Podcast

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Sunset Boulevard

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Washed-up screenwriter Joe Gillis, on the run from repo men, hides out at the crumbling mansion of ex-silent-screen-star Norma Desmond, helping her write a terrible screenplay about Salome. He discovers that her butler Max von Mayerling is actually her ex-husband. She pitches Salome to Cecil B. DeMille, but he turns her down. Norma falls in love with Joe, but he sneaks out to work on a new screenplay with young studio reader Betty Schaefer. Norma finally shoots Joe dead and he falls into her pool. DeMille has to come coax Norma into turning herself in by saying “We’re ready for your close-up.”
PART #1: CONCEPT 17/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 A dead screenwriter tells us how he  became the kept boy of a psychotic ex-silent-screen-goddess and tried to get away.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 Yes, The nation’s most glamorous people are deluded lowlifes, etc.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 Yes.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Yes.  There’s very little plot.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
 Yes, Joe
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
 Yes.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 Yes.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 Various, as his goals change.  First the repo men, then Max, then Betty, then Norma.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Yes, his greatest fear and an ironic fulfillment of his desire for a pool.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 Not really.  He under-reacts to the horror of his situation, right up until his death (even after that, in his nonchalant postmortem narration).  He doesn’t even noticeably react to being shot.
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, working for Norma is hard to want to do, because of his self-respect, and romancing Betty is hard to want to do, because she’s engaged to his friend.   
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 No, Betty is trying harder to save him than he is to save himself. He cannot solve the problem, and doesn’t try very hard.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
 Yes, he finally tells Norma the truth about his situation, and it kills him.
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?
 Pretty much.  The movie goes down easy, despite its unusual elements: it’s enjoyably funny and creepy throughout.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 Yes, many: a monkey funeral (Wilder told his cinematographer to “use the standard monkey funeral set-up”), a silent vamp turned into a vampire, essentially. The backlot, etc.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 Yes, many.  The floating corpse, the monkey funeral, the whole set-up, the final scene.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 Yes, the fact that he agrees to be a gigolo, which was totally shocking at the time. 
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
 Yes.
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
 Yes.
PART #2: CHARACTER 21/22
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?)
 Yes, he’s funny with the repo men. “You say the cutest things.”
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Yes, but much more by attitude than action.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 Yes, a nice guy and a good-but-not-good-enough writer.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Yes, he’s really hollow inside. 
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Yes, B-movie clich├ęs. (Yes, although Ed Sikov points out in his DVD commentary that Joe sometimes veers into Austrian-Jewish syntax that doesn’t match his Ohio-goy background, as when he accuses his agent of “making with the golf sticks”)
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Yes, bitter cynicism.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Yes, slipperiness, he deflects all conflict.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
 Yes, he wants to keep his car.
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)?
 “I heard you were one of the ones with talent.” “That was last year.  This year I’m trying to make a living.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 Yes, sell a script, save his car from the repo men.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
 Open: not getting work. Hidden: that he’s a hired monkey.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
 Yes, thought he thinks he isn’t in either way.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 Yes, he’s easily corruptible and passive.
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 has a devastating cynical wit, and a little writing ability.
Is the hero curious?
 Yes, he’s always pushing for more info about Norma. 
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 Yes, he cleverly avoids the repo men.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 No.  He stands for nothing.  He has no self-image.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 Yes, everyone else (Norma, Max, Betty) is still enamored of the glamour of Hollywood.  Only he sees through it.
…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?
 Yes, he’s trying to keep his car.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Somewhat.  He can go at any time. 
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 Yes, he gets both romances using his screenwriting abilities.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 19/21
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 tired of being broke and unemployed.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 Yes, he gets humiliated by a script reader.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 Yes, he finds an aging actress who needs a screenwriter. 
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 Not really.  He tells us that he’s dubious, but he makes little attempt to leave once the offer is made. 
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 In a relatively passive way: he accepts that they’ve brought his bags over. 
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, Norma won’t let him write a good script.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Yes, he tries to finish the script as quickly as possible.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
 Yes, he gets away and finds that the reader, Betty, now wants to work with him.  He thinks he can have it both ways. 
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, he finds out that Norma has attempted suicide.  This lures him back into his lair, and cuts off his access to Betty.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Not at first, he becomes an aimless gigolo, but then he reconnects with Betty and begins to sneak out to see her at night.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 Yes, he realizes that Norma is his enemy and Betty is his real salvation.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 Somewhat.  Artie proposes marriage to Betty.  Norma catches him.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 Yes, when he realizes that he can’t lead Betty on. 
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 Yes, when he realizes that Betty wants to leave Artie for him. 
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 Yes, in telling her, “I’d take it in a second, but it’s a little too dressy for sitting behind a copy desk in Dayton, Ohio.”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 Somewhat.  He decides to leave Norma, but that seems easy. 
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Somewhat, when he starts sneaking out.  He doesn’t really become proactive until he walks out, with fatal consequences.  Perhaps he intended to tell Betty, or leave Norma, but…
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 Yes, Norma calls Betty before he can confess.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Yes, Betty comes over to Norma’s. 
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 Well, shortly before. He finally finds his self-respect, then gets killed. 
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)
 Earlier in the climax, when he finally has the strength to resist Norma, even when she threatens suicide. 
PART #4: SCENEWORK (Joe is shown up to see Norma, who assumes that he’s there to plan her monkey’s funeral, but when he explains that he’s a screenwriter, she hires him to rewrite her screenplay for Salome instead.) 17/20
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?
 Max’s “If you need any help with the coffin, call me,” has got him worried. 
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 No, it starts at the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Yes, it’s a glamorous woman’s bedroom with a mysterious corpse under a blanket.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Yes, he just wants to get out of there.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Yes, the monkey funeral, the organ, etc.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Somewhat, When will the scary butler do to him?  When will the real monkey undertaker arrive?
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
 Yes, it launches the plot and introduces the co-star. Her feelings are hurt by his disrespect, and she’s able to hurt him a little bit in return.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 Yes, we want him to uses Norma to get what he wants.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Yes, he wants to get of there, she wants a monkey funeral.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 For her: Open, she wants a new screenwriter.  Suppressed: she wants a new lover.  For him: Open: He wants to get out of there, Suppressed: He needs work.
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.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 No, they’re pretty open about them.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Yes, he subtly mentions that he’s a writer, knowing that she’ll take the bait.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Yes, lots of reblocking, She keeps beckoning and then repelling him, but they never quit touch, except exchanging the object. 
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Yes, he takes her script (which is her heart)
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, she decides to hire him and he agrees to stay. 
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 Yes, he starts by mocking her dead monkey, then becomes her new monkey. 
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Previous: whose house is this? New: He says he later found out a lot more about Max and Norma
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 We have a dread that Joe’s scheme to extract money out of Norma will probably fail as much as his other schemes, but with worse consequences. (Partially because we’ve already seen him dead in her pool!)
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 No.  It could have ended on this line: “By then I’d begun concocting a little plot of my own…”  with the implied question of  “What plot?”, but instead he let’s Joe’s narration spool on and reveal his plan, which we then see him enact. Wilder, despite being a master screenwriter, always had a bad habit of repeated beats and over-explained plots.   
PART #5: DIALOGUE 14/16
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Yes, even Norma, even Max, even DeMille.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Yes, very much so.  He thinks he sees all the angles, but we see how deluded he really is.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Very much so.  The love interests are both cheating on others. 
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Yes, very much so.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
 Very much so. Betty gets Norma’s name off of Joe’s cigarette case, Norma reads Betty’s name off of Joe’s script.  They get to confront each other without him having to admit anything.  Max never answers any questions.   
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
 Very much so.  He and Norma never seem to hear a thing the other says. 
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, very much so. 
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 No and yes and yes.  They pretty much all have the same metaphor family: Hollywood, Default personality trait: Norma: Delusional, Max: officious, Betty: idealistic but ambitious, Argument strategy: Max: ignores all protests, lets silence speak volumes.  Norma: emotional blackmail.
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, very much so.
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
 Mostly.  It’s a little writerly, despite being so slangy.   
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 No, Joe’s a writer and loves pithy turns of phrase: “an older woman who’s well to do, a younger man who’s not doing too well.”
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 Joe and Betty have two-way polarization: bitter cynicism vs. fresh-faced idealism.  Norma, despite her extremity, is 3-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, between he and Betty talking about their pasts.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 Somewhat, we get a few big info-dumps, but Max’s story drips out nicely.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Yes, two in a row, when Joe confronts Betty and then Norma.
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?)
 Yes, gothic melodrama mixed with Hollywood satire.
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 It’s an odd mix of elements, noir, haunted house (the wheezing organ), etc., but it works.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 Yes, our hard-boiled narrator is killed and the murderer is arrested, but it’s all oddly funny.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Yes, pitch-black comedy. Yes, Joe doesn’t lose his flippantness, even after death, and Norma remains campily entertaining, even after she kills Joe.
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, how does Joe end up in that pool?  (Sikov claims that most people don’t realize that’s Joe until the end, but I think most people do.) 
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Yes, a flashforward and narration.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Yes, many: the monkey, John the Baptist, Max.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Yes, Max keeps hinting at his past.  The wind in the pipe organ plays horror music on its own. The narration keeps hinting at a dark ending. 
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Yes, he won’t live there and then he will, he won’t kiss Norma and then he will, he can’t leave and then he can, etc.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Almost.  We find out how he ended up in the pool, but there’s one really big scene still to come. 
PART 7: THEME 12/14
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, success vs. dignity
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 Implicit: Can you take a writing job without becoming a kept monkey?
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Yes, Joe and Betty are both cheating, everyone feeds Norma’s violent delusions in order to spare her feelings. 
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 Yes. 
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 filled with real details.  Wilder was not only a screenwriter, but he had been also been a dime-a-dance gigolo back in Vienna: Talk about writing what you know!
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Somewhat.  (The topical references are all local: the betrayal of ex-silent stars, the Black Dahlia murder) There’s no hint of postwar malaise of anything like that, but it’s hinted that super-rich monsters like Norma were created by the lack of an income tax before the war, and the new 90% top tax bracket has relegated them to the past. 
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 Yes. There’s no good way to get rich.  Joe is going to go home to be a copywriter in Dayton at the end.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Yes, there’s no getting away from this. 
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 fact that her screenplay is about Salome, who got John the Baptist’s head on a plate by doing the dance of the seven veils (note that Norma drops her veil on the floor while dancing with Joe.)  The fact that Joe and Betty pitch woo on a phony back lot.  His watch chain catches on the doorknob as he leaves, holding him back.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 Yes, his car, her car, her manuscript, the pool, the gun, the spotlights.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 Yes, dignity is somewhat better than success.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 Yes, he gets his pool, she gets her return to the screen, and Max even gets to direct again, but all in the most ironic ways possible.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 It’s fairly tidy, but one big question is never answered, though: Did Joe decide to leave Norma before or after he sent Betty away?
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 No, he returns from the dead to spell it out for us. Wilder was not the type to leave anything unsaid. 
Final Score: 110 out of 122

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