B2 High-Intermediate US 120 Folder Collection
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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 Band—the 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 season—the 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
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!"
”Double-time swing."
"No, double-time."
"Double it."
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?"
"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
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 company — who she has
replaced — tries 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 unheeded — an 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 during “the 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?"
"I know it was you."
Nina still doubts herself.
And after seeing Lily flirting with the dancer playing the prince—the prince that rightfully
belongs to the White Swan—Nina'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 around — let alone cue the band — Andrew 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:
"What we do is beautiful, but fleeting."
"Dance is not immortalized like music, poetry or art."
"It doesn't grow old in museums and churches.""
"It lives for now."
"For this moment only."
"And this is your moment."
Nina and Andrew look into the crowd.
The audience is theirs.
Their parents watch, astounded.
This is their moment.
Black Swan and Whiplash use similar story elements in different ways to shape their stories.
In doing so, they each express their own variation on the theme of sacrificing for your art.
Black Swan tells the story of a young woman who sacrifices everything to achieve one,
fleeting moment of absolute perfection...
…suggesting "absolute perfection requires absolute sacrifice."
Whiplash tells the story of a young man who endures intense physical and emotional abuse
from a mentor, but manages to grow from the experience, and in the end becomes…
"…the next Buddy Rich, the next Charlie Parker — Fletcher's only Charlie Parker…"
Which raises the questions: Do the ends justify the means?
Is it true that…
"There are no two words more harmful in the English language than 'good job.'"
Comparing stories can reveal the common elements of structure, and the different ways those
elements can be used.
In this case, we see the obstacles that face the obsessed performer, and how they were
arranged to tell the stories of Whiplash and Black Swan.
Hey guys!
So many of you requested Whiplash, that it was clear that I just had to do it, so I hope
you enjoyed the video.
Let me know what you think I should do next in the comments below.
And finally, a videos like this takes a lot of work, so please consider supporting this
channel on Patreon so I can make more videos like this one.
Thanks for watching.
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Whiplash vs. Black Swan - The Anatomy of the Obsessed Artist

120 Folder Collection
Luke published on April 15, 2020
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