Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I Need A Hero (Updated)

Penultimate Post on Commercial Films....

Every movie needs a hero. Not just any hero, but someone we can root for, even if we hate him or her. People often mistake "sympathetic" for likable. Sympathy is rightfully defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as:

1a. A relationship or an affinity between people or things in which whatever affects one correspondingly affects the other. b. Mutual understanding or affection arising from this relationship or affinity. 2a. The act or power of sharing the feelings of another. b. A feeling or an expression of pity or sorrow for the distress of another; compassion or commiseration. Often used in the plural. See synonyms at pity. 3. Harmonious agreement; accord: He is in sympathy with their beliefs. 4. A feeling of loyalty; allegiance. Often used in the plural: His sympathies lie with his family.
Basically, you are trying to describe a person in whom the audience can believe, follow, and invest. The definition above gives a good little road map for your story's progression.

One of my favorite films, LA FEMME NIKITA, has a deeply flawed heroine. Nikita is a drugged out punk rocker who kills with no compunction at the open of the film. She goes to court where she literally spits in the eye of authority and is sentenced to death. All this by the end of the first 15 minutes, (the "inciting incident" or act 1 of a 5 or 7-act structure, or the end of the first half of Act 1 if you are following a 3-Act structure). From here, the first major twist comes along -- Nikita is made an offer to work for an ultra secretive spy agency or die. Given this choice, she picks the lesser of two evils, at least that's what she thinks at first.

As training progresses, Nikita refuses to join in all the litte reindeer games painting graffitti on the walls of her dorm room, not participating in the make up and hair sessions, ultimately leading Bob (played by Tcheky Karyo) to remind her that her death sentence has already been issued and can be carried out with impunity. Freshly motivated, Nikita decides to go along with the program and it is this choice (which happens around the minute 40 mark, neatly beginning Act 3 of a 5 or 7-act or Act 2 0f a 3-Act) which sends Nikita's sympathy factor skyrocketing. Before this we're invested because the outlandish things that are happening to her have a strong appeal, but each minute that ticks by after Nikita's decision to really try, makes us care for her more and more as we see her insecurity in her womanhood. By the time of her "graduation dinner" with Bob at a fancy restaurant, we are rooting for her because of the emotional obstacles she's overcome, we've been impressed by her native talent and intelligence in learning the assassin's skill set and we share in her quiet pride as she dresses, flawlessy does her makeup and hair and heads out.

Then Bang! All this sympathy which Besson has been careful to build up is immediately put to work. If you haven't seen it, it's worth watching just for the restaurant sequence -- an action turn that satisfies as much for it's gratuitous stunts and unlikeliness as it does for the narrative push that it gives to Nikita's character and the development of her character's central dilemma.

If I can squeeze it out I'll round out the series with one more piece tomorrow then answer a couple of questions that I received through one of my development consultations. A writer hired me to help shape up a piece he's finishing and we had a long discussion about the changes he'd have to make to his story to make it more "commercial".

AND my potential Backer called my friend yesterday to say how excited the company was about my pitch! Still no checks, but the 2nd in command wants to see my biz plan and talk turkey. Can't wait. Now I just have to get my CPA to work on contingency.... :-)


Chris Soth points out in the comments section the prejudicial nature of the word "HERO" in screenwriting. The main point of my using the word "sympathetic", and then going on to define it, was to clarify that the main character, the PROTAGONIST, doesn't have to be likeable, but rather someone the audience can understand and follow. Hope my earlier colloquialism didn't muddy the waters any. I do think it's an important semantic distinction (I have a degree in Comp Lit so I love me some semantics) to make.


writergurl said...

I love "Nikita" too. Did you like "Point of No return"? Or did you feel it was iferior to the original?

Thanks for writing all this!

Good luck with your project!

chris soth said...

At USC they said hero (even that has prejudicing connatations) -- PROTAGONIST -- didn't have to be likeable but did need to be "compelling" my mind since, I've translated that to "watchable", but half of one, six doze of the other. W/all that said, they do seem to be likeable about 90% of the time and when they aren't, it's a problem about 90% of the problem in Talented Mr. Ripley...but NOT in your fine Nikita example...


Anonymous said...

Keep it coming- these posts are fascinating!

The Film Diva said...

Hey Chris, thanks for the visit, dig your site. I'm using Hero in a more colloquial Hollywood way. In production (for those of you who haven't yet had the pleasure) the "hero" prop is the one you can't screw up. It's not really the sort of J Campbell, epic, mythic hero, but more like the...Protagonist. Thanks (my blue-collar production roots trip me up sometimes...) :-)