Friday, August 28, 2015

Bridesmaids 5 – Set Pieces

(Spoilers: Bridesmaids)

I’ll complete my in-depth analysis of Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) this week by looking at the set pieces. “Set pieces” are the big scenes that pay off the genre of the film – the action scenes in action movies, scary scenes in horror films, and comedic scenes in comedies. Good set pieces are important to the success of the film. Audiences go to action movies to see action – if you don’t give it to them, they will be dissatisfied no matter how good the other aspects of the character and story are.

Bridesmaids is a comedy with a raunchy tone and lots of physical humor. As expected, the set pieces contain a lot of raunch and slapstick. This may seem like easy humor to pull off, but it’s not. In weaker scripts of this type, the set pieces often contain physical or gross-out humor that doesn’t really relate to the action of the scene. Irrelevant physical humor usually doesn’t work because it feels forced and random. As Krusty the Clown noted in The Simpsons, a guy getting hit in the face with a pie is only humorous if the guy has some reason to be dignified. So if you just throw something like that into the background of a scene, you get the physical but not the humor.

The key is to use the physical challenges as obstacles to a character’s goal. That simple approach suddenly makes the slapstick humor relevant and thus much funnier. With all this in mind, let’s examine how a couple of the best set pieces in Bridesmaids work.

One of the scenes that gets the biggest laughs is the food poisoning in the bridal shop. But it’s not simply the vomit and diarrhea that make us laugh. It’s the fact that Annie doesn’t want to admit to her rival Helen that the bridesmaids got sick at the lunch Annie arranged. So, though Annie is clearly in physical distress, she’s determined not to admit it. The food poisoning is an obstacle to Annie’s character goal.

There are, of course, gags in that scene not related to Annie, and these mostly come out of the classy setting. So the women are trying to be dignified, but their bodies betray them. If, instead of the bridal shop, we saw the women go their separate ways and then get sick in their own homes, it would be unpleasant instead of funny.

The beginning of this scene sets the situation to get the maximum effect out of both sources of humor. At first, the women are denied admittance because Annie didn’t know the shop required reservations. But it turns out Helen knows the manager and gets them in. Helen has upstaged Annie, putting Annie on the defensive. This also emphasizes how high-end the shop is, which will make the gross out events to come all the more incongruous, and therefore funnier.

Once the food poisoning kicks in, the scene intercuts between gross out bodily fluid gags with the supporting characters, while Annie tries desperately to prove she’s not sick by eating a Jordan almond. That almond is what makes the scene. It ties the physical comedy to Annie and Helen’s rivalry, adding emotional weight to the humor. It also provides counterbalance to the outrageousness that culminates in Lillian, in her bridal gown, defecating in the middle of the street.

Also notice how this scene has two escalations: The first part is about poor Annie’s discomfort with the elegance and expense of the store. Then the food poisoning starts, adding in the gross out humor. Finally, the Jordan almond escalates again, as Annie goes from simply denying her discomfort to actually having to prove her lie. Escalations are key to good set pieces.

The scene on the airplane is another good example of escalation. Once again we set up Annie’s inferiority – she’s the only one who has to fly coach while the others are in first class. The comedy escalates first when Annie’s fear of flying kicks in – and her seatmate makes it worse by being even more paranoid! This leads to Annie taking drugs Helen gives her, escalating the scene again when a stoned Annie tries to repeatedly sneak into first class against the orders of the flight attendant. The final escalation comes when Annie starts hallucinating and grabs the intercom – leading to the women getting kicked off the plane.

Another great thing this set piece does is intercut between multiple storylines. In addition to Annie’s growing meltdown, we have Becca and Rita discussing their unsatisfying sex lives – the verbal wit a nice counterpoint to the physical humor with Annie. Then we have Megan’s aggressive, nutty attempts to seduce Jon, another type of broad, character based humor. That storyline then dovetails nicely with Annie’s storyline when Jon turns out to be an Air Marshal. The intercutting of these three stories allows the writers to pile jokes on top of jokes, building the intensity and insanity of the scene to the big payoff.

And again, we have a scene where the humor grows out of character goals and rivalries. Some of the jokes are zany, but they all come out of the characters pursuing their goals. For example, Annie’s hallucination of a woman churning butter is the ultimate result of her attempt to go along with the Vegas trip despite her fear of flying. Megan’s description of how to hide a gun comes from her desire to connect with Jon, who she has correctly identified as an Air Marshal despite his denials.

These two scenes are probably what most of the audience will remember long after the movie is done. That’s the power of a good set piece. It’s important that we all strive for those kinds of memorable scenes (whatever genre you’re working in) in our screenplays. When building your set pieces, consider what we can learn from the escalations and intercutting in Bridesmaids. And if you’re doing broad comedy, be sure to tie physical humor to the characters’ goals and obstacles to those goals.

Want to read the Bridesmaids screenplay? It’s online here.


Learn to pitch like a pro with The Hollywood Pitching Bible: A Practical Guide to Pitching Movies and Television by Ken Aguado and Douglas Eboch. Available in print, ebook or audiobook formats.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Bridesmaids 4 - Supporting Characters

(Spoilers: Bridesmaids)

Last week, in part 3 of my in-depth analysis of the movie Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo), I looked at the main character, Annie. This week I will examine the use of the supporting characters in the film.

Supporting characters, naturally, serve many purposes in a story. Some are necessary for the plot. For example, in a movie called Bridesmaids, you will probably need a character of the bride. Others can serve to dramatize the main character’s evolving state of mind – as Ted and Rhodes do in Bridesmaids (again, see last week’s post). Supporting characters can also serve to provide various perspectives on the theme or themes of the movie. This is especially common when you have an ensemble group at the core of the story, as Bridesmaids does. And it turns out that Bridesmaids is an exceptional example of using characters this way.

When I say “theme,” I’m not talking about some deep moral lesson. I’m talking about the subject matter of the story. What aspect(s) of the human condition does the story explore? That’s the theme. Bridesmaids is about romantic relationships, marriage, and friendship. Look at the title – what did you think it would be about?

So let’s look at how each of the women in the group illuminate aspects of these themes:

Lillian is Annie’s best friend and the bride-to-be. She’s excited but also anxious about her upcoming marriage.

Becca is the optimistic newlywed. She represents someone in love with the idea of marriage who thinks being single is kind of sad.

Rita is sort of the opposite of Becca. She’s been married a while now and she’s burned out on marriage.

Megan – Megan is the crazy one who speaks her mind and doesn’t care what anyone thinks. She’s confidently single. She’s also ultimately the best friend to Annie – the one that comes to Annie’s aid at her lowest moment.

Helen – Helen is the perfect one. She’s beautiful, wealthy and supremely good at all of the bridesmaid duties. She appears as an impossible ideal for Annie, and threatens to replace Annie as Lillian’s best friend. Later we learn that Helen is actually extremely lonely – her marriage is empty and she has no real friends.

See how each of these characters offers a different angle on the themes of the movie? Doing this also gives each one distinctive characteristics that add tremendously to the humor of the film. In any given situation, each will react differently. The scenes practically write themselves! Well, maybe not, but giving supporting characters unique attitudes relating to the theme of a story makes your job a lot easier.

Ideally supporting characters do multiple things. Lillian is not just the bride needed for the plot, she provides perspective on the themes and stakes for Annie.

And as I mentioned back in part 1 of this series, Helen is the antagonist of the film. I often recommend looking at the story from the antagonist’s point of view. This helps ensure the antagonist is active. I usually do this by writing a one or two page treatment of the story as if I was going to make the antagonist the hero. Of course, I have no idea if the writers of Bridesmaids did this, but let’s take a moment to look at the story from Helen’s point of view. (I’ll keep it to a paragraph for the purposes of this post.)

Helen learns that her husband’s employee, Dougie, is getting married to Lillian, whom Helen wants to be friends with. Helen offers to host the engagement party at a private club where she's a member. She prepares a toast to impress Lillian. But the Maid-of-Honor, Annie, keeps trying to upstage her. Helen decides to try to make Annie look bad, hoping Lillian will ask Helen to take her place. Helen convinces the other bridesmaids to go to Vegas for the bachelorette party, even though she knows Annie can’t afford it and is afraid to fly. Her plan works and she manages to drive a wedge between Lillian and Helen. Lillian asks Helen to host the bridal shower, and Helen steals Annie’s idea for a French themed party. This pushes Annie over the edge and Helen achieves her goal – Lillian asks Helen to replace Annie as Maid-of-Honor. But on the morning of the wedding, Lillian vanishes. Panicking, Helen seeks out Annie and asks for her help. Annie finds Lillian and the wedding is saved. Helen and Annie become friends.

Much of this occurs off screen, of course. But when you look at the story this way, you can see that Helen is actively pursuing her own goals. Those goals in turn cause problems for Annie. This is what makes Helen a good antagonist rather than a passive annoyance.

Want to read the Bridesmaids screenplay? It’s online here.


Learn to pitch like a pro with The Hollywood Pitching Bible: A Practical Guide to Pitching Movies and Television by Ken Aguado and Douglas Eboch.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Bridesmaids Analysis 3 – Character

(Spoilers: Bridesmaids)

This week I continue my in-depth analysis of the movie Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) by examining the character work in the film. For me, the first and most critical things to determine about a character are what I call their Want and Need. The Want is the goal the character is pursuing in the story. This drives the external journey, or the plot. The structure of the film is based on this (see last week’s post). In Bridesmaids, Annie wants to succeed as Lillian’s Maid-of-Honor.

The Need is the internal flaw the character needs to fix. This determines the internal journey of the character, sometimes called character arc. In Bridesmaids, Annie’s need is self-confidence. Annie is very down on herself, feeling her life is a disaster and she's a failure. It’s this flaw that causes her to try to prove she’s a better friend to Lillian than Helen. After all, Lillian is really the only good thing in Annie’s life.

In the best movies, the Want and Need are related to each other. I’ve found that happens in three possible ways: 1) The character has to get what they need in order to get what they want. 2) In the process of getting what they want, the character gets something they need to be happy. 3) What the character needs is to realize their Want is wrong. (For more on this, see this post.)

Primarily, Bridesmaids is an example of version 2: In the process of trying to be a good Maid-of-Honor, Annie regains her self-confidence. But interestingly, all three of the interactions appear in some form in Bridesmaids. Annie must find self-confidence in order to succeed as Lillian’s Maid-of-Honor at the end when Lillian goes missing; and though Annie’s goal is not wrong, her reason for wanting to be successful in the beginning is selfish – she wanted to prove she was better than Helen. At the end she realizes her friend’s happiness is the most important thing. So in this movie the want-need relationship is extremely entwined!

One of the challenges for screenwriters is finding ways to dramatize this internal journey. We don’t want to have characters simply talk about how they feel – that’s not realistic or filmic. We need to show how the character feels. One way Bridesmaids does this is through the romantic storyline.

When we meet Annie she’s in bed with a thoughtless, selfish lover: Ted. We see that Annie is catering to Ted’s desires while he’s ignoring hers. The next morning, she sneaks out of bed early to put on make-up to look good for him. When he wakes up, we learn that they are not boyfriend and girlfriend at Ted’s insistence, and he heartlessly asks her to leave. So we know Annie is trying to please Ted and Ted doesn’t care about her, which shows us her low self-esteem.

Note that Annie never says she has low self-esteem – in fact she defends her relationship with Ted to Lillian. But we see it, and Lillian sees it. This is another technique to reveal character: have another character point out the main character’s flaws (or strengths or other personality traits).

I want to emphasize one particular moment in the opening, when Annie sneaks out of bed to put on make-up before her boyfriend wakes up. This is a great example of show-don’t-tell. The behavior tells us that Annie is trying to impress Ted, and suggests that she isn’t confident in who she is. She doesn’t have to tell someone what she wants or how she feels, we can see it through what she does.

At the end of Act One, Bridesmaids introduces a new love interest, the character of Rhodes. Annie’s developing relationship with Rhodes (and her eventual backslide to Ted) parallel and reveal Annie’s character development. This is intertwined with another device they use to dramatize Annie’s arc – her baking. When Annie is pulled over by police officer Rhodes, he remembers her failed bakery and lauds her cakes. They hit it off with some banter and he doesn’t give her a ticket. Annie goes home and is inspired to bake – she goes to elaborate effort for what turns out to be one cupcake. It's a sad commentary on her life at that point, but an indication she may have a little hope.

As the story progresses and Annie’s relationship with Rhodes develops, he encourages her to try again at her bakery dream. But she refuses. She failed and now she’s given up. Rhodes tries to get her to bake with him, hoping to inspire her, but it makes her so angry their relationship falls apart. Later, when she has a traffic accident, she’s forced to turn to Ted for a ride – and realizes how awful her life actually is.

After Annie hits bottom, Megan arrives to challenge her and expose her self-pity. This is a crucial turning point for Annie. Annie decides to fight for what she wants. And the first thing she does is bake. She bakes a cake to try to win Rhodes back.

In this way the various subplots – Ted, Rhodes and baking – serve to illustrate Annie’s state of mind throughout the story. This is a common use of subplots, particularly romantic subplots. They are a gauge of the character's emotional progress.

I think one of the reasons Bridesmaids was such a success is because the character of Annie felt real and relatable, and the plot was driven by that character (as demonstrated by the tight interweaving of Want and Need). This is not always common in broad comedies. And then the writers of Bridesmaids did an excellent job of revealing Annie’s internal journey through dramatization.

Next week I'll discuss the minor characters and how they serve to comment on the themes of the story.

Want to read the Bridesmaids screenplay? It’s online here.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Bridesmaids Analysis 2 – Structure

(Spoilers: Bridesmaids)

Last week I discussed the conceptual underpinnings of Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo). This week, as part 2 of my in-depth analysis, I’m going to break down the three-act structure of the movie.

I look at story structure as the interplay between an internal and external journey for the main character (Annie in Bridesmaids). The internal journey is the character arc, how the character will change on a psychological level. The external journey is the plot, which is driven by the character’s goal. The three-act structure is based on the plot, so we must start with that goal.

Last week we identified Annie’s goal as “to succeed as Lillian’s Maid of Honor.” This is what’s driving her through the story. We can rephrase this into the Dramatic Question of “Can Annie succeed as Lillian’s Maid of Honor?” This question defines the story of the movie.

Now let’s identify the main beats of the three act structure:

Catalyst: The Catalyst is the point where the dramatic question is revealed to the audience. We need to know the character and their goal and have a hint at why that goal will be difficult. So it’s pretty easy to identify the catalyst in Bridesmaids: Lillian asks Annie to be her Maid of Honor. Why will this be difficult? Well, we’ve seen that Annie’s own life is a mess, and it’s apparent in this scene that, though she’s putting on a positive face for her friend, Annie is a little freaked out.

Act One Turning Point: There are many ways to define this beat, but I like to look at the Act One Turning Point as the point where the character makes a decision to pursue a certain path that will take them through Act Two. In Bridesmaids, this comes during the engagement party. After Annie makes a conventional toast, Helen gets up and makes a more heartfelt toast. Annie then decides to take the stage again and try to top Helen’s toast. The two characters go back and forth, attempting to outdo each other. What is Annie’s decision? She’s decided to compete against Helen to prove she is the better friend to Lillian. (You may recall that last week I identified Helen as the primary obstacle to Annie’s goal.)

Midpoint: For the midpoint we usually look for a moment of false victory - if the ending is going to be a victory for Annie (and it will be). In Bridesmaids, the midpoint of Act Two is when Annie has the speed gun date with Rhodes, the cop. Life seems to be looking up. She then begins planning the bachelorette party… which will quickly spiral out of control. Why do we want this moment? It gives us some rise-and-fall to the story so things don’t progress in too linear a fashion. Normally I like the midpoint to relate to the dramatic question, so I probably would have let Annie succeed at one of her Maid of Honor duties, but the movie works and I believe structure should serve story, not the other way around.

Act Two Turning Point: Since Annie’s going to succeed, the Act Two Turning Point should be where she’s farthest away from success. Shortly after the midpoint, when the bachelorette party spirals out of control, Lillian takes the Maid of Honor job from Annie and gives it to Helen, so that might be a candidate. But then things get even worse. Annie has a meltdown at the bridal shower and Lillian un-invites her to the wedding. Their friendship appears to be over. Annie can’t get much farther from success at her goal than that. That is the Act Two Turning Point.

Epiphany: This is the moment where the character figures out how to solve the problem after a period of aftermath from the Act Two Turning Point. This comes when Helen tells Annie that Lillian is missing on the morning of the wedding. Annie knows Lillian better than Helen. Only Annie can find her missing friend. It will be a challenge – she will have to make up with Rhodes to enlist his help, and then talk Lillian through her cold feet, but the path to success has just become apparent.

Resolution: The Resolution, of course, is that Lillian gets married with Annie standing by her side. Annie has succeeded at the most important job of Maid of Honor: getting the bride to the altar! The Dramatic Question has been answered.

An argument could be made for breaking down the three-act structure using the romance between Annie and Rhodes. The beats of the romance are in all the right places. But there are several reasons why this is not the structural underpinning of the movie. Look back at the six questions from last week. Clearly this is a story about Annie trying to be a good Maid of Honor for her friend. In terms of screen time, the bridesmaid storyline gets a lot more time than the romance. And if you’re still not convinced, just look at the title of the movie! The romance is a subplot with its own structure that serves to illustrate the progression of Annie’s character arc.

The purpose of three-act structure is to make sure the story is dramatic and logical, and that the plot flows from the concept. Bridesmaids is a good demonstration of how this works.

Want to read the Bridesmaids screenplay? It’s online here.