Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Ultimate Story Checklist: The Fighter

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 20/21
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.
Is this a new twist on a classic type of story?
Yes, a mix of boxing movie, crack movie, and family drama.  But funny.
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”?
Is the story about the hero’s problem, not the hero’s 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.
Is it about 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 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.
Is the hero the person working the hardest to solve the problem?
 He’s fairly passive, and many of the breakthroughs are forced upon him: his dad makes him ask Charlene out, Charlene forces him to make good on that, his new handlers force him to cut his family out, Charlene and Dicky make peace without him, but…
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Does the hero permanently transform the situation?
Does the situation permanently transform the hero?
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
Sort of: a boxer sparring with a crackhead. 
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.
Part #2: Character 22/23
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 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 that 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, not-selfless, 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 false 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 short-sighted goal when we first meet him or her?
Win the fight against Saul Mamby.
Does the hero have an open anxiety about his or her future?
That he’s a stepping stone, that his family is holding him back.
Does the hero also have a hidden, private fear?
That he can’t succeed without them.
Is the hero vulnerable, both physically and emotionally?
Very much so.
Does the hero have an untenable great flaw that we empathize with? (but…)
He’s too selfless.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw the natural flip-side of a great strength that 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 actively pursuing an early goal when we first meet him or her?
Beat Saul Mamby.
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) 22/24
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 (and/or villain) get to have a little fun at this point, in a way that exemplifies the appeal of the concept?
They have a strong relationship.
Does the hero get excited about the possibility of success?
They have a family dinner to celebrate an upcoming fight.
Does this culminate in a midpoint disaster?
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 lose a safe space and/or sheltering relationship at this point?
He loses Dicky and the use of his hand.
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
He finally tries to make it without Dicky.
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
Very much so.
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 22/23 (Micky and Charlene confront the sisters, Dicky and their mom Alice)
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?
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
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 nobody doesn’t offer the new deal to Micky, as we would expect. She smokes a cigarette, and smoke wafts onto everyone.  Neither really counts
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
Introduce Charlene, stand up to family, win him back over.
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?
What will happen when Charlene meets them?  What will the next fight be?
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
How will Dicky get the money?
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.
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?”
Part #5: Dialogue 19/19
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?
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 listen poorly?
Very much so.
Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?
Very much so.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
Tons of Lowell-ese.
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
 Very much so.  “Stepping-stone” “Head-body-head” etc.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
 Alice: Lowell, Dicky: boxing, Charlene: bar
Are there additional characters with default personality traits?
Alice: vain, manipulative. Dicky: gregarious, hyper, sketchy. Charlene: blunt, sexual, honest.
Are there additional characters with default argument strategies?
 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.
Is there a minimum of 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?
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 14/16
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, without introducing a new genre after the first quarter?)
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 story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre and sub-genre?
Very much so: All four sub-genres end heroically.
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)? 
Yes.  Boxing movies are always about how life feels: you take a lot of hits. 
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
It satisfies just about all.
Mood: Does the story create a certain feeling?
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.
Are the physics of the world (realistic or stylized?) established early and maintained throughout?
Realistic.  The punches really land.
Is the nature of the stakes (lethal, social, psychological and/or spiritual?) established early and maintained throughout?
Social and psychological. 
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Are open questions posed in the first half, which will keep the audience from asking the wrong questions later on?
”You gotta let him go, Mick.”  “I can’t do it without him!”  The question is, can he do it without Dicky, not “will he break away?” or “will he keep boxing?”, etc.
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 set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience (and maybe distract attention from plot contrivances)?
Ditto.  There certainly are contrivances, such as the fact that time is greatly compressed, but Russell distracts us through bluntness rather than subtlety. 
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 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 ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards on 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.

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