Trainwreck: The Game of the Scene
By Jacob Krueger
Before we even get into the structure of Amy Shumer’s Trainwreck, I want to start by talking about the inception of the movie, and how it came to the screen.
Oftentimes if you’re an emerging screenwriter, it’s easy to imagine that the professionals must totally know what they’re doing, write one draft and it magically comes to fruition.
But the truth of the matter is that Amy Shumer’s process on this screenplay was very similar to the process that a lot of you go through.
Writing a great screenplay does not happen overnight. This screenplay took Amy years and many drafts to write. And interestingly it started off as a completely different movie.
Judd Apatow tells a story about working for about nine months with Amy on a completely different version of the film. And then one day the two of them realized that this wasn’t the story they really wanted to tell.
And Judd Apatow told Amy Schumer, despite all the work they’d put into the draft, that he was really more interested in those personal stories that she was telling when he first heard her jokes. When she was talking about her father and his real experience with M.S. and what that real relationship looked like.
And so, eight or nine months into the process, Amy Schumer completely reconceived the movie, refocused what it was really about, and made it personal.
You can see how putting that personal stuff on the page brought this movie into instant focus. Not only for the writer and director, but also for the audience, and for the character.
Trainwreck starts with a really amazing little vignette. Little Amy, whose character’s name is Amy, and her sister Kim, whose character’s name is Kim, are sitting across from their dad, whose real name is Gordon and whose character’s name is Gordon.
Gordon, in his own funny way, is trying to explain his impending divorce to these little girls in terms of their dolls: “What if you had to play with that doll for the rest of your life? What if there were other dolls that you wanted to play with?” And the scene is hilarious, but it’s also heartbreaking. Because by the end of this scene, dad has the two kids parroting back to him a mantra that will come to rule Amy’s life: “Monogamy isn’t realistic.”
And what a wonderful place to start a movie about intimacy, about how hard it is to fall in love, how hard it is to actually break past our own walls.
There’s a wonderful journey for Amy in this movie and one of the things that I love about that journey is that even though it hits all of those traditional romantic comedy beats– down to the big, theatrical performance in the end to prove her love– it does it in a way that is extremely personal, and extremely vulnerable, and extremely truthful.It does so in a way that looks a lot more like real love, in all its messiness, than a lot of romantic comedies.
Now I’m not saying that this is the real Amy Schumer, because when you write from your real life you’re not trying to put your real, real self on the page. You’re not trying to put your life experiences exactly the way they occurred on the page. You’re trying to look closely at one specific aspect of yourself: one little broken piece of yourself, or one little beautiful piece of yourself. Or maybe, like in this movie, a mixture of the two.
For example, Amy Schumer steals from her real life a very funny and very awkward breakup with an ex-boyfriend, which occurred at a time when she was starting to think about dating other guys. He was getting suspicious, and he confronted her about it while she was stoned out of her mind.
This is a true episode from her life and, like in the movie, rather than sitting down and being compassionate and having a real talk with her boyfriend, she just asked if she could leave because she was just too high to handle the situation. In fact, Amy Schumer even contacted that boyfriend before putting it into the movie to make sure that it was okay with him.
Now what’s interesting is, at least according to her interviews, Amy wasn’t actually cheating on him. She was just feeling her heart wander. So even though this character was based on Amy Schumer as she saw herself in her twenties when she was in a lot of pain and drinking a lot, and as she describes it, not aware how much she was hurting, the real Amy Shumer says she’s a person person who actually has not had a lot of affairs or one-night stands.
Instead with this character what Amy Shumer has done is to amplify that part of herself, around a question that Judd Apatow asked her: “Why don’t you have a boyfriend right now?” She’s amplified that part of herself that finds it hard to connect. She’s taken those internal feelings and externalized them in a way that we can see and laugh at. She’s exaggerated herself to find a way of goofing on herself, to find a way of enjoying her flaws and turning them into beauty.
And this is what makes this movie so effective. And this is what makes the characterizations so effective. That simple little theme of intimacy.
Often in romantic comedies we get characters who are funny, but are not really people, because they don’t have psychology that goes below the surface. But in this romantic comedy we have characters who are fully formed.
In fact, in different hands Trainwreck is not a comedy. In different hands Trainwreck is a character driven drama about a girl who can’t connect. In different hands Trainwreck looks a lot more like Girls or Tiny Furniture.
The thing that makes Trainwreck different is a very specific thing going on called voice.
It’s Amy Schumer’s very specific voice and Judd Apatow’s very specific voice that translate this drama into comedy.
If you’re interested in writing a comedy, this is something that you should definitely think about. Some of the best comedies do not come from trying to be funny. The best comedies come from trying to be real, saying the things we don’t want to say and looking at the things that we don’t want to look at.
You can see this in Amy Schumer’s sketch work, just as you can see it in Trainwreck. You can see it in shows like Louie. As a wiser man than me once said: comedy is just unrequited want. And in that way comedy and drama are exactly the same thing. Comedy is just a way of executing unrequited want.
So the character of Amy goes on an amazing journey and the actual structure of that journey is not, as it would in the typical romantic comedy, just about how Amy puts on a cheerleading routine because she realizes she’s really in love.
Structurally, what we would call that hilarious cheerleading routine set-piece at the end of the movie, would be the denouement, the resolution. In a Seven Act Structure, we would call it act seven.
Because that big cheerleading routine is not the scene where Amy actually changes. That’s just the scene in which we see the effect of her changes.
The actual change happens in the scene before (the end of act six in a Seven Act Structure). And we see that change in a way that is actually a mirror of that very first scene. It’s actually about her relationship with her dad and her relationship with her sister and her relationship with herself. And it actually culminates with a really awkward hug, when she allows her sister and her sister’s husband to hug her. That change happens when she admits that she knows that her sister loved her father too. When she admits to herself that the reason she has been rejecting everything that her sister has, is that there’s a part of her that believes she can’t have it.
Her ultimate journey is not just about putting on a show for her boyfriend. Her ultimate journey is about accepting intimacy, accepting a hug.
We can actually see the movement for that journey set up in the very first scene, that little vignette with her father and sister, and we can see it again when we enter the world of grown up Amy, who is unable to even cuddle for a few minutes with a guy in bed.
Amy is a character who is living a series of one-night stands. Even when Amy meets a great guy that she really likes, she has to put a pillow between them to sleep in the same bed. She can’t even handle his breathing because it feels too much like intimacy.
Amy’s journey isn’t a Hollywood style journey where she accepts a hug and suddenly learns to love intimacy. It’s a journey of a woman who learns to try. At the end of the movie she does accept a hug from her sister, and her sister’s husband who she despises, and the sister’s son who freaks her out. But she accepts it in her own way. It’s uncomfortable for her. It’s awkward for her. She still wants to extract herself. But she allows herself to have it.
So, despite its big Hollywood ending, what’s really cool about Trainwreck is that Trainwreck is a big commercial comedy built on Indie drama bones. What I mean by that: it’s a movie built around a character with a real psychology. Not someone who’s the person that we wish we could be, but someone who’s the person more like who we actually are. Or at least some aspect of the person we actually are.
Because who doesn’t have trouble with intimacy?
Even the guy she’s in love with, while awesome and the prototypical comedy love interest–yes, he does have an amazing job, yes, he does volunteer for Doctors Without Borders, yes, he is played by Bill Hader, yes, he is perfect in every way. But the truth is, he too has a problem with intimacy.
For all his perfection, his last several girlfriends have not exactly lasted. It’s been years since he’s even tried to be in a relationship with anyone. So, you have two characters who are lovely, but flawed, just like us. Maybe he’s exaggerated in his goodness and maybe she’s a little exaggerated in her trainwreckedness. But, the truth is they’re real people with complex psychologies, who want love and fear love at the same time.
And their journey is not built around the Hollywood tent pole moments, although this movie is absolutely filled with them. It’s built around the real drama of their lives.
Bill Hader’s character tells Amy he loves her at the funeral of her father! In her speech about her father Amy doesn’t memorialize the perfect guy, but a very sick man who was also her favorite person.
When Bill Hader is making his big speech to the Doctors without Borders community, yes, Amy does do the very prototypical romantic comedy thing and screw up in a big way. But before the film sells out with its fabulous Hollywood ending, in which we feel the spirit of romance triumph over everything, it also does the fight for real, in a scene that truly captures what does make it so hard to put two lives together.
That fight captures in a truthful way the real psychology of these characters, and the real questions the writer is asking: how the difference in our expectations based on our childhoods and our life experiences and the relationships of our parents end up playing out in our own lives.
Although the scene is hilarious, it’s also very sad. Because Bill Hader talks to Amy about the fact that he needed her to be there for that speech and instead she ducked out to answer a call from work and got high in the lobby (her old pattern, which we saw earlier with her big muscle head boyfriend).
And when he confronts her she truly believes, rather than talking it out, that it’s over now they’re not going to speak to each other for awhile. Because that’s the relationship she had with her father when they used to get into a fight.
And Bill Hader, who comes from a different life and a different family (we can only assume) is flabbergasted by this idea. What do you mean that it’s over because we’re having a fight? We’re supposed to have a fight and then we’re supposed to talk it out! We’re supposed to stay together!
Although this scene is executed like a comedy, this scene at its heart is a drama scene. This scene is about two very real characters, with two completely different belief systems, trying to figure out how to talk to each other. It’s about how two people who love each other can still miss each other, and possibly lose each other.
And, in a truly rare turn for a romantic comedy, we see a fight written like a real fight happens in a relationship– when they’re trying not to go to bed angry, when they make up and have sex only to have him point out that she apologized and start the whole thing over again. When things suddenly get very, very dark and very, very defensive. When people end up saying the things that they don’t mean rather than the things that they do. When her defenses and his defenses end up at war with each other.
And it’s refreshing to see this in a romantic comedy and it’s refreshing to see this in a commercial romantic comedy, such an effective romantic comedy.
Oftentimes we think as writers we only have one choice or another. We can either sell out and make money and have a big audience or we can refuse to sell out and hold onto our beliefs and our purity as artists.
And what we’re really seeing in Trainwreck is that you can do both. That you can do the real scene and then you can do the Hollywood version of the scene. That you can do the character driven drama and then you can do the Hollywood set piece.
And even that Hollywood set piece, and by set piece I’m talking about that big performance in Madison Square Garden where she tries to do the thing that she hates the most, cheerleading, to prove her love to the guy she loves the most. Even that can be drama.
Because what we’re really seeing in Amy’s character is how she’s giving up her defense mechanisms and stepping out of her comfort zone. And every single one of those elements has been carefully laid into this script.
We’ve seen her relationships with sports at the very beginning when she starts off her interview by saying people who like sports are just lesser people. When she sticks her foot in her mouth again and again and again and again because she thinks sports are just so stupid.
We’ve seen his attempt at a really cool date taking her to a slam dunk competition and we’ve seen her rejection of that. And we’ve seen her despising of the cheerleaders that Bill Hader’s character treats.
So, as ridiculous of a set piece as Amy Schumer doing cheerleading might be, and as hilarious as her execution may be, the real structure of that scene is a metaphor for her attempts at love: that wonderful moment where she decides to go for the slam dunk and falls right on her face. We’re not watching the story of a character who goes on a perfect journey. We’re watching a character that goes on a journey where she learns to try.
So, what makes this movie so funny? When you’re writing comedy there’s a concept called the game of the scene. And the truth is there is such a thing as the game of the scene in a drama. The game of the scene in a drama might be about the status games that are being played between the characters. It might be about the emotional power in the scene. It might be about who runs the room. It might be about a lot of things. But in a comedy the game of the scene is about the thing that’s funny about the character or the situation.
Now you can tell that Trainwreck was written from an outline; that Trainwreck is built to hit all of those romantic comedy beats in exactly the right place and in exactly the right order. But the thing that makes it feel fresh and new and quite frankly the thing that makes it feel so funny is that Amy Schumer is so great and Judd Apatow is so great at finding the game in each scene.
One of the places that we can actually see this is in the Lebron James character. Now this idea, of pulling all of these sports superstars who may or may not be able to act, is a bad idea, that somehow manages to work. And the truth is, Lebron and did an admirable job. But this is a terrible idea, a very dangerous idea in a comedy.
How are you going to get all of these people who are not trained in comedy, who are not trained in improve, who have not been actors their whole lives, how are you going to get them to be funny? How are you going to get it to work?
Well, the way it works is actually through this idea of the game of the character.
With Lebron James, the game of the character is you take one of the richest characters in the world and you give him a little secret. And that little secret is that he is terrified of going bankrupt. And in fact when Judd Apatow and Amy Shumer explained the character to Lebron, that is exactly how they explained it. You are terrified of going bankrupt and you are surprisingly interested in the emotional side of Bill Hader’s relationship. And that’s the game of this character.
Once you know the game of the character, once you know the thing about the character that you find really, really funny it’s easy to start improvising more and more funny things. Oh, he left his glasses and wants to drive back forty minutes to avoid spending $35 at Sunglass Hut. Oh, he wants to split every check. Oh, he is extremely concerned about prenuptial agreements…
It becomes easy to improvise, to play, to find the heart of the scene and the heart of the character once you find that little game. And it also becomes easy to create those little scenes between Lebron and Bill Hader where he is just so, so concerned about whether this girl is going to hurt him, the intervention, the wonderful scene in which he confronts Amy about her intentions for his friend. This is all the game.
Sometimes you know the game when you start, and sometimes you find the game by writing. But once you find the game, that little special thing, you just keep playing it and playing it and outdoing it and outdoing it and outdoing it.
And once you’ve established the game, if there’s a change in the game, you can appreciate it. You can appreciate it as a change in the character. You can appreciate it not only on a comedic level, but on a structural level. And of course this concept also works with Amy’s character because she has a little game too.
This concept applies to pretty much every character. Even Amy’s little nephew has a game, which is just to be interested in everything that could possibly get your butt kicked in a schoolyard.
Mike Birbiglia’s got a game just to be the ultimate dad, just the goofiest, awkwardest, most dad-body looking dad, the dad that Amy never had.
Kim’s got a game, which is she wants to punish her father. And although it’s played for comedy, it’s a dramatic game. And we can see it when she tears up his Mets posters and we can see it when she’s trying to move him to a cheaper nursing home. And we can see how it becomes structural at the funeral when Amy lashes out at Kim thinking that she doesn’t care.
Dad has a game which is to say the most inappropriate thing at every moment. To find the thing that’s going to push the buttons, whether it’s his neighbor at the nursing home, his daughters or his friends.
Tilda Swinton’s character’s got a game, and she plays the same game again and again. “Is this your one woman show? I didn’t buy the ticket.” “Oh, how can you not be aware you’re being fired.” Her game is just to be the coldest, iciest bitch she can be. To care not at all about anybody ever.
Even Bill Hader’s got a game. Because even though he is being the perfect, lovely, helpful, kind, vulnerable, handsome man that every girl wants, he also has a game of calling Amy out on her bullshit. And he does it with humor. We can see it in the first interview, when he tells her she can stop pretending liking sports teams, or points out that he owns exactly the kind of jersey she is making fun of. We can see it in that wonderful last scene, after she’s tried to make the basket, when he tells her “Most people when they hit a trampoline they go up and you just went down.” And we can even see it in the dramatic scenes, like when he tells her exactly how he feels about her not being there for his speech.
All of these characters have got a game and some of their games are comedic and some of their games are dramatic.
The movie works and the character works because the actors know how to play the game and the writer knows how to play the game. The games become structural in the movie just like the games that we play together become structural in our lives. And that ultimately we can understand Amy’s change because we watch Amy stop playing her game.
Of course, Amy’s got a game as well. And Amy’s game is to reject everything that she really wants. Amy’s game is to basically follow the lead of the magazine that she works for, pointing fingers at everyone else’s failures so that she doesn’t have to try. Pretending she doesn’t want the things that she does, so she doesn’t have to fear failing. Making fun of those around her rather than looking honestly at herself.
In this way, Trainwreck is a lot like Bridesmaids.
These are movies that could have sucked. And they could have sucked by looking at their characters with judgement. Bridesmaids very easily could have been a movie about its surface hook about a bunch of nasty bridesmaids. And you can see even from the marketing campaign that that was probably the idea that it started with. Just the nastiest, bitchiest bridesmaids ever. But if you’d actually written that movie, it would be almost unbearable to watch. Because who wants to watch a bunch of nasty bridesmaids all day! It would be too hard to see ourselves in them.
Bridesmaids, similarly to Trainwreck, also went through several drafts. There is an early draft where the thing that saves the day with Annie is her good old-fashioned American roots: she knows how to fix a tire. And it wasn’t until later drafts when Kristin Wiig came back and rewrote the script that it turned into a movie not simply about the hook, not simply about the big commercial idea of nasty bridesmaids, but about what does it really means to be yourself. What does it mean to become an authentic human being?
And in that way Trainwreck is similar because Trainwreck could so easily have been a movie about pointing fingers at the trainwreck girl that we all have known, or the trainwreck guy that we all have known.
It could so easily have become that movie. In fact, as those of you who have seen that horrible interview on Facebook with the Australian interviewers asking Amy why her character was such a skank can attest, some people have still tried to turn the movie into that.
But the truth of the matter is that Trainwreck is not about a skanky trainwreck of a girl. Trainwreck is about a beautiful and broken girl who’s trying to fall in love, who’s finally got an opportunity to be with someone good, but can’t get out of her own way. Trainwreck is a story about how hard it is to actually open yourself to another human being whether you’re the famous doctor or the struggling journalist.
Trainwreck is not about the commercial hook, and the commercial moments, and the commercial set pieces and the commercial formula that gets butts in seats and makes producers happy.
Trainwreck, and the success of Trainwreck, is about a character’s journey. Not a character that we’re judging or pointing fingers at, but a character who’s doing an exaggerated version of something that every single one of us has done. A character who’s going on an exaggerated version of a journey toward love that every one of us has longed for. And who’s making the mistakes that every one of us has made. And this is the root of drama and this is the root of comedy.
This is the game of Trainwreck. Not the game of watching the messed-up girl mess up, but the game of watching the scared girl learn to be brave enough to try.
And this is important. Because often times in our writing we end up having the same defenses as Amy Schumer. We end up judging other people’s writing, so that we don’t have to look at our own. We end up protecting ourselves from the truth of our voice so we don’t have to risk being judged or rejected. We end up having the one night stands with this scene or that scene, rather than committing to the resources that we need to actually go on the journey of a full draft. We protect ourselves by trying to write on the surface because it’s scary to get underneath.
And that that is a problem that is not just reserved for beginning writers. That is a problem that the superstars suffer from as well. Sometimes you do have to spend eight months on a script before you find your real way in, before you discover what the movie is really about for you. And then you do have to have the courage to go for that slam dunk that you’re not sure if you can hit.
You do have to have the courage to be vulnerable enough to risk being cliché, to risk not being as good as you want to be. And you do have to confront your own stuff from your own childhood and your own mistaken beliefs to hopefully take your character on a journey that hopefully transcends your own.