While preparing to write my current screenplay, Once Bit, I watched a lot of other movies in the Domestic Monster in the House genre (Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, The Cable Guy, etc.) However, now that I’m actually in the thick of it, one thing became apparent to me: It’s difficult for me to write something as purely horror or thriller. I always end up throwing humor in there. In the case of something like this, it’s not that I’m turning it into a comedy, it’s just that I’m keeping it somewhat light, at least at the beginning. I assume it goes back to the fact that I’m also a comedian, but beyond that my favorite movies & TV shows are the ones that don’t stick purely into one genre. Joss Whedon is my hero, in part because he is so good at making you be tense in your seat one minute, laughing your ass off the next, close to tears moments later, and then cheering like crazy. To me, that’s entertainment. It’s a roller coaster ride, and I absolutely love it.

Back to my point. As I started writing, I realized that the beginning of my script bore a lot of resemblance to the first act of a romantic comedy. And that makes sense, because much of my story is the nightmare version of the “boy meets girl” situation. But what had me worried was that the tone was also more akin to a romantic comedy than a thriller. On the one hand, I kinda like this juxtaposition, but I was questioning whether or not it could work. Then I remembered a film that I felt did this quite well: Red Eye.

If you didn’t know that it was directed by Wes Craven and hadn’t seen any trailers for it, you might start off thinking you were watching a romantic comedy. It’s funny, it’s cute, and there’s some awesome chemistry between Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy. It’s not until the Break Into Two that the shit really hits the fan and we see exactly what kind of world we’re in. I found that this mirrored my intentions with Once Bit, so I decided to rewatch the movie a couple times and better analyze its structure, using the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet (BS2) from “Save the Cat.”

Movie: Red Eye (2005)
Genre: Dude With a Problem
Writer: Carl Ellsworth
Director: Wes Craven
Logline: Terrified of flying, Lisa reluctantly hops a red-eye flight bound for Miami and buckles up for a bumpy ride. But her phobia morphs into terror when she learns that a fellow passenger has plans to murder the deputy secretary of Homeland Security.

  1. Opening Image (1): Lisa (Rachel McAdams) rushes to make her plane. She is organized, all business, and compassionate, bailing out Cynthia (Jayma Mays) from a pair of rude customers.
  2. Theme Stated (5): Lisa’s father (Brian Cox) asks her if she’s alright. He worries about her, and so should we.
  3. Set-Up (1-10): Lisa multitasks, is on top of everything, a people pleaser, & a daddy’s girl, but she is a complete loner. Her plane has been delayed, & the passengers are on edge. We are introduced to most of the key passengers, including Jackson (Cillian Murphy) who helps her deal with an asshole passenger.
  4. Catalyst (11): After changing due to a run-in with an iced mocha (where we see her scar from being attacked years prior), she sees Jackson waiting in the TexMex lounge, and decides to talk to him while they wait.
  5. Debate (11-24): Will she give this guy a chance? She’s still not sure. Although she opens up about certain things (her grandmother’s passing), she still lies about what drink she orders. When they board the plane, Lisa finds that Jackson is seated next to her. Her fear of flying is alleviated by Jackson asking questions. She believes it is to distract her, but he insists it is just to keep the focus on her & her father.
  6. Break into Two (24): Jackson tells Lisa that he is behind assassinations, and his current target is Charles Keefe (Jack Scalia), a guest at her hotel. He tells her that he has a man stationed outside her father’s house, and if she doesn’t have Keefe moved to a new room, he’ll have her father killed.
  7. B Story (30): The love story is the relationship between Lisa and her father, where we see to what lengths she will go to protect him.
  8. Fun and Games (30-42): Tension mounts on the plane as Jackson continues to intimidate Lisa, & Lisa tries to get a message out for help. Lisa tries to escape his grasp, writing a note in a book for another passenger, and by pretending the phone is still working after it cuts out; at each turn, Jackson catches on to her.
  9. Midpoint (42): Lisa tries to leave a message in the bathroom that Jackson has a bomb, but he discovers it. In return, he roughs her up, finds her scar, & goes off on her for being dishonest despite his own honesty.
  10. Bad Guys Close In (42-55): Lisa makes the call to move Keefe’s room. Jackson lets it slip that the plan is to kill not just Keefe, but his entire family. In Miami, Keefe checks in to the new room after security okays it. Jackson assures her that once Keefe is dead and she is out of sight, he will call off the hit on her dad.
  11. All Is Lost (55): A false victory as Lisa stabs Jackson in the windpipe with a pen and breaks away from him. The “whiff of death” is actually her victimization; she has convinced herself that what happened two years ago will never happen to her again.
  12. Dark Night of the Soul (55-65): Lisa escapes into the terminal & is on the run from Jackson. She calls the hotel & they are able to evacuate Keefe just in time. Her phone dies before she can reach her father.
  13. Break into Three (65): Lisa arrives at her father’s home, spots the hitman, and kills him by running into him with her car.
  14. Finale (65-75): After calling to check on the hotel, Lisa finds her father unconscious & Jackson in the house. This time she is confident she can beat him. She fights back, throwing whatever she can at him & taunting him. She arms herself with a lacrosse stick and begins to stalk him. He catches her off guard, however, and throws her down the stairs. She shoots him with the hitman’s gun, but he manages to disarm her. As Jackson prepares to finish her, her father takes the gun and kills him.
  15. Final Image (75): Lisa tells the rude customers they can shove it. She is stronger now, more confident, and knows what is really important in her life.

I was saddened recently to learn of the passing of Blake Snyder, author of the Save the Cat series of screenwriting books. I had read other books on screenwriting before, most notably Syd Field’s Screenplay, which is the basis for modern screenwriting, and Viki King’s How to Write a Movie in 21 Days, which took Field’s ideas and expanded on them, but it wasn’t until I read Save the Cat that things really made sense. It’s a bit cliche, but it really felt like someone flipped a light switch in my brain and suddenly I could see the skeleton structure that underlies a good movie. Since then, Save the Cat, has become my screenwriting Bible, the book I always go back to and whose rules I try to adhere to. That’s not to say I take it as “the unbreakable gospel,” because there are certainly some things I disagree with (Memento is a good movie, damnit!), but as a whole it has become thoroughly ingrained into me with the way I write and look at movies.

More than just structure, it has completely changed the way I look at movie genres. No longer am I confined to such terms as comedy, action, or sci-fi! Sure they may tell you something about the tone of the movie, but they say nothing of the actual story being told. Now when I watch a movie or begin to write one, I instead ask myself whether the movie is an Out of the Bottle or a Buddy Love, a Golden Fleece or a Rite of Passage. Blake broke each genre down into 10 categories (all with 5 subgenres), each of which is about the journey the hero must take, which makes a lot of sense when you get right down to it.

For instance, one of the scripts I’m working on right now is a comedy, but that doesn’t really tell me what movies I need to look at to study the structure and beats of how it should flow. I mean, there’s a big difference betweenWhen Harry Met Sally and Dodgeball; sure, both may be comedies, but they’re completely different types of comedy that tell two completely different stories. However, based on the STC genre it fits into (Issue subgenre of Institutionalized), I’ve found that I can learn far more about how to set up this particular script by looking at other films in that genre, most of which (Magnolia, Crash, Sin City) are certainly not comedies.

Right now I’ve got the section of wall over my desk taped off to represent The Board with a couple dozen notecards tacked up there, each containing information on various scenes for my current screenplay. It may look like a cluttered mess, but it’s a great way for me to see where my problem spots are, what may not be needed, or what would be best moved around. Besides, it’s really nice having something tactile to play around with.

I feel I owe a lot to Mr. Snyder and the works he put out before he passed. I wish I had been able to take one of his workshops to get feedback on my writing, because I’m sure that would have been immensely helpful. But instead, I’ll just give him a thank you for everything, and recommend the Save the Cat books to any writers out there, regardless of the medium.