Monday, November 20, 2023

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the story include twinges of real-life national pain?

It was 1977, and America was depressed. We’d just lost a war, and, even worse, deep down where we wouldn’t even admit it, we suspected that we had deserved to lose. 

Then, an amazing thing happened. A great work of art came along that began the process of healing that wound, a movie called Star Wars.

In the movie, three American stars played scrappy young rebels taking on a massive empire. The empire kept using its advanced technology to track and slaughter the rebels, leaving smoking villages filled with charred corpses. But a ragtag band of farmers and outlaws won out by hiding in jungles, infiltrating the enemy army, striking fast, and scattering quickly, all the while drawing strength from a meditative, churchless spiritual force.

George Lucas was giving America a chance to empathize with our former enemies and refight the war on their side. As they watched Star Wars, Americans happily made that switch and felt their souls were a little bit cleaner.

Now let’s jump ahead a few years: It was 1984 and America seemed to be on the edge of nuclear war. Few could imagine a bright future. In The Terminator, the Soviets became giant robots, and nuclear war became a robot apocalypse, but the implications were clear: We were caught in a closed loop that had only one end. There was nothing left to do but ride off into a sun-bleached desert to prepare.

Cut to eight years later, and writer/director James Cameron updated his fable in Terminator 2. The big, scary, deep-accented robot broke out of his programming, now determined to destroy his own side’s weapons and break the loop, even if it meant destroying himself in the process. In the end, we’re back on the highway, but now it’s night, and we have no idea what awaits us down the road. We’ve been sure of the coming doom for so long; can we handle the freedom of not knowing what the future brings?

Nobody walked into these movies expecting any political content, and even afterward, most remained blissfully unaware of the movies' deeper implications. Audiences just knew that these movies had resonated with them on a much deeper level than many other blockbusters.

Those stories are science fiction, which is the most allegorical of genres, but all stories become more meaningful when they include twinges of real-life national pain. There’s a myth that the movies of Hollywood’s golden age ignored the Great Depression and created a fantasy world of glitz and glamour, but if you actually watch the movies, nothing could be further from the truth. The depression is a constant reality, and it’s that pain that gives the movies their weight, even as they create a parallel glamorous reality for their characters (and audience) to aspire to.

You can’t count on your audience to bring their sense of morality with them, but you can count on them to bring their fears, pain, and doubts. They don’t want to think directly about those things, but you can add great resonance to an otherwise apolitical story by indirectly referencing them. This is true even for comedies: Great comedy always has an undercurrent of pain running through it, just under the surface.

If you want your story to be more meaningful, you should feel your country’s pain, but you shouldn’t exploit that pain. More on that next time… 

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.

Rulebook Casefile: Predicting National Pain in “24”
As writers, it’s our job to keep our ears to the ground. As one commenter (okay, fine, it was mom) put it on the post for Bright Young Things
  • Waugh saw WWII coming the same way Kafka saw the Holocaust coming, Fitzgerald saw the Crash coming, Tolstoy saw the Russian Revolution coming, and Chaucer and Dante saw the Reformation coming. A good writer, being a careful observer, is going to be good at observing the direction things are headed in.
Nowhere was this more shockingly obvious than in the case of 9/11. Most obviously, Tom Clancy predicted an extremely similar attack in his 1994 novel “Debt of Honor”, but there were also several eerily prescient images set for release the month of the attacks…
  • Both “24” and “Alias” were shows debuting that September about US antiterrorism squads facing off stateless terror organizations, and they both had to edit their pilots after the attacks.
  • In comics, “X-Men”, “Superman” and “The Dark Knight Rises” all had storylines published that month in which planes crashed into skyscrapers to launch apocalyptic attacks.
  • And of course, this album was released a few days before the attacks.
Tapping into real life national pain doesn’t just mean saying “Hey, remember that thing that just happened, I’m going to give it a shout-out”. It also refers to giving voice to the fears, doubts, anger, and violence lurking under the surface of our modern life, and considering what dangers might be about to erupt.

Rulebook Casefile: Invoking National Pain on “Cheers”
If you watch the “Cheers” pilot, you’ll see typical shots of random extras in the background enjoying the bar, but one of them stands out: a flinty-looking old lady in a wheelchair, drinking alone. This is a glimpse of what might have been, because she was supposed to be a regular character. Here’s veteran staffer Ken Levine on his excellent blog, explaining what happened:
  • “The character was named Mrs. Littlefield. She was an opinionated old broad from the D.A.R. She was in the pilot and the decision to drop the character was made after it was filmed. Politics just didn't fit with the mix. So they cut out her part, but there are a few shots here and there where she is still in the background. Just look for a sweet white-haired little old lady who used to have lines. Since several back-up scripts were in the works before the pilot was filmed, we also had to go back and write her out of those episodes as well.
If you look at the script, the final version is almost verbatim the way it was written, with the exception of all of Mrs. Littlefield’s lines being cut out. She’s very funny, but you can see why she had to go:
But, that said, the show was political, just in a different way. Let’s look at the amazing cold open:

 There is so much packed into this.  Yes, it’s funny, and it introduces our setting and central character, but it’s also a bit of a mission statement:
  • “That’s what they say: ‘War is gross.’” The first amazing thing about this line is that Danson dares to play it melancholy, not like a punchline, letting us know that there’s something under the laugh: We’re here underground hanging onto our working-class traditions in this bar but there’s a younger, more privileged generation up there with a breezy contempt for those traditions who literally cannot conceive of what real suffering is like.
  • “This is the thanks we get,” the kid says in faux-reactionary outrage as he turns his back on Sam’s world. Our heroes would spend the next eleven years camped out in this bunker as their working-class world was gradually demolished above them.  More and more bartenders now have (useless, overpriced) college degrees.  We’re all Diane Chambers now. 
Mrs. Littlefield was an attempt to inject partisan political humor into the show, but it didn’t work, because the show was really about class politics, albeit only implicitly, and that was a subtle source of its power.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

Just a little bit.  Their south Asian coworkers mention 9/11, etc.  Jay says “That’s my third strike!”  (They cut out that Cal was writing an Iraq war novel)


YES. it’s quite prescient about the rise of corporate sovereignty in the ‘80s.

An Education

YES. It’s a true story about the birth of the modern feminism, the prison of suburbia, anti-Semitism, etc.

The Babadook

NO. for the same reasons.  This is a story that would be little different in another country, or indeed even five hundred years ago.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Oh very much yes.  Original screenwriter Andrew Bergman pitched his script as “Eldridge Cleaver rides into town on a pony.” He said to Mel, “Play 1974 in 1874.” The original title was “Tex X”

Blue Velvet

YES. Somewhat: drug violence coming to small town.

The Bourne Identity

YES. Very much so.  Liman’s father interrogated Oliver North on national TV and he based Cooper on North.


YES. The economic collapse of 2008 is everywhere.


YES. Very much so.  It’s all about the pain of the war.


YES. Very much so.  It’s as much about Watergate as it is about 1937.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  the over-surveillance of the ‘70s.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Very much so.  Real life police killings are referred to many times.

The Farewell

YES. Hints of it for both countries. 

The Fighter

YES. Very much so.  Lots about crack, etc.


YES. The story is inherently critical or the pricessess-ification of girl-culture, ecouraging girls to see the problem with the traditional princess-love-story paradigm

The Fugitive

YES. Very much so: The false conviction epidemic. 

Get Out

YES. 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. 

Groundhog Day

YES. “He used to work at the mine before it closed down” etc.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. There are lots of parallels with the “War on Terror”

In a Lonely Place

YES. postwar domestic violence and depression loom large: “Dix hasn’t been this good since before the war.”

Iron Man

YES. Very much so: America’s corrupt adventure in Afghanistan, war profiteering.

Lady Bird

YES. They keep watching the Iraq war on TV.

Raising Arizona

YES. Very much so. JFK, Nixon and Reagan are all name checked. “I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn’t easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House. I dunno, they say he’s a decent man, so… maybe his advisors are confused.”


NO. 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. 


YES. Very much so, then and now.  Common does the final song and mentions Ferguson. 

The Shining

YES. Jack’s slaughter is tied into many famous American atrocities, the movie can be seen as cautionary tale of the rise of the “angry white man”.


YES. Bush and Rumsfeld on TV of screwed-up couple, collapse of publishing industry, death of the creative class.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Echoes of Bundy and other cases. 

Star Wars

YES. The whole thing mirrors Vietnam very closely. 

Sunset Boulevard

Somewhat.  (The topical references are all local: the betrayal of ex-silent stars, the Black Dahlia murder) There’s no hint of postwar malaise of anything like that, but it’s hinted that super-rich monsters like Norma were created by the lack of an income tax before the war, and the new 90% top tax bracket has relegated them to the past.  

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