Sunday, April 06, 2014

The Ultimate Story Checklist: The Bourne Identity

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!

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.

PART #1: CONCEPT 19/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the 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.
Does 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 strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Yes, there are no plot twists in the second half, just character twists.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
 Yes, Jason, although our loyalty to him is tested at times.
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 Yes, the spy and the bohemian.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 Yes, Chris Cooper.
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 big question “who am I?” at first means “Who was I?”, then it become “Who do I want to be now?”
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 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.
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, everything he finds out about his past makes him not want to go on.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Does 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)
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
 Yes and no. It 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.
Does 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.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 Yes, the car chase, jumping down the stairwell with the body.
Does 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 his assignment.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
 Yes, even moreso afterwards, because we can finally totally root for him again.
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?)
 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)
Is the 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.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 Yes, the hyper-confident super-spy.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Yes, he’s conflicted and broken.
Does 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.)
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Yes, he’s honest, plainspoken, good-humored.
Does 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.)
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 Yes, he keeps saying “I just want to find out who I am”, but eventually he comes to want more. 
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 Well, he gets one very quickly: find out who he is.
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 be killed or captured. Private: that he’ll discover he’s not a good person
Is the 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 time  his skills failed him. 
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 Yes, he’s been dehumanized and snapped like a broken machine.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
 Yes, he’s a living weapon, and he’s trying to become more human.
Is the hero curious?
 Yes, very much so.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 Yes, very much so: taking the walkie off the guard he knocks out, taking the floorplan off the wall, etc. 
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Yes, identify the exits, identify the threats, avoid capture
Is the 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 talents.
…And 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.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
 Follow the information on the implant to find out who he is.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Yes, he’s through taking orders.
Does 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.
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 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)
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 Yes, he literally becomes a non-entity.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 Yes, the Swiss bank account embedded in his hip.
Does 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. 
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 Yes, he’s almost arrested, then Cooper finds out he’s alive, sends assassins after him.
Does 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. 
Does 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.
Does the 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 over.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 It’s somewhat 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.
Does 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.
Do the 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.
Does 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.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 Yes, seeing her family, he says that he doesn’t want to know who he is anymore.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does 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.  
After 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.
Before 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.
Despite 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.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 No, the girl isn’t there, but that’s fine. 
Does 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. 
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
 Yes, he tells her that he has no ID and smiles. 
PART #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.)
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 Yes, we 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 usually around.
Does 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.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Yes, it’s snowing, has an explosive tank, has innocents inside, etc.
Is one 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.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Yes, the dog, the kids, the birds, the mention of the headaches.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Jason has to get to him before the smoke clears (and get back before Marie and the relatives flee)
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. The Professor and Jason are both moved by their interaction.  Marie is very upset.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 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.
Are 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.
Does 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.
Is the 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.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Not really, it’s all out in the open here.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Jason uses a spectacular non-verbal decoy to avoid direct confrontation
Is 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.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Bullets are exchanged, then the professor’s stuff is taken. 
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, the professor dies, Jason decides to stop running.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 Yes, the professor dies but ironically succeeds in bringing Jason in.
Are 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?
Does 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.
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 are expecting some the climax.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does 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. 
Does 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. 
Do the 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.
Are 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. 
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
 Yes, the conversations between Cooper and Cox and wonderfully vague. 
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
 Not really, they’re pretty good listeners
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?
 Very much so.  All very vague and non-committal: “You’re asking me a direct question?” “Let’s assume that’s true”
Are 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.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
 Yes: “How could I forget you?  You’re the only person I know.”
Does 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)
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 Yes. (Even the character whose name is “The Professor”!)
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 All characters are three-dimensional
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
He and Marie have several.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 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. 
Is 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.
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?)
 It’s straight up spy, with a little more romance than usual.
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 The CIA dirty tricks conspiracy movie.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 Yes, they reshot the ending to add more action, but kept the hero committed to his newfound pacifism.
Separate 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.
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: 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.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Yes, the other Treadstone assassins for Jason.  The dead landlady for Marie.
Does 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)
Are 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 really.”
Is the 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.
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?
 Duty vs. conscience
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 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?)
Do the 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.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the 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.
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, 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 movie  feels very real to street-level European cities, with no landmarks or exaggerated set pieces
Does 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.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 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.”
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Very much so.
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
 Yes, Marie’s opening scene is about being denied an ID, etc.
Are 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.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 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.
Does 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.
In the 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.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 Yes, he and Marie don’t discuss it at the end. 

Final Score: 112 out of 122

1 comment:

j.s. said...

You write: "Liman 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. "
Well, you admit that you listened to the directors' commentary. But, as with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, this is another one of those cases where I think you're misattributing credit for writing decisions. Throwing out the book and starting over with a far more realistic approach was almost completely Tony Gilroy's idea, even in Liman's own recounting. Gilroy's stuck around for 3 more sequels. And the qualities unique to the rest of his work, like MICHAEL CLAYTON and DUPLICITY are what make the Bourne films so good.

Whereas Liman's current film EDGE OF TOMORROW looks like it was seriously screwed up in the writing stages, which is too bad since it started with a pretty great script.