Paul Joseph Gulino is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright, whose book, Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach has been adopted as a textbook at universities around the globe.
One way to avoid writing yourself into a dead-end is to remember that a screenplay is written backwards.
Beatriz at Dinner (written by Mike White, directed by Miguel Arteta) has all the elements that make for a scintillating evening — a gorgeous house overlooking the Pacific, fine food, fine wine, and a guest list that includes two strong-willed individuals who are polar opposites and who may just annihilate each other before dessert.
The story involves a holistic medicine practitioner named Beatriz (Selma Hayek), who shares a humble abode with various rescued dogs and goats, and who makes a slender living laying hands on cancer patients and massaging various private clients. After massage therapy session in Newport Beach at the home of wealthy client Cathy (Connie Britton), her car fails to start.
Cathy invites Beatriz to stay overnight and join a dinner party that evening. This brings on her confrontation with Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), the globally dominant real estate mogul who laughs off concerns about environmentalists, endangered species and the poor, and shows off his late, fatal victory over a rhinoceros on his iPhone. Beatriz—poor, earthy, loving, healing, connected to all living things—is thus arrayed against Doug—arrogant, selfish, reckless, spoiler of all living things he doesn’t own.
Beatriz loses it—throwing the cell phone at Doug—then retreating to the guest room. She emerges later to play guitar for the guests but after confrontation is forced to leave—a tow truck providing her escape route.
And that’s where the movie kind of ends (spoiler alert). Actually, it doesn’t seem to know how to end. At first it ends when Beatriz excuses herself from the tow truck before it departs, goes into the house, seizes hold of a letter opener, and murders Doug with it.
After the others arrive and react in horror, we discover that this really didn’t happen: Beatriz was (apparently) just imagining it. Then comes the actual ending: While the tow truck travels along Pacific Coast Highway in the night, Beatriz asks the driver to stop. She gets out, jumps into the waves and drowns herself.
It is, of course, possible that she really didn’t drown herself; maybe it was just another imagined ending. In which case, perhaps, there is no ending. Yikes!
Defending the Indefensible
What is one to make of this? New York Times critic A.O. Scott was generous:
[T]he filmmakers don’t quite succeed in bringing their story to a credible conclusion. But having said that, I have to admit that I have no idea what such a thing might look like. ‘Beatriz at Dinner’ is about unresolvable contradictions, after all, which may mean that its failures are less specific than systemic. I don’t blame Mr. White or Mr. Arteta. I blame capitalism. I blame America.
Actually, given that the audience (unlike Mr. Scott) might well have paid upwards to $15 to see the film, I think blame for the storytellers is fair. The film doesn’t really end at all. It just stops. And the storytellers are the ones who made it stop.
Granted, the questions raised in the picture, as Mr. Scott suggests, are enormous, and they do not lend themselves to easy solution. Despoiling the environment may be reprehensible and unforgivable, but it does go on and on, as wealth and power overwhelm the poor and powerless. There are no easy answers, and providing no answers is very realistic and lifelike.
But film is not life. As Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake.”
A viewer is someone a filmmaker has invited to participate in something beyond ordinary life. A filmmaker has asked the audience for precious time, attention and money, and thus has an obligation to deliver to that audience something more than it could get for free.
Edgar Allan Poe to the Rescue
In his 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales, Edgar Allan Poe suggested an answer to a question so basic it may not occur to most writers – screenwriters included: what is the principle that determines what material belongs in a story, and what should be taken out? Poe’s answer (for short stories): the “impression” or “effect” the writer wants to have on the audience after they’ve read the piece. I.e., a writer begins by deciding the effect, then works backwards to create that effect, and all content questions are governed by how well the material helps or hinders the creation of that effect.
Because plays, like short stories, are forms that can be consumed in one sitting (unlike novels or epic poems), the idea was readily transferable to the theater. From there, the idea went on to shape American cinematic storytelling.
Thus, when confronted with a daunting, thorny problem like that which confronted the storytellers of Beatriz, it’s worth meditating on just what the impact those storytellers wish to achieve (which in turn usually reflects the belief system of those storytellers), then work backwards to set up an ending that serves with the desired effect.
Toward a Solution
Let’s begin with the ending: the main character drowns herself. What could that action possibly have to do with the issues raised in the rest of the film?
One possibility comes to mind: what if the drowning is not just suicide, but sacrifice? The ultimate sacrifice? The opposition presented in the film to that point—ultimate selfishness vs. ultimate selflessness—could play out to its logical conclusion, if set up properly. The storytellers would have to convey the idea that Beatriz’s suicide will in some way block some major, environmentally-despoiling project that Doug is planning. The weak and vulnerable overcome the rich and powerful, though at a tragic price.
It’s lifelike in that there are no real resolutions, the battle will go on, but there is a greater sense of satisfaction for the audience, because the main character has at least made a choice — taken an action—that is consistent with who she is and what she believes. It does not provide an ultimate answer or resolution to the questions raised in the film, but it does provide a resolution for her particular situation, agree with it or not.
Another possibility is to play with character arc, which is not present in the film in any of the characters. In this regard, it’s worth exploring whether or not the storytellers have chosen the wrong main character.
Beatriz seems unassailable: loving, giving, healing, intelligent, compassionate. Such a character may be tested, but if she winds up changing her outlook and opening up her life to being selfish, hateful and damaging, we’ve got a recipe for a perfectly nihilistic film, or, possibly, a satire.
Doug, on the other hand, is a piece of work: aware of his mortality, but self-satisfied, self-involved, grasping, lacking all compassion. He could use an attitude adjustment, and Beatriz is the perfect foil for him. The dinner party could evolve not simply as conflict but as a battle in which Doug tries repeatedly to defeat her and she returns only love and understanding—weapons he is ill-equipped to handle.
She might still sacrifice herself—in some way that blocks a project he is working on—and that sacrifice might make him think twice, change his views in some capacity.
Of course, the suicide isn’t the only choice. He could win the argument at dinner, and go ahead with whatever nature-despoiling project he’s planning, but in his triumph (in the third act), he remembers her healing touch, and ultimately asks for her help, and it is clear they will have some kind of relationship, and the future is open-ended. He’s changed her. Again, lifelike, no easy answers, but still satisfying.
All it takes is for the storytellers to pause when they get to “main character kills herself for no particular reason” and figure out what emotional impact and thematic material they want to leave with the audience, then go backwards into the screenplay and rearrange the storytelling elements to achieve that impact.
Almost any such rearrangement would, I think, be better than to have this earthy healer, who has overcome so many struggle in her life, decide to kill herself after a tiff at a dinner party, leaving behind her orphaned animals and cancer patients to fend for themselves.
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