Thursday, July 30, 2015

Bridesmaids Analysis 1 – Concept and Character

(Spoiler Alert: Bridesmaids)

For the next few weeks I am going to do an in-depth analysis of Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo). Why Bridesmaids? First of all, it was a big hit, grossing $169 million in the U.S. on an estimated budget of $32.5 million (according to IMDB). It was also critically well received, scoring 90% on Rotten Tomatoes (and 87% from top critics).

But perhaps most important, it was the rare original screenplay to be produced by Hollywood studios in the new franchise era. It certainly didn’t hurt that it was written by a movie star (Kristin Wiig) and directed by a renowned comedy director (Paul Feig). But you may recall that when the movie came out, female-driven comedies were not considered viable in Hollywood. Bridesmaids laid the groundwork for movies like Spy, Bad Teacher, and The Heat to get produced.

I want to start by looking at the movie on a conceptual level. A while back I proposed “Five Questions About Your Story to Answer Before You Start Writing.” I’ve since added a sixth question to my list (“What is the character doing to achieve their goal?”) I’m going to begin this series by answering those questions for Bridesmaids.

1. Who is the main character?

A: This one’s easy. It’s clearly Annie (played by Kristin Wiig). Though the movie's title is plural, this is not really an ensemble story. We start with Annie’s story well before any other bridesmaids are introduced, and we stay with Annie when she’s at odds with the group. Rarely do the other characters get solo scenes, while Annie has many.

2. Why do we care what happens to the main character?

A: We see right up front that Annie is a woman who is down on her luck but doing her best to keep her lover and her best friend happy. She’s an underdog with a good heart. Moreover, as the story develops, we learn she’s a talented baker and we see that she puts a lot of thought into her plans and gifts for her best friend, Lillian. That best friend is also critical – we see right away that these two women rely on each other and their friendship is something we can respect and admire.

Annie certainly has flaws. At times she’s weak and at other times downright unpleasant and thoughtless. But she is given enough likeable characteristics that we want to see her succeed. We also want to see Annie and Lillian maintain their bond, a bond that will be threatened by events in the story.

3. What does the main character want?

A: Annie wants a lot of things – she particularly wants a good romantic relationship (her current lover is a selfish jerk) and money (she’s broke and unemployed). But the want that drives her through this particular story is “to succeed as Lillian’s maid of honor.”

4. What is the main character doing to get what they want?

A: Annie is trying to do an excellent job with her maid of honor duties, which include helping pick out dresses, throwing a shower, and throwing a bachelorette party. It’s important for the main character to actively pursue their goal. These duties give Annie something to do to “succeed as Lillian’s maid of honor,” something that is visible on screen that will allow us to judge her progress toward her goal.

5. What is at stake for the main character?

A: There are two big stakes for Annie: her best friend and her pride. Success means she keeps her friend and can be proud of herself. Failure means she might lose her friend and be humiliated. Big stakes mean the story matters. (I’ll look more in depth at how these stakes are established in future posts.)

6. What is the main thing that stands in the way of the main character achieving their goal?

A: Annie’s main obstacle is Helen, Lillian’s beautiful, wealthy, elegant new friend. Helen is the antagonist. And Helen has her own want – to become Lillian’s new best friend. This want puts her in direct conflict with Annie. This set-up is sometimes called “mutually exclusive goals.” Give two characters goals that are mutually exclusive and watch the drama emerge. Helen doesn’t have to be evil (though she does do some morally questionable things) for there to be conflict.

Note that Annie has some other obstacles as well – notably her lack of money and, at one point, her fear of flying. But there is one primary obstacle thwarting her success throughout the story: Helen.

As you can see, Bridesmaids has good, solid answers to all of my Six Questions. This tells us what the movie is on a conceptual level, which will help us analyze the structure and character development. And having this strong conceptual base helped the screenwriters craft a solid script, whether they verbalized the questions the way I do or not.

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