You may have heard by now that this year's indie sleeper Slumdog Millionaire is being considered a dark horse Oscar contender for Best Picture. You might think such buzz is due to the exotic factor (Bollywood-color drama and romance in the slums of India!), that it's a Danny Boyle movie (Trainspotting, 28 Days), or that it's got that ridiculously gorgeous woman in it (Freida Pinto). All of these elements do contribute to what makes the movie such a wild and satisfying ride, but -- please don't throw things at the story analyst -- I think the movie works on account of its structure.
Structure is the biggest old bugaboo in screenwriting circles. Reams have been written about this aspect of the craft, which is as misunderstood and misused as it's slavishly adhered to. I'm presently teaching a screenwriting class where the students are busily banging their heads against the specter of structure, as they work out the big beats of their plot en route to a viable outline of their movie. And they'd be the first to tell you that this is the opposite of fun.
Often the cry of the newbie screenwriter, knee-deep in such a painful process, is why?! Why is it so infernally important that one have the structure of a story locked in, before one starts to write actual scenes in earnest? Why not just... y'know, have fun with the thing? Write and make discoveries, figuring out what works and doesn't work on the fly?
I'm all for all of that. But Slumdog answers that"why" in a way that no amount of theorizing could. It's a vivid demonstration of why sooner than later, deciding on a structure and committing to it is the best thing a screenwriter can do.
Here's what you learn in the opening of the movie (what follows is no spoiler, since far more of the plot has already been spilled in Slumdog's glowing reviews):
Eighteen-year-old Dev Patel has reached the last stage of India's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? TV show. He's on the verge of hearing and answering the final question in front of millions of viewers. But Dev is merely a go-fer at a Mumbai telemarketing center, an uneducated "slumdog" who couldn't -- shouldn't -- be educated enough to have gotten this far. And so, suspected of cheating, he's imprisoned and interrogated, even tortured, by the local police. What Dev eventually explains is that each correct answer he's given on the show came from some fairly grim experience he had, growing up the hard way on the streets of Mumbai. Such as... And we're into our first flashback.
How brilliant a construct? Let's see. As my writer-director friend Bob Dolman (Far and Away, How to Eat Fried Worms) puts it, any story is only as good as the predicament its protagonist is in. It's only when your character is between a powerful rock and an equally compelling hard place that an audience sits up and takes notice.
So: I'd like to tell you the story of what it's like to grow up dirt-poor in Mumbai. Here's where I was born, and here are my parents, and here's the kids I used to play with, and...
How about instead, I put you in the epicenter of perhaps the most important moment of my life -- when I'm poised on the brink of becoming a millionaire... or after coming all this way, losing the huge sum I've already won, and leaving as poor as I've always been?
Now you've got our attention.
And how about we add in the threat of my being strung up and having electrical wires attached to some sensitive body parts... and perhaps being locked in prison for the rest of my days, if I can't prove my innocence?
Now, wouldn't you like to know what I went through as a kid, to learn the answer to the first question I got right on this show? It was pretty awful.
And how about, with each story-about-how-I-learned-an-answer, I tell you about my best friend and the girl I fell in love with, and how she came between us... and I spin that decades-spanning tale (it's got guns, betrayal and even the Taj Mahal in it) right up to the present moment, where friend and girl and I all hang in the balance of: what happens next?
Dude! Where's it playing and what time's the next show?
Since I'm not familiar with the source material, a novel called Q & A written by Vikas Swarup, I can't tell you how much of this concept is Swarup and how much is director Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaudroy (who also wrote an involving little pic called The Full Monty). But I would wager that Swarup didn't start out, first and foremost, with a burning desire to tell a story about a quiz show.
No, he probably had a passionate investment in a story about two best friends growing up on the streets of Mumbai. In fact, judging by some on-screen evidence, he might've been interested in telling a modern-day version of The Three Musketeers (with a little Oliver Twist thrown in). But my point is, how did that story end up riveting millions of butts in their seats?
It helps that Boyle is a director of ceaseless energy and visual invention. But this time his considerable talents are brought to bear on a story that just -- keeps -- coming. Each flashback is a story in itself, with its own rising arc and tensions. And each time we come back to a present that's increasingly more meaningful and suspenseful.
As to the consummate why? of structure, here's my final answer: structure is the skeleton you hang your story on, and if you build it right, just about any image you want to show us -- say, from a kid literally covered in outhouse manure to a haunted beauty caught alone in the monsoon rain -- will compel our attention.
Slumdog Millionaire even has a neat thematic subtext to play out, about how disparate, seemingly random events that felt like pure chaos when you lived them can actually sum up The Story of You. But it wouldn't have been such an indelibly memorable movie-to-see, if it wasn't told in such a canny, crafty manner.
Structure, structure, structure.