Our special thanks to guest blogger Caroline Lawrence for this spectacular breakdown. Her intro:
I started writing 20 years ago but my breakthrough did not come until I’d been writing for about five years with no success. A friend told me about John Truby’s Story Structure course. It proved to be exactly what I needed. Using the seven basic “plot beats,” I wrote my first book in a month. It was bought a few months later in a six-book deal and published half a year after that. My Roman Mysteries series of books for kids have since sold over a million copies in the UK where I live. Ten of the books were televised by the BBC. Using Truby’s structure, I wrote 20 books in ten years. Then another friend told me about Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! I love this method, too, and find it complements John Truby’s Story Structure and Vogler’s Hero’s Journey templates. Like Blake Snyder, I love story structure, and am open to any and all good ideas, so I hope die-hard Cat! fans will forgive the occasional nod to John Truby and Chris Vogler.
Written and directed by David O. Russell, adapted from a book by Matthew Quick.
Genre: Buddy Love
A Buddy Love story consists of an “incomplete hero,” who does not know what or who he is missing to make his life whole.
This film is formulaic in the best sense of the word: it charts the course of change and growth through conflict. Like every great romantic comedy, you have a sense that these people need to come together to be the best they can be. It is such a powerful, well-told story that I thought it would be fun to see if it hits the STC! beats. I’ve used my STC! software on the iPhone app to calculate the point at which each “Blakian beat” should come, and I’ll put “his” minutes in parentheses and the actual minutes as I see them next to that. IMDb lists the running time as 122 mins but in the cinema I timed it at 116, so that was the figure I plugged in.
SPOILER ALERT! If you haven’t seen Silver Linings Playbook, I suggest you go before reading this, then go see it again after. I’ve seen it four times and have enjoyed it more upon each viewing.
In Save the Cat! Strikes Back, Blake gives a formula for writing a Logline:
On the verge of Stasis=Death moment, a flawed protagonist Breaks in Two; but when the Midpoint happens, he/she must learn the Theme Stated before All Is Lost.
Using that and the official logline I came up with this:
Logline: Newly released from a mental institution, and having lost everything after “an incident,” bipolar Pat Solitano meets a crazy young widow and thinks he has found a way to win back his estranged wife and rebuild his life, but when the time comes to put his plan into practice he learns that you have to let some dreams die in order to get the best prize.
Opening Image (1) 1-2 mins: According to Blake Snyder, this opening image should communicate the mood, style, tone, and world of the story. The opening image of Silver Linings Playbook is a black screen (à la The Godfather) held for a second or two. Instead of “I believe in America” we hear a man’s voice declaring, “I love Sundays…” He goes on to list what he likes about them: the whole family together, friends, football, etc… The words Karel Psychiatric Facility come up in white letters on black, and then we fade in to see Pat Solitano Jr. (Bradley Cooper) with his back to us. He is in a tight shot with what appear to be prison bars in front of him. He is alone, but talking to his estranged wife Nikki. We’re not sure if he’s making a recording, leaving a message, or rehearsing a speech. This snapshot of tense, entrapped, paranoid Pat talking about Sundays to a woman who is physically absent will bookend beautifully with the FINAL IMAGE of him cuddling his flesh-and-blood True Love in a communal final scene and another VO: “Sunday is my favorite day again.”
Theme Stated (5) 9 mins: “Can we have a happy ending?” The theme of this story is in the title: finding a strategy to overcome the negative and enhance the positive elements of your life. In other words, find a “Silver Lining” in every dark cloud. In a great interview with Jeff Goldsmith’s Q&A (link below), director-writer David O. Russell says, “I was motivated to make the film for my son [who is bipolar] so that it would have a silver lining for him, so I was never going to do the story that had a down ending… When it’s earned, I enjoy the magic [of a happy ending].”
Set-Up (1-10) 1-12 mins: This is where we detail the hero’s world, set out the rules, show who’s in charge and the codes of conduct. Blake Snyder suggests showing the hero at work, play, and home. We duly see Pat working out in the Psychiatric Facility as he tries to get physically fit. We glimpse his motto “Excelsior,” a tool to help him get mentally fit. His mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) arrives to bail him out. He tries to help his friend Danny (Chris Turner) “escape” with them (a “Save the Kook” moment?) but when Pat’s mother turns the car around, Pat grabs the wheel and nearly causes an accident. We realize that although this guy has a heart, he could be dangerous! Having returned Danny and on their way home again, Pat asks his mother to stop by the library so he can check out the entire syllabus of his estranged schoolteacher wife, Nikki. His obsessive plan is to win her back as the first step to rebuilding his life.
Pat moves back in with his parents (a stagnation WHIFF OF DEATH moment) and we see that his dad, Pat Sr. (Robert DeNiro) is also crazy with an obsessive-compulsive superstitious bookmaking business revolving around football games of the family’s beloved Philadelphia Eagles. This is a nice aspect of the film: many other people in Pat’s world are just as crazy as he is (if not crazier).
That night we get more SET-UP as we see Pat obsessively devouring the first book on Nikki’s syllabus, then WTFing it out the (closed) window and waking his parents in the middle of the night, all because the story didn’t have a happy ending. A “happy ending” is our hero’s desire, what Blake would call the physical goal. “Can somebody say let’s have a good ending to the story?” Pat’s belief is that no matter how dark the clouds of problems besetting you, if you can find the silver linings you have a shot at happiness.
Completing the SET-UP, we see Pat refusing to take his meds and going for a run in a garbage bag to help himself sweat and lose weight. In this first quarter of an hour, almost everyone comments on how much weight he’s lost. This shows us the “Hero’s World” to use Vogler terminology, what Blake calls the THESIS, the “before” world of the hero. A little later in the movie we see what he used to be like when he joyfully runs up to hug the principal at the high school where he taught and she yelps, “Aggggh! Get away from me!” Following this incident, Officer Keogh shows up at the Solitano house to say he’ll be monitoring Pat’s behaviour.
Catalyst (12) 12 mins: According to Blake’s formula, for a film of 116 minutes, this should come about 12 minutes in. However the director puts the original inciting incident here in flashback form: Pat tells his new psychiatrist (and mentor) Dr. Cliff Patel how he caught his wife in flagrante delicto with another man. The song, Ma Cherie Amour by Stevie Wonder, is Pat’s psychological trigger. “That song is killing me,” he says. This is not so much the “catalyst” as what John Truby calls the “Ghost,” the incident from the past that haunts the hero. The real catalyst is when Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), his best friend Ronnie’s sister-in-law; she will rock his world. This will happen at the 24-minute mark, bringing the B Story lover/mentor in early to help the hero Break into Two.
B Story (31) 24 mins: Introduced before rather than after the Act break, the first meeting of Pat and Tiffany is electric, as they stare unflinchingly into each other’s eyes. We learn later that Pat loved her “from the moment I saw you” but for most of the film he’s too obsessed with his goal of winning back Nikki to admit this to himself. Tiffany is almost as crazy as he is. She leaves in the middle of dinner, asking Pat to walk her home. She propositions him, hugs him, and slaps him, all in quick succession. But despite her erratic behavior she has achieved a healthy degree of self-acceptance. (Tiffany’s cop husband died on his way back from buying Victoria’s Secret lingerie in an attempt to revive their ailing sex life and – blaming herself – she over compensated by sleeping with everyone in her office.) Tiffany admits she has a reputation as a slut. “There’s always gonna be a part of me that’s dirty. But I like that.” However, she’s accepted herself and forgiven others. She issues a challenge: Can he say the same?
Debate(12-26) 31-35 mins: Tiffany is the Lover/Mentor who calls Pat to die to his old dreams and seek new ones, as Blake would say. She challenges Pat to forgive, and by implication forget (Nikki) and to move on (to her). This “Call to Adventure” issued by a beautiful young woman who is totally on his wavelength upsets Pat’s focus so much that he goes rooting around for his wedding video. He doesn’t want to get on Tiffany’s train; he wants to stay on the platform. He wants to go back to the past, to remind himself why he loves Nikki. When he can’t find the video, he wakes his parents once again and throws a mega tantrum. This explosion is intercut with flashbacks to his original meltdown over finding Nikki with another man. The song in the background is a kind of bipolar Led Zeppelin number, What Is And What Should Be. “Let the whole neighborhood wake up!” Pat screams. He accidentally knocks down his mother and when Pat Sr. repeatedly slaps him, he manages not to hit back too much. (David O. Russell’s real life bipolar son appears in the midst of this mayhem in a cameo as a high school student wanting to do a report on Mental Illness.)
Break into Two (26) 35 mins: Act Two, the “upside-down funhouse mirror of Act One”. The ANTITHESIS. Because we introduced the B STORY before the Act Break, it comes a little later at 35 minutes. A subdued scene of Pat Sr. and Pat Jr. examining their bruises from the previous night’s “explosion.” Then the most important shot: Pat Jr. taking his meds. From now on he will steadily improve. This is a nice pay-off to the set-up of him throwing them away in Act One. We also see him fixing the book-damaged window and going for a run as the calmly low-key song Buffalo (by alt-J) plays in the background. (David O Russell says his choice of music is always important.)
Fun and Games (31-58) 36-58 mins: The “promise of the premise…. your pitch, your poster, your concept,” writes Blake. “Hey!” cries Tiffany, coming out of nowhere. “Why did you run by my house?” This is where we will enjoy the couple getting to know each other. One thing I’ve noticed about the FUN AND GAMES section of a film is that it is often the hero’s TRAINING. Our hero is acquiring the skills he or she will need to fight and win the physical and spiritual battle. This is also where the PLAN is put into action. Tiffany’s basic PLAN is to win Pat’s heart.
Their running together is a recurrent theme, with one of them always driving the scene and “pursuing” the other. In the first running scene Tiffany mirrors Pat’s behavior (such as his spitting) and literally chases him. In the second running scene, there is a nice scene-deepening touch as it occurs on Halloween evening with people around them are dressed for Trick or Treat. (In one interview, Russell says he likes that they are surrounded by ghosts and goblins “which is fitting as they’ve been haunted all their lives.”) Pat suggests they have dinner at a local diner and Tiffany accepts without hesitation. There is a fun scene in the diner where he orders Raisin Bran so she “won’t think this is a date.” He tells her the background behind his trigger song and she tells him how she lost her job by sleeping with everyone in the office.
She agrees to try to get a letter from him to Nikki even though he has a restraining order against this. Pat is turned on by her and immediately feels he is betraying Nikki. When he hints that she is crazier than he is, she has a tantrum to the applause of other diners. At one point she says, “You’re killing me” — exactly his words in Dr. Patel’s office. This time he runs after her and they have another argument in front of a crowded cinema. “I opened up to you, and you judged me,” she yells. Suddenly his trigger song is playing in the background. Is it in his head or real? Tiffany feels huge empathy for his turmoil and drops her attack to defend him when Officer Keogh shows up.
When Officer Keogh hits on Tiffany she stalks off and Pat chases her again. They both apologize to each other and she agrees to get a letter to Nikki. Back home, at 53 minutes in, Pat’s father suspiciously asks, “What are you so up about?” He wants Pat to watch the game with him as a sort of good luck juju for their beloved Philadelphia Eagles football team. Later, at 62 minutes, Pat Sr. says “Don’t let Tiffany get you into trouble.”
We are still in FUN AND GAMES as Pat sees off another suitor at her house the next morning and unknowingly wins her heart by telling the sleazeball that she is “articulate, smart, artistic…” She runs after him and tells him she can’t give the letter to Nikki unless he does something for her. This is her PLAN, to pretend to help Pat win back Nikki if he will dance with her and in so doing win his heart. His PLAN is to please Tiffany so that she will deliver a letter to Nikki. Tiffany cleverly plays to his agenda. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asks. “There’s this dance thing.” He resists but she gives him an ultimatum and stalks off. He looks after her appreciatively. Another MENTOR ALLY, Dr. Patel, unknowingly supports her. “If you become friends with Tiffany,” he says, “Nikki will think you are thriving.” We see a light go on in Pat’s eyes.
Midpoint (58) 58 mins: According to Blake, this is where the A and B Stories cross and where the hero chooses a course of action that will make his death and rebirth inevitable. At 58 minutes in, Tiffany gives Pat the ultimatum: “Either do the dance or I won’t help you.” At 65 minutes in, Pat and Tiffany first dance together. “Do you feel that?” she says as the gaze at each other only inches apart, “That’s emotion.” She tells him how her husband died, then plays Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash singing Girl from the North Country as they quietly sit and enjoy it. With this romantic music still playing he sees her naked back and – once again aroused – he runs away. We see him on his bed, in a turmoil of desire and guilt. (John Truby says that in any love story, the lover is the main opponent.)
Bad Guys Close In (59-79) 60-86 mins: Part of the risk of declaring oneself, says Blake Snyder, is that it attracts attention of those who want to stop us from growing. At minute 60, Pat’s older brother Jake appears and callously rubs Pat’s nose in the fact that he is a failure, whereas he (Jake) is thriving. After a long beat, Pat responds, “I have nothing but love for you, brother.” He has passed a test. Then, from minute 73 to minute 76, Pat Sr. – who has been opposed to Tiffany from the beginning and has his own agenda for Pat Jr. – says “We got a serious situation… we gotta beat the Giants if we want to get into the playoff. We need to spend father-son time to talk about the Eagles… That’s what all this Eagles stuff is about. It’s about spending time…” Is Pat Sr. using the Eagles as a chance to bond with his son? Or is he using the idea of “father-son time” as his excuse to ensure good juju for the important game? Maybe a bit of both. Then he demands that Pat goes to the Eagles Giants game with his brother, even though it will mean letting Tiffany down badly.
Pat tells Tiffany “My dad is worried that the juju is messed up because I’m not attending the game…” He can’t concentrate on the dance because he has had a response to his letter from Nikki and he knows her letter is there, just waiting to be read. When he finally reads the letter, he is deeply moved. I’m glad you’re becoming a more positive and loving man, Nikki writes, which I always knew you were. If it’s me reading the signs, I need to see something positive. Even though Tiffany argues that performing their dance will be a sign for Nikki as “something positive,” Pat is so churned up that he leaves their practice session.
From 82 – 86 minutes, Pat’s attendance at the Eagles-Giants Game is a disaster. Through no fault of his own, Pat is caught up in a brawl when his brother and Dr. Patel are attacked. They all end up being arrested.
All Is Lost (79) 84 mins: This beat is Truby’s “Apparent Defeat.” Everyone – including Officer Keogh, Pat’s brother Jake, and Dr. Patel – has gathered at the Solitano home. Pat Sr. is having a meltdown. “What is this craziness?” he shouts, blaming Pat and the others that the Eagles lost. Everybody else starts shouting and offering explanations.
Dark Night of the Soul (79-90) 85-96 mins: Now comes my favourite scene of the film. In the middle of mayhem and shouting and confusion there is an assertive ding-dong! and Tiffany enters the Solitano house – and their dysfunctional family group – for the first time.
Tiffany to Pat Jr. “When you make a serious commitment to someone it is not cool to not show up!” she cries, and when he says he had obligations to his father, Dr. Patel, and his friend Ronnie, she shouts: “That’s great for all of them, but all of them didn’t make a commitment to me in return for my help. I’m Tiffany by the way,” she announces to the stunned gathering.
In a tour de force scene we see Tiffany convince Pat Sr. that she and Pat Jr. as a couple are good juju for the Eagles. If we didn’t realize it before, we know now that Tiffany doesn’t just understand Pat, she gets his whole family. She is the perfect mate for Pat. It also shows we can still have FUN AND GAMES during the DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL.
Pat Jr. “Now do you like her, Dad?”
Pat Sr. “I have to say, I do.”
This is another hugely satisfying moment for the audience, when the three main characters we’ve started rooting for collide in a most satisfying way. In his interview with Jeff Goldsmith, Russell says this scene was “very carefully rewritten many times” and then rehearsed until it took on a life of its own.
“You’ve been building these different emotional currencies,” explains Russell, “for three major different trains for the whole movie up to now and now you’re going to get to collide them… one emotional currency is Robert De Niro’s …bookmaking and about the Eagles, which is somehow bizarrely meshed with his expression of love for his son… Jennifer Lawrence’s [currency is] her dance … Bradley’s life and death is to get through the restraining order … not lose his father’s love and not mess up on his mission. So those can all collide in that scene.”
Tiffany further displays her prowess by challenging Randy (the old guy who always bets against Pat Sr.) and after some maneuvering they agree to have a “parlay bet” for double or nothing. The final Eagles game of the season in December will be against Randy’s pet team, the Dallas Cowboys, and it’s on the same day as Tiffany’s big dance competition. If the Eagles win and if Pat and Tiffany can collect 5 points for their dance, Randy will pay out double.
This is great, because it sets up a clear GOAL, BATTLE and HIGH STAKES.
As Tiffany fits in with the family and continues to display her awesomeness, Pat is hit by another of his Nikki-generated spasms of guilt and doubt.
Blake says the DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL beat results in changed desire: the hero often has a MOMENT OF CLARITY. This is exactly where Pat is driven outside by Tiffany’s brilliant defense of her relationship with him and by the new challenge of a high stakes “parlay” bet. “I can’t do this,” says Pat. “I’m out.” His father accuses him of “Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!” And Tiffany yells, “You are not a stand-up guy! If it’s me reading the signs…” Outside in the night, at 95 minutes in, Pat re-reads Nikki’s letter (his talisman) to comfort himself and he notices the phrase “reading the signs” which Tiffany has just shouted. In a moment of silent revelation, he realizes that Tiffany wrote the letter, not Nikki. He turns and looks back towards the house and the camera zooms up to his face to show us something important has happened. (John Truby says the best revelations are always in silence.) Pat turns and runs off into the rainy night, trying to process what he’s just realized. We don’t know it yet, but this is the moment of his changed desire. He has finally let his dream of life with Nikki die. From now on in, he wants to win Tiffany.
Break into Three (90) 96 mins: From this point on, Pat seems calmer and more at peace. The very next scene shows him turning up at Tiffany’s to practice, with a quiet “Sorry I’m late,” and he looks at her with new eyes as she tapes up his trainers.
Finale (91-116) 97-116 mins:
GATHERING THE TEAM 97 mins – Christmas is approaching and we see Tiffany’s parents and Pat’s parents happily enjoying seasonal cocktails together. The healing and formation of a new family group has already begun. Most importantly, we see a look of total love in Pat’s eyes as the oblivious Tiffany tries out different neckties for him to wear at the contest. The out-of-control, steering-wheel-wrenching, meds-tossing, explosion guy of ACT ONE is fit, calm, balanced, and focused on the right goal. We see him pick up an envelope like the one that contained his letter to Nikki. He slips this new letter in his coat pocket. Further GATHERING OF THE TEAM is shown when everybody shows up at the Dance Competition as couples. Even Officer Keogh is there with a date. The only characters on their own are the “opponents” (Randy and Nikki).
EXECUTING THE PLAN 98 mins – When everyone sees the caliber of the other dancers they are dismayed. Randy jokes, “You can just give me the money now.” But our team is confident. It might be tough but they can do it! But then comes…
THE HIGH TOWER SURPRISE 99 mins – which is NIKKI! According to STC! precepts, the high tower surprise is the real challenge of the Final Exam the hero must pass. First Tiffany and then Pat see Nikki. Tiffany goes to confront her sister, “You’re killing me.” When her sister and Ronnie say that Pat said “you should never throw a marriage out the window,” Tiffany gives up all hope that she will ever lure Pat away from his dream of winning back Nikki. She runs to the bar in despair and downs a couple of vodkas. A guy tries to pick her up and we are reminded of her former lapses into promiscuity. At 102 minutes, Pat is also shocked to see Nikki but we don’t know what he’s thinking.
In a video interview for the LA Times (link below), Russell says they changed the final scene from the original scene. In the book, Pat has a bipolar episode when he discovers everyone has been conspiring to deceive him. Russell emphasized how important it is for people like Pat to make their own decisions. “Pat makes his own private decision in the third act to … decide what he was going to do, and not tell anybody… that was an essential step for his character, [who] has a long road ahead of him…”
This was a good decision structurally, because we see that Pat has changed. This is what Blake calls SYNTHESIS of the first two acts.
DIG DOWN DEEP 103 mins Yay! The Eagles have beat the Cowboys! Now it’s up to Pat and Tiffany to score 5 and win everything. As Blake says, every story is about the “stripping away” of the stuff the hero thinks is important at the start. Pat ignores Nikki and goes to find Tiffany. “I used to think you were the best thing that happened to me,” she says, “but now I think you’re the worst.” He is calm and focused. “We’re in this,” he says, confidently leading her out onto the dance floor.
(BTW, a nice set-up here is that we are shown the judges holding up their scorecards and the final judge always gives the lowest marks.)
John Truby teaches that the DANCE is the moment in any love story when we see that the two squabbling lovers are “meant to be together.” We see it here, in the touching and funny sequence Pat and Tiffany do together. David O. Russell said, “Originally we wanted him to dance to the trigger song, but then we thought we’ve had enough of it…” Instead, the “bipolar dance routine” (Russell’s words) combines another Stevie Wonder song with tunes by White Stripes and Dave Brubeck. Both Pat and Tiffany look fabulous, and Nikki’s jaw is practically on the table as she watches them. There is comedy moment when the “big jump” goes slightly awry and we see a nervous little eye-flick from Robert De Niro. But there is deep satisfaction as Pat’s mother tears up when she sees how much her son has changed. (Blake Snyder: “Stories are about transformation, that change had better be dramatic!”)
The judges give their scores, and if the pattern had been followed Pat and Tiffany would have failed, but Judge Four presents her own “High Tower Surprise” pay-off by awarding them the highest score, thereby ensuring that they squeak by with the needed score of 5. As other dancers commiserate, Pat, Tiffany, and their extended family erupt with enthusiastic whoops and cheers: They’ve won the high stakes “parlay bet”!
EXECUTE THE NEW PLAN (109 minutes) As Pat goes off (without a word to poor Tiffany) to tell Nikki “I have a positive attitude, I’m on medication, I’m in therapy…” and the whispered message (presumably) that he’s moving on, a distraught Tiffany runs away. Pat Sr. tells Pat Jr. what he already knows: “When life reaches out with a moment like this, it’s a sin if you don’t reach back.” “I love you, Dad,” says Pat and – as usual – he runs after her. “I have one more letter,” he says when he catches her, but he can’t wait for her to finish reading it: “You knew that the only way to beat my crazy was by doing something even crazier. Thank you. I love you. I knew it from the moment I saw you. I’m sorry it took me so long to catch up.” The moment when they kiss and the camera zooms away was going to be the final image… BUT
Final Image 114-116 mins: According to the Apple interview (link below) with David O. Russell, this “coda” was producer Harvey Weinstein’s idea: “What about if the whole family is back together in the house?” In fact, a COMMUNAL MOMENT is a powerful ending to any movie, and in particular a love story. (The breakfast toast “a la famiglia” from another great romantic comedy – Moonstruck – comes to mind and a bazillion weddings in many romances.) The love of Pat and Tiffany has not completed them alone; it has completed the greater family circle.
This is a superbly put-together story. Russell himself admits it took over five years and went through at least 20 rewrites. Even during the filming he was open to ideas and changes. Although it’s unlikely that he consciously used STC!, the structure of Silver Linings Playbook and these five quotes from Jeff Goldsmith’s Q&A show that Russell is right on track with Blake Snyder’s principles:
“You know, I write all the beats down. The outline is everything. The outline makes it easy. My goal is to take the writing out of writing…”
“That’s the fun of story-telling which is also the hard labor and the craft. It takes a lot of work, like carpentry, to figure out the best way to do it. You can try to skin it a few different ways before you figure it out. You can fail nine times. That’s OK.”
“I like to tell the story to people a lot so by the time I come to write it it’s like a clerical act rather than a creative act. And then there’s all the hard craftsmanship of re-crafting it and making it better, which is a lot of hard work.”
“The other part of the art I look forward to is I want to hide the art, in a way. I want it to seem like you’ve just dropped in on something and it’s not framing itself and declaring itself… I want it to seem offhanded, effortless…”
“I want to know why I care and what’s grabbing me every step of the way. That’s important.”