Podcast

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Donnie Brasco

FBI agent Joe Pistone assumes the identity “Donnie Brasco” and infiltrates the mob by ingratiating himself with sad sack hitman Lefty Ruggiero, only to find himself caught up in a war between rival mobsters Sonny Red and Sonny Black. “Donnie” begins to feel divided loyalty, which upsets his bosses and his wife Maggie.
PART #1: CONCEPT 18/21
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 Yes, a married FBI agent goes so deep undercover in the mob that he almost becomes a made man.
Is this a new twist on a classic type of story?
 Yes.  Reverses the usual undercover story.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 Yes, an undercover FBI agent finds his pitiful targets more sympathetic than his bosses.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 Yes, being promoted over your hapless boss, but your undercover with the mob.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Yes. In the deleted scenes, needless complications, like Donnie getting audited, are cut out.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
 Yes, Donnie.
Is the story about the hero’s problem, not the hero’s life? 
 Yes, we barely even see where he lives as Donnie. 
Is it about a unique relationship?
 Yes. A ruthless undercover cop and the sad-sack mobster he targets.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 Yes, everybody he meets.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Yes, both greatest hope (first Fed to be on track to be a made man) and greatest fear (loses family, almost gets turned)
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 Yes.  His extraordinary self-control allows him unprecedented success, but it threatens to destroy him.
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)?
 Yes, because he likes Lefty.
Is the hero the person working the hardest to solve the problem?
 Yes, he’s totally committed and the other Feds are just doing their job.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 Yes, he’s the first to ever infiltrate the mob.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation?
 Yes, he brings down the mob.
Does the situation permanently transform the hero?
 Yes.  He finally finds a relationship he won’t abandon for the job, but it’s with Lefty, not his wife.  In the end, he seems to have reverted to a normal life, but it’s dubious.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 Not really.  Promotional images were somewhat generic.  Maybe the tiger in the cage.  This was a real problem for the movie: it looked generic.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 No.  This movie had a hard time generating word of mouth.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 Not really, instead of being in danger for being a Fed, he winds up being in danger for being a mobster, targeted by a rival.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
 Yes.
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
 Yes, even moreso.
PART #2: CHARACTER X/23
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?)
 A few.  His humor in the fugazi scene. His desire to just hear his wife breathe.  His amusement that both bosses want him shave his mustache off.
Is the hero defined by actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Yes.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 Yes, in the mob: Donnie the jeweler, outside the mob: dedicated husband and agent.
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Yes, in the mob: undercover Fed, outside the mob: morally compromised lost soul
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Yes, gangster. 
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Yes, he ‘s sullen and resentful both at home and on the job.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Yes, he plays it cool and silent, looks askance at the person, convinces the person that he’s the one who knows what’s going on.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, not-selfless, and revealed early on?
 Well, it’s pretty selfless: take down the mob, but he’s clearly enjoying getting away from his family and going dark, in more ways than one.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a false philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 “I gotta shave my mustache off.  Regulations.”  He’s trying to play if by the book, in both jobs.
Does the hero have a false or short-sighted goal when we first meet him or her?
 Yes, to infiltrate the mob.
Does the hero have an open anxiety about his or her future?
 Yes.  Getting caught in a lie.
Does the hero also have a hidden, private fear?
 Yes, losing his soul to the mafia.
Is the hero vulnerable, both physically and emotionally?
 Just barely.  He’s pretty dominating in both.
Does the hero have an untenable great flaw that we empathize with? (but…)
 He’s so dedicated that he abandons his family and beats up innocent people to preserve his cover.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw the natural flip-side of a great strength that we admire?
 Yes, he’s the perfect infiltrator because he’s totally dedicated to it.
Is the hero curious?
 Yes, he’s constantly investigating. 
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 Yes, bluffs on fugazi, makes up Japan story, many more examples.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 “Don’t say nothing unless there’s a reason for it.” Always stay in character.  Be the colder one.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 Yes, no one else, in the feds or the mob, has his self-control and discipline.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 Yes and no.  In the mob, he lacks a forceful personality. This is in fact the secret of his success: his ability to blend into the background. He mostly keeps his own counsel until directly confronted.  Outside the mob, however, he’s quick to complain and mock his bosses’ incompetence.
Is the hero actively pursuing an early goal when we first meet him or her?
 Yes, he’s trying to get in good with Lefty.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Yes.  He’s running the show, even when others think they are.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 Yes, knows how to evaluate jewelry. We learn in the special features that the real life Donnie was sent to a six-month jewelry program, but it’s never mentioned in the movie.  That’s okay because we can guess it.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (IF THE STORY IS ABOUT THE SOLVING OF A LARGE PROBLEM) 23/24
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 getting in good with mob, but calls his wife and asks to hear her breathe. 
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 Yes, he misses Christmas with his family in order to keep his cover up with Lefty.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 Yes, Lefty now feels bonded to him.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 Yes, he avoids getting sucked into Lefty’s world at first, until he realizes how valuable the connection is.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 Yes, Lefty introduces him to Sonny Black as “a friend of ours”, the first step to getting made.
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.  He winds up caught between Lefty and Sonny Black.  His wife turns against him.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Yes, he tries to avoid hurting anybody, tries to get home enough to keep his family happy.
Does the hero (and/or villain) get to have a little fun at this point, in a way that exemplifies the appeal of the concept?
 Yes. Has a lot of amusing conversations, bonds with Lefty, feeds the lion.
Does the hero get excited about the possibility of success?
 Yes, he tells his wife he’ll be out soon.
Does this culminate in a midpoint disaster?
 Sort of.  He helps beat up the Japanese maitre’d, his wife decides to divorce him.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero lose a safe space and/or sheltering relationship at this point?
 Yes, his wife leaves him.
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Yes, goes full mobster, freezes out wife.
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
 Yes.  The ABSCAM screw-up is somewhat external, but it never drives the story.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 Yes, realizes that he’s in more danger for being a mobster than being a fed.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 Yes, he almost gets made, gets caught up in a mob war, loses family
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 Outside the mob, he suffers through marriage counseling.  In the mob, he has to cut up bodies.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 Yes, hits his wife, feels certain he’ll have to kill someone soon in the mob.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 Yes. “Fuck the rules.”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 Yes, he realizes that he has to get out now.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Yes, proactive from the beginning.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 Yes.  He’s ordered to make a hit before he can do the bust.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Not at all, Donnie disappears and misses the big confrontation / revelation of his identity.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 Yes, basically, it never really ends.  He’s still conflicted, even though it’s over.
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.  His family accepts him but he’s disgusted by his medal.
Part #4: SCENEWORK 23/23 (Sample Scene: Lefty seeks to go behind Sonny Black’s back to set up his own meeting in Florida with the notorious Santo Trifficante. He has Donnie borrow a boat for this purpose, but Sonny Black knows everything, and he crashes the party.  Lefty bitterly assumes that Donnie has betrayed him, and shuns him.  Sonny takes Donnie aside and elevates him above Lefty.)
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, Lefty thinks that he’s going to bond with Santo Trafficante, and he even buys him a greeting card.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 Yes, both.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Yes.  They’re stuck on a boat out at sea, Donnie can only be exiled as far as the bough.  People are there to have a party, but it’s deadly serious.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Yes, in the second half, where Donnie gets cornered by Sonny.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Yes, the party, Florida trivia.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Sort of: it’s a borrowed boat, and they only have a limited amount of time with Sonny.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
 Yes, both.  Donnie advances in the mafia.  Lefty thinks Donnie betrayed him.  Donny aligns himself with Sonny.
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
 Yes, Lefty is devastated
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 The audience is very torn at this point between rooting for / sympathizing with Donnie vs. Lefty, which is good.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Yes, very much so.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Yes.  Lefty: Surface: you told Sonny, Suppressed: you broke our friendship, Sonny: Surface: I want you here in Florida. Suppressed: I want to betray Lefty.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Yes.  “Now, that’s what I call a boat” means “I know everything”.  Sonny tries to avoid saying “You belong to me now” until he has to say it at the end.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Yes.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Yes, Sonny hits Donny with the fact that he knows about the club at just the moment to throw him off balance and get him to agree to stay in Florida.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Yes, lots. Yes: just one touch.  Lefty and Donnie don’t touch (in fact they repel each other to opposite ends of the boat).  Donnie avoids touching Sonny until Sonny reveals that Donny belongs to him and throws a menacing arm around him.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Yes.  Sonny gives Lefty the matchbook to let him know that he knows.  Lefty throws away his greeting card, but takes he hundred dollar bill out first.
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
 Yes.  First Donnie must mollify Lefty, then figure out Sonny, then resist him.
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, Donnie is forced to swear allegiance to Sonny Black
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 Yes, Donnie wanted to advance along with Lefty, but instead he advances by unwittingly betraying Lefty.
Are previously-asked questions answered?
 Yes: Will Donnie get the boat? Does Sonny know about Lefty’s side-game?
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
 Yes, will they find out it was a federal boat? Will Lefty forgive Donny?
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 We’re filled with a growing dread for the future, now that Donnie is alienated from Lefty and more tied to Sonny Black.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 Yes.
PART #5: DIALOGUE 18/19
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Yes.  We feel intensely for most of these people.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Yes. We see how much Joe’s wife suffers (shoveling the walk, etc.) but he can’t imagine it.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Yes.  All of the others only serve themselves.  The mafia code is a joke.  FBI mostly watches its own ass.  Donnie himself, though, is fairly selfless, pursuing the mob despite have little personal motivation to do so.  However, it soon becomes clear that he’s drawn to this fantasy life for neurotic reasons, and reluctant to leave even after the job is done. 
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Yes.  Therapy is useless.  He and Lefty confront each other in the most oblique way possible.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
 Yes, very much so, even if that makes the viewer play catch up.
Do the characters listen poorly?
 Yes.
Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?
 Yes.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
 Yes, yes, a million times yes. The “Fuggetaboutit” monologue is famous.
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
 Very much so, the difference between friend of mine / friend of ours, etc.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
 Not really.  He’s mimicking them, and they’re all fairly similar…they all have the same psychology, home region, job, ambitions, etc.
Are there additional characters with default personality traits?
 Lefty: self-loathing, chiseling.
Are there additional characters with default argument strategies?
 Lefty: cites made-up facts, tries to confuse the other person.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 Yes.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 Yes.
Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
 Yes.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 Yes.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 Characters are all three dimensional.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 Yes.  Information about the mafia set-up and Joe’s mission comes out slowly.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Yes, literally, when he hits his wife.
PART #6: TONE 16/16
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, without introducing a new genre after the first quarter?)
 Yes.  Mafia
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 Yes. Undercover fed.
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre and sub-genre?
 Yes, lots of whacking and suspense.
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)? 
 Yes, placing job excellence over family, but this time with lives on the line.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 Yes, the mob has a falling out, which is common, but the feds win, which is uncommon.
Mood: Does the story create a certain feeling?
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Yes, darkly-comic but tense and paranoid, established by the fugazi scene. Donnie is in danger for her life, but he has all the power, and dominates Lefty. Donnie already casually endangers an innocent person (the person who gave lefty the jewel) to serve his purpose, implying danger is more to his soul than body.
Are the physics of the world (realistic or stylized?) established early and maintained throughout?
 Yes, they’re realistic, as shown when Lefty’s car breaks down in the same scene.  This is not a “roaring ‘20s” fantasy.
Is the nature of the stakes (lethal, social, psychological and/or spiritual?) established early and maintained throughout?
 Despite the setting, the stakes are social and spiritual far more than lethal (Donnie’s wife isn’t worried that he’ll be killed, she’s worried that he’s changing too much)
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Are open questions posed in the first half, which will keep the audience from asking the wrong questions later on?
 Yes, the question is whether or not he’ll get made, not “who’s the head guy?” or “what the score going down?” or even “when will he get caught?”
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, his wife asks him how much longer.
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Somewhat, the device of the cutting away to anonymous camera snapping pictures creates a sense of paranoia and doom coming from the feds.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Yes, Lefty, the other inept undercover Fed, Bruno Kirby’s character that gets killed for being sloppy. etc.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Yes, lots of unexplained half-scenes get us interested in what each gangster is scheming against the others. 
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience (and maybe distract attention from plot contrivances)?
 Yes, the oddity of the boat situation helps explain away the huge ABSCAM screw up. 
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Yes.  Donnie finally starts saying stuff he doesn’t need to say.  The first shot is a close up of his eyes looking predatory, the last shot is a close-up of his eyes looking remorseful.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Yes, he returns to his wife in the last scene.
PART 7: THEME 14/14
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. Being a good father/husband/friend vs. being a good cop.
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 Midway: After missing his daughter’s confirmation, Donnie asks her, “Who made you?” Then we see him wonder the same thing about himself: God?  The FBI?  Lefty?  Sonny Black?  Then he asks her: “Why did he make you?”
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Yes, break cover vs. hurt innocents, etc.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 Yes, the mafia is totally de-romanticized.  Very work-a-day.
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)?
 Very much so.  It’s a true story. Great contrasting of New York and Florida.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Yes, the over-surveillance of the ‘70s.
Are these issues addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 Yes.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Yes.  The worst things that could happen keep happening, at work and at home.  “Donnie” and his wife have to go into witness protection.
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.  Lions are a great running metaphor.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 Yes, the greeting card, the surveillance photos, the boat, the tape recorder and the tapes, the oranges, the article about the boat.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards on one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 Yes. Family loyalties are ultimately more important than work loyalties.  He chooses to go back to being a cop, a husband, and a father, but he still feels like a gangster inside and he can’t forgive himself for getting Lefty killed.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 Yes, he feels worse about betraying his fake family than his real family.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Yes.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 Yes, Donnie literally doesn’t speak again after Lefty is killed.

Final Score: 135 out of 140

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