Last time I mentioned my opinion that Sweeney Todd was a good movie, but not a great one. It is probably Tim Burton’s most accomplished film. I liked it, respected it, admired it… but I didn’t love it.
Why not? Just like with Steely Dan, I didn’t find anything there to get attached to emotionally. I didn’t fall in love. And because of that, the ending, while inevitable and satisfying and ironic, pretty much failed. Why? Because it didn’t feel tragic – it didn’t emotionally devastate me, and I doubt it devastated anyone else in the theater either.
And this time I think I have some answers why. They don’t unlock the writing secrets to emotional involvement or anything, but they are helpful (at least for me).
Sweeney Todd is an obsessive protagonist. His all-encompassing obsession to exact revenge is intellectually compelling and an excellent source of story drive, but somehow it never becomes more than that. Like the passive protagonist, the obsessive protagonist is tricky, one which conventional screenwriting wisdom warns us to avoid. Neither type gives us an easy “way in” to their emotional lives. Although the obsessive protagonist may at times be the opposite of the passive protagonist – consumed by the same action all the time – if it feels “too” obsessive, his behavior can alienate the viewer, killing any emotional connection. The Sweeney Todd character intrigued me at first, but somewhere in there my involvement switched gears to a more distanced and removed intellectual curiosity. And I am a huge fan of obsessive (and passive) protagonists. I instinctively think in terms of them – nearly all my protagonists fit the description. But despite this and even Johnny Depp, Sweeney didn’t pull me in. I just didn’t care.
I am tempted to say Sweeney was too flat and one-dimensional (he was his obsession and little else) but that is not quite it. Obsessive characters are this way by definition – for me it was the story that was flat. After a few minutes, I got it – this guy is obsessed. Next, please. After that there wasn’t much of a way for me to participate. And people like to participate. To get pulled in, to make an emotional connection, I guess I need to participate. But without a character to emotionally “root for,” how can you get people to participate?
Years ago I read an edition of Alternative Scriptwriting by Dancyger and Rush (I hear they are up to a 4th edition now – I’ll have to check it out). I was curious when they discussed the passive protagonist – and thrilled when they didn’t tell writers to forget about them. Instead, they offered strategies. The passive protagonist is usually story death because without his activity/agency the story doesn’t move. But you can use a different story source to keep events in motion. Luke Skywalker is a completely passive character. In Star Wars he does exactly two things, one of which is to whine like a little girl. But you put him in the middle of a bunch of forces hurtling forward out of his control and the whole world buys tickets to root for him in movie after movie. You can have a passive/obsessive protagonist and a gripping story full of movement at the same time. You could argue that Michael Corleone in The Godfather is a passive protagonist – at least until he is trapped by events beyond his control and has no choice but to off Sollozzo and McCluskey. Even later than this, you could argue. Two of the greatest movies ever made – both with a passive protagonist. Coincidence? Another example: you-know-who in The Usual Suspects. Passive character, great movie. How did McQuarrie do this? You guessed it – he put the passive character in the middle of a puzzle. The puzzle can keep us moving – and be a way into identifying and empathizing with the character.
Once you get things moving around the passive or obsessive protagonist, you can play with the interesting dramatic ramifications – What if the protagonist is riding the current of a series of events, moving forward out of his control, and his very passivity or obsession itself becomes a source of character and story conflict? This is how Aftershocks operated, and Dancyger and Rush’s wisdom really propelled me on my way. I had found the Puzzle. Hopefully the activity of solving the puzzle pulls readers into Aftershocks, and once they get to know my character and the nature of his obsession/passivity they can make the leap to emotional attachment.
But there it is – it is still a leap.
Solving a puzzle is an intellectual activity, not an emotional one. This can provide movement but not anything else necessarily. Sweeney Todd had plenty of movement, but nothing to make me participate. I got into Sweeney’s head just fine – just not his heart. But this movement and participation – however strategized and generated – are necessary. Necessary but not sufficient, as they say.
I guess what I’ve figured out finally – why I’ve been thinking about this – is that Pete in Dead Guy is a passive protagonist. I think I was fighting this for some reason. And while I guess I always knew this, I just hadn’t yet made the connection between this fact and the problems I have been having with plot, Act Two, and The Line. They are all intertwined. I was stuck coming up with how Pete would drive the movement, but now I have remembered that the situation/premise can do a lot of the work too. The premise – all these out-of-control forces – is what got me interested in the story to begin with, and it is okay to trust it and let it drive for a while. Use it and its interesting complications to its fullest. And then the story becomes about what Pete does in the face of these complications, and what and how he – like Luke Skywalker – finally does something in the end to be active, to grow up. If the situation provides the movement and Pete’s reaction to that movement provides the heart, I should be okay.