Monday, September 14, 2015

The Ultimate Story Checklist: The Fugitive

Hi guys! So no, I’m not just going to keep churning out these checklists forever. I have big plans for this blog, and we’ll talk about those plans soon, but in the meantime, I’m going to add a few final checklists to build a more robust data set. (I’ll also have a poll soon as to which movies and TV shows I should add before I finish, so you can also chime in about that if you want.) Nevertheless, I wanted to start out with some real content, and since I moved to Chicago this summer (Evanston, actually, which is lovely) I would celebrate with the ultimate Chicago movie...
Richard Kimble is a successfully surgeon and loving husband, but after he questions a drug study, he comes home and finds a one-armed man has just murdered his wife. Convicted of the crime himself, he is sent to jail, only to be freed from the transport bus by an accident. Returning to Chicago, he searches for his wife’s killer while a determined U.S. Marshal named Gerard searches for him. Kimble eventually finds that his friend Nichols hired the killer, and Gerard gradually realizes that he’s chasing an innocent man.
PART #1: CONCEPT 17/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
A falsely-convicted fugitive hunts for his wife’s killer.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
A wealthy doctor learns what it’s like to be a dehumanized convict, and a marshall realizes that he himself can sometimes be the bad guy.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
The most universal emotion is to feel misundertood / misjudged.
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? 
Very much so.  The first ten minutes do an amazing job of zipping through the set-up.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
Very much so: a fugitive and his Marshall.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
It’s his greatest fear: losing his wife, confronting the politics of being a doctor, etc.  Also he’s afraid of being discovered as an imposter in the upper class world (worries that he’ll only look like a waiter in a tux, his wife had the real money) and then has to sink down into that world.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
Not really.  He reacts less than the average person would. 
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)?
Sort of for Kimble: he never wanted to engage with the real world, but has to now.  Very much so for Gerard, which is what helps Jones steal the movie from Ford.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Sort of: Gerard could have solved it too, if he only cared.  In this sense, Kimble’s job is really not to catch the one-armed man or Nichols (what can he do with them?), but to convince Gerard to care, and therefore arrest the others instead of him. Once he finally convinces Gerard, they work together to solve the problem, but it would actually be better at that point if Kimble just got out of the way and let Gerard do it alone. Ultimately, it’s good that Kimble’s still there at the end, because he saves Gerard’s life, but if Kimble had just stopped running in that ballroom, that would have been better for everybody.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
 Again, it transforms Gerard more than Kimble.
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.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
The one-armed man, the waterfall, the train, etc.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
The waterfall jump, the train hitting the bus. 
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
His friend is the real villain, the marshal is his real ally.
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?)
Just barely, when his wife says that he always looks sexy in a tux, and he winces and says he always feels like a waiter in one. 
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Very much so.  We get almost no backstory.  When they want to show that he’s a good guy, they don’t flashback to his heroic deeds as a doctor, they allow him to have new doctor deeds, even though he has no time for that.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
A famous fugitive wife-murderer.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
An innocent and good man.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Ironically, it’s law: Approaches his wife and says to the men chatting her up “Nothing to see here, and you, come with me.”  To the police: “You find this man.”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
He’s anti-social, devoted, gruff, compassionate.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
He’s clearly not good at making his case verbally.  All he can do is blurt out denials: “I didn’t kill my life.” He tends to succeed by disappearing, both visually and in other ways: he breaks in by muttering, changes order by scribbling an illegible signature.  Even when he confronts Nichols at the end, he just blurts out the accusations.  So yeah, he has a consistent tactic, it’s just incompetent.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
Very much so.  He’s determined to find his wife’s killer and he’ll be executed if he doesn’t do it.
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)?
Kimble: Just barely, but when he finally realizes that they suspect him and he says “How dare you?”, that shows his naiveite.  Gerard has a much clearer one: “I don’t care.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
1st:  beginning: get home to wife without talking with other doctors, 2nd beginning: convince the cops he didn’t do it.  Later: convince Gerard
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
 Open: He’s afraid of crime (he has a security system and a gun) Hidden: He’s afraid that he doesn’t fit in with the rich (his wife grew up rich, he grew up with less money), and that he looks like a waiter in his tux.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
Somewhat. In both cases, he’s pretty tough.  He does have a limp throughout though, but it seems to come and go.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
He’s naïve, about the justice system, about the politics of the medical world, etc.
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?
And the flip side of that is that he’s self-sacrificing: three times, he puts himself in danger to save others. Ironically, because his true (unforseen) goal is to convince Gerard of his righteousness, he actually helps his question by helping others in ways that seems to damage his quest. 
Is the hero curious?
Not really.  The conspiracy doesn’t even occur to him until he’s already exposed it. 
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Yes.  He’s very good at figuring out how to live on the run.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Figure it out, help others, rely on yourself.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Yes, no one around him has his empathy. When he tries to help the guard, the other guard the other convict both have total contempt for him. (Cop: “The hell with you.” Criminal: “Kiss my ass.”)
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
Not verbally, but he pointed refuses to stop doing what he’s doing whenever others tell him to back off. 
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
No.  He’s very passive for as long as possible.  He refuses to engage
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Yes. He’s his own boss once he’s on the run.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
Very much so.  Davis from the commentary: “The idea of Richard Kimble the doctor using hospitals to take care of his wounds, find the one-armed man, his intelligence is all tied into his being a doctor and knowing how to operate, literally operate, in a hospital.”
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)?
 Well, we have two beginnings: In the first we see glimpse of his flaw (he’s naïve about the nature of the doctor politics) but he doesn’t really have any social problems to get irritated by. In the second, in interrogation, his flaw is on display and suddenly he’s got lots of problems, social and otherwise.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
Yes: the arrest, but it’s far more than a social humiliation.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
Yes, his bus wrecks and he has a chance to escape.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
Yes, briefly, he’s the only one who hesitates to leave the bus, then he’s hesitant to take the other convict’s hand.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
Yes, he’s cutting his hair and going on the run. 
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?
Yes, it turns out that the world’s best marshal in on his trail.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
Yes, he just tries to get away (but not quite throughout the 2nd quarter: he switches to proactive at around the 48 minute mark)
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
Just a little tiny bit, when he jokes with the cop in the first hospital “Every time I look in the mirror, pal”. When he’s in the ambulance, he seems to have gotten away clean.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
The biggest crash actually happens quite a bit before the midpoint: he has to jump off the dam (42 minutes) At this point, he’s already lost everything, but now he goes to an even less safe place: Chicago.
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 determines to find the one-armed man himself.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
It takes a long time to figure that out, but he does right before the beginning of the 4th quarter.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
Very much so.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Very much so: Emotionally and physically.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Yes, he realizes how naïve he’s been and that he’s been betrayed by his friend.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
Kimble: Sort of: “I am trying to solve a puzzle here.” (aka I can’t trust in others to find the right answers and I need to rely on myself.)  Also: “To see a friend” (aka evil is all around me and I’ve been too trusting.)  Gerard: “That company is a monster.”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
Yes, he finally investigates Devlin McGregor
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
Very much so. 
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
Yes: he doesn’t know that the cops now consider him a cop-killer.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
Yes, to the degree that he has an inner struggle.  He finally trusts that Gerard trusts him, and his inner journey comes full circle.
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)
Kimble saves Gerard this time. Gerard also has reversible behavior: “Don’t tell anybody.”
PART #4: SCENEWORK (Gerard confronts Kimble atop a dam, but Kimble leaps off) 17/20
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?
Very tense, yes.  And Gerard definitely didn’t think Kimble would point a gun at him.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
No, we get the entire (very brief) scene
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Very much so.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
Yes, Kimble definitely has something better to do.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Yes, the water and the geography of the tunnels.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
Very subtly, the sound of the dam increases through the chase, so we sense that something large is looming to stop the chase.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
Gerard pretends that he doesn’t care, but he’s already beginning to, after Kimble fails to shoot him.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
Gerard and Kimble have had no scenes together, so until this point we’ve happily cheered for Kimble in the Kimble scenes and Gerard in the Gerard scenes.  Now we are forced to choose between them, which is fun.  Ultimately, we’re on Kimble’s side, of course.
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: the manhunt. Suppressed: Law vs. justice.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
See exchange of objects below.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Kimble no, Gerard yes.  Does he really care? 
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
Only in the sense that Gerard allows Kimble to think that he doesn’t have a back-up gun.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
There is no touch.  (Builds up release where there is finally a touch at the very end.)
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
Gerard’s gun changes hands, transferring the upper hand and therefore the moral authority, but Kimble refuses to use it. Kimble takes off ambulance jacket to reveal janitor’s uniform (his hidden fear).  Gerard opens his jacket to reveal another gun. (Don’t underestimate 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?
Kimble certainly hadn’t planned on jumping off that ledge!
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
Thought he was chasing a killer, but instead he seems to have become the killer himself.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
Previous: Can Kimble win Gerard over?  New: Did Kimble survive
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
Can we go home now?  (It’s answered immediately with “No.” but we don’t know why not yet.)
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
Very much so.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Very much so.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Very much so.  Kimble is baffled until late in the movie.  Gerard refuses to consider
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
Very much so.  That’s all anybody does, right up to the end.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Yes.  Gerard is very reluctant to apologize. 
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
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?
 Very much so, to an amazing degree.  The marshals and doctors on set were constantly feeding them lines.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor family: Gerard: Southern comedy: “We’ve got a gofer,” “every henhouse, outhouse” etc., Default personality trait: Gerard: Harsh, unforgiving, determined but funny. Cosmo: Sarcastic. Newman: insecure., Argument strategy: Gerard: Lets you hang yourself, then smothers you in contempt and dismisses you. Cosmo: Dangles leading questions, get Gerard to fill in the rest.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Very much so.
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, even the doctors. 
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
Partial polarization: Gerard has head and gut but lacks heart, Kimble has head and heart but lacks gut.  They each become more complete humans over the course of the movie.
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?
Yes, the very end between Girard and Kimble
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
Well, we begin with a massive info-dump, but the intercutting is so well done that it feels fine.  After that the exposition is dribbled out and well done.  Even with Kimble’s flashbacks, we only get the flashbacks as we need to get them (we don’t see the one-armed man until we need that part.)
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Not really with Gerard, but yes when Kimble finally confronts Nichols (who responds by literally punching him in the gut).  
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?)
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
Manhunt and whodunit
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
Yes, everybody is caught, but none of the bad guys are killed, which is why this movie was nominated for best picture: it rises above the base violent urges that usually fuel these genres. 
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
Realistic and somewhat fun.  There’s a lot of chatter and real-life detail.  This is an outlandish story in an extremely grounded and realistic world.  Interesting, we would normally call this tone “gritty”, but it’s pointedly not that.  This is a fairly benign world, in which even the marshals mostly enjoy their day while they do their grimly-determined work. 
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 implied: when will Gerard take Kimble into custody.
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
Yes, there is a Greek chorus of reporters throughout giving us the larger picture 
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
Gerard catches and kills the other fugitive.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
Each sequence begins with a brief advance look at the big set piece that’s coming (the dam, the parade, the sick kids they’re bringing in to the hospital, etc.)            
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
”Put that gun down.”  First he won’t, then he will.  “I don’t care.”  First he doesn’t then he does.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
Yes, the movie ends immediately after he goes into custody.
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?
Law vs. justice and public vs. private
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
Why would he come back to Chicago?  (Instead of placing himself above the law, as most outlaws do, he’s placing himself beneath the law: in order to pursue justice, he is placing himself back within the jurisdiction of the police.)
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Save the boy vs. stay free, etc.  Such decisions were the heart of the excellent TV show on which this was based.  As Davis points out in the commentary, the only sequence in the movie that is similar to average episodes of the original show is the one where he saves the boy and exposes his secret to Julianne Moore.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
Yes.  This is a very realistic portrayal of a false conviction, driven by inertia rather than intentional evil.  The way in which the manhunt goes down is also very realistic.
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)?
The worlds of medicine, fugitive tracking, and Chicago in general are all extremely authentic.  Davis is a lifelong Chicagoan and it shows.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so: The false conviction epidemic.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 Well, in the real world, it’s almost always poor minorities, not rich whites, who get railroaded, but it doesn’t feel hypocritical, rather, as Aristotle would say, making the fall from status larger makes the emotion feel more real.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
For the most part: he helps the guard (twice) but the guard turns him in anyway.  Gerard gets in trouble for shooting the other fugitive, etc. 
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, law vs. justice is everywhere (the drug dealer gets off by turning in Kimble, etc.) as does public vs. private (The one-armed man turns out to be an ex-cop who lost his arm in the line of duty and now works private security, going from public servant to private servant The drug trial which was behind everything is supposedly a “public-private” partnership but the private has corrupted it.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
The ID changes hands from the janitor to Kimble to Gerard, who rips off Kimble’s face to find the janitor underneath, which subtly calls back to Kimble saying that when he wears a tux he’ll look like a waiter.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
Yes, justice is better than law, but the solution is to forcibly bend the law back toward justice, rather than abandon law altogether.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
The fugitive and the marshal work together.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
Not really.  We even see that Cosmo is okay.  It’s a pretty tidy ending. 
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
They just barely do it, and that’s fine.  Gerard admits that he did come to care, this one time, but he laughs it off and says “Don’t tell anybody.” There’s no serious rapprochement.
Final Score: 110 out of 122


A.D. said...

Nice! Not to dump more work on you, but it would be interesting if you had a paragraph at the end of every checklist commenting on how a movie does or doesn't get away with breaking any of the 'rules' that it breaks.

For example, we have in The Fugitive a protag who's not curious and not active initially. Why isn't that a problem?

Matt Bird said...

That's what I do for the next week and a half of posts! All will be explored...

Unknown said...

Thanks for the blog Matt. Its my go-to place for writing advice. Over the past year I've produced a narrative podcast and I've used a lot of the ideas you've written about here and the reviews have all been very positve! So thanks a ton!

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Good to have you back! What I'd be curious to see is how you'd break down near-misses. Take a movie that doesn't work and figure out why. Don't pick obvious disasters -- breaking down a "Transformers" movie would be painful for everyone -- but movies that almost work and don't can be fascinating. Would the Ultimate Story Checklist be able to explain the flaw or flaws that aren't obvious?

A.D. said...

That sounds like 'the meddler' to me. As an alternative to Jerkwater's proposition, I propose looking at a couple movies that "shouldn't" work but do. Movies that utterly fail the checklist but are highly acclaimed. The first question is: are there any?

Matt Bird said...

I've thought about that, A.D., and the one I'd do would probably be "Slacker", which is a great movie that might score nearly zero, but I'm not sure how illuminating that would be. Likewise on the TV side, I've thought of doing "Louie", which, especially in the pilot was pretty weird.