WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP

UN-LIKEABLE LEADS

Your lead character doesn't have to be likeable, but he has to be interesting. Hannibal Lecter isn't likeable in HANNIBAL, but he's a fascinating guy - we want to hang out with him to see what he'll do next. Al Pacino in SCARFACE isn't a nice guy, but it's fun to see the American Dream gone wrong. Harvey Pekar in AMERICAN SPLENDOR is one of the most prickly characters ever put on film, but he's also fascinating and interesting. We don't have to *like* the protagonist in your script, but they must be so interesting that we'll want to hang around them to see what they do or say next.

Glenn Ficarra & John Requa's BAD SANTA is about a foul mouthed, alcoholic, angry department store Santa played to perfection by Billy Bob Thornton. He's not a nice guy, not looking for redemption, and not someone we'd ever want to hang out with in real life... but for ninety minutes in a cinema he's a whole lot of (mean spirited) fun. Here are a few of the reasons we may not like Billy Bob's character, but we can't tear ourselves away from watching him.

1) He's a rogue and a rebel. After a few days of crowded malls, listening to the same Christmas music over-and-over again, we may want to say "bah humbug!" to the whole Christmas experience... but that would be wrong. So we try to be cheerful and happy. Billy Bob does what we wish we could do - he rebels against everything cheerful and commercial about the Christmas season. He's fed up with the holiday season, and not afraid to show it. We may fantasize about knocking people out of the way at the mall, he *does it*. We secretly like people who break the rules and rebel against society - and what's a bigger symbol of society than Christmas?

2) We understand his bad behavior. He hates his job as a department store Santa, and we'd hate it, too. Kids sneeze all over him, wet their pants on his lap, demand toys, seem to speak in a foreign language (the kids ask for toys that he's never heard of - but expect him to know exactly what they're talking about), the kids (and parents) feel like they own him - he can't even eat his lunch in peace! If people kept bugging me on my lunch hour I'd probably get mad, too. He deals with the most crass and commercial aspects of Christmas, it's no wonder he's a Bah Humbugger.

3) We understand his character. BAD SANTA opens with Billy Bob sitting in a bar telling us about his abusive father - this is a guy who has never known love. Even his parents treated him badly. He's spent his entire life being abused, and now he's a bitter drunk. That may not be someone we identify with, but we can see how he became this angry guy. We're taken inside his miserable life. He's a guy with a chip on his shoulder, but the film explains where that chip came from. When his father died Billy Bob was left nothing except a basic knowledge of safe-cracking... which explains his current career. He doesn't want to be a department store Santa, it's just part of the department store robbery scheme. The key to writing a script with an unlikable character is making sure that we understand the character.

4) Someone to love. At first the snot-nosed Kid (Brett Kelly) is a nuisance - hanging around him, overly cheerful, a happy stalker. Then the Kid is an accidental helper - fighting off the crazed Gay rapist in the parking lot and providing Billy Bob with a place to hide out. But eventually a bond grows between the two - Billy Bob helps the Kid deal with the skateboard bullies and deal with his self esteem issues. He sees himself in the Kid - both have gotten the short end of the stick from society and are filled with self-loathing. By helping the kid, he's really helping himself. He's kind to the Kid, cares about the Kid, and we're able to see a softer side of his character.

And because the Kid worships him, we really hope he gets his act together... and we end up caring about him. The same goes for the cocktail waitress (Lauren Graham) he shacks up with. She may just be interested in him because of that weird Santa fetish, but she likes him. By giving him relationships with others, we have a chance to see him through their eyes.

AMERICAN SPLENDOR also uses this technique, giving us a love story between two prickly characters that we may not like, but we find ourselves caring about their relationship.

5) Goal & Obstacle. Give any character a goal that requires struggle and we'll wonder if they can achieve that goal. Here the goal is to do a very bad thing - rob the department store on Christmas Eve. But a goal is a goal, and the obstacles are many. First we have the torture of being a department store Santa before the robbery, then we have his verbally abusive partner (Tony Cox) and his mercenary wife (Lauren Tom), then we have the *very* straight-laced Personnel Director (the late John Ritter), and the dangerous Head of Security for the department store (Bernie Mac).

6) Humor. You can have the most unlikeable character in the world, but if they're funny we'll hang around them for a couple of hours. This guy is sarcastic, but he's also funny because his behavior is completely inappropriate. He's the opposite of everything we expect in a Christmas movie. Whether he's screwing plus-sized women in the changing rooms or drinking on duty, he does those things we never expected a guy in a Santa suit to ever do on screen. When he comes up the escalator passed out, you can't help but laugh. His explanation for why he's wearing a fake beard is outrageously funny, and becomes a running gag throughout the film (the Kid walks in on Santa having sex with the Cocktail Waitress later in the film and calls her "Mrs. Claus' sister"). He's got a cynical (and funny) response to every situation.

AMERICAN SPLENDOR also gets mileage out of Pekar's caustic wit and inappropriate behavior. Whether he's waiting in line at the grocery store or dealing with doctors, he's always got something amusing to say.

Kenneth Lonergan's YOU CAN COUNT ON ME is about a character who you might not want for a friend, but you can't wait to see what he'll do next.

Laura Linney plays an ultra-responsible bank loan officer whose completely irresponsible brother (Mark Ruffalo) comes to crash at her place and hit her up for money. Ruffalo needs money because... he just got out of prison. You might not think that would be an appealing character, but you come to "like" this guy for five reasons:

1) We UNDERSTAND WHY Ruffalo's a dead beat who has problems with the law - both of their parents were killed in a car accident when they were kids, and he fears being attached to anything that could be yanked away from him - job, friends, even a home.

2) He's a dreamer with his head in the clouds, and he gets us to buy into his dreams - he wants to move back to Alaska where he thinks he can find a job.

3) Underneath it all he's a good person. His introduction scene has him leaving this woman he's shacked up with (Gabby Hoffman) to go to his sister's house. It's an awkward situation, but he does his best to be honest with Hoffman and spare her feelings at the same time. He dumps her gently - and feels bad about doing it.

4) Someone to love - Ruffalo genuinely likes his sister's son (Rory Culkin). Maybe it's because they're at the same level of (im)maturity, but he gets along great with this 8 year old. Because he loves his nephew, we really hope he cleans up his act... for the nephew's sake.

5) Ruffalo is also a charming rogue. He's babysitting Culkin one night. The rules are that Culkin can only watch 2 hours of TV. So after 2 hours, the TV set goes off and Ruffalo says: "Your mom didn't say anything about playing pool, so we'll do that for the rest of the night." He takes his nephew to a biker bar pool hall! Then he challenges some guys to a game of pool - brother & nephew against two big biker guys. Bets $100 they can win. This pool game illustrates #4 from above in a really amusing scene where they win the game! It's the most fun Culkin has ever had (mom's over protective - she holds on too tight to those around her for fear they will be yanked away). Who would take an 8 year old to a biker bar and team up with him in a pool match? For money? This guy is that crazy uncle you had as a kid - the one who gave you a sip of his beer when your dad wasn't looking.

Your character may not be the nicest guy in the world, but he has to be the most interesting guy you can imagine. For every fault, you must give us a reason why we would want to hang out with him anyway. Hannibal Lecter EATS PEOPLE, but you can't wait to see what he's going to do next!


Harvey Pekar on Letterman.

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