Sunday, May 31, 2015

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Let Them Lose the Thread

I just watched John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers for the first time and I was happy to discover that it’s a wildly underrated movie (Hey, remember when I used to write about those?)

It’s a rousing cavalry film with fantastic performances from John Wayne and William Holden, but it’s also a tragic portrait of America at its worst moment, and, as far as I can tell, one of only two theatrically-released Civil War movies in which, get this, the north are the good guys and the south are the bad guys! (The other being Glory. Are there any more?)

There were lots of moments in the movie that I loved, but, as a screenwriter, my favorite was a dialogue exchange between Wayne and Constance Towers. After having seized a Mississippi town in a fierce battle, the Union patrol has requisitioned a local saloon to treat the wounded.  As Holden, the field doctor, tries to save lives, Wayne acts disgusted and goes to the bar to get drunk. Towers doesn’t understand this and confronts him:
  • Towers: He’s fighting to save men’s lives!
  • Wayne (bitterly sarcastic): Men’s lives are the reputation of his profession.
  • Towers: Can’t you be serious for a moment?
  • Wayne: Okay, have it your way...
  • Towers: Medicine is the most noble and unselfish--
  • Wayne: --Sure! Noble profession! Noble oath! Lanterns held up high! So high…they won’t admit…they’re groping for… (Can’t figure out a way out of that metaphor, so he just trails off.)
  • Towers: (Waits in vain for him to finish his metaphor, then realizes that he never will, so she resumes the debate with) You’re unfair…
(Wayne eventually reveals that his wife was falsely diagnosed with a tumor and killed by the unnecessary operation.)

Finally, a movie that acknowledges the way that real people use metaphors: ineptly! (Especially when they’re drunk and prone to high-horse putdowns.) If you’re searching for ways to make your dialogue more realistic, this is how you do it: have them talk as if nobody has written down what they’ll say before they say it.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: An Ironic Corrected Statement of Philosophy in The Fighter

We’ve discussed many times the idea that every hero should have not one but two statements of philosophy, one at the beginning of the story, and another after the spiritual crisis, about three-quarters of the way through the story.

The initial statement of philosophy is inherently ironic, because it’s wrong. The hero’s words to live by are ruining his life, or at least holding him back. But when the correct statement of philosophy arrives three-quarters of the way into the story, there’s a danger that it will seem preachy or lame, as if it’s “the moral of the story”. One way to get around this is to have the corrected statement of philosophy be delivered in an ironic way.

We’ve looked at two examples of this recently in sitcom pilots. In both cases, the sitcom was trying to maintain an “edgy” tone, and they didn’t want to break that for a moment of sentiment, so they found a way to deliver the true statement or philosophy ironically:
  • In the “Community” pilot, Jeff is delivering a disingenuous speech in order to break up the study-group early so that he can seduce Britta. He doesn’t realize until halfway through that his bullshit is actually something he himself needs to hear.
  • In the “Modern Family” pilot, it sounds as if Jay is delivering a heartfelt summation of the episode in a voiceover, but then we cut to him and he’s reading his stepson’s ludicrous love-letter, shaking his head in derision the whole time.
The Fighter is a much more forthrightly emotional story, and it does have a traditional corrected statement of philosophy (“I want Dicky back, and I want you, and I want Charlene, I want my family. What’s wrong with that??”), but after that there’s another one that’s very ironic. In his big championship fight, Micky’s chosen entry music is Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again”: Just before he goes into the ring, he and his brother touch their foreheads together and sing the lyrics in unison:
  • “Here I go again on my own! Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known! Like a drifter I was born to walk alone! ‘Cause I made up my mind! I ain’t wastin’ no more time! So here I go again!” 
Then, without another word, Micky goes into the ring and wins the championship. How ironic is that? First of all, any other movie would only use such a cheesy song in an ironic way, so it’s ironic that it’s unironic here. But of course the big irony is that the brothers are merging into one as they sing about how neither one needs the other.

The most fundamental dilemma in storytelling (or life) is individualism vs. solidarity. Every battle that tears  America apart, culturally, economically, and politically, is fueled by that irresolvable dilemma. In this scene, Micky and Dicky finally solve their conflict by embracing a paradox.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: Info-Drip in The Fighter

I’ve said before that you should info-drip instead of info-dump. I’ve also written about how ironic backstory should be parceled out: if the we’re presented with the character and the ironic backstory in the same scene, it feels too pat, but if we find out the backstory either a few scenes before or a few scenes after we meet the character, it will be far more ironic and meaningful.

The Fighter does a masterful job of this, slowly revealing to us what the characters already know: that former boxing champ Dicky is now a hopeless crack addict, that he’s worthless as Micky’s trainer, and that the documentary crew that’s supposedly making a movie about his “comeback” is really making a movie about his crack addiction. Here’s how it dribbles out:
  • We first meet the brothers as Dicky tells the unseen documentarians about his fighting style vs. Micky’s. We sense that something may be wrong with Dicky, but we aren’t sure what.
  • Then we see them raking gravel and shadow-boxing. Now we see the film crew shooting footage of them. Dicky shouts out to passersby that HBO is making a movie about his comeback.
  • Then, during the opening montage, we see how popular they are in the neighborhood. (We also see that this is town where drugs are sold openly on the street.)
  • Then we see Micky waiting in the ring for Dicky, who hasn’t shown up to train him. Instead, a cop shows up and offers to train Micky. The documentarians say that they don’t know where Dicky is, but the cops says, “You know where he is.” (This is the first point where the audience thinks “Oh, everybody in this movie knows something we don’t.”)
  • Then we cut away to a rundown house, where Dicky is shadowboxing with some skeezy friends. Finally one of them offers up a crack bong and he takes a hit. Aha!
  • Even then, it’s only much later, 45 minutes into the movie, in another crackhouse scene, that we hear someone else ask the documentarians what their movie is about and they forthrightly say that it’s about crack addiction, within earshot of Dicky, who isn’t surprised. Only now do we know everything that everybody else knew going in.
Throughout the first half of this movie, Micky’s intertia keeps him trapped in a bad situation with his family. Despite Charlene’s pressure, he really only snaps out of it when Dicky is sent to jail. So how do they keep us from getting frustrated with this stalemated situation? One answer is to create a problem just for us: What’s the deal with Dicky? This presents a challenge for the audience that keep us interested long enough for Micky to rouse himself from his lethargy.

Dicky’s life is so powerfully ironic (the beloved “Pride of Lowell” is a crackhead) that a slow info-drip allows us to discover all of the ironies over several scenes.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: A Subconscious Ticking Clock in The Fighter

The Ultimate Checklist for The Fighter examines the wonderful scene in which Charlene forces Micky to confront his mother and brother about their mismanagement of his career. Let’s look at how the scene subconsciously creates suspense.

Scenes always benefit from a “ticking clock”. The simplest form of this is a scene in which one side was ambushed and tries to get away from the conversation the whole time. But in the scene we looked at, the meeting was planned in advance and both sides seem to be willing to discuss this for as long as it takes (even though nobody wants to be there). So how do you add suspense?

The answer has to do with another post: have a non-story element in each scene. In this case, we begin as Micky and Charlene wait uncomfortably for Alice and Dicky to arrive while Micky’s seven sisters glare at them. Charlene glares right back, then aggressively engages them in conversation, attempting to determine which sister goes with which nickname (“You’re Beaver? And you’re Red Bear? Red Beard?”). The girls sneer that those nicknames are only for family. Micky snaps at them “Be nice!” But then, a beat later, even though the sisters haven’t said anything else, he wilts and says quietly to Charlene, “Don’t use the nicknames.”

So now we’ve established the problem: Micky will only stick by Charlene so long until he caves to family pressure and his own conflict-averse nature. Just then, Alice and Dicky arrive, and we have the subconscious sense that Charlene is going to have to fight against the clock to get keep Micky on the offensive before he instinctively “goes back to his corner.” She’s got a long way to go and a short time to get there…and as Burt Reynolds can tell you, that’s the heart of good drama.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: The Ultimate Gutpunch in The Fighter

In “Little Women”, Louisa May Alcott has one of my favorite lines in literature: “Being good would be easy if we could do it all at once.”

Dicky in The Fighter wants to become a good person, and he “turns a new leaf” almost every day of his life, but it never takes. The pain of his failures overtakes him and he once again seeks out crack because of the relief it brings: “You feel like everything is ahead of you.” After all, he was once the “Pride of Lowell”, the scrappy young fighter who knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, and then he lost it all. His troughs are all the more painful because his peak was so high. Any modest success he achieves now will only be mockery of his past glory, so why try?

It’s not that Dicky doesn’t have people who love him: He has friends and family who demand that he do better and snap out of his addiction, but it never works. Then he meets Charlene.

Dicky has returned from prison, determined to become Micky’s trainer again, but Charlene and Micky’s new handlers forbid it. At first Micky sides with them, then changes his mind and lets Dicky back in the ring (causing Charlene to storm out), then changes his mind again and kicks Dicky out after all. Dicky realizes that he must reach out to Charlene and work things out. He hates her, but he knows Micky needs her.
  • Dicky: I ain’t got no use for you either, but my brother loves you, and you can’t just run away because of me, he don’t deserve that, alright? So I will quit, if you want me to quit.
  • Charlene: You’re full of shit.
  • Dicky: Swear to god, I will quit if it means you come back, but I want you to think about something. Micky has a chance to do something I never did, and in my time I never had.
  • Charlene: Oh yeah: “My big chance was with Sugar Ray Leonard!  I’m so great!  I’m the pride of fucking Lowell! Oh yeah, I fought Sugar Ray Leonard!” I heard it.
  • Dicky: I’m here to make things right.
  • Charlene: Okay, let’s make things right. Number one: you didn’t knock down Sugar Ray Leonard. He tripped.
Then she just looks at him.  Boom. Gutpunch. Dicky’s manic energy deflates. He flounders, and tries to gutpunch her back, but he soon acquiesces, implicitly accepting her terms.

He thinks that offering to quit (and thereby acknowledging that Micky needs her more than him) is the ultimate abasement, and so that’ll win her over. But she has another abasement in mind. It’s not enough to take away his present position, she sees that she has to take away his past position as well. He can’t help if he keeps pretending that he’s passing the mantle on to his brother. He can only help if he admits that it was never his.

This, at long last, is what Dicky needs to hear. He can stop trying to live up to his glory days because they never existed. He’s just who he is, that’s all he’s ever been, that’s all he’ll ever be, and that’s all he needs to be. He loses his past and gains a future. This is the best kind of gutpunch: brutal, incisive, and absolutely necessary.

P.S. This also backs up another old post:
  • The few times that someone has told me what my problem was and actually hit the nail on the head, they were people who hated my guts and never wanted to see me again. In each case, I wasn’t happy to hear it, and I tended to let them know it. Only later did I sheepishly realize that they had actually told me something I needed to hear.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Straying from the Party Line: Micky and Mookie as Passive Heroes

The Fighter is the second movie we’ve examined that features a passive hero, but Mookie in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was a far more extreme example: Not only was Mookie passive, but the movie was not about the solving of a large problem, which is extremely rare. The Fighter is a far more traditional movie: there is a large problem, and the hero is committed to solving it, but nevertheless he cannot snap out of his passive nature in order to do so.

One might expect, then, that this is the big flaw that Micky learns to overcome, but that’s not really the case: he remains relatively passive right through the end, except for one key moment.

Micky enters the final quarter of the movie facing a problem: he has two groups of people that love him and want the best for him, but neither group can give him everything he needs, and they hate each other’s guts. Even now, however, he does not to take control of his own life and start making his own decisions. Instead, he breaks out of his passivity just long enough to stand up to them all and insist on having them both in his corner…then he does nothing to make that happen!
The two groups then work out their differences without his help, and he happily goes back to passively accepting the advice of the newly-merged group. He has become proactive and solved his problem, but he has done so in the most passive possible way.

Of course, passive heroes are supposed to be the third rail of writing: instant death upon contact. So why don’t we get overly frustrated with Micky? Two reasons...
  • For one thing, Micky has the most likable type of passivity: He’s hard-working but conflict-averse. He just wants everybody to be happy. This is clearly a flaw, but it’s one that’s hard to condemn.
  • The most prominent people on each side, Dicky and Charlene, are so compelling and likeable that they almost qualify as co-heroes along with Micky, so when we get frustrated with Micky we can root for them instead. Ultimately, there’s a reason that everybody but Wahlberg got Oscars (or lost out to each other): His performance is just as masterful, but he humbly lets the other actors steal every scene, content to be the eye of the hurricane.
And here’s another interesting contrast between Micky and Mookie: They’re both peacemakers, but Mookie is trying to keep a peace in Bed-Stuy that is, for the most part, beneficial to all, whereas Micky is trying to keep a peace in his family that is detrimental to all. Thus Mookie’s belated abandonment of peacemaking feels like a tragedy, while Micky’s is clearly a triumph. Yes, Micky quickly falls back into his conflict-averse stance, but now he has replaced the detrimental peace with a beneficial peace, so he can happily go back to his default peacemaking stance.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Straying from the Party Line: Wrapping Up the Drama a Little Early in The Fighter

Here and here, I say that the dilemma needs to last right up until the climax or sometimes past it. Either the climactic action resolves it, or it gets resolved afterwards in an epilogue. This is because any climax that happens after the resolution of the dilemma will feel meaningless as the story “rolls downhill.”

In fact I previously pointed to this very movie as an example of how to do this right:
  • Ward is famous today for the three knock-down, drag-out title fights he fought against Arturo Gatti. But you won’t see those here. The writers took a good look at his life, decided that the best story was Ward’s struggle with his own family, and then ruthlessly pared that story down to its essence. We begin when Ward finally becomes aware of that problem and we end when that problem is ultimately resolved. The Gatti fights came about because Ward had solved his problems outside the ring, so they have no place here.
So instead of showing the Gatti fights, they ended with the fight in which Ward wins the championship belt from Shea Neary, but even then, the emotional dilemmas (with his brother, his mother and his girl) are still resolved a few scenes before that fight, and the championship fight we see is merely the payoff to that resolution...and that’s fine.
Another movie with a similar structure is Breaking Away: There too, Dave resolves all of his issues with his dad, his girlfriend, and his friends, and then begins the triumphant final bicycle race. As with The Fighter, the result is an exhilarating stand-up-and-cheer triumph, and we don’t really care that things are rolling downhill.

The implication is clear: sports movies get a little more slack. The alternative, after all, is to have the person the hero is having a problem with sitting in the stands, allowing them to silently communicate their emotional breakthrough just before our hero wins the match. It can be done, but it’s far from ideal, so it’s okay to wrap the emotional beats up a little early, and end with nothing but triumph. In some sports movies, the actual victory is just a victory lap.

(How much of an extension on the deadline do you get? Probably only about ten minutes, so don’t push it!)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Ultimate Story Checklist: The Fighter

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
In this true story, Micky Ward is a would-be prizefighter in Lowell, Massachusetts, held back by his exploitative family: mother Alice, brother Dicky (both brothers spell their names without an “e”), and seven heckling sisters. Dicky used to be a boxing hopeful himself but he’s now a crack addict. Micky finally breaks away when he starts dating a brash barmaid named Charlene. After Dicky goes to prison, Micky agrees to work with new people who give him two conditions: “No Dicky, No Alice.” He finally starts to win, but once Dicky is released, Micky starts taking his advice again, and, to everyone’s surprise, it helps, so he finally forces Charlene, Alice, Dicky, and his new cornermen to work together, allowing him to win the championship.

PART #1: CONCEPT 18/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
The inspiring true story of a boxer who breaks free of his explotative family to become a champion.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
Sort of: a gentle boxer lacks self-esteem. 
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
Very much so.  We all have to break free of our families in order to succeed.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
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? 
Yes.  It begins when he realizes that his family is the problem, and ends when they reconcile with his girlfriend.  They could have gone further to show Micky’s most famous fights, but they don’t, because that’s outside the scope of the problem.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
Yes, a boxer and his crackhead brother.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Yes, his new girlfriend won’t let him screw himself over any more.
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: he becomes champion and ultimately doesn’t have to give up either side of his life.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
He’s ready to snap when the movie begins.
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 can’t stand the thought of choosing between his family and his girlfriend.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Not really.  He’s fairly passive, and many of the breakthroughs are forced upon him: he dad makes him ask Charlene out, Charlene forces him to make good on that, his new handlers force him to cut his family out… Most importantly, Charlene and Dicky make peace without him.
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?
Very much so: All four sub-genres (Boxing, addiction, romance, family drama) end heroically.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
Not really.  This is frequently a problem with dramas. 
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
Sort of.  Amy Adams cursing like a sailor.  Dicky jumping out the window.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
Very much so: Micky needs Dicky after all.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Very much so.
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?)
He joke-fights with his brother while paving streets, then high-fives some black people, kisses a mentally challenged kid. Funny: you gotta pay them to shut up.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Well, he, his whole family, and really his whole town is defined by his brother’s backstory (while Micky doesn’t really have one of his own), but the fact that Micky puts up with that actually does a good job of defining him.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
The stepping stone.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
He’s ready to break out. 
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Family: The first thing he says to Charlene is “You’re Kenny Fleming’s sister”. Everybody is defined by family.  Gentleman: “Be nice! Be respectful! Don’t disrespect her!”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Meek, quiet, humble, seething
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Shrugs, gives up, and mutters his dissent
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
Sort of, he wants to be a champion, but he’ll sacrifice his chances to make money for his family.  In the end, though, he realizes that that’s a sickness, and the best way to help them is to pursue his own self-interest.
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)?
He starts out with the right boxing philosophy, but he says about his brother, “Nobody pushes me harder.”  That’s wrong.
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
Win the fight against Saul Mamby.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
Open: That he’s a stepping stone, that his family is holding him back.  Hidden: That he can’t succeed without them.
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 too selfless.
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 loyal to and trusts all of those he loves.
Is the hero curious?
Yes, he studies his future opponents, etc.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
No.  He has to be prodded into everything and shown how to do it. 
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 “I’m no stepping stone, that’s not who I am, the next one’s gonna show who I am.” Nobody better mess with my family. “I’m gonna pick my punches.” “I’m a boxer, not a brawler.”
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Everybody, even Charlene, is loud but he’s quiet.  Nobody else has his earning potential.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
Yes and no.  He’s very reluctant to, but he speaks up for himself at several key points.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
He’s paving and sparring.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
He has it, but he disclaims it.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
Yes, he learned his boxing philosophy as a child. 
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)?
Longstanding social problem: Can’t get good fights, trainer never shows up.  Denied flaw:  His attachment to his family is the problem.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
Dicky doesn’t show up, he’s forced into a bad fight, loses brutally.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
He meets Charlene.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
He ditches out of their first date.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
She pursues him and they hook up.
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?
His family doesn’t approve of her.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
He keeps them apart, tries to stick with Dicky despite her advice.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
They have a strong relationship. They have a family dinner to celebrate an upcoming fight.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
Dicky gets arrested outside, Micky goes to help, gets hand busted.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
He finally tries to make it without Dicky.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Yes, he realizes that he should trust Charlene more than his family.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
Yes, he starts winning fights.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Watching the documentary is painful for all.  Breaking with Alice is painful. 
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
It’s not so much a setback as a dangerous bit of success: he takes good advice from Dicky, putting him back in danger of falling into his old ways.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
I want you both in my corner
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
Yes, he realizes that he’ll have to force his new handlers to allow Dicky back in.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Very briefly, when he demands that they all work together, but once he does that, they do the work of working out their differences and leading him to the championship.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
No.  The fight happens on schedule with lots of advance word.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
Yes, they’re all there at the fight.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
Quite a bit before.  The last 15 minutes of this movie “roll downhill” a little bit, as Mickey solves his problems out of the ring well before the last fight.
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)
Interview, Dicky says, “He put Lowell back on the map.” Micky says “We”.  “Who’s the pride of Lowell now? Right here.” Points at Micky. “I gotta go.”
PART #4: SCENEWORK 19/20 (Micky and Charlene confront Mickys family about his career.)
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?
Everybody is extremely tense.  We’ve seen the sisters turn the mom against Micky.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
Yes, we begin after they’ve been waiting for Alice for a while.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
This is the mom’s bear cave and everybody is scared of her there.  Also having seven angry sisters there.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
Yes and no, they’ve all planned to be there, but they’d all rather be anywhere else.  Alice has planned on ignoring Charlene but isn’t allowed to.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
The sisters’ nicknames. 
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
They’re all committed to staying until they reach a deal, but the subconscious ticking clock that they’re all aware of is Mickey’s ever-faltering resolve, which will collapse if they can wear him out long enough.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
For everyone.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
We are rooting for Charlene to break Micky free of Dicky and Alice.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Very much so. 
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface conflict: Why has Micky been hard to get a hold of? Who is Charlene? Suppressed conflict: Will Alice and Dicky stay on as manager and trainer?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
The Vegas offer is brought up instead of saying that Alice and Dicky are taking his money.  Charlene is called an “MTV girl” before she forces them to define that.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
All except Charlene.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
Alice and Dicky offer a new bout to pre-empt the conversation.  Dicky claims he can get money.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
Oddly, there is no re-blocking after Alice and Dicky sit down.  Presumably it just would have been too hard to choreograph an 11-character scene in a small space.  There is one touch, when Dicky puts a hand on Micky’s knee to pull him back in.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
Not really.  Alice has a business binder, but doesn’t offer a paper of the new deal to Micky, as we would expect. She smokes a cigarette, and smoke wafts onto everyone.  Neither really counts
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?
Sort of. It mostly ends in a draw.  Micky agrees to give Dicky a chance to get the money.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
Yes, Micky and Charlene came to confront the family, but they get sucked in. 
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
Previous: What will happen when Charlene meets them?  What will the next fight be?  New: How will Dicky get the money?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
Dicky says he’ll get the money, Micky responds, “You? How?”
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, we hate that he’s being sucked back in.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Yes.  Not as much for the sisters, but they’re still pretty lovable. 
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?
Well, Mickey’s whole problem is that he fails to do this, but he learns the value of prioritizing his own wants, so that counts.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Well, everybody’s pretty brash except Mickey, but everybody has hard confessions dragged out of them in the end.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
Again, there’s little they won’t say, but yes, they’re all nicely passive aggressive about Micky being courted by other managers, for instance.
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?
 Tons of Lowell-ese. Boxing tradecraft:  “Stepping-stone” “Head-body-head” etc.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor family: Alice: Lowell, Dicky: boxing, Charlene: bar, Default personality trait: Alice: vain, manipulative. Dicky: gregarious, hyper, sketchy. Charlene: blunt, sexual, honest.  , Argument strategy: Alice: Guilt trip, false promises. Dicky: lies, appeal to old times. Charlene: hits you where it hurts.
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?
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
Despite the fact that the personalities are extreme, everyone is 3-dimensional.  You could say that Dicky and Micky are 2-way polarized: silent vs. prattling, slow-burn vs. flame-out, etc.  Dicky’s constant advice to Micky: “Head-Body-Head-Body!”, speaks to the fact that a champion must be both a boxer (head) and a brawler (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?
Very much so, after the first date.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
Yes, it’s expertly parceled out, particularly our growing awareness of the magnitude of Dicky’s (and therefore Micky’s) problem.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Yes, a few.  When Charlene says she won’t let Dicky back in Micky’s corner unless he says that Sugar Ray tripped, that’s a hell of a gutpunch.  Also when Micky says “I thought you were my mother too.”
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?)
It combines four: Sports, biopic, drama, merged throughout
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
Yes. Boxing, addiction, romance, family drama
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
It satisfies just about all.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
Yes, it’s surprisingly upbeat and funny throughout, no matter how grim it gets, which is one of Russell’s gifts.
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?
He says he’s going to be a champion.
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
Interviews with Micky and Dicky.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
Dicky is a cautionary tale for Micky.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
Not really.  Russell is a very direct sort of filmmaker.  Everything feels very raw and real, and that describes the characters as well.  He likes to disappear as a director, and not grant himself foreknowledge of their actions. There’s never any ominous camerawork or music.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
Dicky goes to the crackhouse one last time, etc.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
Micky becomes champion.
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?
Family vs. independence.
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
Implied: is he a boxer or a brawler or can be be both?
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Should you protect your criminal brother from a police beating? 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 a true story.
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. They shot in Lowell, and some people played themselves.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so.  Lots about crack, etc.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Yes.  Dicky goes to jail.  Both brothers have kids they rarely see.  The broken hand keeps Micky out of the ring for a long time.
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?
All of the talk about fighting styles parallels what’s going on out of the ring: “He takes a lot of punishment, I don’t know why he does it, he stays on the inside, I fight on the outside.” Etc.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
Charlene’s number on a bar napkin.  The “pride of Lowell” cake. 
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 Family and independence must be kept in balance.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
Very much so.  What starts out as a story about breaking free of your rotten family becomes a story about taking strength from your rotten family.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
Very much so. The events are very messy.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
No, the epilogue hits it pretty squarely on the head, but that’s fine.  It’s a sports movie.
Final Score: 115 out of 122