SULLY – Does Your Movie Need An Antagonist?
By Jacob Krueger
Sully - Does Your Movie Need An Antagonist?
I recently had a very interesting conversation with Todd Komarnicki, who turns out to be as lovely a person as he is a writer. We talked about the true story behind Sully, and I want to take a moment to clarify that more was at work behind the scenes than the public knows, and that pressure was brought to bear by forces more interested in corporate financial interests than in human heroics. So in the spirit of running toward the truth, I wanted to make it clear that many of the events depicted in the movie may be more true than has been reported in articles used to research this podcast. Please take both sides into account as you listen, and as you learn from Sully. And thanks to Todd for reaching out to me so graciously and clarifying.
This week we are going to be talking about Sully, the new Tom Hanks movie with a script by Todd Komarnicki.
An interesting story about Todd Komarnicki: he doesn’t know this, but, it was actually Todd Komarnicki who introduced me to screenwriting, because it was Todd Komarnicki’s script, My Achilles Heart, that was the very first script that I ever read.
I read the script when I was an intern at a pretty major production company, back when I was still in college. It was the first script I ever read, and it was never made, but I was so deeply moved by the script that I did the one thing that no coverage reader should ever do. I wrote “recommend” on my coverage for the very first script that I ever read.
And I will never forget, because I was called into the office of the Executive, and mind you, it was my first day of my internship. I had never read a screenplay. I didn’t know what I was doing. Somebody had given me a piece of coverage and said, “Hey, read the script and do this.” And I read the script, and was deeply moved by it, and wrote “Recommend”.
So this guy calls me into his office, this Executive, and he says, “This is your name. You are Jacob Krueger.” I said, “Yes.” He said, “You read the script. You wrote the coverage.” I said, “Yes.” Then he said, “And you wrote ‘Recommend’ on this.” I said, “Yes. Wasn’t it great?” He said, “Yeah… I just read this script. Because when you write “Recommend” it means I have to read it. If you ever do this again, you are fired.”
And I remember my shock, because I thought that I had discovered the diamond in the rough and apparently this Executive did not agree. But I actually still have a copy of My Achilles Heart. When I left my internship, I actually took the script with me. Even when I moved to New York, I carried that script with me.
I don’t know if Todd Komarnicki will ever hear this Podcast, but I want you to know that your script deeply moved me, and in a way introduced me to screenwriting.
I also want to tell the story because I want to talk a little bit about the experience that we, as screenwriters, have with coverage readers. Now it turns out that I actually do have pretty good taste in scripts, and I actually did have pretty good instincts with scripts, and probably somebody should make My Achilles Heart. If you are a producer and you are listening to this podcast, call Todd Komarnicki’s agent and try to get a copy of My Achilles Heart.
Or maybe you shouldn’t. Because last time I read that script, I was a 19 year old wide-eyed intern! I had no business writing coverage on script at that point in my career! I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t even understand the needs of the producer I was reading for. I was working for a big budget production company, which quite frankly was not making little character driven movies like the script that I had fallen in love with! I was completely untrained, and I was doing the very best I could (and it turned out that maybe I had a little bit of skill for this). But at the time, I certainly didn’t know that, nor did anybody else!
So, the first reason I am telling this story is this: Oftentimes, we take our criticism way too seriously. We take our criticism too seriously, and we take our praise too seriously. This Executive basically laughed me out of the room and threatened to fire me for thinking that I had discovered this diamond in the rough. And many years later, here is Todd Komarnicki writing a major Tom Hanks movie. So maybe the guy had a little bit of talent after all.
We have to be really careful, as writers, about who we take our criticism from. We have to be really careful, as writers, about who we take our praise from.
I recently had a student who finished a script that I thought was particularly beautiful. She had been working with me for a long time in ProTrack, our one-on-one mentorship program. We had worked through several drafts, she sent it out, and she received her very first piece of coverage. She called me, full of excitement and joy. She sent me the coverage, and I will tell you that it was the most loving coverage that I have ever read. It was the kind of coverage that I wrote on Todd Komarnicki’s script! This reader had been so incredibly moved by her script.
And I said to her, “I agree with everything that this reader says. But you can’t take it seriously. The reason you can’t take it seriously is because if you take that seriously, you are going to have to take the other feedback you get seriously. Some of it is not going to be good.”
She looked at me like I was completely out of my mind.
A few weeks later, she called me back. She had just gotten her second piece of coverage, and it was as violent of a rejection as the first one was passionate in its praise.
She said, “Now I understand.”
There are a lot of brilliant people writing coverage. They are going to end up being the great writers and the great producers of the future. There are also a lot of not-so-brilliant people writing coverage. There are a lot of interns writing coverage who are untrained and inexperienced.
And the numbers of coverage simply don’t make sense. Although you, as a consumer, may pay about $150 for coverage, the truth is, a coverage reader is getting paid about $50 bucks a script.
If you do the math on the time it takes to read a script, write a good logline, a good summary, a good commentary, you will quickly realize that if they really were to carefully read each script, and carefully craft each piece of coverage, these people would be working for less than minimum wage. In fact, many of them are working for less than minimum wage.
Many of them, like I was at the time, are working for free.
That doesn’t mean your coverage reader isn’t talented. But it does mean that your coverage reader should not be a reliable source of information. Because if your coverage reader was an inexperienced writer, if your coverage reader was a working writer, they would not be writing coverage $50 a script!
Coverage is where people go to start out. And the truth is, if someone is still writing coverage many years later, you worry even more, because you wonder what’s keeping them at that job. So, there’s nothing wrong with coverage. Coverage is a valuable thing, it’s a way for Executives to understand which scripts to read and which scripts not to.
The other thing to understand is that Executives aren’t always right either. Because here is the guy who threatened to fire me for having the gall to think that I discovered the next diamond in the rough. And, it turns out, maybe I was right.
If you are going to be a writer, you need to accept that this is going to take some time, and it is going to take some luck. It’s not just about finding somebody who loves your script. It’s about finding someone who loves your script at the right time. It’s also about understanding that sometimes the greatest script that you ever write is not the one that actually ends up launching your career. As far as I know, My Achilles Heart is still sitting on the shelf somewhere (In fact, it’s sitting on my shelf somewhere). The movie that, right now, Todd Komarnicki is most likely to be known for is Sully.
I think Sully is an example of a really good script, by a really good writer, that doesn’t tell a really good story.
I think one of the reasons that Sully doesn’t tell a very good story is because Sully is trying to do something very, very difficult. It’s trying to do a film adaptation of a real man’s life. It’s trying to find drama in a situation that is inherently internal.
The first mistake Sully makes is failing to trust its own source material. As several recent articles point out, the persecution of Sully by the airlines, which forms the central premise of this story, never actually occurred. It was completely made up by Clint Eastwood, who insisted the movie needed “an antagonist,” and failing to find one, made one up.
Movies are like life, and the best movies draw their inspiration from life. As useful as the idea of an antagonist may seem, thinking about characters in this way is only going to draw you away from the truth of your story. It’s going to lead you to the kind of mustache twirling villain we see in Sully, rather than the fully drawn characters we experience in real life.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have an antagonist in my life. I have lots of relationships, lots of people who want things from me, and from whom I want things. People I connect with, and people who drive me crazy.
But I don’t have anyone in my life whose sole reason for existence is to “antagonize” me. And even if it seemed like I did, most likely, if I had the ability to see the world through their eyes, I’d realize that they think they’re the hero of the story, and most likely see me as their antagonist.
Darth Vader may seem like the antagonist in Star Wars. But that’s not how he sees it. Step into his world view for one moment, and you’ll realize that from his perspective, the rebels are the antagonists! All he wants is to bring order to the galaxy with Luke Skywalker at his side. But his son has been stolen from him by a terrorist rebel named Obi-Wan Kenobi, who radicalized him and trained him to blow up his own father’s Death Star. Do you know how much work it takes to build a frickin’ Death Star? Do you realize how many people live aboard it?
Darth Vader may have a particularly nasty ‘how’ of pursuing his objectives. But from his perspective, he’s not the bad guy. And that’s what makes his confrontation with Luke in Empire Strikes Back so extraordinary.
There’s no such thing as an antagonist. There are only characters pursuing the things they want, against the obstacles of everybody else’s desires. Some people pursue the things they want in beautiful ways, and some in horrible ways. But if you want to write great characters, stop thinking about them in terms of protagonists and antagonists, and start thinking of them as people. Beautiful and terrible and broken people, trying to get what they want and need in the face of a complicated world.
And if that doesn’t lead to the kind of conflict you’d expect in a movie, don’t create it for its own sake. Instead, trust the integrity, the truth, of your own material.
There’s enough conflict in the world, enough complexity, enough confusion, to create a movie out of anything.
So if what you’re looking for isn’t there, especially in a “true” story, don’t make it up! Don’t make it up, because it will suck. Don’t create a movie around total fiction, when there’s so much drama in the truth.
But if you choose to ignore this advice, as the script for Sully does, and run towards a lie rather than running towards the truth, you better darn well make sure that the execution you end up with is better than the truth would have been. That the point of entry you’re fictionalizing is actually the most interesting way into the story.
Let’s, for a moment, imagine that the story Sully is telling was actually true. Or if it’s easier, imagine that this story was totally the writer’s creation, rather than an adaptation of a real man’s life.
There’d still be a huge problem with the point of entry into the story.
So this relates to a problem that I call point of entry. and that a lot of producers will call the take on the [inaudible 00:11:12] because The real shame is, I think, that the story of Sully could be a great story. But I also think, regardless of what is true, that this particular writer or this particular producer have the wrong take, that they have chosen the wrong point of entry to what is really e story.
If you have seen the trailer, the part of Sully’s story that you already know is that this guy landed a freaking plane in the Hudson River and saved the lives of a 155 people. If you have seen the trailer, the part you already know is, according to Eastwood’s take on the material (and let’s for argument’s sake imagine that this were true) that, although he was at first celebrated as a hero, apparently he was also persecuted as a man who had made a mistake.
Unfortunately if you have seen the whole feature film of Sully, you probably can’t tell me much more story than that.
Despite the obvious skill of the writer, the very strong ability with characterization of the writer, despite the tremendous prowess of the director and the stunning visual sequences of the film, at the end of the day, the story of Sully as dramatized in this script just keeps on hitting the same beats.
And this happens often in Tom Hanks movies. Tom Hanks loves to play these characters who are beyond reproach. He loves to play these characters who are noble and good and brave.
And there is nothing wrong with playing a character who is noble and good and brave. There is nothing with playing a character who does not make mistakes, who always does the right thing.
When you are telling a true story of a man that you truly admire, there is even a stronger desire to dramatize their beauty and their bravery and their strength and all the things that make them wonderful. But it’s very challenging to effectively tell the story of that kind of character, because it’s very hard to get that kind of character to change.
When you are writing a character who is pretty much perfect, it’s hard to feel that they need to change at all.
So the question is, if you are writing this kind of movie, where is the drama going to come from? If we already know the story, where is the drama going to come from?
Now, there is a way to do this story like Doubt. If you have seen the movie Doubt, you know that there is a way to tell this story. Or if you have seen the play Doubt, you know that there is a way to tell the story, where the drama comes from our doubt, where the drama comes from our questioning of, “Did this man actually do the right thing?”
In a story like this, the drama comes from the things that we don’t know, the way we start to piece this story together in our own heads.
Imagine, for example, if instead of casting Tom Hanks, they had cast Tom Cruise in this role. Imagine if they had cast the cocky, headstrong character that Tom Cruise loves to play: the guy who has tremendous talent and swagger, but who struggles to play by the rules.
If you had Tom Cruise playing this role, you would probably spend the whole movie wondering, “Did this guy do something right or did this guy do something wrong?” If you had a character like Tom Cruise in this role, you must be able to bring that character to a place where he had to wonder if he did the right thing.
Think, for example, of The Shawshank Redemption and the structure of that film. The Tim Robbins character is another one of these characters who really does no wrong, who is noble and brave and smart and kind and caring and good and really doesn’t make any mistakes.
But think about the beautiful structure of that movie, and how they bring that character to his knees, in that wonderful scene where he says to Red, “I killed her Red. I didn’t pull the trigger, but I drove her to that cabin, with my apathy.” The scene in which this man who’s been pleading his innocence, accepts his role in the death of his wife.
Remember the ending of A Few Good Men when those two loyal, honorable marines have to face the fact that they did make a mistake.
When we’re telling the story of a movie, we are telling a story of a character’s change. We are watching that character go on a journey that tests them, and changes them, and drives them deep into their own psyche.
And the problem with Sully- and it’s barely a spoiler, but I’m going to give you a warning that there is a tiny little spoiler ahead- the problem with Sully is that we know from the very beginning that there is just no way this man made a mistake.
We know from the very beginning that this is a witch hunt. And the reason we know it is because of the dominant traits of the character.
Now, the truth of the matter is, the first scene of the movie is probably the most effective scene in Sully, because we, as the audience, think we know exactly where we are. We come in and we are watching a plane fly through the city of New York, and it is visually spectacular, and we are telling ourselves we know what’s going to happen.
We are telling ourselves, “Yes, this plane is going to land in the Hudson River.”
And, instead, we see the wing clip a building. And we think “Whoa! I didn’t remember that part of the story!” And then we see that plane crash into a building in an image all too reminiscent of 9/11.
And we, as the audience, get jolted out of our expectations from this very first moment. We get taken beyond where we expect the movie to go.
We were promised a certain thing in the trailer, and now we are finding ourselves in a world that we did not expect.
And this is a very good start for the movie Sully. In fact, this is probably the only way you can start this version of the movie Sully, by shaking the audience up and saying, “Hey, there’s more to this story than you believe!”
The problem with Sully is that, from that point on, the game is played with a loaded deck. On the one hand, you have Tom Hanks, Sully, played by an actor that you love, that you quite frankly know, (with the exception of Road to Perdition), has never done anything wrong in a movie. We’re talking about Forest Gump. We’re talking about the Captain in Captain Phillips. We’re talking about the incredibly moral lawyer in Bridge of Spies. So just seeing Tom Hank’s face, we already know he did the right thing.
We are presented with a character who is confident without having swagger. A character who is an expert in airline safety. A character who is a tremendously skilled pilot. A character who is respected by his peers and his union and his friends.
We have a pilot who is humble. Who, the moment he’s confronted with a witch hunt, immediately starts to look inside and wonder, “Did I do something wrong?”
In other words, we are not confronted with a character with a problem. We are not confronted with a character who has to go on a journey in relation to his impetuousness. Who has to wonder about where his instincts are going to take him.
Similarly, we are given an investigator who is a caricature of himself, another casting decision, to cast a guy who looks evil and sounds evil and smells evil and tastes evil. A guy who feels like a bottom feeding lawyer just looking for a scapegoat, not like a man who can actually shake our trust.
And there’s nothing wrong with starting this way. In fact, this is exactly the way that Doubt is put together.
And if you’ve seen the play version of Doubt, you know the play version of Doubt in many ways was more effective than the film version of Doubt.
And the reason for that is, in the film version of Doubt they cast Philip Seymour Hoffman. And as soon as you saw Philip Seymour Hoffman, you knew, “Uh, oh. I don’t know if I totally trust him. There is something a little dark and twisted about this guy.”
But if you saw the play version of Doubt, what you saw was an all-American, good looking, positive energy, good vibe kind of Priest. The kind that you wish you had as your Priest.
And pitted up against that Priest, you had a nun who seemed like the horrifying nun of your childhood.
And that movie worked. And the reason the movie worked, and the reason the play worked even better, was that those characters were going to go on a journey where our experience of them shifted.
We start out believing we know who is good and who is bad. But over the course of the play, the nun becomes humanized and we start to understand where her doubt comes from. We start to understand the good intentions underneath her evil behavior.
And the Priest becomes tarnished. We start to see the darker side of his humanity. We start to question if we can really trust what’s on the surface.
So because of this, because of the structure of Doubt, we feel a tremendous journey for those characters, even though we’re left at a place where we still don’t know which conclusion we should draw.
In this movie, the problem is that the characters do not switch. Only lip service is given to the question of whether or not Sully did the right thing. There’s never a moment where we truly doubt it.
And that’s not just about casting, that’s also about dominant trait.
And one of the reasons is that Sully’s character goes to introspection too quickly.
He looks inside of himself in a way that is courageous and brave and quite beautiful. And then, after analyzing what he really went through, determines that in fact he did do the right thing.
And though it is a shock (again a little spoiler ahead) when we see the simulations and they seem to prove he did everything wrong, even then we know that what’s happening isn’t fair.
We know what’s happening isn’t fair because we have visually experienced, multiple times over the course of the movie, exactly what it felt like to be this man. We have experienced the way he’s haunted by what happened in the cockpit. We’ve experienced the way he’s replaying it again and again and again in his head. We’ve experienced the terror of that experience.
And we’ve also experienced the moment when he sees himself in the news, and comes to his big realization about time. And though this does make for a really beautifully written monologue a few scenes later, it doesn’t make for a satisfying journey.
The journey feels thin. And the reason the journey feels thin is that the character hasn’t really changed. The character really hasn’t been tested. The character really hasn’t gone on a journey. The character started off right and ended right. The character did what any reasonable human being would do and looked at himself in the mirror and said, “Hey, did I do the right thing or the wrong one?” And determined that in fact he had done the right thing.
And then the character was vindicated by evidence that proved what we already knew from the moment we saw the trailer: that this was a movie about a witch hunt.
Similarly, the movie suffers because of the dominant trait of the inquisitor. Because that character is such a mustache twirling villain, such a stereotypically evil antagonist, he also doesn’t get to go on a real journey. He doesn’t go on a real journey because no part of him is right, and for this reason the movie ends up not really being about anything.
Now does that mean that the character actually has to change?
No. This could be a movie about the system. This could be a movie about blame and the need for blame. In other words, this could be a political movie about the need for unions to defend themselves. This could be a political movie about the need for unions to defend good people against interests that only are interested in money and insurance claims- that are not interested in morality.
This could have been a political story.
Or the story could have been an emotional story.
It could have been an emotional story about a man who needs to blame someone. In fact, there’s a beautiful little movie called The Sweet Hereafter by Adam Egoyan, in which we watch a lawyer, a bottom feeding lawyer, who’s struggling with the loss of his heroine addict daughter, who has come to this town to prosecute the driver of a bus that’s gone off a cliff and killed a whole bunch of kids. And we get a personal journey about that character’s need for someone to blame.
But Sully doesn’t fully go to that place either, because there is no part of this inquisitor that is human. There is no part of this character that is right.
Oftentimes we get tempted by this word “antagonist.” We think we’re telling the story of Sully and we’re thinking, “Okay, I’m scared because I have this guy and I respect him and admire him and I don’t want to turn him into some nasty dude who’s not the good guy because I believe he is the good guy. I don’t believe that this man did something wrong and I don’t believe that this man needs to go on a journey of change, because when I look at the man and I meet the man and I talk to the man, I don’t see a guy who has a problem. I see a guy who did a brave thing.
But that means that the interest is not going to come from his journey. So we get scared. We say, “Oh, my G-d. I might not have enough movie here. I might not have enough of a point of entry. What am I going to do? Am I going to just keep playing the same beats?”
And we get tempted by this idea called the antagonist: the bad guy. Just like Clint Eastwood, we think, “Oh, my G-d! I need a bad guy. I need a villain. I need an enemy. I need something that’s going to create conflict in this story.”
And we get tempted to these mustache twirling villains, these villains who don’t reflect anything real in the world. These villains who are entirely wrong, entirely bad, entirely misguided.
But the problem is, when we do this we end up playing with loaded dice. And the game becomes a lot less fun.
If you have to have a villain, make sure that your villain thinks he’s a hero. Make sure that your villain wakes up every morning and looks in the mirror and says, “I’m the hero of this story.” Make sure that your villain’s actions are coming from real beliefs. Make sure that in some way your villain is right.
Similarly, don’t take the noble airline pilot and turn his wife into the crazy unsupportive villain who only thinks about herself. Don’t create the inquisitor who’s entirely wrong. Create the inquisitor that we think is wrong. And look for the part of him that is right. Look for the part of him that we can agree with. Look for the part of him that can shake us, and our main character, to the core.
So, since we’ve been talking about political movies, and the potential politics of this film which don’t get fully explored, I want to talk about a wonderful political movie called Network.
Network is the story of a network news anchor who has a nervous meltdown on the air, shouting “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
And all of America falls in love with this madman. Soon all of America is shouting, “I’m not as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
And we the audience are also shouting, “I’m mad as hell I’m not going to take it anymore!”
In fact, you’re pretty sure the writer, Paddy Chayefsky, is also shouting with you, “I’m mad as hell I’m not going to take it anymore!”
And despite the fact that the movie was made many, many years ago, Paddy Chayefsky, in that film, is actually anticipating a lot of the political and news problems that we’re actually having today.
But Paddy Chayefsky does not weigh his argument toward what he believes. Instead, what he does is he weighs the argument against what he believes. He tests the character not with a weak argument, but with a strong one. Not with an argument that we can’t believe, not with an argument that seems incredible, but with one that seems damning.
He marches his main character into the Network C.E.O.’s office. And if you’ve seen the movie, you remember the monologue. It begins with the Network C.E.O. shouting, “You have meddled with the forces of nature,” and goes on to give one of the most brilliant monologues ever, about everything that the main character has been fighting against, everything that he and the writer, believe is wrong, and why these things in fact are necessary for the survival of our society.
And what is brilliant about Network is that you get to the end of that scene, and you know that’s crazy. But you also think, “He’s got a point.”
And the main character gets the end of that scene and he’s also shaken to the core. He says, “I have seen the face of God,” and starts preaching the gospel of the Network C.E.O.
This is not a writer who doesn’t believe in his own argument. Rather, this is a writer who believes so strongly in his own argument that he’s willing to test it against the strongest argument possible from the other side.
Writing a movie is about testing your beliefs and testing your character’s beliefs. Writing a movie is about shaking yourself to the core and seeing if the things that you believe in can survive the strongest attack and make it to the other side.
So, I want you to compare the stories we just talked about with the story of Sully, and you’ll see why the central premise of Sully would still be weak, even if these events actually had occurred. Not because it’s not shocking and wonderful when the flight simulator seems to prove that Sully could have landed that plane, but because, even when the flight simulator proves it, we still don’t believe it.
We’ve seen the visceral experience of Sully’s flashbacks, and we’ve witnessed the total falseness of the simulation’s execution. We’ve seen these simulation pilots perfectly calm as they deal with the crisis and land the plane. We have seen the parroting of Sully’s dialogue from the transcript.
It doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel visceral. And quite frankly, even if it had been visceral, there’s a part of us that is human. And that part would still be saying, no matter what, “My G-d, man! This guy did the very best he could. This is a good, strong, honest, brave, introspective man who did the very best he could.” We knew it from the moment we met him, and the truth of the matter is, even if every single simulation proved that he could have landed it, there’s still a part of us that would be thinking, “You know what, I don’t really care. Would I have done any better in that situation? Would I have made a better decision? Could anybody have made a better decision? Didn’t this guy just do the very best he could to try to save the lives of everybody on that plane?”
There is never a point where the writer convinces us that we might be wrong.
There’s never a moment when he convinces Sully that Sully might be wrong. And that’s because there’s never a point where he convinces himself that he might be wrong.
So does this mean that to write the story of Sully you need to prove him wrong?
No, that’s only one way to skin this cat.
Sure, it’s true that if you cast Tom Cruise as Sully, it’s an easier story to tell. The impetuous pilot who, for some reason, as we find out in another flashback sequence from his time in the army, keeps on having to land these struggling planes, who maybe just flies a little too much by instinct, who is maybe a little too confident that he knows better than the computers, it’s a lot easier to create an interesting journey where we could start to wonder if he actually did the right thing.
But maybe you look at the real character, and you say to yourself, “You know what? This is not true. That’s not who this man is. And even if it was who this man is, that’s not the story I want to tell.”
Well, then you have to ask yourself, “Is this really the most dramatic point of entry?”
And you could see that they know that they don’t have enough there with that point of entry because they try to create yet another antagonist. They try to create the antagonist of his wife.
They try to create conflict with his wife by creating a relationship with a woman who seems a little bit crazy and, quite frankly, only concerned with herself. A woman who, as her husband is dealing with nearly dying in a plane crash, is giving him a hard time about the fact that they don’t have a tenant for their vacation house, and her fear that they might lose their other property. A woman who doesn’t seem to care about her husband at all.
I don’t know much about Sully’s personal life; I don’t know if that is really his relationship with his wife. But if you introduce that kind of conflict, then you have to take Sully on a journey in relation to that relationship.
Because the truth is that’s the only real problem in his life as its depicted in this film. Sully is a great pilot and he’s going to beat these crappy inquisitors. He’s got good friends, he’s talented at what he does. The only real problem he needs to solve in his life is that he’s in love with a woman who doesn’t seem to really love him back, or who seems so absorbed with herself that she’s not capable of loving him back.
So there’s another potential point of entry to the story, which is the question of, “How does this accident change this man’s relationship?”
And you start to realize that there’s so much more of an interest in the story here than in the false jeopardy of a hearing that never really had legs.
Because there are so many other wonderful questions. Questions that never get explored because this particular script is just so worried about trying to create conflict and trying to create stakes. Questions like, “What is it like to be a normal airline pilot and one day wake up a hero?” or “What is it like when everyone feels like you are a hero and you still feel like you’re just you?”
What is it like when all of America wants to hug you and hold your hand and kiss you and tell you how brave you are and buy you a drink? When Letterman wants to talk to you? When the press want to interview you? When you should have been dead, but somehow you’re alive?
And after all that, you have to go back to the wife who doesn’t love you and only thinks about herself?
What is it like to be the people on that plane? What is it like to go back to your normal life the day after you “die,” or the day after you were supposed to die?
I bet if you ask yourself these questions, you’ll find that pretty soon you’re telling yourself a story. Pretty soon you’re telling yourself a story that’s going to have big character change in it. Pretty soon you will be telling yourself a story that’s probably a lot more interesting to you than what you saw in Sully.
And I’m not saying that Sully is a bad movie. Sully is an entertaining movie. Sully is a good movie but it’s not a great movie.
And one of the reasons you know it’s not a great movie is that if Sully were not supposedly taken from a true story, you probably wouldn’t have found it very interesting. In fact, you probably wouldn’t have found it very believable at all. You probably would have found the characters a little archaic: the bad guys a little too bad and the good guys a little too good.
You probably would have been a little bit annoyed by the flashbacks that don’t go anywhere and the overly melodramatic, seen-it-before sequences of “good-ol’- passengers” getting on a plane that we’ve seen in Titanic and a million other disaster movies.
If you didn’t think it was true, you would probably think it was not-very-good Hollywood fiction.
And this is one of our challenges in writing a true story. Oftentimes, when we are writing a true story, we have different kinds of anxieties.
One of those anxieties is, “Well, it happened that way in real life.”
But movies are not about what happened, movies are about what it felt like. And capturing what it felt like comes not, as happens in Sully, from characters speaking their emotions to each other. Capturing what it felt like comes from dramatizing the journey of the character, the actions that the character takes and does.
Sully’s jogs around New York City are so much more compelling than his monologues to his friend about what it feels like to be in this situation, or his emotional glances out windows, or even his fantasy flashes about what could have happened.
It’s through the actions the characters take as they try to deal with their emotions that externalize the problems of their lives and allow us to understand them. It’s the way that they make choices that change them that captures our interest and makes things feel real.
So when you’re adapting a story. It’s not about lying. It’s not about turning Sully into a bad guy who finds out he’s good or into an impulsive guy who comes to realize he was too impulsive. Instead you can run towards the truth. But you have to run towards a dramatic version of the truth.
And running towards the dramatic version of the truth is about stepping inside of the character, stepping into the part of the character that is you, and taking yourself on a journey that asks a profound question of yourself.
So, if the elements that are true- and I don’t know if this is actually true or not- but if the elements that are true are that Sully is a really good, noble man who’s married to not a good or noble wife, then the truth of the matter is, that’s the most interesting dramatic content of this entire script!
The plane crash is an external problem. But his choice to tie his life to this person is an internal one.
And the way that plane crash changes or doesn’t change that relationship is a dramatic question that can carry an entire movie.
Movies are about change, movies are about characters going on journeys that change them, and movies are about truth.
And writing a great movie means digging into the truth, not only of your main character but also of your “antagonists,” also of your bad guys. You want to find the ways that the noble person is wrong and you want to find the ways that the ignoble one is right.
You want to bounce those ideas up against each other until both characters are forced to change and, in turn, your audience is forced to go on a journey that makes them see other people, themselves, and the world that we live in just a little more clearly and a little more closely.