Monday, July 25, 2011

Justify Your Villains

You should always approach your antagonists (or villains, or whatever you want to call them - basically the forces in opposition to your protagonist, or hero) in the same way you do your heroes: you should understand their motives and what they want should make sense. They way they go about trying to get what they want ought to make sense as well.

A film is so much more powerful and compelling if what the antagonist wants is in direct opposition to the what the protagonist wants. In other words: there's no way they can both get what they want. Only one can succeed.

But too many films just have a villain opposing the hero for the sole reason of creating conflict in the story, and if you really dissect the film and try to figure out the logic of the villain's plan, there is none.

I'm not a big fan of movies where the antagonist is just "evil" and wants to "control the world". As much as there are people in the world who crave unlimited power and money, they always have a specific reason why they turned out that way, and they always have a very specific overall goal they're heading for. But usually in movies where the villain "wants to take over the world" there's no thought put into making them like their real-life counterparts. I find it much more interesting and compelling when the villain is a rational person who feels they have every right to get what they are trying to get, no matter how outlandish their desires are. Because it's more true to the way people are: nobody walks around thinking "I'm evil, and I love being evil, how am I going to mess up the world today?" People are great at justifying and rationalizing their own actions so that they're the hero of their own lives and everything that they do is reasonable and even honorable from their point of view. People are really good at talking themselves into thinking they "deserve" to have pretty much whatever they want. People are even good at convincing themselves that when they do selfish things, they're actually doing them to help other people. People are endlessly fascinating and have an amazing capacity to talk themselves into believing things they really want to believe.

SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT from this point on...

Mother Gothel in "Tangled" is a good example to illustrate this point. At the beginning of the movie, she found a magical flower in the middle of a forest that kept her young. When it was stolen from her, she felt justified in stealing it back from the people that had stolen it from her. Sounds perfectly reasonable, right? .

She was a tricky character to work on, when it came to motivation. There were versions of the story when her "ownership" of the flower was much more legitimate. In early versions of the movie that we storyboarded, she actually owned the flower and kept it in her garden, behind a wall of her house (which she had built around the flower when she first found it hundreds of years ago). In that version, everyone knew about the magical flower. The King, when his pregnant wife fell ill, came begging for help in curing his sick wife. He offered Gothel anything for the flower, or even a piece of the flower, but being selfish, she refused him.

The King walked away empty handed and heartbroken. Unbeknownst to the King, later one of his men broke into Gothel's garden and stole the flower. The King used it to heal his sick wife, and the baby is born.

In retrospect, this may seem like a silly thing to have tried out. You don't like the King much for using a flower that was stolen, even if it wasn't done explicitly on his orders. But we thought it might work and still enable the audience to see Gothel as the villain of the story, because her reaction to the theft of her flower is to kidnap the King and Queen's baby. Kidnapping a baby is so much worse of a crime than stealing a flower and we thought that would make her seem much more evil than the King (or his men) in the audience's eyes. Also, the King's motives for his theft seemed more altruistic: Gothel was using the flower to stay young and alive in an unnatural way, whereas the King wanted the flower to save an unborn innocent. So what the King was doing seemed ultimately more noble and honorable than what Gothel was up to. So we thought it might work, and the audience will still like the King and root against Gothel.

But when we screened that version of the movie in storyboard form for the studio, a lot of people had sympathy for Gothel and the fact that she was the victim of a theft, especially because the first crime - the one that started the whole thing - wasn't committed by her, it was committed against her. Many viewers sent us notes saying that they had so much sympathy for Gothel and they felt so bad for her having her property stolen that they never had any empathy for the King or Rapunzel. To them, Gothel was in the right and was, in some ways, the hero of the story, which was throwing everything off.

Although this wasn't what we intended, I wasn't totally discouraged by this happening to the audience; I liked that people had some understanding of Gothel's motives and some measure of sympathy for her, because it meant that we were creating a very real antagonist, with real humanity and with real reason for doing the awful things she was doing, and not just an evil witch who was doing horrible things for evil's sake. But at the same time the audience has to feel more for the King and Rapunzel than they do for Gothel, so we were going too far. We had to tip the scales somehow.

So we carefully adjusted things to make the King less complicit in a crime against Gothel. We took the flower out of her garden and put it out in the middle of the forest, where it can't be considered anyone's "property". Even though Gothel took pains to keep it hidden, when the villagers who are looking for it come upon it, we orchestrated events so that there's no sign that anyone has been using it. And we didn't have Gothel confront them or try to stop them from stealing it. So they couldn't have known that anyone else had ever discovered the flower. All that helped to make it feel less like a theft of private property, and just a case of people finding an herb growing wild in the forest and taking it home to use for medicinal purposes.

Also having all the guards and villagers go to look for it helped put over the point we were trying to make - instead of the King and his guards going to get it, if the whole kingdom goes to look for it, it feels like the entire population of the Kingdom loves their King and Queen and by extension the audience likes them and has empathy for them. They must be good rulers and kind to their people, after all, if their people are willing to go to all that trouble for them. So that helps in making the viewer root for them.

But there were always some people that felt that we were making Gothel too human and understandable in her motives. While the film was being made (and even after it was released) there were people that told me that they felt we should have made Gothel more of an "evil witch". They felt that Gothel should have not been nice to Rapunzel and not bothered to masquerade as the girl's mother. After all, they would say, shouldn't she just chain Rapunzel to the wall, throw her bread and water once in a while, and use the hair whenever she wants?

There are a few reasons why I don't think that was the way to go, and why we went the way we did.

First and foremost, that approach is very dark and unappealing. It basically becomes a "Saw" movie. We were already telling a story about a kidnapping and a girl locked in a prison for eighteen years. No matter how you handle it, that's a dark and terrifying concept, especially in a movie that we wanted to appeal to all ages. So we thought it would be more palatable to the audience to make the prison a "gilded cage" - a place where the surroundings are really nice and the girl has everything she could ever need. It becomes a nicer place to look at visually on screen, and makes Gothel smarter - she's given the girl everything she could ever want, hoping to keep the girl stuck there and never wanting to leave.

(Also it's interesting to note that it's true to the concept in the original fairy tale, where the evil fairy gave Rapunzel everything she ever wanted, including a magical wardrobe that created whatever dresses where in style at the moment).

We also considered that Gothel might relate to the girl in the same way that she related to the flower originally. In order to encourage flowers to grow, people make sure they have all the water, sunlight and nutrients they need. People even talk to and play music for flowers to help them grow.

If we had created a situation where Rapunzel is kept like a prisoner in a dark and horrible tower, then it's an entirely different movie. She would already be set in her mind to escape from the beginning - there's no internal struggle between whether she should go or not, which I think is emotional and entertaining. And in that type of scenario, when she gets her chance to escape her imprisonment, she will run and never look back. There's not a lot of emotion to that type of movie - it's more like a prison escape story - and that's not the movie we wanted to make. Also our approach made our characters a lot smarter, in my mind: Gothel knows any normal person will have questions about the outside world and want to see it at some point. So why not create a wonderful home that's comfortable and will be that much harder to leave? And when the real world isn't as nice, won't Rapunzel be more likely to want to return? Also, we wanted Gothel to always be undercutting the girl's confidence in subtle ways, and filling her with fear about the world, so that she's doing all she can to keep the girl in the tower while appearing to be a nice, caring mother who's concerned for her daughter's well-being.

We wanted Rapunzel to be a very smart person, first and foremost. If her home had seemed like as prison in any way we figured she would have run away at the first opportunity, or else she would have seemed pretty dumb. The same thing if her mother had been mean to her constantly...a smart person would run from that and never look back. So we thought it would be better, more interesting (and more appealing to watch) if Gothel pretends to love the girl, but in reality she doesn't care at all about her and everything Gothel is doing is meant to keep the girl right where she is.

Anyway, the point being that I much prefer to have villains (as well as heroes) that are grounded in reality and remind of us the people we meet and read about in the news every day: people with real motivation for what they do and not some cartoony unrealistic plot to take over the world. If you can make your antagonists seem like real people who have been pushed a bit too far by their sense that they've been wronged, or convinced themselves that they deserve something, and are going just a bit over the line in their pursuit of what they feel they are owed, you can create a great memorable villain that feels real, and grounded, and all the more scary because they remind us of real people that actually do that kind of thing in our world every day.


Aaron Ludwig said...

Fascinating read. Great stuff! Thanks for posting this.

S said...

*SPOILER ALERT* Thank you for this. I knew/realized when I first saw the movie why she had to be someone Rapunzel loved, and why Rapunzel needed to be torn about her decision to leave, it made sense, and it was so well done. However, I didn't know the background about her initially owning the plant, as the witch in the original story did. This is such cool information. I really love "story behind the scenes" as this one, and the story for this movie in my opinion was exceptionally well done. Thank you very much for this information.

Mirelmture said...

This is really interesting and great advice. I can't wait to explore my villains more when creating them now. I loved the relationship of Rapunzel and her mother in this movie. I like to think that somewhere in her subconscious the witch had grown to love Rapunzel, but just like some real people, she didn't show it properly and let her ambitions rule. Like you said, this made her seem very real as well as created a story that is very emotional. It reminds me of the Witch, played by Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods. I can't help but love her, even while rooting for the heros. Besides, she sings really well! :D

Jennifer said...

Excellent piece, spot on. Gothel was varied and faceted and it made her absolutely terrible. Wonderful job!

Michael Barquero said...

Man, this was awesome. Just commenting to keep these posts up, so much knowledge. Thanks!

Ryan said...

Great post. I always love reading the filmmakers' thought process behind storytelling decisions.

Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed your blog for a while now. Thanks for the thought provoking posts.

I noticed that the "Gilded cage" scenario you decided on sounds quite similar to that used in "The Truman Show". Also quite effectively.

joscha said...

Hey Mark, interesting post. I see what you mean but for me it didn't completely work the way you describe in this post. First of all, I never saw Mother love Rapunzel: whenever they are together she is making demeanig remarks on Rapunzel's appearence. Rapunzel might be getting anything she desires but there is clearly a lot of psychological abuse going on: not really a sign of love.

As the matter of fact I experienced Mother as the most evil Disney villain I can remember. Because, where most Disney antagonists only threaten to do something bad, Mother has done something very evil (stealing a child) and has since been abusing this girl for eighteen years. This is one of the few villains whose actions actually have consequences. (Gaston and Jafar for instance only start to actually act out their plans near the ending, moments before they are defeated.)

The scene where the king and queen light the lantern as the king cries was very powerful. It emphasises these consequences of Mother's selfish act.

Please don't get me wrong: I really enjoyed Rapunzel you guys did an awesome job. And I actually thought it was brilliant storytelling to have a female villain with a rather modest desire (not wanting to conquer the world or something) be so extremely mean and threatening. Well done, sir!

dancing platypuss said...

interesting... 2 me tangled was one of the best films ever written... specially main characters.I love the complexity of them...:)

Rodney Baker said...

Hey Mark,
Thanks, I needed that!

You are right and Rapunzel is a better story for what was done with Mother Gothel. What I'm about to suggest is me exploring the matter. Please pardon if it sounds argumentative.

Your explanation of Mother Gothel's original background may fill in a missing piece that explains why I had reservations regarding her character. Namely, from the very beginning she was a fairly sympathetic character.

The villains criticism: It is only in these worlds of fantasy that we tend to find pure villainy (evil for evil's sake). Now, why take that away by making her more real and therefore more sympathetic? If we want real we can just pick up the newspaper.

Have you seen Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston's book on Disney Villains? (Now you've got me wanting to read it)

The heroes (salvation) criticism: If Mother Gothel wasn't 'evil' but simply misguided by self interest then there surely must have been something our heroes (and the writers!) could have done to save her from her fate. Too close to a real life tragedy for comfort. Simply put... we failed her.

The guys/gals who worked on Tangled deserve serious praise and my thoughts on villainy can never do anything to negate this. I do however miss those villains we just love to hate.

Consider more on the same subject please! :)

mark kennedy said...

Aaron - thanks for commenting!

S - Great, glad you enjoyed the read!

Mirelmture - thanks for the comment, you know, I've never seen Into the Woods, I'll check out the link. Thanks!

Jennifer - thanks!

Michael - thanks!

Ryan - glad you liked it!

Anon - true. thanks for commenting!

joscha - yes, I think we agree on that - Gothel didn't love Rapunzel, but only pretended to...and told the girl she was protecting her, when really the opposite was true. Glad you enjoyed the film.

Platypuss - great, glad you enjoyed it!

Hey Rodney - I find that fantasy works better for me if it is more grounded in reality, if that makes any sense. The more that world can relate to our own and seem grounded, the more I relate to the characters and feel like I know them. If everything is pure fantasy in a movie, I lose my bearings and I don't have any sense of real people with real problems....but that's just me.

One of the weakest Disney villains to me is Malificent, who is steamed about not being invited to a party. I get that she's vindictive, and feels like an outcast, and the invitation is maybe the tip of the iceberg....but the movie doesn't spell that out, and her being miffed about that seems like weak justification to drive all the crazy events that happen in that movie.

Anthony Holden said...

Great insights. I needed this reminder today. Thanks, Mark.

Salmon Leap said...

I've encountered your latest post having just rewatched "The Third Man" for what seems like the millionth time. The way that film structures the conflict with its antagonist is very interesting indeed. For the first half of the film you don't even realize Harry Lime is the antagonist at all, he is merely the object of speculation and someone the hero is seeking.

Just before he's introduced in person, his crimes are revealed, telling us he is the true antagonist.

Shortly after he is seen in person he and the hero have a conversation (in the famous ferris wheel) wherein he very succinctly offers the hero his justification for his crimes, and is just persuasive enough that the hero almost gives up and goes home.

To me, that's a very interesting, but difficult to achieve element of what you're describing. Lime is portrayed as cold and self-serving (he only thinks about a way out of trouble for himself, he doesn't care if his girlfriend gets deported to the USSR, his bogus penicillin is killing children) but he is able to verbally offer a rationalization that he never sees his victims personally and he makes a huge amount of money off of them. It winds up making sense as what someone like that would rationalize to themselves, as well as making it cold enough that the audience wouldn't take his side.

Sorry for the rambling reply, I just wanted to say I really admire this blog, and I've been taking inspiration from it for my own story endeavors

dan said...

Excellent post Mark! I definitely agree with your points. Gothel is even more sinister to me because she puts up the facade. I also agree it helps with Rapunzel's arc for her to feel safe and happy in the tower, thus making her leaving it (and "betraying" Gothel) much more emotionally complex.

I actually worked on Tangled as a lighter, and it's my favorite film I've worked on. I do have a problem with one little thing though, and maybe you can address it. My issues is with the fact that there's no mention of anyone in the kingdom knowing about the flower before they go looking for it. Flynn's voiceover explains the drop of sunshine and whatnot, but there's nothing that says anyone other than Gothel knows about it. Which is fine, up until the point where the search party finds it, and they yell "We found it!" (Or something to that effect) How did they know about "it"? It could have been as simple as changing the voiceover to say "there was a legend of blah blah blah: or something like that, but as it is, nothing communicates to the audience that the people were aware of the flower. I sent this in as a note to the directors after one of the screenings. Alas, it wasn't changed. Do you know if this was addressed at any point in time?

Regardless, it's still an amazing movie and I'm still incredibly proud of it. Thanks again for the awesome post!

Joon Kim said...

I love write-ups on story development such as this. I could just read them all day, so thank you for this!

It's fascinating to read this post now, because I had a thought while rewatching the film not too long ago. Watching it with a contemporary mindset, I jokingly scoffed, "TYPICAL!" when the king's soldiers just came upon such a miraculous flower and just PLOW IT RIGHT UP!

At least Gothel kept the thing safe in its natural habitat (regardless of her selfish reasons)!

It's a tricky story problem. The reaction the audience had for the earlier version of the story is interesting. It's as if the room was filled with libertarians or something. Hahahaha. People's sense of right and wrong get so oddly kooky when it comes to drama. They're not right and they're not wrong. It's just kooky, and it's partially why storytelling is not as simple as many people think.

My complaints about Tangled were that the villain felt so slight and toothless. But reading your description of the story development process really helps me appreciate the 'puzzle' of making it work.

Thanks again.

Constructed Reality said...

Really a great read....makes one learn the subtleties involved in storytelling. Also somewhere deep we know these things but while creating a story we end up getting too involved in the manufacturing processes and fall prey to stereotypes i.e. Villains become black and heroes become white. But a touch of grey adds the human dimension which takes the story to a whole different level. Thanks a ton!!!

the doodler said...

Preach it!

Rodney Baker said...

Thanks for the response Mark.
I'm finding most?) people tend to agree with you on this. It'd make a fascinating study.

I am very drawn to Maleficent exactly because I cannot even begin to sympathize with her. She is an unapproachable mystery and whatever humanity she possesses she has very well hidden. She is not just miffed about not being invited to a party, there is a history between her and the citizens of this kingdom.

I was drawn to comic books for similar reasons. That is until writers started to to play this same silly game with villains and heroes. Live action movies are no different, just look at the titles out there... 'Hannibal Lector I, II and III', 'Saw XXVI' (I joke but hopefully you get the point here... these are our modern day heroes.

Misunderstood vampires are all the rage these days and recent movies have capitalized on this 'dare to be a villain' trend with much success which ensures we'll be seeing more of the same; 'Dispicable Me' which I really liked, and Megamind which entertained me.

It's okay for a villain to have weaknesses and not all villains will remain villains but by their very nature but poor little Pascal was made to play a part in this game when he tripped that poor ol' misunderstood lady causing her to fall to her death. While a cool bit of animation (who couldn't smile at his ingenuity?) this act may have been unnecessary as she was going to die anyway. Was there some unspoken history between Mother Gothel and Pascal that we weren't made aware of?

But here is the thing, she wasn't dead yet and (if I may be this bold to suggest it) that makes the act a little out of character for this pint sized hero.

Just as your title suggests, the reality we look for when defining villainy is 'justification'. Given that lack of justification she remains mostly a sympathetic (pathetic?) victim of her own selfishness and therefore could have been saved before, during or even after her death.

Think about this for a moment. To express love for someone who doesn't deserve to be loved is the ultimate power Rapunzel could have shared when the magic of her legendary hair failed. This is what she used on Flint who was very much loved already. Flint need not have been mortally wounded and if Mother Gothel could have left life's stage while Rapunzel cried but could not do anything I don't think there would have been a dry eye in the theater. This is not just the power of justification but of forgiveness.

I'm not suggesting you picked the wrong ending, just exploring the themes of justification and villainy. Remember, I prefer villains to wear their villainy proudly... deliciously... so they can be easily recognized (story twists the obvious exception). They need motivation, certainly. I'm just not sure justifying them requires attaching unnecessary realism.

Apologies if I'm delving deeper for no good reason and I know these comment sections aren't meant for replies of this length. What can I say, this stuff fascinates me.

Heather Dixon said...

Mother Gothel was a fantastic villain. Thanks for the behind-the-scenes look.

I thought Bowler Hat Guy was a great villain too.

Aaron Davies said...

Fantastic read. I always love to hear more about what went into story decisions.

I have a question I hope you might be able to shed some light on.

I really enjoyed Tangled up to one of the final scenes where the Charmion trips Gothel out the window. Immediately when I saw this I was startled out of the story. Gothel was already on her way to a self actuated demise and it really stood out that the most passive protagonist took an active and in my mind unnecessary, role in killing her. In Disney films this has never happened (That I can think of. Happy to be corrected.) The villain always dies of their own failing. Gothel dying because of her actions feels deserved but her being murdered somehow felt wrong to me and seemed a drastic departure from the Disney narrative style.

So my question is, what led to the decision to have a protagonist, albeit a minor one, take such a proactive role in dispatching the villain?

I'd love it if you could shed some light on this one for me.

Love the blog.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. I strongly agree that villains need to have a powerful motivation.

I happened to watch Tangled again yesterday with a friend, and we both agreed that Gothel is an extremely powerful, sinister villain.

You know I enjoy a lot of stories but sometimes one speaks to people on a personal level, and for me Tangled is one which does.

I'm not telling you this as a 'pity me' plea, more to show how spot on Tangled is emotionally for me.

One of my parents (whilst not a villain - they were unwell) treated me nicely one moment and undermined me and tried to control me the next. It was incredibly confusing and left me with a lot of self doubt. Rapunzel's conflict about leaving the tower and disobeying Gothel was very familiar.

As an adult I have agoraphobia, which meant I really identified with Rapunzel's gilded cage. No matter how nicely I have my home or how many things I want to learn or do there, I still want to leave but I can't (at the moment).

To me it was a really inspiring story and it reminded me that adults can still learn something from 'Fairy Tales' now I just have to find my floating lights!

About Pascal, I don't think that was a problem. He didn't kill her (she was already turning to dust (and died of that before hitting the ground) and probably about to fall anyway). Maybe the tripping up humour was a little dark, but it certainly didn't ruin the film for me.

I watched Meet the Robinsons recently for the first time and I thought the villain in that story was interesting, especially given the causal loop.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest anyone wanting a deeper motive for Gotheral's actions should research Narcissistic Mothers. Anyone who has ever had one can relate easily to Rapunzel in the story as it is one that often mirrors their own existences.

WendyinCA said...

I had a chance to finally watch "Tangled" last week, and I have to tell you it was masterful--by far the best animated film ever. From the story line to the detail, it was truly impressive. I love reading the "back story," as well. Thanks for sharing.

Gemi90 said...

I still few bad for Mother Gothel. The flower was not only stolen,but completely destroyed for the use on one person. She spent hundreds of years mastering the flower and using it without destroying it. The kind and queen are still selfish in my eyes.

She didn't intend to steal the baby,she tried to take a lock of her hair first. So in today's justice system she would've been a vigilante at best with her kidnapping charge lessened as it wasn't premeditated.

Not to mention Rapunzel had everything a girl could want. It's not as if she were starved,abused or neglected. The plot doesn't make much sense because anyone who kidnapps a kid isn't going to keep her name and birthday the same. So I have a hard time believing she made that big of a rookie mistake. Plus there's this thing called Stockholm syndrome and it would not have been easy just to watch Gothel fall to her death without even blinking. After all she thought that was her mother.