Sunday, October 13, 2019

Okay, Be Back in a Week or Two

I think I’ll take things in a bit of a new direction when I’m back, we’ll see...

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Rulebook Casefile: Wrapping Up the Internal and External Journeys of “Get Out”

Every hero must complete both an outer journey and an inner journey. These journeys should overlap at certain points, but not the whole time. Sometimes you can create a finale where the hero completes both journeys at the same moment (such as using the force to blow up the Death Star in Star Wars) but not always. Often, the hero must complete them at different times, but it’s good to have the culminations of these journeys both happen near the climax. Sometimes the hero completing the inner journey allows them to compete the outer journey right afterwards. Sometimes completing the outer journey allows them to complete the inner journey in the epilogue.

On first viewing of Get Out, the viewer is not super aware of Chris’s inner journey, though we can tell it’s there: He’s trying to forgive himself for doing nothing when he mother was dying in the street from an accident. We see Missy elicit this information from him while hypnotizing him, and we see him admit his feeling of guilt to Rose later, but then, since the outer journey is so exciting, we don’t really think about the inner journey very much.

But Peele is doing a lot of subtle work to make sure we feel Chris’s inner journey on a subconscious level, even if we don’t think about it. Only when you listen to the DVD commentary is all this work made explicit.

We can’t know this on first viewing, but Chris’s inner journey begins when he hits a deer on the way to see Rose’s parents. He insists on getting out to see if the deer is alright, but finds it dead. He then insists on calling the police, despite the fact that doing so often ends poorly for black men. To Chris, the deer is his mom, and he’s still trying to save her.

Later, when Chris has his bizarre encounter with Georgina, and sees her cry, he suspects that she may be a victim in some way, which also makes him think of his mom.

Later, when Chris is held captive in the basement, there’s a huge buck head on the wall. According to Peele, this represents Chris’s dad. It shouldn’t have been up to Chris to make sure his mom was okay, it should have been up to his dad, who “wasn’t in the picture.” Chris escapes and kills Rose’s dad by stabbing him with the points of the buck’s head. He is not only displacing Rose’s father as the dominant male in the house, he’s replacing his own dad. His mom is the deer and he is the rescuing buck his dad couldn’t be. As Peele says:

  • The buck is of course not only a used not only to describe strong black men in the past, but is a symbol, the male version of the doe that he hits.

But Chris still needs to take one more step to resolve his inner journey. When he’s driving away from the house, Georgina, controlled by the grandmother’s mind, runs out to stop him but he accidentally hits her with his car. He then starts to drive away, leaving her limp body in the road behind him. Then he stops. He can’t leave her, even though he knows that the real Georgina is buried deep inside her and may never be able to be rescued. He just can’t leave a black woman dying in the street like his mom died. So he goes back, gets her unconscious body, and puts it in his driver’s seat.

In the end, it doesn’t work. She wakes up, still controlled by the grandma, tries to take over the car, crashes it, and presumably dies in the crash. But still Chris tried, and trying finally allowed him to forgive himself for not trying to save his own mother. As Peele says:

  • When he went back for Georgina, he made the only decision that would free his soul.

What’s the point of including an inner journey so subtle that you have to watch the commentary to spot it? The hope is that, even if the audience doesn’t see it, they can feel it. We sense that there’s an elemental power in Chris’s use of the buck head. We sense that something deep is going on inside when he tries to rescue Georgina, even if we’re too caught up in it to think of his mom. “Know More Than You Show” doesn’t just apply to plot, it also applies to theme.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Straying from the Party Line: Chris’s Lack of Metaphor Family, Argument Tactic, Strong Motivation, Goals, Insistence, and Decision-Making Ability in “Get Out”

So according to our checklist, Chris seems like a rather deficient hero in Get Out. Let’s look at at all the character tests he fails:

Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Just very slightly.  He talks a little blacker to Rod than he does to her (“Yo, you at work?”) but for the most part he speaks rather generically.  He’s code-switching, and around white people he’s studiously generic in his metaphor family.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Not really, and he loses every argument he has in the movie.  He’ll try things like, “That was a dollar, you just threw a dollar out the window” when she throws away his cigarette, but it’s a halfhearted attempt and fails.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
His motivation is that Rose is all he has in the world (other than his dog and Rod) but we don’t understand that until halfway through.  Before he admits that, we wonder why he’s putting up with this.
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
He’s not very goal oriented.  In retrospect, we can figure that he might have seen this as an opportunity to have a family again, but he mainly just pastes on a smile in the first half and doesn’t try hard to impress.  He’s very polite but not eager to please.   
And is the hero willing to let others know that they lack his most valuable quality, subtly or directly?
He gently points out to Rose her seeming naivete, but mainly just reacts to everyone with pointedly-quizzical looks.  He laughs off Rod.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Absolutely none, as Dean jokingly points out.  And she drove, so he can’t leave without her approval. 
In the commentary, Peele points out something interesting:

  • “I could talk all day about how amazing Daniel [Kaluuya, who plays Chris,] is. I mean, at some point we realized, y’know, Chris doesn’t have very many lines in this. And it’s true. His role is to just kinda get out of here without the shit hitting the fan. You know even in these scenes here [taking abuse from Jeremy at dinner] he’s just trying to minimize the awkwardness and make it through the weekend and get out, so that’s why he’s not gonna pop off, and of course, he’s in love, so we understand why you’re on your best behavior at your love’s parents’ house.”

Chris is told by Dean early on that his role as boyfriend is to say “She’s right, I’m wrong,” as often as possible, but of course there’s a racial component to that as well. Chris is expected to say that to every white person. When the cop arrives, the black man is in deadly peril, but the white girl has power over the cop, which she happily flexes.

As I say above, Chris shows more personality in his brief conversations with Rod than with anyone else. Long before he gets sent to the sunken place, Chris is hiding inside himself, and we understand that, so we still find him compelling in spite of his lack of some of the surface traits we crave. He’s somewhat self-less (but not selfless) and generic, but we sense more under the surface of Kaluuya’s performance, so we don’t reject him.
And it’s essential that we see his great photography at the beginning: the ultimate way to show the soul of the voiceless.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Grace in "Toy Story" with James Kennedy

I was going to get back to Get Out today, but I figured I should address James’s other massive comment before we get back to Get Out next week, so here goes:

  • I think for the climax, the "planted solution" must not even be a "problem." That tailors the advice too narrowly. It excludes useful cases. The climactic solution need only turn on a unique characteristic of the hero... and indeed, for a satisfying climax, an "involuntary" characteristic. Something unearned but essential about the hero. 
  • I already mentioned above how this applies for Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. Here's another example of this you-gotta-work-hard-to-get-to-the-climax-but-from-then-on-you-must-rely-on-grace structure: the climax of Toy Story
  • Buzz and Woody are working hard to catch up with the moving truck, which has all their toy friends in it. If they don't catch up, they'll never find where Andy's family is moving to, and they'll be separated from Andy and their friends forever. Even though Woody and Buzz commandeered a toy car and have strapped a firecracker to Buzz's back, they can't light the fuse. All their plans come to naught and they are stuck on the middle of the road as the truck drives away. All seems lost . . . until Woody is super clever (this is the "work hard" part), realizing that Buzz's helmet can focus sunlight to light the firecracker. It's lit, and our heroes blast off at top speeds, catching up with the truck! 
  • Now, if Woody and Buzz caught up to the truck then, it would have felt clever, but it wouldn't have been FULLY SATISFYING, even though it technically fulfilled some dry formula of storytelling. You even could have argued it was "deep": Woody, who used to loathe Buzz, uses a characteristic of Buzz (his helmet) to solve the problem, thus signaling his acceptance/appreciation of Buzz! But that's not enough, because it's MERELY clever, it's MERELY hard work. For a climax to be fully satisfying, it requires the final intervention of the narrative equivalent of grace, the divine, the finger of god. 
I think I can see why I have remained unaware of this until now.
  • And so after the firecracker is lit, Buzz (carrying Woody) zooms so fast that it actually causes Woody pain (ah! there's the "suffering" part!), and Woody loses grip of the car. Without ballast, Woody and Buzz zoom high into the sky. Oh no! They can't possibly survive! They'll fall and shatter on the ground! 
  • But then a unique, unearned characteristic of Buzz (*not* skill) saves the day: Buzz has wings, and thus they can "fly." Earlier in the movie Buzz believed he could fly, and Woody insisted Buzz couldn't fly, and Buzz sadly realized he indeed couldn't fly. But now, by falling out of the sky ("with style!"), Buzz accomplishes flying at last, fulfilling his deepest, seemingly impossible wish -- and Buzz uses that characteristic to plop right into the open sunroof of Andy's car, reuniting both Buzz and Woody with their beloved Andy. Climax! 
  • It wasn't a *skill* that Buzz had. The first time we saw Buzz "fly," showing off to the rest of the toys, it only worked because of dumb luck: a sequence of crazy coincidences that happened to launch him. The second time Buzz tries to fly, he fails ignominiously, falling down the stairs and breaking off his arm. The third time, at the climax, Buzz flies only as a once-in-a-lifetime favor from the gods, granted after long effort and suffering.
  • The hero must work hard to get to that climax. All of that hard work puts the hero in the presence of the god. But once the hero is in the presence of the god, it's entirely up to the god, not the hero, whether the hero succeeds. It's out of Luke's hands whether the Force works or not. Harry must rely on magic deeper than his own fledgling skills to ward off Quirrell. 
But certainly you would agree that Harry’s passive luck at the end of the fourth book is unsatisfying.  When relying on this element, it’s very easy to make the hero too passive or lucky.  Or sometimes it’s satisfying on first watch, like the ultimate deus ex machina in Raiders, but becomes more unsatisfying on subsequent watches.  
  • Indy and Marian literally place themselves in the hands of god and say, Do what you will. And Woody and Buzz physically travel up into the heavens (a blue sky with white clouds, foreshadowed by Andy's bedroom wallpaper!), where god judges them fit to succeed, and sends them down to victory.
  • Shit, Matt, you should be paying me for this.
I’ll give you half of my profits from today’s post.  Okay, 60/40, but that’s as high as I go.  

So let’s look at our standard examples: I guess you could make the case for such a moment (luck/grace/relying on inherent qualities) in Frozen, Groundhog Day, How to Train Your Dragon, Raising Arizona, Sideways, Star Wars, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and maybe the Bourne Identity. (And the endings of Lady Bird and Selma get downright churchy)

But what would you say the moment is in Alien? Casablanca? Chinatown? Do the Right Thing? Iron Man? RushmoreThe Shining? (His inner shine fails him and he has to rely entirely on a clever trick)  The Silence of the Lambs

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Skills, Grace, Trust, and Suffering with James Kennedy

Shockingly, James had a lot to say about yesterday’s post, and I figured I’d better devote a post to my responses:

  • Yes! And here we discover a wrinkle to your rule, that it need not be a special “skill” -- since nobody would call Chris’ unconscious repetitive tic a skill, right?

Well, I was saying that it’s ironic that his tic turns out to play the role of a skill.

  • Similarly, in “Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone”, one of the things that helps Harry prevail against Quirrell is the fact that Quirrell can't touch him without feeling pain. This isn’t really a skill of Harry’s! It’s just a property he has. Maybe the rule should be amended to “skill or unique characteristic.” 

Well, I don’t want to make changes to accommodate that book, because I think Harry’s failure to use any special skills in the finale is a flaw of the book. It would be more satisfying if he used some special skills (as Ron and Hermione had just done.) And don’t get me started on the finales of books 4, 5 and 6, where Harry is totally incompetent. When he successfully duels Voldemort in book 4, he can’t even control his arm! I wish Harry had shown some competence in those three finales, even if he ultimately failed in each.

  • Similarly in Star Wars, it’s not like Luke Skywalker could blow up the Death Star only because he had trained so hard with the Force. Indeed we only saw Luke practice with the Force once, on the way to Alderaan with the remote, and he didn't even seem that good at it.

Obi Wan praises his talent! It’s hard to know how long it takes them to get from place to place, but I assumed that that one session we saw stood in for others.

  • The Force “is with” Luke -- a property, not a honed skill. I think we can actually uncover an important rule here: maybe it’s the hero’s SKILLS that get them all the way to the climax, but at the climactic moment, it’s an involuntary PROPERTY that carries them over the goal line.

We’ve debated this before, but for me, being a non-religious type, I’ve always thought that Luke really makes that shot because of his ability to shoot womp-rats: The Force is just a metaphor for believing in himself and getting back in touch with what he knew back home.

  • Put in theological terms: Calvinist-style “works” (arduous, reliant on personal virtue) will get you to the climax, but only Catholic-style “grace” (free, undeserved, a gratuitous favor from God) can actually clinch the win at the final moment. You need both, and in that order.

I can see how that could work (Certainly it’s true of Raiders of the Lost Ark) but you run the risk of creating an unsatisfying deus ex machina. In “Sorceror’s Stone”, I would say the “grace” would be that he wants the right thing when he looks in the Mirror of Erised. The mirror essentially rewards him with the stone because his heart is pure. But I wouldn’t necessary say that Chris in Get Out feels any grace.

  • As for Total Recall, […] at the end, in the real climax, the only thing that matters is that Arnold is super strong -- strong enough to hold on during the airbreak long enough so that he can push the button that starts up the ancient Martian terraforming machine so that he doesn't die when he’s sucked out into the Martian atmosphere.
  • And at that climax, it’s not just his physical strength, it’s that he TRUSTS that the ancient Martians (or whoever) had done their job right and that the machine would indeed work.

Yeah, Quaid has to reshape his hand to Martian-shaped to turn it on. He wanted to be a secret agent on Mars, but instead became an actual Martian, saving the planet from the secret agents.

  • Total Recall is free on Hulu, so I just went back and re-watched the scene. It's not as simple as “he lifted his arm.” After a lot of agony, he just barely rips out the restraints, which he then uses as weapons against the technicians, goring them with the bolts that he’d torn free while he’s still shackled to them. It’s a legit thrilling moment. I think the reason it works is because Arnold is clearly going through intense pain. That might actually be a sneaky trick, a tip for folks to use: we will process a plot development as “earned,” even if it’s not the cleverest thing in the world, as long as the hero SUFFERS a lot when doing it.

It didn’t feel earned to me, even as a fifteen year old who wound up putting a Total Recall poster over his bed. Certainly, I agree that Arnold sells us on the idea that he’s suffering and mightily accomplishing a difficult task, but I’d rather he did something clever or at least unexpected. Or another way it could have gone: I think Ronny Cox’s real mistake should be that he assumes that this the “real” Quaid will re-assert itself more easily, but Quaid has fallen in love, and grown as a person, and he doesn’t want to go back to being an asshole. It might be interesting if Ronny does complete the process of restoring the “real” Quaid, only to discover that heroic-Quaid is the real Quaid now.

The key is to ask, “How has the villain underestimated the hero?”, either physically (not great), mentally (better), or spiritually (best).

  • Indeed I think there is a lot of stuff to be mulled over about the relationship of the audience to onscreen suffering. The vicarious enjoyment of other people’s pain is not necessarily an intuitive or expected thing about human nature, why does it work so well? Thoughts?

Because we like to see those veins in Arnold’s neck! Actually: I’ve always said that the reason we tell stories is to teach each other to solve problems. We like to see people solving problems, but we don’t buy it unless they have to work hard for it, and the more the characters suffer, they more they earn that growth, and the more gratifying it is to see that growth, and the more we feel that we can grow by watching/reading this.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Rulebook Casefile: Ironic Special Skills in “Get Out”

James and I just sang the praises of Total Recall on our recent podcast, but we didn’t mention one of my pet peeves about that movie. Arnold eventually ends up strapped to a chair: He seems to have accomplished so much, but now he discovers that everything he has done was really just bringing him into Ronny Cox’s elaborate trap. Ronny has been playing ten moves ahead this entire time, guessing everything Arnold might possibly do and effortless manipulating him into bringing in the mutant leader. Now Ronny just needs to wipe Arnold’s mind again and restore his original personality.

But then Arnold does the one thing that Ronny couldn’t possibly have predicted: he raises his arm! He then breaks the chair, and runs away.

This drives me crazy: You could predict every possible movie Arnold could make, but you couldn’t predict he would raise his arm? Arnold doesn’t use some clever trick or special weapon he’s found as a result of his journey. He just does what anyone could predict he would do, and gets away fairly easily.

Chris in Get Out faces a similar predicament. He, too, ends up 2/3 of the way into the movie strapped to a chair, outdone by a villain who has been way ahead of him and manipulating his behavior the entire movie. He is even more helpless than Arnold, because the villains only have to ding a spoon on a teacup (live or on tape) to turn him to jelly.
So how does Chris get away? Unlike Arnold, he does something clever: He plucks cotton from his chair armrests and plugs his ears. (As Peele points out in his commentary, this black man ironically picks some cotton to avoid slavery.)  Assuming that he’ll be unconscious, Jeremy then frees him to take him to surgery, but Chris springs to life and knocks out Jeremy with a bocce ball.

But couldn’t the villains have predicted that, too? Why would they put him in a place where he would have access to cotton stuffing with which to plug up his ears? And wouldn’t a previous captive have figured out the same thing?

But this brings us to another very ironic special skill: When Chris is being hypnotized, he flashes back to when he was a child, watching TV, correctly fearing his mom had been in an accident, but doing nothing. We see that he was betraying his anxiety in only one way: He was obsessively scratching at the armrest of the chair he was sitting on. As he’s being hypnotized by Missy, he starts to do the same thing, but Missy doesn’t notice. When he’s in the basement, hypnotized off and on for days, he naturally does it again, until he’s ripped open the leather and exposed the cotton.

In a thriller, it’s essential to establish early on the special skills that will allow your hero to get out of trouble later, preferably something the villain could not guess that the hero would know how to do. Total Recall failed to do this, but Get Out does it in a very ironic and odd way. Missy does not suspect Chris’s real superpower: The obsessive ability to scratch open armrests, given enough time.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Rulebook Casefile: National Pain in “Get Out”

I always say that if you really want your story to resonate with the a lot of people, it should tap into National Pain. Is there any better example of this than Get Out? Here’s Peele in a discussion with Chance the Rapper on the DVD:

  • All the great horror films have something to say. They have a real horror that they’re about, and the issue of racism had been ignored in this genre, and I felt like this meant to fill in a gap, a missing piece of conversation. Maybe this’ll fuck shit up in the wrong way, I don’t know. Art and communication is the one tool we have against the true horror of the world which is violence, so I hope that this is an inclusive experience, and that it inspires people to just talk. We’re also in need right now for things that are going to bring us together as people, so hopefully this movie creates a collective creative catharsis, in a way.

In the commentary, he talks about how he wrote the script under Obama but shot it under Trump:

  • When President Obama was elected, we entered this era that I call the post-racial lie: “We got a black president, it’s done, we’re past it.” And many of us know that race is very much alive and racism is alive and it’s the monster that was simmering beneath the surface of the country for a while, and so I felt like this movie was originally meant to address that. Now we live in a completely different era, and it’s been fascinating to see how this movie’s journey has led up to this moment, where now I feel like it’s more relevant in a way than ever.

Interestingly, he says that the shift from Obama to Trump was the reason he changed the ending:

  • By the time I was shooting it, it was quite clear the world had shifted, racism was being dealt with, people were woke, and people needed a release and a hero, which is why I changed the ending and had Rod show up at the end.

(I say in my checklist that movies should reflect the way the world works, and that’s far more true of the original ending, but I agree with Peele: Everyone needed to stand up and cheer instead of seeing how it would actually go down. The brilliant solution was to give us that moment where we think he’s going to be arrested, and that hits us like a ton of bricks …but then it’s Rod, and our horror turns to elation. He’s giving us both emotions.)

It’s interesting to try to parse exactly what the movie is saying about the Obama era. One key question that can’t be answered: Is Dean telling the truth when he says he’d vote for Obama a third time? Is that just a lie to put Chris at ease, or does he mean it? Obviously what Dean’s group wants is white minds in black skins. Is Peele saying that that’s what Obama represented to some pseudo-liberals? (Chris is neither surprised nor impressed when Dean tells him this.) Peele says in the commentary that in America, “all black people are in the Sunken Place” One can’t help but wonder to what degree that he’s talking about Obama specifically.
 Peele first became a household name (and got to meet Obama) because of a recurring skit on his TV show where he impersonated Obama’s placid exterior while his sketch partner Keegan Michael Key acted out Obama’s hidden angry side. It was hilarious, and painful, and cathartic: Obama fans were gratified to finally get to see the anger that surely must be trapped under the surface of “No-Drama Obama”, possibly in his own personal Sunken Place.  It’s unimaginable what Obama must have gone through as he endured constant racial hatred from Fox News, but he rarely let it show.

Peele is grappling with profound national pain, but he’s doing so in an entertaining, even thrilling way, without a lot of speeches.  His metaphor does the work.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Rulebook Casefile: Know More Than You Show in “Get Out”

The biggest difference between the script and finished film of Get Out is the opening scene. The scene is shorter and more unclear in the final film. I suspect it was actually darkened in the editing room. In both my viewings, I didn’t notice that the kidnapper who drags the guy into the car is wearing a knight’s helmet! It’s just too unclear to really make out.

(Also, because the scene is dark and brief, I didn’t notice that the guy who gets kidnapped is the same guy we meet at the party later. If I had been more familiar with the actor LaKeith Stanfield at the time, I probably would have recognized him both times, and it would have given me a lot more information while I watched, which would not necessarily have improved my viewing experience, but it’s hard to know. In his commentary, Peele admits that he was deliberately playing with a white audience’s inability to be sure if they’re looking at the same black guy or not)

We don’t get a good look at the helmet until Chris is escaping from the house at the end and finds it on the passenger seat of Jeremy’s car. At that point, if we don’t recognize it from before, it’s just a humorously odd detail that gets a quick laugh in the middle of a chaotic action scene: These people are nuts! (If we do recognize it, we realize that Rose has been carefully seducing black guys but Jeremy has just been putting on a helmet and grabbing them from the street)
But then look at the posters for the movie: There’s the helmet! As with the deer in the trailer, Blumhouse was looking for unique imagery, and found the movie lacking, so they latched onto this odd detail to help them with the marketing.

So what’s the deal with the helmet? Is it an important part of the movie, or just a gag? It’s only once you listen to the commentary that you realize that the helmet is the key to a whole thing! Some snippets:

  • During the kidnapping: “Jeremy is wearing a Templar helmet. I’ve got a whole mythology and lore. The operation is a way of channeling the Holy Grail’s original power of immortality.”
  • During the silent auction for Chris’s body: “What are the numbers? Are they millions of dollars? Billions of dollars? In my lore, the Knight Templar trade amongst each other relics and artifacts.”
  • During the video: “I know the entire history of this secret society and it goes deep, but you only get little pieces. On another DVD I’ll take you through the history of the Red Alchemist society.”

This brings us back to another old rule: Know more than you show. That backstory is ludicrous! Thankfully, none of this made it into the movie. As with Us, it’s better if you don’t think about it that much. It’s good that Peele is thinking about it, but he knows better than to share it, unless you listen to the commentary (and even then, he spares us that second commentary.)

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Rulebook Casefile: Marketable Imagery in Get Out

Back in the day, I had a lot of meetings based on a script I’d written with a mind-control villain, but one problem we had with it was that it had no good trailer/poster imagery. If someone is just talking to you, there are no objects involved. Unless you really want to show spirals in their eyes, it’s hard to look at either controller or controllee and see what’s going on.

Jordan Peele had a similar problem with Get Out. Once Chris is being prepped for surgery, there’s all sorts of sci-fi imagery, but that’s all spoilers. If you limit yourself to imagery before the twist, what do you have? Ultimately, they settled on a good image (predicated on a great lead performance): Chris freaking out with a tear running down his face. We’re not sure he’s been hypnotized, but clearly someone is doing something to him, maybe to his mind.

But before they settled on that image, they played around with a few more. There’s one image that the production company Blumhouse insisted on putting in the trailer despite the fact that it had already been cut from the movie. Originally, Chris spent more time in the Sunken Place, and took his lighter out of his pocket (which doesn’t make sense to me). It illuminated a skeleton-deer lunging at him. Says Peele in the Deleted Scenes commentary:

  • This deer was—they used it in the trailer, and full transparency, I requested that they didn’t, but they felt that it would help entice the audience, the horror audience, and it worked, so kudos to them. I knew some people would be disappointed when they don’t see this deer, but also kind of knew they wouldn’t be disappointed was because the main reason I cut this was because it didn’t look good. I would have to put more money into it, effects wise, and it didn’t seem essential to tell the story.  It might be a losing battle.

Indeed, it does look pretty bad, and confuses the idea of what the sunken place is. It isn’t needed for the movie …but was it needed in the trailer?  Blumhouse thought so.  You need a lot of imagery for a modern rapid-cut trailer, perhaps more imagery than you need for the movie itself.

When you write a movie you need to think of the poster or trailer, and when you write a book you need to think of the cover. You need imagery that shows your genre in a unique and appealing way. Tomorrow, we’ll look at another image they used to promote the movie that was mostly cut from the movie itself, and which exemplifies another rule.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Straying from the Party Line (Except for the Deleted Scenes): Chris Never Gets His Hopes Up in “Get Out”

As I watch movies for this blog, I find that most movies meet most steps of the structure I expect them to have. Sometimes, when they don’t, I find that they actually did at the script stage, and even in the shooting stage, but the scene got deleted from the final edit. Think of how Star Wars once started from Luke’s point of view, or The Terminator once had a shift to the proactive.

One beat that Get Out doesn’t have in its final version is the one I would expect to find right before the midpoint disaster: “the hero has a little fun and gets excited about the possibility of success.”

But if you look at the deleted scenes on the DVD you’ll see that such a scene did once happen in that spot. There is still a scene at that spot in the movie where Chris meets Jim the blind art dealer, who apologizes for the racism of the other guests and praises Chris’s photography. But originally the scene went further: As Rose’s brother Jeremy tried to call Chris away for badminton, Jim went so far as to offer Chris a show in his gallery in the coming weeks. Chris is very happy to hear that:

  • Jeremy: Yo Chris, can we borrow you? I need to kick someone’s ass in badminton.
  • Chris to Jim: Nice to meet you man
  • Jim: Stop by the gallery, it’s about time you had a solo show.
  • Chris: Really?
  • Jim: Mm-Hm
  • Chris: Wow, okay, that’d be…that’d be a gamechanger!
  • Jim: We’ll get together sometime.

Emotionally, for the audience, this is just the right beat: We want to go on an emotional rollercoaster with the hero. We want his efforts in “the easy way” to seemingly be rewarded. We want to get our hopes up, right along with him, and then share his agony when it all comes crashing down at the midpoint (more like the 2/3 point in this movie)

So why was this cut? In his commentary on the deleted scenes, Peele doesn’t address this dialogue exchange, because he’s already talking about how the unnecessary badminton sequence had to go. I got the impression that the only reason this exchange was cut was because it overlapped with that sequence.

But it can go. After all, why would Jim say this to Chris? Whether or not Jim wins the auction, he knows Chris isn’t going to live through the weekend. Possibly he would say it just to keep Chris happy until the auction is over and he can be seized, but that’s a bit of a stretch.

Ultimately, this beat just existed to increase the emotional gutpunch of the midpoint disaster for the audience, but once the movie was firing on cylinders, it wasn’t necessary. The movie was impactful enough without it. But it’s telling that Peele did feel it was necessary to hit this expected beat in the script stage, before he knew his movie wouldn’t need it.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Get Out

Rose brings her black boyfriend Chris home to meet her wealthy, supposedly liberal family: dad Dean, mother Missy and brother Jeremy. He’s creeped out by the black maid Georgina and groundskeeper Walter. Missy hypnotizes him and gets him to admit he did nothing when his mother was dying from a car accident. They have a big garden party where he meets blind art dealer Jim and a wealthy black guy named Logan, who suddenly screams “Get out!” when he gets a flash in his eyes. Unbeknownst to Chris, the party guests have an auction for his body.  (Rose’s grandparents have already claimed the bodies of Georgina and Walter.)  Chris decides to leave too late and ends up strapped to a chair, but finally escapes by plugging up his ears so he can’t hear the sound that has been hypnotizing him. He kills everybody in the house (including Jim, who’s waiting for his body). He’s rescued by his friend Rod, who works for the TSA.

PART #1: CONCEPT 18/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
A young black man becomes increasingly aware that his white girlfriend and her family may have sinister designs on him. 
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
These liberals love black people a little bit too much.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
Very much so.  We’ve all felt like everybody at a party was talking about us behind our backs, even if we’re white. 
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? 
Does the story present a unique relationship?
Very much so.  We’ve never seen a pairing like Chris and Rose before, once we find out what’s really going on.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Just about everybody
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
Greatest hope: Someone finally loves him.  Greatest fear: That he’ll be passively trapped inside a screen again, as he was when his mom died.  (But as a photographer, he hides behind a lens, so his relationship to glass is complex.)
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
His story with his mom makes the sunken place especially horrific for him. 
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)?
Rose is all he has in the world, so he doesn’t want to admit she or her family is evil.  And he doesn’t want to think about his mom.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Yes, pretty much.  If he’d waited for Rod to show up, it would have been too late.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
In the commentary, Peele says that Chris turns a corner when he tries to rescue Georgina, symbolically finally saving his mom.  He certainly transforms the situation.
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: It’s funny, moving, scary and thrilling.  Everybody loves it, even if they hate horror.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
It’s tricky, because almost all of the horror imagery is a spoiler.  Ultimately, they cleverly found a way to promote it by just showing him crying while hypnotized, but Blumhouse also insisted on including in the first trailer a lame shot Peele had cut from the actual movie, showing a skeleton deer in the sunken place, and Peele reluctantly agreed.  They also included a knight’s helmet on the poster that was mostly cut from the movie. 
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
So many!  The sunken place! The auction! The killings!
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
To put it mildly.  We know some shit will go down, but don’t guess what.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Blumhouse did an amazing job marketing without revealing the twist.  (The biggest spoiler was the title)
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Very much so.
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
He admires himself in the mirror, then knicks himself shaving, which is comically vain. 
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Backstory becomes very important, but it doesn’t come into play until we’ve bonded to him (It does tie in to one reason we like him: He checks on the deer because nobody checked on his mom, but we only realize that on a second or third viewing)
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
An acclaimed photographer.  A self-confidant young black man in love with a white woman.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
He blames himself for his mother’s death and he fears everyone is out to get him.  
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Just very slightly.  He talks a little blacker to Rod than he does to her (“Yo, you at work?”) but for the most part he speaks rather generically.  He’s code-switching, and around white people he’s studiously generic in his metaphor family.
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Leery but too much of a peace-maker to act on his fears.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Not really, and he loses every argument he has in the movie.  He’ll try things like, “That was a dollar, you just threw a dollar out the window” when she throws away his cigarette, but it’s a halfhearted attempt and fails.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
His motivation is that Rose is all he has in the world (other than his dog and Rod) but we don’t understand that until halfway through.  Before he admits that, we wonder why he’s putting up with this.
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)?
 She says, “They are not racist. I would have told you. I wouldn't be bringing you home to them. Think about that for just two seconds.” Chris responds, “I'm thinking. Yeah, yeah, yeah good.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
He’s not very goal oriented.  In retrospect, we can figure that he might have seen this as an opportunity to have a family again, but he mainly just pastes on a smile in the first half and doesn’t try hard to impress.  He’s very polite but not eager to please.    
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
Open: that he’ll be “chased off the lawn with a shotgun”, Hidden: that he killed his mother, that everybody wants to kill him.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
Very much so.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
He’s too much of a passive observer.
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?
His ability to passively observe makes him a great street photographer.  He’s got a great eye.
(I guess you could say that another flaw/strength pair is flaw: he’s not paranoid enough and strength: he’s a peace-maker, but that, too, turns out to be a flaw.  In 2017, the country agreed on one thing: The time for peace-making had passed)
Is the hero curious?
He keeps spotting things that are off, and asking questions, but can’t put it all together.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Not really at first, but in the end he is.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
I can make this work, I am an observer, I shouldn’t be so paranoid.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Rod lacks his chill, but Rod is totally proven right.  Rose lacks his racial awareness. 
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
He gently points out to Rose her seeming naivete, but mainly just reacts to everyone with pointedly-quizzical looks.  He laughs off Rod.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
Sort of: He’s shaving.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Absolutely none, as Dean jokingly points out.  She drove. 
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
He finds his camera flash very useful.  Also,  even since the night his mother died, he’s had a nervous tick of scratching at the arms of chairs, and that ironically saves him.  Even more ironically, once he’s scratched open the chair, he then picks the cotton from inside it, which Peele implies in his commentary is Chris drawing on some racial memory. 
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)?
He doesn’t trust Rose that her parents will accept him (but doesn’t realize that he’s trusting them too much.)
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
The cops demands his ID, and he has to rely on Rose to defend him.  He is then constantly humiliated by Rose’s parents.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
It seems so: Rose defends him from the cop, implying that his relationship with her will give him access to her privilege.  
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
He doesn’t trust them or his own perceptions.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
He sort of agrees to let Missy hypnotize him, putting himself in their power.
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?
He regrets it the next morning.  Georgina and Walter just keep acting more threatening to him.  So does Jeremy.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
He tries to fit in at the party. 
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
Only in the deleted scenes, where Jim offers Chris a gallery show.   I think it was only cut because it overlapped with a long badmitton scene that wasn’t needed.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
To put it mildly! 
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
Well, he can try, but he’s pretty powerless.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Very much so.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
Yes, both for him and also for Rod, who now becomes our second hero. 
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Very much so.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Yes, he realizes when he speaks to Jim in pre-op what white people really see in him.  
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
After the ¾ point point, he chooses to save himself.  He discovers that the only way to save himself from slavery is to pick some cotton.
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
He fights them all to the death.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
He briefly tries to be proactive at the midpoint, but doesn’t succeed until the ¾ point point.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
Well, yes, things escalate more quickly than he’s prepared for.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
Yes, everybody’s there. 
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 Chris chooses to try to save Georgina and thus makes his peace with his mom’s death.  He fails to save her, but “saves” Walter just in time for Walter to shoot Rose and kill himself.
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 rediscovers peace-making and chooses not to choke Rose to death (but Peele points out that he ultimately leaves her to die alone in the road like his mother died).  Rod delivers the moral: “I told you not to go in that house.”  Chris presumably agrees.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 16/20: Chris sneaks out for a smoke in the night, has creepy encounters with Georgina and Walter, then finds Missy up drinking tea.  She implores him to sit down, he repeats that he doesn’t want to be hypnotized, but she does it anyway with her teacup.  She gets him to admit the facts of his mother’s death, then sends him to a “sunken place” in his mind.
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?
He’s made it clear he doesn’t want to be hypnotized.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
No, it goes from the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
He’s at his in-laws’ house, and they’ve been acting weird about him being black.  He’s just run into Georgina and Walter acting vaguely menacing to him.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
He just wants to smoke or go back to bed, not have a discussion with his mother-in-law, and certainly not be hypnotized.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Not really.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
Sort of, once we realized what she’s doing with the teacup, and he’s got to get out of there before it gets him.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
It’s both a big plot scene and a big character scene.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
We’re rooting for Chris and don’t trust Missy.  (Maybe if the movie had a different title, white audiences might still be giving her a bit of a benefit of a doubt at this point.)
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
She’s pretending to help him quit smoking, but in actuality she has a very different agenda than him.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface conflict: I don’t want to be hypnotized. Suppressed, it seems at the time: I don’t want a black man dating my daughter.  Suppressed, we eventually realize: I want to enslave you, etc.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Criticizing him for smoking in front of her daughter has a subtext of accusing him of subjecting her daughter to other vices.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
He’s very reluctant to talk about his mom.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
She gets him to laugh at his stereotypes about hypnotism, but ensnares him as she’s doing it.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
No, they both just sit down and don’t touch.  She pushes him in a different way.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
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 gets lured into getting hypnotized, sent to the sunken place
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
She promised him more self-control and left him with none.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
Previously: Will she hypnotize him?  New: What has she done to him?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
Will he ever get out of the sunken place (Then, when we cut to him waking up, we wonder if the whole thing might have been a nightmare, which helps explain why he doesn’t immediately get out of the house.)
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’re terrified for him from this point on.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Not really.  We’re only supposed to empathize with Chris and Rod.  Even when we think Rose isn’t in on it, we don’t emotionally bond with her.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
Well, Chris just wants to fit in, so he’s a people-pleaser, but ultimately he’s doing this in order to get love for himself, not out of a selfless love of anybody else.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Very much so.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
Yes. Rose slyly interrupts Chris every time he starts to speculate.
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?
Not really.  A little bit for the TSA.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
Yes.  Rod, for example: MF: TSA, DPT: Paranoid, DAS: Claiming that his job grants him more authority than he actually has.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Yes, especially Rod.  Dean with his “my man”
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?
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
Hmm, I guess maybe the dad is heart, the mom is head, the brother is gut? 
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?
Well, there are several false “I understand you” moments, starting with standing up to the cop. 
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Quite literally.
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?)
Horror and social satire merged from the beginning.
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
The “Get out of that house, you idiot!” sub-genre
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
No good guys die (except maybe if you count the victims buried deep within Georgina and Walter) and evil is totally defeated, so it’s more like an action movie ending than a horror ending.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
Creepy, odd, satirical
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?
Chris’s dramatic question (Will they accept me?) will be answered definitively (and ironically) halfway through, and then we will default to Rod’s original question (Will he make it home?)
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
We start with the kidnapping of Andre to establish the genre.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
Both Andre and Andre’s white self Logan, when we think they are different people, seem like different possible fates for Chris.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
A tremendous amount of foreshadowing.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
No longer wants to smoke.  Refuses to wrestle brother at first. 
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
He presumably makes it home.
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?
Cooperation vs. vigilance
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
Rod says “You better not come back all bougie on me tho” Will he?  Can he fit in without losing his blackness?
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
She chooses to stand up to the cop for him, he has to decide whether or not to reveal his suspicions about the servants, etc.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
Yes, wild and crazy as it is, it feels like, in some odd way, this is the way the world works.
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)?
Peele, who is biracial, wittily observes universal truths about white worlds and black worlds.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so. It had a lot to say about the Obama era, when it was written, and the Trump era, when it was directed.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Very much so. 
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Much more so in the original ending, where Chris went to jail for killing all those white people.  Instead they released a better stand-up-and-cheer ending, but we know Chris is going to have a hard time explaining his whereabouts and actions.
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?
Oh dear lord yes, as Peele makes clear in his DVD commentary.  Almost every thing we see or hear speaks to theme.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
The teacup, the cell phone, the items in the rec room. 
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
No, it tips definitively: Vigilance is entirely great, cooperation is fatally naive.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
The in-laws love him, after all.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
Lots of them.  Will he be able to explain any of this to the cops?  What about all the other victims?  (Of course, there are even more loose ends in Peele’s next movie.)
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
Chris barely speaks in the final third of the movie and won’t talk about what happened to him when Rod rescues him. 
Final Score: 106 out of 122