. In Die Hard, John McClane makes all the important decisions. If he decided to surrender, or to back down and wait everything out, the master plan would go off without a hitch. The fact that he decides to interfere and to keep on interfering, proves that he is the most important character in the entire story.

So, whereas in genre scripts your villain can and usually should be the most active character, the hero remains the protagonist because of the fact that they are always the character through whose eyes we experience the story and who we are emotionally connected to; and because their personal evolution is the foundation of the script's structure. The only time this 'rule' truly does not apply is when you make the villain the focus of your story, and you are presenting the events from his point-of-view.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Book Review: Reflections of the Shadow: Creating Memorable Heroes and Villains for Film and TV by Jeffrey Hirschberg (Michael Wiese Press)

As the title indicates, this book focuses on creating powerful and memorable protagonists and antagonists. Jeffrey Hirschberg starts off with analyzing what makes a hero and a villain, and then illustrates his findings with portraits of ten unforgettable heroes and villains. Heroes include Peter Parker, Rick Blaine, Atticus Finch and Indiana Jones among others, while the villains count Darth Vader, Hans Gruber, nurse Ratched and the Joker in his most recent screen outing among their lot.

The second part of the book starts off with a number of shortish but excellent interviews with screenwriters David Koepp, Steven de Souza, David Franzoni and James Dearden about their heroic and villainous creations. Hirschberg then offers help in developing your own villains and heroes and proposes his Persona-tool to aid with the job (a character-building list of questions). He then compares the 'treks' of the hero and the villain in a couple of films, applying their development to the three-act structure, and his finishes off (somewhat incongruously) with his 11 Laws of Storytelling which obviously cover a far wider range of topics.

Hirschberg writes in a very accessible style, and this book can also be read and enjoyed by film buffs who want to know more about how movies are put together. There are some interesting analyses to be found here, and Hirschberg's definition of what constitutes a villain and a hero can be applied practically to any script development process. His concept that villains are basically outsiders who want to belong but are inherently unable to is well supported by the examples he gives here, though there have also been villains who are part of society and authority and who find their power base there (the Emperor from Star Wars is a good example).

I must single out the description of Indiana Jones as a great hero though, as Hirschberg doesn't mention one of Jones' most important aspects: he is extremely unlucky and extremely lucky at the same time, rarely wins a fight by himself, and at times he's more of a parody of the idealized square-jawed hero rather than the real deal. Personally, I think that James Bond is a far more interesting hero figure to examine than Indiana Jones, but even so, I was disappointed that this apparent dichotomy in the character was simply ignored.

Steven De Souza in his interview mentions something which turns conventional screenwriting wisdom on its head: he claims that in genre screenwriting, the villain is the protagonist (the active character) whereas the hero, who generally reacts to the misdeeds of the villain, is actually the antagonist! Later on in the book, Hirschberg follows this train of thought in a couple of the three-act analyses he does. I'm going to write a blog post about this, as it definitely bears looking into; but no matter whether you agree with this or not, it does point out that in a good genre film, the villain must be active throughout the script.

I feel that Reflections of the Shadow is best suited to screenwriting students and beginning writers overall, as the concepts discussed here will be most valuable to people still learning the screenwriting ropes and coming to terms with some of the basic concepts of storytelling and development. The interview section is valuable for any writer regardless of level - it is for me without a doubt the highlight of the book.

You can get it here:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Coming up in September...

On September 9, next Wednesday, I'm scheduled to hold a talk on television comedy for the Scenaristengilde at the Huis van de Vlaamse Film, Bisschofsheimlaan 38, 1000 Brussels. It starts at 8 pm and is followed by a Q&A session.

And at the end of this month, I'm starting the second session of my screenwriting basics course at Miles Academy in Vilvoorde (100m from the train station). Beginning on Saturday September 29, this course will run until November 21 in 7 day-long sessions, and will provide a very thorough look at all the fundamental elements of screenwriting. More information can be found over at the Miles Academy website. Hope to see you there!