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  • Hi, I'm Michael.

  • This is Lessons from the Screenplay.

  • From the first shots of Whiplash and Black Swan, we see the protagonists immersed in

  • their respective disciplines.

  • Andrew Neiman practicing the drums, Nina Sayers dreaming of dancing the White Swan.

  • Both of these films bring us behind the scenes of a world most people never get to see.

  • Both were relatively low-budget, leaned heavily on their scripts, and led to Oscar wins for

  • great performances.

  • But most importantly, both of these films tell the tale of an artist seeking greatness

  • who must first endure suffering and sacrifice.

  • But how do they tell this story?

  • There are plenty of variations between them...

  • ...jazz drummer and ballerina, gender expectations, style...

  • which give each film a unique personality.

  • But today, I want to focus on the structural similarities.

  • To examine the elements used to tell the story of the obsessed performer.

  • And how their arrangement determines the fate of Nina and Andrew.

  • Let's take a look at Whiplash and Black Swan.

  • Act 1: Inciting Incident, Desire, and Dramatic Question

  • Every story has its first turning point.

  • The moment at which the protagonist can no longer maintain the status quo and embarks

  • on their journey.

  • This turning point is called the inciting incident.

  • An inciting incident creates a specific desire for the protagonist, and starts them on the

  • path to change.

  • In Whiplash it happens very early, on the first page in fact...

  • "I'm sorry."

  • "No, stay."

  • ...with a chance encounter with Fletcher

  • "You know who I am?"

  • "Yes, sir."

  • "So you know I'm looking for players?"

  • "Yes, sir."

  • "Then why did you stop playing?"

  • Andrew gets the tiniest taste of attention from Fletcher, and decides he wants to be

  • in Studio Bandthe best of the best at Shaffer.

  • In Black Swan the inciting incident comes on page eight, with an announcement that the

  • company will be performing Swan Lake this seasonthe very ballet Nina was just dreaming about.

  • "A new production needs a new Swan Queen."

  • "A fresh face to present to the world."

  • Nina wants to be chosen as the new Swan Queen.

  • But as an audience, we only care about the characters' desire if there is something

  • at stake.

  • When we understand their fears.

  • Both screenplays use the characters' home lives to help establish those fears.

  • Nina's mother is a former ballerina who never achieved notable career success.

  • She refuses to let Nina grow up, surrounding her with stuffed animals, toys, and music boxes.

  • Andrew's father is a moderately successful high school teacher and an unsuccessful writer.

  • "Mild-mannered, soft-spoken, average in every respect."

  • "Has the eyes of a former dreamer."

  • For Andrew and Nina, their parents represent the mediocrity they fear

  • and will come to despise.

  • So now that we know what the protagonists are afraid of, we better understand their

  • desires.

  • But they can't just walk up and take their desires, something must stand in their way.

  • This is where the mentors come in.

  • They both wield absolute power, holding the top positions within the worlds of their respective films.

  • "May I?"

  • And most importantly, they give the protagonists a challenge.

  • "Not so controlled!"

  • "Seduce us!"

  • "Not just the Prince, but the court, the audience, the entire world!"

  • C'mon!"

  • Double-time swing."

  • "No, double-time."

  • "Double it."

  • "Faster."

  • "Faster!"

  • The mentors introduce the dramatic question of the films.

  • Will Andrew be able to push himself to play faster and more precisely and fully commit

  • himself to being the greatest?

  • Will Nina be able to stop worrying about precision, shed her child-like innocence, and become

  • the Black Swan?

  • So driven by desire and fear, they each practice harder

  • and more importantly, take their first uncharacteristic action.

  • Andrew asks out the girl he's had a crush on...

  • "Would you want to go out with me?"

  • ...and Nina goes to Brennan's office to persuade him to give her the part.

  • These actions signal that they're ready to start their arc of change.

  • Brennan gives Nina the part of Swan Queen.

  • "Drums, with me."

  • And when Fletcher auditions players, Andrew is prepared and recruited into Studio Band.

  • "No, no, other drums."

  • They've each had their first victory, and their desires expand.

  • But little do they know, this was the easy part.

  • The real challenge is still to come.

  • Act 2: Struggle And Sacrifice

  • The second act of a screenplay is where the protagonists encounter obstacle after obstacle,

  • and in doing so are forced to change in a way they wouldn't otherwise.

  • Both Nina and Andrew are being held back by their old selves.

  • They begin to change, but take it too far, and we see that the path greatness is one

  • of self-destruction.

  • A key motivating factor that both films share is the Threat of Replacement.

  • In a scene not in the final film, Fletcher gives Andrew a hint that he's going to be

  • testing the Nassau Band.

  • Specifically mentioning to have his double-time swing ready.

  • Thus, Andrew first ascends to Studio Band by jumping ahead of his peer, Ryan.

  • But what goes around comes around, and to keep Andrew from becoming complacent, Fletcher

  • brings Ryan into Studio Band.

  • "Am I late?"

  • Suddenly, Andrew's newly-secured spot is threatened.

  • "Look, I can play these charts."

  • "Now is not the time."

  • "I can play it, okay?"

  • "I said NOT NOW!"

  • "If you want the fucking part, earn it."

  • In Black Swan, the threat of replacement takes the form of Lily.

  • Lily is the new girl, and everything Nina is not.

  • The screenplay describes Nina's dancing as follows:

  • "Although her movement is incredibly precise, there's a definite vulnerability."

  • "Exactly as the White Swan should be: fear tinged with melancholy."

  • And Lily's dancing:

  • "…is explosive, exudes sex."

  • Lily embodies the persona she must adopt.

  • The Black Swan.

  • As Nina struggles to dance the Black Swan, Brennan starts to consider Lily as an alternative.

  • For both Nina and Andrew, the Threat of Replacement adds pressure, and drives them to the most

  • important element of Act 2.

  • Descent into Madness.

  • In Black Swan, Nina begins to go crazy.

  • She starts seeing a double.

  • First in a passerby, then in mirrors, then in Lily.

  • The personification of her doubt, fear, and insecurity actively menacing her.

  • Andrew's is a slow descent into madness, and a very different kind of madness than Nina's.

  • The main force of antagonism is Fletcher.

  • From the first day of Studio Band, Fletcher makes it very clear what his expectations

  • are, while being violent and abusive.

  • "Count again."

  • "1, 2, 3, 4--"

  • "1, 2, 3, 4--"

  • "Rushing or dragging?"

  • "Rushing"

  • "So you do know the difference!"

  • Overwhelmed by the pressure and torment, they begin to destroy their old selves.

  • Andrew breaks up with his girlfriend, is rude to his family, and in the screenplay even

  • starts taking pills.

  • Nina disobeys her mother by going out with Lily, where she ends up doing drugs, making

  • out with strangers, and hallucinating having sex with Lily.

  • As they approach the end of act 2, both protagonists are so obsessed that they're completely out

  • of control.

  • Nina's madness crescendos when she maybe-murders Beth, injures her mother, and hallucinates

  • her most vivid transformation into a swan yet.

  • And as Andrew scrambles to get to their second performance, he's met with his pinnacle of

  • self-destruction.

  • The Descent into Madness shows how the destruction of each character's old self

  • can be taken too far.

  • "You're done."

  • But here at the end of Act 2, there is a difference between the films that is critical

  • to setting up their endings.

  • Andrew's car crash forces him to stop his self-destructive behavior.

  • And it's coupled with the revelation that a former student who was also tormented by

  • Fletcher has committed suicide.

  • Nina encounters a similar warning, when the former star of the companywho she has

  • replacedtries to kill herself.

  • But the difference is that in Nina's story it happens early, before she's able to see

  • what the pursuit of greatness can do to you.

  • So the warning goes unheededan important aspect of a tragedy.

  • Thus, Andrew's descent into madness is brought to a halt by the end of Act 2, while Nina's persists.

  • And her pinnacle of self-destruction lays waiting in Act 3.

  • Act 3: Transformation And Perfection

  • The climax of both stories takes place duringthe big performance.”

  • The stakes are high.

  • Mentally, the characters are in two very different places.

  • Because Andrew was forced to take a break from drumming,

  • he's had time to gain some perspective.

  • Nina, on the other hand, has just reached the crescendo of her madness, and is barely

  • keeping it together.

  • But despite these differences, both Nina and Andrew have something in common.

  • They're not ready.

  • There is still a piece of their old selves left.

  • Andrew is still playing for Fletcher, trusting him, when it's revealed that Fletcher has

  • set him up to fail.

  • "You think I'm fucking stupid?"

  • "What?"

  • "I know it was you."

  • Nina still doubts herself.

  • And after seeing Lily flirting with the dancer playing the princethe prince that rightfully

  • belongs to the White SwanNina's double appears.

  • And so as Nina and Andrew have the first taste of their big moment, they fail.

  • "Nina freaks, jerking her body."

  • "David's grip SLIPS."

  • "And Nina SLAMS onto the stage."

  • "It's a horrific moment that feels like an eternity."

  • "On Fletcher's face, the look of a victor…"

  • "As he turns back to the audience we hear…"

  • "…a smattering of polite, muted applause, trickling throughout the theater."

  • "Quiet, half-hearted, pitiful."

  • "No one here has ever seen a disaster quite like that before."

  • Faced with this ultimate failure, the characters finally make the most important choice of

  • their journey.

  • Andrew turns around and walks back on stage.

  • "…before Fletcher can even turn back aroundlet alone cue the bandAndrew launches

  • into double-time Latin."

  • Andrew isn't playing for Fletcher anymore, he's playing for himself.

  • He's confident and in control.

  • Meanwhile, Nina returns to her dressing room to find Lily sitting in her chair.

  • "How about…I dance the Black Swan for you?"

  • Nina attacks her double, who fights back, strangling the life out of Nina.

  • "It's my turn!"

  • "My turn."

  • Until Nina is finally pushed to finish her transformation.

  • It's MY turn!”

  • Both protagonists have destroyed their old selves.

  • The stories answer their dramatic questions as Nina and Andrew deliver the greatest performance

  • of their lives.

  • "It is time for the Coda."

  • "She takes a brief pause, closing her eyes once more, and then completely lets herself go."

  • "She spins with ferocity."

  • "More BLACK FEATHERS burst out from her shoulders and back."

  • "At last, she truly embodies the Black Swan."

  • "The audience looks on, mesmerized.

  • "Too stunned to clap at first."

  • "I will gouge out your mother-fucking eyes."

  • "Fletcher's words only seem to strengthen him."

  • "The band roars into overdrive, the brass blasting away, Andrew giving everything he's got."

  • "Fletcher steps back."

  • "Andrew just keeps looking straight ahead at him."

  • "Unafraid now."

  • "A machine."

  • The storytelling during the finale of Whiplash has a fantastic ebb and flow.

  • After Andrew seizes control, Fletcher's demeanor changes.

  • "…his face now says one thing and one thing only: This is playing he has never seen before."

  • And moments later:

  • "Fletcher almost smiles."

  • "Was this his plan all along…?"

  • Then, Fletcher goes from defeated opponent to helpful ally.

  • "Fletcher stands there, nodding, focused, like a coach at the critical moment."

  • "Waves his hand, pushing Andrew on…"

  • Here, at the end, both films diverge one final time.

  • Nina returns to her dressing room and discovers that in actuality she has not murdered Lily,

  • but instead mortally wounded herself.

  • Her un-disrupted madness has lead to the ultimate pinnacle of self-destruction.

  • But the show must go on, and Nina returns to the stage to perform the finale as the

  • White Swan.

  • Nina's mentor has a line that didn't make it into the final film, but I think is applicable

  • to the emotion of both finales.

  • He's talking about dance, but I think it applies to any live performance.

  • He says: