Home » Blog

How Dead Poets Society Stuck the Landing

In gymnastics they like to say, “Stick the landing.” That’s because a flawless Olympic routine can be ruined by a last-second stumble. No one will ever talk about the amazing feats of athleticism and dexterity that preceded it. All that will be remembered was that a 9.8 turned into an 8.1 because the gymnast couldn’t stick the landing.

How many movies have you seen that are brilliant for the first 110 minutes only to be ruined by an implausible or otherwise contrived ending? It’s a horrible feeling to invest emotionally for nearly two hours with characters and a storyline only to be left unsatisfied because the screenwriter and/or the filmmakers couldn’t “stick the landing”.

Best Picture winners No Country for Old Men and Birdman left more than a few people scratching their heads at their respective endings. You’re asking yourself right now, ok, smart guy, they won Best Picture. How could they be ruined? That’s a fair question, and I will respond by saying that both movies were thisclose to being masterpieces. They were both films that had us on the edge of our seats for two hours wrapped up in deep characters and compelling storylines only to get to the end and have more than half the audience go, “Huh?”

I don’t care if you win Best Picture. If your ending is so ambiguous that half the people don’t get it, then you didn’t stick the landing. One movie that did stick the landing is Dead Poets Society. In fact, Dead Poets Society could serve as a master class in how to end a picture. It’s a layered ending with depth and pathos and it nails every target that it set for itself to get to that point.


If you have not seen Dead Poets Society then I beseech you to stop reading now. Watch the film (it’s streaming for free on Amazon Prime) and then come back and finish reading.

On the surface of this film’s ending, it seems like our hero, John Keating (Robin Williams) has lost. He’s been fired from his teaching position. His favorite student has committed suicide. The school’s headmaster has taken over teaching his class in a way and with a philosophy that is diametrically opposed to Keating’s.

But a quick dash through the Hero’s Journey will reveal the depth of this ending and show that Keating actually won.

The Hero’s Journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell and adapted for screenwriting by Christopher Vogler in his book, The Writer’s Journey lays out the Hero’s Journey thusly.

Here’s the thing about Dead Poets Society. Keating is the hero, but he’s not really the main character. It’s an ensemble story about a group of boys in an all-boys boarding school. The boys are all a representation of the idea of toxic masculinity and how that negative, often self-destructive trait is nurtured in them at a young age. Young boys and young men are taught that success in business or any other chosen field of profession it tantamount to their existence and must be achieved no matter the cost. As the hero of the story, Keating’s goal is to teach the boys that life is more than pursuing professional achievement, and that art and poetry are what we live life for. There’s no shame in a successful career, but it’s ultimately meaningless if you can’t appreciate the beauty of the world in which we live. Not only should you treasure that in life, but you should experience it’s beauty and power everyday.

It’s probably debatable who the “main character” is, but I would argue it’s one of roommates Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) or Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke). The story revolves around their relationship with each other and their friends, and they’re the characters who grow the most. Neil grows from a subservient and dutiful son to an independent  and free-thinking young man. Todd grows from a timid and introverted boy who’s afraid of failure to a heroic young man who will stand up against authority for what he believes is right.

Those characters drive the plot, but their character arcs are driven and nurtured by Keating.

The Ordinary World of Dead Poets Society shows us a group of boys at the prestigious Welton School for Boys. They’re arriving for the start of a new school year, they say goodbye to their parents, some tearfully so, and even before classes have started, they’re organizing study groups for classes like Latin, Chemistry and Physics. These boys are being groomed to attend universities like Harvard and Yale, and careers in medicine, law and engineering await them. We meet Todd and we learn that he’s a legacy at Welton. His brother graduated from there and it’s clear that Todd is unsure if he’ll be able to measure up. His roommate, Neil, is a confident leader of his friends, but he wilts to his father’s demands to give up extra-curricular activities to solely focus on his studies.

It is Keating who provides the boys with the Call to Adventure in their first Poetry class. He introduces himself and tells them if they’re slightly more daring, they can refer to him as Oh Captain, My Captain in reference to a poem Walt Whitman wrote about Abraham Lincoln. That call is verbalized by the Latin term carpe diem, or seize the day. He implores the boys to live their lives to the fullest. While medicine and engineering are all noble pursuits, poetry and art are the things we live for. Keating tells the boys to live their lives to the fullest and think for themselves so as not be slaves to conformity, which is exactly the opposite of everything they’ve ever been taught at Welton. In this way, Keating also serves as as an archetypal mentor to all of the boys, so the Meeting of the Mentor stage happens at the same time.

Keating gets his students to think for themselves by making them rip out a pretentiously written section of text in their poetry text book and making them stand on their desks so that they can see the world from a different perspective. Keating was once himself a student at “Hell-ton” and they find in his old yearbook reference to the Dead Poets Society. When they ask him about it, he tells them that he and his fellow students would meet in secret and read poetry in a way to suck the marrow out of life.

Neil enthusiastically embraces the Call right away. He encourages his friends to re-form the Dead Poets Society,  and he does something he’s always wanted to do. Against the wishes of his father, Neil auditions for a play and lands the role of Puck in A Midsummer Nights Dream. Todd is less enthusiastic and initially Refuses the Call. He claims to have too much studying to do, and he tries to discourage Neil from auditioning out of fear of Neil provoking his father.

The Approach happens when Neil’s father discovers that he’s in the play and demands that he drop out of it the day before the performance. Once again, Neil appears to bow to the will of his father, but instead he gives a stunning performance, which serves as the Supreme Ordeal. Mr. Keating, Todd, and the rest of his friends watch as Neil applies all that Keating has taught him to this point. Neil is sucking the marrow out of life and living his life in a way that he otherwise never would have. The Reward comes after the show. Everyone is stunned by his performance and he’s on top of the world.

His triumph will be short-lived, however, as his father has also seen the show, and that leads us to the Road Backm which is a literal one. Neil is forced to come home by his father, who is going to withdraw him from Welton and force him to finish out his schooling at a military academy. His father is demanding that he become a doctor, and nothing will stop that in his mind. Except that Neil has other ideas. He knows that he can’t live the life that his father has planned for him, so he’s not even going to try. He finds his father’s pistol and he kills himself.

The Resurrection shows Todd discovering Neil’s death, but finally learning the value of what Keating has taught him. The Headmaster, Mr. Nolan opens an investigation with notion of scapegoating Keaton for Neil’s death. He forces all of the boys, including Todd, to sign a statement saying as much, and Keating is fired, while one of the other boys is expelled for punching a fellow student who was more enthusiastic about Keating’s dismissal.

Then we have the ending. The Return with the Elixir. The boys are in their English class and Mr. Nolan is going to teach it until a replacement teacher can be found. To say that he’s teaching it in a more “traditional” way would be accurate. Keating arrives to collect that last of her personal affects, and after some building tension, Todd finds the courage to stand up and apologize to Keating, telling him that they were all made to sign the paper. Mr. Nolan threatens Todd with expulsion if he doesn’t sit and demands that Keating leave at once. Nolan flashes a cocksure smile as Keating is about to exit, and that’s when Todd climbs to the top of his desk. “Oh Captain, my Captain!” he calls out. Mr. Nolan is apoplectic and demands that Todd get down. But one by one, most of the rest of the Dead Poets climb to the top of their desks and repeat the refrain.

Mr. Nolan continues to threaten them all with expulsion, but he is no longer in control of these boys. With this act of defiance and solidarity, they show the headmaster and Keating that they will be the drivers of their own fates. They will suck the marrow of their own lives. They will live for today.

This emotional and powerful scene can be seen here.

That is what makes this ending so satisfying. What looked like a sure defeat was miraculously turned into a victory. Perhaps, though, miraculously is the wrong word. It only feels miraculous, but it was in fact meticulous. That ending was meticulously designed through the writing of the screenplay and the crafting of the story. All of the lessons that Keating taught, while seemingly self-contained and bordering on episodic, were building to this moment. To the moment where Todd and his classmates would throw off the chains of conformity and stand up for themselves. That is what they did, and that’s how screenwriter Tom Schulman and Director Peter Weir stuck the landing.

Onward – A Middle of the Pack PIXAR Film

The first thing I’ll say about Onward is that the whole thing feels rushed. PIXAR’s movies over the last several years have been pretty formulaic. As much as that formula has worked, both critically and commercially, it feels like PIXAR has painted themselves into a little bit of a corner, and Onward suffers for it. It felt like the filmmakers were trying to cram every last little bit of planting into the film so that we could get the emotional payoff that we’ve all come to expect from them.

Certainly, no one pulls at the heart strings like PIXAR does, and they were successful again in this film. However, it falls short of recent successes like Coco, because it lacks the subtlety that that film had. This one beats you over the head with exposition, and starts off at 90 MPH with little let up. Everything happens fast, from the dialogue to the action. The actors’ delivery of the dialogue feels like it’s playing at 125% speed, especially Chris Pratt as Barley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Laurel and Octavia Spencer as The Manticore. There are a couple of times when the pace slows down, like when Ian writes his lists or when Ian meets his father’s old college friend, but even those scenes do little more than allow us to catch our breath. They don’t let the story breathe, and that’s what’s missing from Onward. It’s fun. It’s entertaining. It tugs at the heartstrings. But it needs to breathe. It needs to allow the audience to soak in what it’s trying to tell us.

A perfect example of when they did was during the climactic scene of the movie. I’m not going to give any spoilers, but suffice it to say that Director Dan Scanlon finally did let the movie breathe in this crucial moment, which is ironic because he gave the movie a ticking clock and the clock is about to run out during the climax. But they let us hang. They gave us an extremely emotional beat and they let us experience it for as long as we could, and it worked brilliantly. The last 20 minutes saved this movie, and that’s not the first time I’ve ever said that about a PIXAR film.

The problem was the getting to those last 20 minutes. Another issue that the vast majority of PIXAR films have had over the last decade and a half is that they tend to be road movies. The hero goes on a physical journey, and many of these journeys have been episodic with no real flow to the narrative. They did avoid that trap in this film, although barely. The film is still episodic, but at least there’s a flow to the story. For example, I always felt the problem with Finding Nemo was that you could have taken all of the individual adventures that Marlin and Dory had in that film and changed the order of them and it wouldn’t have changed anything about the order. One adventure didn’t lead organically into the other. In Onward they didn’t have that issue in such a pronounced way. Ian and Barley do have a series of individual adventures, but the filmmakers did a better job in this film of making sure that one adventure led into the next one. The reason for that is that the film as a clear, even if somewhat weak, Hero’s Journey. Warning! Spoilers ahead!

Ordinary World

In a prologue, we learn that this is a world in which magic used to exist, but it was replaced by technology, and now all magic has been forgotten. We meet the Lightfoot family, including Ian (Tom Holland) and his brother Barley (Chris Pratt) and their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). We learn that Ian is timid and has few friends and that Barley is holding on to his belief in magic and a desire to live in those olden days. We also learn that their father died before Ian was born and Barley only as three memories of him.

Call to Adventure

Laurel shows them the wizard staff that their father left for them, along with a Phoenix Gem and the words to a spell that could bring him back to life for one day. Barley can’t get the spell to work but Ian can. Unfortunately, Barley messes it up half way through and their Dad only comes back from the waist down. With the Phoenix Stone disintegrated, Barley wants to go on a quest to find another one before their Dad disappears forever in 24 hours with the next day’s sunset.

Refusal of the Call

A very short and very weak refusal by Ian lasts only a couple of lines, but he’s soon as excited about the quest as his brother.

Crossing the First Threshold

The load up in Barley’s van, Guinevere, and are off on their quest.

Tests, Allies and Enemies

Ian tries to learn to do magic, but fails at first. They arrive at the Maniticore’s Tavern in order to find the map to the Phoenix Gem. Expecting a magical tavern filled with hoards of rough adventurers longing for their next adventure, they find at a Chuck E. Cheese. They enrage the Manticore and she sets the tavern on fire, burning the map, but giving Ian an opportunity to use the magic he couldn’t before. Even though they don’t have the map, they find a children’s menu that has a clue to find the gem at Raven’s Point. Barley wants to take the Path of Peril, but Ian convinces him to take the Expressway. After running out of gas, they piss off some pixie bikers, but Ian has to drive to get them away. The final test shows Barley finding out that Ian thinks he’s a screw up when they have a run in with a couple of police officers, and he refuses to talk to him. Then they have a dance party with their Dad before deciding to go the way that Barley wanted to go originally.


On the Path or Peril, they come to a bottomless pit that they need to use magic to get across it. But here is where Ian starts to gain confidence that he can do this. It’s an archetypal moment that borrows heavily from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (believing in the bridge) and Dumbo (Barley’s rope substituting for the magic feather). They get across the chasm and see a Raven statue pointing to clues.

Supreme Ordeal

Colt Bronco sows up to stop them from going any father. A chase ensues, with Ian driving, A character shift has happened with him now. But they find themselves trapped, and when Ian is unable to do the necessary magic, Barley has to sacrifice Guinevere in order for them to be able to continue. All she leaves behind is a tail light that looks a lot like a Phoenix Stone.


They keep following Ravens until they get to a river that flows through a cave. Ian uses magic to turn a cheese puff into a raft that they take down the river. Ian starts to show some real skill with the magic and the brothers have a bonding moment. Barley reveals another memory of being too scared of their Dad when he was sick and hooked up to all of the tubes and he didn’t look like himself, so he wasn’t able to say good bye to him. That’s when he decided to never be scared again.

The Road Back

They get to another tunnel and need to avoid a series of Booby traps (more Indians Jones). They finally escape, but the escape leads them out a manhole cover that brings them back to their home town right outside the high school.


It looks like they won’t get to fully resurrect their Dad, and Ian thinks that Barley screwed it up his one chance to meet his father. He leaves Barley with the staff and walks away with Dad’s legs. He then goes through the list of all of the things that he wanted to do with his Dad and realizes that he already did all of those things with Barley, and Barley has been the only father to him that he’s really needed. But then, Barley finds the gem in an ancient fountain in town and they’re able to restart the spell. However, it unleashes a curse in the form of a Dragon. While Ian uses magic to defeat the curse, Barley is able to meet their father. Ian watches from a distance as Barley is able to get the closure that he never had before. Their father then disappears. Barley tells Ian that their Dad is proud of the person Ian grew up to be and Ian gives Barley the credit. Barley then gives a hug from their Dad.

Return With the Elixir

Magic is back in the world. Ian teaches people that with a little bit of magic, we can accomplish anything. He has friends now, and Barley has Guinevere the Second, and the brothers take it on another quest.

Overall, Onward has a decent structure and it pushes all of the emotional buttons that PIXAR is generally successful in pushing. However, the story isn’t told with the usual polish of the best PIXAR films. While it isn’t as bad as The Good Dinosaur or Cars 3, it’s nowhere near as good as Coco or The Indredibles or Toy Story 2. It’s definitely somewhere in between. If you’re a fan of PIXAR, you’re sure to be a fan of this film. If you’re not, you’ll probably be left wanting.

1917 Screenplay Analysis

Anyone who follows this blog knows that I am a stickler for story structure. When I evaluate scripts, especially for new and/or undiscovered writers, I make it a point to pay particular attention to the structure of the story and note whether that changes in acts are happening in the right places. My thinking is that when you’re an unknown commodity, you need to demonstrate that you can follow the rules before people will trust you to break them. Sam Mendes is obviously at the point where he can break them, because 1917 broke many of the rules of conventional screenwriting, and yet it got made and became one of the most popular and successful films of 2019. However, even though it did not really follow the typical 3-Act structure, the script still works because it follows a very definite Hero’s Journey.

On one of my social media feeds a person commented that 1917 was nothing more than a glorified video game. We followed the characters through a series of levels having to confront a series of Bosses. When they defeated that level’s Boss, they leveled up and moved on to the next level and the next Boss. Sure it was entertaining and intense, the poster admitted, but it was a video game, not a movie.

You’ll also know, if you follow this blog, that I’m not a fan of Road Movies for the very reasons listed above. I’ve never articulated it that way, but many of those principles apply to why I’m not a fan of that style of storytelling. The stories are often episodic and you can often change the order of the episodes and not change the movie’s story at all.

That is where I part ways with the poster about 1917. Yes, it is a road movie, and on the surface the argument could be made that it’s an episodic story. However, you could not change the order in which they occur. This story follows a definite path which creates a definite arc for the Hero, and that is the big difference in 1917. Or, as the poster pointed out, the characters are doing nothing more than defeating whatever Boss is in front of them and then moving on to the next level. I would like to respectfully disagree and point out that if you break the story down to its Hero’s Journey components you would see that nothing could be farther from the truth. Even though the characters go on a journey, and this is an episodic story, the screenplay provides plenty of examples of quality storytelling and we have a through line that road movies are often missing. This through line provides the spine for the story and shows us that the movie works as a continuous story rather than the episodes that make it up.

For your consideration, here is a breakdown of the Hero’s Journey components in the film 1917.

Ordinary World – We meet Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George McKay) as they’re resting on a short leave. A Staff Sergeant kicks Blake awake and tells him he’s to report to the general and to bring a friend. He taps Schofield and the two of them go back to the trenches to the General’s quarters.

Call to Adventure – Once they’ve arrived, they’re informed by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) that a major assault is planned because the Germans have baited the 2nd Devers into a trap, and that the attack will fail and that Blake’s brother, who’s a member of that regiment, will be killed along with the other 1600 men he’s with. They get orders to get to the 2nd Devers and bring a letter to Col. Mackenzie ordering him to call off the attack, which is planned for just after dawn the next day. That gives the characters a ticking clock, which will come into play almost immediately, and will stay with us throughout the film.

Refusal of the Call – Schofield shows some reluctance thinking the Germans will be waiting for them. Then he wants to talk to Blake about it because he wants to at least wait until it’s dark. Blake, however, is only thinking of his brother and wants to move out right away. The surveillance says that the Germans have withdrawn so they should be able to cross No Man’s Land, but Schofield isn’t convinced and Blake recklessly rambles ahead.

Meeting the Mentor – The first of many, Lt. Leslie gives them instructions on how to get across No Man’s Land. Like the Archetypal Mentors of old, he gives them a gift to help them on their journey in the form of flare guns to fire off if they make it to the other side.

Crossing the First Threshold – Generally the beginning of Act II, it happens early in this film, just under 17 minutes in. They climb the ladders from the trenches and into No Man’s Land. They have left the Ordinary World and relative safety of the Trenches behind, and are now in the Special World of No Man’s Land and whatever dangers lie beyond.

Tests, Allies & Enemies – They start across No Man’s Land. The Markers that Lt. Leslie gave them are there. They make it to the German lines, dodging barbed wire, trenches and scout planes. They make it to the German trenches. Struggling to find a way through, they come across a tunnel that leads to a huge barracks. Schofield finds a trip wire but before they can move a rat sets it off blowing apart the chamber and burying Schofield in debris. Blake manages to get him up and drags him out of the caverns. The near-death experience fills Schofield with regret for Blake picking him, and the allies nearly become enemies. However Schofield gets his wits back and they move on.

The Approach –  Schofield tells Blake he’ll probably get a medal for saving his life. We learned earlier that Schofield received a medal that he no longer has. He admits to Blake that he swapped it for a bottle of wine. To him it was nothing more than a piece of tin. He didn’t want to take it home because he hated being there when he was there on leave. They arrive at a bombed out house surrounded by cherry blossoms. Blake is an expert on cherries because his mother has an orchard back home. They decide to investigate the house to make sure that it’s abandoned, as they suspect. Finding nothing in the house, Schofield moves out to the shell of what was once a barn where he finds a bucket of fresh milk that he pours into his empty canteen. Blake joins him and they watch the end of dogfight playing out in the distance. The German plane is shot down and they’re nearly killed when it crashes into the barn.

Supreme Ordeal – They pull the German pilot from the flaming plane, his legs still on fire. Schofield wants to put him out of his misery, but Blake tells him to get water. Schofield runs to a nearby well, but he hears a commotion and turns just in time to see that German pilot stabbing Blake with a knife. Schofield shoots the German and tries to tend to Blake’s wound, but it’s too deep and too late. Schofield tries to get Blake to move, but it’s too painful, and they both come to the realization that Blake is dying. Blake tells Schofield that he’ll recognize his brother because the two of them look just like each other. Blake asks Schofield to write to his mom for him, to tell her that he wasn’t scared and that he loves her. Schofield assures Blake that he knows the way, reciting the directions for him. He promises to find the 2nd and warn his brother as Blake dies in his arms. Schofield pulls the orders from Blake’s jacket, removes a family ring and one of his dog tags. Schofield, the hero of this story, is now fully committed to the adventure.

Reward – As he pulls Blake’s body to a better resting spot, another couple of soldiers approach and help move him. He then meets Captain Smith (Mark Strong) who is second in command of a convoy heading to the new line. He offers to take Schofield part of the way. Schofield is put in a truck and tries to hold it together in front of other soldiers he doesn’t know as they laugh and tell stories. But the convoy gets bogged down by a downed bridge and Schofield has to move on alone. Smith wishes him luck and warns him to make sure there are witnesses when he presents the orders to Col. Mackenzie, warning him that some men just want the fight. Schofield crosses the debris of a downed bridge, but starts taking fire from a sniper. He manages to get a shot off and hits the sniper in the building he was hiding in. Going in to investigate, he shoots the sniper at close range, but the sniper manages to get a shot off, hitting Schofield in the helmet, knocking him unconscious.

Resurrection – The longest stage of this particular Hero’s Journey starts off with a literal resurrection as Schofield wakes up hours later. It’s dark and he has no idea what time it is. He’s bleeding out of the back of his head and he struggles to his feet. Flares are illuminating the night sky and he sees the ruined town in front of him that he has to get through. As he traverses the streets he realizes that light means danger, as he can be seen by the enemy and must dodge their bullets. As he wanders, he stumbles across a German soldier who chases him, but he manages to escape into a small alcove where he finds a girl hiding with a baby. He asks if this is Accoust, and she says it is. She tells him that he should follow the river to get where he’s going, but he nearly passes out. She examines his wound and cleans it, archetypally healing him and bringing him back to life. The baby, too, is an archetypal symbol of rebirth just as the girl is the symbol of healing and of peace. He gives them food and the milk that he found in the barn, giving them an opportunity for rebirth as well. Interacting with the baby reignites Schofield’s desire to fulfill his mission and he notices that the morning is coming. The girl tries to get him to stay, but he has to go and his mission is reborn as well. He then stumbles upon a couple of drunken Germans and quietly strangles one as the other obliviously stumbles over and Schofield bullies by him. He jumps into the river to escape the city under a hail of more German bullets. The river is raging and sends him over a waterfall. About to give up, the river calms down and he sees Cherry Blossoms floating in the river, an archetypal and symbolic resurrection of Blake and he is again emboldened to continue. But he eventually runs into a mass of bloated and distended dead bodies collected along the river’s bank. After climbing over them, his emotions get the best of him and he breaks down until he hears the sound of singing in the woods. He follows the sound and finds a group of English soldiers listening to another soldier sing a song that is reminiscent of the ordeal that Schofield has just been through. He tells them he has to find the Devers, and they tell him that’s them. They tell him how to find Mackenzie, and he runs ahead. He ends up with them in a trench, but he can’t get through and the attack is about to commence. In perhaps the most famous scene of the movie, he jumps out of the trench, dodging artillery fire and other soldiers before making it to the headquarters of Col Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch). At first unconvinced, McKenzie reads the orders and dramatically calls off the attack.

Return with the Elixir – The colonel’s aid congratulates Schofield on a job well done, but he doesn’t know where to find Blake. Since the First Wave had already gone over, he suggests that Schofield try the casualty tent behind the line. He makes his way there, and after nearly giving up on the search, he finally does find Lt. Blake. He gives him the unfortunate news that his brother died, presenting him with the family ring and dog tag. Lt. Blake, obviously devastated, holds back his emotions and tells Schofield to get to the mess tent. Schofield tells Lt. Blake that his brother was a good man and he saved his life. Lt. Blake confesses that he was glad Schofield was with him and they shake hands. Schofield walks behind a lonely tree off in the distance and sits. He removes from his pocket a photo of his daughters and one of his wife. He flips that one over and written on the other side are the words, “Come back to me”. Schofield closes his eyes and we cut to black.

Unlike most successful films, this film’s story is largely told in one act. There is a very brief prologue of sorts, but once the adventure begins, there’s no all-is-lost moment or second plot point that changes the direction of the story. Blake and Schofield get their orders and from that point on the only thing they’re doing is trying to get to the 2nd to stop the attack. What makes it work for 1917 is that screenwriters Mendes and Kristy Wilson-Cairns meticulously followed the Hero’s Journey model that led to a compelling, intense and entertaining story.

Again, I don’t recommend this if you’re a writer breaking in to the business. As I mentioned before, you need to show that you can follow the rules before you try to break them. But it is possible. Not only is it possible, but when done properly, it can be very effective.

Knives Out: A Screenplay Any Screenwriter Can Learn From

Knives Out was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at this year’s Oscars. It didn’t win. The Academy favored Parasite over Knives Out, and indeed, Parasite had a deservedly big night. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote here about its Best Picture win, and I broke down in detail the effectiveness of its screenplay and the complete Hero’s Journey contained therein. Parasite was a deserving winner, however the achievement of the screenplay for Knives Out should not be diminished or forgotten. Rian Johnson’s mystery movie harkens back to the great stories of Agatha Christie and pays homage to the great sleuths of cinema. Had I been an Oscar voter this year, I would have voted for Knives Out based on its mastery of, not only the Hero’s Journey and strong story structure, but also technical prowess. This is a technically savvy screenplay in which Johnson used all of the tools in the writer’s tool box to craft a story that was thoughtful, witty and entertaining.

Almost nothing in Knives Out happens in a vacuum. Nearly everything that happens has a direct or indirect effect on some other aspect of the story. Nothing is thrown away. There are no McGuffins, no non sequiturs.

Knives Out is a meticulously crafted film on every level and it starts with the screenplay.

Act I of the film opens with a prologue of sorts. Fran, the housekeeper, pours coffee into a cup that says, MY HOUSE, MY RULES, MY COFFEE. She carries a breakfast tray upstairs and we get the inciting incident of her discovering the body of Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), the wealthy author, who died by apparent suicide of cutting his own throat. That kicks off a story that has a dynamic Hero’s Journey and a tight cinematic structure.

The Ordinary World picks up a week after Harlan’s death and we see various family members giving back story to the police. We are also introduced to Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a private investigator who has been hired by a client unbeknownst to anyone, including Blanc himself. The most important person, however, is Marta (Ana de Armas), who served as Thrombey’s private nurse, and has the unusual condition of vomiting whenever she tells a lie. Blanc, along with two police detectives interview the family members. None of them are particularly cooperative, and at least four of them had a reason to want to kill Thrombey.  Thrombey had fired his son Walt (Michael Shannon) from his position running Thrombey’s publishing house. He caught his son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) cheating on his wife and Thrombey’s daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis). He threatened to cut off the allowance to his daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Colette) after discovering that she’d been double dipping the college tuition for her daughter Meg (Katherine Langford). Finally, we see that he was planning on cutting off is grandson and the son of Richard and Linda, Ransom (Chris Evans), by cutting him out of his will.

There is a ton of exposition in the first 15 or 20 minutes of the film, but you need to be paying attention because there is also a ton of foreshadowing. Johnson uses the technique of Planting and Payoff like crazy in this script, and several key elements are planted here that will payoff at stages throughout the film.

There are a couple of Calls to Adventure. The first one is revealed by Blanc telling the police he was hired by an anonymous person who sent him an envelope of cash, and a note asking to investigate Thrombey’s death. However, Thrombey himself gives Marta the true Call to Adventure when she thinks that she gave him a shot of a lethal dose of morphine rather than the less powerful pain killer she’s supposed to give him, and Thrombey presents her the plan of how to get away with accidentally killing him. She tries to Refuse the Call by begging him to let her call an ambulance, but he talks her out of it, knowing that there isn’t enough time. We get three examples of planting and payoff in this stage of the journey. The first is when part of the plan involves climbing the lattice outside the house to sneak into his room. As she’s climbing, part of it breaks. That’s the first plant. The second plant involves the part of the plan in which Marta needs to avoid being seen by the surveillance camera and she fails. The third plant is when she’s seen by Nana Thrombey’s elderly mother, who thinks she’s Ransom.

We Cross the First Threshold when Blanc asks Marta to be by his side when he searches the grounds the next day. That leads us into Act IIA and the Tests, Allies and Enemies portion of the story. It starts with a flashback. The first test Marta has to go through is following through on Thrombey’s plan after witnessing him kill himself. It looks like she might crack under the pressure, but a wonderful acting performance by de Armas shows a look of determination that can’t be broken. We also see the blood on her shoe from the splatter of Thrombey cutting his own throat (another plant). The next test we see is finding out about the video and knowing that she pulled off the road where the camera could still see her. We also hear that the tapes can be destroyed using a magnet, and we see Marta’s quick thinking when she sneaks a magnet near the tape, destroying its usefulness (Payoff). Then she sees the mud that she obviously put footprints in when walking back to the house.  She then contaminates the mud by walking through it in front of Blanc and the police. Finally they walk up to the house and Marta finding the broken piece of the lattice (Payoff), and throwing it away for the dog to fetch.

All of these tests serve not only to propel the story, but they also build Marta’s character. We see that she thinks quickly, has ingenuity and the ability to get out of tight situations. All of these things endear her to the audience as a character and organically allow for us to root for her. We’re not rooting for her just because she’s the hero and we’re supposed to root for her. Johnson took the time in these two stages of the Hero’s Journey to proactively create in her a character that we want to root for. One of the ways he did that was by giving her a unique flaw. She physically cannot lie. Any time she even thinks about lying, she pukes. This is used to great advantage by other characters throughout the film, but she uses it to get ultimate revenge at the end. That type of flaw humanizes Marta in a way that allows the audience to relate to her and to root for her.

This type of character development can be instructive to any aspiring screenwriter.

The Approach shows Ransom arriving to the house for the reading of the Will. We also see the dogs barking at him, which is another Plant. The attorney (Frank Oz) arrives to read the Will and the family has some disagreements over it. Walt is particularly upset at seeing Ransom there when he wasn’t even at the funeral (another Plant). The disagreement turns into a lame fist fight before Walt’s son Jacob says what he heard in a fight the night of the party when Thrombey told Ransom he was out of the will. Then the dog drops the broken part of the lattice and Blanc discovers that the lattice leads to Thrombey’s room. Now he knows someone snuck into Thrombey’s room undetected (Payoff).

That, combined with the Supreme Ordeal changes the direction of the story when the Will is read stating that Marta is the sole beneficiary of Harlan’s entire estate, including the mansion, $60 million in cash and sole ownership in his publishing company. All hell breaks loose at that point, and Marta is no longer the kind, sweet nurse that the family is prepared to take care of. She’s now a little bitch that is stealing their fortune and we move into Act IIB.

The Reward shows Marta being rescued by Ransom and he takes her to a restaurant and relative safety. He confesses to her that he knows his grandfather didn’t commit suicide and that he knows lying makes her puke, and he fed her a whole plate of baked beans and sausage. He then tells her to look him in the eye and tell him everything. She does, and he assures her that he won’t tell anyone, but he still wants his cut of the inheritance for helping her avoid any more trouble.

Meanwhile back at the mansion, the family tries to find out from the lawyer if there’s anything that can be done to change the Will. Joni Googles the Slayer Rule in which a person can lose an inheritance if they’re found to be responsible for the death of the benefactor. Now suddenly, everyone is interested in cooperating with Blanc to help him solve the case.

This changes the direction of the story again and we move into Act III and The Road Back. Marta gets a threatening note through the mail showing the seal of the medical examiner’s office and her nursing license stating they know what she did but with no other blackmail message. Seemingly with Ransom’s help, Marta tries to cover her tracks after the medical examiner building is mysteriously destroyed in a fire by going to an address emailed to her to try and get the only paper copy of the toxicology report that would show Thrombey’s overdose. They outrun the police and get to the address where Marta finds Fran on a chair and dying of a Morphine overdose. Rather than leaving Fran to die, which would help her own cause, she calls 911 and tries to resuscitate her, further endearing her to the audience.

The Resurrection shows Marta and Blanc in an emergency room waiting area and she confesses everything to him. He says he knew she was involved from the first moment he met her when he saw the red speck of blood on her shoe (Payoff). They go back to the house, they find where Fran hid the toxicology report and it shows that Thrombey’s blood was clean. At that point, Blanc realizes that Ransom switched the vials during the funeral (Payoff) and is really responsible for Thrombey’s death, but he will see to it that Thrombey’s death will be ruled a suicide. He goes through the whole series of events that fills the center of the donut. They trick Ransom into confessing to murdering Fran, and he’s lead out of the house in handcuffs.

The Return with the Elixir shows Marta won. Ransom is arrested. She has the house and stands on the front balcony as the stunned family looks up at her, sipping coffee in Thrombey’s old My House My Rules My Coffee mug” (final Payoff).

Knives Out is a film that resonated with audiences. It had a relatively modest $26.8 million opening, but it parlayed strong word-of-mouth into a long run in the theaters and ended up with an impressive $164.7 million at the domestic box office, and it nearly equaled that overseas. The reason this movie resonated so well with audiences was that it had a compelling script that you had to pay attention to. It didn’t dumb anything down for the audience and treated them with respect. You had to pay attention to this movie in order to follow along with the plot. It only had a few locations. It didn’t rely on dazzling special effects. There was no love story, no sex and no sexual innuendo. It was a good, old fashioned whodunit that was cleverly written and well-made.

This is a film that screenwriters of all levels can learn from.

2019 Winner for Best Picture: Parasite

A desperate poor family cons its way into working various servant jobs for a well-to-do family before one of the servants they got fired threatens to expose them.

Oscar history was made the night of February 9, 2020 when Parasite became the first non-English language film to win Best Picture. The South Korean film also won Best Foreign Language film, and Director/Screenwriter Bong Joon Ho took home Oscar statues for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. In stark contrast to the previous year, everyone seemed to be happy about how the night played out.

Parasite is more than a film about class warfare.

Bong Joon Ho did a marvelous job of constructing a story that exposes the struggles we have with income inequality without passing judgment on members of either side of the issue. In fact, the characters of different classes interact and converse with each other in charming and compassionate ways. Much of the depth of the story comes from the fact that the Have-Nots (the Kim family) spend most of the second act serving not only as servants, but as mentors to the well-to-do family (the Parks). The first half of the film is spent building these relationships and convincing the audience that even though these two different families live under vastly different circumstances, they share many of the same hopes and dreams, and they respect each other as human beings.

Then in the second half of the film, we watch the relationships deteriorate. The deterioration is slow at first, but then excels in an extreme way. What makes it effective is that neither side thinks they’re doing anything wrong, necessarily. For example, there is a scene near the start of the second half where Mr. Park (Dong-ik) and Mrs. Park (Yeon-kyo) think they’re having a private conversation, but due to circumstances of a prior scene, Kim Ki-taek and his teenage son, Ki-woo and teenage daughter Ki-jung are hiding in the same room. Dong and Yeon discuss the interesting smell of Ki-taek, who has been hired as their chauffeur, and Dong mentions that the smell permeates the car. It smells like old radishes and the subway. Yeon says she hasn’t noticed and it’s been years since she rode on the subway. The point is that they’re no judgment in what they’re saying, it’s simply a matter of fact. Meanwhile, in his hiding place under the table humiliated, Ki-taek attempts to smell his clothes to see if he notices.

That type of sub textual and visual storytelling certainly went a long way towards Bong Joon Ho winning the Oscars for Best Screenplay and Best Director.

The characters in Parasite were not caricatured. They were deep characters, neither all good nor all bad. The upper class characters had issues and pathos that any person could relate to. The lower class characters, hardly working class heroes, had flaws that helped to put them in the difficult situations they were in. Far from blaming Dong-ik Park for his own issues, or even feeling jealous of him for the differences in their societal standing, Kim Ki-taek actually admires Park for his success and for the way he takes care of his family. At the same time, the Parks don’t openly look down on the Kim’s as somehow beneath them. Yes, they work for them as servants, but until the climax of the movie, their interactions are largely as equals.

This is a movie about two families that live in different worlds, but are clearly occupying the same space.

The fact that Parasite follows such a structured Hero’s Journey is what made a South Korean Film resonate with American audiences, as the Hero’s Journey crosses cultural divides and is universal in its appeal. It’s a story structure to which anyone in the world can relate, and Bong Hoon Jo nailed it to near perfection.

The film begins with us meeting the Kim family in their Ordinary World. They live in a small, subterranean apartment that is frequented by bums pissing outside their window. They regularly get disconnected from their cell phones and Wi-Fi, and have to work odd jobs like folding pizza boxes in order to get reconnected. The teenage son of the family, Ki-woo receives the Call to Adventure when his friend Min asks him to take over his English tutoring duties for the Parks, a wealthy family who have a teenage daughter he’s currently in love with. He wants to go to college and make his own money so he can ask her to marry him when she’s old enough. Ki-woo initially Refuses the Call by telling Min that he’s not qualified because he’s not going to college and he should ask one of his college friends to do it. In what turns out to be the act of ultimate irony, Min tells Ki-woo that he can only trust him to not look at the Parks’ daughter as a sexual object, so Ki-woo accepts. This scene also serves as the Meeting of the Mentor stage of the journey with Min serving as the Mentor archetype. The Mentor often gives advice and tools for the hero to follow and use, and Min does that for Ki-woo by offering the job and presenting him with a gift from his uncle of a lucky stone that they believe will bring prosperity to the house. Like Gandalf pushing Bilbo out the door, and Obi Wan giving Luke his lightsaber, Min opens the door for Ki-woo, and ultimately his family, to infiltrate the home of the Parks.

Ki-woo Crosses the First Threshold when he arrives at the Parks home and accepts the job to be the tutor to their daughter Da-hye. The Tests, Allies and Enemies stage of the journey shows the slow infiltration of the Park home by the Kims, and Ki-woo falls in love with Da-hye and develops the same desires for her that Min had. First, Ki-woo gets his sister, Ki-jung hired as an art teacher for the Parks’ son, Da-song. Then his father, Ki-taek is hired as the chauffeur after Ki-woo and Ki-jung plant a pair of girl’s underwear in the car, framing the chauffeur for having sex in it. Finally, they find out that Moon-gwang, the housekeeper, who had been working in the house since the previous owner and architect lived there, is allergic to peaches. They secretly expose her to them, causing her to go into coughing fits, and allowing Ki-taek to manipulate a rag so it looks like she coughed up blood. With her gone, Ki-taek gives a professional looking business card that had been designed by Ki-jung to Mr. Park that’s for a fake staffing company for high-class clients. Mrs. Park calls and, sure enough, Ki-woo’s mother, Chung-sook is hired as the new housekeeper. All the while, Ki-jung, Ki-taek and Chung-sook all go under pseudonyms to keep the ruse realistic.

The Approach happens with the Parks leaving for a camping trip during a rain storm, and the Kims taking the opportunity to stay at their house and drink the Parks’ booze. Everything seems to be going great until Moon-gwang rings the bell. She gets inside, saying she left something in the basement. Chung-sook follows her and sees Moon-gwang struggling to open a secret passage that even the Parks don’t know about. It leads to a secret bunker that the home’s original owner had installed in case the North Koreans attacked.  Hidden in the bunker is Moon-gwang’s husband, Geun-se. He’s been down there for four years, avoiding debt collectors and loan sharks, and Moon-gwang has secretly been bringing him food. Chung-sook is about to call the police to turn them in when the rest of the Kims, who had been listening out of site, fall into the bunker. They refer to each other by their real names and Moon-gwang captures all of it on video on her phone, and threatens to expose them. The Supreme Ordeal follows as Moon-gwang and Geun-se take advantage of their new found power. That is until the Parks call and tell Chung-sook that the camping trip was cancelled due to rain and they’ll be home in eight minutes. A huge fight ensues with Ki-taek tying up Geun-se back in the bunker and Chung-sook pushing Moon-gwang down the steps of the passage, causing her to crack her skull.  The Reward shows the family escaping the house, but not before hearing what the Parks really think of them. They return to their home to find it flooded. Ki-woo grabs the stone and they spend the night in a local shelter.


The Resurrection stage brings the Kims back to the Parks’ house for the son’s birthday party, and all of the Parks’ high society friends are there. After making out with Da-hye, Ki-woo goes down to the shelter to check on Moon-gwang and Geun-se. Moon-gwang has succumbed to her head injury and Geun-se attacks Ki-woo, eventually bludgeoning him with the stone. Now totally insane, he goes up to the party and attacks the Kims, stabbing Ki-jung with a kitchen knife and fighting with Chung-sook, who eventually stabs him with a skewer. Park’s reaction to how Geun-se smells is too much for Ki-taek, and he stabs Park in the chest before disappearing.

The Return with the Elixir shows Ki-woo surviving his attack, although Ki-jung wasn’t as lucky. After recovering Ki-woo goes to the Parks’ house. Another family lives there now, but he sees the outside light flickering in a pattern. We had seen earlier that Geun-se had access to switches that turned exterior lights on and off and he knew Morse code. Ki-woo sees a similar pattern and deciphers the message is from his father who hid in the bunker after killing Park. He’s surviving and hopes that Ki-woo and his mother are well. Ki-woo writes a letter to his father telling him that he’s going to work hard and make a lot of money so that one day he can buy that house and they’ll all be reunited.

That clear hero’s journey, along with universal themes of family and class envy, helped to make this South Korean film the darling of the American Academy Awards. it doesn’t matter who is telling the story or ultimately what the story is about. As long as the structure is in the story, anyone will be able to relate to it and enjoy it.

Did the Academy get it right?

I don’t think they got it wrong. Parasite was not my personal favorite movie of the year, but the reasons I explained above certainly show that it deserved to win. It also wouldn’t shock me if this was a course correction for Green Book winning the previous year and all of the backlash that created. Was Parasite a worthy winner? Yes, it was. Was it the film I would have voted for? No it was not. I would have voted for Joker, Jojo Rabbit and 1917 ahead of it. For me, those films were more compelling, more dramatic and more entertaining. I would have voted for Parasite ahead of Little Women, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and A Marriage Story, as I didn’t feel those films were on the same level, although I did feel the acting in A Marriage Story was sublime. Parasite certainly did everything it needed to do. It just wasn’t my personal favorite film of the year.

Should you see it?

Yes, you should. This is a remarkable film that is well made with an exquisite story that is well-told. If you are an aspiring filmmaker, then this is a film that you can study for the choices made in the direction, the cinematography and the art direction. If you are an aspiring screenwriter, then this is a film you can learn from in terms of constructing a story and developing characters. If you simply like movies, this is a dramatic movie with marvelous acting and an unpredictable story. It is certainly worth your time.

1917 – An Intense Movie Well-Shown

There is a reason 1917 is crushing it at the Box Office. Yes, it’s one of the most intense films I’ve seen in a long time. It almost never lets up. Even scenes in which the action and the tension seem to lessen in order for the audience to catch their collective breath, there is still an underlying feeling of tension that danger is never far away. Perhaps it’s around the next corner. Perhaps it’s on the other side of a closed door. Perhaps it’s waiting in the very room they’re in. Just as in a real war setting, you never know when that fatal bullet will strike, when the death blow will be dealt. But what is really propelling the popularity of this film is that it tells a compelling story with which the audience can engage.

With this film, Director and co-screenwriter Sam Mendes is cementing himself as one of the great story tellers of his generation. Indeed, everything about 1917 is superb. The acting is at once subtle and dynamic. Director of Photography Roger Deakins is at his light painting best. Mendes own direction runs at a pace that feels impossible to keep up, but does so in ways that are riveting and emotional. It was also impressively shot in a way that made the whole film feel like one continuous shot, similarly to Birdman. The screenplay, co written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, shows way more than it tells, which is exactly what you want from a screenplay. It might not be hyperbolic to feel that this film is something close to a masterpiece.

One thing I also noticed while watching the film was how strong of a Hero’s Journey it had and how archetypal the storytelling was. It would have been easy for Mendes to have turned this into a simple and forgettable action movie like 2014’s Fury, but instead we got a carefully crafted, thematically strong story with an anti-war message that was subtle and subdued, and didn’t disparage the warriors.

The emotion stayed just under the surface. It was always ready to explode, but the men, like the men of that generation, kept it stifled, for fear of showing weakness. They should have been robots, but somehow this subtle showing of emotion, this overt stifling of emotion, created a much more gut wrenching emotional situation. There are two moments in the film where characters briefly allow their emotions to get the better of them, and then immediately stifle them. This stifling of emotion makes the audience feel even more sympathy for these characters because they’re surrounded by death and heartbreak, but they must appear outwardly strong, not only in the face of the enemy, but in the faces of their own.

And that speaks to the duality and depth of this film. The main characters are on a mission to prevent an attack from happening. This would normally be antipathy to a war story, but the goal of the characters in this story is not to defeat the enemy, but to prevent a scenario that would lead to their own ultimate defeat. That means having patience and prudence and the strength to show restraint. A WWI film from the 50’s called Paths of Glory, directed by Stanley Kubrick, showed the consequences of seemingly showing cowardice in front of the enemy, and talking yourself into attacking against overwhelming odds. The anti-war message in Paths of Glory showed the folly of war through the pompous arrogance of the generals and how their rash decisions cause their subordinates to suffer. Ultimately in Paths of Glory, characters were punished for failing to attempt that impossible assault. In 1917, the main goal of the main characters was to prevent that impossible assault from happening in the first place, as the generals are trying to prevent one of their own subordinates from rushing blindly into a rash assault.

That component on the story creates an anti-war theme that’s caught within the subtext of the premise rather than being preached to us throughout the narrative. The premise is that English army intelligence has discovered that a battalion of troops is walking into a trap, and two young soldiers need to cross the front lines in order to get that information to them to save them from a slaughter. Oh, by the way, one of the two soldiers also has a brother in that battalion.

One thing that can’t be overstated is the strength of the screenplay. Anyone who has followed this blog with any amount of regularity knows that I am an advocate of the 4-act structure in a screenplay, and the screenplay for 1917 has that. Unfortunately doing an act-by-act breakdown will reveal spoilers, and this is a film where I particularly don’t want to do that. Aside from the structure, one of the strengths of the screenplay is that important things happen throughout the story and those events all heighten the drama. Knowing about them ahead is time would lessen your enjoyment of the film, so perhaps this script breakdown will come sometime in the future.

Another thing that you know if you follow this blog is that I am a disciple of The Hero’s Journey. Again, I don’t want to do a full on Hero’s Journey breakdown because I don’t want to give out any spoilers since the movie just came out, but suffice it to say, 1917 has a complete and compelling Hero’s Journey. One thing I can say about it is that it’s not a traditional Hero’s Journey. All of the stages are there, but some of them happen in an nontraditional order. For example, the Meeting of the Mentor stage actually happens throughout the story, as different Mentors guide our hero along his journey. Some are traditional mentors and others are more unique in the lessons they teach him, but the journey has several mentors right up to the very end that teach the hero as well as the audience about the world of the story.

That leads me to another point. This is essentially a road movie. Yet another thing that you will know if you follow this blog is that I am not a fan of road movies. I feel they tend to be episodic and the episodes rarely build the drama. Rather, they’re often vignettes that don’t build on each other and you can change the order of then around and it would have no affect on the story. These films often lack the spine or through-line that builds a narrative. In 1917, however, the road that the main characters go on is the through-line. Each stop they make leads to the next one, and each stop has something happen in it that pushes the narrative forward, and each stop has an affect on something that happens later or happened earlier in the story.

Another point that needs to be expanded on is the paucity of dialogue, especially in the second half of the film. There is some small talk between the soldiers as traveling friends will take part in. There are examples of witty banter and there is some exposition through dialogue, mostly in the first act. But once we get to Act IIB, there’s almost no dialogue with the exception of a couple of key scenes. The story telling is almost entirely visual at that point, and it couldn’t be more riveting or intense. 

What’s more, the screenplay works in tandem with Roger Deakins’ superb cinematography to tell a compelling story. As I said earlier, no one paints with light like Deakins, and there is a scene with night flares and shadows where we come in and out of darkness. In this scene, however, darkness means safety and light means danger. If you can be seen in the light, you can be shot. The darkness offers cover and it’s one of the few times in cinematic history that I can remember rooting for darkness. 

Overall, what makes a film like 1917 so refreshing and such a breath of fresh air is the story telling. It’s a war movie without an overt amount of special effects. It doesn’t have a ton of traditional action sequences, so when an action sequence does come around it feel that much more intense. Plus, the action scenes build in intensity as the film presses on. This is a textbook example of terrific storytelling and any aspiring screenwriter should study it in order to hone their own craft.

My Thoughts on Joker

Man, Joker is an intense movie. Everything about Director Todd Phillips’ origin story for the iconic villain is intense, from the incredible performance by Joaquin Phoenix to the excellent story, which feels more like a Scorsese mash-up than a DC popcorn movie. It’s interesting. I can see several variations on how this could have been pitched. When I first started seeing trailers for it, I thought perhaps someone pitched a psychopath movie, and the executives at Warner Bros decided to replace whoever was going to be the main character with the Joker in order tap into the built in DC/comic book audience and give it some crossover appeal that would portend a better chance at success at the box office. Another more plausible scenario for a possible pitch was someone pitching a remake of The King of Comedy, but that same executive stating accurately that no one gives a shit about The King of Comedy, but substituting the Joker for Rupert Pupkin would deliver that built in DC/comic book audience and that built in Scorsese/cinemaphile audience that would portend some crossover appeal and perhaps open up the possibility of it being Oscar-bait.

Well, whoever came up with that idea is a flat-out genius because that’s what we got.

We got The King of Comedy meets Taxi Driver with just a splash of Batman. When it comes to comic book/super-hero movies, Joker is much more similar to Logan that it is to really any other films of that budding genre. It has no resemblance whatsoever to the cookie-cutter, quarter pounder with cheese films that Marvel has been serving up for the past decade. It bears even less resemblance to the tripe that Warner Bros and DC have been putting out in a vain attempt to tap into that Marvel market. No one has super powers in this movie. No one is fighting for truth, justice and the American way. This is a movie about a small, mentally unstable man who finally gets sick of being stepped on, and through either reality or fantasy, realizes that his only true joy is in creating anarchy.

In The King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin played sublimely by Robert De Niro, is obsessed with the Johnny Carson-like TV host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), and he’s built a fantasy that he’ll one day appear on his show and become friends with him. Rupert dreams of being a standup comic even though he’s never performed in front of an audience in his life, and he eventually kidnaps Jerry as a means of getting on to his show. Directed by Martin Scorsese, it never reaches the kind of darkness that Taxi Driver achieved, but it takes a satirical and poignant look at the desire for fame as well as fame’s price.

Taxi Driver, on the other hand, and also directed by Scorsese and also starring De Niro, takes a probing look at the underbelly of New York City in the 1970’s and the cesspool of depravity that it had become. It also takes a probing look at how lonely people like Travis Bickle (De Niro) can get, even when they’re surrounded by millions of people, and how that loneliness can manifest itself in unhealthy and self-destructive ways.

In Joker, Phillips took both of these ideas and mashed them together. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) isn’t as obsessed with Johnny Carson-like TV host Murray Franklin (De Niro) as Rupert Pupkin was with Jerry Langford, and he’s not interested in becoming a vigilante in order to save a young prostitute like Travis Bickle. He’s just a lonely, disturbed man who is getting no help in this world. The super-rich like Thomas Wayne care nothing for his plight, and the government is too ineffectual in every aspect of its existence to be able to make a difference in Arthur’s life. Combine that with a mentally and physically disabled mother that he has to take care of, and you have the recipe for a man who is about to snap.

The screenplay for Joker is impressive.

There was a lot to like about this movie, but I want to take a moment to discuss the script, penned by Phillips and Scott Silver. For the most part, this was a supremely well-written screenplay. It actually hit many of the same beats as The King of Comedy, but the story was structured in a different way. There were actually four acts in this script as we slowly watch Arthur Fleck devolve into the Joker. The first act shows Arthur’s Ordinary World of struggling to keep his own mental health together while also struggling to hold on to his job as a clown, and also struggling to care for his ailing mother. In the second act he’s been fired from his job, and then commits his first murder. Actually, murders. He’s starting to realize that he doesn’t just have to roll over and that he has the power to fight back. He starts out the third act by believing that he’s learned the truth about something, but then finding out the complete opposite and he comes to the devastating conclusion that his whole life has been a lie and that he’s never been happy for one second of it. The fourth act and climax of the film shows that he can find happiness, but it’s only in creating anarchy, and the more disorderly and deadly a situation becomes, the happier and more satisfied he is. This is an exceptional script as the character arc and the dramatic arc of the plot move together hand in hand. It also has long stretches with little to no dialogue, demonstrating that Phillips and Silver were able to show rather than to tell.

Joaquin Phoenix is one of the great actors of this generation.

I would also be remiss if I did not mention the performance of Joaquin Phoenix. He’s always had a dark edge to him, whether he’s playing Theodore in Her or Commodus in Gladiator or Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, Phoenix excels at playing characters with inner demons that they’re trying to suppress, either consciously or subconsciously. As Arthur Fleck, Phoenix plays a man who fully understands that he has demons and discovers that he feel better when he lets them out. He spends the first three quarters of the movie suppressing them, and it’s as though he’s living in a prison of his own making with walls built of the medication that he takes. It’s only after he allows himself to be free that we see him truly happy. Of course, this is as a murderous, anarchistic psychopath, but hey, he’s happy.

The sheer intensity that Phoenix brings to the role is palpable. It doesn’t matter if he’s laughing for no reason, dancing down stairs to music that only he hears, or killing would-be attackers in the subway, Joaquin Phoenix delivers in Joker in a way that is certain to get him noticed come awards season.

There is one last point I’d like to make and that is my personal opinion about the direction that Warner Bros should take the DC universe. Warners and DC should forget about competing with Marvel. Marvel has that audience wrapped up. That audience is faithful, loyal and utterly devoted. Marvel movies are polished, generic and vanilla so that they appeal to the lowest common denominator and they cast the widest possible net. There isn’t anything wrong with that. Marvel movies make boat loads of money every time out and will likely continue to do so into the future.

But Warner Bros has always been at their best when they’ve been subversive. When Walt Disney was producing Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Goofy cartoons, Warner Bros was producing Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. Disney cartoons were fun, wholesome, family fair and Warner Bros cartoons were violent, edgy and rebellious. Warner Bros was the original home of the Gangster Movie with stars like Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney providing early tent polls for the studio. Warner Bros has always been the edgy and gritty studio that makes hard boiled movies that are as tough as five-dollar steaks. Joker is a very fine example of that attitude and style of film making, and I believe that Warner Bros should go all-in on it. They should consider moving their cinematic comic book universe into an area that Marvel couldn’t go into even if they wanted to. Perhaps it wouldn’t be casting as wide of a net, but it would be a whole lot better than what they’ve been doing up to this point. It also might attract real film makers who are interested in deeper stories and deeper examinations and explorations of the psyches of their characters. I’d be willing to bet that they’d find an audience that, while perhaps not as large as the Marvel audience, would be no less loyal.

Screenplay Analysis: Green Book

I know I’ve been obsessing over Green Book lately. I wrote my thoughts here on Green Book winning Best Picture, but it should also be noted that it won Best Original Screenplay, and I thought that a brief breakdown of the script was in order. What was special about this script? What did it do that worked? What did it do that was unique? What did it do that separated it from the other scripts that were also nominated?

One thing the screenplay for Green Book did that was special was that it took risks. Anyone who follows this blog knows that I am a stickler for story structure, especially for unknown writers. However, a good writer can mess around with story structure so that it doesn’t necessarily hit all of the beats at exactly the expected moments and still end up with a terrific screenplay. Taking it a step further, most people who read this blog regularly will know that I advocate for 4-Act structure rather than the more traditional 3-Act structure that most experts espouse. Green Book is actually very close to only being three acts. I say, “very close” because it does have an act 2B, although it’s very short. I can confidently say this because Green Book follows a clear Hero’s Journey outline, which almost by default, makes it a 4-act story.

That’s the beauty of following the Hero’s Journey model in your writing. As Christopher Vogler explains in his book, The Writer’s Journey, the Hero’s Journey is flexible and allows you to play with the structure. You can change the order of the stages of the Journey, as they did in Green Book, and still have a tight and compelling screenplay. You can have some stages last longer than usual and make others very short, again as they did in Green Book, and still have a structurally sound story with conflict and an effective dramatic arc.

Here is an outline of the stages of the Hero’s Journey and where they fit in to the plot of Green Book.

Ordinary World: Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortenson) is a nightclub bouncer at New York City’s Copacabana in the early 1960’s. We learn that the club is going to be closed for several weeks and he’s going to have a hard time getting by. We see he is respected, tough, and resourceful (stealing then returning a customer’s hat for profit and praise, covering a fire hydrant with a trash can when he parks in front of it, and winning a hot dog eating contest). We also see that he’s racist when he throws away drinking glasses after his wife, Delores (Linda Caellini), offered water to two African-American plumbers who fixed his kitchen sink.

Call to Adventure: He’s offered the job by Dr. Shirley (Mahershala Ali) to be his driver as Dr. Shirley’s Trio plays a series of musical engagements in the Midwest and the Deep South.

Refusal of the Call: Tony turns him down when he’s told he needs to do laundry, shine shoes, be a personal valet, etc. He tells Dr. Shirley that he’s not a butler. Then he turns down another job as muscle for a mobster.

Meeting the Mentor: There are two examples that meet the classic definition. The first is when Tony meets the record label execs who pay him the money and give him the Green Book, that lists the hotels and restaurants that Dr. Shirley can stay and eat at when travelling through the South. This is a very archetypal moment, as they serve the classic mentor role of giving the Hero tools that he’ll need on his journey. Then Tony meets Dr. Shirley’s backup musicians, Oleg and George. Oleg will prove to be more of a Mentor, although his mentoring duties are limited but important. Oleg ends up being an archetypal Shapeshifter, as well, as he not only acts as a mentor, but spends scenes both as an enemy and an ally.

Crossing the First Threshold: It’s as simple as when they get in the car and start driving. That is the point where the adventure begins and we cross from Act I to Act II.

Tests, Allies and Enemies: This stage sets the rules and shows the reality of the two men not understanding each other. Tony fails several tests at the first, like during Dr. Shirley’s first concert when he plays craps with other chauffeurs. He seems to fail another test when he steals the jade stone from the gift shop, but ends up winning when he keeps the rock and it ends up being an archetypal token. He passes a test when he makes the custodian in the Indiana concert hall get the right piano for the second concert. He passes yet another test when they share KFC, but fails when he throws his cup out of the car window and Dr. Shirley makes him back up to pick it up. At this point, the two of them start to connect. Then, there is the first night in Kentucky when Tony rescues him from rednecks in a bar. Each test becomes more difficult and raises the stakes. This is especially true as they move through the South, starting with the first concert in Raleigh, NC when Dr. Shirley isn’t allowed to use the bathroom in the house, through Dr. Shirley helping Tony write the letters, Dr. Shirley not being allowed to buy the suit, and culminating with Tony bailing Dr. Shirley out of trouble at the YMCA only to build Dr. Shirley’s resentment.

Approach: They’re pulled over by racist cops on a rainy night and arrested.

Supreme Ordeal: They’re sitting in jail, and Dr. Shirley chastises Tony for resorting to violence and not maintaining his dignity. Dr. Shirley calls none other than Bobby Kennedy to get them out of their current situation, and then loses his cool on Tony when Tony accuses him of not being “black” enough.

Reward: Tony writes his own letter. Dr. Shirley stands up for himself in the restaurant in Birmingham, which was the opposite of the capitulation with the bathroom in North Carolona. Finally, he plays “his” music, which happens to be Chopin, to an unlikely yet adoring crowd.

The Road Back: A literal road back as Dr. Shirley drives the car so Tony can make it home in time for Christmas Eve.

Resurrection: Tony wakes up in the car and returns to his family a changed man, no longer racist and with a broader mind of the world around him.

Return with the Elixir: Dr. Shirley shows up at Tony’s apartment in Christmas Eve, and a bridge has been built.

Not only is there a very effective Hero’s Journey that allowed the writers Nick Vallelonga, Brian Curie and Peter Farrely to play with the structure, but there is some sensational character work going on in this screenplay. One of the criticisms of the film was that Dr. Shirley is nothing more than a trope to allow Tony to overcome his racism. I disagree with that criticism for a couple of reasons. First of all, how the hell else is Tony going to overcome his racism? If you are a racist, the way to overcome racism is to be exposed to people of other races so that you can understand their humanity, get to know them as human beings, and develop some sort of empathy for who they are and where they come from. That’s what happens in this film. Tony wasn’t going to receive this enlightenment all on his own. He needed to go on this journey with Dr. Shirley in order to achieve this character growth, and the writers did a good job of at first giving Tony financial motivation to keep Dr. Shirley out of trouble because that’s a realistic notion. But then as the story went on, Tony and Dr. Shirley formed an emotional bond that allowed Tony to see Dr. Shirley not as a black man, but as a man.

For his part, Dr. Shirley also goes through a dynamic character ark. He starts the film with the outward appearance of a confident and aloof man. Throughout the film we get glimpses of his vulnerability which gives him depth as a character. We see him as a real person with real emotions and real problems beyond his race in a bigoted world. He is truly alone and doesn’t feel a connection to anyone because of his unique circumstances. Through Tony, Dr. Shirley discovers that he can fit into all of the worlds that he either rejected or thought had rejected him.

Overall, there is a lot of great technical screenwriting happening in Green Book. It is a well-structured story and has characters that change and grow in realistic and emotional ways. If you are an aspiring writer, this is a script you should study, because it demonstrates both dramatic storytelling and effective character development. This is a script worth studying and was worthy of the Oscar it won.