Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Do the Right Thing

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Self-centered pizza delivery man Mookie works at the only white business in his neighborhood, Sal’s Pizzeria, which Sal runs with his sons Pino and Vito. Mookie lives with his sister Jade, who bugs him to be a better employee and be more responsible to his baby Hector and Hector’s mother Tina. Other denizens of the block include smooth DJ Senor Love Daddy, old bum Da Mayor, wise advice giver Mother Sister, mentally challenged Smiley, angry young man Buggin’ Out, and angrier young man Radio Raheem. Buggin’ Out tries to organize a boycott of Sal’s because Sal only has pictures of Italian-Americans on the wall, and Smiley and Raheem eventually join him, bringing racial tensions to a boil. Radio Raheem chokes Sal and then gets killed by the police, sparking a riot in which Mookie contributes to the destruction of the Pizzeria. 
PART #1: CONCEPT 17/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 Not especially : “A conflicted black pizza delivery man working for the only white business on his block must decide what to do when a race riot breaks out.” This movie was sold on the success of the writer /director /star’s previous two movies, which were more broadly comedic.  He cashed in that goodwill here with a more ambitious movie.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 A comedy about a race riot.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 Yes, everyday city tensions culminate in a death and a riot. 
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Very much so.  There’s almost no plot.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
 Mookie, for lack of a better one, but he’s relatively passive and we’re never sure if he’s a hero or an anti-hero.  It’s interesting that Mookie is sometimes the POV character and sometimes not.  Sometimes he leads us to the next character and sometimes the camera jumps away from him independently.  It’s almost as if the camera is the hero, sometimes agreeing with Mookie and cutting along with his perspective, sometimes cutting in opposition to his POV to things that impeach what he just said, or impeach what he’s about to say. (The case can also be made that Buggin’ Out is a co-hero or co-anti-hero, because he’s the one who is actually driving the plot and Mookie is just reacting.)
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
 Yes and no.  We think for the most of the movie that this is just a day-in-the-life story, but we realize at the end that almost everything we’ve seen has contributed to the riot.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 Yes, a pizza delivery man and his boss.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 The hero is doing very little, but yes, Pino opposes him.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Greatest fear and ironic answer to his question: The mayor says, “Do the right thing” and Mookie responds, “That’s it?” It turns out to be a tough question.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 Very much so, he surprises himself and us when he throws the garbage can through the window. 
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
 Very much so.  He was told that there will always be a place for him there just before the riot.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 Yes and no.  Nobody is working to solve the problem, but Mookie turns the tide, for good or ill.  He doesn’t solve the problem, but he attempts to, in his own way.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
 Transform the situation: he destroys the Pizzeria, banishing the whites from the neighborhood.  Transform the hero: It’s hard to tell.  It doesn’t seem so on the surface, but we suspect it has.  He spends the night with Tina and Hector, which seems like a bit of a personal breakthrough.
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, it’s very funny but also a satisfying drama.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 The street chalk, the radio station, the direct address framing, etc.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 The racial slur montage, the riot, etc.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 Just the climax.
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?)
 Goofy: “Don’t ya love your brother Mookie anymore?  I loves ya Jade.” Then bold: Yells “Hell no!” to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Entirely.  We never learn any backstory, other than what we can infer.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 The easy-going pizza delivery man, the bridge between the blacks and whites.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Simmering rage and irreconcilable contradictions.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 For lack of a better word: Jive: “Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit.” “He’s gonna be beating you like an egg for the rest of your life.” “No, you the man.” “Vito is down.”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Ignores your protests, then repeats what he said in the first place.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
 He tries to bridge the communities not because he’s a good guy, but because he wants $250 a week plus tips.
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)?
 “Gotta get paid”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 “Gotta get paid.”
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
Open: He wants to keep the peace to keep his job.  Hidden: Buggin’ Out tells him to “stay black”, and he worries that he’s not doing that.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
 Not much, in either case.  He’s serenely confident in his ability to avoid physical danger (he’s the only one who doesn’t flinch at Radio Raheem, and chills him out instantly), and he’s got emotional armor on.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 Shiftless (takes forever on his deliveries, avoids his son and his son’s mother unless he wants sex)
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?
 Funny, empathetic to everyone, laid-back, a good lover.
Is the hero curious?
 By implication, because he knows everyone in the neighborhood and cares about their business.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 His resourcefulness never really gets tested, because he never accepts a large challenge.  Like Jake when he walked a beat in Chinatown, he’s doing as little as possible.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Gotta get paid, don’t mess up my business, don’t put up with mistreatment
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 No one else is willing to bridge the two worlds.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 Yes, he stands up to both Pino and Buggin’ Out, trying to chill them both out.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
 He’s counting his money.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Sort of. Despite being on the job, he still considers his time his own “My name ain’t Kunta Kinte.” He does his own business on his epic delivery trips.  He’s really his own boss.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 Not really.  He’s not solving a lot of problems.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 15/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
 Yes, he’s sick of his sister’s nagging, sick of Pino shifting his own responsibilities onto him.  (And he’s in denial about his shiftlessness and suppressed rage)
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 His sister heckles him on the way out the door, then he’s ordered to sweep up even though that’s not his job.  Not long later, Tina calls.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 No. He thinks the only solution to his sister and Tina’s nagging (and Smiley’s for that matter) is just to keep at his job and get paid.   He does not realize until the end that this solution is untenable.  The closest thing he gets to an intimidating opportunity is when Da Mayor says “Always to the right thing.” But Mookie doesn’t know what that means, so he feels that he gets no opportunities to rise above his situation. 
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 Nothing but, for most of the movie.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 When Buggin’ Out announces his boycott, Mookie promises Sal that he’ll shut it down, which is his interpretation of “Do the right thing” at this point. 
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?
 It’s nor really unforeseen. Buggin’ Out continues his boycott attempts despite Mookie, and Pino’s racism is also escalating.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 He assumes that he’s shut down Buggin’ Out and he can go on about his day.  He encourages Vito to stand up to Pino instead of confronting Pino directly.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
 Yes, he has fun with Vito, Senor Love Daddy, etc. He starts to anticipate the money, and promises to buy a picture from Smiley at the end of the day when he gets paid, etc.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
 There are two, but Mookie misses both, because he’s in the shower (This is an odd structure!)  In Buggin’ Out’s arc, he reaches a lowest point in the montage where everybody contemptuously refuses to join his boycott, then he takes it to Sal by himself and only humiliates himself.  Sal then has a midpoint disaster of his own when Pino sits him down and says he doesn’t to inherit the business, then yells at Smiley in the street, in view of everyone while Sal shakes his head in misery.  This is probably the key moment that leads to the riot (though it was improvised and wasn’t in the script!)  Mookie then sort of looses a safe space when Jade comes to the pizzeria and drives a wedge between Mookie and Sal.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Somewhat.  He actually visits his son and Tina, he confronts Pino more directly, etc.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 When Sal spits racist invective at Radio Raheem, Mookie decides that Sal is unacceptably racist after all, and the chasm cannot be crossed. 
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 Very much so. 
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 The killing of his friend and the riot teaches him that his attempts to ease tensions were foolish. 
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 Yes, something in him snaps.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 We can sense that the mayor’s words are now echoing in his head: Always do the right thing.
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 Not really: he acts rashly, then reverts into paralysis.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 He waits too long.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 He is forced to improvise, yes, but neither side ever has a timeline.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Very much so.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 The same time.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
 Yes.  He talks to Sal the next morning.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 17/20 (Buggin’ Out notices that there are no brothers on the wall of the pizzeria and decides to organize a boycott.)
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?
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 Yes, it begins at the moment that Buggin’ Out takes offense at the amount of cheese on his slice.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 It is now.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Sal doesn’t expect to or want to converse, he just expects Buggin’ Out to pay and go away.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Who is the little girl that Mookie is talking to?  Smiley is outside.  We can hear snippets of unrelated conversations.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 How much trouble will Buggin’ Out cause in the time it takes him to eat his slice?  Once Sal comes out with the bat, it’s clear that Mookie and Vito and Pino have to get Buggin out of there before violence breaks out.
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. Sal and Buggin’ Out both lose it.  Pino and Mookie are also affected.  There’s also a great little moment between Pino and Sal when Pino silently takes Sal’s bat away.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 As with almost every scene in the movie, our sympathies are totally split.  We basically side with Sal (as Mookie does, at this point) but Buggin’ Out makes a pretty good case.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 It starts out as a clash of personalities and then becomes a clash of agendas.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Surface: get free extra cheese, then put brothers on the wall.  Suppressed: what are you doing in my neighborhood?  Why don’t we own our own stores?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Sal willfully confusing the meaning on “brothers” has subtext to it.  The pictures themselves carry a subtext.  The ownership issues is in the subtext until Sal calls it out. 
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Mookie, as always, keeps his feelings on this issue hidden and/or suppressed.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Yes.  When Buggin’ asks “How much?”, he’s implying that this isn’t worth $1.50.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Lots.  Buggin’ sits down, then Sal comes out with the bat, then Mookie takes Buggin’ out.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Giving the pizza, refusing to take it, taking the parmesan, taking it away again, taking out the bat, Pino taking it away, etc.
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, Mookie and Sal decide to kick Buggin’ out.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 Not really.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Previously asked: Not really.  New: Will Buggin’ Out stay away?  Will his boycott take off?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 No, it goes to the end.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 Yes, violence has now been intimated.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Very much so.  Each individual viewpoint is so strongly and empathetically stated that we have no idea where the author’s ultimate sympathies lie.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Very much so.  Only the camera sees the riot coming.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Very, very much so.  Even Buggin’ Out, the one person supposedly motivated by civic concerns, is really upset about cheese and his shoes.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Yes and no.  There are times when they openly discuss issues that probably would not openly discuss or admitted to, but these moments are stylized (almost like Shakespearean asides), so it works. 
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
 For the most part.  Jade obliquely refers to Mookie’s baby.  Mookie and Sal are very indirect in their confrontation over Jade, etc.  But then we get explosions of people saying what they normally don’t say, like the racism montage, which is intentional and works well.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
 Very much so.
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?
Jargon of the setting: very much so.  Tradecraft: not so much, but that’s fine.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor family: Sal: Italian-American “The both of youse” “this is a respectable business.” And subtle racism “You paying now or on layaway?” Pino: open racism “How come you niggers are so stupid?  Da Mayor: old-fashioned “Good morning, gentlemen” “Clean as the Board of Health”, Default personality trait: Sal: magnanimous, Pino: angry, Vito: sweet, Buggin’: agitated, Raheem: very agitated, Argument strategy: Sal: increasingly irritated reminders, Pino: muttered asides, Buggin’: appeal to (his own) logic.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 Very much so.
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 Yes, everyone.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 Senor Love Daddy: head/heart. Sal: Heart. Pino, Raheem and Buggin’: spleen. Mookie: gut.
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?
No, nobody really understands Mookie.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 There is almost no exposition, but what little there is (such as why they have their pizzeria here) comes out gradually and naturally.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 There are several, but that is explained by the heat making everybody irritable.  It’s clear that there wouldn’t normally be this many confrontations.   
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?)
 Comedy-drama, mixed throughout.
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 “Urban”, the day-in-the-life-of-a-city genre.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 Comedy and drama come with fewer expectations than other genres, and it meets them all.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Vibrant, brash, outrageous, buoyant.
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?
 It’s clear that this will be the story of one day, and it is asked what will be the consequences of the heat.
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Senor Love Daddy is our narrator, and he warns us that this will be a hot, dangerous day.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Will Mookie end up like Da Mayor?  Like Sal? Should he be more like Buggin’ Out?  Like his sister?
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Yes, Sal takes out the bat early on, then puts it away unused,  Raheem fights a boombox battle with the Koreans, the Italian-American has his car soaked, etc. 
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Mother sister reverses her stance on Da Mayor, Mookie stays the night, Vito stands upt to Pino.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Yes, we find out the consequences of the heat.
PART 7: THEME 13/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Integration vs. self-preservation
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 Pino: “Who’s working for who?”
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Not much.  There are few moral dilemmas until the end.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 Very much so.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
 Very much so.  There are a million little authentic observations, like the kids scraping the cans on the sidewalk to better direct the spray of water.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Very much so.  Real life police killings are referred to many times.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
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.  Raheem’s speech, Mother Sister’s advice, the interactions with the Koreans, etc.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 The bat, the boom box, etc.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 It’s still split pretty much evenly at the end, as evidenced by the conflicting quotes from Martin and Malcolm
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 Yes, Mookie just wanted to get paid, but he destroys his job instead.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Yes.  Will Mookie comes back to Tina, etc.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 They do discuss it, but they don’t kill the meaning or settle the dilemma as they do so. 
Final Score: 106 out of 122


Emily said...

It's pretty cool to see the structure of a movie that feels as loose and unstructured as Do the Right Thing. I sometimes get frustrated by screenwriting advice that feels formulaic because those are the kinds of stories I aspire to tell, the ones that don't feel strongly structured or plot-driven but actually have very strong bones. I think one of the biggest strengths of what you do here is how you can find the structure in something that feels so far from "Hollywood formula."

j.s. said...

It's surprising to me how little things have changed and how pundits and politicians continue to misdiagnose the problems. This film may as well have taken place in L.A.'s Koreatown in 1993 or in Ferguson this year. Unless and until minority communities feel like they've got some sense of ownership, oversight and active role in governing and policing themselves, it won't get better.

Can you give us a few examples of that "day-in-the-life-of-a-city" genre? I feel like you're talking mostly about realistic crime dramas like THE NAKED CITY or HE WALKED BY NIGHT? Not city symphonies or films like SUNRISE and LONESOME.. DO THE RIGHT THING almost feels more like a play by comparison, especially in its small stylized world, though I can't name any theatre antecedents off hand.

Matt Bird said...

I was thinking of movies like "Street Scene" and "Dead End" (which were both based on popular plays) (and, oddly enough, both starred Sylvia Sydney), and to a lesser extent documentaries such as "Berlin: Symphony of a City" and "Man with a Movie Camera" Or even the opening sequence of "Love Me Tonight".

j.s. said...

Those two more contained play-based films you mention feel like better fits to me than other more expansive and stylistically heterogeneous city symphonies.

Just out of curiosity, are any of your guys obsessed with the THIS AMERICAN LIFE spinoff podcast SERIAL like me and half the Internet? I almost wish Matt would post about that.

Matt Bird said...

I must dive into "Serial"! I listened to the pilot on TAL and liked it but didn't continue, but now that everybody's going crazy for it, I'm sure I'll love it.