Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Ultimate Story Checklist: The 40 Year Old Virgin

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Andy (Steve Carell), a stock-boy at a stereo store, is reluctantly asked to play poker with his coworkers Cal (Seth Rogen), David (Paul Rudd), and Jay (Romany Malco), who discover that he’s a 40 year-old virgin. They vow to get him laid, first by a club girl (Leslie Mann), then by a bookstore girl (Elizabeth Banks) but he pursues a romance with an older woman (Catherine Keener) who works across the street. They begin dating, and he wins over her daughter Marla (Kat Denning), but when she encourages him to sell off his action figure collection he flees, almost hooks up with the bookstore girl instead, but goes back to Keener and admits he’s a virgin. They get married and finally have sex.

PART #1: CONCEPT 18/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 A 40 year old virgin makes new friends who try to finally get him laid.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 A handsome 40 year old man is a virgin.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 Every man has felt like he’ll never get laid, and this is his ultimate nightmare…and ultimate fantasy, because everybody wants three perfect wingmen.
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.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
 Well, his whole life is a problem, but yes.  There’s not a lot of waking up and falling asleep.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 Yes, several.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 Not really, and that’s fine.  He’s his own antagonist.  (Almost every woman he meets is actually willing to have sex with him: Mann, his boss, the bookstore girl, Keener, the transvestite prostitute)  A little bit with Kat Denning, but even she joins team Andy quickly.
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: get laid, greatest fear: have to hit on women. And it’s ironic that the fear leads to his hope.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 Very much so.
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.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 Yes and no.  Sometimes it feels like everyone wants to help him more than he wants to help himself, but he does have to work really hard.  Of course there’s sort of a shadow-story going one where he helps and supercedes everybody else (he ends up everybody’s boss)
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
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 funny and raunchy.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 It’s interesting: not really, but they came up with an absolutely brilliant poster image  that somehow captured the concept
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 Erection scenes, thrown up on, waxing, etc.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 He falls for a grandmother.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
 Yes.  Keener is old enough to feel like a more mature choice, but hot enough to (reluctantly) satisfy bro-comedy fans.
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?)
 Unique-but-universal: erection
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Yes, almost entirely.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 The boring creep who may be a serial killer.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 He’s a painfully shy virgin
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Old school: “I’m a gentleman, don’t kiss and tell”, uses words like “accountrement”, inept profanity
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 A downer, lame joker, laughs at own jokes, overly specific in his descriptions
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Inept sarcasm
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
 Yes.  Desperate horniness and loneliness.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 “I respect women.  I love women.  I respect them so much that I completely stay away from them!  I have a very fulfilling life!”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 Not really. He just wants to never change.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
 That his secret will be found out. That there’s something really wrong with him.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
 Very much so.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 He’s shy.
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?
 He’s kind.
Is the hero curious?
 Somewhat.  He becomes a dedicated student of what they’re trying to teach him.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 Not really.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Keep your head down, avoid conflict, avoid women.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 Yes, the other characters all seem sleazy by comparison.  Even Trish is much coarser than he.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 Yes. “I’m tired of saying the word ‘pussy’!”
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
 Sort of: He bicycles to work.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Yes and no: He has none at the beginning, but slowly begins to claim it.  He’s the boss of all the other guys by the end of the movie.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 Just barely: he uses his sleight-of-hand abilities to win over Trish’s daughter.  He uses his online-poker skills to make friends with the guys.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 18/21
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 has a permanent erection.  His coworkers find him boring.  He is asked to interact with a female customer and cannot.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 His coworkers find out that he’s a virgin.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 They offer to help him get laid.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 He runs out of the store.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 He agrees to go out with them.
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 first girl he meets is drunk, endangers him, and throws up on him.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 He avoids calling Trish, takes all of the guys’ advice, even though it’s contradictory.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
 To a certain extent. He finds that it’s easy and fun to hit on Elizabeth Banks.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
 It’s a very weak midpoint disaster, they set him up with a transsexual prostitute, and he decides to give up on their advice altogether.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Yes, he pursues a relationship with Trish.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 Yes.  He realizes that he’s his own worst enemy
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 To a certain extent.  The third quarter is a little limp, ironically enough.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 Yes.  His conversation with Marla, for example
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 Yes, when Trish jumps his bones on the 20th date on a pile of his boxed up toys, he denounces her and flees.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 No, he retreats to his previous personality flaw.
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 No, he retreats to his previous goal and tries to get laid by a drunk girl.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Yes, but proactive in a negative way until the last ten minutes.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 Somewhat: Running back into Banks and getting the chance to have sex with her almost ruins his relationship with Trish.  This is a followed by another escalation that feels very false, in which Trish is bafflingly troubled to discover pornography in his house.  Surely it would make more sense if she had found out about Banks instead?? (True conflict is always better than a misunderstanding!)
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Somewhat.  The guys improbably show up at Elizabeth Banks’ house, and send him off to go find Trish.  So Trish never meets the guys, but it all feels like one big finale.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 Yes, he flies through the billboard and admits the titular problem at the last possible minute.
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 consummates at his wedding.  There’s even a nice moment where he kicks a floor waxer out of their suite, showing his newfound assertiveness.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 19/20 (Andy goes home with a drunk woman from a Bachelorette party)
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?
 She grabbed his pants and kissed him.  Then she made him blow into her breathalizer.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 Yes, both the beginning and parts of the middle.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Yes, he’s in a car with a drunk driver.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 No, they’re both planning on having this conversation.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 The song she’s singing, her dancing, the contents of her vomit.  Really her whole drama, actually.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Surely she’s going to hit someone eventually.  Also she keeps almost throwing up.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
 Just slightly on both.  It tells him that he’s doable, but it also confirms all of his other fears about picking up women. He’s humiliated.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 At first we want him to have sex no matter what, but we gradually decide, along with him, that it’s not worth it.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 He wants to get laid, and so does she, but she really just wants to work out her anger at her friend and the guy she’s marrying.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Surface conflict: Drive better / don’t tell me how to drive. Suppressed conflict: Are all women like you? Why are men all jerks?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
”Let me tell you something, Andy, don’t ever be named Dan.”
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 He’s pretending to be comfortable, she’s pretending that she’s not furious at her friend and ex.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 He just tries to grab the wheel, but she tries to trap him into complimenting her.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Just one touch: she kisses him.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
He blows into her breathalyzer, she throws up on him.
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?
 He turns her down.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 Yes, he turns her down.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Previously: Will he seal the deal? New: What will he tell the guys?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 It cuts out early, but on an answer, not a question.
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 increasingly fearful that he will never have sex.
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?
 Very much so.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Very much so.  Each man’s advice is hopelessly tainted by his own failings.
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?
 Very much so.  The way in which his secret comes out is painful and realistic each time.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
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?
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor families: Jay: Street “Listen, you don’t want no baby-mama-drama.”  Cal and David, not so much.  One problem with the improvised dialogue is that these friends just talk like they do in real life, and sound very similar. Personality traits: Cal: laid back, David: friendly, lovelorn, Jay: salacious, oversharing, Argument strategies: Cal: defers but rolls his eyes and speaks up later, David: self-deprecating honest, Jay: Gets philosophical and emphatic (You’re putting the pussy on a pedestal) doesn’t take no for an answer.
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?
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.  Apatow’s reliance on improv gives the dialogue an astonishing degree of verisimilitude.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 Yes, Cal: head (he’s a novelist), David: heart, Jay: 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?
Trish proposes waiting on sex.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 Yes. Info about Trish comes out slowly, for instance.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Yes, a few.
Part #6: Tone 9/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
 Yes, the romantic comedy / sex-comedy
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 Yes, it combines a very atypical coming-of-age story (in that the man coming of age is 40) with the rising genre of “bro-comedy”
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 Yes, he gets laid, but in a very non-bro way: after marrying a grandma.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Yes, good humor. Apatow is plenty dirty, but he distinguishes himself from Phillips and McCay by having a laid-back benevolent vibe.  My favorite example of this is the way the waxer winces and laughs in sympathy.  She neither ignores nor enjoys the pain.  Everybody feels real and gets to be as sympathetic as possible.
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?
 Very much so: When will he finally have sex. 
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Yes. The three guys all represent various fates.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Not at all.  One problem with the improvisatory process is that they have no good idea where it’s going, so they can’t hint at it.  (No hint of her kids before they’re revealed, no hint of Jay’s girlfriend’s pregnancy, etc.)  On the DVD, they point out that the crew was baffled that the movie cut together, because they shot literally 1 million feet of film without much of a plan.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Very much so: He watches “Survivor” with his neighbors every week and then misses it for the date, etc.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Yes.  The movie ends one minute after it’s answered.
PART 7: THEME 14/14
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?
 Respect for women vs. need for sex, self-sufficiency vs. co-dependent love.
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
“I respect women.  I love women.  I respect them so much that I completely stay away from them! I have a very fulfilling life!” Later, about his action figures: “They lose their value when you take them out of the box!”
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Yes: Accept a drunk ride or lose out on chance to have sex, cover for a cheating friend, etc.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 Very much so.  It’s so rare to see a movie about people who actually have jobs!
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.  This feels like a very real stereo store, including petty sales commission battles, etc.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Just a little bit.  Their south Asian coworkers mention 9/11, etc.  Jay says “That’s my third strike!”  (They cut out that Cal was writing an Iraq war novel)
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Yes, once you take gentle physics into account.
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
 Yes: the action figures still in the boxes represent virginity, the bike represents immaturity, etc.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 Just a little bit: the action figures, the box of porn, though I don’t know if they grow in meaning
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 Respect for women and need for sex remain equally important, self-sufficiency is not as good as co-dependent love.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 Yes, he finds sex but only by marrying a grandmother.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Yes, the other guys’ relationships remain vague.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 Yes.  He never says what he learned.
Final Score: 113 out of 122

1 comment:

A.D. said...

Well done Apatow. Your story checks out.

Could that be the title of the book? "Your Story Checks Out?"