Up in the Air Beat Sheet
Today’s beat sheet is provided by our Coolest Cat – screenwriter, teacher and author of “Your Screenplay Sucks!”, William Akers. Big shout out to our longtime friend – and Cat! colleague. Thanks, Will!!!
Nominated for 6 Oscars, with a total of 51 award nominations and 44 wins, “Up in the Air” is a magnificent expression of post-modern middle-aged angst. Adapted for the screen by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, this beautiful film delivers a powerful metaphor on the price of “freedom” – a life lived alone.
Let’s beat it out!
Opening Image: TITLES OVER images of cities moving far below us, seen from an airplane. Then, series of employees being fired. Each has a little story and each one is worse than the one before. The first time we see Ryan, the firee asks him, “Who the fuck are you, man?” “Excellent question. Who the fuck am I?”
Theme Stated: Many of the fired people talk about their families. Ryan has no family. “To know me is to fly with me. This is where I live.” Ryan has no home. Travel is his home…(so let’s see if that is going to change!)
Set-Up: [The separate strands of the hero’s world are established. We meet his sister, his girlfriend, his motivational speeches, his work life. And that’s it. Nothing else.]
Ryan fires strangers for a living.He travels ALL of the time.He likes it.He likes the perks.He likes traveling efficiently.He tells us, via NARRATION, that he is at home when he is traveling.
He also gives motivational speeches. “How much does your life weigh?” He carries a backpack up on stage and talks about stuff people have in their lives… all the things you value, in the backpack. “Moving is living.” He tells the audience to imagine waking up with nothing… and that it’s exhilarating.
His assistant tells him he got phone call from his sister Kara… about their sister, Julie’s wedding. And has an invitation to speak at GoalQuest in Vegas. That’s a big deal. (It’s something Ryan wants.) He talks to Boss, who tells him he wants him in Omaha at the end of the week, for a game changer. Won’t tell him what it is.
His sister, Kara, is the glue that holds the family together. They need his help for Julie’s wedding… “You’re awfully isolated the way you live…” She wants him to take photos of a cardboard cutout of Julie and Fiancé in Vegas. He hates the Luxor…
Ryan spent 322 days on the road last year and43 miserable days at “home” – a bland, bland, bland apartment, empty, empty and devoid of ANY personality.
Ryan receives a cardboard cutout of Julie and Fiancé in the mail. There’s a girl across the way who he used to sleep with, but she’s started seeing somebody. “Good to see you. Seems like it’s been a while, this time.”
B Story: [The B story must affect the A story or it shouldn’t exist. Eventually, this B story will really affect Ryan and his desire for a human connection…]
Very early, even before Catalyst… Ryan meets Alex (a woman!) at a bar, discussing the perks of the different car rental programs and flying stories. “Their kiosk placement blows.” He has a Concierge Card from American Airlines, which impresses her. She has 60k domestic miles. He won’t tell her his total number. He has a number that he wants to hit… won’t reveal it. “There’s nothing cheap about loyalty.”
They talk about being in the Mile High Club, which she has done repeatedly… and during the day.“I’m really flexible.”They have sex, and schedule (barely) another rendezvous.Alex:“I think I should go back to my room so I can wake up in my bed.”“That would be the ladylike thing to do.”
[At this point, all the story elements are in place: Ryan’s love of flying and simulated hospitality. His job. His Boss. His hope to speak in Vegas. His new girlfriend. His sister and the other sister’s wedding. Time to get this sucker rolling!]
Catalyst: Omaha. The head office. All the workers are in one room for the first time. A new girl from Cornell… Natalie Keener. She has a great new idea: fire people via the internet… She uses Ryan’s dialogue to “fire” the practice guy. Natalie is very cute, very young, terribly efficient. This is the “game changer” and will save the company 85% of their travel budget… and everyone on the road gets to come home. [Not good news for our hero.]
Debate: Ryan tells his boss that this is a terrible idea. They argue about it. Natalie comes in… Ryan tells her to “fire” him… They have all kinds of conflict over the fake firings. “Before you try to revolutionize my business, I’d like to know you know my business.” They don’t get along well. Boss wants Ryan to show Natalie the ropes. Ryan says no. [Luke Skywalker turns down the Call to Adventure.] “I’m not a fucking tour guide.” Boss tells him he has to take her with him.
So, Ryan packs up for another road tour. This time, he’ll be with Miss Perky Personality. And the cardboard cutout.
Fun and Games: At the airport, Ryan sees Natalie hugging her fiancé goodbye. She has a massive piece of luggage that she’s going to check. “You willing to throw away an entire week on that?” He buys her a new one, one she doesn’t have to check. He makes her throw away half her stuff and teaches her how to travel efficiently.
Natalie creates a workflow chart to teach people how to fire people.She is all numbers.Ryan feels they are giving people hope.
At a job site, he tells Natalie to watch and listen. Another montage of people getting fired. “How do you sleep at night?” She watches, sort of horrified, as these are real people. She steps in to try to help and the firee crushes her, tells her to go fuck herself. Ryan does an ace save and brings the guy around. Ryan’s a miracle worker. Tells the guy to go follow his dream of being a chef. “If not for you, do it for your children.”
Ryan tells Natalie he wants to hit 10 million miles. He’d be the seventh person to do it. “More people have walked on the moon.” She would GO someplace if she had all those miles.
Break into Two: Natalie asks if she can fire the next woman. The woman hears what Natalie says and is confident of her plan: she’s going to jump off a bridge. Natalie freaks.
Alex calls looking for a rib place in Atlanta. “I am the woman you don’t have to worry about.” “Think of me as yourself, only with a vagina.” She agrees to push her schedule to meet him…
Montage: Natalie is getting overwhelmed by firing people. She talks to her boyfriend… not knowing when this road trip is going to end.
Alex and Ryan go into a hotel room for more fun sex.
More cities.More firings.Natalie is upset by it all.Ryan asks if she’s okay.
Miami: Ryan gives another backpack lecture. This time, instead of putting stuff in your backpack, you put people. Finally your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend… He says the relationships are the heaviest components in your life. Natalie watches him while he tells people they don’t need to carry that weight. “The slower we move the faster we die, we are not swans. We’re sharks.”
Bad Guys Close In: [Natalie is one Bad Guy. She hammers Ryan about his lack of a life. Ryan’s sister, Kara, is another Bad Guy. She hammers Ryan about his lack of a life. Alex is the third Bad Guy, but she’s different. Alex is the shining road to happiness that he slowly realizes he wants. He would not realize this without being hammered by Natalie and Kara. So, let’s watch the Bad Guys slowly tear down the wall Ryan has built around himself.]
Ryan and Natalie debate about marriage and kids. He never, ever wants either one. She thinks it’s bizarre. He doesn’t see the value of it. Asks her to sell him marriage. Love, stability, someone to talk to… he says he’s surrounded be people to talk to. He feels we all die alone. She cries. Says her boyfriend left her. She cries like a baby in the hotel lobby. Just as he takes her in his arms, Alex walks up. Alex suggests they have a drink.
In a bar.Natalie says her boyfriend broke up with her with a text message.Alex says that we date guys who are pricks and are surprised when they turn out to be pricks.Natalie followed this guy to Omaha… She thinks success won’t matter without the right guy.She could have made it work… Natalie asks Alex what she’s looking for… “Not an asshole, would be nice.”“Someone who wants kids…”“Some hair on his head.”“Nice smile, just might do it.”Ryan listens.The women discuss “settling.”Because of their ages, they have different points of view.Ryan listens.
Tech conference:The three of them go to the conference.Steal badges.Natalie’s says Jennifer Chu… Go to the party.Natalie drinks.They all dance.A guy asks Natalie to dance.They have their picture taken surfing.
After the dancing, Ryan and Alex talk. Natalie does karaoke. Ryan gives Alex “the key to his place,” his room key.
Back end of a yacht: Alex says she doesn’t get to act like this at home. Asks him about his backpack thing, and his not wanting to be tied down. He says he’s thinking about emptying the backpack… and he’s looking at her deeply. They kiss. [The dude is getting smitten!]And the power goes out on the yacht!
The partygoers wade to shore and go back to the hotel barefooted.
Alex leaves the hotel early, she has a meeting in Cincinnati. He feels bad because she’s leaving. He tells her he really likes her. She likes him too… He smiles as she goes. [This is a big step in the assault Alex makes on Ryan. His defenses are crumbling.]
By the pool: Natalie apologizes for what she’s not sure she said.
Harbor: Taking pictures of the cutout… Natalie asks about his relationship with Alex. “It works for us.” Natalie asks if there is a future there… he says he never thought about it. She says he’s an asshole. Natalie nails him… asks him if his “cocoon of self banishment” has set up a way of life that keeps him from having a human connection. She tells him he’s a 12- year-old. He drops the cutout in the water and falls in trying to fetch it.
Hotel room: Ryan dries the cutout.
Detroit: Ryan warns Natalie that the Detroit guys are tough. The Boss is there, online, and wants them to fire people… and wants Natalie to do it. She says she’s good. She fires a guy… “They send a fourth grader to can me? What the fuck is this?” Ryan watches her, sees how tough this is for her. It’s brutally difficult for her and for the guy… The guy cries and they can hear him in the next room. Meanwhile, Boss is watching. The firee finally goes and Ryan says that she did good. That guy was #1 of a long, long list.
Ryan talks to Boss, says he’s proud of Natalie… Boss says they’re pulling them off the road. “We’re going home.” “For good?” “Good job.” [Natalie seems to have succeeded in killing Ryan’s dream of staying on the road.]
Ryan RSVPs to the wedding. Airport. Natalie apologizes for what she said about Alex. Natalie asks if he’s going to be okay in Omaha. Galvanized by what he’s been thinking, Ryan turns and leaves… to grab another flight… “something I gotta take care of…”
Midpoint: Vegas: Alex holds the cutout in front of the Luxor. Ryan asks if she can go with him to Northern Wisconsin this weekend… asks her to be his date at the wedding. He wants a plus one, and wants it to be her. She smiles. [Wow. Huge tectonic shift for our hero. He has asked her to go with him to a family event. Giant step for Ryan toward what he needs, which is commitment and a family and a real life. Because Midpoint is either a false high or a false low… this one is a false high. He’s going to fall hard and long because he’s made this decision.]
Wisconsin hotel: Ryan and Alex check in. They meet Kara, Ryan’s sister. A bit of confusion about if Alex is Ryan’s “girlfriend”… and we learn that Kara is separated from her husband…
Rehearsal dinner… little sister Julie meets Alex.She has a ring with a tiny diamond and she loves it.Ryan sticks his pictures of the cutout on a huge board with a hundred pictures… all his effort gone to waste.They couldn’t afford a honeymoon, so they had the pictures travel for them.
Fiancé tells Ryan about his investment… it’s about a home, and a need for a home.Fiancé asks if Ryan is renting the one bedroom… nope, but still doesn’t own a home… but he’s okay with that… more thinking by Ryan…
Ryan likes Fiancé. Ryan asks Kara if he can walk Julie down the aisle… Jim’s uncle is going to do it… “He’s been really supportive.” This gets to Ryan.
Day: Ryan shows Alex where he went to high school. The front door is locked and he gives up, but she credit cards a window, and they’re in. The room he took geography in. He’d been a jock…photos of him in the trophy case. Shows her where his first fight was. Stairs where he used to make out. They kiss. They watch basketball practice. She’s happy she came here. So is he. Emergency call from Kara.
All Is Lost: [The Bad Guys have got Ryan in their merciless grip. Ryan, the non-family man, now must argue FOR marriage and against loneliness… He is in the process of making more steps toward an eventual character change. But it’s a slow, painful, and well-earned process. He will have to struggle mightily to get there…]
Church: Fiancé has got cold feet. Ryan, the one who cares not a whit for marriage, has to tell Fiancé how great marriage is… Kara tells him to go in and save the day. “Basically you don’t exist to us. I know you want to be there for her, well there it is. This is your chance.” Ryan goes into a Sunday school classroom. Fiancé is reading The Velveteen Rabbit. “Powerful stuff.” Fiancé wonders what the point of it all is: get married, and then you die.“You seem happier than all my married friends.”Ryan gives him a speech while Kara watches through the door.“Your favorite memories, the most important moments of your life, were you alone?”Ryan tells him that you need a copilot.Ryan sells him.“Go get her.”
Fiancé tells Julie he needs a copilot. They cry. Kara tells Ryan, “Welcome home.”
Alex helps Ryan dress. The wedding. A nice song plays over silent footage while Julie gets married. Ryan holds hands with Alex. Reception. Ryan dances with Julie, then Alex. They get all cuddly on the dance floor and afterwards.
Airport: Ryan escorts Alex to her gate. “When am I going to see you?” “You’re going to have to come visit…” “You’re not going to change on me are you?” “Same guy. One address.” “Call me when you get lonely.” “I’m lonely.” She chuckles
Dark Night of the Soul: [It’s all happening quickly now. The agony is piling up on Ryan faster and harder. He’s about to make his huge decision. He’s about to face death. Loneliness = death.]
Omaha:Back to his one-room hellhole of an apartment.No clothes in the closet.No art on the walls.
The office: Natalie’s business plan is happening. The workflow / computer firing thing is what the company is going with. Ryan is checking on GoalQuest… Back at his house, miniature liquor bottles and he has a drink looking at his lousy view.
Vegas: GoalQuest. He’s thinking. He has his backpack. He is invited to speak. Huge crowd. Last year, he flew 350,000 miles. The moon is 250. Starts his backpack speech. Talking about the little things… he stops… thinks… and walks off stage. And he’s smiling and running…
Break into Three: [Finally, Ryan knows what he wants, and that’s Alex. He’s happy. He’s actually smiling. Like Shirley MacLaine in THE APARTMENT and Billy Crystal in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, he’s running toward the one he loves and he is happy because he knows what he wants. He feels great. We feel fantastic for him! So… what happens? Wait for it…]
Ryan runs into an airport… barely gets on a flight. Flies into Chicago. Rents a car in a hurry. Snow. Drives into town. Runs up to a house… knocks on the door of a brownstone… he’s all smiles, anticipating… She answers… “So, I was in the neighborhood…” and he hears her kids and her husband, “Hey honey, who’s at the door.” “Just somebody who’s lost…” [Holy moley, she’s married!]
Finale: Hotel room: Ryan drinks. Alone.
Airport:Once again, Ryan passes through the airport.Checks in.Calls Alex, gets her in a car in a parking structure.Alex says her family is her real life.“I thought I was a part of your real life…”She thought their relationship was perfectly clear, that he was an escape.She asks him what he wants… he can’t tell her… “You don’t know what you want…. I’m a grownup.If you would like to see me again, then give me a call.”
Airplane: Up in the air, Ryan finally hits ten million miles.Sam Elliott, chief pilot, sits with him.Says he’s the youngest ever to hit 10 million. Gives him the card.“We really appreciate your loyalty.”“So where are you from?” Ryan gestures to the plane: “I’m from here…”
Omaha office:He calls American and wants to transfer his miles to his sister.He wants them to be able to go around the world.It’s a million miles.Boss comes in… the woman in Wichita jumped off a bridge.Ryan asks about Natalie.She quit… with a text message.They are sending the people back in the air.“We’re going to let you sail and sail.”
Natalie has a job interview. The guy wonders why she moved to Omaha. “I followed a boy.” She got a hell of a rec letter from Ryan. The guy gives her a job.
Ryan’s little apartment. Empty.
Montage: Fired people talking about their families. Their purpose. Money doesn’t do it for them. Their kids are their purpose, their family.
Final Image: Ryan walks up to an airport flight board… sees all the destinations. Tells us in V.O. how most people will see their families at night… and they’ll look up and see the stars, “and one of those lights, slightly brighter than the rest, will be my wingtip, passing over.”
[Ryan had a shot at happiness, and character change… but he lost that chance. So, he’s still up there, in the air.]
“Up in the Air” concludes our 2009 Oscar nominated Beat Sheet Breakdowns. While we will continue to update our collection of Save the Cat! Beat Sheets, we’d like to hear from you. What articles, information do you want to see at the Save the Cat! site? Let us know! Meow!
Wow! I just wanted to say THANK YOU for posting this! This and some of the others are helping me to become so clear on how save the cat can work for less formulaic films. Thank you STC and Mr. Akers and Blake, I wish I could have taken your class.
- Al Rodriguez
Incredible breakdown of a great movie with note-perfect casting. One teeny quibble: I’d move the Break Into Three up a little bit to Running Out of the GoalQuest XX presentation. Why? Because the moment in which Bingham goes to knock at Alex’s door in Chicago is one of the best examples of the High Tower Surprise moment in the Finale that I’ve ever seen.
So, the Finale actually begins as Bingham catches the flight to Chicago; he’s going to gather his team and mount his assault on the castle that is Alex’s brownstone and rescue his princess and make his life complete. But when she opens the door and he sees the kids, hears the male voice in the background, that’s a SHOTGUN BLAST to the heart.
Excellent work, sir!
William, your beatsheet sucks! Just kidding, thanks for the breakdown, and for the amazing book.
- Melody Lopez
Al… excellent commentary…
Storming the Castle… my favorite part about all movies…its the part of the movie I regret having eaten all my pop corn during the previews!
- Al Rodriguez
Just to continue the thought — what’s essential about the finale is that Bingham’s primary plan is to make himself complete through Alex. In Blake’s five-point, storming the castle finale, this is a combination of gathering the team and executing the plan.
Then he gets the high tower surprise: Alex is married with children, and her sole interest in Ryan is as a frequent flier friend (“I’m just like you with a vagina”).
Ryan’s dig down deep moment comes in the scene with Sam Elliot. He realizes that the elite status he craved was just that, status, without any deeper meaning.
Now his goal shifts — he wins not by filling his personal need and completing himself, but by doing a selfless thing for his sister, donating enough miles for her and her husband to take a round-the-world honeymoon. Additionally, he writes the brief letter of recommendation for Natalie, and its brevity is succinct and impressive enough to secure her the job she always wanted.
Ryan has gone from selfish to selfless, and now the road is truly open for him, the world of possibilities illustrated so beautifully in that iconic shot of him staring at the departures wall.
Hmmm. Maybe your breakdown is accurate (and thanks for it) but it’s an unsatisfying act 3 because the hero doesn’t do anything. He writes a letter offscreen. Talks to Sam Elliot. Announces that he lives an empty life. Chooses not to act. Maybe this is why this script doesn’t work for me.
The All is Lost moment and the Dark Night of the Soul moments, as you list them, are about some other couple, not George Clooney.
Seems a better ‘All is Lost’ would be when he finds the woman he now loves in married. Then what? Act 3 should be him finding a new way forward – and I for one find the idea that he chooses to live his life as he once did, despite his deep growth and emotional state – quite depressing, claustrophobic and suffocating.
(WARNING: HURT LOCKET SPOILER FOLLOWS:)
As it stands – Up In The Air is almost the same story as Hurt Locker. A guy is addicted to a lonely, self destructive way of life (despite the fact that his job is necessary) and despite being pulled away by the promise of something more moral and fulfilling, goes right back to it. Sticks to his old way of life. This is not what I go to movies for.
Not saying Clooney should have met a new girl at the end, but structurally he is a zombie passenger in Act 3. Dull to me. Pretty good movie through the midpoint IMO.
- Melody Lopez
Sam… I hear what you are saying…especially when you compare this movie to the Hurt Locker, which is the only of the two I’ve seen.
From what I’ve read via this posting… I think I can speak with some authority that the journey these men seem to take… is an inner journey that does transform the men who ultimately resolve that some outer needs aren’t gonna change… the addiction to the adrenaline and the Up in the Air lifestyle
Isn’t that kind of real though? I mean… don’t most people keep working certain jobs and for certain employers cause its what they have now…how much faker would the movies have been if we saw their “after world” with those two men doing something else?
Neither of those movies “were those kind of journeys”….
at least that is how I see it…
Yes. I agree with that. They are movies that mirror real life. But lack the meaningful transformation that Blake talked about, IMO, and they are the kind of movies that leave me empty.
I don’t go to movies to see real life, where nothing changes. I go to be uplifted and transformed by art in a way that is better than real life and is more transcendent. I love seeing Tony Stark transform into Iron Man, grow a conscience and use his entitlement and wealth for something greater. I love seeing Juno realize she has to be the adult and act, when surrounded by grown up babies.
For me, to see characters like George Clooney see the truth only to ignore it, is one of the most depressing things I can think of watching. Maybe it’s true but it does not rouse my soul. Basically it’s like watching Luke Skywalker hearing about the force and his greater calling and destiny and then he just does nothing and never leaves his desert planet. “Thanks, I’ll just farm moisture”…. :(
- William M. Akers
If George Clooney had bought a house at the end, it would have saved the movie.
- Al Rodriguez
I didn’t get “see the truth only to ignore it” at all. Bingham sees the truth, his life is an empty backpack. It’s not about an easy answer, a life-partner, a house, two cats in the yard. He’s staring at the wall of departures the way a writer stares at a blank piece of paper in the typewriter: Where to? What now? He’s already had the major arc of experiencing empathy when he’s always been a self-centered bastard. But now, he has to take what he has and make something new. This is not an opening for a sequel; it’s about possibility and that, in spite of it all, bastards can make their own luck once they’ve seen what bastards they’ve been.
Al, that’s a great description of the end of the movie. What’s missing is a decisive act, and IMO a meaningful act 3. Inner transformation is good for a novel, not a movie. Someone explained that him looking at the wall of departures shows he’s grown. That’s real subtle if there at all. His narration tells us he hasn’t changed.
Great posts, all! Keep em coming!
I have many thought supporting Will’s breakdown, and how the five point finale fits beautifully… Just my .02, my thoughts only.
Again, these tools are for Writers. Analysis is great! Woo hoo! It is fun and we love it, but ultimately, STC! exists for the scribe, not the film analyst.If the film analyst can apply it – wonderful! But our work is with the writer, who provides via the screenplay, the most excellent template of the film!!! Learning tools!
This is just me, but one thing that I was taught and it helps me to see more clearly – watching the film is swell, but writers should read the screenplays. For THAT is where the structure lies, can be discerned and applied.
I love watching movies! As a writer, however, it is the screenplay that speaks the form!!
- Captain Perry
Excellant advise Anne,It is really cool to put that screenplay on the coffee table, pull out “Save the Cat Goes To The Movies”and then slip in the movie disc.I stop the movie on all the “Beats”,review the “Script” and “The Cat” until I know what makes the flick tick.Thank God and Blake for”The Cat Books”
Like Anne I think on the Origination side and am using the “Cat” form to write a movie.How can you help me?
Just discovered ‘Ssve the Cat.’ I absolutely love these Beat Sheet Breakdowns. Please, please, please keep ’em coming! I would especially love to see Beat Sheet Breakdowns on older movies. Thanks!
Spiro, Check out Blake’s 2nd book, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies. It’s got 50 beat sheets for 50 “older” movies.
- Steve Wimer
I loved this movie, and I enjoyed reading the beat sheet breakdown.
- Steven Leonard Taylor
Thank you so much for continuing to post these Beat Sheets, it’s very much appreciated.
As time goes on and you continue to add more is there any chance your team could set up a wiki to make finding resources such as these a little easier?
I know there are a few options out there, the one I like best is http://www.wikia.com/ but there are others to choose from. It’s easy to create one, it allows the community to add their own; and it would makes searching for a particular beat sheet a lot easier than going through the forum and the blog.
Thanks again for posting these.
Excellent movie, great breakdown. Anybody know where I can find the script??
Please can we begin getting these each week!? These are fantastic and helpful! Love them!
- Wilton Blake
I’m writing a script where the character realizes he needs to change, but then does very little to actually change. Near the end he reverts hard core back to old ways. The result is he must die for his actions. But the final image will demonstrate a significant change, but like in Up In the Air, a change that comes too late to save him. Sort of a tragedy. Can we classify this as a Golden Fleece/Solo Fleece? Ryan is seeking the fleece of freedom but learns a different lesson – one he chooses not to follow.
- Matt R
I noticed that in the “Bad Guys Close In” section, sitting on the edge of the Yacht when Alex and Ryan kiss, we see the Yacht is called “Three Dog Night”. I don’t know whether this is an in joke from the art department about the three of them at night, or a reference to the Three Dog Night song “One is the loneliest number…” either way, I like to think its a subtle visual addition.
Thank you so much for these – beating out great, successful movies, particularly those which *superficially* appear to be ‘Indie’ and defy the mould, is hugely informative and useful. The only better way to continue absorbing this is using the beat sheet to actually write!
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Another wonderful beat sheet pounded out. I tip my hat to Will Akers. His beat sheets are always easy to follow!