Sunday, December 15, 2019
Podcast Episode 14: Involuntary Notes
So now you’ll get to hear that Free Story Idea you never got to hear, followed by me returning a few weeks later and submitting my beatsheet to James’ scrutiny. In both cases, things are surprisingly constructive with lots of yes-anding. I think we make some good progress, and I’ve had subsequent thoughts I may add in the comments after I let you guys chime in.
By the way, the comment section from our previous podcast on the Moment of Grace is still going strong with 26 comments so far, so feel free to keep that discussion going as well!
Labels: Secrets of Story Podcast
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I haven't finished listening to the podcast yet, but a couple things came up so far. I think one good way to establish the connectivity between Amy + her boyfriend could be to have the finger cutting scene go sexual - he comes in, sucks on her finger to stop the bleeding, leads to some semi-angry semi-makeup sex. He falls asleep after, and she's awake, stroking his hair or chest, possibly shaking her head and making some comment about love and hate being 2 sides of the same coin.
Secondly, I think the way of doing the sort of twist of the guilt/innocence would be to have 2 criminals that have PET scan discrepancies. One would be the friendly meek small nice guy whose PET showed his as not lying when he says he didn't commit the crime he's in jail for. It doesn't mean he isn't a psychopath or hasn't killed someone else though.... The other would be sort of like the Michael Clarke Duncan character in The Green Mile - he didn't kill the person who he's in jail for, but believes he's responsible for their death and the PET scans show him as a psychopath. During the riot, Amy sees (on video cameras?) the person she thought was innocent kill the guy twice his size because the big guy isn't violent, and believes he deserves to die.
Also, instead of Amy overhearing at the warden's office, her going to the teacher's office momentarily to get a new thumb drive or audio tape instead finds some documents showing the financial transfers, or possibly ownership papers in a new company between the warden and her teacher.
A possible direction to take the story can be drawn from the real-life history of psychopathology stories: late in the movie, the Doctor takes the scan herself for some reason…and she is one too. (True story: a prominent researcher in psychopathy discovered that he himself was one during his research.) That doesn’t mean she’s a killer, but it does explain her behaviors and shows that she has the potential to be extremely dangerous.
The profit motive is obvious, but the crusading motivation is also valuable. To pull from your own book, this could be a “good vs. good” situation – maybe the bad guys’ plan is to brain-scan everyone who gets arrested to find and preempt predators. Existing psychopath tests and tools are not terribly effective at predicting future violent behavior, but this dingus is. Those who trip the scans are clearly the Worst of the Worst, the most dangerous. Why wait until Jimmy H. Psychopath ascends from aggravated assault to murder? We know it’s a matter of time, so why not lock him up now and save lives? An uncomfortable argument.
The Doctor is a true believer. She honestly believes in the device and the plan. She’s not in it for the money and fame – well, not consciously – but she thinks she can change the world for the better this way. It’s the prison administrators who see dollar signs. Their greed is the reason she’s being offered test subjects. The Doctor has been able to test folks in small numbers, but this prison trip is the first mass test, the first real proof-of-concept of the “Psycho-Detector Crime Preventer” program.
The Doctor’s data tweaking was not exactly preplanned. The Grad Student sees that several of the prisoners tested are borderline, with several closer to normal than totally psychopathic. But the Doctor fudges the data on those fringe cases. She assures the Grad Student that to bring a better tomorrow to life, it’s necessary to start off with unambiguous evidence. These men were clearly psychopaths, she tells the Grad Student, based on their actions. So yes, I scuffed the data a little. Later, I will refine the system later to match this surprising data. The Grad Student asks if she’s done this before. No, the Doctor says, this is the first time I’ve gotten ambiguous results like this.
The Grad Student finds that the Doctor has, in fact, been fudging her data for years. She’s been pushing borderline cases with violent histories into the “danger” category and those without such histories into the “non-dangerous” category. She’s fitting the data to match her conclusions. For the sake of movie-brevity, she then finds the Doctor’s own unpublished research showing that the link between the Psycho Result and violent behavior is moderate at best. The machine measures common elements of what is commonly understood as psychopathy – undersized amygdalas, frontal lobe impairments, etc. – but Grad Student sees that when you look at the data closely (which she wasn’t able to do until this project), it’s shoddy science.
This resolves the “good vs. good” argument, because the “stop the psychopaths before they kill” person may have a point, but they also don’t have the means to actually do that. They have a tool they’ve convinced themselves can do it, but they’re fooling themselves.
This is pretty much the debate about social engineering technology now. The great promises of many new technologies prove false if you look close, because they’re built upon faulty assumptions and questionable data.
To make the Psycho Dingus more cinematic, it could be a little Clockwork-Orangey. An existing test is to show the subject fear-inducing materials and also pictures of people in distress and measure their reaction. Psychopaths are less susceptible to fear and show less reaction to other people’s suffering. Maybe the Psycho Dingus takes it farther. Yes, that’s right, you’re attempting to induce fear via machine. How it does so could be…fascinating.
If you went into a bit more of a horror direction, that could tie into the climax. What would it take to get a psychopath frightened? And then what happens if you put in a normal person, say a Grad Student, into the machine and turned the dials all the way up?
The Doctor could be magnetic to the Grad Student because she’s who the Grad Student wishes she was: bold, fearless, a take-no-shit hard charger. When we get to the Big Reveal that the Doctor is a psychopath too, it should feel like a big “oh, shit, of course!” The Grad Student is not fearless, but she becomes bolder, charges harder, and in the end, doesn’t take the bad guys’ shit.
The relationship between them starts off “grumpy, brash mentor/wide-eyed follower” to “broken idol with a hint of delusion/shaken idealist” to opponents. I wouldn’t turn the Doctor into a full-blown (women’s equivalent of a) mustache-twirling villain; the main threat should be the prison ownership. But she should be a source of growing unease that eventually blossoms into full-bore problem.
Is this in danger of becoming a story about how driven women are crazy and they should keep their ambitions checked? You bet! So it’s important that the Grad Student not be punished or mocked for doing what she does. Her victory over the Doctor isn’t just survival; she has to be bigger or better or something. Her ambition and intellect have to save the day.
A riot in a SuperMax is virtually impossible. The prisoners are isolated. This would work better in a maximum security state prison.
The tests should include “control” prisoners, folks who are in for property crime. They could be wild cards. They aren’t the killer psychos of the main group, but they aren’t exactly allies.
The idea that the prison guards would try to hunt down and kill the Grad Student without a reason is too much.
So how about the Grad Student shows what she finds to the prison honcho, behind the Doctor’s back, and the honcho has an idea. He sends the Grad Student to a room while he “consults with the board.” He then has thrown into that same room one of the vintage psychos from the experiment. This problem solves itself, the honcho figures. (He’s a psychopath too, clearly.)
But…the Grad Student is wily. She convinces the psycho that his scans showed that he was normal. She’s lying. But that’s enough to get him to not kill her. Instead, he wants to keep her alive and get her out of the prison because he’s under the mistaken belief that it will help his case.
The honcho, seeing that the expected murder did not happen, alerts the guards that there’s a hostage situation. That could replace the riot. Or it could lead to the riot to later in the movie.
The psycho knows the prison well and takes her on the run through the prison. Maybe the riot breaks out, and that’s how he has free movement. The Doctor and her whole angle comes into it, joining them for safety during the riot.
So the story is mostly about the trio: the Grad Student, the Doctor, and the Psycho. They’re trying to escape a prison riot, knowing that the guards are out to kill him. The honcho will tell the guards that the Grad Student is collaborating with him, but they may or may not believe him.
A key trait of psychopaths is a lack of empathy. How about the Grad Student’s father was a low-level psychopath himself, and was thus a conscienceless liar? Seeing the damage he did, she made herself honest to a fault. For her to lie to the psycho, even to save her own life, is very, very hard. Makes her feel dirty. Makes her feel like she’s turning into her old man, a stagnant pool of human sewage.
“It’s okay to lie” is kind of an odd and unpleasant spot of character growth to give her, so there should be more to her than obnoxious honesty.
All great thoughts, Harvey! Of course, Amy takes the test at the beginning but her prof Colletta could say to her at the end, "I told you your brain lit up when you told those lies, but now I'll tell you the truth: It didn't. You're a psychopath just like your dad. That's why I brought you along on the study." We don't know if she's just fucking with Amy or not.
Easy E: I'm interested in hearing what you think of how your suggestions are part of it when you finish.
Harvey: Yeah, Colletta could just reveal that she's taken the test and failed it herself.
I agree with you and James that the prison should be motivated entirely by money but Colletta should either say or genuinely believe that she's pursuing a moral good, to set up a "good vs. good" element. (Of course, I usually say that good vs. good dilemmas should never totally tip in one direction, but this one would be pretty definitive.)
I love incorporating the element of showing them upsetting images and seeing how they make the brains light up. I think that came up in my original research but I forgot it. It would make those sequences much more visually interesting.
Yeah, I like the "I wish I was fearless like you" element, which turns nicely when she realizes "Oh right, the people we're studying are fearless too."
Yeah, I use "supermax" and "maximum security" interchangeably, but you're right that they're different and only one makes sense. I'm like one of those screenwriters who makes every average soldier a Navy SEAL.
I like the idea of her having to lie to someone about what their results are.
Here's something I've been thinking: What if, instead of Amy's father killing her mother, her mother killed her dad? Maybe she stabbed him in the back in the kitchen, and the cops determined she had no good reason, and she offered no defense, but later, after being sent to prison, she wanted to explain to her daughter, and Amy refused to hear it. This ties in her cutting her hand in the kitchen at the beginning, and then when she fights Reeves, they could end up in the prison kitchen and she could end up stabbing him to death there with one of the kitchen knives, creating a building sense of "I'm becoming my mother", which is something every young woman fears, but this is a much more extreme version. Then, at the end, she meets with her mother in prison and agrees to listen to her.
I really think that once the dust has settled and everyone has had their say, Matt should go ahead and write the script. This will be a good test of seeing how application of Matt's rules work, when brought into contact with the fertile, seething, endlessly inventive creativity and ingenuity of folks like Harvey and everyone else in the comments section.
Harvey should write it! One of the reasons I stopped writing thrillers was that I was tired of getting into the heads of bad people.
I was really surprised while listening to the podcast that neither of you brought up one of the most famous ironies in researching the brains of psychopaths - the instance where the researcher accidentally discovered that he himself was one. Harvey beat me to pointing it out, though.
A bit of a tangent from storytelling itself: It's pretty important to note that psychopaths aren't just a medically identifiable "evil," impaired empathy doesn't necessarily make you a bad person - there's a lot of high functioning psychopaths who spend their entire lives as members of society in good standing, either because they have personal principles against criminal actions (basically replacing morality with aesthetics as the basis of their ethics) or just because they see it as the best way to go about doing what they want (and you know... having being a law-abiding contributor to society the best option for its members to thrive is kind of the entire point of society).
Notably, an awful lot of surgeons are psychopaths. Ever watched surgery videos? It should be perfectly obvious that someone is far more likely to succeed at being a surgeon when they have no emotional reaction to opening up a sick kid the way you might unzip a gym bag. I wouldn't prefer the world where they were all replaced by highly empathic people who kept making mistakes because of how disturbing the process is and quickly burned out from the stress.
Basically everything Harvey had to say seems like great stuff to me, and honestly this is quickly turning into the sort of movie I'd try to make a bunch of my friends watch.
I like the idea of having Colletta be a psycho who has found her fearlessness and lack of empathy very conductive to her career and who is trying to push the technology through because of her personal ideals.
I also like the idea of going with Matt's change to Amy's mother being the one who stabbed her father to death... and ultimately reveal that Amy's mother was both the sort of person who could lie effortlessly and that she had a logical and arguably sympathetic reason for murdering her husband in cold blood, though still one that wouldn't drive most people to her actions.
Like say, she discovered that he was a criminal himself and felt that both letting him go about his business or reporting him to the police and putting his associates in a situation where they might want to tie up loose ends to protect themselves would endanger her children, so she made a level-headed but coldly monstrous decision to play dumb long enough to sure the kids would be taken care of through life insurance, etc, before resolving the situation herself.
While I think that it would be realistic to have both (Amy latching on to someone who reminds her of her mother deep down but seems at first not to have the traits that broke their relationship makes total sense) it might be too many psychopaths for the audience to accept.
Interestingly, with it being a women's prison you could have the movie be one of the rare ones where there are so few men that you never see two on screen together.
Obviously, both Matt and James should write scripts without consulting with each other further, and your next podcast you can compare the different decisions you each made telling the story.
Great points, Eric! But I'm not writing it. Anybody out there who wants to submit a draft will get the next year's worth of podcast episodes free!
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