Alan Taylor has taught screenwriting in the UK., the EU, and South Africa since graduating from the London (International) Film School. This article summarizes one outstanding hurdle that blocks writers from fully developing and enriching their own story material.
Bandit Chief Calvera: No! You don’t see! What if you had to carry my load, huh? The need to provide food like a good father to fill the mouths of his hungry men. Guns, ammunition – you know how much money that costs? Huh? Uh?
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Not many reflections on screenwriting begin with a passing reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost but there are a few useful lessons for all creative writers and particularly screenwriters in that epic poem from 1647 (bear with me, Christopher Nolan’s The Joker is coming).
There are two things about Milton’s work that resonate with standard screenwriting practice – as Satan speeds his way through space towards Eden we are struck by the dramatic cross-cutting between his speedy and ruthless determinations and the placid if boring life being led of his future victims. The closer he gets, the more rapid the shifts in perspective, a Marvel-ous narrative roller-coaster that builds fearful anticipation of what we know will happen. More importantly for this article is the why – what motivates Satan’s willful destruction of that first paradise. It is an irony worth noting that during this time Satan is charged by profoundly human motivations – a burning desire to revenge God, his former master. Despite our assumed moral orientation, we as readers are encouraged to identify with his tortured backstory and almost collude then with his devious designs – the ones that actually repel us.. The adopted perspective of an angel works because Adam and Eve by contrast lack the human dimension, portrayed as they are almost as two-dimensional stick figures, innocent of any of the inner contradictions that would later make them fully human. This richness of character occurs once they have gained The Knowledge and become rather like you and me. This kind of epiphany usually kicks off Act 2 complications – the world, Luke, isn’t what you thought it was.
So where in all this is the Joker?
One of of the toughest moves in the screenwriting process, the one that gives our work the required depth and earnestness it deserves, is sadly and usually the last one which student writers are willing – or able – to face and undertake. While much early attention is given over to surface elements – plot structures, fonts and margins and calculating the shifting audience patterns (this can be distractive behaviour of the worst kind), and while writers are eager to etch out the magical wonders of their central protagonist, there remains one messy card waiting to be thrown into all our creative designs. There comes a point where we must ask, as Milton has done, but why does the Joker do what he does? What is his backstory? And do I have the maturity of vision to go there and stay there and perceive the given storyworld from her /his unique point-of-view?
Why – given all their obvious intelligence and potential for good – would they want to destroy my Gotham paradise?
And once this Satanic perspective has been fathomed and fleshed out as far as I can take it, how can I encourage the necessary identification from my audience that will give wholeness to my entire story? As Bob Dylan might have it in Positively 4th Street: ‘I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes, And just for that one moment I could be you.” In other words, we have to be our own anti-hero (this may not apply if your version of Satan is a truck on the rampage or a hungry shark).
This step across the moral and ethical abyss is one I have found the hardest for most student, novice, and professional screenwriters to undertake – no matter their appreciation of Scorsese’s good fellas or Shakespeare’s Richard III. But it is one that our readers and audiences clearly require. It is part of the deal.
Of course there is an irony at work here that places the writer in a contradictory situation. A number of given cultural factors mitigate against imaginatively going where Satan and the Joker reside. The general assumption that drives the writing industry assumes that writing is itself a noble cause and that those who partake of its ways and means are themselves, by definition, noble and ethical creatures of the highest order. Or at least trying. In its way art has become a secular religion and its practitioners are assumed to be carving out the way forward. Theirs is considered the hero’s journey. Supping with the devil isn’t part of the deal. Unless you are Keith Richards.
But speaking of satisfaction, it is worth noting how much box-office lucre and political capital there is in the appeal of evil. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy ultimately rested on the audience’s gleeful identification with Heath Ledger’s Joker. And even without underlined motivation, Shakespeare assumes there is a certain thrill in hanging out with the likes of Iago. Indeed, look about, many of us today find a certain thrill in identifying with any con-artist who can fathom the worst of our great desires and nudge them to do his unseemly duty. For the writer, though, it’s the difference between sympathy and empathy.
Screenwriting courses do insist on giving the devil his/her due – taking time out to empathize with her/his perspective, making it as real for the audience as it is for her/him; but it always seems late in the day, an awkward draft four bolt-on (after time and some money has gone the wrong way), and when all other elements of the script seem to be in place.
So, yes, I have to ask at that late stage, ‘But have you gone where you now expect your best actors to go? They need to know that the darker path has been checked and all its deeper wells have been tested. Remember, Hannibal Lecter was a great doctor, Master Bates loved his mother. Satan was the first of all the angels. They were once the good guys. And their actions are still grounded in what they consider to be the correct way of doing things, of how the world should work. It’s complicated out there. That, too, is your job – to help us through the complications. But you have to create them first. As we know, others have gone ahead and actually enjoyed the path. As that great Jacobean ironist Hitchcock might agree, identifying with the evil can be a devilishly positive experience since, “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.”
Now, forget the margins and the fonts and why your protagonist is a goody. That’s the easy part. Let’s bite the bullet and get seriously sympathetic.with the antagonist. If Keith and Alfred and Marty must do it, you should too.’
(c) Alan Taylor