WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

IS YOUR VILLAIN SATISFYING?


Hitchcock said, the better the villain, the better the movie.

Matrix DVD - Buy it!

The most important character in most scripts is the antagonist - they get the ball rolling. In MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING Julia Roberts is happy knowing that if she ever wants to get married Dermot Mulroney will always be there... until she gets the phone call inviting her to his wedding. Cameron Diaz is the antagonist - the woman who is stealing Julia's fall-back husband. Without Cameron Diaz, Mulroney would still be available and Julia wouldn't have a wedding to break up. In my book Secrets Of Action Screenwriting I point out that the villain is the most important character in your screenplay, and the villain's plan is the most important element of your script. This is especially true in action and thriller films like SNAKES ON A PLANE or LAKEVIEW TERRACE.

In SNAKES, Samuel L. Jackson plays FBI Agent Neville Flynn, assigned to protect surfer dude witness Sean Jones (some guy named Nathan Phillips with a strange hairline) on the flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles, where he will testify against violent crime boss Eddie Kim. Though the FBI does a fake-out with another plane, Eddie Kim's evil minions still manage to load about a million snakes in the cargo hold of the plane they're on. Oh, and they spray the leihs with some sort of snake attracting stuff, to make sure the snakes attack. The plane is filled with all of the folks who couldn't book passage on the Poseidon - a bunch of 70s disaster movie cliches. There's the horny honeymooning couple, the germaphobe Rap Star with his entourage, a Paris Hilton-like socialite (couldn't they have hired the real thing?), a pro kickboxer (couldn't they have hired Don "The Dragon" Wilson?), two kids flying alone (neither seemed to like Gladiator movies), a mom with her newborn baby... and a snotty British dude who you hope will be the first victim. Where was the preacher with the crisis of faith?

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So, they get in the air and the snakes attack. They don't just go after the witness - in fact, he's that farthest from the cargo area where the snakes come from - these snakes attack everyone. The three flight attendants, females played by Julianna Margulies and the always amazing Lin Shaye... plus the standard obviously gay male flight attendant, do their best to calm passengers and fight snakes - but once the pilot is killed and horny co-pilot bitten, they need to find someone who can land this plane (and didn't have the fish for dinner).

One odd problem is that the snakes are always plural - they are never individuals. So they have no real "personality" as a villain. Some are pretty colors. Some strike people's naughty parts. But they are just *snakes* and not given any character. The tornadoes in TWISTER were all given personalities as part of the story - the twins, the water spout, etc. They were made *individuals* - because that makes them more menacing than generic tornadoes. Snakes would have been even easier to give a character to, since different snakes look and act differently. But no real thought went into the antagonists in this film.

Which is kind of the same problem with Eddie Kim, the mobster. Sure, he's brutal... but aren't all mobsters in movies? Plus, once he's introduced killing the witness, we never see Eddie Kim again - he's not on the plane, he's back in Los Angeles. When we get out of the plane long enough to follow junior FBI Agent Bobby Cannavale as he tracks down one of those responsible... it's not Kim, it's some dude on a snake farm. This is that scene in SPEED where Jeff Daniels goes to capture villain Dennis Hopper... but Hopper has set a trap and Daniels is blown to bits. That scene was all about the villain. In SOAP we get a scene about some dude in the desert with snakes. Who cares?

SPOILERS - THE END OF SNAKES DISCUSSED BELOW!

Snakes DVD - Buy it!

The other unsatisfying part of SNAKES ON A PLANE is also something mentioned in my book - vanquishing the villain. Just as the better the villain's plan, the better the movie - the better the villain's death the more satisfying the ending. In a film like SNAKES ON A PLANE the villain has put the hero through about 75 minutes of pure hell. The reason why they even made this film is because it deals with two big phobias - flying and snakes. So about the time Samuel L. Jackson reaches his breaking point and hollers that he wants these M*****F***ing snakes of this M*****F***ing plane, we all understand his anger. Now we need a scene where Jackson gets to do 75 minutes worth of damage to those M*****F***ing snakes compressed into one big explosive scene. The audience wants revenge!

But we don't really get it.

Though the film is really good at having the snakes attack and kill annoying characters, it's terrible when it comes to Samuel L. Jackson attacking and killing the snakes. All of the snakes are in the lower cabin... so he blows a hole in the upper cabin window that manages to suck out the snakes (as well as almost sucking out everyone else in the cast, and at least one passenger exits before the plane touches down).

1) Samuel L. Jackson does not kill the snakes personally.
2) We don't get to see the snakes die.
3) For all we know, the snakes are okay - I have no idea whether a snake can withstand a 20k foot fall into the ocean - maybe they can.

No satisfaction when it comes to the snakes. No revenge. No blood. No battle. Nothing!

Now let's take a look at the other villain, Eddie Kim....

1) Samuel L. Jackson doesn't not kill Eddie Kim.
2) Eddie Kim is alive at the end of the movie!

So neither the snakes nor Eddie Kim get their just desserts! We want to see them die... but no bad guys die in this film... not even the snakes (they may or may not die off screen, but there's no thrill in that). I think the best villain deaths are the ones where they explode. I know that sounds funny, but we've seen so many Michael Myers pop up after being stabbed a million times, and so many other villains manage to get up after being shot a million times; that exploding them seems final. Plus, exploding them seems to payback all of the hurt they have caused others in one single act. But even if they didn't explode Eddie Kim and the snakes, they needed to show them die in some way that we could cheer... just as we cheered the annoying passenger deaths.

As it is, we have a story without an ending. And that's not satisfying at all. I think this blah ending is the reason why the film topped off at $15 million. If you were to ask me if I liked the film, I'd say it was "okay". You want the audience to leave the cinema ready to tell anyone who asks how great the film was. The villain's death is the big end scene that will help form their opinion of the entire film. Make it the best scene you can come up with! Leave them satisfied!

SNAKES IN A PHONE BOOTH?

Matrix DVD - Buy it!

The same antagonist issues sunk Larry Cohen's PHONE BOOTH when it hit the screens. Colin Farrell plays a sleazy public relations guy named Stu who lies to everyone - he tells his intern that some day he'll pay him, he tells one magazine that their competitor wants to run a cover story on one of his clients to get them to run a story, and he makes a phone call to a young actress he's trying to bed (Katie Holmes) from a pay phone so that his wife (Radha Mitchell) won't see the number on his cell phone bill. After he hangs up the phone rings and Stu answers... it's a sniper with a high powered rifle. if Stu hangs up the phone, the sniper (Kiefer Sutherland) will kill him. Stu thinks it's a gag, until the sniper blows away a peep show barker who is harassing Stu for hogging the phone.

Stu is stuck talking to this madman for the rest of the movie - stuck in the phone booth. It's an interesting gimmick, but the longer the sniper threatens him, the more you want to know WHY? What does the sniper want? How come he knows everything about Stu - from where his wife works to the actress' day job to details about Stu's clients that only someone close to Stu could know. Since Stu lies to everybody, even those close to him probably don't know half of this stuff.

After stretching our curiosity to the breaking point, they finally tell us what the sniper wants from Stu about three quarters of the way into the film. He wants Stu to tell the truth about his life. Though the sniper wants Stu to tell the truth we never really learn WHY he wants him to do this. It's revealed that the sniper has no personal connection to Stu - he's just some lunatic who stalks people, learns about their big personal flaw, then forces them to deal with the flaw or die. Kind of "or else therapy". But I'm not sure that the truth really sets Stu free, so what was the point? In fact, what was the point of the film? By the end, it seems almost like more of a stunt than a story. The sniper exists only as an excuse for the movie, and his plan is just to get Stu to admit he's a liar... but who cares? Everyone knew Stu was a liar to begin with - and why would the sniper risk arrest and capture to get Stu to realize his lies have hurt people? What's in it for the sniper? He's making the world a more honest place one person at a time? Hey - there are eight million people in the naked city... is he going to call them all? Why is a very low level PR guy at the top of the list?

The villain's plan is the most important part of any thriller or action flick, and we don't really know what the villain's plan is, here. I think it would have been nice to find out what the sniper was really up to... what his plan was, and how Stu became a part of that plan. Because the villain's plan makes no sense, the entire film makes no sense. When the time comes to explain why the sniper has kept Stu talking on the phone all this time... there is no reason! This makes the film unsatisfying - it's a big build up... to nothing.

VILLAIN'S MOTIVATIONS?

Matrix DVD - Buy it!

And the Villain's Plan & Motivations are also an big issue with LAKEVIEW TERRACE. Samuel L. Jackson switches sides to play the Eddie Kim character this time around - the villain who does things that make little or no sense, just to be villainous. The movie makes the strange choice of *opening* with Jackson and showing his point of view - he's a single dad trying to raise two kids in a peaceful suburban neighborhood after his wife died... and a police officer. When a young interracial couple moves in next door, he goes ballistic and torments them in various ways. Of course, by now we've switched POVs and see the story from the young couple's point of view. They have the next door neighbor from hell.

We have no idea why Jackson hates them so much - other than they are an interracial couple. Though prejudice is a serious thing, and a reasonable motivation; what Jackson's character does is not reasonable considering who he is - a policeman. He does incredibly stupid things - and he's intelligent enough to know he could be arrested for these things. He does not behave as a policeman would - and that's an interesting little lesson on creating a powerful antagonist. Give them interesting skills and knowledge - then let them use those skills and knowledge. In CAPE FEAR (either version) one of the great things about Max Cady's character is that he knows the law, and knows how far he can go without going over the line. He can camp out on the city street in front of the Bowden house - watching them - and there's not a damn thing Bowden (Gregory Peck or Nick Nolte) can do. He's within his legal rights to be there. But if Bowden shoves him or even touches him, well, Cady can call the police and have Bowden arrested. Cady knows he can kill the Bowden's dog and even if he's caught - it's not a felony, it's a *fine*. You pay it off down at the courthouse. Cady is a great antagonist, because he taunts Bowden and his family without ever doing anything illegal... and this drives Bowden crazy, which leads to *Bowden* breaking the law and getting in trouble.

They had to drop in a line that Cady learned all about the law while he was in prison - you don't need to do that with Jackson's character in LAKEVIEW because he's a cop. He already knows how far he can push things... except he never does! There's a scene where he finds a discarded cigarette butt on the street, tossed there by our protagonist Chris Mattson (Patrick Wilson) and could have threatened him with a $1,000 fine and 6 months in prison for littering... but doesn't say anything. Instead of *using the law* (Jackson's character's special skill and knowledge) he does crazy things that he should know will break the law - he vandalizes their house, their car, and comes at them with a chainsaw in one scene. This is one stupid villain! You get arrested for things like that!

Eventually - near the end of the film - we find out why Jackson gets pissed off by interracial couples, but it's too little and too late. He's already a stupid cartoon of a villain, and not frightening at all. Because he's so dumb, and his plan makes so little sense, that there is nothing to fear here. By the time we get to the end, where Jackson just goes crazy violent - that motivation no longer covers his actions. The punishment doesn't fit the crime - it's completely out of balance. If your villain's actions don't make sense, your *story* doesn't make sense.

SPOILERS - THE END OF PHONE BOOTH DISCUSSED BELOW!

Matrix DVD - Buy it!

The other unsatisfying part of PHONE BOOTH is also something mentioned in my book - vanquishing the villain. Just as the better the villain's plan, the better the movie - the better the villain's death the more satisfying the ending. In an action or thriller film like PHONE BOOTH, the villain has put the hero through hell on earth for the entire film, and now it's the hero's turn. After 80 minutes of being caught in the sniper's scope, we expect an ending with 80 minutes worth of hell condensed into one big explosive scene. You want this guy to get his just deserts... but PHONE BOOTH makes three big mistakes in vanquishing the villain. One - the hero doesn't vanquish the villain... the Police sent in a SWAT Team. The means the hero doesn't resolve the problem himself - which makes him passive. Two - when the SWAT Team gets there, there is no big confrontation. No 80 minutes worth of hell compressed into one big explosive scene for our villain... it's over in the blink of an eye. No big confrontation scene - nothing! Three - the police don't bring about the death of the villain... He kills himself rather than be captured. That makes the police passive! Not only is the protagonist passive, but so are the cops! Everyone is passive by the end of the movie! It's act three - I expect ACTION instead of things just sort of falling into place on their own. I would rather have had a big confrontation with the police, at least we would have had the feeling that SOMEONE was solving the problem instead of having major parts of the resolution happen off screen by themselves. (I'm purposely being vague about some of the ending - some people will be reading this even with the spoiler warning).

So after an unsatisfying reveal of the villain's plan (there really isn't one) we get an unsatisfying ending (no action, and the protagonist and police don't resolve the problem, it resolves itself). How disappointing can you get?

In an action or thriller movie like LAKEVIEW TERRACE or SNAKES ON A PLANE or PHONE BOOTH, the villain is the most important character, the villain's plan is the most important element of the script, and the villain's death or capture is the most important part of the ending. Make it the biggest, greatest, most satisfying ending that you can come up with!

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