Saturday, November 23, 2013

catch you tomorrow

I won't be getting to impromptu topics today. Today was "sinus day" or "allergy day" or whatever you want to call the day my not that bad allergy to cats catches up to me living with three cats. Every few weeks I'll get a day where my sinuses go crazy. It's fun, but not my kind of fun. Anyway, though I'm breathing right this second, I'm not sure sinus day is over just yet, so I don't want to get into anything too complicated. So, instead, I will deal with screenplay structure today, because that topic is totally simple. Seriously, you follow the basic structure of 3 acts, 5 key points and 8 sequences and make sure the guy gets the girl and Hollywood will buy your screenplay like that.

(Picture the snapping of fingers.)

Or your screenplay will be tossed onto a pile of numerous other screenplays with the exact same structure... in the trash, or on the desk of some "reader" who will then toss it into the trash. And, then they'll buy a screenplay by someone they know instead.

Not to quash all your dreams or anything.

Still, the screenplays they do buy, the screenplays they do produce--they tend to share at least the basics of what I'm about to cover.

I have talked about the three acts in Groundhog Day before and by the following standards my usual breakdown doesn't quite fit. See, as I mentioned yesterday I think of the action up to the end of date night with Rita slapping Phil as the first act, the action from there to Rita in Phil's bed at the end of god day as the second act, and the action leading to Rita in Phil's bed again on the morning after as the third act. It makes a nice sort of visual structure if nothing else, each act ending in that same location. However, it also means that my version of the first act is 55 minutes long, my version of the second act is only about 20 minutes long, and the third act then is about 24 minutes long (not counting the end credits). That's a little top heavy. For Phil's personal journey in the film, I still think that fits pretty well even if it isn't balanced. But, the film isn't just about Phil's internal changes.

I got to thinking about this structural stuff when the Cracked podcast recently (4 Nov) did an episode entitled "Why Every Movie Plot Follows Weirdly Specific Rules." Then, I just had to look up a more detailed breakdown of things and, well, as Rita might say, let's just do this.

Before I even get to the sequences and whatnot, I should note that Phil Dyer in his Doctor My Script blog suggests that the first few pages of a screenplay should include someone actually stating the theme of the story. He cites When Harry Met Sally when "Billy Crystal tells Meg Ryan that it's not possible for men and women to be just friends because the sex always gets in the way." I'm not seeing a line like that in Groundhog Day I think there are a couple lines in the opening scene at the station and one in the van ride to Punxsutawney that have a sort of ironic link to events to come but none that really deal with the theme as such. Those lines, by the way, are Phil asking, sarcastically, "I want to spend an extra second in Punxsutawney?" and Phil saying of Rita, "She's fun, but not my kind of fun." The line in the van is more obvious, at least for me: "Someday somebody will see me interviewing a groundhog and think I don't have a future." In retrospect, all those lines have a deeper meaning in regard to the plot but don't really deal with the theme. Maybe something else will come to me.

Meanwhile, the first sequence of a screenplay, according to The Script Lab, involves the status quo and the "inciting incident." Dyer tells us that the first 10% of a screenplay should be setup, establishing "who the protagonist is, as well as who the other major characters are and what kind of environment the protagonist lives in." For Groundhog Day, the status quo is interesting because even the status quo is in a sort of upheaval with Phil being dragged away from his life in Pittsburgh to do the report out of Punxsutawney. The alarm sounds on Day 1 at 7 minutes 33 seconds in. At 10 minutes even--

(Though it might not be fair to count the end credits, Groundhog Day, clocking in at 1 hour 41 minutes 4 seconds (with credits) is easy enough to round off at 100 minutes to make Dyer's percentages simple. So, for the purpose of simplicity, 10% is 10 minutes. This stuff isn't an exact science anyway.)

--Phil tells Mrs. Lancaster: "Chance of departure today, 100%." I think that is a great bit of the status quo as far as how Phil sees it. Sure, he had to travel out to Punxsutawney for the night, but he expects he will be going right back to Pittsburgh. This trip is an inconvenience, but it's a temporary one. I've dealt with the irony of the weatherman who's wrong about the weather already, but it's not just the weather. Phil has no doubt he's heading home today.

Dyer puts the "small catalyst" at 10% in, the "large catalyst" at 17%. The former, Dyer tells us:

This catalyst should happen to the protagonist, and not be an action that the protagonist takes. This catalyst should be the first thing in the script that propels the protagonist toward the pursuit of his external goal, and should also give him a glimpse of who he could become if he were to overcome his internal flaw.

Compare this to The Script Lab's inciting event (also called the "point of attack") which is the "first premonition of impending trouble, dilemma, or circumstances that will create the main tension of the story." Nathan Marshall at Script Frenzy tells us that this inciting incident is "the event that sets everything into motion [and] what you script's about [is] resolving the inherent conflict of your inciting incident." At first I was thinking the blizzard would be the inciting incident coupled with the beginning of the time loop as the large catalyst. But, really, those are just two parts of the external situation. The large catalyst is something different. But, anyway, the point where Phil knows something strange is going on--when he asks, "What the hell?"--is at 15 minutes 34 seconds in. But, that's closer in effect to the small catalyst than the large catalyst.

Dyer says the large catalyst "should lead the protagonist inevitably toward the pursuit of his external goal, which will begin at plot point one." This description is weird when looking at Groundhog day because arguably the external goal is getting out of the time loop. But, plot point one (which I'll get to below) is more about living with the time loop. The Script Lab's second sequence sets up the "predicament that will be central to the story" and "ends when the main character is LOCKED IN... propelling him/here into a new direction to obtain his/her goal." In those terms, the time loop is the predicament and Phil deciding to take advantage of the loop is him getting locked in. This would be the second key moment and also plot point one, then, 33 minutes 47 second in, when Phil announces, "I'm not gonna live by their rules, anymore." Or maybe 34 minutes, 41 seconds in, when Phil sits up in bed the next morning with joy that, sure enough, the time loop continues and consequences are a thing of the past. Dyer, however, says that plot point one should be 25% of the way in (i.e. 25 minutes). At 25 minutes 8 seconds, Phil breaks the pencil in half to confirm that all this is real.

(It occurs to me now that there are several instances of people confirming reality in this movie. Phil gets Rita to slap him on Day 2. He breaks the pencil that night. He has to confirm reality in a way to Rita on god day. And, on the morning of February 3rd, he pinches Rita to confirm she's real. Considering the science fiction/fantasy aspect of the film is just a shallow unexplained detail that is setup for the larger action, it's interesting that reality is up for debate.)

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. I skipped past one of the more interesting screenplay details. Marshall tells us that if you pause a movie 17 minutes in, "most likely, the essential character conflict has just been laid out. Dyer places the large catalyst at 17% in. And, here's another bit that is tricky, because of the distinction between the inner and outer goals of the story. At 17 minutes exactly, Phil is on the phone. He has just asked if there's a special line for celebrities or emergencies, and now he announces, "I'm both--a celebrity in an emergency." Looking at that line as what Marshall simply calls "Page 17" or as Dyer's large catalyst, it makes sense. See, what does that line tell us about Phil? He is not only full of himself but expects the world to cater to his whims, his needs. He's a celebrity so he should never be stuck. Andie MacDowell's reading of the line notwithstanding, Phil being egocentric really kind of is "his defining characteristic." And, this is the thing that is going to get changed throughout the rest of the film. Marshall uses Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as one of his examples here. At 17 minutes in, teenage Indie "runs to his father for help, but is shushed instead." Marshall argues that that movie is not really about finding the Holy Grail, "it's about learning to forgive dad!" And, Groundhog Day is about Phil Connors learning not to be that "celebrity" who thinks the world owes him something...

Maybe the line that sets up that theme is Rita's "within reason" at 7 minutes 6 seconds in, after Phil asks for her help with his pelvic tilt. Rita, as his producer, has genuinely (I guess, though I question how genuinely) offered, "Anything I can do" and Phil immediately goes too far. He's called himself "the talent" and Larry's about to call him a "prima donna." This encapsulates pre-loop Phil in a nutshell. And, he's going to spend the next hour and a half figuring out how not to be that guy (after a few detours of course).

And, the movie is winding down--Phil just came down off the stage after playing the piano--and I've only made it through 1 of 3 acts, 2 of 8 sequences and 2 of 5 key points, so...

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to figure out how to ever discuss the script for this film in just one blog entry. It seems that every time I approach the screenplay, it takes me a few days and it looks like it will again this time.

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