WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

PROTAGONISTS IN ENSEMBLE MOVIES?


In an ensemble movie, who is the lead character?

He's the guy in the middle of the central conflict of your script - the one who has to make the tough (emotional) decision that allows the problem to be resolved. Hopefully there is such a character in your script... this may be the downfall of YOU, ME and DUPREE.

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In STATE AND MAIN the external (plot) coflict is the friction between the movie people and the town. An ambitious young politician (played by Clark Gregg - the screenwriter of that awful remake of THE HAUNTING) is the antagonist - he's trying to find a way to either get them out of town or get them to pay the town 30% of the film's gross. One of the movie people breaks a law (or two) and this gives the politician the "weapon" to kick the movie people out.

There is a character who straddles the fence (creating a dilemma) - one of the movie people who DOESN'T think exploiting the small town is a good idea (all of the others think it's their right). This is the screenwriter (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He has written a script about "purity" and small town life... and now the movie people are polluting the small town. He develops emotional stakes - he begins dating the head of the local community theater group. When the town needs extras - the theater group has to cancel their play because none of the actors show up. Event after event forces the screenwriter to take sides - but he wants it both ways. He wants his script to be made AND he wants the town to remain "pure". This reaches a breaking point when he ends up being the ONLY WITNESS to those laws that are broken. The big decision is his.

Will he side with the movie people (and lie) or side with the town (and tell the truth)?

One way he loses his career, the other way he loses the woman he loves (and screws over the town).

THREE PROTAGONISTS?

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Which brings us to YOU, ME and DUPREE. That seems to give us three main characters and a concept, but who is the lead character? That's where things get tricky, because in Y,M&D we seem to trade off leads and that creates a muddled and unemotional and unfunny film. Heck, LITTLE MAN beat this film at the box office! And there aren't many good reviews out there.

YOU, ME and DUPREE begins as plot #57A, you know, the one about the man-boy who is forced to grow up when external events arise. Real Estate Office Slave Matt Dillon is going to marry School Teacher Kate Hudson in Hawaii (her father is Dillon's wealthy boss played by Michael Douglas in what you first think is a cameo role). Dillon's #1 groomsmen Seth Rogan tells him there's a slight emergency - best man Dupree (Owen Wilson) has flown to the wrong island and is coming by light plane to some rural airfield and must be picked up. Dupree is a complete screw up, but Dillon's best friend and the life of the party. In fact, only a scene later Dupree is in a bar with the rest of the wedding party (including Dillon's grandmother) demonstrating something called "The Flaming Tornado" which requires lots of booze, a funnel, the removal of pants, and a cigarette lighter. Dupree might be Dillon's best friend, but he's a complete embarrassment.

Okay, at this point Dillon is the protagnist. He's the one who will have to decide if he's going to outgrow Dupree or not.

After the wedding, Dillon and Hudson begin their married life... Only to have Dupree interfer. Seems that screw up Dupree forgot to ask for the week off for the wedding, so he has lost his job... and his apartment... and his car. He just needs a place to crash for a few days until he gets back on his feet. Okay, we've seen this story before, but Owen Wilson is a funny guy and maybe this is a new take on the story or is just filled with new jokes. Of course, Wilson completely destroys their lives as well as over-stays his welcome. He sleeps nude, ruins their plumbing, interrupts every time they try to make love, masturbates in the living room, and is a general party guy mooch. Kate wants Dillon to kick him out, forcing him to make that plot #57A decision: am I going to be a responsible husband or a wild frat boy? Am I going to side with my wife or my best friend?

Dillon agonizes over this... and Michael Douglas adds to the agony. See, Douglas promotes Dillon to a position of more authority, making him even more responsible. For a while, I thought we might have a really interesting decision - Dillon might decide to be a man-boy and give up his job and wife. That might have been interesting...

Instead, Douglas becomes a fourth lead character - an insane father in law who wants Dillon to change his last name to his daughter's (they "compromise" on a hyphenate with Dillon's last name *first*) and get a vasectomy so that he won't pollute the family bloodline. Now we have this father in law from hell plot that interfers with our third-wheel plot. But at least both center on Dillon - he must decide to kick out Dupree and must also decide how to handle his father in law.

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The Dupee decision is pretty easy to make after the post-wedding-crasher almost burns down their house after defiling a Mormon librarian with a pound of butter and some scented candles in their living room. Dillon tells Dupree to get the hell out. This makes complete sense...

What doesn't make any sense is when Dillon and Kate, after celbrating the removal of Dupree from their lives, pass him sitting on a bus bench in the rain and *Kate* insists that they take him home. Where did that come from?

But wait, there's more! Because Dupree is suddenly a sensitive guy who cries at Audrey Hepburn movies and is a gourmet cook and writes poetry and belongs to Mensa... and Dillon has become a workaholic who avoids Kate. What is Kate to do about her husband? He just doesn't seem to take care of her, the way Dupree does.

And now Kate is the protagonist. Dillon is the one screwing up her perfect life. Dillon is the one who didn't write the 55 Thank You Notes for wedding gifts. Dillon is the one who skips out on Career Day at school... and Dupree is the one who fills in - perfectly, even though he's unemployed. Dillon is the one who drinks too much and has a secret Asain porn collection and goes crazy when they invite Douglas to dinner... and tries to kill Dupree.

So Dillon is the one who gets kicked out of the house.

Huh?

And Dillon is the new Dupree - trying to find someone's sofa to crash on until he gets his life sorted out.

But Dupree sees how depressed Kate is without Dillon, and realizes he has to do something, That's right, it's Dupree's turn to be protagonist! So Act 3 is Dupree's quest to find Dillon and reunite him with Kate.

Oh, yeah, and have Dillon tell off Douglas.

Not to mention an entire subplot about Dupree and Lance Armstrong.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

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There was a point in the film where I just didn't care, and a point later where the film was boring me to death because I hadn't cared in over an hour. No matter how many comedy gags you have in your script, if the audience doesn't care, the gags won't work. The reason why we want to focus on one protagonist is so the audience has someone to care *about*. We hope the protagonist will make the right decision and solve their problems, but fear that they will make the wrong decision (or no decision at all) and fail. The problems will get much much worse and the film will end as a tragedy. When we are shuttled back and forth between protagonists, and when one protagonist is the other protagonist's antagonist, we become confused and we stop caring.

It's one thing when you have three characters who all share the same quest (but for different reasons) like in DEAD MAN'S CHEST - there are many films with kind of a "group protagonist" (usually with a leader) who share the same objectives for different reasons and team up. That's why we have SEVEN SAMURAI and SUPERBAD and might even explain how INGLORIOUS BASTERDS works. There are different characters all trying to do the same thing, so we hope the group will succeed. Or one of the group will succeed - in action films with more than one protagonist there tends to be a pretty high protagonist mortality rate. I think it's more difficult for a movie with more than one protagonist to work, because the audience might have trouble doing that "skin jump" and imagining that they are the protagonist and caring that they achieve their goal... we tend to be "outside the story" more in a multiple protagonist story.

But when each character is completely at odds with the other - so much that to make the story "work" you have to turn a farting frat boy into a caring Mensa member and a wife who hates the best man into a wife who may be falling in love with the best man. These characters bend which ever way the plot needs them to bend! You still might have YOU, ME and DUPREE - but one of those characters needs to be the protagonist through out the entire story... or if they are all after the exact same goal (which would end this film in a heart-beat). And that ends up being the big problem with YM&D - the story is *contrived* to create conflict. With Dupree going from antagonist to protagonist to antagonist to... well, it's no wonder the audience was confused and the film tanked!

Who is the character in your script who must make the big decision? Who is it that stands right in the middle of both the plot conflict and the emotional conflict? That will be your protagonist... no matter how many characters are in your cast.

And if you *do* have more than one protagonist? They all need to have the same goal, but for different reasons (so that none are redundant). Different people on the same journey.

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