the war lord
forced off his horse …
In light of recent developments, specifically the inaugural mugshot of a US president, I’ve been wondering exactly where we might be in the movie version of history right now. So I started a beat sheet for a modern fairy tale movie on the past events that have led up to this once upon a moment in time…
In Act One we are introduced to our main characters: our protagonist—an unlikely presidential nominee looking for a lifetime appointment, a complacent opposing party, and a few Cassandras heralding the warning to wake up.
On the night of the 2016 Election, the horror begins, the monster is inside the house. The inciting incident: the popular candidate loses with 3 million more votes than her opponent. We wake up on Freaky Friday morning and are suddenly thrust into a new, upside-down world of a reality TV show presidency. Get your popcorn ready.
At the top of Act Two is always the love interest: the First Lady graces the scene with her odd fashion and odder blood-red Christmas Trees. Fun and games ensue as environmental concerns are spat upon, migrant families are separated and children lost, walls are built. And in the middle of Act Two, a pandemic hits. The barely-elected president alternately disregards the truth and suggests drinking bleach. Hundreds of thousands die that year alone. He is impeached, not once, but twice.
The second half of Act Two is always troublesome and can be likened to a desert: a long stretch with no water in sight. . A new election and a new president rebuilds the country. A sigh of relief from the villagers. But all the while, behind the scenes, evil forces are at work planning, calling, texting. The insurrection is the Dark Night of the Soul. The Shadow of Death? A noose swinging in front of the Capitol.
The break into Three begins with Committee Hearings broadcast live to the masses, like a movie within a movie. The body politic is glued to screens as characters, dialogue, maps, and witnesses come forward. The domain of the protagonist is taken back by the people he stole from. Revelation is followed by indictments 1, 2, 3, & 4. We are now in the legal world of consequences. Will the anti-hero escape the snares?
Usually, by Act Three, the protagonist finds their old belief system can’t resolve problems for them as it once did in Act One. They can no longer get what they want the way they used to get it. They have to change their perspective, synthesize what they learned from the love interest in Act Two, and bring about a transformation in how they see the world.
In Act Three, George Bailey realizes he has value in his community and already has a wonderful life. In Act Three, Rick realizes some people do amount to more than a hill of beans and sacrifices his love for his country. In Act Three, Ripley saves the cat.
But do we really think this man wants the presidency back? Surrounded by prosecutors and fingerprinted like a thief, has he changed his POV? Or is he just trying to stay out of? On the other hand, would five years in prison really be a hardship for someone who can get in and out of the booking process at Fulton County Jail in twenty minutes?
At this point in the screenwriting process, there is no cat to save unless it’s democracy itself, hanging from a rope, and every writer knows how hard a co-protagonist structure is to write.
I think let’s “Oppenheimer” it. Go nuclear. Trash the three-act structure and storm right into the last 45 minutes of a three-hour movie like it’s a whole new film.
Let’s add a Fourth Act.
Act Four opens in a galaxy far, far away. A wide angle narrows on the earth as it spins until a nondescript city in the South comes into view. We focus on a shabby un-chic apartment with a sick, middle-aged woman and an adult tuxedo cat. She is depressed and broke. The cat fetches her stuffed toys, postcards from the fridge, packing materials, dropping them at her feet, meowing. This makes the woman laugh.
She begins taking videos of her intelligent, fetching cat and posts them on TikTok. Other people laugh. They follow her and she grows a community of tuxedo cat lovers. She is not depressed anymore.
Suddenly her cat becomes sick, very sick. He has cancer, but though she works, she doesn’t make enough money for treatment. The Tuxedo Cat Community comes to her rescue. She monetizes her videos and the cat gets treatment and lives, bringing her stuffies even while wearing a cat-cone of shame.
The videos keep coming, the support continues. She transforms into a content creator which makes her enough money to go back to school. She studies to become a paralegal during the pandemic and lands a job as a legal assistant in the Superior Court system in Atlanta. Everyone on staff also loves her talkative tuxedo cat.
This everywoman, our Fourth Act protagonist, is working late one night. In fact, the entire staff is working late. A very important day, August 14, 2023. The sheriff has brought a 98-page indictment, years in the making, and the staff stays late to process it so the press conference can take place.
At the end of the night, she comes home and turns on the news. The District Attorney thanks her boss and the staff. The tuxedo cat carries a large stuffed toy, a squid, into her office, meowing as he drops it at her feet.
Fade to black.
But note: In this alternate ending, it’s not the protagonist’s POV that needs to change, it’s ours.
The man who would be president forever is in his own TV mini-series has no concept of a full character arc, just one double-down on top of another. He stares down the camera lens in his mugshot in defiance because what else is he supposed to do? He didn’t learn the lessons of Act Two. Like a badly-scripted, underfunded Western, he’s heading for the showdown, not seeking self-awareness.
Screenplays these days are more like haiku. The filmmaker leaves a gap in the story for the viewer to enter. The mind must make a leap from passive watcher to active participant, and in this story, there need to be many active participants. We are all co-conspirators of the truth: the DA, the staff, the paralegal, the toy-fetching cat.
In the end, we care less about what happens to the evil protagonist and more about how we can move into that gap, change the POV, become a part of the narrative, whether we are Sigourney Weaver, or just the cat.
Haiku by Kobayashi Issa
Photos in collage by Liana Mikah and Artem Sapegin on Unsplash
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