GITS Script Reading & Analysis: “Black Swan” — Structure

October 23rd, 2012 by

This week we will be analyzing the screenplay for the 2010 movie Black Swan, screenplay by Mark Heyman and Andrés Heinz and John J. McLaughlin, story by Andrés Heinz.

You may download an October 5, 2009 version of the shooting script here.

Today we discuss the script’s structure. How would you break down the story’s plot? What do you think are the major Plotline points? How did the story sustain its incredible narrative drive?

Our schedule for discussion:

Monday, October 22: General comments
Tuesday, October 23: Structure
Wednesday, October 24: Characters
Thursday, October 25: Themes
Friday, October 26: Dialogue

We will have another live TweetCast on Wednesday, October 24 at 8PM Pacific. What’s a TweetCast? Everybody lines up a DVD, Netflix, or whatever of the movie, then hits play at precisely the top of the hour. While the movie plays, we comment on it real time on Twitter.

We generally have a group of professional screenwriters participate including Tom Benedek and myself, and anyone is invited to drop by. It’s a lot of fun, but as you can see from the transcripts, also a great way to break down and analyze a movie. Hashtag: #swantc.

Part 1 of an interview with Darren Aronofsky:

Part 2 of the interview:

An audio interview with screenwriters Mark Heyman and Andrés Heinz.

If you know of any great behind-the-scenes videos or interviews about Black Swan, please post them in comments.

Remember: Reading scripts is one of the most important single things you can do to enhance your understanding of the craft of screenwriting. So download Black Swan and join us the last week of October to analyze the script.

For Part 1, a general discussion of the script, go here.

For all of the other screenplays and commentary in the GITS Script Reading & Analysis series, go here.


3 thoughts on “GITS Script Reading & Analysis: “Black Swan” — Structure

  1. This month’s GITS Analysis script – Black Swan – is anything but straightforward. Several of the major scenes may be interpreted in two, even three, different ways. For example: Is Nina suffering mental illness? Or a supernatural ordeal? Is this really happening? Or is it a dream? Is Nina going mad? Why is Nina having sex with Lily? Is that even Lily? And, my personal favorite . . . does Lily even exist?

    So – here are 10 things I Think I Think (1) about the script’s structure – The 10 Major Plotline Points:

    ACT I:

    1.) THE OPENING:

    The film starts off innocently enough – almost as a documentary on ballet dancers and how incredibly hard they train and how they dedicate their entire lives to their art. (At two separate points in the film they say: “I’m still working”, not “I’m still dancing”).

    Nothing at all freaky. No one is growing any black feathers or wings. Not just yet.

    We meet the main characters:
    * Nina Sayers – Protagonist – ballet dancer whose innate strength is the White Swan role.
    * Lily – a rival dancer – new in town – who epitomizes the Black Swan role.
    * Erica Sayers – Nina’s controlling, smothering mother. Former corps de ballet dancer.
    * Michael Brennan (in the screenplay) or, who was renamed Thomas Leroy (in the film) – narcissistic, demanding director of the ballet company

    2.) THE HOOK:

    P. 23 = Every dancer’s / athlete’s / and actor’s moment of truth: You go to the publicly posted notice and read your fate: In or Out.

    Nina reads: “Nina Sayers – Swan Queen”. Against all odds – she gets the role.

    Protagonist’s Disunity:
    (note: since Nina has a dual personality in this film, several internal demons, and starts to confuse boundaries, I’m splitting her wants & needs by each personality: Dancer-Nina and Real Life-Nina):

    a) Dancer-Nina’s Want = in a life devoted to ballet, she wants desperately to win the role of the White Swan Queen in the dance company’s production of Swan Lake – the role of a lifetime.

    b) Dancer-Nina’s Need = she needs to get more in touch with the Black Swan side of her personality (p.93 – added for the film: THOMAS to Nina: “The only person standing in your way is you. It’s time to let her go. Lose yourself”).

    c) Dancer-Nina’s Fear #1 = remaining as “only” one of the many corps de ballet dancers for her career – just like her mother (p. 90 – added for the film: NINA (angrily to Erica as their fight ends): “I’m the Swan Queen. You’re the one who never left the corps”).

    Dancer-Nina’s Fear #2 = that her understudy/alternate (Lily) will replace her as Swan Queen.

    a) Real Life-Nina’s Want = perfection (p.85 – added for the film: NINA (to Beth): “I was just trying to be perfect – like you”.

    (Final line in the Dénouement – added for the film: NINA: “I was perfect”).

    b) Real Life-Nina’s Need = to grow up. To become an adult. She is emotionally and sexually repressed (p.73 – ERICA: “You’re not my Nina right now!”; NINA: “I’m not fucking twelve years old anymore!” – toned down a bit for the film, but the frilly, dreamlike child’s room is very much in evidence).

    c) Real Life-Nina’s Biggest Fear = that she is losing her mind. She sees doubles. The doubles morph into other people. Artworks on the wall laugh at her. And that’s only the beginning.

    * Protagonist’s flaws =
    a) she is timid and repressed
    b) she’s too restrained (p. 20 – BRENNAN: “In four years I’ve never seen you take any risks”).
    (p.45 – BRENNAN: “Right now your Black Swan looks no different than your White Swan. She’s just as . . . frigid”).
    c) she reacts to pressure by severely scratching her back / getting rashes or hives.
    d) she steals (p.9 – SD: Nina quickly slips the tube of LIPSTICK into her bag and exits the room).
    e) she lies (p. 18 – NINA: “I just wanted to tell you, I practiced the coda last night, and I did it”).

    3.) THE LOCK:

    At the gala for The Patrons Of The Arts (p.30 – BRENNAN – to the wealthy patrons and benefactors: “As you know, we open our season with my new version of Swan Lake. Taking the role of our new Swan Queen is the stunning and brilliantly talented Ms. Nina Sayers”). With that introduction, champagne flute in hand, Nina has just stepped into the Heroine’s New World.

    ACT II:

    4.) DECONSTRUCTION TEST – the Protagonist confronts events which challenge her physically and psychologically:

    * Lily drags a man into the bathroom and offers cocaine to an innocent Nina.
    * a drunk Beth openly berates her (p.35):“He always said you were a frigid little girl”.
    * Thomas (Brennan) tells Nina (p.38): “Touch yourself. Live a little”. Of course, the clear implication is that later it will become: “Touch Thomas”.
    * Her mother calls Nina out on the rashes on her shoulders.
    * Beth tries to commit suicide.

    5.) THE TRANSITION – the Protagonist demonstrates a growing confidence:

    * Thomas to Nina (p.42 – added for the film: “This is YOUR moment, Nina. Don’t let it go”.
    * Nina goes into the trash room and finds a steel rod to use as a door lock for privacy.
    * Lily takes Nina out for dinner / drinks / drugs / guys – a night out, away from Mommy. And, for a ballerina, all four of those things are off the list of fun things to do!

    6.) RECONSTRUCTION TEST – the Protagonist confronts their biggest challenge to date:

    * Hung over and late for rehearsal, Nina arrives to the Lincoln Center and witnesses Lily filling in for her role of Swan Queen.
    * (p.77) SD = Fueled by the competition, Nina pushes herself. Her dancing becomes more aggressive.

    7.) ALL IS LOST – within sight of her goal, the Protagonist suffers a significant blow.

    In the costume shop, Nina discovers that she’s gained 10 pounds and is bursting clear out of her tutu: ”Damn!” says Nina, “I knew I shouldn’t have eaten that entire cake!”) . . . Sorry! Just wanted to know who is still reading this far in! (That’s a little screenwriting joke).

    (p.78) at a final fitting in the costume shop, Nina is unsettled by another DOUBLE who appears in the mirror, scratching her back raw. Then she overhears the bombshell: Lily is being fitted for the Swan Queen costume.

    LILY: “He made me your alternate. (can’t help it). Just in case . . .”
    SD = Livid, Nina pushes past her.
    Nina approaches Thomas on the staircase and pleads for this to be reversed. ANYONE else but Lily. She is in Stage 4 panic.

    * added for the film: NINA (crying): “You made her my alternate? She wants my role! She’s after me! “

    ACT III:

    8.) ON THE OFFENSIVE – digging down, with lessons learned, the Protagonist plans a counter attack:

    * everyone else has gone home from rehearsal. Even the pianist quits. Nina soldiers on.
    * the night before the opening, Nina visits Beth (p.85) in the hospital for the second time, paying tribute to the former prima ballerina.
    * Nina enters Erica’s (Mom) bedroom and tries to silence the voices (critics).
    * Nina battles her biggest oppressor – her mother. In the fight, she breaks Erica’s hand.

    9.) FINAL STRUGGLE – The Protagonist prevails in this ultimate test and achieves their goal:

    * After hitting her head on the bedpost and passing out, Nina oversleeps on her big day. Erica “calls in sick” for her daughter – which makes Nina absolutely livid when she learns of it. Nina has a Final Struggle with Erica. Nina overpowers her mother and charges out to her grand performance at the Lincoln Center.

    * She strides into the dressing room – late – and Nina has a Final Struggle with artistic director Thomas (who wants to go with Lily, instead, as Swan Queen). She convinces Thomas that she is dancing the lead.

    * After falling on-stage, she regroups. In her dressing room, Nina has a Final Struggle with Lily (maybe) and kills her (maybe) and covers up the blood (maybe) and then stashes the body (another maybe). Then Nina returns to the stage (I’m pretty sure of that one).

    * Taking the stage for ACT III as the Black Swan, Nina has a Final Struggle with her internal demons and Needs (see Protagonist’s Needs above) and dazzles the crowd with an unbelievable, sensational turn as the Black Swan.

    10.) DÉNOUEMENT:

    Dancer-Nina’s Want (she wanted the role of the White Swan) = her Need (she needed to get in touch with her Black Swan-side to do it and “Let go”) = Unity.

    Real Life-Nina’s Want (she wanted to be perfect) = her Need (she needed to grow up) = Unity.

    The final line of the film – NINA: “I was perfect”.

    Nina starts off the screenplay as innocent, graceful, timid – the perfect White Swan! (p. 10: Michael/Thomas: “If I was just casting the White Swan, she’d be yours.”)

    By the end, she is full of passion and seductiveness, is darker and lustful, and confident and “has let go”. Nina has black feathers bursting out of the skin on her back and red swan eyes and seductiveness – she has become The Black Swan!

    Now that’s a metamorphosis!!

    (p. 106: Nina: “Michael, what did you call me?”
    (Michael: “What have we done, my little princess?” – the name he reserves for his Prima Ballerina, and the first time he has used it regarding Nina)

    With Nina lying on the stage with blood hemorrhaging out of her abdomen, the film fades to White – signifying death (in many cultures). Therefore, Nina’s action parallels the ballet Swan Lake, and she has become one with her character, Odelle, who leapt to her own death in her Dénouement.

    Wonderful screenplay. Wonderful film.

    Also loved it because it featured a strong female Protagonist, something that I am personally very much in favor of.

    Opposing views are welcomed. (My wife and I are still debating if Nina died at the end, or not).

    John A

    Note (1) : a nod to national sportswriter Peter King

    1. Scott says:

      John, I just got done with the TweetCast and your breakdown tracks very well. Amazing how so many movie, all of various types and genres, fall into the Narrative Throughline rhythm. Thanks for your analysis!

  2. Hey Scott,

    You’re welcome.

    Personally, I find breaking down these scripts to be incredibly helpful. Not 100% sure about all of the “wants/needs/fears/flaws” analysis, but when I closed my eyes and “interviewed” Nina, this is what I got.

    Also, there were MANY Script-to-Screen differences, which we might want to discuss in the upcoming Skype call. One or two scenes were also put into a different order in the film (eg. the perv on the subway train). As I review them, almost every single Script-to-Screen change improved the final product.

    The actors also performed in kind of an improv manner. They had the gist of the script, but just got into it in many scenes, and went with it. Interesting.

    John A

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