Rulebook Casefile: Playing with Expectations in the “Black-ish” Pilot

Kenya Barris knows we’ve seen pilots before, and he knows we’re trying to get ahead of him. So he plays with us.

We meet a wealthy, overconfident man with a closet full of individually lit sneakers, and he assures us in voiceover that he’s absolutely sure he’s going to get a big promotion today. He promises his family and co-workers it’s coming. Then his boss gathers everybody in the conference room and announces that sure enough, someone is going to be promoted to Senior Vice-President. Our hero confidently picks up his stuff and begins moving over to the “senior management only” side of the table before the boss announces the name. On the way, he cockily says to a woman of color: “Sabrina, I’m not going to forget about you when I become one of them, alright?”

It’s only after Dre has shoved others aside to take his new place that the boss finally announces, “So without any further ado, I’d like us all to give a warm congrats to…”

…So what’s going to happen? Well if we’ve ever seen a pilot before, we’re sure of one thing: Dre is not going to get the promotion. Everything in the pilot so far has set us up for a big reversal. Overconfidence must be punished! But then Dre does get the promotion! We’re shocked. Why did they try so hard to set us up for a reversal and then not deliver?

But there’s one hitch: Specifically, his boss announces that he’ll be “the SVP of our new Urban division.” And Dre has already told us in voiceover that he considers “urban” to be a ridiculous term. Dre is clearly not pleased, and says in his voice-over, “Wait, did they just put me in charge of black stuff?”, then we cut to commercial.

So why did Barris push all of our “they’re about to announce someone else got the promotion” buttons, only to have our hero’s overconfidence be validated after all? Well, it sends us on an emotional rollercoaster: We’re excited for him, then worried about his overconfidence, then almost pitying his delusion that he’s going to get it, then shocked to be happy for him …then shocked again when we realize that, in Dre’s mind, this is a slap-down. As far as he’s concerned, he didn’t really get a promotion. He’s only been put in charge of his own ghetto. Sure enough, when he gets home, his father calls him, “head puppet of the white man.”

Burris has toyed with our pre-existing narrative expectations in order to convey to us the hero’s peculiar emotional state. This moment establishes the tone of the whole series: Dre is a winner but his psychological and cultural baggage makes him feel perpetually dissatisfied. As in any good ironic story, he’s either winning by losing or losing by winning. 

It’s always good to hurt your hero in ways that would only hurt your hero, because then you have a unique and volatile main character. Only Dre would be heartbroken by this news, and that makes him compelling.
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Rulebook Casefile: Physical Vulnerability in The Farewell

I say in my checklist that characters should be both emotionally and physically vulnerable, but is that true in The Farewell

Billi is very emotionally vulnerable, but physical vulnerability barely comes into the story. But there is just one brief, odd moment that injects a hint of physical vulnerability. We see Billi come home to her New York apartment and jump for her life when she faces every New Yorker’s greatest fear: Hearing someone inside their apartment. Then she realizes the “intruder” is a bird …but there’s no window open, so how did a bird get in her apartment? She can’t figure it out. She opens a window and shoos it out, and the mystery is never solved. But later, in her Chinese hotel room, it happens again with another bird.

What does the bird represent? The symbolism is thankfully left vague. (The bird is death? Her conscience? Her fear of not fitting in?  Her grandmother?) But I think the main thing it accomplishes is giving the heroine just a moment of fear and physical vulnerability, which increases our bond.

Even if your story takes place almost entirely on the emotional level, it’s good to include at least a little moment where the heroine feels physically vulnerable, just to ground things.

When I give people notes, I often worry that they’ll hit a note too hard.  Sometimes I give a second set of notes on a project and I see that they have.  If you read something like my checklist and think, “Oh, yeah, that does sort of feel like it’s missing, I could add a moment like that,” see if you can find the subtlest possible way to add that element. Just a hint goes a long way.
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Rulebook Casefile: Wrapping Up the Internal and External Journeys of “Get Out”

Every hero must complete both an outer journey and an inner journey. These journeys should overlap at certain points, but not the whole time. Sometimes you can create a finale where the hero completes both journeys at the same moment (such as using the force to blow up the Death Star in Star Wars) but not always. Often, the hero must complete them at different times, but it’s good to have the culminations of these journeys both happen near the climax. Sometimes the hero completing the inner journey allows them to compete the outer journey right afterwards. Sometimes completing the outer journey allows them to complete the inner journey in the epilogue.

On first viewing of Get Out, the viewer is not super aware of Chris’s inner journey, though we can tell it’s there: He’s trying to forgive himself for doing nothing when he mother was dying in the street from an accident. We see Missy elicit this information from him while hypnotizing him, and we see him admit his feeling of guilt to Rose later, but then, since the outer journey is so exciting, we don’t really think about the inner journey very much.

But Peele is doing a lot of subtle work to make sure we feel Chris’s inner journey on a subconscious level, even if we don’t think about it. Only when you listen to the DVD commentary is all this work made explicit.

We can’t know this on first viewing, but Chris’s inner journey begins when he hits a deer on the way to see Rose’s parents. He insists on getting out to see if the deer is alright, but finds it dead. He then insists on calling the police, despite the fact that doing so often ends poorly for black men. To Chris, the deer is his mom, and he’s still trying to save her.

Later, when Chris has his bizarre encounter with Georgina, and sees her cry, he suspects that she may be a victim in some way, which also makes him think of his mom.

Later, when Chris is held captive in the basement, there’s a huge buck head on the wall. According to Peele, this represents Chris’s dad. It shouldn’t have been up to Chris to make sure his mom was okay, it should have been up to his dad, who “wasn’t in the picture.” Chris escapes and kills Rose’s dad by stabbing him with the points of the buck’s head. He is not only displacing Rose’s father as the dominant male in the house, he’s replacing his own dad. His mom is the deer and he is the rescuing buck his dad couldn’t be. As Peele says:

  • The buck is of course not only a used not only to describe strong black men in the past, but is a symbol, the male version of the doe that he hits.

But Chris still needs to take one more step to resolve his inner journey. When he’s driving away from the house, Georgina, controlled by the grandmother’s mind, runs out to stop him but he accidentally hits her with his car. He then starts to drive away, leaving her limp body in the road behind him. Then he stops. He can’t leave her, even though he knows that the real Georgina is buried deep inside her and may never be able to be rescued. He just can’t leave a black woman dying in the street like his mom died. So he goes back, gets her unconscious body, and puts it in his driver’s seat.

In the end, it doesn’t work. She wakes up, still controlled by the grandma, tries to take over the car, crashes it, and presumably dies in the crash. But still Chris tried, and trying finally allowed him to forgive himself for not trying to save his own mother. As Peele says:

  • When he went back for Georgina, he made the only decision that would free his soul.

What’s the point of including an inner journey so subtle that you have to watch the commentary to spot it? The hope is that, even if the audience doesn’t see it, they can feel it. We sense that there’s an elemental power in Chris’s use of the buck head. We sense that something deep is going on inside when he tries to rescue Georgina, even if we’re too caught up in it to think of his mom. “Know More Than You Show” doesn’t just apply to plot, it also applies to theme.
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Rulebook Casefile: Ironic Special Skills in “Get Out”

James and I just sang the praises of Total Recall on our recent podcast, but we didn’t mention one of my pet peeves about that movie. Arnold eventually ends up strapped to a chair: He seems to have accomplished so much, but now he discovers that everything he has done was really just bringing him into Ronny Cox’s elaborate trap. Ronny has been playing ten moves ahead this entire time, guessing everything Arnold might possibly do and effortless manipulating him into bringing in the mutant leader. Now Ronny just needs to wipe Arnold’s mind again and restore his original personality.

But then Arnold does the one thing that Ronny couldn’t possibly have predicted: he raises his arm! He then breaks the chair, and runs away.

This drives me crazy: You could predict every possible movie Arnold could make, but you couldn’t predict he would raise his arm? Arnold doesn’t use some clever trick or special weapon he’s found as a result of his journey. He just does what anyone could predict he would do, and gets away fairly easily.

Chris in Get Out faces a similar predicament. He, too, ends up 2/3 of the way into the movie strapped to a chair, outdone by a villain who has been way ahead of him and manipulating his behavior the entire movie. He is even more helpless than Arnold, because the villains only have to ding a spoon on a teacup (live or on tape) to turn him to jelly.
So how does Chris get away? Unlike Arnold, he does something clever: He plucks cotton from his chair armrests and plugs his ears. (As Peele points out in his commentary, this black man ironically picks some cotton to avoid slavery.)  Assuming that he’ll be unconscious, Jeremy then frees him to take him to surgery, but Chris springs to life and knocks out Jeremy with a bocce ball.

But couldn’t the villains have predicted that, too? Why would they put him in a place where he would have access to cotton stuffing with which to plug up his ears? And wouldn’t a previous captive have figured out the same thing?

But this brings us to another very ironic special skill: When Chris is being hypnotized, he flashes back to when he was a child, watching TV, correctly fearing his mom had been in an accident, but doing nothing. We see that he was betraying his anxiety in only one way: He was obsessively scratching at the armrest of the chair he was sitting on. As he’s being hypnotized by Missy, he starts to do the same thing, but Missy doesn’t notice. When he’s in the basement, hypnotized off and on for days, he naturally does it again, until he’s ripped open the leather and exposed the cotton.

In a thriller, it’s essential to establish early on the special skills that will allow your hero to get out of trouble later, preferably something the villain could not guess that the hero would know how to do. Total Recall failed to do this, but Get Out does it in a very ironic and odd way. Missy does not suspect Chris’s real superpower: The obsessive ability to scratch open armrests, given enough time.
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Rulebook Casefile: National Pain in “Get Out”

I always say that if you really want your story to resonate with the a lot of people, it should tap into National Pain. Is there any better example of this than Get Out? Here’s Peele in a discussion with Chance the Rapper on the DVD:

  • All the great horror films have something to say. They have a real horror that they’re about, and the issue of racism had been ignored in this genre, and I felt like this meant to fill in a gap, a missing piece of conversation. Maybe this’ll fuck shit up in the wrong way, I don’t know. Art and communication is the one tool we have against the true horror of the world which is violence, so I hope that this is an inclusive experience, and that it inspires people to just talk. We’re also in need right now for things that are going to bring us together as people, so hopefully this movie creates a collective creative catharsis, in a way.

In the commentary, he talks about how he wrote the script under Obama but shot it under Trump:

  • When President Obama was elected, we entered this era that I call the post-racial lie: “We got a black president, it’s done, we’re past it.” And many of us know that race is very much alive and racism is alive and it’s the monster that was simmering beneath the surface of the country for a while, and so I felt like this movie was originally meant to address that. Now we live in a completely different era, and it’s been fascinating to see how this movie’s journey has led up to this moment, where now I feel like it’s more relevant in a way than ever.

Interestingly, he says that the shift from Obama to Trump was the reason he changed the ending:

  • By the time I was shooting it, it was quite clear the world had shifted, racism was being dealt with, people were woke, and people needed a release and a hero, which is why I changed the ending and had Rod show up at the end.

(I say in my checklist that movies should reflect the way the world works, and that’s far more true of the original ending, but I agree with Peele: Everyone needed to stand up and cheer instead of seeing how it would actually go down. The brilliant solution was to give us that moment where we think he’s going to be arrested, and that hits us like a ton of bricks …but then it’s Rod, and our horror turns to elation. He’s giving us both emotions.)

It’s interesting to try to parse exactly what the movie is saying about the Obama era. One key question that can’t be answered: Is Dean telling the truth when he says he’d vote for Obama a third time? Is that just a lie to put Chris at ease, or does he mean it? Obviously what Dean’s group wants is white minds in black skins. Is Peele saying that that’s what Obama represented to some pseudo-liberals? (Chris is neither surprised nor impressed when Dean tells him this.) Peele says in the commentary that in America, “all black people are in the Sunken Place” One can’t help but wonder to what degree that he’s talking about Obama specifically.
 Peele first became a household name (and got to meet Obama) because of a recurring skit on his TV show where he impersonated Obama’s placid exterior while his sketch partner Keegan Michael Key acted out Obama’s hidden angry side. It was hilarious, and painful, and cathartic: Obama fans were gratified to finally get to see the anger that surely must be trapped under the surface of “No-Drama Obama”, possibly in his own personal Sunken Place.  It’s unimaginable what Obama must have gone through as he endured constant racial hatred from Fox News, but he rarely let it show.

Peele is grappling with profound national pain, but he’s doing so in an entertaining, even thrilling way, without a lot of speeches.  His metaphor does the work.
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Rulebook Casefile: Know More Than You Show in “Get Out”

The biggest difference between the script and finished film of Get Out is the opening scene. The scene is shorter and more unclear in the final film. I suspect it was actually darkened in the editing room. In both my viewings, I didn’t notice that the kidnapper who drags the guy into the car is wearing a knight’s helmet! It’s just too unclear to really make out.

(Also, because the scene is dark and brief, I didn’t notice that the guy who gets kidnapped is the same guy we meet at the party later. If I had been more familiar with the actor LaKeith Stanfield at the time, I probably would have recognized him both times, and it would have given me a lot more information while I watched, which would not necessarily have improved my viewing experience, but it’s hard to know. In his commentary, Peele admits that he was deliberately playing with a white audience’s inability to be sure if they’re looking at the same black guy or not)

We don’t get a good look at the helmet until Chris is escaping from the house at the end and finds it on the passenger seat of Jeremy’s car. At that point, if we don’t recognize it from before, it’s just a humorously odd detail that gets a quick laugh in the middle of a chaotic action scene: These people are nuts! (If we do recognize it, we realize that Rose has been carefully seducing black guys but Jeremy has just been putting on a helmet and grabbing them from the street)
But then look at the posters for the movie: There’s the helmet! As with the deer in the trailer, Blumhouse was looking for unique imagery, and found the movie lacking, so they latched onto this odd detail to help them with the marketing.

So what’s the deal with the helmet? Is it an important part of the movie, or just a gag? It’s only once you listen to the commentary that you realize that the helmet is the key to a whole thing! Some snippets:

  • During the kidnapping: “Jeremy is wearing a Templar helmet. I’ve got a whole mythology and lore. The operation is a way of channeling the Holy Grail’s original power of immortality.”
  • During the silent auction for Chris’s body: “What are the numbers? Are they millions of dollars? Billions of dollars? In my lore, the Knight Templar trade amongst each other relics and artifacts.”
  • During the video: “I know the entire history of this secret society and it goes deep, but you only get little pieces. On another DVD I’ll take you through the history of the Red Alchemist society.”

This brings us back to another old rule: Know more than you show. That backstory is ludicrous! Thankfully, none of this made it into the movie. As with Us, it’s better if you don’t think about it that much. It’s good that Peele is thinking about it, but he knows better than to share it, unless you listen to the commentary (and even then, he spares us that second commentary.)
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Rulebook Casefile: Marketable Imagery in Get Out

Back in the day, I had a lot of meetings based on a script I’d written with a mind-control villain, but one problem we had with it was that it had no good trailer/poster imagery. If someone is just talking to you, there are no objects involved. Unless you really want to show spirals in their eyes, it’s hard to look at either controller or controllee and see what’s going on.

Jordan Peele had a similar problem with Get Out. Once Chris is being prepped for surgery, there’s all sorts of sci-fi imagery, but that’s all spoilers. If you limit yourself to imagery before the twist, what do you have? Ultimately, they settled on a good image (predicated on a great lead performance): Chris freaking out with a tear running down his face. We’re not sure he’s been hypnotized, but clearly someone is doing something to him, maybe to his mind.

But before they settled on that image, they played around with a few more. There’s one image that the production company Blumhouse insisted on putting in the trailer despite the fact that it had already been cut from the movie. Originally, Chris spent more time in the Sunken Place, and took his lighter out of his pocket (which doesn’t make sense to me). It illuminated a skeleton-deer lunging at him. Says Peele in the Deleted Scenes commentary:

  • This deer was—they used it in the trailer, and full transparency, I requested that they didn’t, but they felt that it would help entice the audience, the horror audience, and it worked, so kudos to them. I knew some people would be disappointed when they don’t see this deer, but also kind of knew they wouldn’t be disappointed was because the main reason I cut this was because it didn’t look good. I would have to put more money into it, effects wise, and it didn’t seem essential to tell the story.  It might be a losing battle.

Indeed, it does look pretty bad, and confuses the idea of what the sunken place is. It isn’t needed for the movie …but was it needed in the trailer?  Blumhouse thought so.  You need a lot of imagery for a modern rapid-cut trailer, perhaps more imagery than you need for the movie itself.

When you write a movie you need to think of the poster or trailer, and when you write a book you need to think of the cover. You need imagery that shows your genre in a unique and appealing way. Tomorrow, we’ll look at another image they used to promote the movie that was mostly cut from the movie itself, and which exemplifies another rule.
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Rulebook Casefile: A Small Thematic Detail in “Lady Bird”

In the opening moments of Lady Bird, Lady Bird and her mother are wrapping up their college visit trip around California, and they finish listening to the audiobook of “The Grapes of Wrath”.

The book, of course, is about a road trip from hell: The Joads are victims of the dust bowl in Oklahoma, but handbills lure them to California, promising a life of ease (“You can just reach out and pick fruit off the trees.”) They arrive to find that California is not nurturing after all, but rather brutally inhospitable. The daughter’s newborn baby dies, but she finds a man starving to death and offers him the only succor he’ll find in California: the grown man suckles her breast milk.

Just enough of the audiobook plays in the movie that, if you’ve read the book, you’ll be reminded of that ending, but if you haven’t you wouldn’t know what was going on. Any meaning the audience gets from that detail is dependent on the knowledge of the book we bring with us. But if you do know the book, the thematic meaning is rich.

Lady Bird is with her own un-nurturing mother, roaming California backroads looking for a place that will take them in, but she lacks high enough grades to impress them (She ain’t got the do-re-mi) and she concludes over the course of her road trip that California is not a state where she’ll feel nurtured. She wants to live through something. She is rejecting the breast violently when she jumps out of the car.

The main role the audiobook plays in the film is just to indicate that they’ve been at peace for 21 hours of driving, enjoying something smart together, but tensions are just waiting to explode as soon as the pacifying agent is turned off. But Gerwig had a choice to make: Which book? Writing involves dozens of such choices (and directing involves hundreds of such choices), and each is a chance to pack the story with more meaning, even if it will only be meaningful for a subset of your audience. Make meaningful choices every time you get the opportunity.
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Rulebook Casefile: How to Write a Comedy Without Jokes

In her DVD commentary, “Lady Bird” writer/director Greta Gerwig says

  • “One thing that was really important to me is that none of the actors ever played the jokes as jokes, or the things that I thought would be funny, that they played them totally sincerely, and I cast actors who are allergic to anything that doesn’t feel true, and I remember talking to Saoirse early in the rehearsal process and she said, “Oh, I’m--I’ve never done a comedy” and I was like, ‘Don’t think of it as a comedy. Play it 100% real and it’ll be funny.’ And she did, and it is because the reason, I remember the first time I heard her read it, I was like, ‘It’s so much funnier because you’re believing it, 100%.’”

When I was trying to identify the moment of humanity in the first scene, I had a hard time identifying why I liked the heroine so much. She made me laugh, but I wasn’t sure how: Sometimes we like a character because they’re “laugh with” funny, and sometimes because they’re “laugh at” funny. Only certain types of “laugh at” moments make us bond with a character—the character has to unintentionally attract our laughter in ways we empathize with, often when a character is poignantly but humorously vain.

Lady Bird’s first line is slightly vainglorious: “Do you think I look like I’m from Sacramento?” We identify with the dissatisfaction, ambition, and self-consciousness inherent in that line, but we don’t really laugh with or at her yet. In the next scene, she says “I wish I could live through something,” which is also lightly vainglorious and poignant.

She then gets her closest thing to an intentional joke, but it’s still more laugh-at then laugh-with. Her mother is reminding her why they spend money they don’t have to send her to Catholic school:

  • MARION: Miguel saw someone knifed in front of him at Sac High, is that what you want? You’re telling me that you want to see someone knifed right in front of you?
  • LADY BIRD: He barely saw that.

As they used to say in the Borscht Belt: “These are the jokes, folks!” It’s a somewhat witty retort, but we’re not sure Lady Bird even knows that. Gerwig is having the actors play for emotion and throw their jokes away, literally. We laugh, sort of with, sort of at, but Lady Bird would be surprised either way if she could hear us out in the theater. The character and actress are just feeling the emotion and reacting honestly, and we find it funny, but that’s our business, not theirs.

This movie is a masterclass in how to write a comedy without jokes. “Cheers” writer Ken Levine wrote a great blog post on this many years ago. It’s a harder way to write comedy, but it can be the most satisfying kind for an audience, and the more emotionally fulfilling, because the actors get to be totally in it, facing inward instead outward.
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Rulebook Casefile: The Writer Gives the Villain Her Humanity in “Lady Bird”

One thing made me a bit uneasy about “Lady Bird” as I watched it. Kyle (Timothy Chalamet) is the movie’s caddish villain, but we first meet him reading “A People’s History of the United States” and we know he’s getting his hooks into the heroine when she reads it too. Later, when she accuses him of tricking her into sex, he attempts to change the subject by saying, “Do you have any awareness about how many civilians we’ve killed since the invasion in Iraq started?” (And Lady Bird wisely says “SHUT UP. Different things can be sad. It’s not all war.”)

But I watched and thought “Hey, I was the kid who loved that book, and I opposed the previous Iraq war when I was in high school …Am I the bad guy here?” But I could tell the movie wasn’t really saying that, so I wasn’t really put off.

Nevertheless, I was gratified when, in the DVD documentary, Greta Gerwig recounts a conversation she had with Chalamet, after she made him read a lot of political stuff to prepare for the role:

  • “And then he came back and he said, ‘You love this stuff!’ And then we had this whole joke, he was like, ‘The funny thing is that everyone will think that you’re Lady Bird, but actually, you’re Kyle,’ and I was like, ‘It’s true!’ Like when he says that thing about putting cell phones in our brains, I’ve definitely said things like that.”

It’s always good to raid your own life for specific details and gift them to your characters to make them come alive. Obviously, in an autobiographical coming of age story, Gerwig is going to give most of her personal details to her heroine, but she saves some for the other characters as well, even the villain—especially the villain, who is the easiest character to lose the humanity of.

I’ve talked before about how, in the opinion of actor Ronny Cox, all four men in “Deliverance” were aspects of novelist/screenwriter James Dickey. Every character needs humanity if they’re going to come alive, and there’s no better source of humanity than yourself. Thankfully, you contain multitudes. There are many people within you, so you can spread your humanity around.
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