Friday, October 3, 2014

Save the Cat!

Have you ever noticed the distinct likeness that blockbuster films tend to have with one another? Like how the big movies always have a good guy, and a bad guy, and a love interest? Or how romantic comedies always start sad, and then get happy, and then get sad, and then get happy again? Or maybe you’ve never noticed any of these things but you did find it odd that the villain in Batman, Star Trek, The Avengers, and James Bond all got caught on purpose. The reason for these (not so) subtle parallels between big blockbuster movies all comes down to saving the cat. “Saving the— what? Cat?” Yes, dear reader; the cat. We all know that Hollywood is actually a snake pit devoid of any sort of human compassion, love, and/or decency.

Despite this unfortunate fact, filmmakers DO have a Bible— It’s called “Save The Cat!,” written by Blake Snyder that dates all the way back to 2005. Boasting the tagline, “The Last Book On Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need,” modern day entertainment professionals boast that it’s the only book they’ll ever read.” “Save the Cat,” presents a formulaic outline of a story’s Three Act Structure in a concise, easy-to-understand way. According to Snyder, successful stories share a number of very specific beats that appear at very specific times throughout a screenplay. And, funnily enough, most big-budget movies nowadays follow his beat sheet to a tee. I’ll use the popular 2013 movie “Her,” written and directed by Spike Jonze and rated a commendable 94% on Rotten Tomatoes to illustrate each beat. 

Opening Image (page 1) – Occurs on the 1st page of a screenplay. The opening image is a visual that represents the struggle & tone of the story. A snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins.

In Her, the opening image shows THEODORE (Joaquin Phoenix) writing a love letter on behalf of someone else. Pulling back, we realize this is his job. He sits all day in a stark and lonely cubicle, and writes love letters to people he’s never met before.

Set-up (pages 1-10) —  Expand on the “before” snapshot. Present the main character’s world as it is, and what is missing in their life.

In Her:
– Theodore is having trouble getting over his divorce.
— He’s been depressed for some time now and even his friends have trouble getting him out of the house.
— Theodore isolates himself socially and loves to play video games and interact with all things technological, more than he likes dealing with real people.
— Theodore is friends with a woman who lives in his building. Her name is AMY (Amy Adams), 30s, and she’s unhappily married to a narcissist.

— Bored of his video games, Theodore can’t sleep one night and calls a phone sex line for companionship. This ends disastrously and Theodore is unfulfilled.

Theme Stated (happens during the Set-up usually around page 5) – What your story is about; the message, the truth. Usually, it is spoken to the main character or in their presence, but they don’t understand the truth…not until they have some personal experience and context to support it.

In Her:
Theodore rides the elevator with Amy and her know-it-all husband. The husband proclaims to Theodore: “It’s hard to make time for the stuff you care about the most in life.” He’s talking about the documentary that Amy is working on, but this statement will have special meaning for Theodore later on in the story.

Catalyst (page 12)  – The moment where life as it is changes. It is the telegram, the act of catching your loved-one cheating, allowing a monster onboard the ship, meeting the true love of your life, etc. The “before” world is no more, change is underway.

In Her:
Theodore attends a computer software convention. There, he buys the latest operating system, called OS1, for his computer.

Debate (pages 12-25)  – But change is scary and for a moment, or a brief number of moments, the main character doubts the journey they must take. Can I face this challenge? Do I have what it takes? Should I go at all? It is the last chance for the hero to chicken out.

In Her:

— Theodore is at first reluctant to install OS1, but then gathers the courage to do so…
— Theodore chooses a female voice. Theodore tells the initial set-up person about his relationship with his mother. And within seconds we meet…
— SAMANTHA (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). She is sexy sounding. She is smart. And she appears to know everything.
— Theodore is taken aback. He doesn’t know what to make of this. He is almost shy around Samantha at first. And then after some banter and social discourse, Theodore agrees to Samantha’s request…
— Samantha asks to be allowed access to Theodore’s hard drive. In order for her to work most efficiently, she needs as much information about Theodore as possible.

Break Into Two (Choosing Act Two: page 25) – The main character makes a choice and the journey begins. We leave the “Thesis” world and enter the upside-down, opposite world of Act Two.

In Her:

Theodore finally agrees and in seconds, Samantha knows everything about him. Their relationship begins…

B Story (page 30) – This is when there’s a discussion about the Theme – the nugget of truth. Usually, this discussion is between the main character and the love interest. So, the B Story is usually called the “love story”.

The Promise of the Premise: Fun and Games (pages 30-35)– This is the fun part of the story. This is when Craig Thompson’s relationship with Raina blooms, when Indiana Jones tries to beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark, when the detective finds the most clues and dodges the most bullets. This is when the main character explores the new world and the audience is entertained by the premise they have been promised.
Midpoint (page 55) – Dependent upon the story, this moment is when everything is “great” or everything is “awful”. The main character either gets everything they think they want (“great”) or doesn’t get what they think they want at all (“awful”). But not everything we think we want is what we actually need in the end.
Bad Guys Close In (pages 55-75) – Doubt, jealousy, fear, foes both physical and emotional regroup to defeat the main character’s goal, and the main character’s “great”/“awful” situation disintegrates.
All is Lost (page 75) – The opposite moment from the Midpoint: “awful”/“great”. The moment that the main character realizes they’ve lost everything they gained, or everything they now have has no meaning. The initial goal now looks even more impossible than before. And here, something or someone dies. It can be physical or emotional, but the death of something old makes way for something new to be born.
Dark Night of the Soul (pages 75-85) – The main character hits bottom, and wallows in hopelessness. TheWhy hast thou forsaken me, Lord? moment. Mourning the loss of what has “died” – the dream, the goal, the mentor character, the love of your life, etc. But, you must fall completely before you can pick yourself back up and try again.
Break Into Three: Choosing Act Three (page 85)– Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute Thematic advice from the B Story (usually the love interest), the main character chooses to try again.
Finale (pages 85-110) – This time around, the main character incorporates the Theme – the nugget of truth that now makes sense to them – into their fight for the goal because they have experience from the A Story and context from the B Story. Act Three is about Synthesis!
Final Image (page 110) – opposite of Opening Image, proving, visually, that a change has occurred within the character.

Not convinced? Here are just a few other examples of movies that follow the “Save the Cat” formula. 

But why did he call it “Save the Cat?” What does that even mean? According to the old people in my life, the hero of a movie would often prove himself by rescuing a cat. Like from a tree or something I guess. By rescuing the cute little kitten, the hero becomes generally liked by the viewers and has them on his side for the rest of the movie. This, “save the cat” moment can now be broadened to refer to the scene where the protagonist does something that makes the audience like him or her— regardless of whether or not there’s a feline on set. This moment is pivotal, and without it the audience is less likely to sympathize with the main character when they do something dumb and ruin everything. 

With the mass quantities of “writers” shoving their scripts into the faces of many production management companies, prospective buyers will look for any reason to pass on a screenplay. Not following Blake Snyder’s “formula” is reason enough for the intern doing script coverage to stamp a big fat, “PASS” on the cover. Don’t even try to send unsolicited or unregistered scripts to production companies. They absolutely will not read it. 

Even though Hollywood seems all about the “Save the Cat” trend, the strict “mathy-ness” of the whole thing turns many people off. Some people believe that they should stay true to their vision, and that with hard work, and hope, they’ll make it big in the entertainment glamorous industry. Blake responds to hopes like these in a painfully blunt fashion not unlike a Fiction Field II professor I know.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the guy that titles his Youtube video, “On Story Structure (and how Save the Cat ruined Hollywood).” Just a video about story structure. AND HOW THIS ONE BOOK LITERALLY RUINED ALL OF HOLLYWOOD. But that’s like, not the main point of the video or anything. (It is.) Check it out!

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