Podcast

Sunday, November 03, 2013

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Groundhog Day

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Phil Connors, a frustrated weatherman desperate to ditch Pittsburgh for the big leagues, he has to go out one more year to do a broadcast of the groundhog seeing his shadow in the small town of Punxatawny. After he and his crew (cheery-cute producer Rita and sarcastic cameraman Larry) get snowed in, he finds himself caught in a bizarre phenomenon, repeating Groundhog Day over and over, hundreds of times. He tries every possible solution until he just gives up and uses this time to become a better person, which finally breaks the cycle (and wins the heart of Rita).

PART #1: CONCEPT 15/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 A selfish weather man is mysteriously cursed to relive the same Groundhog Day over and over until he achieves personal grow.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 A man who just wants to get his least favorite day over has to live it again and again..
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 Very much so.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Plot and character are inextricable here.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
 Phil.
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
 We get started quickly, then slow down to show two whole days, then move through hundreds of day quickly once he begins making incremental progress.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 A weatherman and his producer.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 Hmm… It depends on his goal. Yes, when he wants a date from Rita, otherwise not really, just himself.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Greatest fear and ironic answer: The first line is: “Somebody asked me today, ‘Phil, if you could be anywhere in the world, where would you want to be?’” as his hand hovers over an empty greenscreen.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 …But it takes a while. He does everyman reactions as long as he can, until he finally realizes that this really is about 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)?
 Very much so. He has to totally transform his entire personality.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 Yes.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
 He brings his loop to an end and makes the whole town happy.  He is personally totally transformed
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?
 Somewhat: Guys might feel it’s not quite raunchy enough for comedy or sci-fi enough for sci-fi, but seems too male-centric for girls at first glance. Of course, everybody loves it once they actually see it, but it’s a hard sell beforehand, and it had to build its own audience through 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)?
 Somewhat with the groundhog, although it’s hard to visualize the predicament itself. The alarm clock to a certain extent. From looking at various awkward DVD covers, it’s clear that they never really found a compelling image to summarize the concept.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 Punching Ned, killing the groundhog, the suicides, the ice sculptures.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 Sort of: it turns out that it’s not really about getting the girl.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
 Sure.
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
 Sure.
PART #2: CHARACTER 17/22
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?)
 He’s a funny, friendly broadcaster onscreen, then he calls his co-worker “hairdo” off-screen, and we like both sides of him, at first.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Entirely. We get no backstory whatsoever.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 The funny weatherman.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 He’s bitterly depressed.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Sort of meteorology: “Chance of departure today, 100 percent.” For the most part, he adopts phony personae, so he doesn’t have a real one.
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Even after he becomes saintly, he’s still mildly sarcastic about it. He has the piano teacher kick the girl out so he can learn, he gets exasperated with the boy he saves for never thanking him.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Sort of: petulant complaining. He’s never very good at getting others to do things.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
 He desperately wants to get out of the loop, since he’s in his least favorite place on his least favorite day.
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)?
 Dozens: About Rita: “She’s fun, but not my kind of fun.” “People are morons.” Etc.
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 Get in and out of town quickly, get a big network job.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
 Open: That he’ll never get a better job. Private: That he’s a terrible person.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
 Even though he becomes functionally immortal for a while, he always feels physical and emotional pain.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 Bitterness, passivity, bad predictions of future
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?
 Sarcasm, wit, entertaining onscreen presense.
Is the hero curious?
 He investigates right away.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 He comes up with a lot of clever solutions to his problems.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Sort of: Be funny, tolerate no sentiment, I deserve a bigger spotlight
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 His co-worker and the townspeople all seem especially dippy, which makes us side with him at first.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 Constantly.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
 Somewhat. He’s on his feet doing the weather report.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Yes and no. With Rita, he thinks he can ride roughshod over her, but she’s actually handling him, and once he’s repeating the day, he can do anything, but only within big limits. Ultimately, this a movie about accepting powerlessness.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 No, he pretty much does what anybody would do.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 20/21
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)?
 He wants to escape to a network job, doesn’t know why he gets so little respect.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 He’s send to the town for a fourth year in a row.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 He ends up stuck in a loop, though he doesn’t see it as an opportunity for a long time.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 He refuses to believe it until it repeats twice.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 After two repetitions, he decides that this could be fun.
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?
 The police, then Rita.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Yes, he tries to use this power for his advantage.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
 He gets in car chases, steals money, seduces his boss. He thinks he’s about to close the deal with her.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
 She slaps him on eight consecutive days. He gives up and goes back to hating her, the town, and himself.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 First suicide, then honesty with Rita.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 He realizes that he really loves Rita, and the town.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 He realizes that he only has one day (over and over) to save the old man’s life.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 Very much so.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 He realizes that he’s a terrible person, and if he’s a god, he’s got to be a good god.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 Eventually: “No matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 He’s got to change as many lives as possible in one day. It’s a big job.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Yes.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 No, not at all. There is no ticking clock whatsoever. He literally has all eternity to get better, and won’t get better until he stops worrying about tomorrow entirely.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 He literally brings the whole town together.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 The same time.
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)
 Succumbed to happily: he says “Let’s live here.”
PART #4: SCENEWORK 14/20
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?
 Not really. We jump right into it from the death sequence.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 We cut straight to his reveal, after she’s been wondering and he’s been making small talk for a while.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Not intimidating, but yes, it keeps characters active.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 She wants to get going.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 The lives of the customers, the dishes dropping, etc.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 He counts down to plates dropping, knows that he has to convince her before Larry comes in and takes her away.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
Both.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 We’re rooting for him to convince her, as opposed to the previous sequence where we were rooting for her to resist him.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 He wants to convince her he’s a god, she determined to reject that.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Not really. He no longer has a secondary agenda, nor does she.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 NA
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Not really. They’re pretty up front.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 He traps her into saying things that will be disproved by his predictions. He predicts explainable things to lull her, so that it will be more shocking when he predicts unexplainable things. She tries to get him with logic traps.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 He drags her around the cafĂ©.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 He gives her a slip of paper that proves his point. It wouldn’t have felt undeniable to her if he had just said it, but now this is real proof in her hands.
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?
 She’s convinced that he has supernatural powers, agrees to go with him.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 No, it’s pretty unironic. He does exactly what he sets out to do.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Previous question: Why doesn’t he tell anybody? New questions: Why is he telling her? Will this win her over?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 Will she go with him? We don’t find out until the cut.
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 happy that he now has a confidant and hopeful that she is about to help him figure his way out this.
PART #5: DIALOGUE 14/16
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 The townspeople are caricatures at first, but as he gains empathy for them so do we.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Less so with Rita, but yes, even her.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 All except Rita, who is fairly selfless, but at least everybody notices how weird that is, so we believe it.
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?
 She’s reluctant to give up personal detail until he weasels them out of her.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
 Somewhat, some characters do, but Rita’s a great listener. Phil’s not bad either, actually.
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, of weathermen.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor family: Rita: childhood, Default personality trait: Rita: optimistic. Larry: weasely. Mayor: booster., Argument strategy: Rita: listens to your concerns, then shuts them down sweetly.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 “Did you sleep well?” “I slept long.”
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 “Don’t mess with me, porkchop.”
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
 Sure.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 Sure.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 Phil = gut, Rita = heart, Larry = head (He’s dumb, but he’s the one who says things like, “we need to get going”, which is a classic head line.)
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?
Phil keeps trying to engineer false “I understand you” moments with Rita, but ultiamtely they have real ones once he tells her.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 Curse is never explained. We don’t find out her history until he needs to know it to seduce her. We never find out his at all.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 The end of the date sequence for her, the I’m a god scene for him.
PART #6: TONE 5/10
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?)
 Sort of: It’s a romantic comedy until it becomes a sci-fi / metaphysical comedy 18 minutes in. That’s a little late, but the two are well-blended from that point on.
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 No: It keeps jumping sub-genres: romantic comedy, black comedy, religious parable, etc. It’s extremely ambitious, and pulls it off.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 He gets the girl and finds happiness, but only through not wanting to have sex with her that night.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Eventually, but it has a tone disaster early on with a terrible upbeat-blues opening song that almost wrecks the whole movie. Later, we get appropriate music (Ray Charles and Nat King Cole, who are more timeless, emotional and contemplative)
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?
 The first shot after that: His hand against a green screen: “Somebody asked me today, ‘Phil, if you could be anywhere in the world, where would you want to be?’”
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 No. It’s actually pretty amazing that this movie doesn’t use voiceover. It’s a credit to Murray’s performance that he can convey what’s going just with his face.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Phil keeps running into people he could be: Nice Rita, dopey Larry covering the swallows at Capistrano eight years in a row, the drunks at the bar, etc.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Not really. There’s no foreshadowing that this mystical event will happen, and not much of where it’s going after that.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Lots: with the homeless guy, etc.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 “Let’s live here.”
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?
 Ambition vs. acceptance, quantity of life vs. quality of life.
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 Phil asks drunks, “If you only had one day to live, what would you do?”
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 There’s a lot of good vs. evil choices, but he also has to choose between goods (he can’t save everybody) and evils (chooses suicide over suffering)
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 Yes, on a strictly metaphorical level.
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)?
 Yes, this is a very believable and empathetically-portrayed small-town.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 “He used to work at the mine before it closed down” etc.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 This town isn’t idealized.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Within each day, and even after: he never gets over all those suicides. “I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.”
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?
 The lyrics of “I Got You Babe”, the fact that Ned sells life insurance, the meaning of Groundhog Day itself, etc.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 Just slight: the pencil, the clock, the groundhog in one scene. The note he gives her about what Larry is going to say.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 It’s pretty definitive. Phil concludes that acceptance of one’s circumstances is pretty much entirely better than personal ambition.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 He finally figures out how to get out of there: by wanting to stay.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Very much so. What caused this? We’ll never know.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 He doesn’t go back and figure out what was different about that last day.

Final Score: 98 out of 122

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