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03/04/2008 - WHY BAD GUYS ARE YOUR FRIEND
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WHY BAD GUYS ARE YOUR FRIEND by Tom McCurrie


It's a maxim every mom tells her kids - you will be known by the company you keep. If you hang out with bad people - the violent, the treacherous, the manipulative - you will definitely meet a bad end.

But that's real life - we're talking about reel life here. When it comes to screenwriting, the exact opposite is true - you want to hang out (at least in your imagination) with the violent, the treacherous and the manipulative. Simply put, if you really want your story to work, the bad guy is your Best Friend Forever.

That's because the stronger your antagonist, the stronger the screenplay - and by definition, the stronger the movie.

OK, some Screenwriting 101 stuff here. Every (good) screenplay needs a protagonist with a sympathetic goal, something we desperately root for him or her to achieve over the course of the movie (i.e. rescue starving orphan children...that is, unless you hate starving orphan children).

But sympathy is not enough to keep us watching a movie. There also has to be tension - or in other words, suspense, to keep us, as the cliche goes, on the edge of our seats. We have to be worried, no, terrified, that the protagonist won't achieve his goal.

The best way to generate that worry is to put an obstacle in the way of that goal - an opposition force in the form of a physical antagonist (I say physical antagonist since film, as I'm sure you've heard ad nauseam, is a visual medium, so external villains work best).

This antagonist not only needs to be as tough, cunning and determined as the hero, he needs to be MORE tough, cunning and determined THAN the hero. Only then will we worry that the hero won't be able to overcome this "obstacle" and achieve his goal.

Think of hit man Anton Chigurh in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. This guy is so murderously implacable that the only thing that, maybe, just maybe, could take him down is Global Warming. But if the story were rewritten so that hero Llewellyn Moss simply shot and killed Chigurh after their first run-in, tension, and audience interest, would evaporate immediately.

Now antagonists need to be more than just psychotic Energizer Bunnies, of course. They need to have some sort of quirk, some sort of charisma, to intrigue the viewer. Whether it's Chigurh's obsession with Fate and Fair Play, or Hannibal Lecter's wit and elegance, or Alex DeLarge's love of Beethoven, giving depth and dimension to the villains will make their evil acts more terrifying, since the villains will seem more human...and thus more like us.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't make your antagonist supremely nasty. In fact, the nastier the bad guy, the better. As I said before, cinema is emotion, so if you can give the viewer a bad guy to root AGAINST as well as a good guy to root FOR, you will double the audience's emotional investment in your story, and thus double its chances of success as a movie. The recent RAMBO remake was helped immeasurably by a villain you loved to hate - a Burmese military officer who seemed to glory in butchering helpless men, women and children. You couldn't wait for Rambo to take this guy down, which helped you forget that Stallone's facial muscles were so paralyzed by Botox he could barely speak, never mind act.

Remember too that the bad guy doesn't even have to have two arms and two legs. You can give the bad guy fins (JAWS) or even make him a great big rock (ARMAGEDDON), but as long as he (or it) poses a seemingly insurmountable threat to the hero and his quest, he'll fit the antagonist role like Freddy Krueger's knife-wielding glove (obviously, you can also have villains that come back from the dead like Krueger as well).

So if you're a screenwriter, remember to give the bad guy his due when you craft your story. He just might pay back the favor by helping you sell your script.


Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com.

(Note: For all those who missed my past reviews, they're archived on Hollywoodlitsales.com. Just click the link on the main page and it'll take you to the Inner Sanctum. Love them or Hate them at your leisure!)

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is finishing up (finally!) his first novel.











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