Monday, June 18, 2007

Satire & the Protag Serial Killer

Hey guys,

Many of you know our great friend,
Mickey Lee, an extremely talented writer who uploaded not long ago his revised draft of The Other Side. It’s a satire about Darwin Cristobal, a phony TV psychic who murders his rivals and "discovers" their bodies for the police in order to save his show from cancellation. It’s just sensational, and I thought I’d share the review I posted over the weekend.



This is my second romp through this second version. Let it be said, my friends, Mickey Lee's "The Other Side" absolutely deserves a sale and a production. This is the kind of story one could happily revisit again and again because on the one hand, it never fails to entertain, and on the other, the satire is wickedly effective. It's written with the inky blackness of a chilled & well-bred worldly cynicism, which we know runs deep in the veins of almost everyone on the planet. If this production was executed well with a name actor playing Darwin, I do believe the public would embrace this story.

There are two things I'd like to talk about:

- The Protag Serial Killer
- Satire


How should a writer handle a story in which the protagonist is a serial killer? It's an interesting dilemma, isn't it? Because every book tells you that your protagonist should be "empathetic" and/or "sympathetic," right? The audience has to "connect" with him/her on some level, "feel" for the character, and hopefully "root" for that person to achiever a goal. But how can you connect with or feel for or root for a protag who's killing people for all the wrong reasons?

Consider this. I saw "Mr. Brooks" not long ago. It failed as a story. Mr. Brooks (played by Kevin Costner) is a serial killer. In order to make the audience "sympathize" with Mr. Brooks, they created this cheap gimmick of showing us Mr. Brooks' alter bad boy nature in the form of Mr. William Hurt who Mr. Brooks calls "Marshall." And thus, we see Brooks whine and argue with Marshall about quitting and not wanting to do this anymore, thereby giving the writers an easy venue to externalize Mr. Brooks' inner conflict through verbal arguments. This was also a way for them to squeeze some sympathy out of the audience. But it puts the audience into an awkward position - ("Oh, poor Mr. Brooks. I hope he achieves his inner goals of not killing people. Oh, look, he slipped up and shot a couple. Oh well. In the end I hope he finds a way to stop."). Please. They also gave him an inner arc by leading us to believe he met his goals in the end and hopefully, quit. But then the ending left it wide open for sequels. Come on. It would've been far more entertaining had they just presented us with a fascinating individual who inevitably gets his comeuppance in the end. The point is, you cannot stuff this convention of "empathetic/sympathetic protag" into every type of film. Sometimes you have to go with "entertaining" and/or "fascinating."

Darwin is most certainly both.

I did a study a while ago, which I can't find anymore, on how to handle serial killers as protagonists in scripts. I concluded that there are only two successful approaches:

- a vivid, honest portrayal (Monster)
- wicked satire (American Psycho)

In both of those cases, you absolutely must avoid cheap gimmicks or subplots designed to squeeze out of the audience more sympathy for the protag, because that undermines the credibility of what you're trying to accomplish. Thus, ScriptShark completely missed the boat when they rated Mickey's story poorly in the category of "protagonist is sympathetic and/or engages our emotional investment." It's just absurd that they would judge every protag by those requirements. Those are the kind of narrow-minded, tunnel-vision ideas that have created endless bad movies. And ideas from other reviewers that push Darwin into being more sympathetic, like (so sorry, Ted) "everything Darwin does, he does for the daughter he loves" would ruin the integrity of the story.

Take for example, Monster. Just in the act of seeing this beaten down women's inner conflict of wanting to have a normal life with her lover but yet, new murders seemed necessary to cover the tracks of previous murders, she'll get SOME sympathy from the audience, but you can't force it. The most you can hope for is just an illumination of the human condition, a sense of understanding to this tragedy that we may not have had before. And that's what we got.

It would be absurd to ask audiences to sympathize with Patrick Bateman, and that would have muddled the point of the satire. Make no mistake, the filmmakers would've lost all credibility (and careers) had they stooped to a sympathetic portrayal. But, you see, that's the essence of satire, which is to ridicule the protagonist and/or the protag's environment. As Ebert wrote, "Mary Harron (director) sees him as a guy who's prey to the usual male drives and compulsions. He just acts out a little more... The film regards the male executive lifestyle with the devotion of a fetishist. There is a scene where a group of businessmen compare their business cards, discussing the wording, paper thickness, finish, embossing, engraving and typefaces, and they might as well be discussing their phalli. Their sexual insecurity is manifested as card envy... The function of the murders is to make visible the frenzy of the territorial male when his will is frustrated. The movie gives shape and form to road rage, golf course rage, family abuse and some of the scarier behavior patterns of sports fans."


What is satire? Ebert will put it down by saying, "satire is what closes Saturday night." But I read a big book once, John Gassner's Master of the Drama (800 pages of really small print). It took quite a bit of time and quite a few headaches to get through it. But I couldn't put it down. Gassner believed, and I have to agree with him, that satire is the highest form of comedy because there's a point to the humor. Satire serves a function in society by influencing people through laughter where rage and tears, not to mention common sense, have failed. And this makes me think of Aristophanes who is one of my favorite writers. Lysistrata could still relevant today, could it not? Moliere’s life-long career in the theatre was built on lampooning the ridiculous fixations of the social elite. And by lampooning all the different groups of society, a good service has been done for the public by bursting big egos and reminding everyone that we are all equally human. I believe in the power of comedy, which is so wasted right now with mindless fluff. And just because satire may not be "en vogue" right now, that does not mean it's not an acceptable or pleasing form of storytelling. (Here's the history of satire.)

To my bigger point, though, you have to judge a story for what it is and what it is trying to be in the context of that genre and not condemn it for all the things it isn't. You can't squeeze a square peg into a round hole. And this is where ScriptShark really failed in its coverage with the way that it pointed out illogic in the story (i.e., the public and police not being more suspicious of Darwin). The illogic IS the point because Mickey is ridiculing the fact that these people and society and even justice is blinded in part by Darwin's fame. Or blinded by their own beliefs in mediums, God, demons, the media, greed, the public's appetite for fame being greater than justice and morality, or in Nora's case, her faith in good coming from sharing "important news" to the masses. If everything was perfectly logical in this story, then there would be no need for satire, right?

Okay, I'd like to end this on a quick note of praise for Mickey.

There's a lot of crafty screenwriting going on here. Notice how Mickey connected the opening and closing shots of his story. I loved the inclusion of real and fake stars. I loved the scene on 21 where, after a hard night of murdering Vincent Vitale, Darwin wakes in his apartment to find his door wide open, implying just how open he leaves himself to being caught. I loved the little hints of what really drives him with the use of the framed photo of him and his father, a NY police officer, who we get the impression probably died in the line of duty. And unlike "Mr. Brooks," Darwin talking to the evil voice was not meant to be a cheap gimmick to drum up sympathy. Here, this was meant to show, I think, that Darwin has started to believe his own lies about being a medium, when in fact, he was hearing his own ID talking. Hehehe... And also, unlike Mr. Brooks, Mickey didn't sell out in the end. I love this ending. We are continually appalled and engrossed by the way he's getting away with murder because of who he is and how he's managed to fool everyone and in the end, he's given his just due in a way that we weren't expecting. It's satisfying because Nora was probably the only respectable person in this story (because she actually wants to feed the public "important" news), and she lost this battle with the media and the world to do good, and inevitably "sells out" like every one else by trying to capitalize (in her own way) on Darwin Cristobal's fame.

"Mr. Brooks" sold out by trying to lead us to believe he quit, but also left it open for endless sequels. Here, in the final scenes, we get talk about "selling out." However, Mickey was also, in essence, saying "I'm not selling out my story to leave it open for endless sequels" and kills Darwin. By killing Darwin, we see what we've been waiting for - his self-destruction. And the final scene is especially good, a twist of the knife of cynicism by showing how deeply entrenched this ridiculous fascination with fame has become around the world, when Darwin's death brings a moment of peace in Darfur as the Militia Leaders celebrate the news.

Perfect. Good job.



Mickey Lee on TriggerStreet

The Other Side script


Nick said...

Thanks for this post MM, specifically the portion about Satire.

I have a satire about hero worship on my back burner and I couldn't agree more that th epoint of it is to ridicule and break down the protag and his/her belief system. Because, in essence, he/she is a representation of the issue that the film is satrizing.

Laura Deerfield said...

I actually enjoyed Mr. Brooks. But I found humor in the relationship with the alter-ego, and I wanted the alter-ego to win... after all, Mr. Brooks is perhaps the most boring individual on the face of the planet unless he's killing. And he's so very good at it. Yes, I was rooting for him to do evil, sick things - and I am certain that was the intention as much as the audience in a slasher cheers for the killer.

And I never even considered that they were trying to make me think he "won" in the end and was able to give up killing. You know he's been doing this all his life, that the thumbprint thing was just one phase, and that he is without a doubt going to do it again... and I believe that's what the filmmakers wanted you to think.

To me, the question was not whether he would kill, but whether he'd get caught. And why should he get his comeuppance at the end? Do all nasty folk in movies get theirs? Much better that he's still out there... I was very glad they didn't have him get caught, as I felt like that would ruin things.

Was the open ending done with a sequel in mind? I guess it may have been. I just took it as an open ending, though.

Joshua James said...

Satire with a protag serial killer? The list begins with A SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM . . . I can't believe you didn't mention it, it's a rocking film. Michael Caine kicks ass.

bob said...

I concur with this review of Mickey's script. It was wicked good. And thanks for the insight into satire MM!

I have a question to throw out for the masses. Would Mr. Brooks have been a better story if he realized that he'd never be able to overcome his alterego and in the end decides to do the honorable thing and kill himself to keep himself from killing more people?

Mim said...

This is exactly the mistake we made on our story about Jack the Ripper. We tried to create a sympathetic serial-killer protag and missed.

I'm still working on the re-write, but this is good information.

Do you think this same theory applies to hitmen as protags? The only one I can think of is Grosse Point Blank and that was very much a satire.

bob said...

Prizzi's Honor was a satire, somewhat at least.

Road to Perdition was a straight up story. I personally liked Road to Perdition.

Mystery Man said...

Nick - Thanks so much. I think there's a need to educate on satire, because it can be a truly fantastic movie-going experience. Once you get it, you love it.

Laura - I enjoyed the plot involving the guy who wanted to learn. I thought that was interesting and that was the only part where I enjoyed the interaction with Marshall as they calculated their stategy on how to deal with this guy. The ending just flat-out pissed me off. They should've cut that last scene. What a sell-out.

Joshua - Oh yeah! I love that movie! I haven't seen that in ages. "Ripley's Game" is another good one. I enjoyed that far more so than "The Talented Mr. Ripley." Actually, there are 4 Tom Ripley movies in total, and this is the superior version. John Malkovich will always be, to me, the quintessential Tom Ripley. My favorite line is when he says (right before a certain killing begins), "Hold my watch, because if it breaks I'll kill everyone on this train." Hehehe...

Bob - No, and personally, I would've been more satisfied had he been given his comeuppance in an unexpected way. Without giving it away, we think he gets it and then they sold-out.

Mim - I think there is a problem in general screenwriting thinking in that we are "over-sympathizing" our protagonists. Ya know, we cannot sacrifice the integrity of the story or our own credibility as writers by forcing sympathy on characters who really don't deserve it.

Bob - Great! I have one - The Other Side! It's great! Hehehe...

Mim said...

I think the lesson we can take away from this is to create a protag the audience can understand, but not necessarily sympathize with.

As long as you have a protag with depth and back-story, and one who is interesting in some way, people will watch.

In Falling Down, the protag starts out as a normal, everyday guy, and becomes a villain. I think as long as we can all see ourselves reacting the same way in the same situation, we will want to watch these dark heroes.

Mickey Lee said...

Writing this story was the whole reason that I joined TriggerStreet, so thanks, MM, for putting the spotlight on satire for one day.

I never saw "Mr. Brooks", only because whenever I hear about an idea that sounds similar to one of my own, I like to bury my head in my pillows and pretend it never happened. But it sounds like I don't have too much to worry about.

"American Psycho" was a big influence on this story, as well as "To Die For" and of course "Network". And my list of favorite authors is like a who's-who of satire: Moliere, Swift, Orwell, Twain.... what can I say? I see the world through shit-stained glasses.

I'm not a big fan of light satire, Christopher Guest stuff, the recent "Stepford Wives" movie with Nicole Kidman, etc. Because even then, the focus is on the protag's arc. To me, satire's aim should always be the audience's "character arc", so to speak. The audience should walk away thinking about how they can improve themselves.

But anyway, thanks again. As mean and nasty as this story can be, it was truly a labor of love.

Michelle77 said...

Mickey said: "To me, satire's aim should always be the audience's "character arc", so to speak. The audience should walk away thinking about how they can improve themselves."

Interesting, Mickey. I'd never thought of it like that. But that is the function of satire.

MM - Awesome, helpful blog! I love "The Other Side." I've read it 3 or 4 times and it never fails to entertain me. It's wickedly engaging.

Nick said...

I bit the bullet and signed up for Triggerstreet just so I could read the script.

I enjoyed it and wish mickey lee luck with it.

Mickey Lee said...

Thanks, Nick. And welcome to TS!