Sunday, April 06, 2014

The Ultimate Story Checklist: The Bourne Identity

I love this movie! Let’s check it out...
Part 1: Is this a strong concept for a story?
Is this a unique, simple twist on a classic type of story? (“high concept”)
Yes, a spy story but the spy has amnesia, and doesn’t want to go back.
Does the concept contain a fundamental ironic contradiction?
Yes, American agents are trying to kill an American spy.
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Yes, there are no plot twists in the second half, just character twists.
Is this an extreme situation based on a common emotional dilemma (rather than injecting extreme emotions into common situations)?
Yes, the theme song is in fact “Extreme Ways”, but it’s a metaphor for anyone who is disgusted by what he’s become.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
Yes, weve all been in situations were disgusted with.
Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a story before?
Yes, the spy and the bohemian.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Yes, Jason, although our loyalty to him is tested at times.
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, rather than the hero’s life in general?
Yes.
Are the plot and the character arcs married to each other (The plot is the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to hero’s question)?
Yes, his big question, “Who am I?”, at first means, “Who was I?”, then it become “Who do I want to be now?”
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the plot? 
Yes, both before and after his amnesia: we discover that seeing Wombosi’s kid caused his shattered mind, not just a hit on the head.
Is this challenge something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
Yes, everything he finds out about his past makes him not want to go on.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Yes, Chris Cooper.
Does this story show us an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
Sort of: the body in the water, the unique fighting style, the car chase with the beat-up car.
Is there a “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
Yes, the car chase, jumping down with the body.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
Yes: he didn’t just have his break from being shot, it was because he balked at his assignment.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Yes.
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Yes, even moreso afterwards, because we can finally totally root for him again.
Is the hero the person working the hardest to solve the problem?
Yes.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Yes.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation?
Yes, they shut down the program because of him.
Does the situation permanently transform the hero?
Yes, he knows who he is, and who he wants to be (which is totally different)
Part 2: Is this a compelling hero?
Does the hero have a great strength?
Yes, he’s a living weapon.
Is that strength the flip side of a great flaw?
Yes, he’s been dehumanized and snapped like a broken machine.
Is the hero defined by current actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Yes, literally.  All we or he know about him is what he can do, not who he was.
Does the hero have a goal already in the first scene (which is usually a false goal)?
Well, he gets one very quickly: find out who he is.
Does the hero start out with a false philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
Yes, he keeps saying, “I just want to find out who I am”, but eventually he comes to want more. 
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
Yes, the hyper-confident super-spy.
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Yes, he’s conflicted and broken.
Does the hero have a social anxiety?
Yes, that he’ll be killed or captured.
Does the hero have a private fear?
Yes, that he’ll discover he’s not a good person.
Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
Yes, identify the exits, identify the threats, avoid capture
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Not really, because he doesn’t have any of those three.  His dialogue is mostly everyman dialogue, except, like everything else about him, it’s more direct and efficient.  It’s only about 35 minutes in that his old metaphor family (special ops) kicks in: “I come in here and the first thing I’m doing is catching the sightlines…I can tell you that the waitress is left-handed and the guy at the counter weighs two-hundred and fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself.”
No matter how much the hero changes, does he or she have a default personality trait?
Yes, he’s honest, plainspoken, good-humored.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Yes, he puts the ball in your court (for instance, handing her the money before he asks her to decide, then asking her to give it back if she wants to say no.)
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality? 
Yes, all of the other spies are less moral than he, all of the other civilians lack his talents.
Does the hero have decision-making authority?
Yes, he’s through taking orders.
Is the hero vulnerable, both physically and emotionally?
Moreso the latter, because he’s pretty invulnerable once he’s in action, but the frequent shots of the bulletholes in his sweater and back remind us on the one time  his skills failed him. 
Is the hero curious?
Yes, very much so.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Yes, very much so: taking the walkie off the guard he knocks out, taking the floorplan off the wall, etc. 
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
Yes, very much so, even though he doesn’t remember where or how he got them.
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
Oddly, no, not that I can identify, although he’s very sympathetic.  Lacking all of those things, his likability is based entirely on two things: the pity of his plight and his extreme resourcefulness.  The rest is all due to the casting of Damon, with his open, honest, kind face, he imputes all of those MOH qualities to the character (whereas, based just on the script, he could have been a bland badass)
Is the hero’s primary motivation strong, simple, not-selfless, and revealed early on?
Yes.
Does the hero engage in physical exertion early on?
Oh yes.  He starts fighting as soon as he wakes up.
Does the hero engage in reversible behavior (so that we will instantly see that he or she has changed when we see a contrasting behavior later on)? 
Yes, he starts off with a box of IDs, but at the end she asks him if he has any ID and he says “not really,” and thats a note of triumph.
Part 3: Does the structure portray problem-solving in a way that rings true? 
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
Yes and no, he discovers one immediate problem (he doesn’t know who he is) but only near the end does he discover that this was a culmination of a longstanding social problem (he was already balking at the job, and that’s what broke him)
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
Yes, he literally becomes a non-entity.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
Yes, the Swiss bank account embedded in his hip.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
Yes, when he opens the bank box, he leaves the gun behind, at first.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
Yes, he decides he won’t let himself be taken and takes a gun from someone else. 
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
Yes, he’s almost arrested, then Cooper finds out he’s alive, sends assassins after him.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
Yes, he tries to go back to his old life, old apartment, tries to ditch girl. 
Does the hero (and/or villain) get to have a little fun at this point, in a way that exemplifies the appeal of the concept?
Yes, he discovers what a badass fighter and driver he is. 
Does the hero get excited about the possibility of success?
Yes, he’s excited to discover another identity.
Does this culminate in a midpoint disaster?
A soft one: he finds that they’ve found his hotel room, decides to flee.
Does the hero lose a safe space and/or sheltering relationship at this point?
Yes and no, he loses his self space, but he gains a sheltering relationship.
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
It’s somewhat reversed in this movie, as he spends the second quarter solving the mystery and the third quarter on the run and in denial, but he’s definitely more grim and resolved in the second half. 
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the story, rather than external plot complications?
Yes, there are no more plot elements introduced.  The only surprise is a character surprise: why he didn’t kill Wombosi.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Yes, he realizes that his fellow killers aren’t really the problem, it’s the boss, and realizes that the girl really loves him.
Are the stakes increased as the pace increases and the motivation escalates
Yes, he’s in love now, and realizes that he must “end it” to protect her.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Yes, he almost gets her family killed (and does get their dog killed), and realizes that he can’t run any further.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
Yes, seeing her family, he says that he doesn’t want to know who he is anymore.
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
Yes, see above.
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
Yes, he decides to confront his ex boss.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
Yes, at just this point.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
No, he remains in control of the timeline until the end.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation? 
No, the girl isn’t there, which is very unusual (action movies usually resort to ridiculous contrivances to make sure the girl is still there for the climax) but this works just fine. 
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
Yes, he finally figures out who he really is as he confronts the bad guy. 
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the hero’s original problem is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)?
Yes, he tells her that he has no ID and smiles. 
Part 4: Is this powerful dialogue?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Yes, most.  There could be a little more for Cooper, but he’s a good enough actor to help his character hold his own. 
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Very much so.  Nobody, good or bad, is ever exactly sure what’s going on. 
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others? (Good characters don’t serve good, evil characters don’t serve evil.)
Very much so.  This is a very realistic portrayal of spying, they’re assassinating their former assets and mired in their own messes, not fighting against evil or goodness.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)? 
Yes, the excellent love scene starts with him dying her hair, which forces them into intimacy without talking about it. 
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
Yes, the conversations between Cooper and Cox and wonderfully vague. 
Do the characters listen poorly?
Not really, they’re pretty good listeners
Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?
Yes.
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Yes: “How could I forget you?  You’re the only person I know.”
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Yes, lots of good tough guy dialogue on both sides.
Does the dialogue mirror the syntax of real talk, but not the dialect?
Yes, the various Europeans and Africans each talk in their own cultural idiom, but without exaggerated accents.
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the setting?
Yes.  All very vague and non-committal: “You’re asking me a direct question?” “Let’s assume that’s true”
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
Very much so.
Does each character have a distinct voice? (Can you always tell who is speaking without looking at the names?)
Yes.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
Yes. Marie: childhood (ten gazillion dollars, etc.), Conklin: Military (“You are a malfunctioning thirty million dollar weapon.”)
Are there additional characters with default personality traits?
Yes. Marie: self-deprecating, blunt, treats serious things as jokes, Conklin: Pissing contest, contempt
Are there additional characters with default argument strategies?
Yes. Marie: trails off, creates awkward silence, gets you to fill it.  Conklin: Similar to Marie’s, actually--He stops talking abruptly, makes it clear he’s not going to say the thing you want him to say, forces you to either say it or go away.
Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with yes, no, well, or the other character’s name)?
Yes.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Yes. (Even the character whose name is “The Professor”!)
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it? 
Yes, but we find out most of it before the hero does, and then we see him figure it out again later.  This works better than you would think, but it’s still somewhat problematic.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Yes, the finale where Bourne and Conklin finally confront each other.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
All characters are three-dimensional
Part 5: Does the story manage its tone to create and fulfill audience expectations?
Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to buy and recommend this type of story?
Yes, very much so: awesome car chase, great fight scenes, etc.
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning, without introducing a new genre after the first quarter?)
It’s straight up spy, with a little more romance than usual.
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
Yes: Trying to figure out who you are, how you got here, is this still who you want to be.
Is the story limited to one sub-genre (or multiple sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors)?
The CIA dirty tricks conspiracy movie.
Separate from the genre, does the story have a consistent mood?
Yes, hip, youthful, handheld, raw, electronic music, dyed hair, etc.
Is there a moment early on that establishes the mood (and type of jeopardy)?
Yes, and it’s extremely subtle: After Jason gets off the boat, he’s walking along the docks and a car passes by, and when it’s gone, he’s disappeared.  I didn’t notice this until Liman pointed it out in his commentary, but he makes it clear that I wasn’t supposed to.  Liman used this moment to subconsciously establish the mood and type of jeopardy: this is a universe where people disappear without a trace, in many different ways: you disappear off the grid, your enemy’s body disappears, your mind disappears, your soul disappears, nobody ever knows how or why.
Are there framing devices (flashforwards, framing sequences and/or first person narration) to set the mood, pose a dramatic question, or pose ongoing questions?
Somewhat, with the surveillance footage, and cutting away to the CIA discussing his situation.  There was a terrible framing sequence that was shot at the last moment and then wisely rejected.
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story? 
Yes: what will happen when Bourne and Conklin meet?  Why did Bourne lose his memory?
Are there other open questions posed in the first half, which will keep the audience from asking the wrong questions later on?
Yes, nothing about Bourne trying to get back to his old life, or find out who his parents are, for instance.  It’s entirely based around “where do I go from here?”
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
We see three assassins being activated, so we know that the movie will end with a confrontation with the last one, but that turns out to be ironic. (The last one kills Conklin, not Bourne)
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience, distracting attention from plot contrivances?
We’re shown very early on that the CIA is so frustrated that they’re looking up everywhere Marie has ever lived.  When this pays off for them an hour later, it doesn’t seem dubious.
Does the story follow the general structure of its genre?
Mostly (Injustice / Kicking Ass Overconfidently / Getting Ass Kicked / Victory or Defeat) He’s never very overconfident, but he doesn’t suspect how big the danger is until the midpoint.
Is the mood maintained throughout?
Yes.  Liman talks about all the ways he maintained the mood on the commentary.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
Yes, they reshot the ending to add more action, but kept the hero commited to his newfound pacifism.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
Yes, we find out why his mind snapped, and see what happens when he confronts Conklin.
Part 6: Does the story have a meaningful theme?
Can the theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Yes, duty vs. conscience
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Yes, he has to get out of there without killing anyone except his fellow assassins.  Compare to Knight and Day where Tom Cruise is in a similar situation and kills everyone he sees.  This is far more exciting.
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
Yes, very much so.  Chris Cooper puts the lie to every other assassin movie when he says that it’s easy to kill someone, but the hard thing is to make it look like someone else did it.
Is the story based more on observations than ideas?
Yes, Liman tossed out the book (which he loved, and optioned himself) and replaced it with his observations from watching his dad’s role as an Iran/Contra prosecutor. (In fact, this ideas/observations distinction sort of describes Bourne in a nutshell.  All he has left is observations and instincts with no ideas left to warp them, and he discovers that that makes him a better person.) 
Is an open thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half?
Yes, “how can I remember how to do all these things and not know who I am?” (aka, what is it that makes us who we are, our actions or our beliefs?)
Does the story create its own sense of right and wrong?
Yes.
Does the story focus more on the ethical breaches than moral breaches?
It’s about both.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this setting?
Yes, it feels very real to street-level European cities, with no landmarks or exaggerated set pieces
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so.  Liman’s father interrogated Oliver North on national TV and he based Cooper on North.
Are these issues addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Very much so.  For once a spy refuses to split the difference: his gives into his qualms and quits, definitively.
Are many small details throughout tied into the theme?
Yes, Marie’s opening scene is about being denied an ID, etc.
Are there characters whose situations foreshadow various fates that might await the hero?
Yes, the other Treadstone assassins for Jason.  The dead landlady for Marie.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Very much so. 
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy?
It’s fairly tidy, but it clearly left enough loose ends for two more movies.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
Yes, Liman says that his model was The Wizard of Oz: he’s trying to get home, but he’s home the whole time, because Marie turns out to be his home.
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
It tips fairly definitively: conscience is better than duty.
If the heroes triumph, do they triumph by morally ascending, not descending? 
Very much so.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
Yes, he and Marie don’t discuss it at the end. 
Part 7: Is each scene the best it can be?  (Farm action sequence)
Is this scene a character event, not just a plot event?
Yes, both.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may shift)?
Yes, but it’s split throughout: we very much want Jason to keep Marie and her relatives safe, but we’re also sympathetic to the man he must kill to do so.
Were tense and/or hopeful expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
Yes, we know that the CIA have figured where there are, know that the professor is very good, know that the relatives don’t trust Jason or Marie, know that the dog is usually around.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Yes, it’s isolated and snowy, has a gas tank, has innocents inside, etc.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
Jason has to get to him before the smoke clears (and get back before Marie and the relatives flee)
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or even the middle)? 
Yes, it’s very jump-cutty in the middle.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
Yes, Jason and Marie wanted to leave.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Yes, the professor wants to kill Jason, Jason first wants to be left alone, then wants to neutralize the threat, then wants info.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
Not really, it’s all out in the open here. 
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface: kill each other, Suppressed: seek redemption for being assassins, answers for how they got this way.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext?
Not really, it’s rather subtext-free.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
No, they’re pretty direct.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Yes, the dog, the kids, the birds, the mention of the headaches and the headlights.
Is there re-blocking?
Quite a bit.
Is there literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
Not much.  Bourne’s whole thing is that he conserves his movement, so he’s not going to touch the guy he killed.  The kids do hug their dad. 
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
Bullets are exchanged, then the professor’s stuff is taken. 
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
Yes.  We become very aware that they have two different types of weapon (sniper rifle vs. shotgun), with different ranges and so therefore they’ll have different tactics in this fight.  It’s not just constant shooting and ducking. 
Are previously-asked questions answered?
Jason finally gets the name Treadstone, finds out a little bit about his training, mental conditioning.
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
Yes.  How can he find Treadstone?  What is this stuff the professor has?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began? 
Yes, the professor dies, Jason decides to stop running.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
It cuts out on the professor’s line, “Look what they make you give.”  This sets up Jason’s decision to split with Marie for now.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
Yes, the professor dies but ironically succeeds in bringing Jason in. 

1 comment:

j.s. said...

You write: "Liman tossed out the book (which he loved, and optioned himself) and replaced it with his observations from watching his dad’s role as an Iran/Contra prosecutor. "
Well, you admit that you listened to the directors' commentary. But, as with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, this is another one of those cases where I think you're misattributing credit for writing decisions. Throwing out the book and starting over with a far more realistic approach was almost completely Tony Gilroy's idea, even in Liman's own recounting. Gilroy's stuck around for 3 more sequels. And the qualities unique to the rest of his work, like MICHAEL CLAYTON and DUPLICITY are what make the Bourne films so good.

Whereas Liman's current film EDGE OF TOMORROW looks like it was seriously screwed up in the writing stages, which is too bad since it started with a pretty great script.