Podcast

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Rushmore

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Max Fischer is a scholarship student at an elite private school, where he runs all the clubs but neglects his grades. He strikes up a friendship with a school funder, Mr. Blume, and develops a crush on a Kindergarten teacher, Ms. Cross. When the dean Dr. Guggenheim kicks him out, Max ends up in public school, but he continues his schemes to get Ms. Cross. Instead, she falls for Bloom. Max tries to get revenge, but ultimately helps get them together and finds a girl his own age.

PART #1: CONCEPT 18/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 Somewhat: A precocious high schooler falls in love with a teacher, then loses her to his own best friend, a rich school funder.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
Somewhat: a young man who acts old.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
We’ve all had unrequited love.
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”?
Max.
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
Yes.  The months projected on curtains keep things moving swiftly along.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
Yes, a student and his school’s funder. 
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Dr. Guggenheim, and everybody else at one time or another.
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: getting kicked out, Greatest hope: the love of Miss Cross. 
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
Yes.
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, he must admit that he’s a barber’s son in order to repair the damage he does and find happiness.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Yes. Even Cross and Blume only get back to together due to his manipulations.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
Very much so.
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, it’s funny and touching.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
Max and his clubs. Max with his bees. The blazer and red hat.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
The bees.  The war in general.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
Blume and Cross get together, Max ends up helping them. 
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 22/22
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?)
Comically vain: imagining himself in math class, chatting with the dean and funder, etc.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Yes.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
The precocious kid-playwright
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
The failing lost soul
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
1950s public intellectual “May I see some documentation” “I don’t want to tell you how to do your job, but”, “strongly agree with your views”, “and whatnot”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Enthusiastic
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Dismissive of all opposition
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
He wants love, friendship, respect, etc.
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)?
”What are you going to do?” “The only thing I can do: try to pull some strings with the administration.” “When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
Stay at Rushmore forever.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
Open: He wants a girlfriend. Hidden: That he’s just a barber’s son.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
Very much so.  He gets bruised and heart-broken regularly.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
He’s vainglorious.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
He’s romantic and enthusiastic.
Is the hero curious?
Very much so.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Very much so.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Do more.  Impress everyone.  Prove I’m smarter.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Yes.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
Yes.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
He’s head of a dozen clubs.  He producing his play.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Very much so.  He gives orders to the head of the school.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
He attacks Blume with bees, etc.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 16/21
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)?
It annoys him that Dr. Guggenheim wants to kick him out.  He also begins to discover puberty. 
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
He’s told he’ll be kicked out.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
The opportunity is obvious: study, but he refuses to consider it until very late in the movie.  Instead he pursues an imaginary opporunity for romance.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
No, he jumps right in.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
Earlier.
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?
Many. She’s not interested and Dr. Guggenheim is opposed to all of Max’s tricks.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
This movie’s “second quarter” is very short, and its “third quarter” is very long.  To a certain extent, Max continues to try “the easy way” until the ¾ point, but his big crash happens much at 34 minutes in.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
He has a lot of fun.  He thinks that the aquarium will win Miss Cross over.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
There’s a big crash, but it happens 20 minutes early: Max’s aquarium is shut down and he gets kicked out, also losing the friendship of Ms. Cross at the time.  It was really shocking when rewatching this movie to realize how early this happens: Most of the movie isn’t set at Rushmore.
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 and no.  He’s still pretty delusional, but he starts working harder.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Yes, he feels betrayed when Mr. Blume starts sleeping with Ms. Cross.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
Yes.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Yes.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Ms. Cross definitively rejects him and he drops out to become a barber.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
”I’m just a barber’s son.” About his plan for the aquarium (and therefore his crush on Ms. Cross): “I gave it to a friend.”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
He creates a similar life for himself at Grover Cleveland to the one he had at Rushmore: puts on a new play, etc.  He also vows to get Blume and Cross back together.
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?
Sort of.  Ms. Cross doesn’t show up to the second aquarium opening either, so he has to come up with something new (the play)
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
Yes, everybody’s at the play.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
No, it ends earlier, and it ends offscreen.  They want us to believe that he’s buidling up to a school shooting, so they don’t show us that he’s dealt everything and moved on.  We just figure that out when we see the play.
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)
 Yes, he introduces his real father to everyone, and his selection of song “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger,” lets us know that he’s learned.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 17/20 (Max introduces himself to Ms. Cross on the bleachers)
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 know that he’s determined to woo her.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
It begins at the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
He’s hitting on a teacher on school grounds, and has to seem to keep his distance.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
She was trying to read.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Cancelling Latin.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
When will he finally sit next to her?
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
She’s charmed.  He’s disarmed, but recovers his cool.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
We’re rooting for him but identifying with her.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Just slightly: she defends Latin.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: Don’t smoke, don’t badmouth Latin, Suppressed: I like 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)?
He lights her cigarette.  They switch to a romance language.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Very much so on his part.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
Did he steal her lighter? It’s possible.  He pretends to read a book he thinks will impress her.  He feigns lack of knowledge about her. 
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
He makes a show of moving closer and futher away from her (with unintentionally loud clanking on the bleachers) and then shakes hands with her at the end.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
He gives her a light at the beginning.
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?
Max nonsensically decides to save Latin.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
No, it all goes according to plan.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
Previous: How will he try to score a chick? New: How far will he go with this?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
No.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
He seems to be going further off the deep end.
PART #5: DIALOGUE 14/16
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?
Very much so.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
Yes. Max and Blume genuinely try to be friends but neither is willing to check his outrageous selfishness. 
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Yes.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
Yes.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
Yes.
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?
 Max talks like an expert in every field.  When he finds out that Blume was in Vietnam, he insantly asks “Were you in the shit?”
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor family: Blume: Working class / vet, Cross: England/Harvard, Default personality trait: Blume: depressed, Cross: cool and wise, Argument strategy: Blume: Gives up, Cross: Calls our your real agenda
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?
Yes.
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Max talks like a professor, but it’s supposed to be odd, so that’s okay.
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?
Everybody is 3-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?
He tries to create fake moments with Ms. Cross, but then he has a genuine one with Margaret Yang, when he finds that she's created an adorable flight plan for her model plane just like he would make.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
No, it’s awkwardly dumped on us in the first scene.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Yes, the scene where Cross finally lets him down harshly.
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?)
The coming of age movie
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
No subgenres.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
All are satisfied.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
I suppose the word would be “precious”, but that sounds insulting when it’s actually charming.
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?
We think the question will be, “Can Max stay in Rushmore?”, but he’s kicked out early on, so instead it becomes, “Will Max find love?”
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
The curtains establish a theatrical artificiality and formalism.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
Not really.  Max is one-of-a-kind.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
We see odd glimpses of planning of his schemes before we see what he’s really doing.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
Lots.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
He gets a girlfriend in Margaret Yang.
PART 7: THEME 10/14
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?
Ambition vs. Acceptance
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
“When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.” Is it true?  Or are there good reasons to be normal?
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Not really.  Max’s madness drives the plot, not hard choices.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
Not really.  It’s very silly.  It’s very much a pre-Columbine, pre-9/11 movie, in terms of what Max gets away with. 
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 politics of private school (and public school) are well-observed.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
Just slightly: Max’s plays are about national pain (Vietnam, Watergate, Serpico) but he fails to seriously grapple with these issues (although his play does make Vietnam vet Blume cry), but the movie itself is totally decontextualized.  We don’t know what city we’re in or what year it is.
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.  Max’s schemes all fall apart believably, and he suffers, but not as much as he really would.
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?
Max’s plays, etc.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
Max’s medals, the swiss army knife, the fish, the bent bike, etc.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
Acceptance is better than ambition, but ambition still looks pretty great.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
He tries to hook up Cross with Blume instead of trying to break them up.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
Yes, everyone is there for the finale, but their stories don’t wrap up neatly.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
Yes.  Max has learned a lot, but he doesn’t want to talk about it much.

Final Score: 106 out of 122

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