Believe Care Invest: Casablanca

Why it might be hard to identify with Rick:
  • We don’t even meet him for 9 full minutes, and we wait even longer for him to speak. We spend that time looking for some character to invest in, not finding one, and getting frustrated. Once we meet him, he’s fairly cold and ruthless, and somewhat accommodating of his Nazi occupiers.
  • The opening narration creates a complex and fascinating world that feels very real. The production design is fantastic. It really feels like we’re in an outdoor African city rather than an indoors Los Angeles studio.
  • Rick has a distinctive way of dressing and speaking. He has a strong personality. He has lots of secrets, which we always like: “I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “What waters? We’re in the desert.” “I was misinformed.”
  • Nazis are everywhere. Someone is gunned down in the street for having Free French fliers. Rick clearly dislikes having to accommodate them. He betrays just a tiny hint of wistfulness when he watches the plane fly off to Lisbon. He likewise betrays a hint of guilt when Ugarte is pulled out of his arms by the Nazis. He’s a bit embarrassed when another customer says to him, “When they come to get me, Rick, I hope you’ll be more of a help.” But of course we don’t really care about him until his true love shows up married to someone else.
  • He has total control of his bar in lots of badass ways, and a lot of sway in Casablanca. “Perhaps if you told him I run the second largest banking house in Amersterdam?” “It wouldn’t impress Rick, the leading banker in Amersterdam is now the baker in our kitchen.” He finds little ways to stand up to the Nazis He knows all. He knows that Ugarte killed the couriers and calls him on it.
Five Es
  • Eat: No. “Madame, he never drinks with customers, never.”
  • Exercise: No
  • Economic Activity: Lots of it
  • Enjoy: No, he specifically refuses wine, women, and song.
  • Emulate: No
Rise above
  • Refuses Deutchbanker’s money “You’re lucky the bar’s open to you.”
  • Café and Sam not for sale at any price “I don’t buy or sell human beings.”
  • Tells one of his bar customers, “You’ve had too much to drink.”
High five a black guy
  • Very much so! Sam won’t take double to work for Ferrari.

The Many Ironies of Casablanca

As I update the old checklists, I thought it would also be good to take some time along the way to look deeper into irony. As we did with Blazing Saddles, let’s run through fourteen ironies you can find in Casablanca:

Your story will be more meaningful if you present a fundamentally ironic concept (which will sometimes be encapsulated by an ironic title).
  • The least patriotic American has to save the Allied cause. (The title is not ironic.)
There are three big ways to have ironic characterization: Your heroes will be more compelling if they have an ironic backstory…
  • Rick the cynic used to be an idealist
…an ironic contrast between their exterior and interior…
  • Rick the cynic is filled with tender heartache
…and a great flaw that’s the ironic flip side of a great strength.
  • He’s too cold-blooded, but the flip side is that he’s very cool.
Structure centers around another great irony: Though your heroes might initially perceive this challenge as an unwelcome crisis, it will often prove to be a crisis that ironically provides just the opportunity your heroes need, directly or indirectly, to address their longstanding social problems and/or internal flaws.
  • Rick finds heroic fulfillment by being placed in a deadly situation and having his heart ripped up again.
Each scene will be more meaningful if the hero encounters a turn of events that upsets some pre-established ironic presumptions about what would happen.
  • Rick has made it clear he doesn’t care if Victor makes it out of Casablanca.
Likewise, the conclusion of each scene will be more meaningful if the character’s actions result in an ironic scene outcome, in which the events of the scene ironically flip the original intention, even if things turn out well for the hero.
  • When Rick discovers that Victor is with Ilsa, he suddenly has to care.
There are several types of ironic dialogue: On the one hand, there’s intentionally ironic dialogue, such as sarcasm.
  • Rick is insulted, but says, “I stay up late at night crying about it.”
On the other hand, there’s unintentionally ironic dialogue, such as when there’s an ironic contrast between word and deed…
  •  Strasser thinks he’s very much in control, but we can see otherwise.
…or an ironic contrast between what the character says and what the audience knows.
  • Ilsa says she’ll meet Rick at the train station, but we know that she won’t have the chance.
There are the pros and (potentially big) cons of having an ironic tone, which is the one type of irony that most stories shouldn’t have, although it can be a useful tool for certain very specific types of stories.
  • It’s tempting to say this movie has an ironic tone, because it’s full of cool, jaded sarcasm, but that’s not the way I use the term. This movie does not take a sarcastic attitude towards storytelling itself (as Blazing Saddles does, for instance) so I would say that it doesn’t have an ironic tone.
Finally, there are the thematic ironies that every story should have: The story’s ironic thematic dilemma, in which the story’s overall dilemma comes down to a choice of good vs. good (or bad vs. bad)…
  • Romantic love vs. love of country
…as well as several smaller ironic dilemmas along the way, in which your characters must consistently choose between goods, or between evils throughout your story.
  • It’s important to fight for freedom, but do you have any right to endanger someone’s life by asking them to come to a resistance meeting?
This will culminate in an ironic final outcome, separate from the ironic concept and the thematic dilemma.
  • Rick finds fulfillment by sending away the woman he loves.

New Checklist and Rulebook Casefile: The Moral Dilemmas Throughout Casablanca

I’ve updated the Checklist road test for Casablanca and you can check it out here. Now let’s look at one of the new answers in more depth:

A new question on the checklist clarifies that yes, the entire story should be driven by an overall irreconcilable good vs. good moral dilemma, but the heroes should also face a long succession of additional dilemmas throughout the story. Casablanca is an excellent example of how such dilemmas can pile up, and also how the presence of these dilemmas need not sour the mood.
  • Before we even meet Rick we see the question that hangs over his employees: Is it worth accommodating the Nazis to keep the peace? How much interference in the club’s affairs will be too much?
  • Then we meet Rick, as Ugarte asks Rick to hide the letters for him. Should Rick risk his tricky peace with the Nazis to protect this man and his letters?
  • When the police show up to arrest Ugarte, he begs Rick for help. Rick has already assured Renault “I stick my neck out for no one,” but it’s hard to say no when Ugarte is clinging to him and begging as the Nazis drag him away. Unlike many “hero’s flaw” scenes, Rick faces a genuinely hard choice. This isn’t one of those “girl clearly wants to be kissed but the hero just can’t overcome his shyness” scenes. We disapprove of his Rick’s callousness, but we’ve come to appreciate the impossibility of his position and we can’t see any other feasible action he could have taken.
  • Of course, we then arrive at the big question: If you suspect your ex still loves you, should you try to steal her away from her new love? This question will drive the main narrative, but others continue to pile up…
  • This leads to a flashback, where Ilsa is torn by a similar question: Should you leave your new love if your husband turns up alive?  And if you do, is it kinder to explain or slip away?
  • Meanwhile, a subplot asks, should you sleep with a corrupt official to save your husband’s life?
  • Later, Victor must ask, should you ask someone to attend a resistance meeting if you know it might get them killed?
These are all tough questions. There are no easy answers, and we dread the thought that we may ever have to face such dilemmas. And yet the mood of this movie remains sophisticated, continental, and altogether effervescent, even though the painful emotional dilemmas being faced by every character in every scene could not be more dire. The comedy is made that much sharper by scraping up against these cold, hard whetstones.

Straying From the Party Line # 7: Goals and Structure in Casablanca

This is universally regarded as one of the most perfect movies every made, but it has its peculiarities…
  • Deviation #1: We don’t understand the hero’s goals.
  • The Potential Problem: We’re always at somewhat of an arm’s distance from Rick. We don’t meet until ten minutes into the movie, and then we can’t quite read him.  When Renault wonders about his past and beliefs, we wonder, too.  Does Rick want to leave Casablanca or not?  We don’t know.  When Ilsa comes back, does he want her back, or want to hurt her, or both?  Ultimately, this pays off in a very tricky climax, in which we are encouraged to misunderstand what the hero is doing for about ten minutes of screentime, and then be shocked that he is sending Ilsa away.
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? Certainly, yes.  This is a partially a tribute to Bogart (He does it again in our next movie), who excelled at playing appealing inscrutability.  After ten years on the Warner’s lot, they knew he could pull it off and he did.  Also, as with Bridesmaids, they knew that we would be more likely to forgive the hero his vacillations because he represented real world suffering and uncertainty.  It was easy to guess what he was going through, because the country was crippled by those same doubts.
But wait, what about…
  • Deviation #2: That big-ass flasback
  • The Potential Problem: Starting at 39 minutes in, we get a massive 10 minute flashback.  This one breaks the cardinal rule for flashbacks: it isn’t new information for anyone in the movie, it’s merely new to the audience.  We feel shock at the reveal of these events, but no one onscreen does, so we break our identification.
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? This is a major violation of the rules, but yes, they get away with it beautifully.  I think that this is because we see that Rick has so thoroughly banished these memories from his mind that these scenes are almost new to him.  Think of his anger when the song is played (don’t trigger that flashback!), and then Sam’s reluctance to play it when Rick does want to remember later.  The look on Rick’s face at the beginning and end of the flashback show the fresh wound it has given him, and maintains our identification with his emotional rollercoaster. 
This is a movie that knows exactly what it’s doing when it breaks the rules.

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Casablanca

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!

Rick Blaine is a detached American nightclub owner in Nazi-occupied Morocco (where local prefect Renault only feigns allegiance to visiting SS-man Strasser). Rick’s friend Sam plays piano for the happy guests every night. A slimy guy named Ugarte gets Rick to hold onto two letters of transit that will let anyone leave the city and flee the Nazis. Ugarte is killed just as Rick’s old love Elsa shows up, along with her husband, a freedom fighter named Victor Laslo. Rick realizes that Elsa was married throughout their pre-war romance in Paris, but she proves to be blameless. Rick plans to run off with her, but realizes that Victor needs Elsa, and the resistance needs Victor so he reluctantly sends them off together. Rick shoots Strasser and runs off with Renault to join the resistance.

PART #1: CONCEPT 18/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 In an exotic city filled with intrigue, an amoral American nightclub owner must decide between joining the fight against the Nazis or pursuing his true love.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 The least patriotic American has to save the Allied cause.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 Yes, we’ve all pined for an ex, and wondered what we would actually do if given a second chance, but this time the war is on the line.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Yes, the plot is very simple.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
 Yes, Rick.
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
 Not strictly.  It’s not very linear.  The camera wanders through some tangentially related minor storylines on its way back to Rick.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 Yes, an expatriate bar-owner and his corrupt police chief friend.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 Yes, pretty much everyone, especially Major Strasser.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Yes, it’s his greatest hope, and an ironic answer to his question (Of all the bars in the world…)
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 Very much so.  His cool exterior finally cracks.
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
 Very much so.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 Yes. Only he has the letters of transit.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
 Yes and no.  It’s got exciting romance and international intrigue.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 Yes: the bar, Sam, the airport finale.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 Yes, the shocking decision at the end.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 Yes, see above.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
 Well, it ends pretty much after, but yes, there’s still another fun climax, so yes.
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
 Yes. His funny insults to Ugarte.  Or when he stands up for Sam.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Yes, although, after we’ve come to love his current actions and attitudes, his ironic backstory proves to be equally interesting.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 Yes. Cynical-but-witty power broker
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Yes. Heartbroken romantic
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Yes. Makes everything political in a satirical way. (“When it comes to women, you’re a true democrat.”  “You wore blue, the Germans wore grey.”)
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Yes. Sharp-witted, breezy, withering sarcasm
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Yes. Tells insultingly bland lies (“I came for the waters.” Q: “Where were you last night?” A: “That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.”)
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
 All of these except simple: First, he wants to keep the peace with the Nazis, then he (maybe) wants to use the letters of transit himself, then he wants his ex back.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 Yes. “I stick my neck out for no one.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 Yes, stay out of politics.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
 Yes. Fear of attachments, fear of losing control of his bar.  Hidden: That he’ll have to face what happened in Paris.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
 Yes, although more the former than the latter: no one successfully lays a finger on him.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 Yes, he’s become too cold-blooded and apolitical.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
 Yes, he’s cool and in control.
Is the hero curious?
 Yes, he’s always asking around as to the secrets of the town.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 Very much so.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Yes. Don’t get involved, everything is amusing, don’t buy and sell human beings.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 Yes, they’re all lowlife schemers who lack his sophistication, (until Ilsa and Victor come in, who lack his sketchy connections).
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 Yes, he has a razor-sharp rapier wit
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
 No.  He seems half-awake.  Of course, we gradually realize that he doing a tense and skillful juggling act any time his club is open.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Yes, very much so.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 Yes. Both his shady associates and his history with the resistance will be useful to him.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 18/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
 Yes, he’s losing control: the Nazis are intruding on his bar more and more and he can stomach them less and less, (and he can no longer stomach other women, either)
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 Yes, he gets heckled for letting the Nazis pull Ugarte out of his arms, then he sees his ex-love is now with a war hero.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 Yes, he gets the letters of transit, but will he use them to escape alone, to help them escape, or to steal her and escape together?
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
Yes, he’s very reluctant to take the letters, and to let her into the bar.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 No, he drags it out, paralyzed with indecision, and lashes out at her when she tries to explain.
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
Yes, Lazlo, it turns out that Ilsa is married. Also, Strasser has guess he has the letters.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Yes, he gets drunk, then sobers up and makes a friendly pass at Ilsa, assuming that she’s having a fling with Lazlo.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
 Not Rick, who’s miserable, but we do get a long flashback to happier times here, so the audience gets some relief from Rick’s misery. He does get excited about the possibility of success when he thinks he’s won her back.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
 Yes, Ilsa rejects him, and he finds out Ugarte has been killed. The Germans have figured out from Ugarte that he has the letters, so they trash his place, and eventually close his café.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Yes, he takes control of the situation.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 Yes, he discovers he can trust Renault and Ilsa.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 Yes, Lazlo is told he can no longer stay in Casablanca.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 Yes, he sees Lazlo’s heroism for himself and realizes he can’t compete.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 Actually, the opposite of a setback causes the crisis: Ilsa says she’ll come with him, and he realizes that it’s wrong.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 Yes: “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 Yes, he takes them to the airport, but Renault warns Strasser.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Yes. “You have to think for both of us.”  “All right, I will.”
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 Yes. “I told you this morning you’d come around but you’re a little ahead of schedule.”
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Yes, everybody’s at the airport (except Sam, whom Ricks sells to Ferrari after all, without getting permission or saying good-bye!)
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 Shortly before, but it’s okay that the final confrontation with Strasser “rolls downhill”.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
 Yes, this time he stands up to the Nazis, then he goes off to join a Free French garrison in Braziville with Louis.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 16/20 (Sketchy crook Ugarte asks cool club owner Rick to hold onto the letters of transit for him.)
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 Yes, we’d heard about how cool Rick is for ten minutes, and we’d formed high expectations, which he meets. There’s also been lots of talk of the dead German couriers.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 No, it’s beginning to end.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 It is for Ugarte, who knows he isn’t welcome.  Rick is very comfortable…until he realizes that the letters have made his beloved bar into an unsafe space.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Well, Rick is “busy” playing chess with himself and would rather keep doing that.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Not really.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Somewhat, we know the Germans are searching for the letters of transit.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
 Just barely.  It’s mostly plot, but we see Rick’s first flickers of emotion when sees the letters. Ugarte clearly feels bad to hear Rick’s low opinion of him.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 Yes, we instantly like Rick and share his distaste for Ugarte.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Yes, both: Rick doesn’t like Ugarte or his plan.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Yes, surface over the letters, suppressed over their personal conflict (but that comes to the surface too)
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Yes, Rick doesn’t betray his interest in the letter, tries to hide his disgust for Ugarte until the end, Ugarte tries to hide his fear of the Germans.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Yes.  Ugarte tries to trick Rick into talking about his past.  Rick gets Ugarte to almost admit to killing the German couriers.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Yes, Rick sits down to play chess with no one, Ugarte comes and goes, Rick gets up to confront him, stand over him. There’s one touch when Ugarte has interested Rick in looking at the letters but doesn’t want him to see them yet.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Yes, the letters of transit are shown and then exchanged.  Rick fingers chess pieces, Ugarte drinks and smokes.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
 Yes, Ugarte convinces Rick to take the letters.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 No, Ugarte unironically gets what he wanted.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Yes, who has the letters, who is Rick?  Will Ugarte’s plan work?  Will Rick be caught with the letters?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 No, it goes until they both leave.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 Yes, we like Rick so we hope that the letters won’t get him in trouble, and we fear that Ugarte will bring violence into the bar.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Yes (except Strasser, but that’s okay).  Victor or Ilsa, despite being obstacle characters, are particularly well-handled, allowed to hold their own even in scenes where we get frustrated by them.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Yes, until the very end, when Rick finally learns to really see all the angles.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Yes.  Everybody, even Strasser and Victor, who have strong ideologies, are beholden to (and somewhat frustrated with) their organizations and threading difficult needles. 
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Very much so.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
 Yes, Rick and Renault are both great at evading certain topics.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
 Yes. Rick keeps asking Sam for advice and then failing to hear it. Rick is the master of the interjected insult.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
Yes and no.  Jargon: Not really, no one involved in the movie had ever been anywhere near Casablanca, so the argot isn’t particularly authentic.  Tradecraft: Yes, for each profession: “Round up the usual suspects.”
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Yes and no: Metaphor family: not really, Default personality trait: , Argument strategy:
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 Yes, very much so. “He’s like any other man, only more so.”
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 Very much so, see above.
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 Everybody’s three-dimensional.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
Yes, they have it out.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 Yes.  They don’t even reveal Rick until we’re eager to meet him, and they tease that long flashback for a long time before they deliver it.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Yes, the night scene in Rick’s apartment.
PART #6: TONE 10/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
 Somewhat, a short-lived genre: the international-intrigue-romance
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 Yes, the World War 2 resistance movie
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 Yes, they admit they love each other and kiss…but then he sends her away.  They shoot one Nazi…but forgive the other.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Yes, a veneer of witty sophistication with a grim reality poking through. This is extablished right away when a man is shot dead in streets, but locals don’t lose their good-humor with the aghast tourists.
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
 Yes, we also see a plane leaving and people wondering who’s on it.
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Yes, we see a globe, maps, and brief omniscient narration, then we see Nazis asking who has the letters of transit, then people wondering who Rick is.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Yes, Rick is worried that he’s as bad as Ugarte, or as corrupt as Renault.  He also sees that he’ll never be as good as Victor.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Yes, see above.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Yes, he refuses to shield a customer from the Nazis.  (He also has another thing he won’t do but he breaks that rule early: he never sits with customers…until Ilsa comes in)
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Yes, we find out who’s on that plane.
PART 7: THEME 13/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Yes, love vs. country.
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 From Ferrari, of all people: “When will you realize that isolationism is no longer a practical policy?”
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Yes, is it worth accommodating the Nazis to keep the peace, is Ugarte worth saving, should you leave your new love if your husband turns up alive, etc…
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 Yes, the answers to all of the above questions are realistic.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
 No.  It’s based on the idea of Casablanca, not the actual place.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Very much so.  It’s all about the pain of the war.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 Very much so.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Very much so.
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
 Yes, the song, the Vichy water, etc.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 Yes, the letters of transit, the song (if that counts)
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 Yes, it comes down strongly on the side of country, but love is clearly more appealing.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 Very much so: he gets her back only so that he can send her away.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Yes, we don’t find out the fate of the other couple trying to get free, for example.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 Pretty much.  He tries to say what it all means, but that’s just to get her on the plane, he hasn’t really processed the pain yet.

Final Score: 111 out of 122

How to Create a Compelling Character, Addendum: Add A Moment of Humanity

Note: Ive updated and expanded this post here.
Your heroes have a lot of work to do, so you want to hit the ground running: clarify who your hero is right away, then quickly establish their long-standing problem, their new opportunity, and the unforeseen conflict it causes, so that you can get into the heat of your story.   

But great characters should not merely fulfill their role in your story.  You need to give your hero at least one moment of humanity, which will convince the audience that this character is more than just a plot device.

The moment of humanity can take different forms:
  • An out-of-character moment, where we realize that this character won’t just be one-note. 
  • A unique-but-universal moment, that has nothing to do with the story, where the character does something we’ve all done, but we’ve never seen onscreen before.
  • An oddball moment, where the character, rather than single-mindedly pursuing a goal, indulges in a bit of idiosyncratic behavior that briefly interrupts the momentum of the movie. 
When I was doing The First 15 Minutes Project, I asked for every movie “What’s the Moment We Realize We Love This Guy?”  In retrospect, the answer was usually the Moment of Humanity, so let’s look at those again:
  • Silence of the Lambs: Clarice’s default personality trait is her humbleness, and in her first dialogue scene she’s awed by her boss, but she has a brief moment where she can’t help but remind him that he didn’t give her the grade she clearly feels she deserved. 
  • The 40 Year Old Virgin: In this case, it’s the first shot, of Andy trying to pee with a morning erection, certainly a unique-but-universal moment I never thought I'd see onscreen.  (Another moment comes later, when Andy cleans up at the poker game, giving us a much needed brief moment of easy triumph for this very weak character.)
  • The French Connection: We never really get any moments of weakness or humility from Popeye, but we fall in love with him when he suddenly veers off script in an interrogation and starts asking the perp if he ever picked his feet in Poughkeepsie.  It’s not a crack in the façade, but it’s certainly an oddball choice that doesn’t serve the forward momentum of the script, and that’s enough.
  • Mickey in The Fighter:  Once again, this is an overly humble character who finally shows a moment of pride, when Charlene the bartender goads him into it.
  • Casablanca: This is an interesting case, in that Rick is nothing but contradictions: tough but self-deprecating, feared but merciful, lacking in morals but strictly ethical… Rick is the most complex and least plot-driven character on the list.  He’s nothing but friction.
  • Modern Times: Right away, we get a unique-but-universal moment, when the tramp is working the assembly line, and can’t take his hands off for a second, but he has to scratch his nose. 
  • Breaking Away: As with Popeye, we love Dave because of his oddball choices.  Why is this whitebread Indiana kid  pretending to be Italian?  
I could go on, but I’ll stop there.  Obviously this is one of the most subjective and hard-to-nail-down rules, but it’s still worth thinking about.  In addition to establishing your character’s goals and flaws, do you give them a little moment to stop pushing the plot forward and show a little unvarnished humanity?

The First 15 Minutes Project #6: Rick Blaine

Okay, so you’ll see that I elevated the four shortcuts to sympathy I catalogued yesterday to our checklist. I’ll add more as I find other recurring themes. Starting today, I’ll also analyze at the bottom of the post what makes each intro unique or daring. Casablanca, for instance, introduces its main character quite late...
Rick Blaine in Casablanca:
  1. Superimposed over a cheesy model of a globe: “With the coming of the 2nd World War, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turned to America. A tortured refugee trail sprung up. Paris to Orsee, Across the Mediterranean to Oran, then by train or auto or foot across the desert to Morrocco. The lucky few get exit visas to the new world. The other wait in Casablanca, and wait, and wait…”
  2. A radio man gets a wire about criminals arriving in Casablanca with stolen letters of transit.
  3. The police chase suspects through the bustling and exotic streets of Casablanca.
  4. A suspect is shot dead in front of a poster of Petain, the leader of Vichy France. They search him and find he has resistance documents.
  5. A posh English tourists get news from a local, who explains that Renault is the corrupt chief of police and warns them to be on guard since the city is filled with the scum of Europe, who are vultures. The Englishman thanks the local, but after he leaves he finds his wallet is gone.
  6. Plane flies overhead, everyone in line for a visa looks up hopefully. A young couple says “Perhaps tomorrow we’ll be on the plane.”
  7. The plane flies over Rick’s bar…
  8. The plane lands at the airport. Nazi Major Strasser gets off, greets Renault (Claude Rains).
  9. Renault assures Strasser that he’ll arrest the man who stole the letters of transit that night. “Tonight he’ll be at Rick’s. Everybody comes to Rick’s.” Strasser says “I’ve heard about this casino, and also Rick himself.”
  10. Cut to Rick’s door at night. Rick’s black entertainer Sam sings “It Had To Be You.”
  11. Inside, people complain about the wait to get in. A merchant pays a former heiress very little for her diamonds. A black marketer arranges for someone to get a boat for a lot of cash. A card player asks a waiter if Rick will have a drink with him, says he was a the second biggest banker in Amsterdam. The waiter replies that the leading banker in Amsterdam is now a pastry chef in their kitchen.
  12. We see Rick’s hands sign a bill, then pan up to show him playing chess by himself.
  13. They ask if a Nazi banker can come in, but Rick shakes his head no. He does agree to let Ugarte (Peter Lorre) in.
  14. Ugarte says it looks like Rick has been doing this his whole life. Rick barks “How do you know I haven’t?” “I assumed…” Rick tells him not to assume. Ugarte asks about the couriers. Rick says they’re lucky, now they’re the “honored dead.” Rick won’t drink with him. “You despise me, don’t you?” “If I gave you any thought, I probably would.” “I help people” “For a price.” “Is that so parasitic?” “ I don’t object to a parasite, just a cut-rate one.” Ugarte says he’s leaving soon with the letters of transit everyone is looking for. “I have many friends in Casablanca, but somehow just because you despise me you’re the only one I trust, could you hold these for me?”
  15. Sam sings “Knock on Wood.” Rick stashes the latter in with Sam’s sheet music.
  16. A rival bar owner named Ferrari (Syndey Greenstreet) offers Rick money for Sam. Sam responds, “I don’t buy or sell human beings.” “Let’s ask Sam, perhaps he’d like to make a change?” “Let’s ask Sam” Sam says no.
  17. A girl asks Rick, “Where were you last night?” “That was so long ago I don’t remember.” “Will I see you tonight?” “I never make plans that far in advance.” “What a fool I was to fall for a man like you.” She’s drunk. He kicks her out.
  18. Renault approaches to talk to Rick. He says that Rick is reckless throwing away women like that. The plane to Lisbon flies overhead. Does Rick want to be on it. He denies it. “I’ve often wondered why you don’t return to America… Did you abscond with the church funds? Sleep with a Senator’s wife? I’d like to think that you killed a man, it’s the romantic in me.” “It’s a combination of all three.” “Why on Earth did you come to Casablanca” “My health, I came for the waters.” “It’s in a desert” “I was misinformed.”
  19. Renault tells him about an arrest there. Rick assures him that that won’t be a problem: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

This is the first movie we’ve examined where the hero is introduced late, after everybody talks about him with much mystique. This trick can be effective, since it makes us fascinated by the hero before he even appears, but it’s also risky, since we don’t get to have a “point of view” character yet as we get to know this world. Here, it works here very well. Since everybody keeps talking up Rick, we know that he’ll be our hero and we’re willing to withhold our need for identification until he appears. Denied Rick’s point of view, we start the movie very explicitly with a “voice of God/ viewpoint of God” intro. It would be hard to pull this off in a modern movie. We live in a far more subjective era.

Storyteller’s Rulebook #10: An Unhappy Ending Is Just A Happy Ending That Gets Yanked Away

Most first-time screenplays have unhappy endings. If you ask the screenwriter why, they’ll tell you that it’s because they haven’t sold out yet, man, and they don’t see the need to subscribe to the cult of Pollyanna. And that may be true. But there’s also a practical reason.

Nobody is exactly sure why all movies have to be roughly the same length. This isn’t true for novels or plays, which can be as long or as short as they need to be. But for some reason, when you buy a movie ticket, it comes with an implied contract that the movie won’t be much shorter or longer than 110 minutes, unless something has gone wrong.

And people don’t expect a small, poignant, fleeting moment to fill up those 110 minutes either. They want a full story. They want a Hero’s Journey, as I discussed before. Which leaves the screenwriter with a problem. It’s hard to cram a whole journey into the time allotted. That’s why screenplays have to be so lean and mean. We’ve got a long way to go and short time to get there—we have to do what they say can’t be done.

But beginners don’t know how to be lean or mean yet. They don’t know how to start a scene late and leave it early, or cut away extraneous characters and plotpoints. So they get to page 100 and find themselves where they should have been at the midpoint. The character has barely begun their hero’s journey, and they’re already out of space. So what do you do? Easy. It may take eleven steps to solve a problem, but it takes far fewer to fail. At any point, you can declare the hero’s journey to be prematurely over. Ta da! An unhappy ending solves the problem.

When you try to explain that this isn’t acceptable, the first time screenwriter will say “But why can’t you be satisfied with an unhappy ending? What about Casablanca? What about The Godfather? What about Titanic? Weren’t they successful movies with unhappy endings?” But these movies all have something in common. In each case, the hero does solve their problems and does complete their journey. Most crucially—all three of these movies could have had a happy ending, right up to the last five minutes, when the happy ending was yanked away.

If we realized an hour into The Godfather that they weren’t going to redeem Michael Corleone, we’d stop watching. When do we finally accept that there’s no hope? Not until the final shot. If he had left that door open just a crack… but no. In Titanic, Jack doesn’t fail to rescue Rose, he succeeds—then he dies. Thats what makes it tragic. Watching someone fail and then die isn’t tragic. Watching someone succeed and then die is. So go ahead and write an unhappy ending, but beware— it’s not any easier.