Using the movie Downsizing as an example... of what not to do... William C. Martell discusses the importance of a protagonist having clear objectives.
Are the objectives of your lead character easy to understand? Your lead character is setting out to *do something.* Achieve a specific goal. In the late William Goldman's Ghost and the Darkness Val Kilmer's character is trying to build a bridge across a river in Africa. The audience can easily understand building the bridge—it's not an abstract goal. We can see the river, and the end of the railroad tracks on either side. By the end of the film, we can see the result of Kilmer's character's objectives: The bridge spanning the river, connecting the two sets of tracks.
Are the objectives physical? Concrete? A vague goal like World Peace won't work in a screenplay. Film is a visual medium, and the goal needs to be something we can see. How can we tell World Peace has been achieved? A montage of people who hate each other hugging? Sharon hugs Arafat, a Klansman hugs an African American, a cowboy hugs an Indian, I hug Pauley Shore movies? Does that really show World Peace? How do we know someone isn't fighting somewhere? We'd have to see everyone in the whole world hugging (and even then we don't know if they're just pretending to like each other so that their enemy will let their guard down).
Your protagonist's objectives need to be something we can see—something physical. That way there's no question about what the goal *is* and no question that the protagonist has achieved it.
Eight time Oscar-nominated screenwriter Billy Wilder says, "Develop a clean line of action for your leading character."
In The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble is searching for the One-Armed Man who killed his wife. A specific person. We can SEE that he has only one arm, and SEE that he is the same man Kimble fought with at the murder scene. It would not be enough to have Kimble's goal just be to evade the police. That's not concrete enough. Not visual. How can we tell he's evaded the police? The lead character's goal has to be something the Director of Photography can focus his camera on. Something we can see. One single thing.
Last Year, Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor’s Downsizing had a stand out performance by Hong Chau, but despite starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz and being from the writer-director team behind About Schmidt and Sideways and The Descendants and Election, the film seems to have failed at the box office and failed with critics as well, getting only a 50% on Rotten Tomatoes from Top Critics. What happened? No clean line of action for the lead character, and a constantly changing storyline. Rookie mistakes!
Downsizing starts off with a great high concept—scientists discover a way to miniaturize humans, and instead of sending doctors inside a patient in a submarine, like in Fantastic Voyage, they decide to use the technology to minimize the human environmental footprint by miniaturizing humans. Of course, they don't sell it that way—they tell people that they can live like billionaires, because what is a huge mansion on a huge estate to a miniature person doesn't take up much land or building materials. The huge steak that will set you back almost a week’s pay in some fancy restaurant costs about what a Big Mac meal costs. And imagine the massive diamond you could buy for the wife on your anniversary! But the scientists, lead by Dr. Asbjornson (Rolf Lassgård), see it as a way to make the human race environmentally sound and put off climate change and all of the other side effects of out modern life.
Our protagonist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) (yes, all of the names are completely impossible in this script and film, and they add to it by having everyone mispronounce Paul’s last name so he has to correct them) is an occupational therapist who works for ConAgra dealing with work-related injuries at their Midwest factories. He wanted to be a surgeon, but typical life complications lead him to this job, where the pay is okay, and he and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) own a modest house in the suburbs. After talking with some friends who got small, they decide to check out Leisure World, a miniature luxury housing development. They make arrangements to buy a McMansion with the works, and shrink themselves down to 5 inches tall.
But already, there is a strong prejudice against small people growing in the country, and this is set up as a big conflict that must be dealt with. Audrey’s family is against the idea of miniaturization, and are afraid they will never see her again (unless they accidentally step on her). People at Paul’s job are against him shrinking down. Paul gets into a fist fight with a prejudiced drunk in a bar, defending small people. At this point in the story, our “clean line of action” for Paul seems to be dealing with the prejudice against small people once he and his wife have been shrunk down to 5 inches.
LET’S GET SMALL
Paul and Audrey sell all of their things and then go to Leisure World to be shrunken and re-introduced into society... but small society. Paul wakes up after the procedure and gets a phone call while he’s still in the recovery room... from Audrey. She has decided at the last minute *not* to go through the procedure... leaving 5 inch Paul married to a full-sized woman. So now we’ve switched gears and set up this story about a full-sized woman and a miniature man. This is an element of the story in Richard Matheson’s novel The Shrinking Man, made into a great flick in 1957. In the book (but not the film), they get into the sexual issues of a man who is shrinking in a marriage where the couple has an active sex life. Hey, that would make a great comedy premise! So now our “clean line of action” appears to be how their relationship will work now that he’s pocket-sized.
Except as soon as we get ready for that storyline, they get divorced! Now Paul is living in miniature Leisure World in a huge McMansion and Audrey is living in full-sized world... and he loses just about everything in the divorce. But two big things happen with this change in plot: because Audrey is no longer part of the story, Paul no longer has any contact with the outside world and the story is about miniature people living in a miniature world, and that becomes the same as regular people living in a regular world. We have lost the high concept of miniaturization because we have no regular-sized characters or world for contrast. Sure, there are a couple of gags where large-sized props play a part, but 98% of the time miniaturization no longer has anything to do with the story itself. The high concept is gone, and we are left with...
LET’S GET REGULAR SIZED
Paul moves to a condo that he can barely afford, now, and enters the dating world. Our new “clean line of action” is a pretty normal story about a middle-aged guy who has been out of the dating world for decades trying to find love. There really isn’t anything in this storyline about being miniature (though he does bring a regular-sized rose to a date at one point). It’s basically like a million other comedies about divorced guys entering the dating world—like the great Burt Reynolds and Jill Clayburgh comedy Starting Over from 1979.In fact, that’s a much better movie. The woman Paul ends up dating, Kristen, is a single mom who complains about everything, and eventually dumps him.
Meanwhile, in typical sitcom form, Paul has an issue with his upstairs neighbor Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz) who throws loud wild parties almost every night. When Paul goes upstairs to complain one night, he’s invited into the party where Dusan offers to show him the ways to get laid and have a great time in the process. The party is filled with drugs and women and semi-celebrities like “Little Ronni” (Cameron Geddes) the first miniature baby (now in his 20s). Hey, I’ve seen this movie, too! The suddenly single guy who finds the wingman who shows him how to live? So that becomes our story for a while—nothing to do with miniaturization, it’s a middle-aged guy looking for a good time with a little help from an expert in partying.
Part of this story is that Paul wants Dusan’s praise—he doesn’t want to look like a loser (who now works in a cubicle doing customer service). But the more he gets to know Dusan and his pal Konrad (Udo Kier), the more he begins to suspect that his new best friends might be gangsters of some sort...
That could be a whole movie—and it has been. But Downsizing switches stories and lines of action (also known as “thoughlines” and discussed in the Outlines & Thematic Method Blue Book) every ten or fifteen minutes! Just when you think you know what the story is, it changes into something else! Miniature humans? Not anymore!
THE MAID DID IT!
One morning after a wild party, Paul wakes up at Dusan’s when the door opens and maid service arrives. When Paul goes into the bathroom, he sees one of the Maids stealing drugs out of Dusan’s medicine cabinet! By this point we know that Dusan and Konrad are smugglers who bring in contraband from the outside world and sell it in Leisure World. And this Maid may be in big trouble if she’s caught. Will Paul tell Dusan what he’s seen?
Hey, just when you thought that might be the plot, Paul recognizes the Maid as Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, who steals the film), a Vietnamese dissident who was arrested and miniaturized by the Viet Namese government, but escaped to America with a box-load of other prisoners... she was the only survivor, and lost a foot. She now has a terrible prosthetic foot and a pronounced limp. Paul thought she would be famous, but instead she’s working as a Maid in Leisure World. Paul’s occupational therapist past swings into action and he helps her with her pain, and recommends she get a new fake foot. But she can’t afford it.
This kicks off a whole new plot which has nothing to do with miniaturization, divorce, re-entering the dating scene, trying to win the favor of a gangster, or learning how to party... Ngoc takes Paul across town and through the wall that surrounds Leisure World to the tenements where the Maids and Gardeners and other service people live. A slum. Paul is shocked that such a place exists. There are poor people? How did that happen?
I was going to go straight to Paul becoming the doctor for all of the people in the slums, but that would be leaving out the lengthy story where Paul accidentally breaks Ngoc’s prosthetic foot and has to take over her job as a maid, plus carry her on his back all day, and he ends up cleaning up Dusan’s apartment after a couple of parties, and Dusan spots him and is disappointed in him for falling so low that he’s become a maid....
But eventually the story shifts to Paul becoming the doctor for the slums. He’s like a missionary—treating children and delivering babies and taking care of old people and all of the other things that you’d find in a story about a semi-privileged guy who finds his calling helping heal the poor. Heck, in the 1970s there were a half dozen TV series with this plot, and they took a couple of seasons to exhaust the story. But here?
LET’S GO TO NORWAY!
It seems that Dusan and Konrad have a special delivery to make to the original miniaturized colony in Norway and want Paul to go along. The original colony is legendary, because it contains all of the scientists who discovered miniaturization a couple of decades ago. It's a land of geniuses! So Paul wants to go!
But Ngoc says if Paul goes, she has to go! And that means Paul has to talk Dusan and Konrad into taking her. And they all end up on a (miniature) yacht sailing to Norway on an amazing adventure!
Have we had enough completely different stories, yet? What is the “clean line of action” for Protagonist Paul? He seems like a pinball quickly bouncing between different storylines and as soon as you think he might score one specific story some flipper knocks him in the opposite direction.
Once they get to Norway and the legendary original colony, they discover it’s a hippie free-love cult run by Dr. Solveig Edvardsen (Margareta Pettersson) and just weird. The scientists are more concerned with body than mind, and Dusan and Konrad are delivering contraband booze and drugs. Thus ends the plot about Paul visiting what he thought was the Promised Land. Which means it’s time for a new plot!
They meet Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen who created miniaturization, and he tells them that the world is going to end. It seems they were too late to save the world from climate change and a methane leak from the melting polar icecaps in Antarctica will kill everyone on Earth... eventually. So it’s the end of the world, let’s all party like it’s 1999!
Except they have a plan: those Norwegians have built a huge (to miniature people) bunker in the side of a mountain and filled it with food and water and everything else. It’s Noah’s Ark for the upcoming end of the world. They will stay inside for 8,000 years and wait out the climate change and methane and then re-emerge into the new world! And at sundown tonight they will all go into this bunker and time locks will seal them inside until the time locks pop open the doors in 8,000 years.
Dusan and Konrad think these Norwegians are crazy. The world will probably go on... and even if it is going to end, that may be in a hundred years! They’ll be long dead. Why not live *every day* like it’s 1999? Live *every day* as if it’s your last?
Paul is faced with a choice—go into the bunker with the Norwegians and be some form of Adam when the bunker doors open in 8,000 years... or get back on the boat and return to Leisure World with Dusan and Konrad and Ngoc. He picks the bunker and says his goodbyes...
But moments before the doors close for 8,000 years, Paul runs out of the bunker (there’s a ticking clock here, but it doesn’t manage to generate much excitement), and reunited with Ngoc and his friends! He goes back to being a doctor in the slums, and shacks up with Ngoc (because he has realized he loves her)—the end.
I counted something like 23 different plots in there, and so I ask you: What is the “clear line of action” for Paul in this film? What is his objective that ties each scene to the next?
In movies like Downsizing, we have no idea what the protagonist’s goal is, and the goal seems to constantly be changing, which just adds all kinds of confusion. Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern said Downsizing“Is a movie in which too-muchness ends up being not-enoughness, since the script lacks a vital center.” Hey, who says critics don’t know what they’re talking about?
Thinking back on Downsizing, I think Paul’s goal is “to find himself”—which is internal and emotional, so it doesn’t work in the visual medium of film. We can’t see that goal, so it doesn’t exist. There’s a huge speech on page 116 of the screenplay where Paul explains how each of these different stories was a step on his way to this final destination (which is going into the bunker... not his final destination at all), but that speech is locking the barn door after the horse has escaped. The thing has been a big pile of confusion up to that point, and there’s no way that speech can save it. But even if some version of Paul’s speech had been near the beginning and we *knew* he was trying to find himself, it still wouldn’t work. That “clean line of action” would still not exist. The *action* in the story would still be an episodic mess, and confusing as hell.
Your Story Checklist:
1) What is your protagonist’s *physical* goal?
2) Is it the same goal throughout the story?
3) Are all of the scenes and subplots of the story leading to that physical goal (even if they don’t seem to be leading there at the time)?
4) You can have twists and turns in your story, but secretly the story is still moving along the path to the end. Often there is a “false goal” in a story, but even that is on the path to the real goal.
If you can't *see* your protagonist's objectives, or if the protagonist has so many objectives that we aren't sure what's important and what is trivial, you may want to rethink or redefine your screenplay. If the camera can't focus on a goal and the protagonist can't focus on a goal... there is no goal.
For more information check out the Outlines & The Thematic Blue Book.