Sunday, May 05, 2013

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Casablanca

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!

Rick Blaine is a detached American nightclub owner in Nazi-occupied Morocco (where local prefect Renault only feigns allegiance to visiting SS-man Strasser). Rick’s friend Sam plays piano for the happy guests every night. A slimy guy named Ugarte gets Rick to hold onto two letters of transit that will let anyone leave the city and flee the Nazis. Ugarte is killed just as Rick’s old love Elsa shows up, along with her husband, a freedom fighter named Victor Laslo. Rick realizes that Elsa was married throughout their pre-war romance in Paris, but she proves to be blameless. Rick plans to run off with her, but realizes that Victor needs Elsa, and the resistance needs Victor so he reluctantly sends them off together. Rick shoots Strasser and runs off with Renault to join the resistance.

PART #1: CONCEPT 18/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 In an exotic city filled with intrigue, an amoral American nightclub owner must decide between joining the fight against the Nazis or pursuing his true love.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 The least patriotic American has to save the Allied cause.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 Yes, we’ve all pined for an ex, and wondered what we would actually do if given a second chance, but this time the war is on the line.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Yes, the plot is very simple.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
 Yes, Rick.
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
 Not strictly.  It’s not very linear.  The camera wanders through some tangentially related minor storylines on its way back to Rick.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 Yes, an expatriate bar-owner and his corrupt police chief friend.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 Yes, pretty much everyone, especially Major Strasser.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Yes, it’s his greatest hope, and an ironic answer to his question (Of all the bars in the world…)
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 Very much so.  His cool exterior finally cracks.
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)?
 Very much so.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 Yes. Only he has the letters of transit.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
 Yes and no.  It’s got exciting romance and international intrigue.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 Yes: the bar, Sam, the airport finale.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 Yes, the shocking decision at the end.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 Yes, see above.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
 Well, it ends pretty much after, but yes, there’s still another fun climax, so yes.
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?)
 Yes. His funny insults to Ugarte.  Or when he stands up for Sam.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Yes, although, after we’ve come to love his current actions and attitudes, his ironic backstory proves to be equally interesting.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 Yes. Cynical-but-witty power broker
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Yes. Heartbroken romantic
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Yes. Makes everything political in a satirical way. (“When it comes to women, you’re a true democrat.”  “You wore blue, the Germans wore grey.”)
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Yes. Sharp-witted, breezy, withering sarcasm
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Yes. Tells insultingly bland lies (“I came for the waters.” Q: “Where were you last night?” A: “That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.”)
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
 All of these except simple: First, he wants to keep the peace with the Nazis, then he (maybe) wants to use the letters of transit himself, then he wants his ex back.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 Yes. “I stick my neck out for no one.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 Yes, stay out of politics.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
 Yes. Fear of attachments, fear of losing control of his bar.  Hidden: That he’ll have to face what happened in Paris.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
 Yes, although more the former than the latter: no one successfully lays a finger on him.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 Yes, he’s become too cold-blooded and apolitical.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
 Yes, he’s cool and in control.
Is the hero curious?
 Yes, he’s always asking around as to the secrets of the town.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 Very much so.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Yes. Don’t get involved, everything is amusing, don’t buy and sell human beings.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 Yes, they’re all lowlife schemers who lack his sophistication, (until Ilsa and Victor come in, who lack his sketchy connections).
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 Yes, he has a razor-sharp rapier wit
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
 No.  He seems half-awake.  Of course, we gradually realize that he doing a tense and skillful juggling act any time his club is open.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Yes, very much so.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 Yes. Both his shady associates and his history with the resistance will be useful to him.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 18/21
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 losing control: the Nazis are intruding on his bar more and more and he can stomach them less and less, (and he can no longer stomach other women, either)
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 Yes, he gets heckled for letting the Nazis pull Ugarte out of his arms, then he sees his ex-love is now with a war hero.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 Yes, he gets the letters of transit, but will he use them to escape alone, to help them escape, or to steal her and escape together?
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
Yes, he’s very reluctant to take the letters, and to let her into the bar.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 No, he drags it out, paralyzed with indecision, and lashes out at her when she tries to explain.
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, Lazlo, it turns out that Ilsa is married. Also, Strasser has guess he has the letters.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Yes, he gets drunk, then sobers up and makes a friendly pass at Ilsa, assuming that she’s having a fling with Lazlo.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
 Not Rick, who’s miserable, but we do get a long flashback to happier times here, so the audience gets some relief from Rick’s misery. He does get excited about the possibility of success when he thinks he’s won her back.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
 Yes, Ilsa rejects him, and he finds out Ugarte has been killed. The Germans have figured out from Ugarte that he has the letters, so they trash his place, and eventually close his cafĂ©.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Yes, he takes control of the situation.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 Yes, he discovers he can trust Renault and Ilsa.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 Yes, Lazlo is told he can no longer stay in Casablanca.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 Yes, he sees Lazlo’s heroism for himself and realizes he can’t compete.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 Actually, the opposite of a setback causes the crisis: Ilsa says she’ll come with him, and he realizes that it’s wrong.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 Yes: “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 Yes, he takes them to the airport, but Renault warns Strasser.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Yes. “You have to think for both of us.”  “All right, I will.”
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 Yes. “I told you this morning you’d come around but you’re a little ahead of schedule.”
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Yes, everybody’s at the airport (except Sam, whom Ricks sells to Ferrari after all, without getting permission or saying good-bye!)
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 Shortly before, but it’s okay that the final confrontation with Strasser “rolls downhill”.
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, this time he stands up to the Nazis, then he goes off to join a Free French garrison in Braziville with Louis.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 16/20 (Sketchy crook Ugarte asks cool club owner Rick to hold onto the letters of transit for him.)
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, we’d heard about how cool Rick is for ten minutes, and we’d formed high expectations, which he meets. There’s also been lots of talk of the dead German couriers.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 No, it’s beginning to end.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 It is for Ugarte, who knows he isn’t welcome.  Rick is very comfortable…until he realizes that the letters have made his beloved bar into an unsafe space.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Well, Rick is “busy” playing chess with himself and would rather keep doing that.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Not really.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Somewhat, we know the Germans are searching for the letters of transit.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
 Just barely.  It’s mostly plot, but we see Rick’s first flickers of emotion when sees the letters. Ugarte clearly feels bad to hear Rick’s low opinion of him.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 Yes, we instantly like Rick and share his distaste for Ugarte.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Yes, both: Rick doesn’t like Ugarte or his plan.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Yes, surface over the letters, suppressed over their personal conflict (but that comes to the surface too)
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Yes, Rick doesn’t betray his interest in the letter, tries to hide his disgust for Ugarte until the end, Ugarte tries to hide his fear of the Germans.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Yes.  Ugarte tries to trick Rick into talking about his past.  Rick gets Ugarte to almost admit to killing the German couriers.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Yes, Rick sits down to play chess with no one, Ugarte comes and goes, Rick gets up to confront him, stand over him. There’s one touch when Ugarte has interested Rick in looking at the letters but doesn’t want him to see them yet.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Yes, the letters of transit are shown and then exchanged.  Rick fingers chess pieces, Ugarte drinks and smokes.
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, Ugarte convinces Rick to take the letters.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 No, Ugarte unironically gets what he wanted.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Yes, who has the letters, who is Rick?  Will Ugarte’s plan work?  Will Rick be caught with the letters?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 No, it goes until they both leave.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 Yes, we like Rick so we hope that the letters won’t get him in trouble, and we fear that Ugarte will bring violence into the bar.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Yes (except Strasser, but that’s okay).  Victor or Ilsa, despite being obstacle characters, are particularly well-handled, allowed to hold their own even in scenes where we get frustrated by them.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Yes, until the very end, when Rick finally learns to really see all the angles.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Yes.  Everybody, even Strasser and Victor, who have strong ideologies, are beholden to (and somewhat frustrated with) their organizations and threading difficult needles. 
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Very much so.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
 Yes, Rick and Renault are both great at evading certain topics.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
 Yes. Rick keeps asking Sam for advice and then failing to hear it. Rick is the master of the interjected insult.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
Yes and no.  Jargon: Not really, no one involved in the movie had ever been anywhere near Casablanca, so the argot isn’t particularly authentic.  Tradecraft: Yes, for each profession: “Round up the usual suspects.”
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Yes and no: Metaphor family: not really, Default personality trait: , Argument strategy:
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 Yes, very much so. “He’s like any other man, only more so.”
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 Very much so, see above.
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 Everybody’s three-dimensional.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
Yes, they have it out.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 Yes.  They don’t even reveal Rick until we’re eager to meet him, and they tease that long flashback for a long time before they deliver it.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Yes, the night scene in Rick’s apartment.
PART #6: TONE 10/10
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?)
 Somewhat, a short-lived genre: the international-intrigue-romance
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 Yes, the World War 2 resistance movie
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 Yes, they admit they love each other and kiss…but then he sends her away.  They shoot one Nazi…but forgive the other.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Yes, a veneer of witty sophistication with a grim reality poking through. This is extablished right away when a man is shot dead in streets, but locals don’t lose their good-humor with the aghast tourists.
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
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, we also see a plane leaving and people wondering who’s on it.
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Yes, we see a globe, maps, and brief omniscient narration, then we see Nazis asking who has the letters of transit, then people wondering who Rick is.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Yes, Rick is worried that he’s as bad as Ugarte, or as corrupt as Renault.  He also sees that he’ll never be as good as Victor.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Yes, see above.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Yes, he refuses to shield a customer from the Nazis.  (He also has another thing he won’t do but he breaks that rule early: he never sits with customers…until Ilsa comes in)
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Yes, we find out who’s on that plane.
PART 7: THEME 13/14
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, love vs. country.
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 From Ferrari, of all people: “When will you realize that isolationism is no longer a practical policy?”
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Yes, is it worth accommodating the Nazis to keep the peace, is Ugarte worth saving, should you leave your new love if your husband turns up alive, etc…
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 Yes, the answers to all of the above questions are realistic.
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)?
 No.  It’s based on the idea of Casablanca, not the actual place.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Very much so.  It’s all about the pain of the war.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 Very much so.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Very much so.
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, the song, the Vichy water, etc.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 Yes, the letters of transit, the song (if that counts)
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 Yes, it comes down strongly on the side of country, but love is clearly more appealing.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 Very much so: he gets her back only so that he can send her away.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Yes, we don’t find out the fate of the other couple trying to get free, for example.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 Pretty much.  He tries to say what it all means, but that’s just to get her on the plane, he hasn’t really processed the pain yet.

Final Score: 111 out of 122

1 comment:

j.s. said...

"Does the hero enjoy some success and have some fun? Is the promise of the premise fulfilled?"

Rick does enjoy some success, even if he's not having much fun at all the wheeling and dealing. But I'd say even more so that the promise of the premise is fulfilled by all the machinations at his club. We're set up for intrigue and that's what the film delivers.

In light of the way this step seems to work in CASABLANCA, ALIEN and THE SHINING, maybe it's time to revise the phrasing of this point slightly? Or perhaps maybe to start thinking of each part of it in isolation: 1) success (though sometimes defined negatively in horror films where a hero's failure = audience fun); 2) fun (for the audience if not the hero) and 3) the promise of the premise (the potential for interesting stuff to happen in the story world given our narrative and genre expectations)

"Q:Do you withhold exposition until the character and the audience are both demanding to know it? A: Yes. They don’t even reveal Rick until we’re eager to meet him."

I'd argue that this actually qualifies as a kind of special case for exposition. In a way, there's a ton of exposition about Rick before we meet him. It's just all very mysterious, sometimes contradictory and lacking in detail. But part of the reason we're eager to meet him is because he's been deliberately, expositionally, built up in our minds. Orson Welles referred to such roles -- like his own famous turn as Harry Lime -- as "Mr. Wu" parts, after a character he once played in the theater, who the audience didn't get to meet till halfway through the play, but who all the other characters talked endlessly about.