Kick-Ass vs. the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet

by on Aug.17, 2011, under Movies

I’ve been carrying around an idea for a feature for a long time – it’s a superhero comedy of remarriage, a/k/a “what the world needs now.” With my writing partner on vacation, I thought the dog days would be great to dive in and start drafting. Unfortunately, I haven’t really been able to suss out its bones. The hours I’ve devoted to it have put me in touch with a lot of the characters in very useful ways, but mostly I’ve been too daunted by the next level of detail – the outline – to even keep myself in the chair working.

I watched Kick-Ass last week (Big Josh: it doesn’t suck), but left it out of my Monday Movies gig because I was short on time and I had this exercise in mind. A screenwriter’s “beat sheet” is a list of significant moments – less detail than a list of scenes, more detail than three-act structure. I’ve been in screenwriting classes where we were asked to do ten-point beat sheets. Screenwriter Blake Snyder, known for Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot but better known for his screenwriting manual Save The Cat!, compiled a fifteen-point beat sheet, believing that the exact same beats should fall not only in the same order but arriving at roughly predictable page numbers of a screenplay. (For better or worse, his work has moved from observation to prescription.)

Below the fold, I’ll read the Kick-Ass screenplay by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn (downloadable via Simply Scripts) and see how it matches up to the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, a/k/a the BS2. Each beat says what page Snyder believes you should find it on in parentheses next to it, and I’ll indicate in my discussion where it actually falls. The rule of thumb for translating screenplay pages to screen minutes is 1 page = 1 minute and I’ll indicate how far apart the film and the screenplay get.

(I’m not going on record saying that this or all movies should follow the BS2 exactly — I’ve been trying to internalize the lessons of Scott Myers’s Narrative Throughline and Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey as well, both of which could be used to look at the structure of this and many other movies. I have not been trying to internalize this horse pill. Also if you have my copy of The Writer’s Journey I’d like it back.)

THE BLAKE SNYDER BEAT SHEET

PROJECT TITLE: Kick-Ass
GENRE:Superhero

1. Opening Image (1)

A costume-clad figure stands atop a skyscraper… and plummets to his death. The imagery clearly states that we’re playing with the superhero myth here.

2. Theme Stated (5)

Dave Lizewski’s monologue brings in the theme starting from page 1 with

DAVE (V.O.)

I always wondered why nobody did it before me. I mean, all those comic books. Movies. TV shows... You’d think that one eccentric loner would have made himself a costume.

Then follows six pages of establishing how unexceptional he and his life are, leading to this exchange on page 7:

DAVE

How come nobody’s ever tried to be a superhero?

MARTY

Gee, I dunno. Oh wait, yeah I do.Cos it’s fucking impossible, dickwad.

DAVE

What, putting on a mask and helping people? How is that impossible?

TODD

That’s not a superhero, though. How is that super? Super is like, being stronger than everybody and flying and shit. That’s just hero.

MARTY

It’s not even hero, it’s fuckin’ psycho.

DAVE

Hello? What about Bruce Wayne? He didn’t have any powers.

TODD

Yeah, but he had all expensive shit that doesn’t exist. I thought you meant, like how come no one does it in real life.

DAVE

Yeah, I guess I did mean that.

MARTY

C’mon. Anyone who did it for real would just get their ass kicked. They’d be dead in like, a day.

DAVE

I’m not saying they should do it. I just can’t figure out why no one does. Seriously, out of all the millions of people who love superheroes, you’d think at least one would give it a try.

This debate is the theme of Kick-Ass. It doesn’t quite get stated as a thesis until page 14, when Dave gets his first costume:

DAVE (V.O.)

The comic-books had it wrong. It didn’t take a trauma, or cosmic rays or a power ring to make a superhero.

INT. DAVE’S BEDROOM. NIGHT.

Dave undresses. In his underpants, he really looks like just a little kid.

The camera jibs down to see a UPS PACKAGE. From it, Dave pulls out: a WET-SUIT and a SKI MASK.

He pulls them on and looks in the MIRROR.

DAVE

You are fucking awesome.

He strikes a superhero pose, throws a few martial arts moves.

DAVE (V.O.) (CONT’D)

...Just the perfect combination of optimism and naivety.

3. Set-Up (1-10)

According to Snyder, these pages should introduce every main character in the A story, and suggest that there are “Six Things That Need Fixing” about the hero. It’s a “full-fledged documentation of the hero’s world labeled ‘before’.” In Kick-Ass, we get Dave’s friends Marty and Todd. We see Chris D’Amico, the mobster’s son who will show up as Red Mist. We actually get a good set-up of the romantic B-story, watching Katie Deauxma look right through Dave. Dave’s main problem is that “like most people my age, I just existed.” He’s also incurably horny, and since his mother’s death, he and his father drift through life without too much connection. (In the script, the scene where they talk about cereal ends with the presentation of tickets to “Spiderman 8” – the film wisely cuts out the gift to emphasize that “life just goes on.”) Lastly, he’s an easy mark – he and his friends get their cash and comics boosted by thugs in the alley behind the comics store.

The first 10 pages all belong to Dave. The bottom of page 10 brings us our first look at the D’Amico operation, and our first allusion to Big Daddy and Hit-Girl: “This would be the guy who looks like Batman.” We don’t get to see Damon/Big Daddy and Mindy/Hit-Girl until page 14.

4. Catalyst (12)

Is the catalyst – known elsewhere as the inciting incident – when Dave gets the Kick-Ass costume in the mail on page 14? It’s unusual, because it’s an action of his own choosing. One hypothesis is that Hit-Girl is the protagonist, and Kick-Ass’s viral video is the inciting incident that gets Hit-Girl in the game. I like a provocative reading as much as the next guy, but I don’t buy it, not least because the video may accelerate Hit-Girl’s trajectory but it doesn’t really change it. I think there’s a non-traditional catalyst — the change in Dave’s life comes from within, from his idea. After all, “the comic books had it wrong.”

5. Debate (12-25)

From the moment he puts on his costume, Kick-Ass starts training. On page 22, he crosses the Rubicon: Dave spies the two thugs who laid him out in the set-up, and decides to take-them on. (In the movie this lands at minute 17, reinforcing the Page 17 Rule.)

6. Break into Two (25)

This is pretty clearly the moment where Dave, having almost lost his life to the thugs, decides to intervene on behalf of another man running from two thugs (page 33, minute 30). This leads to the Kick-Ass video going viral, bringing Hit-Girl and Big Daddy into play.

7. B Story (30)

Katie’s renewed interest in Dave starts on page 40, when she asks him to coffee. His friends assure him that it’s only because she thinks he’s gay. In the film the first date is here, but the underlying problem with the relationship gets set up in the debate section – a smart choice, because the mixed success (a girl finally notices him, but only because she thinks he’s gay) reinforces the disunity that helps move Dave into action as Kick-Ass.

8. Fun and Games (30-55)

This is the section of the movie that pays off “the promise of the premise.” The media attention to Kick-Ass falls under this (pp36-40), as does Kick’Ass’s first encounter with Hit-Girl and Big Daddy (pp46-52), though it’s not exactly light-hearted.

9. Midpoint (55)

The midpoint is the middle of the script and the middle act of two (most three act structures imagine a roughly 30-60-30 divide in the three acts. Which totals 110 pages. Keep up.) Here, the stakes are raised: it’s either an “’up’ where the hero peaks (though it’s a false peak) or a ‘down’ when the world collapses all around the hero (though it’s a false collapse).”

The victory, aided by Hit-Girl, against Rasul’s men is definitely a “false peak”. And directly following on page 53:

INT. D’AMICO’S PENTHOUSE – STUDY. DAY.

Frank is on the phone, with Big Joe at his side.

FRANK

I need you to get rid of Kickass.

10. Bad Guys Close In (55-75)

Chris D’Amico hatches a plan to catch Kick-Ass (p61, m57). There’s a setback (due to Big Daddy and Hit Girl’s interference, p68-70 m63-70), but Chris persists in using the Red Mist ruse to find Big Daddy and Hit-Girl (p81, m80) leading to…

11. All Is Lost (75)

Big Daddy’s death (p 93, m91) definitely qualifies. According to Snyder, movies from Star Wars to Elf introduce “the whiff of death” here (Obi-Wan bites the dust in the former; in the latter, Will Ferrell ponders leaping from a bridge).

The whole script is only 104 pages (the film 111m), so we’re running late – my screenwriting teacher George Melrod once explained that he likes to think of movies as three acts followed by a finale, which may make more sense here.

12. Dark Night of the Soul (75-85)

This exchange (p94-97, m92-95) anchors this section:

DAVE

I’m not going anywhere ‘til i know you’re okay. I owe you. If it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead.

MINDY

And if it wasn’t for you, my dad wouldn’t be.

13. Break into Three (85)

On p.97/m.96, Hit-Girl knocks on the bad-guys’ door (to a great Ennio Morricone riff), then cut to:

DAVE (V.O.)

Had I ever been a real superhero? The most I’d ever had to offer the world was good intentions and a slightly elevated capacity to take a kicking.

(a beat)

With no power comes no responsibility.

(another)

Except... that wasn’t true.

The script shows Dave finally jumping off a rooftop, aided by the jetpack. The film keeps the jetpack hidden.

14. Finale (85-110)

The assault on D’Amico’s office, p97-101, m96-107.

15. Final Image (110)

The study has been restored and redecorated, and there’s someone sitting here with his back to us, admiring his reflection in the glass-topped table.

The camera tracks round and we see: Chris. A crazy look in his eyes, wearing a new, more menacing costume. He slips on an evil-looking mask. Clearly a super-hero no more, now a super-villain. He turns to stare down onto the street.

CHRIS

A world full of superheroes, huh? As a great man once said: “wait ‘til they get a load of me”.

FADE TO WHITE.

(p104, m110): With the Joker quote, a final ironic twist on the theme that reinforces an age-old comic book theme: if ordinary people become superheroes, ordinary people will also become villains.

 

Kick-Ass takes a while to get started, then has a compressed first half of Act II, a long second half, and a compressed Act III. Much of the structural idiosyncracies come from the Hit-Girl/Big-Daddy plot, which has much greater development than that of an typical ally. Strong scenes for the romance B-plot and the D’Amico/Red Mist characters also shape the structure.

Here’s why I don’t think the Hit-Girl plot qualifies Kick-Ass as a dual protagonist vehicle: while Hit-Girl’s problem is obvious — she’s been turned into a killing machine by her father at the cost of her childhood — the movie doesn’t really make that a problem for her. Instead, it’s part of Dave’s final puzzle: he has to be physically courageous enough to help her win the final battle, but the normalcy that he carries around for the entire movie is the even-greater gift he’s able to give to her at the end.

In the romance plot, Dave goes from invisible to wrongly perceived by Katie. When, on page 79, he comes out to her as both Kick-Ass and as straight, he’s really happy, and he’s achieved a great false victory — he’s stopped lying to Katie about his identity (on two fronts) and he’s finally getting laid. But that truth comes at the cost of one more lie, to himself: he promises her that he’ll stop being a super-hero, breaking the promise to himself that catalyzed his adventure.

Hit-Girl and Katie highlight what Scott Myers likes to talk about as the protagonist’s move from Disunity into Unity. Dave’s initial attempts at physical courage fall apart because they’re based on lies, and his journey requires him to accept be Kick-Ass while insisting on the value of his true, unexceptional self.

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4 Comments for this entry

  • Joshua Malbin

    Jeez there’s a lot of rules in writing a screenplay. Do you find this kind of structure helpful or does it get in the way?

  • Josh K-sky

    Right now, helpful. I’m still a total tyro at features (I have completed first drafts of two screenplays and gotten stuck in revising both), and I have yet to find that I have any idea so fantastic that testing it against other people’s structural prescriptions don’t help. The key, for me, is to shuttle back and forth between different structures, seeing where different ideas are helpful, rather than choose one altar at which to pray.

    There’s also a dialectic as I shuttle back and forth between story points and getting to know my characters — they come more alive as I get a sense of what their challenges will be at different points in the story.

  • Treehousedaddy

    Having just watched the film last night and met the film editor a couple of weeks ago, your article is particularly interesting. I always think the aim of the scriptwriter is to deliver the most perfect theoretical screenplay, which is done through multiple re-writes. Then the director and actors bring it to life visually, which is another re-write. Finally the film editor takes the material that actually made it to celluloid (or digital, as here — no detail :-( in the highlights) and turns it into something better yet — hopefully. In what areas did you feel this is a good example of the process, and where did it not work?

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