Screenwriter Ben Frahm offers his take on the indie hit “(500) Days of Summer.”
You might recognize Ben’s name from Blake’s congratulatory blog. Ben developed and sold (for six figures) his comedy, “Dr. Sensitive,” using the tried and true STC! principles. Way to go, and thank you, Ben!
What I liked about this movie is that it took a very simple premise, seen countless times in romantic comedies — “Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. And then, boy loses girl” — and found a fresh and structurally “new” way to tell this story. The plot device of counting, recounting, and recollecting the various 500 days that Tom knew Summer, is what allows us to jump around in structure and visit various stages of their brief relationship. While I’m certain that there are a bunch of people out there who claim a movie like this defies all of the structural teachings of Save the Cat!, I challenge them to take a closer look. This movie fits perfectly into the 15 beats, and, even though it does wander in a few places, the structure is clear and succinct. Let’s beat it out!
Opening Image: Tom Hansen and Summer Finn sit on a park bench in downtown Los Angeles. We don’t know exactly what they’re doing there, but they seem to be in love — her hand rests on top of his. However, a closer look reveals something that we will understand later in the movie. Summer is wearing an engagement ring. At this point, it’s fair to assume that it might be Tom’s ring, right?
Theme Stated: Tom plays Wii tennis with his younger sister, who acts as a confidante and mentor in this story, and he chatters on and on about how much he is in love with Summer: “She likes the Smiths… she must be the one!”
The sister, concerned that her brother is so head-over-heels for this girl that he might get his heart broken, tells him: “Just because some stupid girl likes the same stupid music as you doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate.” This challenges Tom. He is hopelessly optimistic about relationships and particularly this girl. Sometimes, he gets so carried away that he has trouble realizing what’s really happening. This sets the stage for our theme… will Tom be able to determine “expectation vs. reality”? As he commences this journey to understand Summer — and their relationship, these two realities will compete for Tom’s attention. Ultimately it is up to him to understand the difference.
Set-Up: Quite possibly the strongest and most efficient section of this movie.
We meet the two major characters in very quick scenes with rapid imagery that helps us capture and understand them.
Summer Finn: As a child she loved to cut her hair, severing inches at a time and never caring once about it. (This sets her up as a flippant character, who, perhaps, feels the same way about her hair as she does relationships.) We discover that Summer sold ice cream during the summer — and sales spiked. The same for the music she listened to… an unpredictable sales surge. And every apartment that Summer has ever rented went for 9.82% below market value. Summer has a way with people. People have always been drawn to Summer.
Tom Hansen: Listening to sappy music and misinterpreting “The Graduate,” he grew up thinking that he would only find happiness when he found the perfect girl. And this never happened… until he met Summer.
Enough said. We know our characters, and they fit perfectly into our story. They have character traits and flaws (limps and eye patches) that propel, raise the stakes, and keep our story moving forward. Think about it… if Tom was a different guy who just went to bars to hook up and never cared about anyone, we wouldn’t have a movie. These two characters offer the perfect storm, and are what allows for this to be a successful movie.
Catalyst: While working at the greeting card company, Tom rides the elevator with Summer. Tom listens to the Smiths; Summer likes this. Tom is smitten. Our journey — and his — begins.
Debate: Will Tom suck it up and ask Summer out? Will Tom get together with Summer? Will they be more than friends? What does Summer think about relationships?
Break into Two: The office has “end of the week drinks” at The Pirate bar (actually a really cool spot in downtown Los Angeles, called The Redwood, I believe. Check it out!) Summer sings karaoke. Tom is head over heels.
Tom’s work buddy, McKenzie, is there to help the cause. McKenzie gets drunk. Tom summons the courage to sing karaoke — which Summer likes.
As the night progresses, Tom and Summer put a now-wasted McKenzie in a cab, and McKenzie spills the beans, “You know, Tom really likes you.” This is a death moment for the self-conscious Tom, but Summer thinks it’s cute. And, per their subsequent conversation, we have a new dramatic question that will propel our second act: “You like me, as a friend, right?” This is what Summer tells Tom, and this is the essential question and source of conflict in the movie. Can a guy who is madly in love with a girl have a “casual friendship,” even if they are acting like boyfriend and girlfriend? Summer doesn’t want anything serious. Tom wants everything serious. Conflict!
B Story: Skimpy and a little empty, this is a weak spot. This could have been an ideal opportunity to introduce another couple that is struggling with similar issues, or a different relationship dynamic that teaches our guy Tom something new about his predicament. But we don’t get that. We get his sister and buddies and coworkers, who act as confidantes and mentors… they are the ones listening to Tom recall the various “500 days” of his relationship with Summer. These characters do help Tom ultimately learn the theme, but it’s primarily through static scenes that feel empty and, dare I say, repetitive.
Fun and Games: Tom and Summer act as boyfriend and girlfriend, but are not truly boyfriend and girlfriend, because that’s not what Summer wants. She just wants to have fun. They go to Ikea and play on the furniture. They scour a record store for Ringo albums. They explore downtown Los Angeles. Tom is getting closer and closer to Summer, who continues to be a rather flippant and non-committal character. Note: The structure technique of jumping back and forth allows us to see earlier moments in their relationship when things are going well, and then later in their lives, when Tom and Summer aren’t even together anymore. Regardless of the technique, Tom is starting to change as a character. This is everything he’s ever wanted. And to our surprise, we even start to see change in Summer…
Midpoint: Our narrator lets us know that this was an especially important event in Tom and Summer’s relationship. They’ve just come home from a date and Summer shows Tom her apartment. And not only that, for the first time, she starts to open up to Tom. She tells him of her dreams. Her nightmares. The things that make her happy. And scared. Summer has never done this before with anyone. Tom feels special, as if he’s finally getting through to Summer. And, as Blake used to say, we have our “Sex at 60″! Tom and Summer make love.
Bad Guys Close In: The next day, Tom is overcome with happiness. He’s dancing. Singing. When he sees his reflection he feels just as handsome as Harrison Ford in “Star Wars.” Everything is looking good for Tom.
Tom tells his friends that they are wrong about Summer. They don’t know anything about real relationships. Another change: He’s not listening to his mentors anymore; he thinks that he knows what he’s doing. We see tensions arise between our character and the B story.
Tom’s newfound confidence causes problems. At a bar, a random dude hits on Summer. Tom, overzealous, punches the man in the face, and in turn, he gets knocked out. Tom loves this, as he feels fearless. Summer doesn’t love this because she doesn’t know why he’s acting this way. “Friends don’t act like this!” Oh no, she said it! These are the worst words imaginable for Tom, and he flips out. “We’re not friends. Friends don’t act like this.”
The next few scenes wander. The only conflict driving the story is the impending break-up. Someone fell asleep at the wheel here and decided to kill some time before the next sequence…
All Is Lost: Our plot device allows us to jump around. We start off with Summer and Tom going to the movies together. And then quickly cut away to see only Tom sitting in the movie theater. Alone. He looks like heck. He’s broken up with Summer.
Dark Night of the Soul: Summer has left her position at the company as an assistant to Tom’s boss.
Tom can’t keep it together at work, and is assigned to write “grieving/sympathy” cards, a reflection of his devastated state of mind.
Tom has trouble getting out of bed.
Tom gets kicked off the bus for yelling crazy things.
Tom tells a random couple holding hands to get a room; he goes on blind dates, but can only talk about Summer. The blind dates think he’s crazy.
Break into Three: This is a little unique. I believe the break into Three is a secondary “FALSE VICTORY” for Tom — what Blake referred to as a “double bump.”
Tom is on a train to San Diego for a coworker’s wedding, and of course, Summer is there. They catch up and dance together.
Are Tom and Summer going to get back together? We can only hope. Summer invites Tom to a party she’s having…
Finale: Summer’s party.
This is the thematic climax. Tom realizes that it wasn’t Summer that has caused all of this pain, but rather, it was his doing. Tom’s knack for overly romanticizing and idealizing everything that happens in his life — especially the love and interest that he had for Summer — is captured perfectly in the finale.
Via split screens, the writers show us the gaping differences between what Tom “expects” in life and what “actually happens.”
A title card reads: “Expectations vs. realities”.
We see various scenes at the party where Tom tries to catch the attention of Summer and fails. He had high hopes for this party, but we know ultimately that he has to step back and see what is really happening. Summer has moved on in her personal life. This is the reality.
Tom now has to put all of his expectations and fantasies aside and come to grips with the situation. Summer is engaged. And it’s not to Tom. (Remember our theme stated: “Just because she likes the same music doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate.”) At that time in the story, Tom was taking even the most miniscule of things and assigning grand and cosmic value to them. He was misinterpreting relationships in his life, just as he grew up misinterpreting “The Graduate.”
But, after his journey with Summer, he has realized the truth. And even though it hurts a lot, he’s going to be okay. He has learned this lesson and he is in a better place because of it.
Tom quits his job at the greeting card company and applies for new jobs. Summer gets married.
Final Image: The sequence begins on a bench, the same scene as in the Opening, but now we understand that the wedding ring on Summer’s hand is not Tom’s — it’s from another man. Summer is married. Tom and Summer talk for the last time. This is the title card (#500). This is the final day that Tom knows Summer.
Another slight twist on the rules:
The “final” Final Image: Tom goes for an interview at a famous architectural firm. He meets a girl, Autumn, in the waiting room. A new title card pops up: (#1) Autumn. Tom is a new guy, with a new outlook on life and a new relationship. We only hope that it will last more than 500 days…
Not too bad, right? You can see that this seemingly “indie” and different and unique story actually satisfies the STC! rules perfectly. It’s good writing. It’s fresh. And it’s a new look at a very worn genre, the romantic comedy.
This is the script that put writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber on the map. Its first draft earned them the “Pink Panther” rewrite gig, and also got them into the Sundance Writing Lab, where they continued to develop “(500) Days Of Summer.” They’ve since sold a few specs, one, called “Underage,” for 650K to the Montecito Company. They are currently developing a TV project with Imagine’s Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. If you haven’t already, read the script; it will help you see the structure even more.