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.
‘The Freud Scenario’ – Act I Break
October 20, 2014 9:02 pm
I recently discovered a very good example for an Act I Break that is worth sharing and discussing in a little detail. In the 50s, US director John Huston asked French writer-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to write a screenplay about the founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Sartre’s first draft didn’t fully make it to the big screen, but the screenplay is published for us to enjoy as a piece of literature. ‘The Freud Scenario’ not only tells us an account of the birth of psychoanalysis, but also gives us a very relatable portrait of a human being mastering his own demons before bringing forth his contribution to the science of the psyche.
Sartre’s 380-something-page screenplay is by no means traditional in terms of its generosity with time and space for the characters and events to take shape. But, it certainly hits the right structural notes, which are delivered with meticulous care.
Following an unusually spread-out sequence where ‘The Call to Adventure’ (coined by Joseph Campbell) is established and an agonizing debate over taking on or refusing the challenge has ensued, Freud is faced with the antagonist of the story: Meynert. Meynert, the man who initially condemned Freud for following his inner voice, now prompts him to go ahead with his original plan: treating hysterical patients using hypnosis. Finally at page 138, off Freud goes on his quest to develop the ‘talking cure’.
The scene with Meynert is meaningful to me for several reasons. For one, I like the idea of a hero who gets a good kick in the butt from none other than the antagonist before going on his journey. The fact that the hero is dependent on antagonistic authority/father figures to make his decisions is important for establishing the hero’s pathology, the root from which his desires and ambitions stem in the first place and the reason for his eventual success. Who could be a better person to show one’s weakness -and his hidden strength- if not the bad guy! It is Meynert who obstructs Freud’s path, but it is also him who gives Freud the blessing to get back on it.
The scene also clarifies the goal of the hero: to know oneself. Meynert himself has failed in his lifetime to fight his own demons and is now dying in devastating ignorance. Thus this scene also shows us very clearly what would happen to the hero if he fails in his quest. The stakes are high: a life lived or a life lost.
Another interesting way in which the writer uses this scene is that the Shadow archetype turns into a Mentor archetype and sets up the new ‘bad guy’, which in this case is neurosis – the disease of the mind and the spirit. Meynert, as the Mentor, gives us the rules of the game: Freud has to delve into the muddy corners of his psyche and make a pact with the Devil if he wants to unearth and demolish what keeps him in darkness. This organic shift in archetype energies brings fresh momentum to Act II.
The importance of achieving the hero’s goal, the hero’s and the enemy’s characteristics that will make it a tough ride, the intensity of experience along the path to success and what it would mean to lose this battle are all settled in one stroke. Now we are ready to experience the Journey; we are aware of the stakes; we know the enemy and we have expectations about how the hero must now act. That’s what I call a good Act I Break.
Excerpt from ‘The Freud Scenario’:
Freud pulls his chair up close to Meynert.
MEYNERT Are you still searching for male hysterical patients?
At this reminder of the 1887 lecture and their quarrel, Freud frowns and shakes his head almost imperceptibly as a sign of denial. Meynert understands the sign.
MEYNERT Pity. I could have presented you with a fine specimen.
Freud dumbfounded and mistrustful, guesses beforehand the reply to the question he puts.
Meynert has recovered his bitter, ironical smile. He says with simplicity and almost with pride:
Freud does not reply. He looks at Meynert: on his face astonishment is mingled with a sudden, deep understanding – and, less clearly, with a certain satisfaction.
Meynert continues, with a kind of somber pride:
MEYNERT I knew the symptoms before Charcot; I learned about them the hard way – I had them all.
Still more proudly:
MEYNERT All. No one knew anything.
Freud speaks harshly: his resentment has not abated.
FREUD When you threw me out of your laboratory, you already knew that?
MEYNERT I’d known it for twenty years.
FREUD You called me a buffoon and a charlatan.
MEYNERT You know the story of Noah: a son mustn’t see his father’s nakedness.
He looks at him without tenderness and without regret. In a factual tone of voice:
MEYNERT You were my spiritual son.
Freud, in the same tone of voice, with an additional touch of sadness:
FREUD Yes. And you cursed me. You ruined my life. I was a scientist, not a doctor. Medicine disgusts me: I don’t like torturing people on the pretext that they’re ill. (A pause.) For six years I’ve carried out no research. I torture neurotic people I can’t cure.
Meynert laughs feebly.
MEYNERT Electrotherapy, baths and massage?
FREUD Massage, baths, electrotherapy.
Meynert laughs a little louder.
MEYNERT One might just as well put a poultice on a wooden leg.
Harshly, with sparkling eyes:
MEYNERT It’s quite useless.
FREUD I know. And yet I prescribe nothing else.
Meynert, with a still more ironical smile:
MEYNERT At all events, it can’t do any harm.
FREUD Not even that. (A pause.) Who would you call the charlatan? The young man who sincerely believed in the virtues of hypnotism or the man of today, who prescribes a treatment he doesn’t believe in?
Meynert has closed his eyes and does not reply. Freud looks at him with growing anxiety. After a moment, he rises noiselessly to his feet and is about to go over to the patient. Meynert hears him and speaks without opening his eyes.
MEYNERT Sit down. I’m not asleep, I’m gathering my thoughts. I’m very weak. I have to talk to you. Don’t interrupt me.
He speaks at first with his eyes closed; in a moment, he will open them.
MEYNERT Sufferers from neurosis form a fraternity. They rarely know each other, yet they recognize each other. At first sight. Just one rule: silence. Normal people, that’s who our enemies are. I’ve kept the secret… All my life – even from myself; I’ve refused to know myself; I’ve refused to know myself.
He opens his eyes and looks intently at Freud.
MEYNERT You belong to the fraternity, Freud. Or very nearly… I hated you, because you wanted to betray… I was wrong. (A pause.) My life has been nothing but play-acting. I’ve wasted my time hiding the truth. I was keeping quiet. Result: I’m dying with pride, but in ignorance.
MEYNERT A disciple of knowledge must know, mustn’t he? I don’t know who I am. It’s not I who has lived my life: it’s an Other.
He once more closes his eyes. Freud seems overwhelmed. He leans forward and timidly lays his hand upon the sick man’s pale hand, which is lying on the arm of his chair. Meynert reopens his eyes. He looks exhausted. But for the first time since the beginning of the film, he looks at Freud almost with affection. In a quicker, weaker voice:
MEYNERT Break the silence. Betray us. Find the secret. Expose it to the light of day, even if it means revealing your own. It’s necessary to dig deep down. Into the mud.
At these last words, Freud withdraws his hand and recoils somewhat.
MEYNERT Didn’t you know that?
FREUD (slowly) Into the mud? Yes, I know.
MEYNERT Does that frighten you?
FREUD Yes. I… I’m not an angel.
MEYNERT So much the better. Angels don’t understand men.
Freud’s face has altered: he is still somber but his eyes are shining.
FREUD What if I weren’t capable…
MEYNERT If you’re not, no one will be.
A silence. He raises his voice slightly.
MEYNERT For six years you’ve been champing at the bit… Now charge: it’s in your character. Retreat before nothing. If your strength fails you, make a pact with the Devil.
More quietly, but with burning conviction:
MEYNERT It would be splendid to risk Hell so that everyone could live under the light of the Heaven.
He has half raised himself, his pillow slips down behind him. Freud rises and repositions the pillow. Meynert lets himself sink back.
MEYNERT For my part, I lost – through lack of courage. Your turn to play. Farewell.
He is breathing through his mouth. Very slight rattle. Weary, painful expression. His eyes are open and staring. He repeats very softly, as if to himself:
Freud looks at him for a moment, impassively. Meynert no longer seems aware of his presence. Freud stretches out his hand timidly. Touches the dying man’s pale hand with his fingertips, turns on his heel and leaves noiselessly.
The Brains of a Hero – A Checklist
May 31, 2014 1:40 pm
I recently read an article called ‘The Brains of Successful vs. Unsuccessful People Actually Look Very Different’ on PolicyMic.com. The successful types are said to have growth mindsets while the unsuccessful suffer from fixed mindsets. As I was contemplating how my own mindset is dangerously close to the fixed mindset, if not smack in the middle of its murky sphere, I also saw a brilliant outline of what a hero’s mindset must, must, MUST be like in order for her and her story to succeed. The diagram above provides an excellent checklist to make sure your hero and her story succeeds!
Here’s the idea: ‘For fixed mindsets, intelligence is static. This leads to a desire to look smart and therefore a tendency to avoid challenges, give up easily, see effort as fruitless or worse, ignore useful negative feedback and feel threatened by the success of others. As a result, they may plateau early and achieve less than their full potential. All this confirms a deterministic view of the world. For growth mindsets, intelligence can be developed. This leads to a desire to learn and therefore a tendency to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others. As a result they reach ever-higher levels of achievement. All this gives them a greater sense of free will.’
Think about all the great heroes you love. Which mindset do they share common characteristics with? Sometimes a growth-oriented hero may be failing at one or more of the traits of the growth mindset. But isn’t that usually the area of weakness where the hero’s inner conflict lies?
You might say, but how about stories about people with fixed mindsets? Don’t their stories deserve to be told? Yes, they do, but only when the hero begins to see she must change and willingly or unwillingly goes through the journey of a growth mindset. A story about a fixed mindset getting a kick in the butt from life to adopt a growth mindset in order to overcome whatever hurdle life threw at her is a very common storyline.
No matter how big or small, every hero should be (or become) a force to be reckoned with. So we can find lessons and inspiration in their stories and do the same.
Read the full article here.