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.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Two Sides of an Argument

I was watching "High Noon" the other day and it reminded me of a concept that people don't talk about very often.

Many times a good film presents two sides of an argument and the film's hero is caught between the two viewpoints, trying to navigate their way through and choose between the two competing philosophies.

"High Noon" (SPOILER ALERT) starts with the Sheriff of a small western town (Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper) getting married to Grace Kelly on a Sunday morning. She's a Quaker (a religion that, at least as the movie explains it, prohibits violence against others) so Will is going to "hang up his guns", give up being a lawman and move away to another town to open a store. The town's new sheriff is set to arrive tomorrow.

 However, just at that moment, three criminals ride into town and go to the train station to wait for the noon train to arrive. It turns out that they are the gang mates of Frank Miller, a notorious criminal who used to run the town until Will Kane cleaned up the town and sent Frank to prison. Frank was supposed to be hanged, but was pardoned instead. Now he's headed back to town on the train (set to arrive at noon, hence the film's title) to take his revenge on Kane for sending him to jail.

So Will has about an hour and a half before the train arrives and the four gunman ride into town to kill him. He's caught between two bad choices (which brings to mind the old expression "caught between the horns of a dilemma").

On the one hand, he could ride out of town with his wife (which is what she wants him to do). But Will can't bring himself to do that, because he knows that the gunmen will chase him wherever he goes, and he'd rather fight them here, in town, where he knows the townspeople. Will figures the townspeople will give him a hand in his fight.

The downside of this choice is that his wife has made him promise never to use violence again (because of her strongly held religious beliefs) and she threatens to leave him if he doesn't go away with her immediately.

Against her wishes, he chooses to stay. But as he tries to gather townspeople to help him defend the town, he has more trouble than expected. The townspeople are terrified of the Miller gang, and they know Miller's vendetta is against Kane. Why should they put their lives on the line when this is Kane's problem? When Kane asks them to help, they encourage him to run (so they can have a clear conscience) and they ask him questions he can't answer, like "If I get gunned down in this fight, who will take care of my wife? My kids?"

So what gives the film its powerful intensity is this tension between different points of view (and the tangible, pressing deadline of the arrival of the noon train). The brilliance of the film is that it gives equal weight to both sides - Will has really good reasons why he's convinced he has to stay and fight, his wife has good reasons why she won't stay if he does, and the townspeople have good reasons why they can't really help him and why he should run away.

 The key is that you have to present both sides as honestly and attractively as you can. That way, it's very hard for your character to choose between them and this creates a lot of conflict, tension and emotion.

This is where many films fall down (in my opinion): they make one side obviously "good" and one side obviously "evil", so that there's no real tension about which way the hero will jump. You know they'll never pick the "evil" path so you're just waiting for the hero to figure out what the audience already knows.

To really make your hero caught between "the horns of a dilemma", the two sides should seem equally valid possible choices for your hero.

"Toy Story 2" is an animated film that does it very well. Woody is caught between the choice of going back to be with Andy until he gets too old to play with Woody anymore, and then facing an uncertain future, or going to be preserved in a Museum forever, but never being played with again.

 Even when making a film that's a fairy tale, or one that is set in the past, I think it's really important to make the choices in the movie ones that are universal and relateable to everyone and reflect problems and issues faced by all people, not just people who lived in the past (or princes and princesses, for that matter).

As we were making "Tangled", I always saw the two viewpoints that Rapunzel had to choose between as either staying at home with her Mother, where life is safe and predictable, or going out into the world and making her own way, where she runs the risk of being hurt and having her heart broken.

Both are valid viewpoints and you see people who have to choose between those two options every day. It's one of the biggest choices we face in life.

Anyway, the point is: as the film maker, you have to look at both sides and make them as valid as you can for your hero. The goal is to make the audience sit on the edge of their seat, stressed about which one the hero will pick, wondering which way the hero will jump. If you do it right, they'll be fascinated by watching it all unfold, but relieved that it's your characters (and not them) having to make the excruciating choice.