Beat Sheet: Deconstruction of Damien Chazelle’s Screenplay, Whiplash
March 22, 2015 11:26 pm
I received great response to my deconstruction of ‘Birdman’s screenplay based on Blake Snyder’s beat sheet model. Here, I will tackle one of my favorite screenplays of last year: ‘Whiplash’ written by Damien Chazelle. Caution: Please read on only if you already watched the movie.
Andrew (Miles Teller), our teenage hero, is practicing alone at night at the top music school of America. Enters the antagonist, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who is the ultimate decision-maker of who gets to be a great jazz musician – a goal which is clearly and painfully central to our hero’s life. From the first scene, we know who our hero is, what his goal is, what he must do to get it (climb mount Fletcher) and, judging by Fletcher’s damning exit at the end of the scene -a perfect ‘Kill the Cat’ moment- we know that a very tough ride awaits him. Such a simple, economical, powerful opening…
Following Andrew’s first of many discouraging encounters with Fletcher, he goes to the cinema with his dad, Jim (Paul Reiser). Jim represents the opposite of where Andrew wants to see himself when he is at his dad’s age. When Jim hears about Andrew’s disheartening experience with Fletcher, he talks about how his dream of becoming a writer diminished over the years. “There are other options,” he says. To Andrew, naturally, there is no other option but to become the greatest jazz drummer in history. Andrew’s response to Jim’s “At my age you get perspective,” is the thematic premise of the movie: “I don’t want perspective.” The argument is posed: Will Andrew learn to get a perspective like his dad, or will he prove that he really doesn’t need a ‘perspective’. This argument suggests that we are about to explore the possibilities of a young man achieving what his father failed to achieve, (namely, greatness!) – a theme that is universal and timeless.
First 10 minutes establish the hero, the antagonist, the dad (who carries a Vogler-esque antagonistic energy considering Andrew’s internal struggle), the love interest (Melissa Benoist), the setting (the conservatory, the dormitory), Andrew’s position among his peers at the rehearsals, the depth and rigidity of his self-practice and how far he is from measuring up to the greats.
Fletcher turns up at one of Andrew’s band rehearsals and unexpectedly selects Andrew to join his band. This is no doubt a life-changing event, but it is not disguised as bad news. It is bad news, disguised as great news that is incredibly hard to transform into truly great news. Andrew’s willing entrance into the chambers of Evil is all the more powerful for it.
“What do you want to do with your life?” bluntly asks Andrew on a first date. He is driven and believes every choice is made for a reason. Andrew’s determination to achieve his goal is clear and the threats against his achievement are quick to follow. Before Andrew’s first rehearsal with Fletcher’s band, Fletcher takes on the role of a father to Andrew – a total opposite of his real dad. “You’re here for a reason,” he asserts. This fatherly demeanor almost immediately dissolves into I-will-break-a-chair-on-your-head attitude. The debate over deciding between transferring to another school to become a regular person like his dad and staying on and risking his life in the hands of monster-Fletcher for the chance of being the next Charlie Parker is at its most intense. Does he kill himself practicing or does he follow his dad’s ‘take it easy’ advice?
Break into Two
First rehearsal with Fletcher’s band is Andrew’s introduction into the world of Act II and it’s not pretty! After the disaster of the first rehearsal Andrew emerges as a man who is now fully aware of what he’s getting himself into. His commitment to being one of the greats is now stronger than ever. He is ready to risk his life for his goal.
Andrew’s flirtation with Nicole is lacking in screen time and only partly carries the theme of the movie. It is merely one of the obstacles that Andrew removes from his life to clear his path. Andrew’s relationship with his dad has more of a B Story value, as it is a point of contact that intensifies the question raised in the theme. However, the real relationship that qualifies as B Story, I believe, is Andrew’s ‘love story’ with Fletcher. From the first rehearsal theirs is a love and hate relationship. Andrew ‘knows’ Fletcher will be his key to success and will endure anything to learn from him. Fletcher also ‘knows’ that Andrew is his key to discovering the next Charlie Parker and will stop at nothing to squeeze it out of him. These are two souls who desperately need each other for their respective goals.
Fun and Games
Andrew practices really hard! The tension builds as the band rehearses for a competition. Andrew has to do all he can to make it as a core member of the band. We watch him put all he’s got into his goal and feel that his triumph is inevitable.
Andrew misplaces the core drummer’s charts and unintentionally wins the position of the core drummer at the competition. A mysterious lucky break for Andrew but he nails his core position in the band thanks to his hard work. Nevertheless it is a false victory as the tables are quick to turn.
Bad Guys Close in
My favorite part of the screenplay, where every single scene relentlessly tightens its grip on Andrew. A succession of deliciously tense scenes send Andrew spiraling down into an abyss of loss of control and physical, emotional and psychological torment.
The scene of Andrew’s visit with his dad’s family shows that none of his efforts are appreciated by the people who are closest to him. His great achievement of making it in the core band means nothing to his family – he is still a disappointment. But Andrew knows he is better than all of them and his intention to prove them wrong adds to his commitment to his goal.
Andrew’s first step into taking control of his life and bettering his chances of success is to shed Nicole, whom he considers in the ‘loser’ category. Nicole is not even allowed to be a bad guy in his life. Andrew fights back by alienating himself further and moving more and more into the dark side.
Just as he thinks he finally has a firm place in the band, he is pretty much immediately replaced by musically inferior Connolly. Andrew gets increasingly enraged and obsessive. “Get that part back” rings in his ears.
Fletcher’s grief over his old student’s death further darkens the mood and intensifies the value of achieving greatness in Fletcher’s guidance. Who wouldn’t die to be considered ‘a beautiful player’ by him!
Andrew finally earns back the part by outplaying his competition after a 5-hour drumming marathon, but he is physically, emotionally and psychologically traumatized. Is it worth it, we ask. But Andrew is swept away by a deadly tide.
All is Lost
The scene where Andrew frantically tries to get to the concert that will give him the one and only chance of making it in the Lincoln Centre. He is still threatened to lose all that he literally shed blood, sweat and tears for. After he puts his life at risk to play at that critical concert, Fletcher’s words echo in his head: “You’re done.” Injured, in tremendous pain, enraged, turned into a monster worse than Fletcher-the-Devil himself, he has nothing more to lose. When the last words are spoken, his dreams are shattered beyond any hope of repair.
Dark Night of the Soul
Andrew is expelled, not just from school but from his life as he knew it. His drum kit as well as his entire history fit in a few boxes. He is even approached by a lawyer, who wants to use him against Fletcher as he has nothing more to gain from him. He is tired, sad and resigned. All he feels is betrayed by his dad, who dreadfully misses the point of Andrew’s life and passion. The distance between them is unbridgeable. There isn’t a soul in the world who understands Andrew now.
Break into Three
Except for Fletcher himself! A and B Stories cross, as two men who have lost the core of what makes them who they are finally have a heart-to-heart. Fletcher’s philosophy in all its glory once again rings so true to Andrew: “Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.” In a way Andrew is the only student who ever really understood Fletcher. Ironically Fletcher, who buried Andrew in the deepest darkest hole is also the only one who can bring him back to light.
The final showdown between Jake La Motta and Sugar Ray Robinson! Andrew takes a tentative step onto stage again with Fletcher’s new band. A total make or break moment in Andrew’s career. Fletcher names the game and throws Andrew the hardest blow of his life right at the start of the match. Andrew is knocked out within a few minutes into the concert and is ready to throw the towel. At backstage Jim is there to catch him when he falls. Andrew’s despair suddenly transforms into a Eureka moment, fuelled by his final realization that he must grow up and break out of his father’s loving grip. He is either to take a huge risk and make a life for himself following his true passion, or go back to a dull, cushioned life with daddy. When the stage hand asks Andrew whether he knows Jim, Andrew answers, much to his dad’s dismay, “No,” and returns to the stage. And to face his true love – Fletcher.
When Andrew is back on stage, his fears are reduced to ashes. Our hero takes his place behind his drum kit to win a war. Fletcher was the only one who could make the next Charlie Parker out of him and he is the only one who could ever become the next Charlie Parker. Fletcher and his only Charlie Parker are united in an impossible victory. Final moment: A crash of cymbals on the very last hit – greatness at last!
Beat Sheet: Screenplay Breakdown of Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman
December 6, 2014 6:54 am
I’ve been wanting to apply the Snyder Beat Sheet to a movie for some time. ‘Birdman’ is a great one for the task, and a challenging one too. Let me know your thoughts at email@example.com
Caution: Please continue to read if you’ve already seen the movie!
Hero in meditation. His voice-over says, ‘How did we end up here? … We don’t belong in this shithole.’ Perfect opening for a character who will soon begin questioning his self-worth, the meaning of his existence and above all the reality of all that is. As he is levitated during meditation, we are led to think Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) may be talking about the notion that all that we see, feel and think are perceptions of a grand illusion (maya), and in fact ‘this’ is not our true nature – we do not belong ‘here’ in the world of maya.
Riggan is haunted by the superhero character that he played many years ago: Birdman. Birdman, the alter ego, tells Riggan that he will fail at his comeback in the theatre. He should give it up already and embrace his superhero persona instead. Riggan, either in reality or in his personal reality, does have supernatural abilities. We are left to doubt until the very end whether he is an extraordinary person doubting his extraordinariness, or a perfectly ordinary person doubting his ordinariness. Is he a potential winner or a loser?
Riggan at a rehearsal for his comeback play. We observe him publicly exercise his superpowers, about which we remain doubtful. We meet his alter-ego, producer, daughter, fellow actors, lover, ex-wife. We get the sense that things are going badly for this guy. When all he wants is to prove that he is something, he grows more and more fearful of firmly establishing himself as a nothing. He is desperate for acknowledgment and success, but also strangely aware that ‘this’ is not ‘it’.
The catalyst is an amalgam of Riggan’s external and internal conflicts. On the one hand there is the question of whether he will really take on this crazy challenge of making it in the theatre and whether the incredible risk he is taking will pay off. On the other, his internal conflict is with his own ego. Will he be able to overcome it, silence it, stop battling with it? He also has a hyper-conflict: Are his superpowers real? Is he and everybody and everything else real? All of this is set up from the first instant we see and hear Riggan. His catalyst lies within himself. But if I had to pick a scene that is cataclysmic for his journey, I would pick the scene where he supernaturally ‘kills’ his co-star and takes charge of his destiny by changing it for the better against all odds.
The hiring of Mike (Edward Norton) and the previews that follow. The one-on-one rehearsal with Mike reveals Riggan’s weakness and self-doubt. In the first preview Mike messes up the whole show by insulting Riggan and the audience in the middle of the run. Riggan has to decide whether he should keep Mike, who will clearly be instrumental to his success, despite the risk of damaging his ego along the way. Right after the preview, Riggan and Mike have a conversation where we get to know who they are and what they are in this for. The stakes are high for Riggan: this play is a make-or-break for his career and seemingly for his entire existence.
Break into Two
This is a tough one, because almost the entire film seems to be a debate about all the explicit and implicit questions raised at Fade in. A prominent Break, if not the Act I Break, is the scene where Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), pummels Riggan’s ego by telling him he is unimportant and he better get used to it. Riggan is clearly devastated. But after she leaves, despite his apparent ‘loser’ outlook, he uses his magic to give the ashtray a gentle spin, as if to say, ‘Yes, I know, but there is something else…’ Meaningfully, in the scene that follows, his stage character says, ‘I spend every fucking minute praying to be someone else. Someone I’m not. … I don’t exist. I’m not even here. I don’t exist. None of this matters,’ and then shoots himself. The Riggan-Sam scene tips Riggan over to the throes of an even grander battle with himself.
The only love story credit would be traditionally given to Mike and Sam’s developing romance. But I feel Riggan’s relationship with his daughter has the only B story quality. At the Act I Break scene I mentioned above, Riggan is sympathetic toward Sam for the first time, and their relationship flourishes throughout the rest of the film. Sam will also become the first to find out about Riggan’s ‘true’ identity. Theirs is the true romance of the film.
Fun and Games
All the previews up to the first time Riggan reads a review of the play.
Riggan receives a review where Mike comes across as the star of the play and he, ‘the aging action hero who grasps for his youth.’ Riggan experiences a false defeat. He is once again pushed to the edge to choose between his ego and his dignity (which also stems from ego – there is no way out of the ego trap!).
Bad Guys Close in
Ego wins! Mike stays on as a threat, but he is no more of a threat to Riggan than his play’s failure. Riggan continues to take more risks for his ultimate goal of making his great comeback. But the pressure builds. Mike becomes more and more of a problem on so many levels, including as a love interest to Sam. Birdman insults and dares Riggan more than ever and drives him to the edge of sanity.
All is Lost
Tabitha, the critic who will give the life-or-death verdict on Riggan’s play, makes her decision before she even sees it: ‘I’m going to kill your play.’
Dark Night of the Soul
After hearing his fate Riggan truly gives up the fight for the first time. The whole world is against him. There is no chance that he will survive this and he has not a drop of hope left. He wakes up on a bench and peels his face off a garbage bag, appearing more like a homeless drunk than a superhero. Birdman brings in the big guns to take advantage of Riggan’s weakest moment and lure him back to his side. Riggan falls for it. But, does he fall into Birdman’s trap, or is he building up the courage to step into his power. He ends up on top of a building, seemingly about to commit suicide. When a neighbor helps Riggan step down from the edge and asks ‘Do you know where to go?’ Riggan responds, ‘Yes. I know where to go,’ and jumps off the rooftop without hesitation. Riggan soars high over Manhattan, just like Birdman.
Break into Three
Riggan is a superhero now, and he knows exactly what to do. He has the solution but we don’t yet know what it is. He plans his ‘real’ suicide at the end of his opening show. Why? Because he knows he will fail, so he might as well make the most majestic exit he can? Or, now that he discovered his superpowers, he simply knows nothing can beat him, whatever happens will only serve him? We don’t know why exactly, but we know something is up when he prepares to pull the trigger.
Third act is set in the hospital room where Riggan lies with a bandage on his face that is practically the same as the Birdman mask. He not only survived, but also gained enormous sympathy from audiences and family alike, picked up great reviews and got himself a brand new nose!
Riggan takes flight! From the opening image of a levitating man in meditation to a closing image of a man in flight from the POV of his daughter… What did Riggan figure out: that he doesn’t belong in this shithole. And he proved it.
Screenwriters’ Central Dilemma, Universal Pursuit of Happiness and the Source of Salieri’s Tragedy
March 20, 2014 10:23 am
‘To be a screenwriter is to deal with an ongoing tug of war between breathtaking megalomania and insecurity so deep it takes years of therapy just to be able to say “I’m a writer” out loud.’ – Blake Snyder
In Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat’, you get a strong sense of what a writing life is or should be like. But the screenwriter’s dilemma he mentions above truly reveals what it feels like to be a writer, regardless of whether you are an established or a beginning one. In fact, it makes you wonder, without this very conflict would one be compelled to write in the first place.
Stephen Cope in ‘The Great Work of Your Life’ names the problem of doubt as the central affliction to realizing one’s dharma, aka true calling, sacred duty, vocation. Unless you live and work aligned with your dharma, there is only self-destruction. Only when you find, name, celebrate and nourish your path, your Gift, your dharma, Cope says, you will be truly happy and fulfilled in your life.
And guess what, ‘[Dharma] is only born out of our wrestling matches with doubt, with conflict, and with despair.’ As it turns out, all the torment involved in writing or simply having a desire to write is for a reason. And that reason is at the heart of humanity’s eternal pursuit of happiness. This makes it all a bit more bearable, doesn’t it?
As I wrestle with the particulars of my own dharma, I realized a few weeks ago why I consider Milos Forman’s ‘Amadeus’ one of my favourite movies of all time. Because, to me, ‘Amadeus’ is about dharma and how life can be a long soul destroying suffering if you are not living your dharma.
You may remember Salieri’s meaningful outcry, paralyzed by doubt: ‘All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing… and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn’t want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?’ The ingenious screenplay by Peter Shaffer gives us the answer: because music was never meant to be Salieri’s dharma. It’s only his confusion that’s causing him all this agony.
Salieri’s true passion and dharma is hidden in the story. Do you remember those few short moments in the movie where Salieri talks about desserts? The most touching and dramatic thing about ‘Amadeus’ is Salieri’s passion for dessert! He is not only a man with a sweet tooth, he knows dessert and in a sense lives for it! These are the only moments in the movie where Salieri lights up and shines with joy and delight. Salieri’s character, as written by Shaffer, is a poignant portrait of dharma, or I should say, dharma-gone-wrong.
There is so much doubt and despair in store especially for people following artistic vocations. But, if writing is in ‘the subtle interior blueprint of your soul,’ then, Cope quotes Krishna’s lesson to Arjuna from the ancient story on dharma – Bhagavad Gita: ‘It is better to fail at your own dharma than to succeed at the dharma of someone else.’
I wish for all of us courage and perseverance in ‘looking more and more deeply into our doubts’ as a way to get to the certitude we need to take a leap of faith into our personal and unique dharma.