Friday, November 7, 2008

Observations on Story: Of Villains and Villainy

I don't write much about story, although I have been involved in it to one extent or another on almost every feature I have ever worked on. Story is many things to many people, and  although I have worked with some very talented folks in this realm it remains largely a mystery every time I go to tackle even a part of it. There are many good books and seminars on the subject, especially as it pertains to feature films, but even the best of these can only provide guidelines and woe to those who become orthodox adherents to them. You can scrupulously follow every point in these and it won't guarantee a good script or story. Much of this, valuable as it is, boils down to teaching how to write clearly and effectively. Writing entertainingly is another matter. As my old figure drawing instructor used to say: "I can teach you to draw, but that doesn't make you  an artist."

Story is a much discussed and debated subject, but in the end, it is something so ethereal that even those I know who have mastered it can't fully explain it. If there were a magic formula for it, every play by Neil Simon would be as funny as THE ODD COUPLE, which is sadly not the case. Like Dizzy Gillespe said about jazz: "You don't play jazz, you just catch a little piece of it every now and then." (Someone will no doubt correct me on the exact wording of that and even if I got the source correct.) The proof is in the pudding and sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail. 

One helpful thing I started doing late in the game was turn away from movies & TV, and toward reading more classic fiction, something I still try to make time for. Too often I have met inexperienced story people and writers who have read many more books about writing than they have read actual books with great writing in them. If you want to do film story, don't be one of those. The more you read great prose writing, the more you see how diverse storytelling can be and that there are as many ways to skin the story cat as there are great authors. 

Disclaimers aside, my story subject today is : THE VILLAIN. In animated stories, the villains have been such a rich topic that at least one entire book was devoted to Disney's villains, and audiences frequently come away loving to hate these characters more than even feeling good about the heroes. From my earliest days doing story work I remember various script gurus prescribing that a great villain is the key to every great story. Contrarian that I am, I was annoyed by this supposition in the beginning and am still annoyed by it now. Eventually I began to realize why. It happened around twenty years ago in a discussion I had with a development executive, on the very topic of Disney villains.

The fellow in question one day suddenly said: "Shere Kahn is the worst villain in all of Disney." Dissing JUNGLE BOOK to me is like waving a red flag at a bull, but I decided to hear out his arguments: "You don't even see him until halfway through Act Two, all he does is talk, and he is defeated too easily to make any sense." To which I remember saying (to my surprise): "How can you say that? In the first place, Shere Kahn isn't even the villain. He's the ticking clock." The 'ticking clock' in story is always some urgent event the audience is told to anticipate early on, which, when it arrives, signals the climax of the action and soon afterward the end. I had never thought about it before, but this is exactly how the tiger in Disney's version of the story functions. In a lesser sense he is also the main antagonist, but he's just one of many.

The startled exec said : "Well if that's true, (and I'm not sayin' it is)  then who the hell is the villain?" To which I replied, (surprising myself again): "Mowgli!" "What?" the guy was incredulous, "He's the *$#%&*#@'in' protagonist!"  "Think about it," I said. "The goal of the film is to get Mowgli back to the Man Village before the tiger comes. Who is thwarting that goal at every step? Mowgli! Yeah he's the protagonist, but he's also his own worst enemy! Best kind of villain there is." I don't know how persuaded my opponent was, but I stuck by my guns and still do. It's one of the things I like best about the movie. It's also what I liked about Walt Disney's approach to story telling: totally organic. 

Years later, I found myself fighting the same battle with an animation writer discussing PINOCCHIO. "It's a weak story," he said, "Too episodic. There's no clear cut villain and the beat with the fox repeats itself..." Once again this challenge made me suss out similar virtues about PINOCCHIO. My defense was (and still is) "Too episodic? Who cares? Some of the best stories ever written were episodic. No clear cut villain: again--Pinocchio is his own worst enemy, he doesn't need a single villain, just a series of temptations, antagonists, and risks. And the repetition of being fooled by the fox is a perfect illustration of the old saw: 'Fool me once, shame on you. Fool  me twice, shame on me.' Pinocchio gets a little slack for being bamboozled the first time, after all he was only born yesterday. The second time, we have to blame him for being so naive, and he basically gets what he deserves. He very nearly becomes a jackass and becomes grotesquely disfigured. He manages to save himself just in time to make some noble sacrifices and set things to right. Then he's transformed at the end as a reward. Perfect freakin' story." I will brook no arguments on this. (Although I admit, it is mighty slow getting started by today's standards.)

Don't get me wrong, I like Captain Hook and the Wicked Queen and Cruella DeVille. But a lot of people feel we don't have to improve on SNOW WHITE: SWEET PASSIVE GIRL vs MEAN WITCH = CONFLICT. As much as I like SNOW WHITE, let's face it, it's largely artificial. I do think you can have the best of both when a protagonist has to struggle with his internal demons and fight an external villain at the same time. Otherwise,  the "good guys in white hats versus bad guys in black hats" can't really transcend one-dimensional melodrama as far as I'm concerned.  Melodrama is fine by me, by the way, but let's call it what it is. If you're doing that, embrace it knowingly and go forth.

I guess it comes from a personally held belief that whatever failures and shortcomings may plague us, we have to "own" our parts in them, and take responsibility for them. Sometimes, yes, there are those who are victimized unfairly with no recourse, but too often the victim/victimizer story tends to suggest something too facile and even too shallow to me. An all-powerful villain who activates a plot is often everybody's favorite character because this thinking often renders the "hero" passive and bland.  We're basically waiting to see the villain defeated and that's all. Which isn't bad, but it seems simplistic. It's like saying: "everything would be fine if I could just get rid of bad people I don't like. Because I am perfect, they are the ones who are causing the trouble." To me, the best solution is to set our underdog up not just with obstacles thrown in his way by others, but by temptations, challenges and weaknesses in his own character. Getting to see a protagonist (I hate the word "hero") take a long hard look at his mistakes is very gratifying. Overcoming external villains generally imparts virtue to a character, but overcoming internal ones imparts wisdom. When in doubt do both, but if I had my choice and could only have one, I'd take the latter. 

There is another conundrum in dealing with villains: "Why is the villain a villain?" This is thorny because you can either end up explaining away a villain's badness in psychological terms that make him too sympathetic, or, on the other hand, render a character who simply embodies traits you want to demonize. In BEAUTY & THE BEAST, 'Gaston' is that second kind of villain, but what mitigates that for me is that 'The Beast' begins as a pretty awful and rotten guy as well, inside and out. Watching him change and grow and become a better "person" is every bit as satisfying as seeing him kick Gaston's carcass. Even more satisfying really. In MONSTERS INC. Randall seems to be this kind of villain too--a cheat, a liar, a fink. His motives are clear but his methods are despicable. I frankly don't care "why" he stoops to cheat. We all know someone who would. In a pinch, I would rather make the hero more complex and know less about the "why" of the villain's motives. In both these movies to do any more would rob the protagonists stories, which are loaded up with enough interest. The most important thing for any kind of villain is that they represent the negative aspects of whatever the theme is. (Theme is a whole other kettle of fish).

If this indicates that I would tend to favor the straightforward 'bad guy", I would say "sometimes" but my problem here is that demonized villains can lead to pedantically, moralized stories: "They are bad, we are good." I complained about this once to a producer who professed to love "moral" stories of this very one dimensional kind. I remember thinking that I'd rather hear someone admit their own mistakes than listen to somebody one-sidedly demonize others. If simplifying the villain allows a story to flesh out a more conflicted protagonist, then fine. 

A couple of my favorite movies have no tangible villain at all. In Mel Brooks' first and still best film THE PRODUCERS there is only the sense that the protagonists are in the process of committing a highly risky but ultimately vicitimless crime. A lesser writer would have thrown in a snoop of some sort to discover their plot and attempt to expose them...yadda yadda yadda. Happily, Brooks never stoops to this and it keeps the movie clear and manic. The only physical villain appears in the very first scene: a landlord who pressures Zero Mostel for the rent, and then disappears quickly.  At the end, we see our heroes defeated in court by a fairly neutral judge and jury and sent to prison, where they thrive anyway. The "villains" in this story are: poverty, prison, society, loneliness, failure etc. A friend I know who also loves this movie thinks Zero Mostel is the villain, and I wouldn't argue completely. But in a traditional sense,  he is also the hero. What I love is that the actions he and Gene Wilder undertake, which are basically criminal, are so laden with understood risks that an on-screen villain is not even necessary. A purely subversive comedy in every sense. 

In his other great film YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, this is almost entirely the case again. Sure we have antagonists: Cloris Leachman instigating, Kenneth Mars snooping around, a domineering fiancee and a classic angry mob. But the big struggles are internal: Young Dr. F is at war with himself, nature and ultimately with death. Surprisingly, the movie defeats death by allowing the monster to live and thrive and even get the girl of his dreams. And it's pretty funny. How different would it be if a domineering villain character had deliberately set everything in motion. 

I certainly have worked on a lot of "villain-driven" movies and I will probably work on more in the future. Like everything else, I think there are good ways of doing it and ways which are not so good. Whenever I can, though, I try to advocate putting in some inner flaws that the protagonist has to overcome. Surprisingly, while this makes the character more real to me, someone always worries that any flaw whatsoever will make a main character "unlikeable." I have two words against this argument: "The Grinch." 

The book HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS  has been around at least as long as I have and generations of kids continue to love it. There is only one principle character in the whole story and HE'S THE VILLAIN! And everybody loves watching him.  Look at STAR WARS, the main character of the entire series turned out to be: DARTH VADER. It was Lucas' plan all along and we should have known it when we all came away with that character more than all the others way back at the beginning (or as Lucas would later have it, the middle). The only problem is that the more we "understand" him in the ensuing films, the less interesting he gets. Chris Sanders & Dean Deblois' STITCH character was a real breakthrough for Disney: a principal character who is genetically pre-disposed to premeditated mischief and mayhem. Watching him wreak havoc is a whole lot of fun. To the extent he reforms at the end of the movie, he hasn't lost his sense of danger. Do we want him to? No. The transformation this time is that he has pulled the pieces of a broken family together, and not entirely intentionally, which is fine. The appeal of SEINFELD and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM is in characters who are living car-wrecks. People don't necessaryily reject flawed characters, what they reject are BORING characters. 

See? Story is easy! (Except when it isn't. Which is all the time.)


Deniseletter said...

How's the Frollo's case?

Will Finn said...

Whoo Boy, Frollo was a toughie. In the original Victor Hugo book there are 2 Frollo brothers. One is a forward thinking law student, the other is a demented priest obsessed with alchemy and also very racist against gypsies. To top it off he becomes highly physically attracted to Esmeralda in a warped and sadistic way.

Perfect Disney material, eh?

Our first marching orders from top management were: "Follow the book but don't make the villain a priest." This is hard because if he isn't connected to the church, he has no reason to be there or have a relationship to Quasimodo. We had to invent the prologue material to obligate our Frollo (who was a composite of the the two brothers from the book) to be visiting Quasimodo at the church every day.

The racial thing against the gypsies was difficult to flesh out, because over on this side of the pond, there really isn't an understanding of the ongoing plight of real Romany people, who they are, where they come from, or why they are so maligned (which continues today).

Obviously the physical lust for Esmerelda could only be hinted at and many felt this was illustrated too strongly even then.

Frollo in the movie, is really kind of a melodrama villain, in my opinion, because he kind of represents a laundry list of things that are indefensible.

Frollo (the priest) in the book is actually the main character (if there is one) and he is more interesting to me to be honest, because all his inner conflicts can be understood from the prose. It's quite a long book too.

David Nethery said...

"I don't write much about story"


Wow, Will, I wish you would write about story more often. That one's a keeper.

I forget : are you a Miyazaki fan ?

I happen to like the fact that Miyazaki's films rarely have a "black hat vs. white hat" sort of mentality. Sometimes the presumed villains turn out differently than you expect at the beginning and often the conflicts are internal conflicts within the protagonist's themselves ... they are "their own worst enemies" as you pointed out about Mowgli or Pinocchio.

Weirdo said...

Holy cow, this gives a guy plenty to think about. There does have to be a balance in the story between trying to make the antagonist too sympathetic and making the protagonist too bland. I say that other things to look to are old Greek myths. They're full of "protagonists" who have many unlikeable characteristics. The gods are full of spite, lust, and greed that you could hardly understand why they were the protagonist. Also, look at Thedeus. He starts out s a great hero, but he eventually turns into a perverted old man by the end of his life. However, we still read the stories because the characters are INTERESTING. I don't think many executives understand that.

Will Finn said...

Hi Dave. This may come as a surprise but am not a big Miyazaki fan. The one of his I like is LAPUTA (CASTLE IN THE SKY) which I like very much. I enjoyed parts of PORCO ROSSO too. Generally not my cup of tea though.

Weirdo: Classic Myths--absolutely yes. I have recently been re-reading them, in a mid century volume by Edith Hamilton. Very enjoyable. Another author named Walter Wangerin did a prose version of the Old Testament called THE BOOK. Very interesting from a cultural standpoint.

BTW: Disney's HUNCHBACK was one of the most pleasant working experiences I have yet had. Great crew, great creative leadership and the film was one I am happy to be associated. To the extent it is kind of a good vs evil melodrama, that seems to be the road every other film version I've seen took with it. Victor Hugo himself implied that he was taking a break from his usual contemporary social commentary to write a gothic tragedy. Hardly light hearted but also more of diversionary than usual. He is said to have written it a great speed, from a single jug of ink. Allegedly he almost titled it: "WHAT THERE IS IN A BOTTLE OF INK."

Michael Sporn said...

QUite an excellent post. We seem to be living in a good guy vs bad guy era. Even our President (no much longer) created the "Axis of Evil" deciding who were wearing black hats in the world. Unfortunately, everyone is really grey and that makes for more complicated stories - whic are the best ones. Literature is far ahead of animation, and you are right on the spot for advising people to read.

Amir Avni said...

“Too often I have met inexperienced story people and writers who have read many more books about writing than they have read actual books with great writing in them”
--Excellent point! The same goes for buying books about how to make cartoons, without watching any of the classics.

I agree with all you said about the Jungle Book, It's my favorite Disney movie, it's all up to the characters. Not establishing ultimate heros and and villains at the very start gives a free will approach. In real life there aren't clear cut heros or villains, which makes it more adventurous, or difficult, depending on your point of view. treating a story this way makes it more organic and less predictable.

When people raise a comment like “too episodic” it’s blank in content and upsetting.
I like stories with an episodic nature, like you said they are testing the character, and if the character is strong, and the episodes are interesting, the movie can be very enjoyable. This reminds me of “The Big Lebowski” and makes me think back to your previous point, about getting ideas from real stories, in this case “The Big Sleep”.

Floyd Norman said...

Excellent post, Will.

And, let me add that my time working on “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was truly enjoyable. Maybe it’s because we had a great Head of Story. Thanks for allowing me to be part of your team.

Thanks for your defense of “The Jungle Book.” Vance Gerry and I often talked about our work on that film. However, don’t give us too much credit. A lot of the work was done by the world’s greatest story editor, Walt Disney.

Seems I’ve worked on more projects than I can remember, and I still feel like I’m a novice when it comes to story.

Tim said...

Brilliant observations! Jungle Book has always been one of my favs, too (along with Lady & the Tramp). When I was a kid I always thought of Bagheera as a villain, too. I guess that's because I identified so much with Mowgli and enjoyed Baloo. Bagheera is the main obstacle to Mowgli's goal. Well, that's the interpretation of a 5-year-old mind. Your explanation holds a lot more water.
In that animated films (for the most part) are made for the whole family, and have to be 'getable' by preschoolers, too, villains tend to be the black hat wearers. It's just sad that most execs now assume that's the only way to tell a good story. These guys never understood that Goldilocks is a villain, and Baby Bear is the most sympathetic character in the whole story.
When I showed "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" to my kids, I had a great discussion with them as to who the villain was. They assumed it was Cpt. Nemo at first, until we started discussing his motives. That conversation opened up the subjects of civil disobedience, vigilantism, and when are they right and wrong.
Nemo is basically a terrorist. A man who has been much maligned by society and is taking his revenge on the Western world to end the inhumanity he sees. He has hired a group of sailors who have all signed a suicide pact. In the end, the villain turns out to be the ones who have been hunting him.
Your thoughts?

John S. said...

Hey Will! Great article! As you know, "Hunchback" was my very first movie, and I had a lot of fun and learned a LOT, particularly from you, sir!

Edwin said...

A lot of this talks about movies and novels. Not much of gamer, are ya? Video games are actually FILLED with various great villain and internal struggles among protagonists.

Will Finn said...

no edwin, a gamer i am not. nothing against it, but i just don't have the hours to spare. when i do, i'd rather read, boring as that sounds.