Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"Save The Cat" Beat Sheet: Plan Nine From Outer Space

Every year screenplays are sold for millions of dollars, and the happy screenwriters are empowered by self-fulfillment, satisfaction and acclaim. Why can’t that be you? Well, before you can sell your brilliant movie idea to Hollywood, you must first learn The Powerful Secrets of Screenplay Structure!

What better way to learn The Powerful Secrets of Screenplay Structure than by analyzing a classic, widely-admired script?  Here for the first time - informed by Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet in his famous screenwriting manual Save The Cat – we present an analysis of Ed Wood’s celebrated screenplay for Plan Nine From Outer Space.  Read on and see how simple it is to write a movie!

Plan Nine From Outer Space begins with a PRE-CREDIT scene in which the mysterious prognosticator Criswell addresses the audience and frames the story in the context of true events that have been officially denied.

Opening Image:  As per Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat this is a visual that represents the genre, theme and tone of the story. The opening Image should be a snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins. In Alien, we begin with the lone Nostromo star ship in the middle of wide, empty space. In Raiders of The Lost Arc the Paramount Studios Symbol match dissolves to a real mountain.

Appropriately Plan Nine from Outer Space begins with a funeral. A line of mourners gather by an open grave. The image sets a somber, portentous and uncanny tone. The row of characters looking down in grief and confusion will be echoed in the final image of the film.

Set-up: As per Snyder's Beat Sheet, this expands on the “before” snapshot of the opening image. The film presents the Protagonist’s world as it is, and what is missing in their lives. In Raiders we are introduced to a daredevil archeologist looking for rare and wonderful artifacts. In Alien, Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo wake up after their hyper sleep to find themselves mysteriously drifting in empty space.

Plan Nine From Outer Space is an ensemble film following three separate protagonists, all of whom begin, like the old man in the opening, in a state of confusion and dread.  Here, the “ordinary world” is one in which startling, mysterious events occur, without explanation – events that the protagonists are forced to deny.

These three separate stories are interwoven throughout the film, but they all skillfully merge at the end of the 2nd Act. This three-protagonist/parallel-narrative structure was so successful it influenced later classic films such as L.A. Confidential.

The first Protagonist is pilot JEFF TRENT. His routine flight takes a strange turn,when he sees a blinding light and encounters a flying saucer. The saucer lands at the graveyard where gravediggers hear a strange noise and are attacked and killed by the resurrected corpse of a young woman, the ghastly Vampira.

The death of the gravediggers leads to the introduction of the second protagonist, LIEUTENANT HARPER and a murder investigation. Harper and his boss, inspector Daniel Clay and other police officers arrive and Clay foolishly decides conduct his search alone. After the old man rises from his own grave, the isolated Clay is attacked both the reanimated corpses. Later Harper and the other police discover Clay’s dead body and are convinced of foul play.

A third parallel narrative introduces the third protagonist, COLONEL EDWARDS, who reveals that the government has been covering up the flying saucers, and who wonders if the aliens are connected to other disasters on Earth. He reveals that one small town has already been annihilated.

Notice the artful symmetry here. We have THREE protagonists and our THREE antagonists (the three reanimated corpses) fully introduced to the audience.

Theme Stated: This is what the story is about; the truth the film will reveal. Usually, it is spoken by the protagonist, but they don’t understand the truth…not until they have some personal experience and context to support it.  In Alien, someone quips “Anybody ever tell you that you look dead?” The truth is you’re doomed and you don’t know it yet.

Sure enough, in Plan Nine From Outer Space, in each of the three parallel narratives, each our three protagonists states the theme and truth of the film,  flying saucers are real!  Each of the men are fed up with the official denials and they all DEMAND answers.

Snarls Trent, "I can't even admit I saw the thing [the saucer.]"

Says Lieutenant Harper, "Inspector Clay's dead, murdered, and somebody's responsible!" 

Says, Colonel Edwards, "They're real, but...Who are they? What do they want?"

The film will later reveal the secret alien Plan Nine to reanimate the dead, but here the characters don’t yet understand the truth. The film is ultimately about the conspiracies and cover-ups that always hide a reality to awful to bear.

Catalyst: The moment where something new intrudes upon the status quo.  In Alien, it is the distress call that prompts the computer to wake up the crew.  In Raiders, it is the government agents who contact Indiana Jones about the Arc.

In Plan Nine From Outer Space, the ordinary world is interrupted by an encounter with flying saucers.  Even the general public sees the UFO's flying over Hollywood Boulevard and Washington, D.C.

Debate – Change is scary and for a moment the main characters doubt the journey they must take. In Alien, the crew members debate whether to investigate the distress signal.   In Raiders, Indy and Marion debate the Arc and her father’s medallion.

In Plan Nine from Outer Space Jeff Trent tells his wife Paula, about his flying saucer encounter, but he debates about whether to admit the truth publicly because officials have sworn him to secrecy. He is frustrated about what to do next.

Throughout the first act, we have multiple instances of the “Refusal of the Call to Adventure.” Spooked policemen flee the graveyard, characters refuse to believe their eyes, and soldiers sardonically pretend that firefights with saucers were just "training missions."  The film is ultimately about the dangers of denial.

Throughout these debates, notice the repeated and deliberate us of the word “There.” Out there. Up there. Go there. The word “There” stands for the denied truth and the mysterious, dreadful and unknown world that the protagonists have yet to fully encounter.

Also notice that in these debates that both the monsters and the saucers are referred to as “those things.” These “things” are beings and objects beyond ordinary human comprehension, and therefore have no names.

Break Into Two: Here the main character makes A CHOICE and the journey begins. We leave the “thesis” world and enter the upside-down, opposite world of Act Two, the “antithesis.” In Alien, they penetrate the alien ship and Kane is attacked by a face-hugger. In Raiders, Indy and Marion, now partners, travel to Egypt and the Well of Souls.

In Plan Nine From Outer space this decision point is vivid and dramatic. When the army encounters the Saucers, Colonel Edwards makes "the greatest decision of his career," TO FIRE. No longer passively observing the saucers and denying their existence, the Colonel takes ACTION.  

This action directly results in the implementation of “Plan Nine” and the beginning of Act Two.

As the aliens return to their space station, we have the entrance of our main antagonist, the big bad, COMANDER EROS.  He informs his ruler that he has attempted, unsuccessfully, to contact the governments of Earth. He says that to force the people of Earth to acknowledge his people's existence, he is implementing Plan 9, which involves resurrecting the recently dead by stimulating their pituitary glands. 

With the revelation and implementation of the  alien conspiracy, the lives of all three major characters will be turned upside down.

B Story: This subplot explores the THEME of the film from a new angle. Usually, this happens between the main character and the love interest. So, the B Story is usually called the “love story.” In Alien, we have the perverse relationship between Ripley and the android-rapist, Ash, along with the computer, Mother. In Raiders, we have Indy’s relationship with a treacherous monkey.

In Plan Nine From Outer Space, we have Trent and Paula. In their parting scene, Paula explains that at night she finds comfort in her absent husband's pillow: "Sometimes at night, when it does get a little lonely, I reach over and touch it. " This underlines the absence of a living sexual partner for her, and her frequent loneliness in married life.

In a reflection of the main plot and main tension of the film, this sexual dysfunction and aching loneliness is DENIED by both husband and wife, and this causes dire consequences . Each time the repressed and hysterical woman is left alone she attracts vampires (symbols of voracious sexual desire) who invade her bedroom and then the back seat of a parked car.

It is no accident that the mastermind behind the monstrous, phallic “thing” is named “Eros.”

Fun and Games: As per Save The Cat, this section delivers on the premise, and the characters explore the new world. This is where the crew in Alien discovers the “face hugger” has acid for blood, or when Indiana Jones tries to beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark. 

In Plan Nine From Outer Space, we get to experience all the horror and thrills of the aliens reanimating the dead promised by the poster and premise. The corpse of the old man rises from his crypt and sneaks into Paula’s bedroom. He is joined by the corpse of his wife, Vampira, and the newly resurrected Inspector Clay. All three “things” chase Paula through the cemetery. 

Midpoint:  This is the moment where the main character either gets everything they think they want (“great”) or doesn’t get what they think they want at all (“awful”). Either way it marks a big shift in the story as the protagonists must take a new course of action.  In Raiders, everything is great, as Indy finds the Arc, but now he must get it home.  In Alien, everything is awful as the alien bursts from Kane’s chest and now the crew must kill it.

In Plan Nine From Outer Space, the midpoint is marked by a message from the aliens. Eros explains that they are trying to prevent humanity from destroying the universe. As a result, Coronel Edwards risks court marshal by refusing to deny the saucers existence. Denial is now impossible, the Aliens must be confronted.

The Bad Guys Close In:  Here the main character’s “great”/“awful” situation gets even worse. In Raiders, the Nazi’s take the Arc from Indy and lock him in the pit with dreaded snakes. In Alien, the monster grows large and starts killing the crew members one by one.

In Plan Nine the aliens make plans to raise undead armies and march them against the capitals of Earth.

All is Lost: This is the moment that the main characters realize they’ve lost everything, or everything they now have has no meaning. The initial goal now looks impossible. In Alien, Ripley discovers the company conspiracy and that the crew is “expendable.” In Raiders, a plane explodes and the arc is seemingly lost forever.
In Plan Nine, the three protagonists - Trent, Harper and Edwards – all convene at Trent’s house, and the three story lines merge into one. When they are attacked by the undead "thing," they fire their guns
but the bullets NO EFFECT.  Then a mysterious ray from the saucer turns the “thing” into a pile of bones.  They realize that their weapons are of no use against their enemies and that they are dealing with powers far beyond their comprehension.

Dark Night of the Soul:  This is the main character’s lowest moment. In Alien, Ripley is told by the android, Ash, that they have no chance to survive. In Raiders, Indy must choose whether to save Marion or destroy the Arc, and he can’t do it.

In Plan Nine from Outer Space, Paula is attacked by the undead Clay and abducted by the Aliens. Trent and the other men have failed to protect what they most loved.

Break Into Three:  Thanks to a fresh idea or new inspiration, the main character chooses to try again in a new way.   From the two options and two worlds introduced in the second act, thesis and antithesis, we have the possibility of a new synthesis.  The third act begins In Alien when Ripley decides to escape on the shuttlecraft and set the ship to self-destruct.

In Plan Nine From Outer Space the third act begins when the three protagonists decide to follow the strange light and confront the alien craft directly, going towards it instead of running away or refusing to believe their eyes.

Here Plan Nine follows all the classic third act beats found in Save the Cat:
  • Gathering the team: The three men are finally working together.
  • Storm the Castle: The three men enter the Alien craft.
  • High Tower Surprise: The Aliens reveal that it is the humans who are the villains. It is the humans who are developing solarbonite, a substance that would explode "sunlight molecules" and set off a chain reaction that would destroy the entire universe.
  • Dig Down Deep: Seeing the unconscious Paula carried into the craft by the monstrous, undead “Thing,” Trent must do something, or the Aliens will kill them all, turning them into undead creatures for their army.
  • Execution of New Plan: Realizing that guns are useless, Trent attacks Eros with his bare hands and in the ensuing final battle between protagonist and antagonist, the saucers delicate equipment catches fire.
  • Victory: The humans flee the ship, and the saucer rises and explodes.
Final Image: this is the opposite of opening Image, proving, visually, that a change has occurred within the character.

In Plan Nine From Outer Space, all characters look up at the saucer in flames, finally knowing the truth. This image, all the characters standing in a row is a identical in composition to the opening image, except that while in the opening, the people looked down at the grave in confusion and grief, the characters now look up with understanding and hope.

Lastly, the narrator Criswell returns to reiterate the theme:  if we deny the truth of flying saucers, looking away in fear, we are doomed, but if we just open our eyes, look up and face the truth, we may be saved.

See how easy it is to fill in the blanks and put a story into perfect screenplay structure?  That's all there is to screenwriting!  That's all you have to do and you too can make your story every bit as good as Plan Nine From Outer Space!  Now go write your fabulous movie idea!

Disclaimer:  This April Fools Day Joke is not meant to disparage the beloved Blake Snyder or his classic book, Save The Cat.  However, please share this with anyone who thinks they know "The Powerful Secrets of Screenplay Structure," or who just take screenwriting books a little too seriously.

I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it.


Starling said...

Ha! Reminds me of Mickey and friends building a boat. "All you do is put it together!" http://video.disney.com/watch/have-a-laugh-boat-builders-4bb39f0b2994fa8833003b15

Starling said...

Ha! Reminds me of Mickey and friends building a boat. "All you do is put it together!" http://video.disney.com/watch/have-a-laugh-boat-builders-4bb39f0b2994fa8833003b15