Sorry for being away so long, but I’ve been doing a lot of work on your behalf while I'm away:
Restructuring the checklist according to your notes.
Updating old movies to the new checklist to see if it works better.
Totally restructuring the book according to the new checklist.
Writing pieces for the book (soon to appear on the blog as well) to correspond with the new questions.
I’ll finish that process before I share any of it, so give me a little more time.
In the meantime, I finally saw two of the movies you guys had been asking if I’d seen: Frozen, which I loved, and The Bourne Legacy, which was shockingly dull and tone-deaf, given the pedigree of the writer-director. Interestingly, both break from the checklist a lot, but one gets away with it and the other falls on its face. I might follow up with some posts on what the first did right and everything the other did wrong.
Okay guys, time again to see how the sausage is made. I think that I’m going to debut Checklist v5 (Hopefully the definitive one) next week, but I thought I run it by you first.
As you can see, for the first time, I’m thinking about dividing each section into three or four sub-categories. I’ve already cut a few questions, and I’ve proposed (in green throughout) cutting, combining or moving more or them. I’m also interested in your reactions to the names of the subdivided sections and how I phrased the master questions that go with each one.
These are just some idle questions I’m wondering about the checklist as I try to finalize it for the book. Feel free to chime on any you have opinions about. (And I apologize in advance for any suggestions I don’t take!) Thanks, guys!
Part 1: Concept: The Pitch: Does this concept attract interest?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
Is this a clever twist on a classic type of story? Cut?
Does the concept contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes
Story Fundamentals:Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot? Cut?
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to hero’s question?
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
Is this challenge 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)?
Is the hero the person working the hardest to solve the problem?
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Does the hero permanently transform the situation?
Does the situation permanently transform the hero?
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does this story show us imagery we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene?
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
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?)
Is the hero defined by actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, not-selfless, and revealed early on?
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)? Move to Structure?
Does the hero have an open anxiety?
Does the hero have a private fear?
Is the hero vulnerable, both physically and emotionally?
Does the hero have a great flaw? (but…)
Invest: Do we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
Is that great flaw the flip side of a great strength?
Is the hero curious?
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Does the hero have a goal already in the first scene (which is usually a false goal)? (Split up? Have a false goal under feel for, actively pursuing that false goal under Invest in?)
Does the hero engage in physical exertion early on? (add other tricks to this, such as high-fiving a black person, being kind to kids, etc? Or just cut this entirely?)
Does the hero engage in reversible behavior (so that we will instantly see that he or she has changed when we see a contrasting behavior later on)? (Repeated in structure. Cut it here or there?)
Part 3:Structure (if the story is about the solving of a large problem)
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)?
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
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?
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
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?
Does the hero get excited about the possibility of success?
Does this culminate in a midpoint disaster?
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?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the hero’s original problem is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior) (In two places, cut which?)
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were false and/or hopeful expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or even the middle)?
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Is this scene a character event, not just a plot event? (Either about the hero’s action or the hero’s volatile reaction to someone else’s action?) (Cut? Rephrase?)
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may shift)?
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext? (Cut?)
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
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?
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
Are previously-asked questions answered?
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
Do the characters listen poorly?
Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the syntax of the world and/or character (but ignore the dialect)? Cut?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the setting?
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
Are there additional characters with default personality traits?
Are there additional characters with default argument strategies?
Does each character have a distinct voice? (Can you always tell who is speaking without looking at the names?) (Cut? Already covered by previous questions?)
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with yes, no, well, 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?
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary? Move these to structure?
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Part 6: Tone
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?)
Is the story limited to one sub-genre (or multiple sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors)?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre and sub-genre? (Move to concept?)
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)? (Too similar to concept question?)
Does the story follow the general structure of its genre? (Cut?)
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
Mood: Does the story create a certain feeling?
Does the story establish and maintain a consistent mood, separate from the genre?
Is the degree and nature of the jeopardy established early and maintained throughout?
Is the mood maintained?
Expectations: 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?
Are there other open questions posed in the first half, which will keep the audience from asking the wrong questions later on?
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience (and maybe distract attention from plot contrivances)?
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
Part 7: Theme
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Do the characters consistently choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Is an open thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) and left unresolved in the first half?
Do many small details throughout tie into the thematic dilemma?
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
Is the story based more on observations than ideas? Cut?
Does the story have something authentic to say about this setting? Cut?
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
Are these issues addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards on one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy? Rephrase?
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
In too many of these movies the focus is on assassins who know how to kill in the most bad-ass way possible, with a million people shooting at them. You need look no further than Liman’s own repugnant follow-up, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which immediately squandered all the good will this movie generated.
In that movie and its ilk, the definition of “assassin” is someone who runs, jumps and shoots as fast and furiously as possible, sliding on their knees through rooms full of killers and shooting 12 of them in 12 seconds, aided immeasurably by having guns in both hands. Basically, the best assassin is the one who makes the most mess.
The Bourne Identity is not even remotely a true story, but writer Tony Gilroy keeps it grounded and he finds that you can actually make a movie more exciting by acknowledging a little bit about the way the world works: Wouldn’t an assassin be the one who makes the least mess?
Chris Cooper’s Conklin has a great line near the end of this movie that finally puts the lie to every other movie like this:
Kill Wombosi?? Hell, we can do that any time we want! I can send Nikki to do that for Christ’s sake! Mr. Wombosi was supposed to be dead three weeks ago. He was supposed to have died in a way where the only possible explanation was that he’d been murdered by a member of his own entourage. I don’t send you to kill, I send you to be invisible, I send you because you don’t exist.
That speech not only rings true, it also makes this less-bombastic world more compelling than the high-action version. Once again, Gilroy and Liman have to re-assure us: Yes, we took out the elements that you find most exciting in those other movies, but let us show you that this can be exciting, too. The thrills and spills created by an attempt to remain invisible can create their own kind of suspense that can actually be more thrilling than the pyrotechnics you’re used to.
Compare this movie to another example of stomach-churning Hollywood awfulness at its worst, Knight and Day, which actually has a very similar story. In both movies, a frozen-out CIA operative is on the run from the agency and trying to stop his ex-supervisor. Now watch this video:
Tom Cruise, who everyone thinks is a traitor, kills 42 Americans for trying to capture him, including over a dozen in the streets of Boston. (Life in Boston continues unfazed, of course. It’s not like they would just shut down that whole city because a terrorist is on the loose, right?)
Seeing that montage drives home how different The Bourne Identity is, and how much more thrilling it is: Bourne has a much higher degree of difficulty: he’s determined to get away from hordes of police and security guards without hurting them, which is a hell of a lot harder.
We may not notice that Bourne’s not shooting his way out of these situations, but we automatically adopt the movie’s logic and become more desperate in our search for a way out of this using his rules: how do we make it out of here without mess?? That’s a tough question. The more a movie reflects the way the world works, the more readily an audience will leap into the hero’s shoes and really feel the heat of those bullets whizzing past.
There are lots of movies in which the hero has some form of amnesia or memory-tampering, only to discover that, in the life he can’t remember, he was actually, gasp, one of the bad guys…But don’t worry, there’s still time to do the right thing! The original version of Total Recall and the lame Liam Neeson vehicle Unknown both fall into this category. There’s just one problem: why does a change of mind automatically imply a change of heart?
Whether you believe evil is inborn or just the result of responding to our environment, then the same factors that make this person go evil the first time should have the same effect now, right? The idea that, if we could start again with a clean slate, we’d all naturally choose to be nobly heroic action figures, even it means rejecting everyone from our past life (indeed, entering into a “kill or be killed” relationship with them) seems utterly vainglorious.
Does The Bourne Identity fall into that category? For much of the movie, it seems like it will. Jason keeps getting clues that he was a cold-blooded CIA assassin, and elements of that persona keeps kicking back in…so why isn’t he turning evil again? Are we again assuming that every man would become a great guy if he could start over?
The answer is no, and that’s why the final reveal is so refreshing and so powerful. When Bourne finally confronts Conklin, he hears enough to trigger one last flashback and remembers why he failed in his last mission. We see him sneak onto Wombosi’s boat, creep up behind him as he sleeps on a couch, point a gun at his head, get closer…and discover that Wombosi’s three year old daughter is asleep on his chest. At that moment we see Bourne begin to snap, and we see why.
This is followed by another great moment that sets this apart from most other thrillers: Wombosi wakes up, sees the situation he’s in, and even though he’s been presented as a self-serving ex-dictator, he feels compelled to gently takes his daughter off his lap, putting her out of harm’s way even though she might be the only thing keeping him alive. Naturally, this only disturbs Bourne all the more: who wouldn’t be shattered by this situation? Who wouldn’t say, “Who am I?”
This isn’t a story about someone who resets back to goodness because of a lucky accident of amnesia, this is a story about someone who’s been trained to become a psychopath but has a mental collapse because his moral sense begins to reassert itself.
The transformation triggers the plot, instead of the plot triggering the transformation. That’s why this version works. This isn’t the usual silly amnesia movie at all, it’s about the universal freak-out so many dominant people have: “This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful wife—My god, what have I done??” Despite his memory reset, he doesn’t become an everyman, he continues the journey he had already begun. It is his history, not his blank slate, that makes him easy to identify with.
Given the intensely naturalistic vibe created by new director Paul Greengrass for this movie’s two sequels, it’s tempting to misremember this first one as the slick Hollywood cheesy one, but that’s far from the case. Director Doug Liman achieves an astonishing degree of realism that was unprecedented for its time: Damon has no stunt double whatsoever, it’s really him in those fights, in real European cities, with real snow falling. In those cities, our heroes drive a realistic car though normal streets, not landmarks—There are no “set pieces” but just believable action on real locations.
Liman makes it clear in his in-depth DVD commentary that he was very aware how important it was to maintain this naturalistic mood because it allowed him to get out from under the audience’s genre expectations:
“The second you do something that doesn’t feel authentic, then it all falls apart because they’ll say ‘if it’s not authentic, then give us a lot more explosions.’”
He knows that his audience has been hardwired to expect to see Bourne blow up a hidden lair atop the Eiffel Tower, and he’s got to carefully carve out a new headspace, taking our hand and walking us into a new world of realism, all the while gently re-assuring us, “No, it’s okay, this can be good too, just take it seriously.”
He had to stage manage hundreds of little touches to get us stop asking the wrong question (What’s the coolest thing that could happen?’) and start asking the right one (What would I do in this situation?) Gradually, we relax into the movie’s street-level rhythms and realize, “Oh, this can actually be more exciting if it’s realistic!”
Throughout his commentary, Liman points out many places where he had to contravene the normal way of making spy movies: For instance, in Conklin’s operations room at Langley, it was important that the design reflect the off-the-books ad-hoc nature of the operation, so instead of the usual wall of screens “ops room” he had an ungainly assemblage of desks and hand-me-down computers, implying that it had grown from a one-desk operation and each new one had been shoe-horned in. Nobody says this, of course, and we don’t consciously think it, but we’ve been in rooms like that before and we subconsciously know what sort of operations would be run there.
Okay, since the deviations multiplied, we’ll have some casefiles spill over into next week...There’s a lot to learn from this movie!
Deviation #3: This movie is making me look bad. I wrote a while back and the danger of a “three henchmen” structure, in which the second act is taken up with the good guy fighting the bad guy’s three henchman, and then the third act fighting the bad guy…but I was shocked to realize upon re-watching this that this movie I love has precisely that structure!
The Problem: This make the 2nd Act into a snooze, marking time until the real movie begins in the last half hour.
Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes and no. Seeing it again, I remembered that the “three assassins all get called up in the middle of their cover jobs and go into action” montage did make me roll my eyes when I saw it in the theater, but the cheesiness of that moment quickly passes and it doesn’t really turn the second half into an intermediary slog, as I would have predicted. It helps that the heroes don’t ever know who the main bad guy is, or that three guys have been called up, so although it creates an expectation for us of the movie’s structure, it doesn’t for him, so he isn’t marking time or saving his best stuff for the big bad.
Once again, the acting sells it: Clive Owen is so good as the main assassin that a potentially cheesy moment (the hero gets the dying assassin to give him the clue he need to get to the big bad) feels painful, real, and well-earned.
And one last one, the most problematic of the four:
Deviation #4: There are a whole lot of repeated beats in the third quarter. We have three men all trying to piece together what happened on the boat, Conklin, Wombosi, and Bourne. Bourne is way behind the other two, and since we’re watching all three, we frequently see him uncover the same clues that we’ve already seen the other two find. This is especially true when Bourne visits the morgue and realize it’s a fake body after we’ve already seen Wombosi do the exact same thing in a very similar scene.
The Problem: Audiences hate repeated beats. Yes, we care about our heroes getting what they want, but they should also serve as our eyes and ears as we piece the plot together alongside them: if they’re shocked, we want to share that shock. It’s hard to get excited about a scene where they discover stuff we already know.
Does the Movie Get Away With It? Not really. This is the slowest patch in the movie. It culminates in Bourne and Marie both realizing who he is, and we appreciate the devastating emotion of that realization, but it’s frustrating because they’re so far behind us. Once they accept that he was a bad guy, give up on finding out the whole truth, and decide to flee, the movie picks up again. In retrospect, they should have cut the Wombosi morgue scene and not let Bourne and Marie repeat any beats that we’ve already seen anybody else cover.
Okay, okay, enough with the rules it broke, let’s move on to some rules it exemplifies...
This movie has a surprising number of deviations. Will it get away with all of them?
Deviation #2: There is a HUGE missing beat in this movie: A guy wakes up with amnesia, realizes that he’s probably a US secret agent, and goes to the nearest US embassy to report in and find out who he really is. So what goes wrong with that plan? Well…nothing. For some reason, while he’s in line at the embassy, waiting to talk to somebody, he just suddenly changes his mind and decides to go on the run instead, figuring out for himself who he is using a few scant clues, instead of just asking his boss.
The Problem: This should be a huge problem, right? Basically, there is no inciting incident. The entire plot is unmotivated. Sure, he doesn’t remember anything, but he knows that the answers are just a phone call away or embassy visit away. So why doesn’t he just make the call and end the movie?
Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes, for two reasons: The first, amazingly enough, is that most viewers don’t even notice this huge whole the first time through. The second is that, when we spot it on subsequent viewings, we know enough in retrospect to explain it.
This moment was explained by “invisibles” in Tony Gilroy’s script:
BOURNE on the U.S. line. Standing there trying to think. What's he gonna say? What can he say? With the cops outside, and the incident in the park, then the bank... A WOMAN CLERK waving him forward. BOURNE trying to think -- what the fuck is he doing? -- what's he gonna say? -- now he's at the window, and if he was looking for a friendly face, he came to the wrong place -- But he's already bailing, walking away from the woman, the window, the room -- he's out of here –
But while I’m usually a defender of invisibles, in this case they push it too far. Even an actor of Damon’s caliber can’t convey this life-shattering choice entirely through facial expressions without having a chance to explain himself. Instead, they just zoom past it...and that works! I only noticed the problem later, and by that point, I could see in retrospect that Bourne’s crisis of conscience is beginning to re-assert itself, and that’s why he realized it would be wrong to turn himself in...but it was a hell of a risk on the filmmakers’ part.
But wait there’s more: Tomorrow we’ll have a record third day of deviations!
This seems like a very straightforward action movie, but it had even more interesting deviations from the norm than Blue Velvet did last week. Here’s the first…
Deviation #1: There is no Moment of Humanity. This is odd, because the character is intensely likable, right from the start, but I couldn't find any one “I like this guy” moment until at least a half-hour in. Instead, our hero is the ultimate everyman: he might as well be our video game avatar, he literally knows nothing we don’t know about who he is or where he is. He’s not charming or funny, or even very odd. He’s just believably devastated and freaked out.
The Problem: Paradoxically, this sort of total audience identification is usually off-putting. We want to bond by getting to know a hero, piecing him together from dozens of personal details and idiosyncratic behaviors. We won’t recognize most of those details from our own lives, but, to the degree that they create a convincing whole, we will appreciate the intimacy that comes from seeing a realistic person in person in full, both publicly and privately.
Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes, but it’s a huge cheat: they cast a preternaturally charming actor. Screenwriter Tony Gilroy was baffled and dispirited when he found out that they intended to cast Matt Damon, a baby-faced young star who had never made an action movie, but then he was glad to be totally proven wrong: Only an actor with Damon’s talent for guileless charm could have carried us through the opening third of the movie, until Bourne’s personal qualities begin to re-assert themselves, and he finally re-gains a bit of his metaphor family in the truckstop scene (“I come in here and the first thing I’m doing is catching the sightlines…I can tell you that the waitress is left-handed and the guy at the counter weighs two-hundred and fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself.”) At that point we begin to see that there’s a compelling person lurking underneath the blank persona.
This also speaks to the importance of resourcefulness to likability. Bourne has less personality than most heroes, but he’s maybe the most resourceful character we’ve ever seen onscreen. In his commentary, Liman talks a lot about Bourne’s extreme conservation of movement, ability to scan a room, and his use of every part of his environment, which he and Damon planned out down to the smallest detail.
At one point, Bourne is trying to get out of the embassy and runs around a corner, then comes back and yanks an evacuation plan off the wall so that he’ll have a map. That can be as thrilling to watch as the punching, and Liman makes it clear how important moments like that were to him in building the character. At the very least, Bourne’s abilities fascinate us so much that we’re willing to wait for bits of his actual personality to start re-emerging in the truckstop scene.
Jason Bourne is pulled from the sea by a fishing boat, bullet-riddled and suffering from amnesia. Teaming up with a drifter named Marie, he pieces together his past and discovers that he was a CIA assassin that had a crisis of conscience during an attempted assassination of an African ex-dictator named Wombosi. After dispatching three of his former colleagues sent by the CIA to kill him, Jason finally decides to take the fight to old boss Conklin.
#1: CONCEPT 19/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who
hears about it?
one sentence description uniquely appealing?
A spy with no memories must determine who he was and who he
wants to be now, while his ex-bosses try to kill him.
the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
Yes, A spy with a conscience
becomes the latest target of his own agency.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto
a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
It’s a metaphor for anyone who is
disgusted by what he’s become
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a
concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Yes, there are no plot twists in the
second half, just character twists.
there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Yes, Jason, although our loyalty to him
is tested at times.
the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily
the story present a unique relationship?
Yes, the spy and
least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Yes, Chris Cooper.
this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or
an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
Yes, his big
question “who am I?” at first means “Who was I?”, then it become “Who do I
want to be now?”
something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the
Yes, both before
and after his amnesia: seeing Wombosi’s kid caused an unexpectedly volatile
reaction, not just the coincidence of getting hit in the head.
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, everything he
finds out about his past makes him not want to go on.
end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
They shut down the
program because of him. He now knows who he is, and who he wants to be (which
is totally different)
Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend
Yes and no. It
subtly replaces our normal spy movie expectations (gadgets, secret lairs),
with more modest ones, then it fulfills those expertly: awesome car chase in
a beat-up car, down-and-dirty fight scenes, etc.
this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be
used to promote the final product)?
Sort of: the body
in the water, the unique fighting style, the car chase with the beat-up car.
there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
Yes, the car
chase, jumping down the stairwell with the body.
the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
Yes: we discover
he didn’t just have his break from being shot, it was because he balked at
story marketable without revealing the surprise?
conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Yes, even moreso
afterwards, because we can finally totally root for him again.
#2: CHARACTER 20/22
Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
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?)
Oddly, no, not that I can identify,
although he’s very sympathetic.Lacking all of those things, his likability is based entirely on two
things: the pity of his plight and his extreme resourcefulness.The rest is all due to the casting of
Damon, with his open, honest, kind face, he imputes all of those MOH
qualities to the character (whereas, based just on the script, he could have
been a bland badass)
hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
For the most
part.All we or he know about
him is what he can do, not who he was.
the hero have a well-defined public identity?
the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
conflicted and broken.
the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job,
background, or developmental state)?
Not really, because he doesn’t have
any of those three.His dialogue
is mostly everyman dialogue, except it’s more direct and efficient (like
everything else about him.)
the hero have a default personality trait?
Yes, he’s honest,
the hero have a default argument tactic?
Yes, he puts the
ball in your court (for instance, handing her the money before he asks her to
decide, then asking her to give it back if she wants to say no.)
hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and
revealed early on?
Do we feel for the hero?
the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a
false piece of advice early on)?
Yes, he keeps
saying “I just want to find out who I am”, but eventually he comes to want
the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
Well, he gets one
very quickly: find out who he is.
the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a
hidden, private fear?
Open: that he’ll
be killed or captured. Private: that he’ll discover he’s not a good person
hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
Moreso the latter,
because he’s pretty invulnerable once he’s in action, but the frequent shots
of the bulletholes in his sweater and back remind us on the one timehis skills failed him.
the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
Yes, he’s been
dehumanized and snapped like a broken machine.
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 a living
weapon, and he’s trying to become more human.
Yes, very much so.
hero generally resourceful?
Yes, very much so: taking the
walkie off the guard he knocks out, taking the floorplan off the wall,
the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Yes, identify the
exits, identify the threats, avoid capture
hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Yes, all of the
other spies are less moral than he, all of the other civilians lack his
is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
He’s reluctant to speak up,
but quick to act, so he’s assertive in his own way.
hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
Follow the information on the
implant to find out who he is.
the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Yes, he’s through
the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve
problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
Yes, very much so,
even though he doesn’t remember where or how he got them.
#3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 19/21
Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or
her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal
Yes and no, he
discovers one immediate problem (he doesn’t know who he is) but only near the
end does he discover that this was a culmination of a longstanding social
problem (he was already balking at the job, and that’s what broke him)
this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning
of the story?
Yes, he literally
becomes a non-entity.
the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
Yes, the Swiss
bank account embedded in his hip.
the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
Yes, when he opens
the bank box, he leaves the gun behind: He’s reluctant to use his skills.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the
end of the first quarter?
Yes, he decides he
won’t let himself be taken and takes a gun from someone else.
Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict
with another person?
Yes, he’s almost
arrested, then Cooper finds out he’s alive, sends assassins after him.
the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
Yes, he tries to
go back to his old life, old apartment, tries to ditch girl.
the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
Yes, he discovers
what a badass fighter and driver he is. He’s excited to discover his other
name and thinks that will solve the mystery.
easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a
safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
Somewhat: the new
name leads to a dead end, and he finds that they’ve found his hotel room, so
he decides to flee.At this
point, he loses his relationship for only a moment until he wins Marie back
Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
the hero try the hard way from this point on?
reversed in this movie, as he spends the second quarter solving the mystery
and the third quarter on the run from his investigation, but he’s definitely
more grim and resolved in the second half.
the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Yes, he realizes
that his fellow killers aren’t really the problem, it’s the boss, and
realizes that Marie really loves him.
stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
Yes, he’s in love
now, and realizes that he must find Conklin and “end it” to protect her.
the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Yes, he almost
gets her family killed (and does get their dog killed), and realizes that he
can’t run any further.
further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Yes, seeing her
family, he says that he doesn’t want to know who he is anymore.
Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
Yes, “I don’t want
to know who I am anymore.”He
only cares about what he can become.
that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which
still seems far away?
Yes, he decides to confront
his ex boss.
the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero
switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
Yes, at just this point.
these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the
hero to improvise for the finale?
No, he remains in control of the
timeline until the end.
strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the
No, the girl isn’t there, but that’s
the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time
as) his or her outer struggle?
Yes, he finally
figures out who he really is as he confronts the bad guy.
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, he tells her
that he has no ID and smiles.
#4: SCENEWORK 18/20 (Jason and Marie are attacked at her family’s farm by the assassin known as The Professor. Jason blows up a propane tank to distract him and kills him, but as The Professor dies he convinces Jason to come back.)
Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established
Yes, we know that
the CIA have figured where there are, know that the professor is very good,
know that the relatives don’t trust Jason or Marie, know that the dog is
the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the
beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
Yes, it’s very
jump-cutty in the middle.
this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Yes, it’s snowing,
has an explosive tank, has innocents inside, etc.
of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite
possibly has something better to do)?
Yes, Jason and
Marie wanted to leave.
there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Yes, the dog, the
kids, the birds, the mention of the headaches.
the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious
Jason has to get
to him before the smoke clears (and get back before Marie and the relatives
Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal
character through emotional reactions?
Yes. The Professor
and Jason are both moved by their interaction.Marie is very upset.
the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may
Yes, we very much
want Jason to keep Marie and her relatives safe, but we’re also sympathetic
to the man he must kill to do so.
two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Yes, the professor
wants to kill Jason, Jason first wants to be left alone, then wants to
neutralize the threat, then wants info.
the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of
which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: kill each
other, Suppressed: seek redemption for being assassins, answers for how they
got this way.
suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied
through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Not really, it’s rather subtext-free.
the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Not really, it’s all out in the open
characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct
Jason uses a
spectacular non-verbal decoy to avoid direct confrontation
there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners
(often resulting in just one touch)?
Quite a bit of
re-blocking.Jason never touches
the professor, but the kids hug their dad.
objects given or taken, representing larger values?
exchanged, then the professor’s stuff is taken.
Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
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, the professor
dies, Jason decides to stop running.
the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the
Yes, the professor
dies but ironically succeeds in bringing Jason in.
previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
Previous: Jason finally gets the name Treadstone, finds out a little bit
about his training and mental conditioning.New: How can he find Treadstone?What is this stuff the professor has?
the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by
the circumstances of the next scene)?
It cuts out on the
professor’s line, “Look what they make you give.”This sets up Jason’s decision to split with Marie for now.
audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next?
(Not just in the next scene, but generally)
expecting some the climax.
#5: DIALOGUE 14/16
Is the dialogue true to human nature?
the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Yes, most.There could be a little more for
Cooper, but he’s a good enough actor to help his character hold his own.
each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Very much so.Nobody, good or bad, is ever exactly
sure what’s going on.
characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather
than the wants of others?
Very much so.This is a very realistic portrayal of
spying, they’re assassinating their former assets, not fighting against evil.
the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and
even to themselves)?
Yes, the excellent
love scene starts with him dying her hair, which forces them into intimacy
without talking about it.
characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they
conversations between Cooper and Cox and wonderfully vague.
characters interrupt each other often?
Not really, they’re pretty good
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world
and each personality?
the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or
Very much so.All very vague and non-committal:
“You’re asking me a direct question?” “Let’s assume that’s true”
there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default
personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
Metaphor family: Marie: childhood (“ten gazillion dollars”, etc.), Conklin:
Military bureaucrat (“You are a malfunctioning piece of equipment”), Default
personality trait: Marie: self-deprecating, blunt,
treats serious things as jokes, Conklin: Pissing contest, contempt, Argument strategy:
Marie: creates awkward silence, gets you to fill
it.Conklin: Similar, actually,
makes it clear he’s not going to say the thing you want him to say, forces
you to either say it or go away.
Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
dialogue more concise than real talk?
Yes: “How could I
forget you?You’re the only
person I know.”
the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Yes, “I can tell
that that guy knows how to handle himself.” (that’s how tough guys refer to
someone being good in a fight)
there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes,
No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or
Yes. (Even the
character whose name is “The Professor”!)
the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and
All characters are
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld
the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest
or primary emotional partner?
Marie have several.
exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to
No, we often find it out before the
hero does, and then see the hero figure it out later, which creates repeated
beats and makes the middle twenty minutes sag a bit.
there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters
really lay into each other?
Yes, when Bourne
and Conklin finally confront each other.
Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the
It’s straight up
spy, with a little more romance than usual.
story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without
The CIA dirty
tricks conspiracy movie.
the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few
Yes, they reshot
the ending to add more action, but kept the hero committed to his newfound
from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.)
established early and maintained throughout?
Yes, hip, youthful,
handheld, raw, electronic music, dyed hair, etc.
Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
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: what will
happen when Bourne and Conklin meet?Why did Bourne lose his memory?
Does the story use framing devices to establish
genre, mood and expectations?
Somewhat, with the
surveillance footage, and cutting away to the CIA discussing his
situation.There was a terrible
framing sequence that was shot at the last moment and then wisely rejected.
there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await
Yes, the other
Treadstone assassins for Jason.The dead landlady for Marie.
foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s
attention on what’s important)?
We see three
assassins being activated, so we know that the movie will end with a
confrontation with the last one, but that turns out to be ironic. (The last
one kills Conklin, not him)
reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
Yes, he has a lot
of phony IDs, but at the end she asks him if he has any ID and he says “not
dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
Yes, we finds out
why his mind snapped, and what happens when he confronts Conklin.
7: THEME 12/14
Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good
(or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and
Yes, “how can I
remember how to do all these things and not know who I am?” (aka, what is it
that makes us who we are, our actions or our beliefs?)
characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils,
instead of choosing between good and evil?
Yes, he has to get
out of there without killing anyone except his fellow assassins.Compare to Knight and Day where Tom Cruise is in a similar situation and
kills everyone he sees.
Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
story reflect the way the world works?
Yes, very much
so.Chris Cooper puts the lie to
every other assassin movie when he says that it’s easy to kill someone, but
the hard thing is to make it look like someone else did it.
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, Liman (and
the writer he hired, Tony Gilroy) tossed out the book (which he loved, and
optioned himself) and replaced it with his observations from watching his
dad’s role as an Iran/Contra prosecutor. (In fact, this distinction sort of
describes Bourne in a nutshell.All he has left is observations and instincts with no ideas, and he
discovers that that makes him a better person.) The moviefeels very real to street-level
European cities, with no landmarks or exaggerated set pieces
the story include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so.Liman’s father interrogated Oliver
North on national TV and he based Cooper on North.
these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral
Very much so.For once a spy refuses to split the
difference. There is no carping about “I feel bad about this mission, but the
ends justify the means.”
of the actions have real consequences?
Very much so.
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so
that it need not be discussed often?
many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic
opening scene is about being denied an ID, etc.
one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story,
growing in meaning each time?
Sort of. The laser projector
under his skin, the passports, the guns.
Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it
It tips fairly definitively: conscience
is proven to be clearly better than duty. They could have attempted to make
this more ambiguous by pointing to important missions that won’t get
fulfilled due to Bourne’s crisis of conscience, but this is one case in which
ambiguity would feel like the weaker choice: We see that the “vital CIA
mission” Bourne was accomplishing was the execution of a deposed dictator and
former CIA asset who was going to write a tell-all memoir. In this case, the
need to show an irresolvable dilemma is trumped by the need to show the way
the world works. We know that the CIA always claims that their dirty tricks
are justified by their vital missions, and we also know that that always
turns out to be bullshit. Indeed, the hapless reboot The Bourne Legacy does have a “but what about the vital missions?”
scene, and it feels cheap and phony.
the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
Yes, Liman says
that his model was The Wizard of Oz: he’s trying to get home, but he’s home
the whole time, because Marie turns out to be his home.
end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved,
some answers left vague)?
It’s fairly tidy,
but that’s fine.
characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing
the audience to do that?