P.O.V. No.28 - Good Guy / Bad Guy

An interview with David von Ancken

Martin Møller Aamand

David Von Ancken (b. 1964) has been directing film and television for twelve years. In 1997 his first short Box Suite won awards at three film festivals including the International Surrealist Film Festival. In 2000 he made Bullet in the Brain which was screened at twenty festivals and won best short film in five of them. Over the last seven years he has directed over twenty-five one-hour dramas for network and cable TV in the U.S. These shows include: Oz, The Shield, Without a Trace, Cold Case, Californication, CSI:NY, Gossip Girl and Saving Grace among others. In 2005-6 he wrote and directed a western called Seraphim Falls which starred Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan. He is currently developing two feature films and a television series.

Filmography (as director)
1997 - Box Suite
2001 - Bullet in the Brain
2006 - Seraphim Falls
2009 - The Equalizer
- plus numerous episodes of TV series listed above.

Is the good guy/bad guy construct applicable to any of your storytelling?

In Seraphim Falls (2006) there is, on the face of it, a good guy/bad guy relationship between Pierce Brosnan's and Liam Neeson's characters. And you think one of them is the bad guy to start with, because he's shooting the other one. He hits him and tries to kill him, and I think somewhere along the line it switches. There's a reversal that makes us start to feel that maybe the bad guy is not so bad. In that way that film has that current running through it.

Do you think there's any necessary relationship between good guys and bad guys?

I think really in any story, if you don't have a push and a pull, not even necessarily with a good guy-bad guy on its face, if you don't really have dramatic tension… On some level, not one guy beating another guy up, or trying to kill another guy. It's not that simple. But if there's a good guy/bad guy relationship in nearly anything - and it doesn't have to be of course just guys - you know, it's a psychological relationship, a one up/one down relationship. So the one up is the person whose will is being exerted over the one down. And in nearly any good dramatic situation, you will find that. You can call that good guy/bad guy, whatever.

If you structure a story around a good guy / bad guy polarity, do you see any risks you need to be aware of? Are there any traps in doing that?

I think if you do it too clearly sometimes. I think most big Hollywood movies and many genre movies have very clear definitions of that. So is there a risk? Yeah, the risk is sublety, you lose it.

So things become too clear?

On some level. Some movies need it clearer, and some stories maybe are asking for a more subtle explanation of things.

Do you think it would make any sense to distinguish between stories that have good guy / bad guy characters and those that don't?

No. Simple answer.

Why not?

You know, because when you start to label things, you ruin the reason for exploring things, especially emotional beats. You start to label them upfront, rather than letting them come toward you. I find it just flattens out, it loses its reason for being interesting.

What do you see as the best and worst ways to identify a given character as either the good guy or the bad guy?

Best ways, hmm. Not through physical behaviour, but through sort of secondary intent, because you can very easily identify someone as good or bad if they're antagonistic or they're brutal or they're big, whatever. But it's always more interesting to get if you went to explore this middle label like that to see the underlying, ulterior motive of a character. So I guess I'm saying, I don't like to go in with labels upfront. If they come as a process, as a result of the exploration of a story, great. If they don't, that's okay too. You know, it's not something that you set up in front of a story. Like I said, in any good dramatic arc, there's going to be this inherent relationship of a good guy and a bad guy.

What do you see as the most interesting good guy and bad guy? Do you have any favourites in other films or your own films?

I don't like to label them too much, because if you see it, you start to lose, you don't pay enough attention to other things that could be more interesting, more important. So if you start to see the good guy and the bad guy upfront as an audience, or even as a writer, I think you're being too obvious. You know, let it come as a result. Recognise that the relationship will be an antagonist and a protagonist of most stories. And it's not necessarily physical, it could be an emotional good guy/bad guy, or mental good guy/bad guy. But to come out with that too much upfront, I think is dangerous.

If you see a good guy in a movie, what kind of qualities does that person have to have?

If you're asking, what are the interesting parts of a character, to me it's always the unexpected. Where is your twist? Where is your reversal? Where's something that comes from your action unexpectedly? Because most of the time you go see a movie for some level of entertainment, so entertainment to me can incorporate learning, or it can incorporate very little learning sometimes. And both of those are valid. But if you don't have characters that have surprises, or at the very least quirks or interesting things that you don't see every day in your life, then you have something that's somewhat boring, and that's inexcusable. You know, that's just no reason to start shooting or force someone to watch some crap that you feel is important if it's not interesting in terms of the character having traits that are new, and from those traits you can say, "Well, I know this person better" or "I've seen that in myself" or something like that.

Would you advise student filmmakers to go for a good guy / bad guy relationship in storytelling?

No. I would advise you to find a story that means something to you on some simple level. Don't put the artifical constructs in front of your search for something to talk about. If you want to talk about noir, there'll be a very physical good guy/bad guy. If you want to talk about family relationships, there's always a one up/one down, in any family relationship. I'll leave it to you to figure it out, but someone very famous said, "All happy families are the same. All unhappy families are different in their own way" - and that's a paraphrase. But it points you in the direction of something that's going to be interesting. If you paint a story on any level that's kind of normal, I guess you could just read the newspaper and be happy. It's got to be something that's interesting. So I would say, don't put any sort of construct in front of a search for a topic. Go do something that doesn't have anything to do with searching for a topic. Read a book, go to an art museum, talk with a friend, walk down the street. Don't look for it; it will find you. If it doesn't find you on some level, then you've got to do something else with your life.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about good guys and bad guys?

I like to talk about westerns and good guys, like Butch Cassidy. These guys are bankrobbers, but they're still good guys. They kill people and kind of have their own rules of law that make sense to you and the audience. They're honest with each other. They've loved the same woman. They're decent people except for the fact that they put guns in people's faces and steal their money. The bad guy in that movie is never seen up-close. He's called The Forge, the man in the white hat, and he's chasing them down, but he never really gets so close to getting them, though in the end he does kill them. And he's the bad guy who wins. So that's a more subtle example of a good guy/bad guy, but it's definitely there, even though that movie is not a good guy/bad guy movie at all, it's a Buddy movie. But inside of it, there's a good guy/bad guy relationship. Because somewhere if you've got to have drama, you've got to have that rub, that friction. A lot of stories are written like exlanations of characters, and many of those stories are not going to be something that you want to make a movie out of. You go to Halloween or Friday the 13th, well, they're very obvious bad guys - he's trying to chop your head off with an axe or put a spear through you and your girlfriend's chests when you're sleeping. That's a pretty obvious bad guy. But are the other people good guys? No, they're just trying to survive and that makes them good guys. That's at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to something like Butch Cassidy.

March, 2009

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