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MEET THE READER: The Beaver and the Importance of Deciding (and the Pitfalls of Not)

Ray Morton using The Beaver to illustrate how even the best ideas by the most talented people can go awry if the storytellers don’t decide.

Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray's full bio.

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Lawrence Kasdan once said that the most important thing a screenwriter must do is “to decide.” Many writers think that the most vital part of the job is to come up with good ideas, but it’s not. Coming up with good ideas is important, of course, but it is only the start of the screenwriting process. Figuring out where to take those ideas is the key part of the task. A good idea – for a story, for a character, for a scene, etc. – is one that contains dozens (if not hundreds) of potential directions in which that idea can be developed. But if your script is going to be dramatically focused and coherent (which it needs to be), you can ultimately only choose one of those many potential directions to go in. Which means you must decide. However, many writers don’t (or won’t) decide. Unable or unwilling to let go of a beloved notion, even if it doesn’t fit in with the overall conception of the piece, many scribes try to push an idea in two or more directions at once. It never works – scripts and movies whose authors don’t decide wind up being not quite one thing and not quite another, which means they ultimately aren’t anything at all.

Case in point: The Beaver.

I recently saw this 2011 film that was written by Kyle Killen and directed by Jodie Foster, who co-stars alongside Mel Gibson, Anton Yelchin, and Jennifer Lawrence. I had wanted to see the movie when it was first released, but it didn’t last long in theaters (a victim of mixed reviews and Gibson’s then still-fresh notoriety) and I wasn’t able to catch up with it on home video until now.

The premise of the film is quite original – an extremely depressed toy manufacturer decides to commit suicide. His attempt fails and he gets knocked on the head. When the toymaker awakens, he comes across a hand puppet of a beaver. He puts the puppet on and begins speaking exclusively through it. This allows the man to express all of the thoughts, feelings, assertiveness, and confidence that he can’t as just his depressed self. With the help of the beaver, the toy manufacturer begins to turn his life around. It’s a very promising notion – fresh, intriguing, and extremely offbeat. It’s the kind of concept I want to see succeed because, as we all know, the current film business is in desperate need of some dazzling originality. Unfortunately, the movie just doesn’t work, a problem that is due mostly, I think, to the storytellers’ failure to decide.

Script EXTRA: Components of Screen Storytelling - The Protagonist

(NOTE: The comments that follow are based solely on the finished film. I have not read Kyle Killen’s original screenplay, so I cannot say for sure where the problems I am about to discuss originated – they could have resulted from choices made during the writing process, but they also could have come from choices made during filming or editing. Therefore, instead of referring solely to the writer, I will refer more broadly to the storytellers. Make no mistake, though – no matter who was ultimately responsible for creating these issues, they are writing problems).

There were three main things the storytellers of The Beaver failed to decide:

1. Which story to tell

The premise of The Beaver suggests a story about Walter Black – the depressed toy manufacturer who dons the beaver puppet. And that is the story the movie sets out to tell as the picture begins. But before too long, the film introduces a second story – that of Walter’s teenaged son Porter, a bright but overly-contained high schooler who makes money by writing papers for his fellow student. He is hired by Norah, the class valedictorian, to write a graduation speech for her. He falls in love with her and they begin a challenging relationship. By itself, this is an interesting tale, but except for the fact that Porter is Walter’s son, it has nothing to do with the narrative promised by the premise. It is, in fact, an entirely different story. I will guess that this storyline popped up as the storytellers were working on fleshing out Porter’s character and they felt it was too good to lose, but by not deciding to focus solely on telling either Walter’s story or Porter’s, they ending up with a movie that keeps jumping back and forth between each of them. As a result, it ends up being the story of neither.

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This indecision over whose story to tell doesn’t just make it difficult to sort out who the protagonist of the piece is, it also seriously undermines Walter’s character. In a story about a man so depressed that he resorts to dealing with the world through a hand puppet, it is imperative that we have as deep an understanding of that man as possible – we need to know who he was before he became depressed, why the idea of speaking through a puppet works for him, and how it helps and ultimately transforms him. However, because the film devotes so much time to Porter, there isn’t enough time for us to really get to know Walter. We end up seeing him mostly from a distance and so never learn the things about him we need to learn in order to fully invest in his plight.

The failure to decide also severely weakens Walter’s climactic catharsis. A film telling Walter’s story should climax with Walter finally coming to terms with his demons. Once that happens, the movie should wrap up with a quick resolution and allow us to leave the theater (or turn off the disc or the stream) still engrossed in Walter’s triumph. The Beaver does climax with Walter’s transcendence, but as soon as that occurs, the movie then presents the climax of Porter’s story. By the time Porter’s story is finished, Walter’s has receded far into the distance and we leave the theater (or turn off the disc or the stream) feeling not much at all.

2. What type of story to tell

The premise of The Beaver clearly has comedic potential – a guy walking around with a beaver puppet on his hand is funny. On the other hand, this is also the tale of a mentally ill man who attempts suicide, so the dramatic possibilities are also obvious. So which way are you going to go -- are you going to make a whimsical comedy about a magical crazy or a black comedy about dysfunction or a serious drama about depression and suicide?

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In regard to this issue, the storytellers of The Beaver did make one clear choice – they opted not to make a black comedy. But they did not choose between making a whimsical comedy or a serious drama and so attempted to do both. But they did not make a comedy/drama. Instead, they made a movie that is an eccentric comedy in some scenes and a heavy drama in others (and for an extended sequence in the third act, a full-on Gothic horror film as a recovering Walter does battle with his now-antagonistic alter-ego and things reach their logical but terrifying conclusion). While many of the individual comedic and dramatic scenes are quite good, the overall piece is a mishmash that leaves us uncertain as to which elements to take seriously and which to not.

3. What reality the story takes place in

Every movie has its own reality. That reality must be clearly defined in the first act of the story and strictly adhered to throughout the piece. This means that you have to decide what the reality of your story is, but the storytellers of The Beaver did not do this.

The movie begins in a reality very close to our own – Walter becomes depressed, makes a suicide attempt, and then decides to don the beaver puppet. While the last is a bit of a stretch, these are all things that could happen in the real world. His family and co-workers react to his bizarre behavior in the ways we all would – with confusion, fear, patience, embarrassment, and irritation. However, as the movie progresses, the movie’s reality becomes broader and more sitcom-ish – Walter creates a beaver-related toy based on his struggles that (rather incredibly) becomes a cultural sensation and transforms Walter into an inspirational self-help guru with a worldwide following. This is the sort of thing that happens in many types of movies, but not in the type of movie that this one starts out as. The movie then takes a turn into heightened Grand Guignol in which Walter’s inner demons manifest physically before the movie finally returns to relative reality in its final scenes. This inconsistency in the story’s reality means that it actually has no reality at all. And without a clear reality to contain and define it, the tale’s potential impact never coalesces.

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Please understand – my purpose in writing this column was not to do a hit piece on The Beaver or its maker. I have a great deal of respect for the filmmakers and for their creative ambitions for this project (and in fact there is much to recommend in the film, including some excellent scenes, psychological astuteness and compassion, and terrific performances by Yelchin and Lawrence). Instead, my purpose was to illustrate how even the best ideas by the most talented people can go awry if the storytellers don’t decide. It’s a problem that affects many films and many more screenplays by amateurs and pros alike. When it comes to creating powerful scripts and movies, a storyteller’s greatest tool is choice.

Copyright © 2017 by Ray Morton
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