Straying from the Party Line (Except for the Deleted Scenes): Chris Never Gets His Hopes Up in “Get Out”

As I watch movies for this blog, I find that most movies meet most steps of the structure I expect them to have. Sometimes, when they don’t, I find that they actually did at the script stage, and even in the shooting stage, but the scene got deleted from the final edit. Think of how Star Wars once started from Luke’s point of view, or The Terminator once had a shift to the proactive.

One beat that Get Out doesn’t have in its final version is the one I would expect to find right before the midpoint disaster: “the hero has a little fun and gets excited about the possibility of success.”

But if you look at the deleted scenes on the DVD you’ll see that such a scene did once happen in that spot. There is still a scene at that spot in the movie where Chris meets Jim the blind art dealer, who apologizes for the racism of the other guests and praises Chris’s photography. But originally the scene went further: As Rose’s brother Jeremy tried to call Chris away for badminton, Jim went so far as to offer Chris a show in his gallery in the coming weeks. Chris is very happy to hear that:

  • Jeremy: Yo Chris, can we borrow you? I need to kick someone’s ass in badminton.
  • Chris to Jim: Nice to meet you man
  • Jim: Stop by the gallery, it’s about time you had a solo show.
  • Chris: Really?
  • Jim: Mm-Hm
  • Chris: Wow, okay, that’d be…that’d be a gamechanger!
  • Jim: We’ll get together sometime.

Emotionally, for the audience, this is just the right beat: We want to go on an emotional rollercoaster with the hero. We want his efforts in “the easy way” to seemingly be rewarded. We want to get our hopes up, right along with him, and then share his agony when it all comes crashing down at the midpoint (more like the 2/3 point in this movie)

So why was this cut? In his commentary on the deleted scenes, Peele doesn’t address this dialogue exchange, because he’s already talking about how the unnecessary badminton sequence had to go. I got the impression that the only reason this exchange was cut was because it overlapped with that sequence.

But it can go. After all, why would Jim say this to Chris? Whether or not Jim wins the auction, he knows Chris isn’t going to live through the weekend. Possibly he would say it just to keep Chris happy until the auction is over and he can be seized, but that’s a bit of a stretch.

Ultimately, this beat just existed to increase the emotional gutpunch of the midpoint disaster for the audience, but once the movie was firing on cylinders, it wasn’t necessary. The movie was impactful enough without it. But it’s telling that Peele did feel it was necessary to hit this expected beat in the script stage, before he knew his movie wouldn’t need it.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Sometimes the Hard Way is the Bad Way

In my recommended structure I sum up the second quarter as “the easy way” and the third quarter as “the hard way”. The hero has a problem to solve, commits to it at the ¼ point, tries the easy way for the 2nd quarter, expecting a quick resolution, then everything culminates in a big crash at the midpoint, so the hero starts over again a little wiser, identifies a better and harder way to solve the problem, fails again at the ¾ point, finally adopts a corrected statement of philosophy, sets off on the real right path, and heads off into the finale.

So usually the hero is trying a better (but still not best) way in the third quarter. But not always. “Lady Bird” shows us a not-uncommon tweak on the structure.

The titular heroine still tries the easy way in the second quarter, has a big crash, tries a harder way in the third quarter, fails again, then gets on the right path, but in this case, the easy way was naïve-but-admirable, and the hard way turns out to be the bad way.

But the structure still works: It’s still the case that she’s working harder and more resourcefully and accomplishing more. The only difference is that, in conjunction with that change, she loses her moral compass.

This puts the audience in a tricky relationship with our heroine: We love her, so we’re hardwired to want her to get what she wants. In the second quarter, that’s no problem, because we love everything about what she’s doing. We love her best friend Julie, we love that she’s decided to fix her life by starring in a Sondheim musical, and we love her love interest Danny.

But then, in the big crash, Danny turns out to be gay, so we’re glad she moves on, and glad that she decides to be more active and canny in the third quarter, but, suddenly, she starts alienating us along the way. She cruelly ditches her best friend and the theater program, pursues a friendship with a mean popular girl and a relationship with a cool, anarchistic boy.

We quickly realize after the midpoint, “Whoa, I still love Lady Bird, but I no longer want her to get what she wants. I’m rooting for her to fail, or, if she’s going to succeed, to make it out the other side of this and be reunited with her original decency.”

And that’s what happens: She cannily befriends the bad girl and beds the bad boy, but then she ditches them at the last moment and runs back to her previous best friend. She gets a corrected statement of philosophy and gets her life back on track, so then we can fully root for her again in the final quarter.

Podcast Episode 10: More Fun with Jonathan Auxier

Hi, guys, long time no see! Here we are with a new Podcast episode! Special Guest Jonathan Auxier returns to the podcast to give us some pushback for our last three episodes! It’s a good one! Exclamation point!

I also had some follow-up thoughts for those of you that have listened to it. Have you listened to it yet? Good, here we go: Jonathan points out that the Rank-Raglan 22-step structure wraps around to overlay on top of itself, with the hero going through the first 11 steps while the villain goes through the last 11. As I edited the episode, I wondered if that was true of Harry Potter, and it is true with Voldemort to a certain extent, but where it really applies is not to the villain but to the mentor, Dumbledore. Harry meets most of the first 11 steps while his mentor meets all but one of the back 11.

12. Marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor): This is obviously the one that fits the least since, as we later found out, he’s gay, but basically the princess is Hogwarts itself.
13. Becomes king: He’s offered leadership of the whole wizarding world but chooses to just rule the school.
14. For a time he reigns uneventfully: For many years.
15. He prescribes laws: He also chairs the Wizengamot.
16. Later loses favor with gods or his subjects: People are constantly plotting against him in the books.
17. Driven from throne and city: He gets fired in books 2 and 5.
18. Meets with mysterious death: Seemingly killed by his follower, but there’s more to it.
19. Often at the top of a hill: He’s atop a tower.
20. His children, if any, do not succeed him: He’s childless, his killer takes his place.
21. His body is not buried: He is laid in an above ground tomb, which is later raided and desecrated.
22. Has one or more holy sepulchers or tombs: See above.

I thought that was neat!

New Video: Irony

Remember how shocked you were when I put out a new podcast episode, after more than a year away?  Well get ready to be flabbergasted, because here’s a new video after more than two years!  When I launched my book in late 2016, I had an ambitious plan that I would have a new video every other week from then on and a podcast episode on all the off weeks.  Ha!  Turns out that videos are a lot of work.  But I'm very happy with the four I’ve made and I’ve wanted to do a new one on irony for a while.  And I’m mostly talking about a movie we haven’t already discussed to death on the blog!  Let me know what you think, please.

(I’ve also replaced the Moment of Humanity video with a cleaner version, since kids like the videos.  No more 40 Year Old Virgin opening shot!)

Rulebook Casefile: Manufacturing a Bigger Midpoint Disaster in Selma

I’ve talked about how the most common story structure is simply the most common structure for solving problems in real life, so, if that’s true, a true story like Selma should naturally hit our story beats without a lot of fictionalization. And it kind of does, but DuVernay (and it does seem to be DuVernay and not Webb), like most docudrama makers, chooses to magnify that. Is that fair? Let’s see.

The real story does have a natural “Big Crash / Midpoint Disaster / Lowest Point” for both LBJ and MLK: The first bridge crossing, which King misses, leads to horrific violence on national TV, mortifying Johnson. But DuVernay wants more, so she takes an event that only kind of really happened and inserts it here.

The change involves King’s reason for missing the march. The big crash usually happens because of the hero’s flaw, forcing them to confront it for the first time. The real reason King missed the march speaks to one of King’s potential flaws, but DuVernay created a different reason that speaks to another flaw.

In the true story, King felt he had to stay home in Atlanta and preach to his congregation, so he planned to join the marchers later (There are some suspicions that his father, who was his co-preacher, suspected that there would be violence, feigned illness and asked King to make sure be there to preach.)

If DuVernay had kept this reason, would that speak to a flaw of King’s? Well, it’s a controversial thing to say, but sort of. In fact, DuVernay does come close to making this criticism elsewhere. It’s hard not to notice that King keeps missing the violence: He’s not at the night march where Jimmie Lee Jackson gets killed, he misses the first bridge crossing, and he turns back the second bridge crossing when he sees the cops, disappointing everybody. It feels awful to criticize a man who would soon give his life for the movement, but in this campaign, he kind of looks like someone who is willing to put others in danger but not himself.

But DuVernay decides to bring in another of King’s flaws here instead. To do so, she must do some fictionalization, creating an event that didn’t really happen …but basically happened. In the movie, King is stuck at home dealing with a marital crisis.
It’s true that J. Edgar Hoover was an employee of Johnson’s, and while working “under” Johnson recorded King having affairs and mailed those tapes to Coretta who then confronted her husband. That really happened. But Hoover didn’t really do it at this point in history, and Johnson probably never knew he was going to do it. Hoover was totally rogue by this point, and historians believe that Johnson only kept him on because Hoover was blackmailing him. Certainly, whenever it happened, it was not Johnson’s attempt to stop events in Selma.

This is obviously a big point in favor of the case that DuVernay is unfair to Johnson, but is it really? Johnson should have known this was happening and should have stopped it. It’s only fair to show that the Johnson administration, in the person of an employee Johnson refused to rein in, was viciously attacking King’s marriage, so it’s fair to include that in a movie about King’s relationship with Johnson, even if history has to be rearranged and Johnson’s sin of omission turned into a sin of commission.

And it certainly works in terms of creating an effective lowest point for both protagonists. Johnson hits a moral low point, making his eventual moral redemption more powerful. King suffers greatly, is forced to admit his worst behavior, and feels even guiltier when the problems results in his missing the violent march. (But it is awkward that King’s adultery is neither set up beforehand nor paid off afterwards: We never see him commit adultery beforehand nor refuse to do it afterwards.)

Basically, the best reason to insert this moment is to include King’s biggest flaw and one of Johnson’s biggest flaws into this story, so that the portrait of each man will be more complete and complicated, even if these two flaws didn’t actually play a big part in this particular event. DuVernay is being true to history on a broader scale even if it means fictionalizing this event. I can accept that.

Best of 2017, #1: Lady Bird

What a wonderful film.  Our top two movies are so similar: Both were created by performers who weren’t known as writers or directors but both turned out to be geniuses in disguise.  It makes you wonder who else is sitting on hidden talents.  Some old rules this reminded me of:

Begin When the Problem Becomes Undeniable, End When It’s Resolved: What is the story of this movie? If I was describing it to someone, I would probably say “It’s the story of a girl’s senior year of high school,” so the most obvious structure would be to begin with an aerial shot of the kids entering school on the first day and end on another aerial shot of her flying off for college, but the movie is smarter than that.

This is a movie with several plotlines, but Gerwig knows she has to choose one storyline to predominate, begin the movie when that problem becomes undeniable, and end when it resolves. Gerwig probably could have structured the movie around Lady Bird’s relationship with her best friend, or her attempts to lose her virginity, but she ultimately decided that the conflict with the mom was the emotional heart of the movie, so she begins a little bit before the school year (iirc) with the moment that relationship becomes open warfare, and then she actually keeps the story going a little bit into college to find the moment when that storyline resolves itself, because Lady Bird has to go away to get some perspective on their relationship.

The Trailer Scene: So let’s talk about the opening scene, because it’s a great example of a “Holy Crap” moment that’s necessary to make a trailer work. The movie is a low-key coming of age story, and those are notoriously hard to sell. The trailer does include the best moment in the movie, when Lady Bird asks her mom, “What if this is the best version [of myself]?” and her mom gives her that wonderful look, but that’s not really a great trailer moment. Even if your movie is very realistic, it’s good to have one moment that strains that realism to the breaking point to put a moment of outrageousness in the trailer, and jumping out of the car while her mom is driving is a perfect example. It’s not so extreme that it would make the news, but it’s definitely nothing the characters will ever forget.

I know that for me, jumping out got a big laugh when I saw the trailer and made me want to see the movie. It assured me that this wouldn’t be that kind of movie (which is to say, the kind of movie Gerwig usually stars in), too low key to care about, or too cool for school. It assured me: This is going to be a comedy, and you’ll be allowed to laugh.

Reversible reversible behavior. But this is a realistic movie, and it’s going to also score points by undermining our traditional narrative expectations in favor of greater realism. One great little moment: Whenever a character, especially a teen character, insists on an alias, we also await the moment when they drop the façade and admit their real name, because that’s classic reversible behavior, and sure enough this movie delivers that moment when Lady Bird is at her first college party, but then it wonderfully undercuts that breakthrough. She admits her name, but then the boy asks her where she’s from and she panics and lies. One step forward, one step back. This is what we want out of realistic movies: clever subversion of tropes in a way that makes us think, “Finally a movie that’s willing to show how it really is!”

Podcast Episode 2: The Easy Way

Well, folks, it’s been a month since Episode 1, but life got in the way. We first recorded this on the night before the election, but we ran out of time and decided to meet again to finish it later. Then disaster struck. Afterwards, we decided to re-record it for a post-Trump world, and did so, but the dour Trump-themed version was too depressing, so then we decided to splice just the end of the later recording onto the first recording. So most of this episode is a relic of a happier world, before evil triumphed (and the end bit doesn’t acknowledge the new post-apocalyptic reality.)

You can stream it here, or, even better, subscribe to us on iTunes, then like us and review us!

At the end of this episode, we have a surprise for you, so I won’t spoil it here, but it involves a download, so here’s that link!

(Once again, the music is from It’s “Lucky Me” by Scott Holmes, with an Attribution/NonCommercial license.) 

Rulebook Casefile: The Big Crash in Frozen

In my notes service, this is a note I give all the time. The heroes begin “Act 2” with a goal, and then they reach that goal far too many pages later, just in time to begin the climax in “Act 3”. But one reason I’ve never been a fan of the “Three-Act Structure” is that it ignores the real turning point, which should usually be the midpoint.

If your heroes commit to a big goal at the ¼ point of your story, they should reach that goal at the midway point, fully assuming that their challenge is now over, only to find that the easy way has culminated in a disaster. Either they fail spectacularly, or they find that achieving their goal has only made things worse.

In Frozen, Anna, Kristoff and Olaf reach Elsa’s palace, only to get kicked out and mortally injured, which sends them off on another quest, temporarily forgetting their quest to get Elsa to shut down eternal winter. Here’s that Scriptnotes podcast again:
  • John August: So, one of the most surprising things that happens next is Anna gets to Elsa, which you sort of think of the quest of the movie, well eventually they’re going to get there and it will all be resolved by then. But at the midpoint of the movie —
  • Jennifer Lee: That’s a good point, yeah.
  • John: They actually get there and they have the conservation and The First Time in Forever and then like things seem like they’re going to be okay.
  • Aline Brosh-McKenna: God, another great tip for writers which is you can just go and do it.
  • John: Don’t delay it. Actually just start it. And it surprises you because you’re not expecting, you know, you establish a journey. So, like, oh, the journey is to get there. And like, oh, but we’re here. And so what else can happen? Well, she can shot in the heart with it and Elsa can refuse to change and shut them out and build an abominable snowman and sort of become more monstrous herself.
This can be a painful note to get, because it forces you to restructure your whole story, compressing your “Act 2” down to half as many pages, then adding a midpoint disaster and a second, harder quest before the climax is reached, but audiences demand this. They don’t want you to park it in cruise control for the middle of the story. They know how long your story is, but they don’t want your characters to know it. Your characters should be shocked to discover that their story is only half over after the big crash.

Straying from the Party Line: Rushmore’s Offscreen Catharsis

In Rushmore, at what point does Max Fischer finally turn a corner, get a girlfriend, and vow to make peace with everyone? Well, we don’t know, because we don’t see it. Instead, we see just the opposite.

We do get to see some personal growth: He finally apologizes to Dirk (spontaneously) and Margaret Yang (when prompted), he starts his first new society at his public school, he reaches out to Blume and exchanges medals with him. He reaches out to Miss Cross again with another aquarium scheme. But then, after that falls apart, we see him ordering dynamite and heading off to Rushmore with a rifle: “I have one more piece of unfinished business.” We then see him in a window aiming the rifle at his bully. To our relief, he just shoots him with a potato gun, then gives him a script for a play.

Nevertheless, as the next scene begins, somewhat-ominous drum music plays and we see that Max has gathered all of the characters from the movie, both friends and enemies, in one room for his play. Of course, we soon realize that, while his Vietnam play is far from safe, his intentions are entirely positive and this is a different Max: He’s got a girlfriend, he’s introducing everyone to his father, and he’s implicitly making peace with everyone he’s wronged.

This is tricky. Audiences do like going back and forth, sometimes getting ahead of the characters (we know what’s going to happen to them but they don’t) and sometimes falling behind (we can’t figure out what they’re doing for a few scenes), but this movie features false alienation: Intentionally making us doubt our trust in the main character, only to please us by re-affirming it.

In this case it works: it adds a little tension and excitement to an ending that might otherwise be anticlimactic. Yes, it’s a little disappointing that they have to skip over some of Max’s personal breakthroughs, but it’s a comedy, not a drama, and we’d rather get an nervous final laugh than a heartfelt catharsis.

In other cases, it doesn’t work: There’s a moment in the first season of “Mad Men” when Matthew Weiner decides to create the false impression that Don is preparing to kill his half-brother (instead, he’s going to pay him to leave town, which, as it turns out, causes him to commit suicide.) It’s essential to build identification with anti-heroes: We can’t sympathize, but we can at least empathize. By breaking identification in those scenes, Weiner briefly pushed our already-limited tolerance for Don past the breaking point, and struggled to get it back. When I recommended the show to people after that first season, I warned them about that episode: “At times the show will seem darker than it really is, but stick with it.”