Podcast

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Raising Arizona

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Criminal H. I. McDunnough (“Hi”) goes straight when he marries policewoman Edwina (“Ed”). When Ed discovers that she’s barren, she convinces Hi to kidnap a baby from a local millionaire with quintuplets. Soon everyone is coming after the baby: Ed’s brother-in-law/boss Glen, Hi’s prison buddies Gale and Evelle, and demonic bounty hunter Leonard Smalls.
PART #1: CONCEPT 19/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 A desperate childless couple steal a baby from a family with quintuplets, but two escaped convicts and a ruthless bounty hunter complicate things.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 Hi tries to goes straight by kidnapping a baby.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 The urge to have a family at all costs, combined with the fear of family commitment, get pushed to absurd extremes.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Not really.  It’s pretty complicated.  The first ten minutes is all narrated montage. 
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
 Hi.
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
 For instance, when it starts to cut away to Smalls, it uses the excuse of a dream in which Hi conjures up Smalls as a projection of his guilt, allowing this second storyline to become an extension of the one problem.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 The couple are an ex-con and ex-cop.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 Lots of them.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Greatest hope (have a family) and greatest fear (return to crime).
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 His first instinct when things go wrong is to rob another convenience store.
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)?
 They’re good people, and they don’t want to steal a baby.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 Yes.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
 He finds out what family really means and matures.
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?
 Lots of big laughs, such as the big chase scene.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 The five babies, the bounty hunter, the prison escape, etc.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 The prison escape, the baby on the roof of the car, etc.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 The escapees taking the baby, etc.
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 20/22
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?)
 Funny narration, compassion towards Ed, out-of-character hatred then respect towards Reagan.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Despite all that opening narration, we know very little backstory, just current actions.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 The no-good convenience store robber.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 The sweet do-gooder husband.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Ambition: cowboy: “See, I come from a long line of frontiersmen and outdoor types” “Her insides were a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” “I preminisced no return of the salad days.” “Even my job seemed as dry and bitter as the prairie wind.”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Mild, underreacting, put-upon
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Folds quickly
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
 Get his wife a baby.
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)?
 Accepts bad advice from Gale: “Sometimes your career (crime) has to come before family.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 Raise Nathan Jr. as their own.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
 Open: Going back to jail.  Hidden: That he’ll be a bad dad.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
 Yes.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 Criminal tendency, desire to take the easy path, perhaps a secret wish to return to jail.  As the brothers say, “Either way we’ll be set for life.”
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?
 Not really the flip side: he’s loving and totally dedicated to Ed’s happiness.
Is the hero curious?
 Somewhat.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 Somewhat.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 He thinks he does (he has vague notions about what it means to be a man) but in reality he gets pulled in different directions and talked out of things easily.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 Most lack his inclination to fly right (even Ed and her sister and brother-in-law).  He’s the ex-con, but everybody has a little larceny in their heart (although, like him, everybody is won over by Nathan Jr.)
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 No, he’s reluctant to criticize
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
 Yes, he’s pursuing Ed as much as he can during their brief encounters.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Yes.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 Armed robbery, which he resorts to again and again.
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)?
 Tired of going back to prison, drawn to Ed.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 Keeps getting sent back, finds out they’re infertile.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 They hear about the Arizona quintuplets.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 Not that we see.  They go for it.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 They take the kid.
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 The brothers escape prison.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 They lie to the brothers.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
 They love having the kid, but they never get excited about the possibility of success.  They’re pretty worried the whole time.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
 Several: The in-laws come over. They have lots of questions about Jr. Hi punches out his boss for suggesting wife swapping. Hi steals some Huggies and some money, which leads to lots of complications with cops, dogs, and an armed clerk. The in-law confronts Hi and demands the baby, the brothers take the baby. Hi loses his job and his baby and his house gets trashed.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 They take off to get their baby back.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 The brothers and the brother-in-law turn on Hi.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 Yes.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 They realize it was wrong to take the baby.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 They decide to split up after all this is over.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 “You were right and I was wrong. We got a family here and I’m gonna start acting responsibly.
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 Save the baby, then return him.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 They lock and load and hit the road.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 Leonard Smalls shows up.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Pretty much.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 Yes, after Smalls is dead, they hash out their relationship issues with Nathan Arizona.
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)
They send gifts to Nathan Jr. as he grows up.  Maybe they’re able to have kids, or maybe that’s just a dream.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 20/20 (During Hi and Ed’s first night with Junior, brothers Gale and Evelle show up having just escaped from jail, and begin to suspect the truth)
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?
 Ed just made him promise,“Everything decent and normal from here on out.” When they first knock at the door, Ed and Hi fear that it’s the police and load a gun.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 Hi greets them before Ed comes in, so that we don’t have to hear that twice.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 All sorts of clues in the room give away their lies.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Ed and Hi just want to sleep.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 They tunneled through a sewer, so they stink to high heaven.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 They want to get the kids down
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
 Very much so. Hi feels humiliated by the brothers’ ribbing, Ed has her worst fears about Hi confirmed
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 We mostly side with Ed, but we’re very sympathetic to Hi’s dilemma.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 The brothers demand to stay, Ed demands they go.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Surface: Can they stay? Suppressed: Is Hi going to have to change for his family? Is he going to stay out of jail?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 See above.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Ed uses the baby as an excuse to kick them out.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Gale traps them into lying about where the baby came from, traps Hi into letting them stay by ribbing him.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Hi hug Evelle, then playfully slaps Gale, then puts an arm around Evelle, then goes and puts an arm around Ed instead. 
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Just barely: Evelle paws through their M&M’s while talking about going through the sewage. 
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?
 Hi lets them stay.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 They were afraid it would be someone who wanted to send them to prison, but it was friends, but the friends also seem destined to send them back.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Previous: Where are the brothers going? New: What will Gale do with his suspicions about the baby?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 “Got you on a pretty short leash, doesn’t she, Hi?”
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 now filled with dread. We’re sure that these guys will bring disaster to the house.
PART #5: DIALOGUE 14/16
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Very much so.  Jr. brings out everybody’s vulnerabilities.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Very much so.  Hi’s humble voiceover is more about what he doesn’t know than what he does know. 
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Very much so.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Very much so.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
 Hi is very mealy-mouthed.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
 Yes. Hi never gets to finish a sentence.
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. “We released ourselves on our own recognizance.”  Committing crimes with an unloaded gun because the sentences are so much shorter, banks putting in paint packets, etc.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor family: Gale: reform, Evelle: pop-psychology, Glen: jokes, Default personality trait: Glen: bigotry , Argument strategy: Ed: asking a long line of pointed questions
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.
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
 Yes.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 Yes.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 Even though they have elements of caricature, they’re all actually fairly well-rounded, with elements of head, heart and gut. (Exceptions: Evelle has no head, Smalls has no heart)
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?
Many
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 Nope, we begin with a massive ten-minute info-dump.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Yes, they discuss splitting up.
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?)
 The small-time-crook black-comedy
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 A minor sub-genre of noir that the Coens revived from, the fictional film that mimics the absurdities of true-crime stories at their strangest.  
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 They get an unlikely happy ending (getting forgiven for the crime), but not as happy as it could have been (if they had gotten to keep the kid)
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 The amazing theme song creates a “folk-ballad” mood.
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?
 At what point will Nathan Arizona confront his kid’s kidnappers.
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Tons of voiceover and montage.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Her sister and brother-in-law represent his worst fears of becoming a dad, and the brothers represent his worst fears of returning to a life of crime.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 The dreams about Smalls.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 The Spock book is finally left behind, etc. 
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 They finally come face to face with Nathan Sr.
PART 7: THEME 10/14
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?
 Settle for a meager legal life vs. achieving a better life through extra-legal means.
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 He asks us, “Now I don’t know where you come down on the incarceration question, whether it’s for rehabilitation or revenge…”
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Put fugitives out of your house in the rain?  Swap wives to keep your job?
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 No. This follows the rules of a folk-ballad (it’s easy to break into the rich man’s house, and then he forgives them when he finds out they’ve taken his kid, and even takes an interest in saving their marriage! Certainly, Smalls, too, is very unrealistic.)
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)?
 There’s lots of good Southwest oddity, such as watching the sunset from deck chairs, various state laws, etc.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Very much so. JFK, Nixon and Reagan are all name checked. “I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn’t easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House. I dunno, they say he’s a decent man, so… maybe his advisors are confused.”
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 Yes.  Mr. Arizona isn’t turned into a monster in order to justify the kidnapping, for instance. 
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Yes and no.  It makes sense that the whole thing unravels so quickly, but it’s crazy that they face no consequences for the kidnapping (or for killing Smalls!).  As for the consequences of giving up on a baby, the movie hedges, first implying that they had to content themselves with sending gifts to Nathan Jr. from afar, but then implying that maybe they did have kids after all.
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?
 Very much so: when the brothers break out of jail, it looks like a birth, Smalls has baby shoes on his bike.  Ed sings song to baby about dad going to prison.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 The Dr. Spock book, the baby himself, the guns.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 Settling for a meager legal life is better, though disappointing.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 Yes, they are pushed apart by stealing the baby and brought back together by returning it.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 It’s fairly tidy, using lots of voiceover to explain lots of little things, like what happened to the brother-in-law, etc.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 Nope, he does a lot of synthesizing, at the end and throughout. Even when he doubts his conclusion (about Reagan, for instance) we don’t.
Final Score: 112 out of 122

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