Podcast

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Blazing Saddles

In 1874, sarcastic track layer Bart is left to die in quicksand, so he attacks his overseer Taggart. Attorney general Hedly Lamar saves Bart from the gallows and makes him sheriff of Rock Ridge so that the locals will flee (allowing Hedly to buy up the land.) Bart wins over the racist townsfolk with the help of the Waco Kid, a drunken gunfighter. After a final battle that spills over into a 1930s Hollywood backlot, Bart saves the townspeople, gets them to offer plots of land to his fellow railroad workers, then rides off into the sunset with the Kid.
PART #1: CONCEPT 20/21
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 A sarcastic black track layer in 1874 is set up to fail as the new sheriff of a white western town, but rises to the task.
Is this a new twist on a classic type of story?
Very much so: the appointed sheriff in a overrun western town was a classic subgenre, but this is a very new twist.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
Very much so: A black man must save a town of racists in order to save himself (and empower his people).
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
Very much so.  We’ve all had to prove ourselves, but not with these stakes.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Pretty much.  The 90-minute movie takes a full 30 minutes to construct its outlandish premise, but it’s time well spent.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Bart
Is the story about the hero’s problem, not the hero’s life? 
Very much so. In fact, Bart disappears off the screen for fifteen minutes as the problem develops, then reappears, already up to speed.
Is it about a unique relationship?
Very much so: a black old west sheriff and an alcoholic white gunslinger.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
”That’s Hedly!”
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
We don’t find out a lot about his hopes/fears/questions.   He’s seems to be largely emotionally unaffected by his extraordinary journey, except one moment at the exact midpoint.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
Yes.  He’s a natural leader, and only he could triumph in this situation.
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)?
Yes, it rankles him to have to save racists.
Is the hero the person working the hardest to solve the problem?
Yes.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Yes.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation?
Yes.
Does the situation permanently transform the hero?
At first he lashes out when his friend implores him not to, and gets himself sent to the gallows, but at the end he not only triumphs but negotiates help for his people.
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)?
A proud black sheriff on a horse.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
So many!  Punching out the horse!  The flatulence!  Almost every scene, really.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
Many.  Especially the bizarre ending.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Yes.
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Yes. It would have been easy to stop taking the story seriously once the 4th wall is broken, but the story remains compelling, and we easily go back into it at the end.
PART #2: CHARACTER 19/23
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?)
Oddball: He sings “I Get a Kick Out of You” instead of a spiritual.
Is the hero defined by actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Very much so.  We get a flashback to his childhood later on, but it’s just a gag.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
He’s the leader of the rail gang, then he’s the sheriff.
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Yes and no.  For the most part, what you see is what you get, and Bart is remarkably untroubled by his plight, but when we see the scene where he takes himself hostage, it’s hard not to think about W.E.B. DeBois’s description of “double-consciousness” (More on this later)
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Yes and no.  His m.p. is “gentleman”, as in “Well, to tell a family secret, my grandmother was dutch,” but this is drawn from none of those three.  He’s a man out of time. 
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Sarcasm, charm, brilliance.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Bizarre zaniness to disarm you, swaggering charm to win you over.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, not-selfless, and revealed early on?
He just wants to save his own life until almost the end.
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)?
When he rejects the advice of his friend not to hit the boss and says “I have to.”
Does the hero have a false or short-sighted goal when we first meet him or her?
Build the railroad, mouth off.
Does the hero have an open anxiety about his or her future?
No.
Does the hero also have a hidden, private fear?
No.
Is the hero vulnerable, both physically and emotionally?
Not really.  He almost dies on the job, then he lets his uncontrolled anger almost get him killed, but after that he pretty much walks between the raindrops.  Nobody can lay a finger on him, physically or emotionally (except for the brief midpoint moment.)
Does the hero have an untenable great flaw that we empathize with? (but…)
He’s too sarcastic and lacks control over his anger.
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 charming, funny, and bold.
Is the hero curious?
Very much so.  He fascinated by the scheme that he’s caught up in and investigates eagerly.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Very much so.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Implied: I can win anybody over, I’ll shake it off, There’s a smarter way to do this.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
His fellow track layers lack his self-confidence, his townsfolk lack his smarts.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
Gladly.  And when it’s not safe to tell them that to their face, he turns to us and tells us.
Is the hero already actively pursuing a small goal at the time we first meet him or her?
He’s laying track.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
He’s granted it by Hedly.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
He’s an almost-magical trickster with the ability to run circles around racists.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 23/24
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)?
He’s tired or being disrespected on the rails, and he’s unwilling to admit that his potentially-muderous anger is not helping his people.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
He’s sent to his death in quicksand, then sentenced to death for trying to kill the rail boss in retaliation.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
He’s appointed sheriff due to a land grab scheme.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
No.  He’s amused by the scheme and happily dives right in. 
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
Well, he commits right away, but because the movie takes time setting up its premise, it’s more than a third over by the time he rides into town.
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
The townspeople want to kill him.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
He tries to win them over through zaniness and charm.
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?
He enjoys bamboozling them, and makes a friend in the Waco Kid.
Does the hero get excited about the possibility of success?
He confidently predicts success: “Once you establish yourself, they got to accept you.”   “Good morning ma’am, and isn’t it a lovely morning.”
Does this culminate in a midpoint disaster?
A little old lady says “Up yours, N—“ and upsets him for the first time.
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 realizes that, for the first time, he wants more than his charm can get for him.  Even when he was on the gallows, his confidence wasn’t hurt, but now it is: he wants the respect of whites for the first time, and that means leaving his safe space of sarcasm.
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
Yes, he decides that he must really save the town to win them over.
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
Yes.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
He finds out the nature of Hedly’s schemes, and wins over Mongo and Lili.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
Yes.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Right after the midpoint, when the Waco Kid sets him straight about “the common clay of the new west…You know, morons.”
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Just a minor one, and it happens offscreen.  Around the time of that an army of villains is rounded up to destroy the town, he realizes that saving this town is also a chance to help his own people. 
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
He must bring the workers and townspeople together.
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
He convinces the townsfolk to give the railroad workers land to save the town.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
He’s proactive throughout.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
Yes, they find out the villains are on their way too soon.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
Yes.  Lili and the mayor even show up at some point, thought we never see how.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
Afterwards, he realizes that he’s got to go ride the west saving others.
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)
He gives a speech then rides off into the sunset with the Waco Kid.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 20/23 (Bart arrives in town, then takes himself hostage to save himself from hostile townspeople)
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?
We see how happily the townspeople await their new sheriff, and we see how serenely confident Bart is.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
No, it starts at the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Very much so.  Everybody is armed, and there’s a grandstand to navigate.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
No, they’ve all come together on purpose.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
How excited the official is to hand over the laurel, etc.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
Well, it’s just a matter of time before all those guns go off.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
Yes.  We see Bart’s conflicted insides a little bit.
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
Bart is a little less unflappable, the townspeople are angry, one lady is anguished.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
It’s all Bart.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Yes.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: Can I escape these racists?  Suppressed: Can I avoid internalizing their hatred?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
His dialogue with himself reveals a lot about the way racism and culture in general work, and the way in which Bart processes it.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
His dialogue brings out their conflicted feelings about race (and his own.)
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
Very much so, on Bart’s part.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
Lots of reblocking, but nobody touches anybody.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
The written speech, the banner that rolls up, then gets rolled back down.  The guns that come out and go back.  The bible is shot. 
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
Give a speech, then get out alive.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
He abandons his speech, they let him live.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
He ends up in the sheriff’s office but as both hostage and villain, not as hero yet.
Are previously-asked questions answered?
How will he be greeted?  Can he possibly get away with this?  Who will the new sheriff be?
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
 How will he avoid getting shot as soon as he comes back out?
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.  This situation seems untenable.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
No.  He actually turns to the camera and gives us a summary of the scene.
PART #5: DIALOGUE 15/19
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Yes and no.  The villains are cartoonish, but they’re all charming and they all have moments of weakness, such as Hedly worrying about his missing froggie toy.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
The hero thinks he sees all, but he learns to see more.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
Yes, everyone.  Even when Bart goes back to help his people, it serves his own goal of saving his neck.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
No, everybody is pretty up front in this movie.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
No, everybody wears their id on their sleeve in this movie.  The governor and Hedly say all the things people in their offices would never actually say.
Do the characters listen poorly?
Not really.
Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?
Bart and Waco are good listeners, but all the villains interrupt each other.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
Yes.
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
Yes.  He’s a real sheriff: he puts up wanted posters, dries out drunks in his cells, etc.  The rail-laying is also believable.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
Waco Kid: Western movie (“but most folks call me…”) Hedly: Law
Are there additional characters with default personality traits?
 Waco Kid: bemused, Hedly: agitated, Taggart: angry/dimwitted, The Governor: horny, Lili: sultry.
Are there additional characters with default argument strategies?
 Waco Kid: shrugs and talks sense, Hedly: ignores objections / appeals to vanity,
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Yes.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Quite a bit.
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)?
Yes.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Only Hedly does, because he fancies himself a gentlemen.  Bart, being a real gentleman, doesn’t.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
The heroes: Bart is head, Waco is heart, Mongo is gut, Lili is groin.  The villains: Hedly is head, Taggart is gut, the governor is groin. 
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
Yes: why Bart is in the west, why the quicksand is important to the story, etc.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
No.  Nobody is confronted about their flaws.  No masks ever fall away.
Part #6: Tone 16/16
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?)
Western/Comedy.

Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
On the Western side, it’s a classic “frontier marshal” / railroad scheme.  On the comedy side, it’s a combination of spoof and satire, which is very hard to pull off (Brooks wouldn’t master it again after “Young Frankenstein”) but it works beautifully.
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre and sub-genre?
It’s hilarious.
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)? 
Yes.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
It works as a straightforward western, a straightforward character comedy, a spoof and a satire.
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?
Zany, meta and smart: Bart sings “I Get a Kick Out of You,” then tricks the overseers into singing “Camptown Ladies.”
Are the physics of the world (realistic or stylized?) established early and maintained throughout?
They’re light, and we’re in “comedy space” where many are oblivious to zaniness, such as “Tell them I said Ow”
Is the nature of the stakes (lethal, social, psychological and/or spiritual?) established early and maintained throughout?
Lethal and social: He violates his fellow worker’s code and gets sent to the gallows for it.
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?
  Are we to stay or up and quit?” Not, “Who’s doing this to us?”
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?
Same as above.
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
The theme song comments on everything, and then Bart sees Count Basie’s orchestra playing for him: we know that this is a commentary on westerns, and it’ll take place on both sides of the fourth wall
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
We see others getting hanged, and the previous sheriff getting killed.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
Lots of talk about how awful Mongo is, etc.
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience (and maybe distract attention from plot contrivances)?
Every element of the “build a fake town” finale is set up piece by piece beforehand (setting up relationship to the railroad workers, etc.).  In terms of tone, starting off with the Cole Porter song eases us into the absurdity, which slowly builds.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
Bart refuses to act in solidarity with his co-worker at the beginning, but then builds a coalition of everyone at the end.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
Yes, the townspeople stay, but Bart leaves.
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?
Good vs. good: Individualism vs. solidarity, standing up to people vs. winning them over. Bad vs. bad: anger vs. subservience. 
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
”What are we made of?” vs. ”Why should we get our own men killed?”
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Even in the most absurd scene, where they face a moral dilemma as to what to do when the sheriff takes himself hostage. 
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
In many ways yes, despite the constant absurdity.  Everybody has a very realistic attitude towards black men in the 1870s.  Economic motivations all play out logically.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
Yes and no.  Co-screenwriter Richard Pryor brought a lot of genuine racial observations.  As for the west, we’re seeing an examination of Hollywood’s version more than the real thing, but even then, everything is well observed.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
Oh very much yes.  Original screenwriter Andrew Bergman pitched his script as “Eldridge Cleaver rides into town on a pony.” He said to Mel, “Play 1974 in 1874.” The original title was “Tex X”
Are these issues addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Very much so.  The pain is real.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Yes, he gets sentenced to death for hitting the guy, 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.  Playing chess (black vs. white).  The fact that Waco first sees him upside down, etc.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
Not really.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards on one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
Solidarity is better than individualism, but Bart is still too discontent to be part of the community he created. Winning people over is better than standing up to them,  but both must be combined.  Anger is better than subservience, but must be controlled.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
He saves the town instead of dooming it.  The townspeople beg him to stay instead of forcing him out.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
Yes, everything is vague at the end.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
Yes. 
Final Score: 126 out of 140
Much will be discussed! 

1 comment:

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Pointless but true story: my best friend in high school got his army nickname from "Blazing Saddles." In Iraq, everyone called him "Mongo." For not only is he a big dude, but also, as he liked to say, "Mongo only pawn in game of life."