Page to screen: Structure in Live By Night
A novel moves at a different pace to a movie, as Ben Affleck's wannabe gangster epic proves.
I thought I'd love Ben Affleck's Prohibition-era wannabe gangster epic Live By Night. I'm partial to some rum-runnin', tommy-gunnin' action, and I hoped the Boston setting would be a fresh twist on the usual Chicago locale.
Sadly, about three quarters of the way through I had to fit the film for a concrete overcoat. So as a writer and script reader, I decided to examine Affleck's 2016 flick to see why I switched off from the story.
The main problem for me was a structure that might have worked on the pages of the source novel, but not on the screen.
So what can we learn about structure from Live By Night? I'm going to ask questions about the film's structural problems and throw out some suggestions to address those issues, similar to the sort of questions and suggestions I'd give as feedback on your script.
What's it about?
The story involves hot-headed Boston gunsel Joe, played by Ben Affleck. This dumb palooka is playing hotsy-totsy with the local big cheese's main squeeze and ends up in the hoosegow, before taking a powder to Florida to run a rum-running business.
In other words, it's basically Miller's Crossing revisited - which was in turn an homage to Yojimbo, Red Harvest etc.
Now, there's nothing wrong with genre tropes if they're delivered with a fresh voice - like Miller's Crossing - but Live By Night cleaves too faithfully to the archetypal gangster story.
Familiar tropes aside, the biggest problem is the structure of the story. After the first act set in Boston, the movie grinds to a halt when Joe goes to jail. His father then dies, cutting short that subplot and wasting any emotional investment in their relationship. And then Joe leaves Boston behind, strolling off to Florida to get involved with a different criminal element.
So not only do we have to sit through the derivative first act, but the derivative characters we've invested in abruptly disappear while the film restarts with a bunch of new characters!
What can we learn?
Live By Night gives a clear example of the differences between structuring a novel and a movie.
When Joe goes to jail for a few years, the story basically stops dead. That hefty jump in time and location might make Dennis Lehane's 2012 source novel feel sweeping and epic, but sucks the life out of the movie adaptation.
One of the things that's missing is a sense of urgency. The film needed a way to chase the main character to Florida rather than having him stroll there in such a leisurely fashion. A novel may be able to sweep along over the course of years or decades, but a screenplay needs drive. It needs momentum. It needs urgency. As screenwriting legend William Goldman puts it, "The camera is relentless. Makes you keep running".
Along with clear goals and high stakes, urgency is one of the biggest driving force of a screenplay - especially an action story.
A popular writing maxim is to put your character up a tree and throw rocks at them. Part of that is to never let your characters stroll when you can chase them.
Time jumps can work in a movie, but when there's no actual chronological urgency there needs to be some kind of thematic urgency tying together the two portions of the story: a pursuit, an unresolved issue, a simmering grudge. Look at other movies where a character goes to prison, like The Departed, where the only thing the character or the viewer can think about is what's going to happen when they get out.
Following William Goldman's advice to come into a scene or a story as late as possible, Live By Night could have either tossed the opening section or pared it down to a very minimal, all-action prologue. We could meet Joe's dying dad, see him go after the guy who offed his dame, and run to Florida with a price on his head, all in the first act. That would trim the fat from the structure and jump-start the second act with some much-needed urgency.
Starting over again in the second act sucked the life out of Live By Night, and it never recovered. If you want your screenplay to avoid that kind of problem, ditch the hooch and wire me a telegram for some swell script notes.