Monday, March 10, 2014

"Stealing the burrito" - the inverse of "save the cat."

I've actually been meaning to write a post about this for a while.  This falls into the category of "Things that once I might have blogged about but got out of my system via Twitter and failed to revisit."  This has been happening more and more frequently, but I'll try to be more diligent about gathering these musings here too.

Most of you are probably familiar with the principle of "save the cat," coined by screenwriter Blake Snyder. The idea is that in order to get the audience on the side of your protagonist, you need to show them committing some sort of heroic or selfless act.  Usually, "save the cat" is a metaphorical phrase, but INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS took it rather literally.  A less literal example might be an early moment in ALADDIN, when the hero gives half of his stolen bread to some starving orphans.

Basically, if we see a guy do something nice, we'll realize he's worthy of our support and be on his side for the rest of the script.  It's simple manipulation.

BATTLESHIP has a classic example of the inverse of this, and it led me to coin the term "Stealing the Burrito."  This is when your protagonist does something so mind-blowingly stupid or awful that no power on Earth could ever get an audience to root for them again.

In an early scene, Taylor Kitsch is trying to pick up swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker in a bar.  She's hungry for a chicken burrito, but the kitchen is closed.  In an effort to impress her, he says he can do it and she gives him five minutes to make it happen.  He runs across the street to a 7-11, but it's his bad luck the place is closed. So he does what any reasonable man trying to sleep with Brooklyn Decker would do - he breaks in to steal a chicken burrito.

The scene is played for attempted screwball comedy, but it succcess only in making Kitsch's character look ridiculously foolish as he ends up making a total mess of the place as he breaks in, heats the burrito and tries to get out.  Ceiling tiles are over-turned, items on shelves are smashed... it's a total mess. By the time he's arrested, he fully deserves the taser he gets. But don't take MY word for it...

(Sidebar: I don't think any man is above committing a misdemeanor or even a minor felony on the off-chance that said infraction would offer even the possibility of sexual congress with Brooklyn Decker.  That said, I'd be more likely to respect a guy who is at least smart about his law-breaking.

Also - just because I accept a guy's libido would make him stupid enough to do this, it doesn't mean I'd respect any woman who was actually wooed by this behavior.   By extension, I question any audience member who looks at this and says, "I'm SO pulling for this guy."

No, this is a scene that makes me shake my head and say, "No, I REFUSE to accept this as our hero."

I can see the argument that starting this low gives the hero an opportunity for a redemptive moment later on.  It would be more persuasive if the action didn't require him to be so unbalanced in the first place.  This is also what undercuts the "selfless" act of him offering the burrito to Brooklyn.  Stealing food for a starving kid is one thing.  Stealing food as a down payment on some possible groping and sweaty action? That's less laudible.

So the next time you see a movie screw up its efforts to become a cheerleader for their characters, you know you can call that a "stealing the burrito" moment.


  1. Ha. Absolutely. Hate movies where I can't root for the hero. That was not only the case here, but a waste of a good actor that just chose bad movies to be in.

  2. I think it'd be an interesting writing exercise for an intro screenwriting class to fix that "stealing the burrito" moment. I absolutely agree that in no way did it set the character up as someone we'd want to cheer on later in the movie. In fact, throughout the first third of the film, he's really a juvenile, unlikable ass.

    A far better introduction would have been him taking on the "burrito challenge", then pulling off the caper in a way that showed him to be impetuous, but intelligent and capable of out-of-the-box thinking, the sort of hero we'll need later on in the film when "doctrine thinking" fails. Maybe he still gets busted (to show that his career is still in jeopardy) but perhaps it is just dumb luck, or some other whim of chance, and not his own idiocy that burns him.

    In contrast, when we look at a similar rebellious military character - Maverick from TOP GUN - we see a guy who bucks the system and does dumb things, but he's also frighteningly competent, a crack fighter pilot with the potential for true greatness. So, we're willing to say "yeah, he's a screwup, but DAMN, he's good".

    Not so much with our Burrito Hero.

  3. It would have been so easy to interject a 5-10 second shot of Taylor's character running around the corner from the cops and stumble across a hungry young man/girl/single mom/interchangeable hard-case character. He looks at their sad eyes. He looks across the street at the hot blond. Back at the eyes. Back at the blond. He sighs quietly and gently hands the burrito to the hungry person. At that moment, he's tackled/tazed/punched by a cop and hits the ground hard. His last sight before passing out is the grateful person eating a hot meal. And the hot blond instantly falls in love.
    Anyway, super cliche and emotionally manipulative, but might help.