FRIDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

THE LIKEABLE LEAD


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We have a new President in the USA...

They always say your lead character - your protagonist - needs to be likeable. The note you may get, or the reason why they reject your script and don't give you any notes, is that the lead just isn't likeable enough. Who are "they" and what do they mean by that? And how do "they" explain movies like SCARFACE? Or NIGHTCRAWLER?

In a good movie we live vicariously as the protagonist for two hours. His problems become our problems and his adventures become our adventures. To do this we don't need them to be nice, or pleasant, or even a good person. We need to understand them - understand their motives - and we need them to have some attributes that we admire... even if we would never want to have those attributes ourselves. Clint Eastwood's character in GRAN TORINO is a crusty old racist Korean War vet - but the negative elements of his character are balanced out with positive and sympathetic elements. He is funny, he has lost his wife, his adult sons want to lock him away in an old folks home, underneath the rough exterior is a good man... and a lonely man. Though he spends much of the film spewing racist remarks, they are *amusing* racist remarks and are balanced by all of the other things in Walt's character that are attributes or sympathetic. The character has balance.

The concept of SWING VOTE has the Presidential Election so close that it really all comes down to one vote in New Mexico which was never counted because some idiot tripped over the electronic voting machine cord - pulling the plug at the exact perfect moment. The stub for that ballot gets traced back to Bud, played by the usually likeable Kevin Costner. He's registered as an independent, and won't tell anyone how he voted - and he has 10 days to cast his vote again. So both Presidential candidates come to his trailer park and pitch to him directly. One man will decide the fate of the free world.

And that man is Joe 6 Pack. His name is even product placement - Bud. The problem is, they make fun of him - the movie ridicules him and turns him into a complete idiot... even though he's our lead. Our identification character. He's a complete idiot, he lives in a trailer park, he works in an egg factory (but the movie doesn't really get into egg processing at all - it's like nobody did any research) and is constantly drunk. This is what they think of the average American voter... Thanks!

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Now, there are things they could do to make Bud accessable - but they don't do any of them. In fact, they seem to go out of their way to do the opposite - to make him even more of an unlikable, impossible to identify with idiot. They could have made him really really funny - kind of the Adam Sandler method (though Sandler isn't that funny) - but all of the jokes are on Bud - we're laughing at him, not with him... except we aren't laughing at him, either. He's an idiot - you wonder what *Costner* was thinking. They could have had things happen to him that earn our sympathy - but when he loses his job at the egg factory it's because he was stumble-bum drunk on the job and knocked over a whole pallet of eggs - right in front of the security camera. Nothing sympathetic at all.

In my big 2 day class one of the methods I explain that can create sympathy in a difficult character is to give them someone to love - this worked for a *serial killer* in MONSTER. But here they give Bud a tween daughter played by Madeline Carroll... problem is that Bud doesn't care about his daughter at all. He does nothing that a normal dad would do - in fact, *she* takes care of him. In the first few scenes he blows off a couple of important events in her life... and later in the film a Secret Service Agent knows more about the daughter than Bud does! This is a guy who doesn't care about family at all. They keep stacking up things in the Negative Attributes column and leaving the Positive Attributes column empty!

Now, maybe we were meant to identify with the daughter instead of Bud? Problem there is that this daughter (Molly) pushes Bud so hard that she becomes annoying. She's a shrew, a bitch... almost as annoying as Dakota Fanning in WAR OF THE WORLDS... and not sympathetic. The script gives us no doorway into her character, either. She's a smart kid... but we don't understand her - and I'm not sure there's enough character there to be a real person. We are given nothing to make her sympathetic. Just as Bud is all Negative Attributes, so is Molly - she has nothing in her Positive Attributes column to offset being a nagging annoying person.

So, we have two unsympathetic people - and no one to identify with.

LIKEABLE KILLERS

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Just because a character is going to be played by Kevin Costner, or some adorable tween kid, is not enough. Sure, casting someone like Costner or Tom Hanks might help - and Hanks has played a mob hitman and made the character likeable in ROAD TO PERDITION. But Hanks does not remain a mob hitman in that film, he sticks with his family (his son) and turns against the mob. We know he values his son's life over his own life - and we like him even more. In fact, we want him to use his hitman skills to protect his son... we want him to kill the mobsters that are sent after them. That's what we'd do. Because we have been taken inside his life, because we understand his motivations, we want him to kill (bad) people. If someone tried to kill my child, I would kill them. That's not being crazy or evil or bad... that's protecting your family, something we all understand. If the audience doesn't want to become your protagonist for the next two hours, you have failed. You need to create some doorway into the character *on the page* - some positive attributes and usually a goal of some sort that we can understand.

SWING VOTE gives us a lead character who doesn't even seem to care about his own daughter, and that daughter isn't given any likeable traits so that we might identify with her instead. The audience has no one to identify with, and no doorway into the story...

And then they introduce the candidates.

Both sides are venal, evil, and stand for nothing. They constantly flip-flop just to win Bud's vote. The film has been mostly humor free so far, but it gets a couple of laughs with campaign ads aimed at ONLY Bud that illustrate the flip-flops. Problem is, there are only two ads. Would have been better to have done a bunch of *quick* ads that just got crazier and crazier... but we get two. The candidates are played by Kelsey Grammar as the President and Dennis Hopper as the Democrat trying to unseat him. Both are stereotypes and hollow... easy targets. But instead of trying to at least milk some humor from these vile politicos who would do anything for a vote, they take one humorous shot at them, then just show them as evil without making it funny. After ten minutes of their campaigning, you not only want to vote None Of The Above, you feel like you need a shower. These two guys are just slime.

A FLASH OF NICENESS

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The script attempts to give each a moment when they realize they are selling out - but these ring so false they almost make them even less sympathetic. And Hopper has a wife who slaps him because he's lost his soul - only we never knew he had one in the first place (the story never showed it) and nothing is even set up to show us that she'd care whether he had a soul or not. The slap just seems completely out of place in this film. To show that a character has lost their way, you need to show that they had it at one point in time - you need to have a handful of Positive Attributes in there battling it out with the Negative Attributes... and the audience has to see that struggle. Even politicians that I do not agree with have a goal and have beliefs that they are fighting for. I just don't share those beliefs. But when someone really puts themselves on the line and fights for what they believe in, I admire that. And if they can passionately explain why they are fighting for this belief, I can probably understand them. Again, I may not agree with them, but I see them as a human being doing what they think is right. Instead, we get one dimensional caricatures of politicians who stand for nothing... except getting Bud's vote by any means necessary.

The film SWING VOTE seems to try to be is DAVE - a great, funny film that kind of covers the same subject. But where Bud is a complete idiot, Dave is an every-man... a hard working guy who has kind of been left behind by the system who gets to run the country for a while - and run it in a way that helps the average joe instead of just leeches off him. Here, Bud is an uncaring, unfeeling, idiot - and none of the other characters are any better.

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Flawed characters are more interesting than perfect people, but it's still a matter of *balance* - your character can't be all flaws! They have to have some redeeming value. Bud has nothing. Make two columns - one for flaws, one for assets. Keep the character in balance - don't make them all of one or all of the other. Even a bad person needs some good elements. And even a good character has some bad elements.

Because SWING VOTE needs to find the worst in everyone and everything, we eventually get to meet Molly's mother - Bud's ex-wife - and she's a drug addicted liar living in filth. I guess everyone in the world is crap.

By the end of the film, Bud does an amazing 180 and cares about casting his vote - but this happens *minutes* before he votes. It's that Egri thing again about no honest man becoming a thief over night. Bud just suddenly gets his shit together - and it's so unbelievable that you think the writers must have thought we were idiots.

And at the end he even has this speech about what idiots we American voters are. It's bad enough they think the average American voter is Bud, they also have to spank all of us watching the movie. You know, the one thing you can never do is crap on the viewer - they just paid to see your movie, and they aren't gonna be happy.

After never really discussing a single issue, or the role of government, or even creating a single human character, Bud reads a letter from a voter who has some real problems... and the letter works. It is human and emotional and everything that none of the characters in this film is. And you wonder why they didn't have Bud discover the letters earlier so we could have a gradual change in the character - and maybe even get into some real issues and real problems.

But this film doesn't care about any of that - it just wants to crap on you.

BALANCING ATTRIBUTES

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Every character, both hero and villain, needs to be balanced. They need to have both Positive Attributes and Negative Attributes. The protagonist needs to have more Positives than Negatives... and the villain will probably have more Negatives than Positives. But you don't want any character to have all of one and none of the other - that's cardboard two dimensional world. Take your lead character, and make a chart - one column for Positive Attributes, one column for Negative Attributes. Are there enough positives for your lead? Do you *show* those positives in the script? (Just having them is no good - the audience needs to know they have them... they need to see the positive attributes in action.) Is your protagonist working to overcome their Negative Attributes? Or is the *point of your story* that the protagonist does not overcome their negative attributes (some stories are tragedies)? If your protagonist is out of balance, or if you fail to *show* the Positive Attributes, you need to do a rewrite.

Another element is how soon we see the protagonist's Positive Attributes - you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Bud is a completely unlikeable idiot for 95% of the film, and then becomes likeable at the end... Too late! Even if you have a seriously flawed character, show us something from the Positive Attributes column as soon as possible, so that we have a doorway into the character. That's the difference between someone who we hope will solve their problems, and someone who is just an idiot we don't care about. If you have your choice between introducing your protagonist with a Positive Attribute or a Negative Attribute, go with the positive. Give us a good first impression, then show us their flaws.

Your character doesn't need to be all good to be likeable, in fact it is better if they are flawed... but we do need to understand them, and they do need to be balanced between Positives and Negatives. The reason why we'll hang with Tony in SCARFACE is because he's a hard working man who is loyal to his friend and loves his sister and really tries to make something for himself... just not the same way we'd do it. He is not all bad... he is half good, and that half is our doorway into his character.

What is strange is that coked out killer Tony in SCARFACE is easier to understand and empathize with than Bud in SWING VOTE is. Weird.


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