Podcast

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Ultimate Story Checklist: The Babadook

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Seven years ago, Amelia’s husband died in an accident while racing her to the hospital to have her son Samuel. Now Samuel is violent and obsessed with killing monsters, testing the patience of his teachers and Amelia’s only support: her sister Claire. Sam finds a mysterious pop-up book on his shelf about an invasive creature named Mr. Babadook, and his night terrors increase, keeping Amelia awake until she snaps. She is invaded by the Babadook and tries to kill Sam, but he drives it out of her. She finally banishes it by admitting her grief and forgiving her son. She confines the monster to the basement, feeding it but keeping it chained up.
PART #1: CONCEPT 18/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 A mother and son are stalked by a creature that emerges from a creepy picture book.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
A son must fear his mother.  A hunt for external monsters leads to the discover of an internal monster.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
Yes, every parent has resented their children, and vice versa.  Everyone has repressed emotions until they become dangerous.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Yes.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Yes and no.  Our identification shifts, but one could argue that Amelia remains the “hero”, because we’re still rooting for her to get over it once she’s possessed, and not for Samuel to defeat her. 
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
Yes.  The first half-hour is a beautiful model of lightspeed filmmaking, following the progress of the problem over a long period of time in a rapid-fire way. (Kent says they cut ten minutes out of this section.)
Does the story present a unique relationship?
Yes, a mother and son who each think the other is a monster.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Yes, first the sister then Samuel.  Also the child services people.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
Greatest fear: her feelings of grief must be confronted, her bad mothering gets out of control.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
Very much so.
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
She’s unable to even say her husband’s name, nor to hear anyone else say it.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Yes.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
Yes, both.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
Yes and no.  It’s very scary, but there are no deaths!  There is very little sexuality or transgression to be punished.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
The picture book.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
The scary book, trying to kill her kid, killing the dog.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
The Babadook is essentially the father’s “join me in death” ghost.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Yes.
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Yes.
PART #2: CHARACTER 19/22
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?)
Her loving-but-bemused smile when she opens the closet and looks under the bed to show him that there’s no monster. 
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Yes and no.  Backstory looms large, but only because it is totally unprocessed and therefore totally present.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
The widowed young mom of a troubled kid.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
She has a potential for violence, repressed sexuality.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
No, she just has generic mom dialogue: “I don’t want you making weapons anymore.  This monster thing has got to stop.”  “No, it’s all right, I’m fine.” “No worries, I’ll make you another one.” “Get to work, woman.” “I’m going to have a serious talk with him.”  “What he needs is some understanding.”  “I think I’ll just find another school, that seems my son as a human being, not just another problem to be gotten rid of.”  “I don’t want you to feel awful, Claire, we’ll be fine, we’ll be absolutely fine.”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Brittle
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Meekly assents, then lashes out.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
Yes, save her son and herself.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
”I’m fine.”  There’s no monster.  “He doesn’t need a monitor.”  “I have moved on, I never mention him.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
Convince her son that there’s no monster.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
Open: She’s worried about her son’s fears, inability to sleep. Hidden: She fears his violent tendencies, fears that she will hurt him, perhaps even fears that she will molest him, as he has taken her husband’s place in her bed, and she shuns his hugs and physical contact in bed.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
Yes.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
Denial of grief, resentment of her son.
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?
Perseverance.  The resentment comes out of intense love that he cannot fully return (and vice versa)
Is the hero curious?
Yes and no.  She never makes much attempt to figure out where the book came from.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Not really.  Samuel is, though.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
I can handle it, don’t tell me how to raise my son, look forward.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Nobody else understands or loves her son.  (Although she also fails at both to a certain extent.)
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
Very directly.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
She’s trying to sleep.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Yes.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
Amelie tries and fails (using the same type of medications she uses at work) Samuel does and succeeds: He’s been preparing for this fight for a while, building his own machines.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 20/21
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)?
Everyone is losing patience with her son (including her) but she’s in denial as to the true flaw: he inability to grieve or forgive him for her husband’s death.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
Her son is sent home from school for bringing a weapon.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
No, she knows she must do something, but sees no opportunity to do anything.   In retrospect, the book is the (very roundabout) opportunity to fix her problem, but she can’t see it that way, understandably enough (not can we, until the very end.)
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
She hesitates forever. 
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
It’s late, but by a third of the way through, (32 minutes) she has a plan: Use sedatives until tests come back and a state-appointed psychiatrist can come.
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 doctor is dubious of her plan, child services is suspicious, Claire cuts her out entirely.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
She relies on the sedatives.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
Not fun so much, but she loves the sedatives, feels better briefly.
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 babadook enters her. Her house and only relationship (with her son) are no longer safe.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
She brings her husband’s violin back upstairs.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Claire cuts her off and the man stops coming around, but the next door neighbor turns out to be reliable, and Samuel turns out to the one who can save her …by stabbing her, knocking her out and tying her down.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
Stakes are now life or death, etc.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Yes, she realizes that the only way to save her son is to face her grief.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Ditto.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
To her husband’s ghost: “You’re trespassing in my house.”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
Yes, although it’s not really far away.  When she confronts it strongly, it retreats to the basement.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
Well, it would be the final quarter if the final act weren’t so short.  That’s a problem with “it’s all in your head” stories: a corrected philosophy basically solves the problem.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
It grabs Sam and she has to chase it. 
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
Yes.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
The same moment.
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)
It’s half-resolved/half-succumbed-to.  It’s interesting that some behaviors are reversed (She talks about her husband and let’s others do so) but some aren’t, (the basement is still verboten, he son is still violent)
PART #4: SCENEWORK (She chases Sam down to the basement, where he knocks her out, ties her up, and drives the Babadook out of her, temporarily) 18/20
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?
They’re in the midst of trying to kill each other.  We’ve seen her kill him in the book just after she kills the dog, so we know what’s next.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
It jumps ahead from when he knocks her out to when she’s tied up. 
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Very much so: it’s the basement where they keep the dad’s stuff, and he’s got it filled with weapons. 
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
She just wants to kill him, not to talk. 
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Not by this point.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
Will he talk her out of killing him before she can break the ropes?
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
Very much so.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
We’re entirely on his side
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: Can I exorcise this demon? Suppressed: Do you love me?  Can you love someone with mental illness?  Can they love you?
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 monster = mental illness = unacknowledged grief = the dad = many other things.  “I know you don’t love me anymore, because the Babadok won’t let you.”
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
He seems to be totally open at this point, but we suspect that even here he’s masking his emotions somewhat to get what he wants.  “I won’t leave you.  You said we’d protect each other.” She refuses to speak.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
He uses literal physical traps.  She feigns stillness to draw him near.  He appeals to her emotions, uses reverse psychology.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
Lots.  She tries to choke him to death.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
Her exorcism takes the form of black bile she vomits out. 
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?
She stops herself from killer her because of what she says.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
He drives the monter out of her but then it enters him. 
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
Previous: What is he building in the basement?  Will she kill him? New: Is the Babadook gone?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
No, it goes to the end. 
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
We briefly have a growing hope.
PART #5: DIALOGUE 15/16
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Yes.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Yes.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
Yes, this is a movie about the myth of selflessness.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Very much so.  Even Sam, who seems to say anything, is coy about his growing knowledge that his mother is the monster.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
That’s what the whole movie’s about.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
Yes.  Davis has a great “not really listening” face.
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?
Yes for nursing, child psychology.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Yes and no: Metaphor family: No, this is a movie with fairly generic dialogue, in order to de-emphasize its country of origin., Default personality trait: Sam: intense, Claire: snobby, Robbie: genial, Mrs. Roach: compassionate, Argument strategy: Sam: screams the truth as he sees it, Claire: insinuates, Robbie: cajoles, Mrs. Roach: makes tenative suggestions
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?
Not really.  This is more of a muted “everyman” horror movie. 
Are there minimal 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?
Yes.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
Everyone is three-dimensional
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, she and her son have it out.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
Yes.  They know everything but it takes us a while to catch on.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Yes, the finale. “You don’t know how many times I wish it was you, not him, that died.”
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?)
Horror/drama
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
Possession/grief
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
The monster is both defeated and not, but nobody dies.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
Chilly, haunted
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?
Can they make it until the psychiatrist comes?
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
The opening nightmare. The events of the book predict the events onscreen.   The events on TV comment on the rest of the story.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
The dog for the boy, etc.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
Very much so.  The foreshadowing is the same as the framing devices, in this case.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
She finally speaks of her husband and allows others to do so, the boy finally gets to celebrate his birthday, etc.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
No!  We never find out if the psychiatrist arrived, but now we sense that they don’t need him or her anymore. 
PART 7: THEME 12/14
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?
Greiving vs. Looking forward, fighting bad feelings vs. accepting them.
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
Is it better to discuss a boy’s dead dad with him or not?
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Sedate your child that can’t sleep?  Take your child’s side in a violent incident?
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
Yes.  There are no forgiven murders.  The authorities notice when he doesn’t go to school. 
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.  Kent didn’t want to tell an Australian story, preferring (for economic reasons) to tell a story that could happen in any American or Western European rural suburb.  That said, the portrayal of generic rural suburban life is well-observed. 
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
No, for the same reasons.  This is a story that would be little different in another country, or indeed even five hundred years ago.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
NA
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Yes and no.  It is not unbeleivable that she suffered no real consequences for killing her dog and almost killing her kid (and vice versa) but it’s a little weird.
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?
Her resistance to celebrate her son’s birthday on the day, the neighbor accepts her own Parkinson’s, etc.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
The book, the crossbow, the suits, the photos, the phone, many others.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
Very much so.  Grief must be nurtured but controlled. 
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
Yes, she’s the monster at the end of the book.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
Very much so.  The ending is very tantalizing and bizarre.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
Yes.  Her reversible behavior is very subtle. 
Final Score: 111 out of 122

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