Sunday, October 29, 2017

Get Out Analysis Part Two: Planting and Payoff

(SPOILERS: Get Out – of course!)

This week I continue my analysis of writing techniques in the horror movie Get Out (written by Jordan Peele) by looking at the use of planting and payoff. Planting and payoff is a powerful tool for screenwriters that can serve many purposes.

First, it helps make story points believable. In the third act of Get Out, we discover that the character of Dean is doing surgery to transplant brains from one body to another. We believe he is capable of that because in act one it was established that he is a neurosurgeon. If we got to act three and someone said, “Oh, by the way, Dean’s a neurosurgeon,” it might seem arbitrary and convenient, a cheat by the writer. But planting it earlier makes it part of the reality of the story.

Planting and payoff can also build trust in the audience that the things they are seeing have meaning. It’s helpful to plant something and then pay it off early in the film to build that trust. For example, Rose tells Chris that her father (Dean) would have voted for Obama a third time if he could've, and then Dean tells Chris the same thing shortly after they meet. And on the drive up, Rose throws Chris’s cigarette out of the window, and then Dean notices Chris’s nervous hand and asks if he’s a smoker. Chris replies that he’s trying to quit.

These little early connections between scenes are particularly useful in Get Out considering the long build up to the more explicit horror elements that I discussed in my last post. Because we know the things we see aren’t just random and will pay off in the story, we stay patient, trying to unravel the clues we’re being given, trusting that there is something to unravel.

Planting can also serve to establish a fact that can be used later for dramatic effect. For example, in act one we learn that Rose’s grandfather was an Olympic caliber runner. We later learn that his brain has been put in the body of Walter, the groundskeeper, who we saw running at night. So when Rose says, “Get him, Grandpa” to Walter, we know that Chris probably won’t be able to outrun his pursuer.

Similarly, we learn in the party scene that a camera flash can temporarily restore the original consciousness to a victim. Chris then uses that knowledge to get out of a predicament at the end of the film.

One of the most satisfying things in a story is when the character is put in a seemingly impossible predicament, and then cleverly – and believably – gets out of it. Get Out has a particularly brilliant example of this at the end of act two. Chris is tied to a chair in the basement of the family house as they prepare to operate on him. He’s been hypnotized so that he passes out whenever someone taps a teacup three times with a spoon. He appears completely helpless.

But then Chris turns the tables on his captors by putting cotton in his ears and feigning unconsciousness when the teacup is tapped. And this moment is made possible by two excellent uses of planting and payoff.

One is Chris’s habit of scratching at the arm of a chair when he’s nervous. We learned earlier that this stems from when he was home alone as a child and his mother didn’t return as expected. It’s reinforced when we see Chris scratch at the chair as Missy (Rose’s mother) asks him uncomfortable questions. So we aren’t surprised when we see Chris scratch at the arm of the chair he’s tied to at the end of act two. But it is this scratching that exposes the chair’s cotton stuffing that he uses to plug his ears.

The average viewer may not appreciate how carefully the writer set this up. Almost certainly, Peele had the idea of Chris stopping up his ears with cotton from the chair first, and then went back and planted the scratching behavior to make that plausible. Peele established the behavior so we don’t question it when it happens.

But by setting up the behavior, Peele also distracts us from the twist. We assume the scratching is in the scene merely as a sign of Chris’s anxiety and don’t anticipate how it will save him. When you want to have a twist, you need to lay the expositional groundwork to make the twist believable, but that risks giving it away. By giving the plant another purpose in the scene, you misdirect the audience.

The other great use of plant and payoff that is critical to this scene is the tapping on the cup. The tapping trigger and its effect is established in the hypnotism scene (we actually get a foreshadowing of it when the family is sitting on the deck after Chris first arrives.) It first pays off when he’s trying to leave, and Missy taps the teacup to incapacitate him. We now fully understand the rules of the device.

This device can then be used when Chris escapes from the chair. When we see the teacup in the video, we know what will happen. And when Chris pulls the cotton from his ears later, we understand how he foiled the villains without needing some clunky explanation in dialogue.

The device pays off one more time when Chris encounters Missy on the way out of the house. Both their gazes go to a teacup on the table. They both lunge for it. Chris gets there first and knocks the cup to the floor. Missy is foiled. By establishing the device for the audience, the writer can use it to create interesting drama in later scenes.

Planting and payoff also help establish and explore the racial themes that made Get Out a movie with cultural impact. I’ll explore that more in my next post.


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In many ways Alex MacDonald is a typical 1987 high school senior. He pines for Jennifer, the most bodacious girl in school. He wants to go to awesome parties. He wants to avoid the school bully. In short, he wants to be popular. Unfortunately, Alex is not popular. He tries – dressing like the pop stars he sees on MTV – yet somehow his only real friend is Roger Kruger. Meanwhile, Roger desperately wants to beat his nemesis, Heidi, in the science fair. But when Alex and Roger's experiment goes awry, they accidentally open a wormhole – a portal that leads thirty years into the future, to the year 2017. Alex sees this as his big opportunity: if he knows the future, maybe he can find a way to win Jennifer's heart. But what Alex and Roger find out about their older selves shakes the boys to their core. What's more, they slowly realize someone in the future is trying to secretly influence them. Will the knowledge they gain in 2017 allow them to change their fates? Will Roger finally best Heidi? And most important of all, can Alex find a way to convince Jennifer go to the homecoming dance?

Sunday, October 22, 2017

“Get Out” Analysis Part One: Building and Maintaining Psychological Horror

(SPOILERS: Get Out – of course!)

In the spirit of Halloween, I’m going to do several posts analyzing some of the writing techniques that made the horror movie Get Out (written by Jordan Peele) so successful earlier this year. How successful? It made more than $175 million on a budget of less than $5 million… and that’s just the domestic box office! It also scored a stunning 99% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps more significantly, it became part of the cultural conversation due to its integration of themes of race in America.

One thing that I found interesting about Get Out was that for most of the movie, the main character, Chris, was only vaguely aware of the danger he was in. He sensed that creepy thins were happening, but mostly chalked it up to being a Black man entering a very white world. (This added thematic depth to the movie, something I will discuss in a future post.) The audience experienced the story primarily from Chris’s point of view and was thus also kept in the dark about what was truly going on until well past the halfway mark.

Yet this was a horror movie. The desire to save twists for later in the film posed a challenge for Peele: how to provide the kind of scares that the audience was expecting while believably maintaining the façade for the character that this was simply a visit to his girlfriend’s parents?

One of the first techniques the script employed was using a prologue to set the tone. We see a scene of a young Black man walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Soon a car starts to follow him. He tries to avoid the car, but ultimately he is jumped and abducted. This abduction connects to events later in the film, but from a plot standpoint, we don’t really need to see it. However, without this scene, the movie would seem more like a character drama for a good thirty minutes. Using a prologue establishes for the audience that this is a scary movie, and that colors how we read later unsettling events.

There are a few jump scares scattered throughout the movie to keep us on edge – some admittedly a bit cheap. One good one, though, comes about ten minutes in, when Chris and Rose are driving to her parents’ place and a deer jumps in front of the car. This event leads to an encounter with a cop that sets up the danger to Chris in this community. By associating the scare with a relevant story point, it feels integral to the film, as opposed to a cheesy gimmick.

Other moments are designed to make us feel that something sinister is going on at the house. For example, the groundskeeper running at Chris in the middle of the night, and the fact that Georgina, the maid, keeps unplugging his phone while it’s charging and starts crying inexplicably when apologizing to him about it. This sense that there is a secret conspiracy in the house is expanded in the scene when the party goes silent after Chris walks upstairs, and the scene of the strange auction.

The two creepiest moments in acts one and two come at major structural points: At the end of act one, Missy hypnotizes Chris against his will, sending him plummeting into the floor. When he wakes up, he can’t really remember this clearly – allowing the writer to have his cake and eat it too. The audience knows what Missy has done, but understands why Chris doesn’t take action. This serves the purpose of act one by locking Chris into the story – we know he can no longer leave without dealing with whatever’s been done to him.

The next big structural point is the Midpoint, and this comes when Chris tries to take a picture of the young Black man at the party. The flash does something to the man, and he tells Chris to “Get out!” Now things start moving a little more quickly. Chris decides he wants to leave the house, though that will not prove as easy as he expects. The threat finally comes into the open when he discovers the pictures of Rose with a parade of other Black men, revealing she is in on the secret plot. The danger becomes even more explicit as we move to the Act Two Turning Point – when Chris wakes up tied to the chair and a video reveals what’s in store for him. From there, things unfold more like most horror movies.

It is important to deliver on the genre promises of your stories. And it’s important that you deliver on the genre throughout the film. Peele wanted to save the real suspense and action for act three, so he had to find ways to create and build tension as he was building to that point. He walked a careful balance between keeping the psychological horror present without giving away the twists.

It’s important that most of the creepy, inexplicable moments scattered through the first two thirds of Get Out end up paying off in Act Three. They aren’t just random scares created for tone; they grow out of the story. This kind of planting and payoff is one of the strengths of the script. I’ll delve into that topic in part two of my analysis.


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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Abuse in Hollywood

The Harvey Weinstein scandal is appalling, not just because of the sleazy things he did, but because most everyone recognizes it is not an isolated case in Hollywood. There’s even a slang term for it – “casting couch.” There has been a lot of focus on how willing Hollywood is to look away from bad behavior if the villain is successful. Unfortunately, that’s often true, at least as long as the villain is helping your career. (Hollywood is also well known for schadenfreude, and I’m sure many people are secretly delighted to see Harvey fall.)

But I think there’s an even bigger root cause to the problem: the fact that far more people want to be actors, writers, directors, or producers than there are acting, writing, directing, and producing jobs. This gives those with power to grant those jobs an incredible weapon for abuse. You don’t dare speak up for fear of damaging your career.

And this does not just come into play in sexual harassment. We’ve all heard stories about verbally and physically abusive executives and producers. It also causes pressure on production crews to keep their mouths shut when working conditions become abusive. If you complain, you could be out of a job. Even worse, you could be branded a “troublemaker” and have difficulty finding another job.

This can have horrible consequences. A stuntwoman was killed on the set of Deadpool 2. The investigation is ongoing, but apparently a crewmember had warned producers that the stuntwoman was not qualified for that particular stunt, and the warning was ignored. Recently an actor from Riverdale got into a serious car accident driving home after an extremely long day on set. He was okay, but more than one crew person has been killed or seriously injured in the last few years because they fell asleep at the wheel after a marathon shoot.

Writers also face abuse, though typically with less serious consequences. It comes in the form of things like free rewrites – when the writer has been contracted for a draft, but the producer demands multiple rewrites before they will “accept” the draft and trigger final payment. The writer can refuse, of course, and if it’s a WGA contract, the producer must pay up. But then you might get that “troublemaker” label.

How do the abusers get away with this behavior? They know there’s always someone willing to step into your place and take the abuse.

At this point I want to state very clearly: Anybody who tells you they can destroy your career is lying. Many people may be able to cost you a job, though in the scheme of your career, that job is probably not going to make much difference (and as you rise through the ranks, the number of people with that kind of power will decline). There are a handful of people who can do serious damage to your career, but really only about a dozen in the whole industry (Unfortunately, at one time, Harvey Weinstein was on that list).

The reality is most people who make those kinds of threats are bluffing and counting on you being too afraid or naïve to doubt them. I once saw a third-rate reality TV producer tell a roomful of tape loggers they would “never work in Hollywood again” if they revealed secrets of the show. It was all I could do not to laugh. Unless their career goals were to log tapes on niche cable reality shows the rest of their lives, there was not much this producer could do to them. But I noticed one kid who looked terrified – this was his first job and he believed her.

So what can we do about abuse in Hollywood?

First, stand up for yourself. I wish I could say this came without costs. If nothing else, you probably won’t be able to work for the abuser anymore (though perhaps that’s not such a bad thing). And Hollywood is a small town – word spreads, and people can damage your reputation if they choose. Fortunately, as people like Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes discovered, we’ve reached a point where the victim of sexual harassment may have just as much power to destroy the abuser’s career. From now on, if you reject a power figure’s sexual advance and they threaten your career, I would just say the words, “Harvey Weinstein.” I imagine they’ll change their tune very quickly.

In other areas, like pressure on stuntmen to do stunts they aren’t comfortable with, or pressure on writers to do free rewrites, the more people who stand up for themselves, the harder it becomes for abusers to just fire someone and move on to the next willing victim. This is hard, because it takes individual courage in hopes the collective will back you up. But if you don’t stand up for yourself, then how will things ever change?

That brings me to the second thing we can do: stand up for each other. When you see someone being put in an unacceptable situation, back them up. Be the person who spoke up on the Deadpool 2 set. If someone refuses to do something dangerous, or complains about a production running over legal working hours, join their complaint. Sometimes AD's and producers and so on really don't intend to endanger people, but their job is hard. It's easy to dismiss one person as a whiner, but if multiple people speak up, it just might cause that supervisor to reconsider what they're asking.

Third, we should look to the unions. Unions have working rules to prevent most kinds of abuse, but they do depend on members reporting that abuse (see “stand up for yourself.”) IATSE has rules about working hours and turnaround times. The WGA has rules about free rewrites.

Of course not all productions are union. A lot of times you have to do non-union jobs in order to reach the point where you can join the union. I would suggest that if you are going to take a crew position on a non-union production, you ask that the crew deal memo specify that the appropriate union’s workplace rules apply. The union won’t be able to enforce it, but at least you’ll establish expectations, and you’ll have some legal recourse if the contract is violated.

Back around 2006, a message board called “Writer Action” formed. It was for WGA members only, but was not part of the WGA. Part of that message board allowed members to anonymously rate the behavior of producers, agents, and executives, including on things like “Did they demand free rewrites?”

Many producers and executives freaked out when they heard this. They did not like the idea that they might be held accountable for their behavior. They called in "unfair" - which is hilarious, when you think about it.

Maybe all Hollywood unions should institute public databases of complaints. Allow members to register complaints anonymously on anyone they work for. Then post a database of those complaints online that anyone could check. One or two complaints against someone wouldn’t have much effect, but if you saw that a producer had dozens of complaints against them, you might think twice about working for them.

Also, many union members are responsible for hiring and supervising other union members. Cinematographers generally pick their own camera operators and gaffers, for example. Showrunners hire their writing staffs. So when someone files a complaint, the union could look to see if there was another union member who should have been protecting them. Then they could send that person a friendly reminder note of the union’s rules and the obligation of supervisors to protect the rights of those they supervise.

It won’t be easy to change the culture in Hollywood. But as Harvey Weinstein's fall shows, it is possible.


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