Friday, December 9, 2011


You can learn the principles of story structure discussed in this post by taking the on-line Storycraft Training workshop linked to in the right column of his blog.

HANCOCK Structural Analysis based on The Moral Premise

Director: Peter Berg
Writers: Vincent Ngo, Vince Gilligan

John Hancock – WILL SMITH
Aaron – JAE HEAD

Released: July 2, 2008
Budget: $150MM
Domestic: $228MM
World Wide: $624MM

THIS ANALYSIS CONTAINS A MAJOR SPOILER. If you have not watched HANCOCK yet, please stop reading and go watch it first. It’s worth the effort. For me this film contains the most surprising audience sting in the history of cinema. So wonderful is it, that I didn’t tell my wife for 3 years until I finally got her to watch it the other night on BlueRay. At 54 minutes I was glued, not on the screen, but to Pam’s face. Her reaction was priceless. She about fell off the coach. END OF WARNING.

HANCOCK is the story of an immortal “superhero” who has lost his identity to alcohol, his memory to amnesia, and the respect of the public who don’t hesitate to call him an “a--hole.” And although his deeds bring criminals to justice, they’re also a huge financial burden the city of Los Angeles inasmuch as his crime fighting has resulted in over 600 warrants for felony destruction of property. When Hancock rescues well-meaning trapped-in-his car-Ray from being killed by a train, Ray asks Hancock to “drop” him at home where he invites the “super” for dinner. It’s then that Hancock meets Ray’s wife, Mary, and son, Aaron.

Suffice it to say, Hancock redeems himself with Ray’s help. Ray is perhaps the biggest heart in Public Relations, and demonstrates an altruistic effort to change the world, with Hancock as Ray’s latest project. We should all have managers like Ray. As Mary, his wife says to Ray: “You see good in everybody, Ray -- even when the good is not there.” 

Here briefly are the physical goals for the main characters:

-->To physically find himself and his true identity, and to act on his physical purpose in life. This sounds ambiguous but the portrayal makes it visceral. This is also well-crafted insofar as his physical want is clearly the consequence of neglecting his psychological need—to pursue with dignity his in-born identity. It is clear that the reason he lost his physical knowledge and ability to fully act on his identity (when he was mugged in Miami) because he purposely ignored his identity as a super and tried to live a normal life with Mary.
Hancock has subplot goals as well, as do the other characters:
a) Public: To be respected again. (Redeem his character.)
b) Personal: To get out of prison.
c) Professional: To stop crime and save lives.
d) Family: To have a woman in his life.

Mary: To get Hancock out of her familiy's life, so she can life a normal life as Ray's wife and mother to Aaron.

Ray: To help the world be a better place by getting corporations to embrace his charitable "All Heart" logo and terms. And related to that, use  Hancock to prove his philosophy to the world, that the world can indeed be a better place with love and respect.

Red: To kill Hancock out of revenge for taking his power away, (and his hand).

These physical goals are important because they become metaphors in each character's life for what the movie is really about — the moral premise. To the extent that each character psychologically embraces the vitreous or vice side of the moral premise we will see the metaphor lived out on the physical side of their life.


HANCOCK is an action movie involving mythic gods a.k.a. superheroes. The movie references Greek mythology as its antecedent. In Greek myths the heavenly action is motivated by the moral choices and soap opera behavior of the characters. Likewise, the action in HANCOCK, while eye-candy to be sure, is entirely motivated by the moral choices of Hancock and his co-protagonists and belligerents, to accept or reject who they are called to be. If they accept their in-born identity with grace and dignity they are successful, if they reject who they are by a faux self-rationalization or through self-loathing, they fail, or come to a diseased demise.

Thus, Moral-Physical Premise Statements that apply to HANCOCK are:

Ignoring our in-born identity through excuse or self-loathing
leads to
an unhealthy and aimless life;
Pursuing our in-born identity with dignity and perseverance
leads to
a healthy and purposeful life.

Short-handing that a bit:

Rejecting our God-given identity
leads to an aimless life;
Embracing our God-given identity
leads to a purposeful life.

Or, in the vernacular of the movie:

Choosing to avoid what we were created to be
leads to being an a--hole;
Choosing to pursue our calling
leads to being a “super” hero.

Looks look briefly how this effects the arcs of our three main characters:

Ray accepts his calling perfectly. He’s the perfect public relations manager, who sees the good in everyone even if there’s no good to be seen. He is faithful, loving, and kind. He demonstrates mastery of this virtue with fat-cat executives who arrogantly are unwilling to give away 1% of their wealth in order to help change the world. And he demonstrates the embrace of his calling with belligerent, superhero, self-loathing drunks -- that would be Hancock.

Hancock is the opposite. He does not know who he is (something brought on by an attempted mugging 80 years ago). But even before the mugging Hancock had rejected his calling. He was created to save the world, and gave it up to live a “normal life" and in the process screws up his life.  I can’t help but contrast Hancock’s backstory beats of his rejection to embrace his superhero status, with the climactic beats of Scorsese’ THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. In that movie, Christ is tempted to come down off the cross, live a normal life by getting married and have kids — e.g. not die on the cross for humanity. But Christ refuses the temptation to be normal and chooses to embrace what he was on earth to do — die on the cross. Christ’s calling was to choose to be a superhero and save the world. He did. And in that way Scoresese is faithful to the Biblical portrayle of Christ.

On the other hand... the mythic Hancock is also sent to earth to protect it. Ray says, “You have a calling, you’re a hero...” Hancock can choose to be who he was created to be. But, 80 years ago, in the backstory, Hancock rejects that calling, gives into the temptation to be “normal,” opens himself up to the susceptibility of mortality, and while walking home from the theater (Boris Karloff’s FRANKENSTEIN) with Mary (his superhero "wife") he’s mugged, forgets who he is, and seems destined to live the rest of his life in a drunken stupor. Thus, in the backstory, by rejecting the truth of the moral premise, Hancock chooses to lead his life down a deeper, tragic path, further rejecting his natural gifts as the world’s crime stopper.

Now, this arc is also true of Mary, in a mythic, historical sense Hancock’s goddess wife. Sometime before the backstory they chose to dismiss their calling as mythic gods or angels to protect humankind and pair-up to live normal lives. As the diegesis rules go, when the “pair” are physically close they become morals and lose their super strength, but also end up being able to love and die. In living so, 80 years ago, they’re mugged and Hancock is seriously injured. He suffers amnesia and can’t remember who he is.

Mary, in a moral dilemma over her calling (and his), leaves him. Her intentions are partly noble. She hopes Hancock will regain his strength (with her away from him). There’s a suggestion that she also wants to assuage her guilt at turning away from their created calling. When Hancock tells this story to Ray and Mary at dinner, watch the multiple takes of Mary and her eyes; at this time Hancock does not remember who Mary is and she's not willing to tell him. Hancock laments that nobody claimed him at the hospital after the mugging, and since then he has had no clue about his past. Mary's guilt is palatable. But there is something special about Hancock; she says to him late in the movie:
You’re built to save people, more than the rest of us. That’s who you are. You’re a hero. The insurance policy of the gods. Keep one alive. You. To protect this world.
She further explains that “they” (implying their super enemies) always try to destroy Hancock by coming through her. Thus, to keep Hancock alive, Mary has tried to say away and keep them apart. But Hancock always seems to “find” her, as if by fate, although she’s quick to point out that fate doesn’t control all our lives, sometimes we can choose.

[A LITTLE CATHOLIC SIDEBAR. Probably unintended by the filmmakers, but if you have some Catholic sensibility you'll notice that this piece of story exposition parallels the Catholic teaching that that you can't come to Christ without coming to him through his mother, Mary. It was her choice (not fate) to obey her created calling to be his mother that allowed Christ to come into the world as its savior. Thus, you'll often hear in Catholic circles that we come to Christ through Mary, or we come to the Church through Mary. This was why, at the Council of Ephesus in 431 in order to protect Christ's identity as God incarnate, the Church proclaimed Mary "the Mother of God." The enemies of Christ were attacking Mary to get at Christ. The proclamation by the Council of Ephesus wasn't to elevate Mary, but was designed to protect Christ's identity. Thus in HANCOCK we see Mary trying to protect Hancock's identity as the mythic savior, and the bad guys using Mary to get at Hancock. On second thought, the parallels are pretty strong... wonder if they were intended allegorically???]


Movie Story Length: 84 min

Inciting Incident (Ideal: 12:5% or 10.5 minutes. Actual: Begins at 10.5 minutes.)

The inciting incident is that moment or scene where the protagonist is reminded that his life is not perfect, and yet it could be, if he would just go on a journey of redemption.

In HANCOCK, our protagonist rescues Ray from a train. When Hancock first taps on Ray’s hood to announce his arrival, we’re about 10:15 into the movie. Hancock lifts the car off the tracks at 10:30. But the rescue doesn’t sit well with the many people watching. Hancock has destroyed a few automobiles, a locomotive, and derailed a long train. As the people remind him, he could have chosen to do the rescue differently and not destroyed any property. They all call him to change, to go on a journey. But he calls them all idiots.

Ray then steps to Hancock's defense: “I’m alive. I get to go home and see my family.” The scene ends with Ray asking Hancock if he’s flying by the valley and could he (Hancock) “drop” him (Ray) off. Indeed, Hancock “drops” Ray and his car at his house. Ray invites Hancock to dinner, where he meets Mary and Aaron. After dinner, as Hancock leaves the house, Ray INVITES Hancock to go on a journey of change and redemption. Ray becomes Hancock’s mentor. These beats are perfect in terms of story structure. And as all protagonists should do, Hancock rejects the journey -- at first – only to return to go on the journey.

Notice that just after the train rescue, Hancock is also encouraged to go on a journey of change by the public who demand that he should have rescued Ray differently. But Hancock just ridicules them and rejects their invitation.

Crossing the Journey’s Threshold or End of Act 1 Climax (Ideal 25% or 21 minutes. Actual: 21 minutes.)

It’s Hancock's return to Ray’s house (around 21:00) that signals Hancock’s wiliness to be guided on the journey, but he has reservations, and doesn’t really cross a physical threshold until he agrees to go to prison for the past warrants for felony destruction of property (at 26:58). Thus, we see two thresholds crossed. First is Ray's doorstep and willingness to talk about what he has to change, but the second is the admission of his faults at a press conference and then entering prison.

While the threshold can be thought of as either or both of those two moments, I prefer to think of it as the first because: (a) he makes a conscious effort to consider the explicit offer, and (b) it fits with an audience’s need for a bump or beat to see the story advance. Indeed, at 20 minutes, just before Hancock greets Ray outside the house, there is a foreshadowing of Hancock’s arc when Hancock meets Michel, the neighborhood French bully of Aaron. When Michel calls Hancock an a--hole for the third time, Hancock throws Michel skyward and is caught moments later. Michel has traveled one of the faster arcs in cinema, literally, and emotionally. He leaves the street (aiming for the stars) as an arrogant bully, and returns to Earth a humble crybaby. The arc is similar to what we’ll see Hancock travel, from arrogant, dismissive, destructive “god” to humble, accountable, and constructive superhero.

Thus, the first half of Act 2 is in two sequences. The first sequence is at Ray’s house where Ray tries to convince Hancock that he can change and he needs to change, and that in changing, Hancock will better know who he is and (re)discover his purpose in life. The second sequence is Hancock in prison, where he comes to accept his need to do public penance and deal with his anger issues. Indeed, it works. After only a few weeks of an 8-year sentence, with crime on the rise in the city, Hancock is called out of prison by the Chief of Police. And we have a MOG.

Moment of Grace (MOG). (Ideal 50% or 42 minutes. Actual 40 minutes, with Hancock actually showing up at the bank robbery scene at 41 minutes.).

I’ve written somewhere before that MOG’s are essentially the time when a character figuratively looks in a mirror and sees a different person. Filmmakers sometimes, at the MOG, have the character literally look into a mirror. HANCOCK offers us a perfect example. At 40 minutes into the film, shortly after Hancock gets a call from the Chief of Police, there are several shots of Hancock looking into his prison cell’s tin mirror and then saving off his scruffy beard (with his fingers). Thus, every shot of Hancock before the MOG he wears a scruffy beard and a belligerent expression. Afterward the MOG he’s clean-shaven and accommodating.

Hancock shows up at the robbery scene at 41 minutes. For the first time he walks among the police and with a clean-shaven demeanor says to the cops in a staid silly way, “Good job.”(the actor playing the cop, by the way, is Will Smith's personal trainer.)  It’s a line that Ray rehearsed with Hancock during their PR training sessions in the prison visiting room. Needless to say, Hancock gets the job done in super heroic style and is rewarded with grand applause from the by-standers and the reinstatement of his popular hero status.

Near Death/Act 2 Climax: (Ideal: 75% or 63 minutes.) Actual: 63 minutes.

If mythic gods are going to fight in the heavenlies, then movie “gods” must do battle on the streets of Los Angeles (makes sense -- I guess.) The battle here is between Hancock and Mary, who is determined to keep Hancock from ruining her happy life as a mother and wife, and is likewise determined that he live his life apart from her so he can continue to be a superhero. After a bit of exposition at Hancock’s hilltop “trailer complex” she tells him they were (before) "brother and sister," But, he knows better and calls her a liar and flies off to tell Ray. Afraid that Hancock will ruin her marriage, she’s determined to stop him.

After an aerial chase that ricochets off a few hills they do battle on a street in downtown L.A. -- as Ray watches from a presentation boardroom in an office building, of which Mary and Hancock have stripped of its windows in a super sideswipe. The whole battle is the climax of Act 2 where Hancock battles Mary to discover who he really is, his goal. Her goal is to keep her "normal" life intact. She holds a secret and in an effort to reject HER created purpose and live a normal life, she wants to keep Hancock’s relationship with her and his past a secret as well. But Hancock is determined to not let that happen. It’s at 62:50 that Hancock calls her “crazy” to which Mary responds, “Call me crazy – one more time.” He says: “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!”  And at precisely 63 minutes she picks up a truck and slams him into the pavement. It's near death for most of us, and super eye candy for the rest.

Following the street battle, Hancock and Mary fly back to her home, just after Ray shows up. And the “Dark Night of the Soul” scenes commence with all three of them none too happy about the revelations and their tangled relationships.

Final Incident (Ideal: 87.5% or 73.5 minutes.) Actual: 75.5 minutes.
(followed by hand-to-hand combat to the death)

Red and his escaped cons attack Mary and then Hancock in hospital and would kill them both if it wasn’t for Ray who comes to Hancock’s rescue. Hancock is vulnerable becasue of his close proximity to Mary, who lies in a hosptial bed from a gunshot wound... something she sustained because she was so close to Hancock.

Final Climax/Act 3 (Ideal: 95-98%/ 80 min-82 minutes.) Actual: 81 minutes.
Hancock struggles to get away from the hospital so that Mary and he will both live -- and so he can live to fight crime another day, e.g. live to be who he was created to be.

The Dénouement finds Ray and Mary at a county fair as he drills her about the  men in her life and what they were like. He:" Attila the Hun?" She: "Cross-eyed." etc. Meanwhile, Hancock has relocated to the peak of the Empire State Building in Manhattan, where he stands guard with an Eagle at his side.

What’s next?

Rumor has it that HANCOCK 2 is in development.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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