Inside Llewyn Davis Beat Sheet
Thanks to Tom Reed for this brilliant analysis, available as a downloadable pdf after the introduction below.
The latest Coen Brothers movie has divided audiences and critics. Some call it a poetic and profound masterpiece; others find it dull, off-putting and depressing. Considering the paltry box office it’s clear mainstream moviegoers have ignored it. Along with the Academy. Why? What’s the explanation? Is this greater or lesser Coen Brothers?
When I found out that a cat figured prominently in the action, I was immediately intrigued by the prospect of applying the BS2. Given the narrative prominence of a feline (an orange tabby, no less), this was a must-do. Not that I ever thought the Coens consciously applied it themselves – they’re too iconoclastic for that. They go their own way. On the other hand, they are master craftsmen at the height of their powers, which is why I was irresistibly drawn to see where and how the worlds of Blake Snyder and Joel and Ethan Coen intersected, if at all, and if that exploration could shed light on the movie and its performance. I think it can.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a small, somber film, especially by mainstream standards. It feels like a character study, as Oscar Isaac, the actor portraying Llewyn, occupies virtually every frame, and doesn’t do much more than bounce around NYC looking for a place to sleep and a few bucks, playing some tunes along the way while alienating family and friends wherever he goes. Though unmistakably character-driven, it is far more than a mere character study. Its genre, from an STC perspective, is straight up Golden Fleece, a classic example of the “Solo Fleece” where the heart of the story is a journey the Hero takes alone, and a lesson he can only learn (or fail to learn) by himself. Despite its modest scale, this story (like Llewyn himself) has sizable thematic ambition.
Download the Inside Llewyn Davis Beat Sheet Analysis.
- Michael Klein
Just want to add…you can’t arbitrarily make up new rules to fit a story. Either the beat sheet doesn’t work always for scripts that are not by-the-numbers, or you didn’t figure it out properly. If you are making an addition to the beat sheet then that’s one thing. But Blake was very clear about his 15 beats. One catalyst. One. Anything else and you are missing it or it does not work.
- Alan Smithee
Blake used to call the 2 catalysts “the double bump.” There’s one catalyst and then an extra push to get the most reluctant protagonists out of act 1.
Thanks for all of your concern and discourse. This is how we all learn, no?
Blake explains the “Double Bump” or “twin catalysts” on page 26 of SAVE THE CAT! STRIKES BACK. Two catalysts. Two.
- Caroline Lawrence
It’s a brave man who applies a Hollywood template to a movie by the famous pair of indy iconoclasts, but you’ve done it, Tom. It’s a testament to your skill – and Blake’s structure – that it works so well.
One of the reasons I think most people didn’t like the film is that the story is not a “Transformation Machine” for our protagonist. In Save the Cat Strikes Back, Blake emphasises how satisfying it is for the audience or reader to see a character change. But Llewyn ends exactly where we found him. The caterpillar remains a miserable caterpillar!
If the hero learns his life lesson too late – or not at all – it’s a tragedy. “Hang me, oh hang me,” indeed!
The Coens knew what they were doing and had the cojones to write a bleak tragedy, most of the rest of us writers don’t have that luxury.
You’ve made me admire this film, if not warm to it. Thanks, Tom!
- Tom Reed
After reading your entry I felt like the curse of Roland Turner had followed me out of the movie, turning all my efforts relating to poor Llewyn to sh!t. I’m disappointed you don’t find the beat sheet helpful or accurate. Of course, it’s all just my opinion (not BJ’s, btw), and I don’t claim any particular authority. It was an exercise in speculation, just like all of these beat sheets are, unless the beat sheet happens to come from the author him/her/themselves, and that is clearly not the case here. As for my “incorrect” application of the structure beats, it’s true, I may be way off base. I’ve read other STC blogs where I disagreed with the blogger’s interpretation and sometimes it irked me. So I understand if you’re irked if our opinions differ, above and beyond my attribution of two catalysts which you clearly have an issue with. But if you’ve read Blake’s books and blogs then you would know he wanted the template to evolve. He actively encouraged experimentation, and looking at things from a fresh angle. The BS2 is inherently flexible to begin with – he never thought of it as a formula, but rather guidelines to depart from when necessitated by the specific needs of a particular story, and more importantly, by the point of view of the individual author. Every story is unique. I found Blake’s designation of the Home/Work/Play aspect of the Set-Up extremely helpful in determining the Hero’s context and the Six Things that Need Fixing. Once it was on my radar (long before beating out this movie) I started seeing it more clearly, and started seeing how plot threads relating to those different aspects of the Hero’s life would track through a story. Sometimes they converge and are the same beat, but sometimes they’re different beats altogether. Once you see them as separate it can be a very helpful distinction. Thus my two catalysts, which I think is accurate and also in keeping with the spirit of Blake’s method and attitude about analysis and story creation. I so wish he could weigh in here! I believe he would disagree with your assertion that the BS2 “either works or it doesn’t” which strikes me as a narrow way of viewing things, both from the standpoint of creating stories and understanding them. I also did not approach this blog with any kind of agenda; it was a process of discovery. I didn’t want to “make it fit.” I fully expected this movie to depart radically from the BS2. I was as surprised as anyone that it seemed to conform so closely, and the ways it departed struck me as perfectly apt. I think it would be a wonderful exercise to do the same thing with AFFLICTION and TAXI DRIVER, and about a hundred other movies. If you get to beating those out sooner than I do, I’m eager to see the result. In fact, I challenge you to do it and share it here. Let me know how it goes.
Caroline, thank you so much for your kind words and insights, expressed with awesome efficiency. Word for word, your analysis is far stronger than my blog. “The caterpillar remains a miserable caterpillar.” That’s it in a nutshell. Only the Coen Brothers are powerful enough to get that kind of movie made in America, at this level of production. And God bless ‘em for it.
Michael, I admire your passion. I worked with Blake since 1986. He called me his mentor in the acknowledgments of Book 1. I edited all 3 books and all his blogs, etc., etc., and started the STC business with him. Blake never wanted his beat sheet, genres and other principles to be anything more than “a language” to talk about films. That was and is the long and the short of it. He would be freaked out that others seem to look at his legacy as some sort of a religion that they have to defend according to their interpretation. Of all your comments, it might surprise you that the one about “one of your experts… (I’m paraphrasing) who admitted they were wrong” is the most troubling. Yes, we have people who were mentored by Blake who do indeed offer opinions. But none of the people or their opinions are rigid. Because Blake wasn’t and wouldn’t want us to be. We’re ok being wrong. We adore being corrected or hearing another possibility. We’re not curing cancer here — we just want to talk about movies. And using Blake’s terms and ideas are a great start. So take our beat sheets as one person’s interpretation of a movie… and let’s keep the dialogue going!
A wonderful film met with a lovely analysis, detailing some, if not all, of the reasons why my girlfriend and I love this film….there’s not a lot of money in it”. Like you say Tom, if there were (perhaps) it would be a very different film altogether.
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Your analysis is not helpful nor is it Save the Cat. If you have two of this and two of that certainly that is not the Beat Sheet or those splits ie; two catalysts would be called something else.
Here’s a simple test BJ to see if you really understand the Beat Sheet.
Do one for Affliction and do one for Taxi Driver. I actually tested when of your experts with Affliction and they got the catalyst wrong and admitted to me that they did.
I think STC is a terrific extension of Syd Field etc.. Give one a little more to grasp the basics of storytelling. But what I’m finding, especially since the death of Blake, is that most of the folks involved with STC are about broad soulless mainstream garbage. And those are always the easiest to fit into a beat sheet. But when it comes to what we now call independent film, or just really good scripts, the beat sheet folks struggle to fill it out properly.
Go do Affliction and Taxi Driver. Let me know how it goes.