A few years ago I was at the American Film Market in Santa Monica climbing the stairs, checking out what’s hot (and what’s not) and going to parties celebrating movies that you’ve never heard of. In the lobby I was talking to a fellow screenwriter at one of these parties, and he was telling me about his new script titled “Give Them The Axe”. The hero hated people – and the writer admitted he did, too. When someone cut off the hero on the freeway, he would follow that person home, grab the axe from the trunk of his car, and hack the bad driver to pieces. If someone didn’t let the hero get his way, he’s go to his car for the axe and remove that person so that he could get his way. If a waitress spilled a drink on the hero, he would grab the axe from the trunk of his car. (I was very careful with my drink around this writer – I also told him this was the greatest idea I’d ever heard). This guy’s brilliant script (he may be reading this) went on to have his hero fall in love with a woman – who does something to bother him – and he can’t decide if he should give her the axe or not. He decides to spare her – and the audiences loves him for it. The writer believes if this is ever made, the end will get standing ovations.
I think the audience will be standing long before the end… after about ten minutes they’ll stand up and leave the theater.
The day after hearing this writer’s pitch for “Give Them The Axe” I bumped into a producer I used to work for in the halls at AFM. His new film 3000 MILES TO GRACELAND was opening on Friday, and he thought it was his best project to date. So it won my “Friday Night Fight” and I paid $9 to see it.
The commercials made it look like a light hearted heist film – sort of an All Elvis version of OCEAN’S ELEVEN. Heist movies feature a team of organized professional crooks who live by a strict moral code (THE WILD BUNCH is all about the importance of keeping your word) – but one of the members of the team doesn’t subscribe to the code and betrays the others (becoming the villain). In Walter Hill’s THE DRIVER a cop becomes the villain by “breaking the rules” and endangering innocent bystanders. The genre is about a society of people who live outside of society – A Band Apart – and how they deal with the outsiders within their midst. But 3000 MILES TO GRACELAND took a major wrong turn about ten minutes in…
Kurt Russell is one of a team of thieves out to rob the Riviera Casino during Elvis Week. Hundreds of Elvis impersonators will be in the casino – so they’ll dress like Elvis and blend in. Except they NEVER try to blend in! Upon entering the casino Kevin Costner breaks a guy’s nose. A few minutes later, they are machine gunning innocent people in the casino! They seem to have no plan at all to get away – except to kill everyone between them and the door! Guards, cops, cocktail waitresses, slot machine players, craps dealers – all killed by “our heroes”! When one of the gang (Bokeem Woodbine) kills a few dozen innocent people, a cop shoots him – and when he dies a few minutes later it’s supposed to be a big emotional moment for the team… except this guy is a mad-dog killer, so we’re HAPPY that he’s dead!
In fact, it’s impossible to root for Kurt Russell during the rest of this movie because he’s shown as a mad-dog killer ten minutes into the film! How can you like the guy after he kills innocent people? The rest of the film was one violent exchange after another – but we don’t care. No standing ovations for this bunch!
Though Kurt Russell was supposed to be the *good* bad guy, when put in a situation where innocent people were being riddled with gunfire, he did nothing. And throughout the rest of the film there were no scenes that showed how he was really any different than the bad badguy, Kevin Costner. The closest thing we get is Russell hooks up with a single mom while he’s hiding out – but why wouldn’t Costner do the same? We needed a series of situations that contrasted the two characters to show us how Russell was *not* like mad-dog killer Costner.
Many people in the audience were standing long before the end… after about ten minutes they stood up to leave the theater. There were lots of walkouts, and the film didn’t break any box office records. It was yet another flop from Franchise Films.
Today, Franchise Films has been sued into bankruptcy… but they still have some films sitting on the shelf waiting for release. Something to look forward to!
Though the distinction between Russell’s character and Costner’s character may have been made clear in the script, and just ignored by the director (who seemed more interested in slow motion machinegun hits), we want to make sure those scenes are on *our* pages. We want to make sure that our good bad guys are understandable and involving, so that the audience wants to spend 2 hours in the dark with them.
When you’re dealing with “criminal heroes” make sure you have enough “hero” to balance the “criminal” – and NEVER go over the line into villain territory! Never let your lead character do something the audience can’t forgive him for doing. As they said in RESERVOIR DOGS – “Did you kill any real people?” “No – just cops.” I imagine if you are a police officer, you may not still be siding with these guys… but the point of that line of dialogue is that they only killed armed people actively opposing them. They didn’t kill that little old lady at the slot machine like the robbers did in 3000 MILES TO GRACELAND. If you are writing a script about criminals, make sure they live by a strict code of conduct – that they have rules of behavior that the audience can understand. If someone breaks these rules, we will understand if they are dealt with violently… they knew the job was dangerous when they took it. One of my favorite movies, POINT BLANK, has Lee Marvin killing anyone who gets between him and his stolen $92 thousand…. but he never kills an innocent bystander.
One of the basics of a film about criminals, with criminal leads – is that criminal code. Films about armed robbers are often really about society and morality – using character we usually think of as being bad to illustrate honesty (among thieves) or morality or integrity. From ASPHALT JUNGLE to FIVE AGAINST THE HOUSE to RESERVOIR DOGS, movies about bad guys are often used to explore a moral code, the way Mafia films are often about the code of honor and the importance of family. Audiences love flawed heroes and bad guy leads – but the flaws have to be something that we can understand, and might imagine having ourselves. No matter how bad the protagonist is, they still have to be understandable… and be doing something that fits one of the audience’s dark fantasies like revenge. Killing people who cut you off on the freeway with an axe… I just can’t see myself really doing that!
SCRIPT SECRETS STORE – time to monkey around!