Monday, January 24, 2011

Black Swan - Script vs. the film - Part I: Lily

Oscar nominations are coming out later this week, and as it happens I long ago had to read a draft of Black Swan. It was about a year-and-a-half between reading the script and getting to see the finished film, and though I thought there were interesting aspects to the script, there were other elements that I wasn't convinced would work on screen. After seeing the movie, I was struck by how certain details translated to the screen, and how even small changes had a big impact on the meaning of the film.

The draft I read is credited only to Mark Heyman and it's dated June 2009. The final screen credits are: "story by Andres Heins, screenplay by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin." That's per IMDB, but I'm pretty sure Heyman was listed second on-screen, which suggests the first draft was written by Heinz (which the "story by" credit also supports), with Heyman rewriting him, and McLaughlin rewriting Heyman.

(Don't email me asking for it. For one thing, it's a hard copy and not a PDF that I'm in possession of, and secondly, I don't need the heat that comes with openly trading scripts. Don't link to any script PDFs in the comments either, please.)

How a character is introduced can have a major impact on how they are received, but when a character is introduced can also be of crucial import. If you've seen the film, you'll know that dancer Nina (Natalie Portman) meets her rival Lily (Mila Kunis) very early in the film, probably in the first ten minutes. Lily is "the new girl" and she makes a memorable appearance by coming to dance class late, disrupting Nina's audition for the Black Swan.

But that's not how she turns up in Heyman's draft. There, she doesn't arrive until p. 33 - arriving after Nina got the role of the Swan Queen. There she turns up in mid-rehearsal, and Nina is momentarily taken aback because - as the description notes - "she looks EXACTLY like Nina." Then moments later, it's noted "she no longer looks exactly like Nina" but then Nina herself remarks, "She looks a lot like me."

There's a couple of points I want to make here. The first is that the script is very heavy-handed with the resemblance between the two. There are several scenes where the reader is shown again and again that they look exactly alike. Part of this is that the script is describing something that will be more elegantly seen than read, but it also feels like there was an attempt in the final film to simplify the doubling moments.

Clearly, we can understand why the script would play up that subtext. After all, this is about a dancer who has to play essentially two roles in Swan Lake, so the duality theme is already an organic part of the story. The problem sets in when the script doesn't know when to quit. It bludgeons the reader with the symbolism to such an extent that I recall wondering if the same actress was going to play both roles. After all, the writing makes the distinction only between "looks exactly like Nina" and "looks a lot like Nina" so it seemed like they could have gone with casting Portman in both parts and merely giving her a slightly edgier look for Lily - except when she had to be EXACTLY the same as Nina.

Why did I think Portman might play both parts? Because this draft has moments that strongly imply that Lily might not be real at all - that she's just a figment of Nina's imagination. We see Lily interact with other characters, simultaneous to Nina being there, but those who've seen Fight Club know that isn't always a guarantee that both characters are real.

Also in this draft, Lily doesn't show up until after Nina's gotten the part and AFTER she's been told she need to find her Black Swan. Interesting how after she's given that directive, someone shows up who personifies exactly what Nina needs to find in herself. Could it be that she doesn't exist until Nina's mind creates her? Between this and the resemblance being hammered home in a lot of scenes, I wouldn't have blamed many readers if they assumed that was the interpretation the writer was going for.

It was a problem for me. I wasn't sure if Lily was supposed to be real or an aspect of Nina's imagination. Since the script put that possibility out there so firmly, I was expecting a climax that would provide a definitive answer - or at the very least, provide some ambiguity with a possible summation (along the lines of not knowing if the top will fall in Inception.) But we'll discuss the ending in a later part.

In the film, the physical resemblance between the two seems limited to hair color and (sort of) body type. That seems to be a wise decision, and bringing in Lily earlier makes it more apparent that she's real. There's still the possibility that Nina imagines some of her interactions with the girl - but the film itself seems to demonstrate that there is a physical Lily. I think that works better for the movie.

And to be fair to Mark Heyman, a story as complex as this is going to need a few drafts to work out the kinks and to make the writer's intent crystal clear. I don't want this to read like I'm bashing his draft because there's no way to know if I'm off-base in this interpretation or if he was getting his marching orders from someone who specifically ordered these changes. This wasn't the first draft of the script, so it very well could have been a draft that was attempting eventually aborted concepts.

Was Lily meant to be real in the June 2009 draft? I don't know, but I do recall thinking that the script's ambiguity about her very existence could make the film too confusing for casual viewers.

Part II: Nina
Part III: Beth
Part IV: The Natalie Portman/Mila Kunis Sex Scene


  1. Thanks for posting this, it’s a really interesting article.

    I caught Black Swan yesterday and was quite disappointed as I actually preferred Heyman's version of the story. I thought a lot of the nuances of this draft had been abandoned in favour of more standard horror tropes.

    I shared your interpretation from reading the screenplay that Lily didn't really exist because like you said she appears after Nina is told to find her Black Swan. In the film I was of the definite opinion Lily existed but Nina imagined some of their encounters.

    I think by clarifying that Lily is real adds more conflict to the story in an All About Eve kind of way as it adds to Nina's paranoia and fear that she's going to lose the role. Imaginary Lily would add nothing more to the story other than hammering home that Nina really is losing her mind.

  2. Creative Screenwriting has a podcast with Andres Heinz and co-writer Mark Heyman about Black Swan.

    In it they discuss the film's earliest drafts. It was a completely different film to the one it became; and the same goes for the role and character of Lily.

    Here's the podcast's URL:

    "In the film I was of the definite opinion Lily existed but Nina imagined some of their encounters."
    That is how the film was written. Lily is real, but Nina was coming undone mentally and imagined some of her encounters with her.

  3. Richard - Thanks for the link. Unfortunately I probably won't get a chance to read it before the rest of the posts in this series go live.

  4. I think the stabbing of Beth scene is an important step on the way to Nina stabbing Lilly with the mirror shard. Beth appears to stab herself with the file; Nina runs away only to realise she is holding the bloody file. Was it her that stabbed Beth? We've been primed to take on board the possibility that Nina is now so unhinged that she might be capable of violence. It ratchets up our concern for the character. Foreshadowing in films is an interesting area for discussion. Any takers.

  5. Well, I do think that Nina stabbed Beth. I'm not sure there is a way to really know for sure if she did, but after watching the film, it's hard for me to think she didn't.

    I have to watch this a second time. I'm interested in trying to watch scenes with the open mind that Nina is an unstable eyewitness. I think back to the gala scene when Beth walks away disappointed. I believe you see that Nina has drank some of her champagne and appears confused that she did. What else did she imagine from that scene?

  6. Interesting... I think that it was possible that Nina stabbed Beth, but I also leaned toward the theory that it was in her head and her first real act of violence was when she stabbed what she thought was Lily. The main reason I'm not willing to 100% commit to her stabbing Beth is that the violence done to Beth is never really revisited. It's not even mentioned. You could say that the blood on the file is evidence something happened, but then we have the disappearing blood in the dressing room to contradict that.

    This is one of those points where there probably is no "correct" answer, as the film leaves itself open to multiple interpretations. My own feeling is that it's more meaningful for Nina's first truly violent act to be the one on herself as opposed to one that the film doesn't totally validate.

    As for your point about the champagne, Carlos, I have to admit that I don't recall that detail clearly enough to offer any informed opinion, but I will watch for it on my next viewing.