Monday, May 21, 2007

Scriptwrangler Mom-of-the-Week!

... goes to long-suffering mother of Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler and First Amendment rights advocate. It's not because she's suffered through the pinched, bitter glances of church ladies at the supermarket for the last three decades. It's not because she's responded with patience and aplomb when asked what Woody Harrelson is like as a son. Nope. Mother Flynt wins for this quote from her son:

"My mother always told me that no matter how repugnant you find a person, when you meet them face to face you will always find something about them to like."

Well, isn't that nice, you say. It's a lot more than nice. Let me explain. I found the quote in an article by Larry Flynt on Jerry Falwell's passing. The two spent years trading insults and lawsuits. But the uberpornmeister chooses to remember the brave and affectionate sides of Falwell -- just the stuff that surprised him when they finally met.

I will pull no punches here. I think Falwell was a despicable man. I was a gay man in New York City in the 1980's and 90's. I watched entire circles of friends die while this fool preached it was a sin to educate young people on how to protect themselves, or to inhibit the spread of HIV in any way whatsoever, for that matter. He made millions demonizing people. He blamed gay people for 911. I could go on. I won't. This blog's about screenwriting.

How would I go about writing a Jerry Falwell character? I would start with the article "Larry Flynt: My Friend, Jerry Falwell." No matter how despicable a character someone is, you still have to understand them to portray them. People are rarely 100% evil. Characters that are 100% evil are rarely plausible, and a very bad way of engaging an audience. There's just no internal conflict to power the plot. If your hero is up against one of these guys, there's often a problem with the climax being anti-climactic. The paper tiger just falls over.

When actors start working on a role, they typically do what's called finding the "positive goal". It's what makes a character do what he does. For a good character, it's often fairly straightforward. But negative characters have positive goals too. Say an actor has to play an abusive husband. It's one thing to say he hits her because he's abusive. It's a much more productive realization for the actor to see that he hits her because he's trying to save his marriage. Or to keep his kids from learning the wrong lesson. He's wrong in what he does. He's wrong in how he does it. He's a despicable man. But now he's acting from a standpoint that a human can understand. And that makes him a lot more memorable, a lot more evil.

As screenwriters, we have to overcome a fair amount of revulsion to give that positive goal to characters we dislike. But if we don't, then the actor won't be able to find it. We have to take a risk to build a character flexible enough to carry our message through everyone's creative process. Jerry Falwell was an unstoppable force (until recently). How do I understand that unstoppable trait? It's not that he wanted to oppress homosexuals, demonize liberals and keep women locked up and pregnant. It's his positive goal. In his own eyes, he was doing god's work. In his eyes, he wasn't hurting anybody. He was showing the way to eternal life. How does a good screenwriter get the truer portrait of Jerry Falwell? It's in my own interest as a screenwriter to look deeper. Doesn't matter if my character is Jerry Falwell, Hannibal Lecter, or Spiderman.

Germany produced its first major film portraying Hitler in 2004. It's called The Downfall (Der Untergang). The DVD contains a priceless interview with Bruno Ganz, the actor who played Hitler. Ganz hates Hitler no less than any other German. He feels that deep shame of him that has shaped German identity for decades. He refused the part until he realized he could make a semblance of sense of the evil by doing the job of an actor: finding Hitler's positive goal.

Hitler loved having kids around. Hitler was apparently something of a dream boss to his secretaries, even when he's executing his generals and bombs are raining down on the bunker. Why? Because they represented to him everything he was fighting for -- the good, moral, upstanding German. The traits are not the point of the movie at all. They are there to make the evil he did feel real, plausible, and resonant within a film. Suddenly Hitler is a human being, and not this dark cloud hanging over history. It's f***ing chilling and unforgettable and horrible.

Our media conditions us to put people into a box immediately. Even if they deserve that box, it's not necessarily a good thing for a writer to do. Embrace that ambivalence. It will reward you. What's your antagonist's positive goal?

1 comment:

A. Dr. Fibes said...

Yes, seeing past the black and white issues is key to character development. I've been thinking of movies where the "bad guy" works and when he doesn't.

The worst example would be "Last Action Hero", the bad guy was so over the top his treachory became tiring.

The best would be "Danny Devito" as the "Peguin" in "Batman Returns..?". I actually felt sorry for him in the end.

I like to think if I can lure the audience into sypathetic situations where you/I might end up being the bad guy work best when I'm watching a movie.