Beautiful Boy – Where Does Screenplay Structure Come From?
This week we’re going to be talking about Beautiful Boy by Luke Davis and Felix van Groeningen.
This is a particularly interesting film to discuss in light of our last podcast where we talked about Destroyer and the use of flashbacks in a movie, because Beautiful Boy is also built around flashbacks, but tends to earn those flashbacks in another way.
So, we’re going to be looking at Beautiful Boy to talk not just about flashbacks but also about structure, How do you make those structural decisions in your film? Where does screenplay structure actually come from?”
If you have seen Beautiful Boy or read reviews of Beautiful Boy, you know that the response has ranged wildly from those who think it is the most beautiful film ever made, to others who feel like it only scratches the surface of the addiction issue, who’ve even compared it to a beautifully produced PSA.
Whether you were deeply moved by the film or felt like it only scratched the surface for you, there’s no doubt that the way the structure of Beautiful Boy is constructed grows out of its theme.
Beautiful Boy comes at the issue of addiction in a much different way than a movie like Half Nelson or Requiem for A Dream. It is actually adapting two different books one non-fiction memoir written by David Sheff called Beautiful Boy, and one written by his son Nic Sheff entitled Tweak.
What the film is basically doing is taking these two non-fiction works and squeezing them together. But it is still primarily looking at the issue of addiction through the eyes of the father played by Steve Carell.
And in looking at the father, it basically makes the assumption that we see towards the end of the film when David and his wife Karen find themselves at a 12 Step meeting for parents of addicts, where the sign proclaims, “I didn’t cause it. I can’t control it. I can’t fix it.”
The movie comes at the character of David Sheff from that point of view. This isn’t a movie about how the pitfalls of parenting lead to addiction, This isn’t a movie about how that empty space in Nic that he describes in the film got created in the first place.
This is a movie about a guy who is a good parent, who has a son who is a good kid, who are both fighting the same issue and both failing.
Whether you agree with the psychology and the sociology of this premise or not, that’s the thematic place that this piece starts from. We aren’t looking at bad fathers and bad sons. We aren’t looking at ugly people addicted to ugly things. We’re looking at a loving family torn apart by addiction.
This doesn’t prevent the movie from getting deep or complicated in some places. For example there’s a wonderfully complicated scene where David Sheff smokes a joint with his son Nic, not knowing that his son is addicted to a whole array of drugs, thinking that he’s creating a special moment at his son’s request.
There’s a very complicated moment when David buys cocaine himself and has a one night cocaine binge–he’s trying to feel what his son is feeling– or maybe just trying to escape.
So, coming at these characters in this way isn’t limiting the ability to go deep, but it does cut a lot out.
This is true whenever you’re using theme.
Theme is a way of looking at your screenplays structure and saying, “What am I going to show and what am I going to not show?”
“What am I going to dive deep into, and what am I going to skim over? Where am I going to get serious and where am I going to focus my attention?”
The truth is in a two hour long movie, you can’t do everything, so you have to choose the things that you want to do.
You have to choose where to point your camera and where to point your words so that you know what you’re looking at and what you don’t want to look at.
Some people are going to love the choices you make: the people who’re wrestling with the same theme.
In this case, the parents who see themselves as great parents with great kids who are victims of a horrible disease.
And other people aren’t going to like your decision, for example, the people who’re interested in the psychology that creates addiction, who’re interested in the big mistakes, or the sociology that creates addiction.
In Beautiful Boy, the camera shows us some things but doesn’t show us others from the true story.
We’re told that Nic was primarily addicted to crystal meth. In fact, that’s the first thing that his father says in the very first scene of the movie. But most of what we actually see is Nic using heroin.
And while Nic certainly did use heroin, the choice to switch the drug he’s using switches the behavior, and switches our feeling about Nic, allowing us to see him through a different window.
There was a period where Nic was prostituting himself for drugs. There was a period where he was attempting robbery (although he says that he was never very good at it), There was a moment where (in “Requiem For A Dream” style) he actually almost did lose his arm.
But these moments are cut out of the film in order to focus on what’s beautiful about this boy. in order to focus our attention not on the ugliness of what an addict is willing to do, but on what happens to a beautiful person when a terrible addiction takes them.
Similarly, in writing his memoir, David Sheff went through a very interesting experience. There was a period where he experienced a brain hemorrhage and actually had to learn to write again. In his words, it was like “his brain was a broken suitcase full of scrambled items that he had to fit together.”
But the brain hemorrhage– that part of his story– is entirely left out of the film, as is what caused his divorce in the first place or how that affected the children, or what the parental rifts between father and son were outside of this horrible addiction.
And whether you agree with it or not that’s an artistic choice, that’s the writer choosing not to lie, but focus the camera– not on the full complexity of the relationship, but on what’s beautiful about these two people.
And that’s mostly what we get to see, we get to see Steve Carell play the dad that we all wish we could have—the father who’s going to be there, who’s going to be understanding, who’s going to be full of love, who’s going to create so many beautiful magical moments for his children in this beautiful, wonderful house with his wife who’s full of art. And though he isn’t a perfect person, he’s always a good dad.
And similarly we’re going to see Nic, who may be in the thrall of a horrific addiction and may be making some really terrible choices, but who in his moment of lucidity is the boy that we all wish we could have had.
You may agree with this decision or you may disagree with this decision, but this is a creative decision built out of theme.
That theme trickles all the way down to each little moment of how this film is shot, the beauty and the nostalgia of each shot, and it also trickles all the way up to the title, Beautiful Boy.
The whole film is built around this decision, and that’s why the structure of this film is so much different from so many other addiction movies we’ve seen.
Which brings us to the flashbacks.
While we never do see the brain hemorrhage that occurred to David Sheff during the writing of his book, we do get the feeling of that experience–of a brain that’s like “A broken suitcase full of scrambled items that have to fit together.”
One of the big choices made structurally in Beautiful Boy is that we aren’t going to watch the film in linear order, nor are we going to watch a traditional flashback structure.
Rather, present and past are going to swirl and cycle around each other, good things and bad days, getting on the drugs, getting off the drugs, moments of hope, and moments of despair.
And it is built this way for a reason, because this is a story about a father chasing his beautiful boy, and a son chasing that first moment that he took drugs and felt like his life went to Technicolor.
Beautiful Boy is a film about two different people chasing this feeling that they once had that they lost.
We’re going to watch Steve Carell’s character, David, chase his son. We’re going to watch his wife chase their son. We’re going to watch his ex chase their son. We’re going to watch all three of them become addicted to their son’s addiction, become addicted to the need to help him.
They’re going to spend the whole movie chasing this child, until finally; they reach the moment where they stop.
And similarly we’re going to watch this child chase that feeling, chase that first high. We’re going to watch him struggle. We’re going to watch that desire come over him again, and again, and again, every time it looks like he’s going to get clean.
And we’re basically tracking his journey towards that stopping point as well, even though it is a stopping point we never know if we’re going to reach. How is this built structurally?
Like in any father-son relationship– like in any family relationship– when we react in a moment we aren’t just reacting to that moment, we’re reacting to every moment we’ve experienced around it; we’re reacting to every memory.
In Beautiful Boy, when David Sheff is chasing his son, he isn’t just chasing the 18-year-old version of his son. He’s chasing the 5-year-old and the 10-year-old, and the 3-year-old version of his son. He’s chasing every beautiful moment that they ever had.
And that chase isn’t always in alignment with the reality that’s happening now, just as the chase for Nic isn’t always in alignment with the reality of what’s happening now.
The way that that chase is created in Beautiful Boy is with a series of flashbacks, and these flashbacks are given order and structure through a very simple approach–which is to keep coming back to the same locations.
There’s a risk when you build a movie like this of everything just spiraling out of control, of the film feeling like a big mushy circle without any forward motion.
There’s a risk of it feeling more like a portrait of a world rather than the movement of a journey.
And there’s a part of the theme that requires that feeling, but the piece also has to work as a film. And this is what you want to think about as you’re building your structure for your own movies.
A lot of people think that structure is some kind of formula of what has to happen on page 10 and what has to happen on page 30 and what has to happen on page 90, what has to happen in Act One and what has to happen in Act Three.
But nothing could be further than the truth.
Getting frustrated with formula, other writers reject structure entirely!
They feel like, “Oh structure is just a game for the commercial filmmaker. They tell themselves that if you’ve got a beautiful character driven story you don’t need any structure at all– you just need to capture these moments.”
But that rarely works either. The formulaic structure is going to lead you to a predictable, probably boring, and probably not very truthful film. And the no-structure is going to lead you to a beautiful hodgepodge of images that don’t actually hold together.
So, if you want to learn to build structure, you have to understand what structure actually is, how you actually find it, and how you actually learn about it.
Structure grows out of your theme. Structure is the container for your movie that only your movie could be contained by. And structure actually occurs on two different levels.
On the first level we have Primary Structure.
Primary Structure is the story of how your character experiences the movie, the choices that your character makes that lead up to their big change.
Secondary Structure, on the other hand, is the story of how the audience experiences the movie, the way that the audience experiences and understands the movement of your character’s journey and tells themselves the story of how your character changed.
But both your character’s structure and your audience’s structure– both your primary structure and your secondary structure– are both built around the same principle: characters making choices that change them.
What this means is that though your film is likely, if it’s successful, to have some version of a Seven Act Structure (for reasons that I discuss in my Write Your Screenplay Class and in a lot of other podcasts), what actually happens in each of those seven acts varies tremendously from film to film.
The way those acts are put together in a screenplay varies tremendously from film to film because it grows out of the theme, it grows out of the writer’s intention.
In this movie, the theme is “Beautiful Boy,” and every single thing is feeding that theme.
It’s about a beautiful boy and it is about a beautiful father. And structurally, it’s building up to the moment where dad stops chasing, and mom stops chasing, and stepmom stops chasing.
That moment is beautifully dramatized in an actual chase scene.
There’s a gorgeous moment when Nic’s stepmom, Karen, takes off in her van, chasing Nic and his girlfriend who’ve just broken into the house trying to get money.
We’re watching this beautifully shot, very simple chase sequence, until finally she chooses to stop the car and let him go.
It’s such a beautiful way of dramatizing and punctuating the change for that character. And what it allows us to do is get that feeling that everything that we’re cycling, everything that we’re circling has suddenly stopped. We feel and we process that change.
And because the movie is built thematically, out of that we get to see Steve Carell’s character, David stop.
We get to see the first scene when Nic calls his dad and asks to come home and his dad chooses not to take him in. We then get to see the moment where Nic’s mother, David’s ex-wife Vicki, comes to a stop. When she tries to push David to keep trying to save their son’s life, and when she hits the roadblock that he isn’t willing to do it anymore.
And because the movie is cyclical, we then move from that stop to a new moment that… I’m not going to ruin for you…but which is filled with all the ambiguity of addiction, all the questions of addiction, all the complicated trust issues around addiction.
We’re basically watching a movie that both doesn’t have structure and also does– that’s both the cyclical feeling of addiction, the cyclical feeling of parenthood, the feeling of everything happening at the same time.
And we’re also watching a movie that has a very clear structure, that has seven acts of the parents chasing the child in different ways, until the moment that each of them stop.
And this is the beautiful thing about structure, structure is the hardest thing to do but when you finally get it right, it always boils down to something simple.
In fact, you need that simple structure in order to free your subconscious, creative mind to fill it in, to actually explore.
You need something so simple that you can keep it in your head or write it on a flash card, so that it can be the guiding spirit of what you’re building, rather than being the complicated thing you keep having to come back to look up.
The journey to find that is a complicated one, and it often feels like a yellow brick road. But it grows out of very simple concepts, the same concepts that we talk about here and in our classes, those simple concepts around how we build change.
Beautiful Boy has a flashback structure, but those flashbacks don’t exist to tell a story to the audience, they exist just like the flashbacks in Destroyer, to illuminate the theme of the piece, to drop you into the feeling of a good dad with a good son, to amplify the beauty in Nic even as we’re seeing the ugliness, the beauty in David even as we’re seeing the anger, the beauty in all of these characters even as they struggle.
And that theme exists based upon the beliefs of the writers, highlighting the things that matter. The idea for these writers that this is about a terrible disease from which parents and children need help.
So, on the character level, the flashbacks exist, the circular structure exists, in order to create a feeling that relates to the theme. And though the structure of Beautiful Boy is different than the structure that we see in most movies, ultimately it takes us through the same movements.
The tools that the writer uses to do that are:
First, punctuating those turning points, taking the internal feeling turning points and extrapolating them into dramatic moments where we can feel the big choices as they get made on the outside, rather than having to understand them on the inside– allowing us to actually see them happening in front of our eyes.
But they also use a very simple idea which is location.
By simply coming back to the same places, we end up creating a structure that we can understand. In fact, the story of Nic’s fall in Beautiful Boy can be told basically in three scenes at the same diner.
There’s a scene early in the film in which David goes to meet Nic at a diner that mattered to him. We see in flashback, as he’s talking to Nic, (who shows up high, of course and says some of the cruelest things that he’ll say to David). we see that as David’s there, he isn’t just interacting with Nic, he’s also experiencing a previous scene at that diner at the same time– a moment when father and son shared a beautiful, innocent connection at that diner. That’s scene number two, mixed in with scene number one so we can feel them happening at the same time.
And the third time we come to that diner is towards the end of the film. Nic is there alone, in the depths of his addiction. And, at the same time, he’s doing the beautiful thing which we’ve always wanted him to do– he’s finally writing something.
A few moments later, in the bathroom in that diner, we’ll see Nic in his darkest moment, his moment where he’s most alone.
And so, through these three little scenes, at this one place, we’re able to take what would feel like a mush of past and present and future, and instead get a structure by coming back to the same place in different ways.
We tell ourselves the story of what happened when dad stopped chasing his son, we tell ourselves the story of a movement from total connection to total aloneness. And then in the final act of the film we find ourselves on the other side.
And this is what’s really beautiful about the film. Beautiful Boy film is building both Primary Structure and Secondary Structure at the same time.
It is creating a feeling for the audience of a dad who has experienced past, present and fear of the future– all at the same time.
Of a son who is experiencing past, present and fear of the future all at the same time.
Of a family experiencing past, present, and fear of the future all at the same time.
And, at the same time, by using locations that matter, by using images that matter, by coming back to reflections of the things that we’ve seen before, and by extrapolating the inner feelings into conscious external choices, the film is creating a feeling of structure for the audience, a feeling of Secondary Structure that allows us to interpret this fugue of emotions in a way that has meaning and movement, and that brings us to the thematic conclusion that the writer wants us to experience.
*Edited for length and clarity