Destroyer: How To Use Flashbacks In Your Script
This week we’re going to be talking about Destroyer by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi.
There are so many things that we can discuss about Destroyer, so many different ways that we can learn from this film.
We can obviously talk about what a tremendous actor brings to a movie, looking at performances by Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Jade Pettyjohn and this tremendous cast, and how the specificity of a performance can amplify the quality of your writing, and bring your writing to life.
And we can talk about how finding that specificity in your writing can allow these kinds of performers to find those nuances– how this writing and directing team created a role that allowed Nicole Kidman to put together such an interesting performance, the kind of performance we don’t normally see in a mainstream film.
We can talk about, “Hey it is about darn time that we got to see ‘Dirty Harry’ with a woman!” How to update old concepts, like the dirty cop procedural, for a modern era, how you can look at films that were created in the past and think, “Okay, how would I update that?” And how sometimes you can draw inspiration from genres that have existed for a long time simply by asking yourself, “How do I make this genre new and relevant today?”
One of the places Destroyer most strongly succeeds is in its use of images. So we can talk about how the writing team of Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi worked with Karyn Kusamato do a tremendous amount of silent storytelling.
If you think of the first sequence of this film, we have a dead body, we have $100 bill with ink on it, and we have a strange tattoo of three circles.
We then see Nicole Kidman, who plays Erin Bell, the” Dirty Harry” of this particular film, forcing her way onto the crime scene. Then we’re back at work with Erin and we see that she has her own ink-stained $100 bill, and immediately we know something else is going on.
And finally, we see an image of three black dots on the back of Nicole Kidman’s neck, and we know that she’s tied to this crime in a way that we don’t understand.
So another lesson that we could draw from Destroyer is how as a storyteller you can use images to deepen the story in the quickest and most efficient way possible.
If your script is a mystery, like Destroyer, sometimes simply by creating images that even you don’t totally understand, you can start to create that feeling of that tangled web that you then have to unravel, and by doing it you can create a tremendous amount of excitement.
Digging further into that specificity of images idea, there’s a really wonderful scene in which Erin Bell, Nicole Kidman’s character, after being in a big fight and another bender, wakes up on the floor.
This is an image that we’ve seen a million times in movies—the drunk character waking up on the floor after a rough night.
Whenever you have one of those images that’s “normal” or that someone could describe as normal, you want to look at that image and you want to think, “Okay, let me just keep looking deeper until I find something that I didn’t expect.”
In this case that thing we didn’t expect is an ant walking across the floor. And that ant walking across the floor takes this image that could be a cliché, and turns it into a specific image.
So we can talk about the power of visual storytelling and how to look deeper into your own images.
Those are all things that I wish I could do in this podcast and that I’ll get deeper into in future podcasts.
But the big thing that I want to talk about when it comes to Destroyer, is the use of flashbacks in a script.
What Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi and Karyn Kusama are doing in Destroyer is really freaking hard.
We have two parallel storylines happening in different times, with the same actors playing characters young and old.
We have the integration of those two storylines, as well as a little structural surprise that I’m not going to spoil for you—a twist in the way that time works in this thing that’s extremely exciting.
In a lot of ways, the engine of Destroyer is the same as the engine of True Detective.
In True Detective we have the Matt McConaughey character who we’re watching in the past and in the present, and we’re trying to figure out, “How did this guy from the past end up becoming this guy from the present? How did this crime change this man in a way that he’s barely recognizable?”
It is that tension between present and past that builds the interest in Destroyer. But it is also that tension between present and past that has caused most of the criticism of the film. It’s the unique structure that has worked for the people who have enjoyed it–and there are people who have really flipped out about this movie.
But the people who have struggled with it have found that that intersection of past and present has been a little muddier, even a little bit confusing.
So I want to talk about how to deal with flashbacks. I want to talk about how to deal with multiple storylines in your script. And the truth is we could do 25 podcasts on this—this is such a complicated issue. But I want to start at the beginning.
To talk about flashbacks, we need to talk about what flashbacks actually are. And we need to talk about how to know if flashbacks actually work in your script.
A lot of screenwriting gurus will basically just tell you, “Don’t use flashbacks at all, flashbacks are always bad.”
If you read Robert McKee, he’ll tell you, “Don’t use flashbacks, totally wrong.”
And yet, a lot of the greatest movies of all time have depended on flashbacks.
If you took flashbacks out of Destroyer, there’s absolutely no doubt you’d have a lesser movie. If you took flashbacks out of True Detective, there’s absolutely no doubt that you’d have a lesser limited series.
Flashbacks aren’t wrong, but they’re hard.
So, I want to talk about a couple of things that you can use when you’re thinking about flashbacks in your own screenplay, to know whether you’re likely to succeed or whether you’re likely to struggle.
Generally we get in trouble when we use flashbacks in order to provide information for the audience, explain something confusing in our script, dig deeper to help people understand a different layer.
When we’re using flashbacks for exposition or commentary, when we’re using flashbacks to take care of the audience, we’re almost always going to run into trouble.
On the other hand, when we’re using flashbacks to take care of the character, flashbacks can often be a very powerful tool. How do you know if you’re taking care of the audience or you’re taking care of the character when using flashbacks in your film?
First thing, you can think about your own language—that little voice that you hear in your head all the time as you write.
Are you thinking, “I’m going to set this up, I’m going to lay this in, I’m going to show them this, I’m going to show that, I’m going to layer this?”
If you’re thinking like that, you know you’re thinking about the audience.
You know you’re thinking about the audience because you aren’t layering things or setting things up for your character just like in life, you don’t have a conversation to set up what’s going to happen in your future. That’s something you do looking backwards—that’s something you do when you try to tell the story to somebody else who is listening.
So if you hear those kinds of words in that little inner voice in your head, you know already that you need to refocus the way you’re thinking about flashbacks.
If on the other hand you feel like the character is flashing back, if you feel like, “This happens and at this moment the character can’t help but remember this thing from the past,” then the flashback is much more likely to work in your screenplay.
And it is even more likely to work if—on the other side of that—when we come out of the flashback, we notice that the character made a different choice, that the character made a different kind of decision based on what happened in the flashback.
Because when you start to work like this, instead of pushing backwards in time, the flashbacks will start to push forwards.
This is the thing about movies: movies move. Movies move forward. Movies are always moving forward.
So when your flashback pulls us back to the past to explain something to the audience, what happens is we lose our momentum. Our screenwriting becomes more like school, more like an explanation, more like an analysis.
When flashbacks drive the story forward by becoming structural—by allowing the character to have an experience, remember something, and then make a new choice based on that memory—when our flashbacks work like that, then suddenly flashbacks become a part of the structure of your piece. They become a part of your storytelling.
And they also become a lot more like real psychology—a lot more like the real world— which is exactly what happens to us all the time. We have an experience, it brings up some long repressed memory we’re either consciously or subconsciously aware of, and suddenly we find ourselves making some kind of crazy choice that we never would’ve made before driven by that memory.
So when you’re working with flashbacks, the first question you want to ask yourself is, “Am I having the flashback or is the audience having the flashback or is my character having the flashback?” And if the answer is your character, then you’re already on the right track.
The second question you want to ask yourself is, “Can my character make a different decision on the other side of the flashback?”
Does the flashback cause a change in the character, in which case the flashback is likely to be structural, or does the flashback kind of just lay there? Does this flashback happen and show something cool but not actually affect what’s happening in the present day story?” That’s the second question.
The third question is even more important. And this is how you really know if you’re cheating or if you’re telling the truth. You want to ask yourself, “Could my character have flashed back at any other time?
Could my character have had this memory five minutes before or five minutes after or is this the only time? Did something happen that made it absolutely necessary that right now the character has the flashback?”
If the answer is that the character probably really could have had the flashback five minutes before or five minutes after, that this flashback could’ve happened anywhere, you know that the cause of the flashback isn’t structural, just like you know if that character comes out of the flashback and doesn’t make a different choice you know the effect of the flashback isn’t structural.
What you’re trying to do when you use flashbacks in a script is to get both the cause and the effect of the effect of the flashback to be structural.
And when I say “structural” I mean you want both the thing that leads you in—the cause—and the things that lead you out—the effect—to force a change in the character’s trajectory.
You want to feel like the flashback couldn’t have happened before or after; it had to happen now. And you want to feel like the character made a different choice having recalled the memory. And in this way, the flashback will start to move your story forward.
Now what’s happening in Destroyer is even more complicated, what’s happening in Destroyer is so hard, because the flashbacks in Destroyer aren’t traditional flashbacks.
Traditionally, when we think of flashbacks we think of an isolated event. We think about one thing that happened, like a memory from our past. We don’t think of flashbacks like structure.
So, for example, if we think about a movie like Sophie’s Choice, the character goes on this huge journey, she has to choose between two men—one who represents life and one who represents death—and she’s madly in love with death even though she wants to choose life.
And then there’s this incredibly powerful moment when we flashback and we realize that during World War II, Sophie had to make this choice between two children. One of her children was going to die and one of her children was going to live, and she had to choose one. And what a powerful and sad flashback that is!
But you can see that that flashback exists in Sophie’s Choice as an independent little movie-let, as an independent element inside that movie. It doesn’t have a structure of its own.
If you think about True Detective, and if you think about Destroyer, you’ll notice that the flashbacks do something very different—if you think about Blue Valentine, that’s another example of a story like this, if you think about Westworld that’s another story like this.
In these movies and TV shows, both the past story and the present story actually have a structure of their own, meaning that we’re actually watching characters go on a journey of change both in the past and the present. These flashbacks are actually adding up to little movies inside the movie.
And so when you build a movie that isn’t just independent flashbacks, it is actually two different layers of structure. You have the “A story” happening in the present and the “B story” happening in the past.
But you’re actually not telling two stories you’re actually telling three stories! The third story is the story of how past and present connect, how the “A story” and the “B story” weave together to create something more.
And then if you look at a movie like Destroyer, you actually have one more layer of complexity which is the trick ending– a whole other layer of structure that’s being built for the audience, that the characters are aware of, but that we aren’t aware of, which makes it even harder.
So you have an incredibly complicated script, and an incredibly hard script. And one of the things that makes this even more challenging is that the more stuff that happens in the past, the fewer pages you have for the present, and the fewer pages you have for the past. So when you start to build this way you have to be incredibly efficient.
And that’s why those concepts that we were talking about at the beginning of this podcast, like using visual storytelling rather than dialogue, become so freaking important. Because if you’re using long dialogue scenes, you’re in so much trouble! You’re just never going to have the time to do something that’s this complicated. You’re going to run out of pages.
What is happening in Destroyer is actually the structure of three or maybe even four movies, built in interwoven structural flashbacks, speaking to each other in multiple layers.
Movie one is the story of how Erin Bell went from being a young, naïve cop who was on her first undercover assignment, how she fell in love with Chris, played by Sebastian Stan, how these two connected and how these two broke bad, how these two went “Donnie Brasco” and became a part of a bank robbing cult, how they started to want the money and not just want to bring the gang to justice.
In the present, you have the story of Erin trying to track down Silas, the psychotic leader of that group, but really you have an internal story of Erin having to come to grips with who she really is, and who she really has become.
And most importantly you have her relationship with her daughter, which is really the heartbeat of this piece. The most powerful scenes in this piece happened between Erin and her daughter Shelby played by Jade Pettyjohn.
So, like in any movie, all this plot stuff doesn’t really matter, just like in life all our plot stuff doesn’t really matter. In Destroyer, just like in life, what really matters are the hot relationships—her relationship with Chris, her relationship with Shelby, her relationship with her ex-husband, her relationship with Silas.
And those relationships the way that they spread across these two different storylines that’s what the movie is about.
So when you’re telling two levels of structure or three or in this case four different levels of structure—the fourth being how that information is presented to the audience in order to create the trick ending surprise for us—it’s likely that you’ve very quickly going to feel overwhelmed.
You’re going to want to plan it all out perfectly, but the truth is, in early drafts you can’t actually totally plan all of this.
The first draft, the early drafts have to be instinctual. You have to feel that flashback tagging at you, you have to feel the instinct to come back.
In an early draft, you’re going to have to use a lot of instinct to pull yourself through the story. But you want to make sure that in both the past and the present we’re watching characters make decisions in real time, we’re watching those choices get made.
If you think about the present day story in Destroyer, you’ll see how clearly everything revolves around the choices that Erin makes—the mistake she makes as a parent, the way she tries to protect her child, the way she tries to make peace with her past—a past that she can’t make peace with—the way that she continually tries to go outside of the law in order to bring order to the chaos of her life, and in order to try to do right by Chris the man she loved and lost.
Every single decision grows out of those hot relationships and you can really watch her descent in the past and how it ripples through her descent in the present.
And what’s really cool about it, what’s best about it, is that even the trick ending grows out of the kind of fugue state—the alcohol filled fugue state of past and present merging and being stuck in a whirlwind of memories that she can’t escape—her complete inability to let go of the past and instead being encircled by it.
We feel all that stuff working in the present story, and it works really brilliantly.
When we look at the past story, there are so many incredible elements. There are so many incredible scenes, and the performances are absolutely off the hook. But you notice that in the past story, a lot of the choices happen off screen.
Now, these are good writers and Karyn Kusama is a good director. So what we get to see is, once again, these visual elements telling the story.
Really that past story gets told in three kisses.
We get the first kiss when Sebastian Stan and Nicole Kidman—Chris and Erin—are practicing preparing for their undercover work. You get this first fake kiss where he doesn’t think she’s going to be able to do it, and she does it.
You get the second kiss when Erin Bell gets the information she needs in order to bring the bank robbing cult to justice, when she gets all the information they need to now get pulled out and file charges, and when she makes a decision that’s going to change her life forever.
And you get the third kiss when she brings Chris around to that decision.
And in those three kisses, those three visual moments, we get to watch their relationship grow from tension and two people far apart from each other, to love, to love twisting people in an unexpected way.
So that’s great storytelling, but you’ll notice when you look at the past story that a lot of those decisions happen off screen. We don’t actually get to see how Erin and Chris fall in love.
We don’t actually get to see what are the moments that bring them together.
We get to understand that they fall in love and we’re able to believe that they fell in love, and in that way we’re able to understand the comment on the present story, but we aren’t actually able to see how.
The second thing is we’re not able to see is how this cult became a family to them.
We’re able to learn it, by some of the things that the characters in the present day story say. And we’re able to see it in some of the huge unexpected choices that Erin makes in relation to those characters when they come back into her life in this present day story.
But we aren’t really able to see how that cult became a family for them in the past story. And the reason we aren’t able to see it is because those scenes don’t happen.
We really have one scene of normal life in the cult, when Silas shows what a psychopath he is when he forces one of the members to play a game of Russian roulette just to mess with him. So, we get to see that Silas is a psychopath. But we don’t get to see how this family unit is formed.
There’s a wonderful monologue towards the end of the film in the present day story where Erin talks about having this anger in her from her childhood. She’s talking to her daughter about having this anger, about how she’s still angry and she can’t stop being angry.
It is a really beautiful monologue; it is an incredibly powerful mother-daughter relationship that’s being built out of that monologue.
But when we go back to the past story, we don’t actually get to see how that cult harnesses that anger, how that cult uses that anger to twist her.
We actually have a better sense of how her daughter’s way too old boyfriend is using that anger on Shelby than we do on how the cult is becoming a family for Chris and for Erin.
So, the structure is happening off screen. We get the expositional information that allows us to understand it, but we aren’t totally able to feel it because we don’t get to see it. So, we get it, but we don’t feel it.
The third level of structure that’s happening in the past that happens off screen is how Erin moves from wanting to bring this gang to justice, to wanting the money for herself.
We see her having to make those choices, but we don’t see the steps that lead her to those choices. We see that she changes, but we don’t see how she changes.
We have a couple of beautiful scenes between Erin and Chris that are really elevated by the performances—so we’re able to see how she pushes Chris, how she changes Chris, how Chris wrestles with the two sides of his own nature—and we’re able to see the final decision that Chris makes that really leads to her personal tragedy.
We’re able to see “the how” of that. But we don’t get to see “the how” of how we get there.
Now why not? Why are these incredible writers not getting us all the way there in such a great film? What’s getting in the way of these flashbacks working perfectly in Destroyer?
Okay here’s what’s happening.
Number one, they just plain and simple don’t have enough pages.
And this is why you really need to ask yourself when you start to get complicated, “am I going to get enough value to make it worth doing this?”
They have already got a two hour movie and they have so much great material in the present that in order to get you that structure in the past, they would actually have to start cutting some storylines in the present.
If you noticed, this film has a very large cast and there are all these incredible characters that Erin interacts with as she goes through her procedural investigation.
And in order to make some more room in the past they’d probably have to start to cut down on that procedural in order to create that.
Does that mean that that’s an impossible thing to do? No, I think it is possible. But it would be challenging.
And this is one of the really hard things about writing. We’re always making choices. And every choice has to come back to the theme, and every choice has to come back to what you’re doing.
A bad piece of feedback on Destroyer would say, “Well, just cut out the past story and have more time with the present, where the best stuff happens anyway.”
But the truth is if you did that you’d have a lesser film. You’d have a film that doesn’t fully speak to the theme.
You could say, “Do the opposite! Screw the present story, let’s just go look at the past. I want to see how this couple becomes part of this cult and ends up changing.”
But the truth is, if you do that, you also have a lesser movie. We’ve already seen it in Donnie Brasco.
The power of Destroyer does exist in the pressure between past and present.
So when you’re trying to tell a story where you really need two levels of structure, three levels of structure, four levels of structure, to tell the story like this, you want to build it in steps.
First you want to build it intuitively and then you want to pull out the threads.
You want to pull out the thread of the present story, “Okay if I just had the present story and I didn’t have anything of the past, if I just look at that, do I have structure?”
And if you pull that out of Destroyer you’ll say, “Yes absolutely it is 100% there and it is great.”
You then want to look at the past story and you want to pull that out. Take all the present day stuff out and only look at the past story, and you want to say, “Do I have structure there? Would that movie stand alone as a film? Would it be 100% worth watching?”
And I think if you pull those scenes out of Destroyer what you’ll see is that you have a lot of great elements but you have much more of what we’d think of as a rough draft, as an early draft of that past story than you have of the present.
So, one of the things that you try to do with whatever pages you have available would be to ask yourself, “How can I use the power of images, of efficient storytelling, to dramatize some of those choices that are missing, to find ways to show how this story happened. To dramatize those choices on-screen rather than off-screen, so that the characters go through that journey in a way that we don’t just understand but that we actually feel?”
This is why nobody complained about the structure of True Detective, even though it is the exact same structure. Nobody complained about the structure of Westworld even though it is the exact same kind of structure and uses the same kind of trick.
No one complained about the structure of Blue Valentine. They didn’t say, “Well this is a little confusing, it gets a little muddled, but well the performances are incredible,” because both of those stories stood independently. And when you put them together you got something that was bigger than the sum of the parts.
In Destroyer, I think if you pull it apart what you’ll see is that the small amount of criticism—and remember this is a really successful film and most people have loved this movie—but the small amount of criticism, that feeling of “it works but it is a little muddled,” that feeling of “wow, these performances are incredible but I’m bumping up against something” really stems from the structural challenges of that past story, of things happening off-screen so we get them rather than on screen so we feel them.
Telling a story with flashbacks is one of the most challenging things you can do. If you want to learn more about it, come check out one of our classes, come join our ProTrack mentorship program and learn how to really build it, because this stuff is really hard.
But the thing I want you to remember is this, you want to ask yourself, “Is the flashback happening for my audience or is my flashback happening for my character?” If it is happening for your audience you’re in trouble, if it is happening for your character you’re probably doing it right.
The second thing is you want to ask yourself, “Am I building structural flashbacks, or are these flashbacks existing as independent elements?” If they’re independent elements you’ve got a much easier job. If the flashbacks are structural you have to actually look at all three stories.
You have to look at your “A story” as an independent unit and ask yourself, “Is this movie worth seeing?” You have to pull out the “B story” and look at the “B story” all together and ask yourself, “Is this movie worth seeing?” And then you have to look at the two stories together and say, “Do these two stories together have a structure that’s bigger and stronger and more powerful than these stories alone?”
And I think what you’ll see if you look at Destroyer is that the answer to that last question is, “Absolutely yes.” That even for the small flaws that happen in the storytelling in that past story, that the pressure between these two stories really shows you that when you’re great at structure, when you’re great at character, when you build really strong relationships where characters change, even those small mistakes can be transcended by the specificity of your writing and by the pressure that those two storylines create.
Edited for length and clarity.