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(500) Days of Summer Beat Sheet

By on February 9, 2010 in Beat Sheets, Rites of Passage

Screenwriter Ben Frahm offers his take on the indie hit “(500) Days of Summer.”

You might recognize Ben’s name from Blake’s congratulatory blog. Ben developed and sold (for six figures) his comedy, “Dr. Sensitive,” using the tried and true STC! principles. Way to go, and thank you, Ben!

What I liked about this movie is that it took a very simple premise, seen countless times in romantic comedies — “Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. And then, boy loses girl” — and found a fresh and structurally “new” way to tell this story. The plot device of counting, recounting, and recollecting the various 500 days that Tom knew Summer, is what allows us to jump around in structure and visit various stages of their brief relationship. While I’m certain that there are a bunch of people out there who claim a movie like this defies all of the structural teachings of Save the Cat!, I challenge them to take a closer look. This movie fits perfectly into the 15 beats, and, even though it does wander in a few places, the structure is clear and succinct. Let’s beat it out!

Spoiler Alert!

mv5bmtayodk1nzk5njzeqtjeqwpwz15bbwu3mdi0ndi2mdm_v1_sx100_sy132_Opening Image: Tom Hansen and Summer Finn sit on a park bench in downtown Los Angeles. We don’t know exactly what they’re doing there, but they seem to be in love — her hand rests on top of his. However, a closer look reveals something that we will understand later in the movie. Summer is wearing an engagement ring. At this point, it’s fair to assume that it might be Tom’s ring, right?

Theme Stated: Tom plays Wii tennis with his younger sister, who acts as a confidante and mentor in this story, and he chatters on and on about how much he is in love with Summer: “She likes the Smiths… she must be the one!”

The sister, concerned that her brother is so head-over-heels for this girl that he might get his heart broken, tells him: “Just because some stupid girl likes the same stupid music as you doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate.” This challenges Tom. He is hopelessly optimistic about relationships and particularly this girl. Sometimes, he gets so carried away that he has trouble realizing what’s really happening. This sets the stage for our theme… will Tom be able to determine “expectation vs. reality”? As he commences this journey to understand Summer — and their relationship, these two realities will compete for Tom’s attention. Ultimately it is up to him to understand the difference.

Set-Up: Quite possibly the strongest and most efficient section of this movie.mv5bmti4mjaznzqynl5bml5banbnxkftztcwmtc4nde4mg_v1_cr00400400_ss100_

We meet the two major characters in very quick scenes with rapid imagery that helps us capture and understand them.

Summer Finn: As a child she loved to cut her hair, severing inches at a time and never caring once about it. (This sets her up as a flippant character, who, perhaps, feels the same way about her hair as she does relationships.) We discover that Summer sold ice cream during the summer — and sales spiked. The same for the music she listened to… an unpredictable sales surge. And every apartment that Summer has ever rented went for 9.82% below market value. Summer has a way with people. People have always been drawn to Summer.

Tom Hansen: Listening to sappy music and misinterpreting “The Graduate,” he grew up thinking that he would only find happiness when he found the perfect girl. And this never happened… until he met Summer.

mv5bmjk4njgwnjk5m15bml5banbnxkftztcwmtyymdi3mg_v1_cr1000400400_ss100_Enough said. We know our characters, and they fit perfectly into our story. They have character traits and flaws (limps and eye patches) that propel, raise the stakes, and keep our story moving forward. Think about it… if Tom was a different guy who just went to bars to hook up and never cared about anyone, we wouldn’t have a movie. These two characters offer the perfect storm, and are what allows for this to be a successful movie.

Catalyst: While working at the greeting card company, Tom rides the elevator with Summer. Tom listens to the Smiths; Summer likes this. Tom is smitten. Our journey — and his — begins.

Debate: Will Tom suck it up and ask Summer out? Will Tom get together with Summer? Will they be more than friends? What does Summer think about relationships?

Break into Two: The office has “end of the week drinks” at The Pirate bar (actually a really cool spot in downtown Los Angeles, called The Redwood, I believe. Check it out!) Summer sings karaoke. Tom is head over heels.

Tom’s work buddy, McKenzie, is there to help the cause. McKenzie gets drunk. Tom summons the courage to sing karaoke — which Summer likes.

As the night progresses, Tom and Summer put a now-wasted McKenzie in a cab, and McKenzie spills the beans, “You know, Tom really likes you.” This is a death moment for the self-conscious Tom, but Summer thinks it’s cute. And, per their subsequent conversation, we have a new dramatic question that will propel our second act: “You like me, as a friend, right?” This is what Summer tells Tom, and this is the essential question and source of conflict in the movie. Can a guy who is madly in love with a girl have a “casual friendship,”  even if they are acting like boyfriend and girlfriend?  Summer doesn’t want anything serious. Tom wants everything serious. Conflict!

B Story: Skimpy and a little empty, this is a weak spot. This could have been an mv5bmzu3mdg3ntq4nf5bml5banbnxkftztcwmdc4nde4mg_v1_cr00400400_ss100_ideal opportunity to introduce another couple that is struggling with similar issues, or a different relationship dynamic that teaches our guy Tom something new about his predicament. But we don’t get that.  We get his sister and buddies and coworkers, who act as confidantes and mentors… they are the ones listening to Tom recall the various “500 days” of his relationship with Summer. These characters do help Tom ultimately learn the theme, but it’s primarily through static scenes that feel empty and, dare I say, repetitive.

Fun and Games: Tom and Summer act as boyfriend and girlfriend, but are not truly boyfriend and girlfriend, because that’s not what Summer wants. She just wants to have fun. They go to Ikea and play on the furniture. They scour a record store for Ringo albums. They explore downtown Los Angeles. Tom is getting closer and closer to Summer, who continues to be a rather flippant and non-committal character. Note: The structure technique of jumping back and forth allows us to see earlier moments in their relationship when things are going well, and then later in their lives, when Tom and Summer aren’t even together anymore. Regardless of the technique, Tom is starting to change as a character.  This is everything he’s ever wanted. And to our surprise, we even start to see change in Summer…

03719Midpoint: Our narrator lets us know that this was an especially important event in Tom and Summer’s relationship.  They’ve just come home from a date and Summer shows Tom her apartment. And not only that, for the first time, she starts to open up to Tom. She tells him of her dreams. Her nightmares. The things that make her happy. And scared. Summer has never done this before with anyone. Tom feels special, as if he’s finally getting through to Summer. And, as Blake used to say, we have our “Sex at 60”! Tom and Summer make love.

Bad Guys Close In: The next day, Tom is overcome with happiness. He’s dancing. Singing. When he sees his reflection he feels just as handsome as Harrison Ford in “Star Wars.” Everything is looking good for Tom.

Tom tells his friends that they are wrong about Summer. They don’t know anything about real relationships. Another change: He’s not listening to his mentors anymore; he thinks that he knows what he’s doing. We see tensions arise between our character and the B story.

Tom’s newfound confidence causes problems. At a bar, a random dude hits on Summer. Tom, overzealous, punches the man in the face, and in turn, he gets knocked out. Tom loves this, as he feels fearless. Summer doesn’t love this because she doesn’t know why he’s acting this way. “Friends don’t act like this!” Oh no, she said it! These are the worst words imaginable for Tom, and he flips out. “We’re not friends. Friends don’t act like this.”

The next few scenes wander. The only conflict driving the story is the impending break-up. Someone fell asleep at the wheel here and decided to kill some time before the next sequence…

All Is Lost: Our plot device allows us to jump around. We start off with Summer and Tom going to the movies together. And then quickly cut away to see only Tom sitting in the movie theater. Alone. He looks like heck. He’s broken up with Summer.

Dark Night of the Soul: Summer has left her position at the company as an assistant to Tom’s boss.

Tom can’t keep it together at work, and is assigned to write “grieving/sympathy” cards, a reflection of his devastated state of mind.

Tom has trouble getting out of bed.

Tom gets kicked off the bus for yelling crazy things.

Tom tells a random couple holding hands to get a room; he goes on blind dates, but can only talk about Summer. The blind dates think he’s crazy.

Break into Three: This is a little unique. I believe the break into Three is a secondary “FALSE VICTORY” for Tom — what Blake referred to as a “double bump.”

Tom is on a train to San Diego for a coworker’s wedding, and of course, Summer is there. They catch up and dance together.

Are Tom and Summer going to get back together? We can only hope. Summer invites Tom to a party she’s having…

Finale: Summer’s party.03699

This is the thematic climax. Tom realizes that it wasn’t Summer that has caused all of this pain, but rather, it was his doing. Tom’s knack for overly romanticizing and idealizing everything that happens in his life — especially the love and interest that he had for Summer — is captured perfectly in the finale.

Via split screens, the writers show us the gaping differences between what Tom “expects” in life and what “actually happens.”

A title card reads: “Expectations vs. realities”.

We see various scenes at the party where Tom tries to catch the attention of Summer and fails. He had high hopes for this party, but we know ultimately that he has to step back and see what is really happening. Summer has moved on in her personal life. This is the reality.

Tom now has to put all of his expectations and fantasies aside and come to grips with the situation. Summer is engaged. And it’s not to Tom. (Remember our theme stated: “Just because she likes the same music doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate.”) At that time in the story, Tom was taking even the most miniscule of things and assigning grand and cosmic value to them. He was misinterpreting relationships in his life, just as he grew up misinterpreting “The Graduate.”

But, after his journey with Summer, he has realized the truth. And even though it hurts a lot, he’s going to be okay. He has learned this lesson and he is in a better place because of it.

Tom quits his job at the greeting card company and applies for new jobs. Summer gets married.

037001Final Image: The sequence begins on a bench, the same scene as in the Opening, but now we understand that the wedding ring on Summer’s hand is not Tom’s — it’s from another man. Summer is married. Tom and Summer talk for the last time. This is the title card (#500). This is the final day that Tom knows Summer.

Another slight twist on the rules:

The “final” Final Image: Tom goes for an interview at a famous architectural firm. He meets a girl, Autumn, in the waiting room. A new title card pops up: (#1) Autumn. Tom is a new guy, with a new outlook on life and a new relationship. We only hope that it will last more than 500 days…

Not too bad, right? You can see that this seemingly “indie” and different and unique story actually satisfies the STC! rules perfectly. It’s good writing. It’s fresh. And it’s a new look at a very worn genre, the romantic comedy.

This is the script that put writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber on the map. Its first draft earned them the “Pink Panther” rewrite gig, and also got them into the Sundance Writing Lab, where they continued to develop “(500) Days Of Summer.” They’ve since sold a few specs, one, called “Underage,” for 650K to the Montecito Company. They are currently developing a TV project with Imagine’s Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. If you haven’t already, read the script; it will help you see the structure even more.

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  1. Naomi Naomi says:

    It might not be perfect, but this was my favorite movie of 2009. 🙂

    Great job breaking down the beats!

  2. Forrest Knutson says:

    Fantastic breakdown! I loved this movie. You said it, a great fresh take on the good ol’ Rom-Com.

  3. Josef Lemoine says:

    Yeah, I love this film.

    I know you stand by your breakdowns, and I respect that, but I thought the “All Is Lost” moment was Tom seeing Summer’s engagement ring (because, like the catalyst, it happened TO Tom and it is his lowest point).

    I thought the “Dark Night of the Soul” involved him quitting his job, staying in bed, surviving on Twinkies, and telling a happy couple to “get a room!” Then the soccer field pep talk with his sister (the true B Story) inspired the epiphany necessary for him to “Break into Three.”

    Tom “Planned to Storm the Castle” by drawing and studying architecture again (his once neglected passion); he “Entered the Bad Guys’ Fort” when he started interviewing for architectural jobs; and “THE TRAP!” was running into Summer for one final time. But Tom “Digs Down Deep,” by letting her go for good, and his “Final Battle”/test of growth comes when he meets Autumn at a job interview. After a great first impression, he walks away from her, but before he disappears, he takes the initiative (something he was unable to do with Summer) and asks her out. The story wraps up with Autumn accepting the invitation with a big grin, and the Final Image is Tom (no one else in frame) standing and looking into the camera, a confident new man (a reversal of the first image with he and Autumn sitting together on a bench).

    But that’s just my take.

  4. Jon says:

    It’s amazing how the Beat sheet can fit into any film, even ones like (500) Days of Summer with unusual narratives!

  5. OK since nobody is going for it,I say the Genre is a “Dude with a problem”.Now I’ll admit I got a strong hint on page 26 of the script.[PAUL],”Dude, you got Problems.” And if I am wrong have at it.
    I would appreciate it if someone identifies audience. I see that a major player is a 12 year old girl,and is this an R rated film?
    IT Doesn’t matter to me but I can see the older crowd having a hard time keeping up with this thing.I say this tongue in cheek as I’m 63.
    THE TOOLS! Oh these writers have a big box of screenwriting tools.WHOO-EE I can see why they got hooked up so well.
    The story is plain as dirt.Excellant writing and harmony with form eventually takes the day,And nobody gets blown up or pregnant by their Daddy or worse.

  6. Sam Levine says:

    Nice breakdown. Enjoyed this film.

  7. Josef Lemoine says:

    Captain Perry, this is definitely Buddy Love.

  8. Oh Josef Dude has got the same problem with both seasons like the wind blows.His problem is part of his DNA from scene one to end. Summer pegs him when she calls him “lover boy”.First he has a hearing problem.I heard the chick say up front she just wanted a quickie. Now who wouldn’t go for that and just say “Thank You”.A Dude With A Problem”

  9. Stephen Todoro says:

    Excellent breakdown, Ben. I love it when a less obvious structure works with the STC! beat sheet because it proves that much more how well STC! works. It also shows that STC! is not built solely around “Formula”, but form (and good function within). I have to say that I agree with the breakdown in that the “All Is Lost” point was in/around the movie theater scene. I think that this is supported by the “Dark Night Of The Soul” and funky “Break Into Three” beats that follow. To be fair, I really need to re-watch it but I felt like Tom seeing the engagement ring was past the “All Is Lost” point (at least, to me) but that’s what makes this fun. Either way, I need to watch this again. I do not see this as a “Dude With A Problem”. Yes, Tom has a problem but that just makes it a story, not a genre.

  10. Josef Lemoine says:

    Yeah, Perry, quickies may be “life or death battles” in your neck of the woods, but not much where else.

    Buddy Love according to Blake Snyder:
    1. Incomplete Hero
    2. Counterpart
    3. Complication

    As for Ben’s Break into Three, it just doesn’t feel like a true break to me, because Tom doesn’t act decisively toward a clear goal, until he sets out to be an architect. Things before that just keep happening to him, which makes the scene at the coworker’s wedding feel much more like Bad Guys Close In…to me.

  11. Be nice Josef Being a cave man isn’t so bad.OK I will look at it again,maybe you are write, but I want you to know that I am still in the “Hurt Locker” about my “Monster in the House.”

  12. As I am referring to our handy “Save the Cat goes to the Movies” book,I notice that our beloved Cat has not been named.Captain Perry dubs him,”Claude-Pierre-Lafitte-Gastone-Beaudrot-BabyCat.Top that Josef,but you are right,the movie is not a DWAP.It is a “Rites of Passage”.

  13. Jose Jose says:

    Thanks again for all your comments and thoughts. Captain Perry, we couldn’t agree more with you that this is a Rites of Passage movie. Tom has a “life problem” and has a “wrong” way of attacking it. As Ben nicely puts in the BS2, Tom always misinterpreted relationships and signs in his life. He thinks that Summer’s love is the answer to his problems. But in the end, he has to “accept the hard truth,” it was never Summer or his friends who needed to change, it was him.

  14. William says:

    No genre posted again… you guys are killin me! lol

  15. Anne says:

    Hi, William!

    In the post above yours (No. 13), Jose ID’s the Cat! take on “(500) Days of Summer” genre! Have a different idea? Post it! But we did answer zee question!

  16. William if you had read the two post before yours you would have seen it.You are busted for not reading other peoples blogs.We matter too you know.Now I hope you can handle a little good natured ribbing.How bout rubbing?How bout dem squirrels.

  17. Kathy360 says:

    I loved this movie, but wished they had not used the “Mr. Movie Voice” type announcer for the voice overs. In my opinion, if Tom had narrated it would have been a little more sweet and less sappy. Just my humble opinion.

    Also, I tried to read this script before I saw the movie and I couldn’t believe they were able to pitch this and get it made…just because it required a little work to read.

  18. Horatio says:

    Uff, Joseif Lemoine’s got a point, or maybe many points to be taken. Really good views.

  19. adrian says:

    When I read the screenplay I understood Summer better, why she left him.
    WHen I saw the movie, I didnt understand. I thought she was being a bitch.
    The actor needed to show Tom a little more needy