How Steven Spielberg Handles his Villains
Steven Spielberg loves to tease us with his villains.
He shows them only indirectly.
In the audience we see the effects of the Bad Guys’ actions, but we rarely see the malefactors themselves.
This is tremendously powerful because it makes us imagine what the forces of evil look like, and that’s always scarier than actually seeing them in blinding daylight.
Remember the scene in Jaws with the three yellow barrels? Our heroes in their boat (Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, and Robert Shaw) harpoon the shark with cables linked to three huge yellow air-tank-like barrels. The barrels float on the ocean surface, enabling our hunters (and us) to see the shark’s movements from the boat even when the finned menace is submerged.
The great cinematic moment is when the three barrels go churning across the surface at high speed toward the boat, then dive under and come up on the other side.
We never see the shark.
But wow, how we imagine him.
That dude, we can’t help but say to ourselves, must be HUGE!
Likewise Spielberg doesn’t really show us the Meanies pursuing E.T. We see only their flashlight beams searching for the little guy, or their keys jangling on their work belts as they close in on him.
The giant spaceship wasn’t really the villain in Close Encounters but it felt like at least an ominous, unknown force at the start. Again, Spielberg withheld for most of the movie all direct sight of this entity.
We saw headlights and amber lights behind Richard Dreyfuss’s pickup truck. We saw screws mysteriously jiggling out of their sockets on Melinda Dillon’s floor and crazy lights flashing under her door jamb. The whole house shook. Electric toy cars began scooting across the floor. Melinda’s little son became mesmerized by the lights appearing outside.
But we never saw the space ship.
Ridley Scott worked the same magic in the original Alien. We saw the nasty little bugger (the Alien, not Mr. Scott) burst out of John Hurt’s chest and flee into the darkness of the huge space vessel. But after that, the scares all came from shadows and images on search screens, mixed with the odd Holy Crap pop-up of the monster, followed by an instantaneous cut-away.
You and I could profit by stealing this trick from these great scare-meisters.
Keep the villain present and aggressive in the effects he produces, but show him overtly as little as possible.
Awesome! As a guy who writes a fair bit of radio advertising, I talk a lot about “Theatre of the Mind,” and I’m frequently asked “but can’t you do the same thing with TV?”
Answer: you can if you’re enough of an artist to use the visuals to suggest rather than show outright. The Spielberg examples you write about perfectly illustrate that. But it’s really rare for anyone to do that with TV ads. In radio, if you’re using sound effects correctly, you’re kind of forced into suggesting what you can’t show, and that’s a good thing.
Anyway, thanks for this, Steve. Great stuff. Also, thought you might enjoy this video essay on some of the ways that Spielberg handles character introductions, as it sort of parallels what you’re saying:
Great blog article! I think you really nailed it. There’s no greater fear than fear of the unknown. It reminds me of the saying “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” If you can’t perceive it and understand it, then you can’t fight it, and that’s what generates the fear. It’s like a lie — when a lie is unmasked and the truth is revealed, the lie no longer has any power over you. Not to mention, an elusive villain is a great way to build suspense.
Seeing that photo from Jaws transported me back into the frozen-fear state I felt as a moviegoer back in the 70’s – you hit the nail on its proverbial head with this post. As always, thanks!
This is wonderful, Steve! Real “show, don’t tell” writing by not showing the villain. Suoer technique. I so love reading these every week. Thanks!
Steve, can you give us some examples from novels?
Synchronicity is a beautiful thing…
As I go deeper into this villain thread, I’m also exploring more of Shawn’s writings and read: “Change requires loss” I immediately thought of the villain’s aversion to change and how often we hear them say they have nothing left to lose?
I love it when a plan comes together…Thanks, Steve!
Correction:. The quote should be:
Change is loss.”
I’m reading “All the Pretty Horses” and thinking more about what McCarthy does with the villain in this story. First off, who is the villain? The corrupt captain? Maybe. Can you fault a jackal for being a jackal? Is the antagonist John Grady Cole’s own desire?
He, helpless to save himself from the looming danger of forbidden love? Maybe.
I think the principal villain is the Duena Alfonsa, and the threat she poses is understated (shown overtly as little as possible, as you say). The threat comes over two games of chess, the first of which we assume she lets John Grady win and in the second of which she smokes him, using “an opening he’d not seen before.” He will be outmaneuvered.
In the film version, Alfonsa’s implicit threat is shown in her microexpressions that could easily burst into flame as a full-fledged snarl. In the novel, she never directly tells John Grady to stay away from Alejandra. The closest she gets to a threat is: “it is not proper for you to be seen riding in the campo together without supervision” and “There is no forgiveness, you see.”
In parting, she says, “In this matter I get to say. I am the one who gets to say.”
“The clock ticked in the hall. She sat watching him. He picked up his hat.”
“Well. I guess I ought to say that you didnt have to invite me over just to tell me that.”
“You’re quite right, she said. It was because of it that I almost didn’t invite you.”
Understated, not shown overtly, but spine-chilling in the implied mortal threat.
Later, the hacendado (Alejandra’s father) invites John Grady to another game, this time billiards (chess, a game of outmaneuvering; billiards, a game of angling for position). He tells John Grady of Alfonsita as young girl, faced with her own experience of forbidden love as Alejandra is now. The father says of Alfonsa’s young lover and his brother: “In the end it was all of no consequence of course. The family was ruined. Both brothers assassinated. He studied the table.”
In “both brothers assassinated,” we’re meant to understand the threat to John Grady Cole and his innocent bystander buddy, Lacey Rawlins. McCarthy doesn’t have to tell us, “The hacendado told John Grady you better watch your ass, son. The Duena is not to be messed with.” In the subtlety of the threat, the sense of danger posed by the villain is amplified even further. This feels like a good example.
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