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Stalking the perfect ending

Spoiler alert: Oscar-contending writers agonized over final moments

Spoilers ahead!

Watching a movie is a little like going out on a date. A good first impression matters, and if you can get through dinner without too many awkward silences, you might just have it made. But come the end of the evening, if the kiss goodnight doesn’t go well, that’s all anybody is ever going to remember.

“There’s a terrible old cynical quote that editors tell,” says Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (“127 Hours”). “There are only two things that matter in a film, the beginning and the end … and the beginning not so much.”

While no writer worthy of his word processor really thinks that, all aspire to the perfect ending. What constitutes that perfect finish though, and how one reaches it, are as varied as the screenplays themselves.

(Spoilers to follow, to say the least.)

“Toy Story 3”

For Michael Arndt, Oscar-winner screenwriter for “Little Miss Sunshine,” the metaphor he uses for the perfect ending, ironically, is the weeping beauty queen: “The paradox of someone who’s struggled so long to reach a goal, suffered through hardships, setbacks and disappointments, and then when she finally achieves that goal, in what you’d think would be a moment of happiness and triumph, she bursts into tears.”

After writing the screenplay for “Toy Story 3,” Arndt encountered people who, while they loved the movie, thought the second act was only pretty good, but the ending was great. “The reason, I think, is that what we’re doing with the characters of the toys in the second act is piling hardship upon hardship, setback upon setback, disappointment on disappointment,” he says, “so when you finally get to the third act, and the toys return to Andy and he vindicates their trust by showing how much he loves each and every one of them, the audience feels that same rush of emotion, that same sense of release, that same feeling of catharsis.

“You judge a work by the cumulative emotional impact of it,” Arndt adds, “and any good piece of writing, from the very first frame of the movie, is going to be heading toward a moment of emotional release or euphoria or catharsis, and I think that is how you should judge whether a story succeeds or not.”

“127 Hours”

Catharsis, euphoria and emotional release were definitely themes for Boyle and Simon Beaufoy with the ending of “127 Hours.” But they had additional complications working from Aron Ralston’s true-life survival story, since “every single person that goes into the cinema knows exactly what happens,” says Beaufoy, who earlier collaborated with Boyle on “Slumdog Millionaire.”

“The trick was to make people forget — somehow involve them so much in the experience he’s going through that they completely forget that everything is going to be OK,” says Beaufoy. “I genuinely didn’t know how to do it,” he admits, adding that he initially turned down the project until he read a draft from Boyle, a first-time screenwriter on the film. “He’d written it visual by visual by visual, like a director would do, and I suddenly understood precisely how he was going to do it, that we were going to be totally inside Aron’s head.”

For the actual climactic escape from the canyon, they hewed very close to the details from Ralston’s book. “We wanted to guard against either sensationalizing it too much (or) making it into a horror film,” explains Boyle, “or even worse, trivializing it and actually making it look easier or quicker than it was. There’s a brutality about it of course, but it’s actually very poetic as well.”

It was the very end of the movie, when he makes it back to civilization, which gave them the most problems. “We ended the film with a series of dialogue scenes — first with his mother and then with his sister and then with the French girlfriend whom he broke up with in the film,” says Boyle. “We did what everybody always asks you to do, which is arrive at some completion for the characters.

“Each of the scenes was beautifully performed and very touching, but they didn’t really work. Someone pointed out that we’d stepped outside the grammar of the film and that once the audience had bought into that, you couldn’t suddenly jettison it and go back to a conventional ending where each story is neatly and emotionally tied up.”

Adds Beaufoy: “I think the film will tell you what its ending should be, and sometimes that isn’t necessarily always what you want it to be.”

“The Social Network”

In “The Social Network,” Aaron Sorkin encountered similar issues adapting the true story of Facebook’s creation.

“If the movie had been fiction and I could’ve done anything I wanted,” Sorkin says, “the ending wouldn’t have been as good, because I would have been too tempted to go with the satisfying ending — to have Erica respond to Mark’s friend request, and have the two start typing back and forth. In other words, I would have been too tempted to have the strings come in and have a feel-good ending.

“Most of the time when you’re writing nonfiction, it’s confining and restricting because you have to stick to the truth, but in this case it saved me,” he admits. “It’s a much more mature and sophisticated ending, just as at the end of ‘Inception,’ we want to see if that top is going to fall or not. I like that the audience is left wondering what’s going to happen once we go to black.”

“Rabbit Hole”

David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Rabbit Hole,” the story of a couple dealing with the loss of a child, also leaves its aud wondering what’s going to happen next.

“I like the audience leaving with an answer and a question,” Lindsay-Abaire says. “Hopefully the answer is something like, ‘That’s what happened, that makes total sense,’ and the question is something like, ‘But what happens next?’ ”

Lindsay-Abaire, adapting his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, stuck close to the play’s ending, while opening it up to make it more cinematic. In the final scene onstage, the couple reaches a point where they can finally imagine a normal day together.

“In the movie, we actually see that day unfold,” explains Lindsay-Abaire. “So in a funny way this is like the last rabbit hole of the story. We get to see what is going to be: It’s a vision of the future. The ending is like a beginning because I wanted to have a somewhat hopeful ending without it being tied up in a big bow.”

“Black Swan”

The three writers on “Black Swan” — Mark Heyman, John McLaughlin and Andres Heinz — faced a different kind of dilemma with their ending.

“It’s a big decision to kill off your main character,” says Heyman. “You want to make sure that you’ve done your work to set the audience up to feel OK with that and have it not feel cheap and gimmicky.”

The original script, “The Understudy,” was set in the world of theater, not ballet, but the ending was similar, according to Heinz, who originated that version.

“What (director) Darren (Aronofsky) and Mark did, which is so brilliant, is adding the ‘Swan Lake’ theme, which encompasses the entire story and the characters’ story,” Heinz says. “It was just a brilliant move to incorporate that into my ending and elevate the entire material where the story and the characters all fold into each other with the ‘Swan Lake’ story.”

Adds Heyman: “It was very important to Darren and to me that the film end sort of in lock-step with the ballet, but we didn’t want the ending to just be this clever thing like, ‘Oh, she died like the girl in the ballet.’ We wanted it to have some kind of emotional weight and significance and somehow be satisfying, even though it’s tragic. We had been struggling to figure out what layer we could put on the ending so that it felt like she had achieved something even as she had destroyed herself.”

Heyman showed a draft to a friend who’d been a professional ballet dancer: “Her reaction was that we’d done a very good job of showing the scary and intense parts of the world, and how fucked up it can be. But we hadn’t really shown why people do it, what’s the draw, the beauty, the transcendent aspect of it.”

It was this notion of perfection and transcendence that would ultimately fuel Natalie Portman’s character’s drive to be perfect while destroying herself in the process, making it literally, the “perfect” ending.

The perfect ending

For all the writers, finding that perfect ending is often not easy. “You can count yourself lucky if you know exactly how you want your story to end,” says Sorkin. Adds Lindsay-Abaire, “I try to have an end in sight, so there is a goal, but I also try to stay loose enough so it isn’t predetermined.”

Sometimes the perfect ending can also come from unexpected places. “Good writing tends to be a series of happy accidents,” says Arndt.

But for all, there is a universal consensus that the perfect ending has to transform the audience in some small way.

“I think you watch films in a kind of spell,” Boyle says. “It’s like you’re suspended in space, not really breathing, and so when you leave the cinema, your pulse kicks back in and it’s life affirming. … It doesn’t have to be dancing and happy; it can be funny and savage. But you still feel that pulse of life.”

Just like the perfect kiss goodnight.

More from Eye on the Oscar: Screenplay
Stalking the perfect ending
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