Survivor & Screenwriting: Deconstructing Russell Hantz

March 16, 2011 at 10:51 am

Survivor & Screenwriting: Deconstructing Russell Hantz | Screenwriting Blog

LOOKING FOR GREAT CHARACTERS?
DON’T FORGET REALITY TV.

Screenwriters HAVE to create great characters…  Scratch that…

Screenwriting HAVE to create unique, entertaining and unbelievable characters!

You have to take the time and put in the work to craft characters that are loved, hated, admired or pitied.  No matter what emotion they are meant to invoke, they have to be real.  They have to be great.

Every writer has different ways to accomplish this including many forms of inspiration.  Over the last few years, I’ve learned to love reality TV and a show I never really liked at all, until I met Russell Hantz.

Russell is a character that emerged as a villain AND a fan favorite.  Are you looking to create a villain that people will love?  Watch a TV show that you have ZERO interest in and you might be surprised by what inspires your next great character.

I was never a fan of Survivor.

I watched the first season like everyone else on the planet but the explosion of reality based shows turned me off.  Back then, every new program was a game show or social experiment and networks wanted nothing except programs built to vote people off.

I missed sitcoms and dramas.  Slowly, the millions of reality shows got voted off the air but the strongest remained.  Those that stuck around were based on truly great concepts that lead to fascinating characters, clashes, twists and strategies I’ve come to adore.  It was 4 ‘Survivors’ ago when I finally got back on board and realized why people love the show so much.  I have Russell Hantz to thank for that.

Survivor & Screenwriting: Deconstructing Russell Hantz | Screenwriting Blog

Some people at work asked me to get involved in their Survivor pool so I put up my twenty bucks and drew Russell at random.  Having no clue what to expect I recorded the show each week and eventually found myself rushing home to watch the latest episode before it was spoiled.

Every single show ended with a promo showing Russell with his back against the wall.  The following week, he would find a way out of the jam and continue.  I was contantly holding my breath because there was cash at stake but soon I realized I was genuinely cheering for him to succeed.  Did I have a chance to win the pool?  Perhaps a small chance but ultimately he didn’t win.  Yet something far more interesting was happening.  Something that interested the screenwriter in me.

Russell Hantz: The Character

It was amazing how Russell managed to take over the first Survivor.  He dominated that first season.  Every time somebody crossed him, he found a way to send them home.  Along the way, he also found a way to become one of the most hated contestants of all time.  People saw him as ruthless, selfish and undeserving of the title of sole survivor.  Yet no matter how much the people wanted to see him lose, they still loved to watch him play.  This is why he was voted the player of the game.

Here is a character who is so blatantly arrogant and foul.  A disrespectful and conniving player who didn’t care who’s feelings he hurt.  During the final tribal counsel he didn’t even know to show a little remorse.  He was THAT confident that he would win.  He was proud of the way he played and quite frankly he should be to a point but the burnt the bridges ultimately cost him the game.

The Reunion

What surprised me about the reunion show that follows the finale was Russell’s body language.  You could tell he wanted to win more than anything and it devastated him to lose.  In his mind (and mine) he played the game like no one else and deserved to win.  Yet his antics robbed him of the title.  Some people may not sympathize with him but you could see how badly he wanted it and watching him react as it slipped away was fascinating.  You have to give him credit for playing as hard as he did.

Cheering against a villain is just as engaging as cheering for a hero.

Russell Hantz: The Villain

Heroes vs. Villains.

When I heard Russell was coming back I was pumped.  Could he possibly repeat the same deceiving tactics and make it to the end again?  I was willing to bet he would but truthfully, I just wanted to watch him play again.

So when it came time to ‘draft’ players in our pool, I actually paid to move up and select Russell.  I did this for two reasons.  First because I’m a fan and second because I didn’t know any of the other people having only seen the first season.  He was my only shot.

It was a good move on my part because we were all in for another season of shocking twists and thrilling moments.  All at the hands of Russell Hantz.

A part of me thought he would have learned his lesson and played a more social game but he continued to plot, scheme and make enemies.  My money definitely wasn’t safe as he was playing with the most ruthless and also the most beloved Survivors ever.

Yet still, his ‘evil’ ways got him further and further into the game as he took out pro after pro after pro.  Another game.  Another final and again he was hated and loved.  Cheered and revered.  A fascinating person to watch.

But he hit his lowest point during the reunion.  A cocky, remorseless Russell looked lost and scrambled to discredit the other players.  He was angry.

After the show, it was clear he would never win the hearts of the players he played with.

A respected player.  A hated person.  An awesome character to watch.

Ironically, during his big speech, the seeds were planted at this reunion for his return and possible Redemption.

Russell Hantz: Redeemed

Survivor & Screenwriting: Deconstructing Russell Hantz | Screenwriting Blog

Would this time be any different?

For the first time, players knew exactly what to expect and I’m happy to say I didn’t draw him in the pool.  He had no chance yet still, I was pumped to see if he could dominate another group of Survivors.

In the end he didn’t but finally, we saw the real Russell Hantz.  A fierce competitor willing to do whatever it takes to win.  You could literally see it in his face.  Getting voted off was heartbreaking and being eliminated at Redemption Island broke him.

It was interesting to witness the villain we first met become the defeated emotional man we saw last.

IGN recently caught up with him and asked him about his emotional exit from the season.

IGN: You had some big emotions after you lost. What was going through your head, when you first broke down?

Russell: Yeah, the thing is, people think, ‘Oh, he was so sad because he got voted out.’ That’s not at all it. It wasn’t about getting voted out. I had everything going through my mind. I had, ‘Okay, now I can’t help Krista and Stephanie. I’m leaving them by themself with nobody that cares about them.’ I look at Jeff and I see in his eye, I feel like I’m letting the whole staff down. Jeff, Mark, all of them. I feel like I let my kids down, because my kids think I’m Superman and that I can do anything. They think I can win anything. And my kids never seen me cry in their life. Even my wife, she said our daughter said, ‘That’s the first time I’ve ever seen my daddy cry, and she’s ten.’ So you know… It’s like when you lose the Super Bowl. When you see them big ol’ boys on the sideline crying. Because they put everything into that. They give it their all. And that’s what I do. I give it my all.

He may have said it was his last time playing but I don’t think it is.  You can see how much he loves to play Survivor and it’s clear how loved and hated he is by fans.  People want to see him fail and succeed.

It’s true he was ruthless and hurt a lot of people.  He betrayed friends and broke his word.  He lied willingly and destroyed people’s hopes.  Yet behind his evil acts, there was another layer.  Another level.

Isn’t that what makes a great villain great?

It’s safe to say, I’ll be watching Survivor from now on.  (… Big Brother too.  It is also a quality show.)

Check out the complete interview over at IGN.