Friday, April 27, 2007

Beat Sheets Revisited

A good few people find this blog using searches for 'beat sheets' and what the hell they are. I wrote about it here when the blog was still in its infancy (Dec 05) but it's by far and away the most visited page on the site. So I thought it might be a good idea to revisit the subject and offer another good example of 'beats' from a film that everyone would recognise.

Let's take a look at a scene from The Graduate, where Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) and Ben (Dustin Hoffman) are about to have sex for the first time. The MA at the Leeds Met Uni use this scene as a teaching example, so I think it was the legendary Alby James who came up with the analysis, and I've slightly tweaked it to add my own thoughts.

Essentially, the scene (below) has three beats:
Beat #1: Ben's uncertain/nervous; he doesn't know what to do or how to go through with it.
Beat #2: Ben decides he can't do it but Mrs Robinson turns the screws on his pride by insinuating that he's a virgin.
Beat #3: Taking the bait, Ben asserts control and the affair begins.

So, if you were preparing this scene on your index card, you might scribble the above without actually being conscious that they were 'beats'. You're writing down what happens in the scene; your intention for the characters and story. ‘Beats’ is the technical term used to specicfy the dramatic structure of your scene. They help build to the point and purpose of what you want to establish. How you dramatise this action is entirely down to you.

When I was a teenager, and getting interested in screenwriting, Alfred Hitchcock said something that completely confused me: (paraphrasing) "Once we have worked out the story in full, then we begin the screenplay." It took me a while to figure that out but basically what Mr Hitchcock was saying was that he would painstakingly work out the scenes with his writer, beat by beat, and then he'd let the writer go away to come up with the goods in the script.

Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked. Here's the scene from The Graduate (written by Buck Henry & Calder Willingham) with those three beats. Enjoy.

---

INT. BEDROOM.

Ben steps out, moves to the window. We see the pool area through the window. Ben closes the blinds.

There is a KNOCK on the door. Ben crosses to the door and opens it. Mrs Robinson moves to the bureau and puts her purse and gloves on it. She looks at herself in the mirror for a moment then turns slowly, looking at the room, finally ending on Ben's face. She steps towards him.

MRS ROBINSON
Well?

He clears his throat and then he kisses her.

BEN
Well.

MRS ROBINSON
Benjamin.

BEN
Yes?

MRS ROBINSON
I'll get undressed now. Is that all right?

BEN
Sure. Shall I - I mean shall I just stand here? I mean - I don't know what you want me to do.

MRS ROBINSON
Why don't you watch?

BEN
Oh - sure. Thank you.

She takes off her jacket.

MRS ROBINSON
Will you bring me a hanger?

BEN
What?

MRS ROBINSON
A hanger.

Ben opens the closet door.

BEN
Oh - yes. Wood?

MRS ROBINSON
What?

BEN
Wood or wire? They have both.

MRS ROBINSON
Either one will be fine.

BEN
Okay.

He brings her a hanger. She puts her jacket on it.

MRS ROBINSON
Will you help me with this, please?

She turns her back.

BEN
Certainly.

He undoes the zipper at her neck.

MRS ROBINSON
Thank you.

BEN
You're welcome.

She turns and looks at him. He backs away.

MRS ROBINSON
Would this be easier for you in the dark?

BEN
Mrs Robinson - I can't do this.

MRS ROBINSON
You what?

BEN
This is all terribly wrong.

MRS ROBINSON
Benjamin - do you find me undesirable?

BEN
Oh no, Mrs Robinson. I think - I think you're the most attractive of all my parents' friends. I just don't think we could possibly -

MRS ROBINSON
Are you afraid of me?

BEN
No - but look - maybe we could do something else together, Mrs Robinson - would you like to go to a movie?

MRS ROBINSON
Benjamin, is this your first time?

BEN
Is this - what?

MRS ROBINSON
It is, isn't it? It is your first time?

BEN
That's a laugh, Mrs Robinson. That's really a laugh. Ha ha.

MRS ROBINSON
You can admit that, can't you?

BEN
Are you kidding?

MRS ROBINSON
It's nothing to be ashamed of -

BEN
Wait a minute!

MRS ROBINSON
On your first time -

BEN
Who said it was my first time.

MRS ROBINSON
That you're afraid -

BEN
Wait a minute.

MRS ROBINSON
- of being - inadequate - I mean just because you happen to be inadequate in one way -

BEN
INADEQUATE!

LONG pause. Mrs Robinson starts to dress.

BEN
Don't move.

He slams the bathroom door shut. The light in the room disappears.

---

7 comments:

Helen Smith said...

Hello Danny

I read somewhere that Hitchcock storyboarded everything meticulously (as director rather than writer, obviously) and stuck to it. It makes sense that he'd take a lot of trouble over the beat sheet before the script is even started.

I think it definitely helps to have a plan when you set out to write something. Having said that, I've read interviews with very successful writers (including screenwriter Abi Morgan, I think) who say they often don't know how something will end when they start to write it.

It's probably a route to disaster unless you know you can pull it off.

Mark said...

I'm on of the people who probably found your site by a search for 'beat sheets', or at least - have re-read that page enough times to contribute to it's high number of hits!

Great stuff, cheers Danny!

Dan said...

Hi Danny,

Blogger are playing silly buggers with outside blog hosting so I've had to switch to their own. Could you update my link when you get a mo

http://danieljalexander.blogspot.com

Cheers!

Oly said...

albert?

Jon PC said...

Hi,
While I’d never wish to argue with Albert’s more cinematic twin, I have wondered whether over pre-planning a script can lead to a certain coldness. I’ve often found Hitchcock’s films rather sterile, emotionless affairs and wonder whether the pre-planning is the reason. He did say that he’d already made the film in his head and that filming was just a formality!

I’ve heard a number of different views on beats from a number of different people. Some say a scene can only ever have 3 beats while others say it can have as many as you want/ need. One said a scene should effectively have a three act structure in miniature. What think you?

Personally, I like to go into a scene with some idea where it’s going (purpose, beginning, middle & end) but not so much as to kill spontaneity.

(By the by, I remember well that session on The Graduate from LMU.)
Ta!

Danny Stack said...

Albert/Alfred, just keeping you on your toes.

I've recently seen the scene between Stringer Bell & Avon in series 3 of The Wire when Stringer tells him the truth about the death of a key member of their crew. Great scene. There are other scenes that simply require a 'get in and get out', but that's a form of structure, too, so all manner of craft applies... there is no right and wrong, as long as the story works.

Jon PC said...

That's the most important thing: that it works.

Thanks for the advice; always invaluable.