As you well know, Hollywood - and the film community at large - lost an unsung hero last week, when screenwriter/author/mentor Blake Snyder died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 51.
Blake’s website has been flooded with tributes and comments, sharing the Tao of Blake - that which made him so special and unique - with the world.
Blake's death was the ultimate Catalyst in the publishing of this blog. Blake and I had many discussions about it - I emailed to him what I had planned to be my inaugural post, “Married to Your Story”. Five minutes later, my phone rang. I glanced at Caller ID, and answered:
“Bonjour! Comme-ce vas?”
“I LOVE THIS BLOG!!” he shouted. “Love it, love it, love it. Can I use it?”
Just a few weeks earlier, Blake was helping me with a rewrite on one of my script options. We were going over Act 2 … it needed to be taken up a notch, up to eleven, as Nigel Tufnel would say. Okay, to be honest, two notches. Maybe three.
Blake closed his eyes for a moment, and then:
“Aha! Move your Midpoint to the end of 2! Pile on the death moments! Bam, bam, bam! Now, all you have to do is rewrite Fun and Games!!”
I promptly shot him “the look”; he burst into laughter, and bounced out of the room telling Jose “I just got the stink eye!!" as he went on a quest for caffeine.
Blake was doing for me what he did for so many in Hollywood, quietly working, behind the scenes, helping me to shape my career, directing my work, even my life. He was more than a mentor to me; he was my great, great friend, and my life will never be the same without his presence. Jeremy Garelick recently said about Blake, "“Blake’s massive contribution to the movie business will be forever unknown…he’s the uncredited partner to countless screenwriters.”
Never were words more true.
Rather than write a traditional tribute in memory of Blake, I’ve decided to post about the phrase that started this whole movement, this reimagining of the story structure paradigm – Save the Cat!, and how deeply integral it is to the story building process.
What is “Save the Cat”? In its simplest form, it is that moment when, early on in the film, our hero/heroine takes some sort of action, like saving a little kitty, which makes us want to go along on the journey with them. On the blogsite Noveldog.com, there is a terrific illustration of this principle from the film HANG ‘EM HIGH:
However, Save the Cat! is more than a simple principle. Blake was no lightweight, he possessed a massive intellect, and no one understood structure better than he did. Save the Cat!, like all of Blake’s principles, contains depth and resonance … and deserves further exploration.
I recently read an article challenging the principle; the author believed that an audience need not “like” a hero. Fair enough, and agreed, but he missed the point. The Save the Cat! moment is not always crafted for an audience to like their hero. It can, instead, weave in a subtle whiff of empathy, of understanding for our character, using an action or moment taken that we can all relate to.
Let’s look at some Cat! moments, in which the Save the Cat! principle is firmly entrenched – and yet, so deftly woven in that you almost don’t know it is there:
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
In the first few minutes of the film, Clarice Starling, our heroine, runs the gauntlet at the FBI training center. She’s called in to meet with her supervisor. She enters an elevator filled with huge, young, testosterone laden men. She looks quite tiny and vulnerable – this young woman in an impossibly male world. That’s your Save the Cat! moment. A glimpse into her soul. Vulnerability. That’s what it is all about.
Following the teaser of the initial shark attack, we find Chief Martin Brody in bed with his wife. Through bits of dialogue, we discover that Brody has a pathological fear of water – and lives on an island. That duality within Brody is quite funny – and endears him to us immediately.
THE VIRGIN SUICIDES
One of my favorite films, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES is beautiful, complex study of the effects of sexual repression on adolescent girls. I’ll be blogging more about this film in the future. For now, I’ll limit remarks to a great Save the Cat! moment. Cecilia, the youngest of the virgins, has just attempted suicide. In the doctor’s office, the doctor says “What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” Cecilia replies “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year old girl.” That bold smack of irony, that in your face moment bonds us to Cecilia, and through Cecilia, to all of the virgins.
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING
Anti-heroes are not immune to Save the Cat’s! claws. One of the challenges of a film such as THANK YOU FOR SMOKING is to take a reprehensible character – such as a snarky, self-congratulatory tobacco lobbyist also known as “Yuppy Mephistopholes” – and make the audience care enough about him to stay in their seats. We get a bit of a double bump here; number one, Nick Naylor is such an absolute over-the-top bullshitter, we can’t wait to see what he pulls next. What keeps us there, however, is a glimpse into his heart and soul. His son Joey has come over to stay for the weekend; the two watch a movie late at night. Joey stretches out and drowses, sprawled over his father like a contented pup. Nick oh-so-tenderly strokes his son’s hair. He truly loves this kid, and for that, we not only forgive him, we cheer him on.
And there it is. See? As Blake would say, “It’s EASY!”
Create your own Save the Cat! moment. Establish a character and a set-up. Determine what it is about this character that will take us along for the ride. You can, of course, save a cat … or you can try for something subtle and layered. It's your story. You decide.
coming soon .... "Married to It"