The new film The Upside follows the unlikely friendship between wealthy quadriplegic Phillip (Bryan Cranston) and his caregiver, Dell (Kevin Hart). The script, written by Jon Hartmere and based on the award-winning 2011 French film Les Intouchables, traces how two characters from different worlds learn to form a bond of mutual trust and respect.
In this post, we'll look at how Hartmere developed his version of these characters by applying the VOTE Method. The object of this review is not to criticize the film itself, but to demonstrate to aspiring writers how they can build strong characters in their own stories by showing how the VOTE Method applied to contemporary films.
In this case, we'll look at how Hartmere approached writing the characters of Phillip, Dell, and Phillip’s executive Yvonne (Nicole Kidman)
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
At the start of the film, Dell's Victory is to get signatures from hiring managers to show his parole officer that he has been looking for a job.
Once he gets the job with Phillip, his Victory is to keep it long enough and make enough money to take care of his son and the boy’s mother.
Dell’s criminal record and prison term make managers hesitate to hire him. His pessimistic attitude and lack of motivation also stand in his way.
When he gets the job, he finds out he’s both unqualified and unsuited for it. Yvonne also puts pressure on him by instituting a “three strikes” policy, ready to fire him after he causes trouble.
Some of that trouble comes from Dell’s attempts to win over his family. He gives his son an expensive book from Phillip’s collection, drives Phillip’s expensive cars, and leaves his job at times when Phillip and Yvonne need him to be there.
On the quest for the signatures, Dell barges in on an interview between Yvonne, Phillip, and a candidate. Dell only wants the signature, but Phillip hires him on the spot to spite Yvonne.
After he starts the job, Dell starts to learn about what it takes to take care of a quadriplegic, including some activities he considers unpalatable. He also takes Phillip out of his penthouse apartment and encourages him to live it up, including smoking marijuana, hiring prostitutes, and setting Phillip up on date with a woman with whom Phillip had been corresponding
Dell needs to prove to his son (and to himself) that he’s not the same loser who went to prison. He also needs to build a better relationship with his son than his own criminal father had with him.
Phillip's Victory is to die with dignity.
Phillip’s major Obstacle is his own body. A paragliding accident left him without feeling from the neck down.
Yvonne acts as another Obstacle, as she helps him manage his business interests and work with his caretakers.
Phillip tells Yvonne that he has a standing DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order and that she and the rest of his staff are to take “no extraordinary measures” to keep him alive.
One night, he swallows his own saliva and tries to choke himself before Dell can save him.
When he finds out about Dell’s criminal record, he fires him and isolates himself from the rest of the staff.
After his accident and losing his wife to cancer, Phillip doesn’t see a reason to live anymore. He feels that he needs to die to escape the prison that his body has become and be happy again with his wife.
Yvonne's Victory is to get rid of Dell and get a more qualified caretaker to help with Phillip.
Phillip hates all the candidates that she interviews, and hires Dell just to spite her.
As Phillip and Dell’s friendship develops, Yvonne begins to fear that she’ll lose out on Philip’s approval.
Yvonne uses her “three strikes” policy as a way to justify her treatment of Dell and hire someone more qualified.
Whenever Dell encourages Phillip to do something reckless, Yvonne becomes a “mother hen” and tries to squash Dell’s ideas.
Yvonne needs to take care of Phillip and express her love for him, even if she can’t admit to him or herself.
While a protagonist/antagonist pair creates a single thread of conflict, a three-character interaction requires three pairs of conflicting Victories. When you have three main characters, you need to ensure that the VOTEs of each character create enough conflict with the others. Each character’s Victory should put them in conflict with the other two. For instance:
- Dell wants to keep his job./Yvonne wants to fire him.
- Phillip wants to die./Yvonne wants to keep him alive.
- Phillip wants to die./Dell wants to keep his job, so he must keep Phillip alive.
When you give your characters strong, clear desires, you also create strong, clear desires for the producers to want to make the film, for the actors who want to perform in the film, and for the audiences to want to see the film.
If you need help with building strong characters for your script, contact Story Into Screenplay. We offer script coverage reports, rewrite services, and one-on-one consultations. For a list of services and prices, please email storyintoscreenplayblog(at)gmail(dot)com, or send a message to our Facebook page.