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

An interview with Philippe Lesage

Ina Fischlin

Philippe Lesage (b. 1973) is a Canadian filmmaker from Montreal who now lives in Copenhagen. A graduate of Mcgill Universtiy in literature and of the European Film College, he has directed two feature-length documentaries, one set in the fringes of Paris and the other one in the poor outskirts of Beijing. He is currently working on a third film, Hotel-Dieu, about the relationship between patients and doctors in the oldest hospital of Montreal, and is also preparing his first feature film. In 2008-2009, he returned to the European Film College to teach documentary filmmaking.

2005 - Les cordes raides ont-elles au bout des coeurs pour se détendre?
2006 - Can We Live Together?
2009 - How Can You Tell If the Little Fish Are Happy?
2009 - Hotel-Dieu [in pre-production]

How do you view the relation of the good guy / bad guy construct to our reality?

That's the thing. In reality people are multidimensional, they're complex. We all have to fight and struggle within ourselves, with our good sides and bad sides. Taking it even further, "good" and "bad" are notions and talking about those sides is dependent on how we define them. This ends up in a question of values. What is good for one person can be bad for another and the other way around. As the philosopher Spinoza said "What is good for you is what fulfills your own needs and desires. And what is bad is what obstructs your desires and needs."

With regard to filmmaking, there is a huge current, mainly in American cinema at first but now everywhere, where the spectator is forced to act as a judge. A judge who has to separate the good guys from the bad guys. Normally it's obvious who's "good" and who's "bad." For us as a spectators this limits what we can get out of the film. As humans we are unable to relate to these archetype characters because they come as a concept. In reality we are dealing with complexities and in that kind of cinema there is no room for multidimensional characters. Sometimes they play with characters that have two faces. So there exists a struggle between a good and a bad side within a character. But often this is stereotyped as well. In reality the distinction between good and bad is not at all this clear. We all have different backgrounds and many layers of good sides and bad sides. Take monsters in the real world and dig beneath the surface. You will discover that they actually have reasons that explain their behavior. The French director Jean Renoir said: "What is terrible on earth is that everybody has their reasons". It's not as simple as we think it is. I'm not satisfied as a spectator, as a creative spectator when I'm in a position where I feel I have to be a judge. I cannot really relate anything from reality to that fictional concept so therefore it narrows my personal experience with the film.

Would you say that this discussed construct is more destructive for storytelling or can it help to construct the story?

In conventional storytelling, there will always be films that use that construct. In most of these films you are being manipulated. Normally when you have to separate the good from the bad you are also being told when to feel sad, pain or fear by different means of manipulation, for example music. You are being taken by the hand. And I don't think it's going to disappear because this kind of storytelling has been around for so long. Even though I believe that the new generation, brought up with multimedia, is less naive. My students for example are of that generation. We can't fool them as much and tell them lies. I noticed that they realize very quickly when things are too obvious and when the storytelling becomes a series of clichés.

Preferably I would like us to write stories for films about human beings that we can believe in. Because I believe that the difference between a good film and a bad film is as simple as whether or not it is believable. If you are following these archetype structures you have to add layers of dimensions in the characters and make them more human, in order to be more credible. Especially since we are less naive nowadays. You can notice some change in that direction in some American films. There are now a lot of mainstream action films where you have characters that are maybe not that multidimensional, but at least they have inner struggles between good and evil - that I mentioned earlier. You can see this in the new generation of Batman films for example. But still it's not enough for me to take them as real human beings that I can relate to. It's too artificial when it's too obvious. If you can relate to them you have a chance to discover things about yourself and your own life.

And to come back to your original question, one way of using the good guy / bad guy idea in a constructive way would be to force the stereotype into two hundred percent. David Lynch does that for example. He uses these archetypes, but they're pushed into an extreme cliché. And the extreme cliché becomes interesting. The bad guys have this kind of irony and the story gets very close to satire. In a satire of course the author makes fun of the clichés by using them. So he's aware of using them and turns them into something else.

I want to know a bit more about what you said concerning this new generation that is harder to fool and the change in mainstream action films. Do you think we will continue to move away from the clear distinction between good guy and bad guy?

I hope so. I believe that we have no choice because of what I said earlier about how it's becoming a lot more difficult to cheat. I think it's the fact that information is so widely available. If something is false you can easily find a refutation of it somewhere.

But yes, I hope that the new generation - including myself - can get a further away from these old archetypes. And I think it's a very healthy thing.

You said earlier it's very common, especially in American films, to have this obvious good guy and bad guy. Why do you think this is done so often? What could the attraction be?

I think for creating entertainment it's an efficient recipe. Because it requires less intellectual effort and no moral cost. Everything is given, you get no more than what you see, you don't have to ask yourself too many questions. You don't have to be confronted too much with aspects of reality that are disturbing. And a lot of people are not interested in seeing and accepting reality as it is. So they don't want to go see a film after work that will tell them to see and accept reality as it is. As a form of entertainment consumption, primary entertainment, it's probably efficient, it always is. Maybe I hope that even in that kind of film the good guys and the bad guys will become more than that. If you are a lazy spectator and you don't want to get involved in a film, it's much easier when you only have to ask yourself what is going to happen and see films that are based on these false climaxes and guessing games. And you can play judge about "oh my god, he's so evil" and "this person is so good" and "I hope that this good person will win over the evil one." So it plays with archetypes that you don't have to think too much about and it doesn't involve you.

Would you say then that those films are made for the audience, rather than for the filmmaker to tell a story or convey a message?

I don't think the filmmaker has bad intentions. But I think that he's interested in keeping the viewers seated while they watch his film. He knows it's working so why change the recipe? Why make films where half the audience wants to leave before the end because you're asking for too much personal involvement or you're showing them a reality that they don't want to see or that very few are able to see? If you start making films and you find yourself to be a good manipulator and have success, it's probably difficult to try to do something else. You know you're able to keep your spectators seated. I wish more of them would take the risk of breaking down that recipe. More directors like Gus Van Sant for instance who came up with Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Part after he did a sterile but successful film like Good Will Hunting.

What if you have a story that doesn't use the concept we have been discussing? Where do you think the conflict is present in the story, if there is any conflict at all?

There are many examples but take Bergman or John Cassavetes films. The conflict lies in the inner life of the characters. Their inner problems constitute the main material of the film. So there is not one conflict-thing, but it's a multiplication of conflicts. I like to talk about the inner tension of characters as the driving force within the story. Instead of having some external conflict that drives the characters. It gives much more accuracy and truthfulness to what they experience when the main conflict lies in deep within them. That's when I can start to be personally involved with the film and become a creative viewer by beginning to think about my own inner conflicts.

May, 2009

to the top of the page