Screenplay Study: Win Win, by Tom McCarthy
by Indigo Wilmann
Win Win is a dark comedy about Mike Flaherty, a struggling lawyer and part-time high school wrestling coach who takes on the guardianship for one of his semi-senile clients without intending to earn the monthly stipend. When his ward’s troubled grandson shows up and turns out to be a star wrestler, he thinks most of his problems are solved…until the boy’s junkie mother arrives wanting a piece of the old-man’s pie and forcing Mike to learn what’s really worth fighting for.
The basic question, or premise, that is set-up in Act 1 is will Mike be able to support his family?
Act 1: Set-Up
First Image (pg 1): Mike jogs alone in the woods.
The description immediately sets the tone:
It’s a bitter cold January morning. The woods are quiet. Desolate. In the far off distance a man is jogging. He banks around the end of a small pond and runs right at us. This is MIKE Flaherty, 42. He is running hard. Or at least as hard as he can.
Suddenly TWO JOGGERS blow past him.
Words like “bitter” and “desolate” combined with the description of Mike running solo until the joggers who blow right by him, help to immediately set the tone of this dark comedy.
Set-Up (pgs 1 – 10): We’re introduced to Mike’s family and financial situation.
(pg 1) We’re introduced to Mike’s 6 year old daughter, Abby, as she sees a stained glass angel fall down and break.
Her response, “Shit” is in perfect harmony with the tone of the movie and gives us another moment to chuckle less than 2 minutes into the film.
(pg 4) First sign of trouble: the dead tree in the yard.
It’s a nice visual metaphor for what’s going on with his business and how it is affecting his family. Having Mike, who’s just admonished his wife for cursing, utter “shit” here also adds a nice bit of ironic humor as well.
(pgs 5 – 7) The sign on the front lawn tells us Mike is a lawyer and he shares his building with Vig, a CPA. This is a quick, visual way to provide exposition.
Neither of their businesses is doing very well, so they choose to pretty much ignore the bad boiler in the basement.
(pg 8) Mike’s assistant, Shelly, informs him the toilets are messed up again, and he tells her not to hire a plumber, he’ll fix it himself. Very soon after that, we see him backing down from his fee and willing to take less.
All of these scenes reinforce the issue – Mike has money problems that could come crushing down on his home like a dead tree or drown his office like a broken boiler.
(pgs 9 – 10) Finally we meet Leo, whose personal situation is crucial to the plot.
(pg 11) Shelly informs Mike that Leo’s guardianship pays $1,500 a month.
This is a “planting the seed” beat. It creates desire in the hero. Mike’s desperate financial situation has been repeatedly illustrated, so when Shelly mentions the guardianship the same thought that goes through Mike’s head, goes through ours. It’s the perfect set-up for allowing the character to do something smarmy, while allowing him to retain the audiences’ sympathy.
Catalyst (pg 21): Mike becomes Leo’s guardian.
This is an interesting catalyst because it serves two purposes. On the surface, it provides a vehicle for Mike to deal with his growing money problems. Yet, its more important function is to inextricably link Mike with Leo – and later, Leo’s family which is essential to the plot.
Plot Point 1 (pg 36): Kyle moves in with Mike and Jackie.
Plot point comes just a touch late in the act. Part of the reason is that the script could be a little tighter. For instance, there’s a short scene at the end of page 4 that takes place in Dunkin’ Donuts when a group of old men waves Mike over and he chats with them for a second. This scene serves no real purpose. It doesn’t push the plot forward, reveal any new information, or pay off later. Perhaps the writer intended it as a “see what a nice guy, pillar of the community Mike is,” but we already have enough information on that front so it just becomes a distraction and throws off both the momentum and the pace.
Regardless of its less than perfect 25% placement, this plot point certainly spins the story in a new direction and provides all the action / reaction of Act 2.
Act 2A: Progress
(pg 38) Shelly locates Kyle’s mom.
While Jackie is fully on-board with Kyle living with them, Mike isn’t yet. This scene introduces a potential way to get rid of Kyle and also introduces a threat to the guardianship. It works really well to punctuate how this story intertwines plot and subplot. The plot is all about finding the money to take care of his family, and the subplot is really about what makes a family. Ultimately, the subplot is the richer of the stories and really what this script is about. I found that to be the case with my screenplay study of The Help as well. I think I’m on to something!
(pgs 45 – 46) Mike discovers what an amazing wrestler Kyle is and laments to Terry that he’d love to have even one kid on his team like that. Terry convinces Mike that he already does and urges Mike to enroll Kyle.
You’ll note that Mike has been reacting thus far. Becoming Leo’s guard is a last minute reaction as is enrolling Kyle. He hasn’t yet stepped up to the plate, which is perfect behavior for Act 2A.
Midpoint (pgs 66 – 67): Mike lies to Kyle about Leo; Cindy calls Mike.
This midpoint is done as a one-two punch. Mike is taken aback when Kyle asks him point blank if the judge made Leo move to Oak Knoll. He lies to Kyle and is ironically saved by a phone call from Cindy.
Like many midpoint scenes, this scene provides new information we didn’t have before – that Cindy is now in contact with Mike – while it also has Mike fully committing `to the lie he’s told. This scene will be turned on its head in the climax, but for now Mike seems to have chosen a path and is fully walking down it.
Act 2B: Raising the Stakes
The second part of act 2 is slightly unusual as it illustrates bonding between Kyle and Mike and Kyle and Mike’s family instead of the typical formula of having what Blake Snyder would call the “Bad Guys Close In” segment here where obstacles and complications grow progressively more challenging for the hero and the pace at which these challenges come accelerates at every beat.
(pgs 67-68) Cindy wants Kyle to stay with Mike and Jackie until she gets out of rehab despite the fact that she doesn’t know them.
(pg 70) Kyle wins a match while his temporary family watches on. Later Jackie shows him that the baby has learned to say his name.
(pg79) Because of Kyle’s influence Stemler wrestles and the team wins the match; Mike tells Kyle he’s proud of him.
It works fine in this script, even if it throws the structure off a bit. I believe this is because Kyle’s character doesn’t show up until late in the first act, so we still need more bonding time between him and the family so that it is believable and packs an emotional punch when their relationship is upended by the truth.
That’s not to say it doesn’t lose any momentum, because it does. Scenes of Jackie and Kyle bonding (pgs 72–73) directly followed by Kyle noticing Jackie and the kids cheering in the stands (pg 73) followed directly by Kyle and Jackie walking Leo in the park (pg 73) have a clichéd montage happy feeling that tap us over the head and give the script that afterschool special feel. The film would have been more dynamic had it had a tighter structure.
Yet it still works. Why? Because Mike’s character arc is beautifully written, and a well written character arc becomes part of the structure so that it helps compensate when other structural elements are weak.
Let’s also not forget the crucial rule that at the end of the day, the audience/reader wants to feel something. As Michael Hauge says, illicitting emotion is the screenwriters #1 job, and Flaherty has created extraordinary characters who provide us with that emotional experience we go to the movies or keep turning pages for.
Also, Flaherty doesn’t get too carried away with it. He gets back to pushing the story forward pretty quickly.
(pg 81) Cindy surprises Kyle by showing up at Leo’s.
(pgs 84–85) Kyle escapes out the window when Cindy comes to visit him. Mike asks Cindy to stay in town for 3 more weeks so Kyle can continue wrestling; Cindy agrees if she can stay at her father’s house.
(pgs 88 – 89) Cindy surprises Mike by hiring a lawyer and announcing that she wants to take care of Leo.
While Win Win doesn’t follow Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat template, this scene certainly fits the All Is Lost beat and is a reversal of the midpoint where he was in control and committed to the path he’d chosen. Now he knows he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
Plot Point II (pg 98): Mike offers to give up the commission, take care of Leo, and take care of Kyle.
With this plot point, Mike’s priorities and intentions take a 180. Thus far, it’s really been about Mike’s life – his family, his team. But this journey has changed Mike and he realizes it when he sees himself in Cindy.
MIKE: And that’s why you’re doing all this? For fifteen hundred dollars a month?
CINDY: Isn’t that why you did it?
This stops Mike in his tracks.
MIKE: Alright, I’ll tell you what. You want the commission? You can have it. And you don’t even have to take Leo. I’ll take care of him for free and I’ll send you the check every month. On one condition.
The condition of course is that she leaves Kyle with them until he finishes high school. She refuses and he is willing to fight her, even though he is certain he will lose.
In this one beat, Mike does something he hasn’t done before: he fights for something (in this case someone - Kyle), with no benefit to himself. He does it because, as Jackie says later, they love Kyle, and he knows it is the best thing for Kyle.
Climax (pgs 108 – 111): Kyle confronts Mike about Leo’s guardianship; Jackie learns the truth.
This is a great climax scene because it manages to fully expose Mike to Kyle and Jackie simultaneously, which is horribly painful to witness, while also ratcheting up the dark comedy tone by providing a wrestling match with Terry as commentator.
(pgs 113-114) Mike tells Jackie he’s going to try to right his wrong and Jackie worries that he’ll lose his practice and destroy their family.
(pgs 114-115) Mike apologizes to Kyle and asks him for another chance. Jackie tells Kyle they love him.
Resolution (pgs 117 – 120): Cindy agrees to let Kyle stay with Mike and Jackie as long as she gets Leo’s commission checks.
This is a particularly satisfying resolution; the good guys get better and the bad guys get gone. Having the answer to his problems come in the form of penance and sacrifice only makes us root for Mike even more and provides us with that quality movie afterglow that only comes from rich conflict doled out to even richer characters.
Final Image (pg 120): Mike works as a bartender.
While structure might not be Win Win’s strongest suit, characterization certainly is. With this final image, we have a model for the perfect character arc. Mike has journeyed from this desperate, egotistical man into a relaxed, humble person. The irony of course is that the thing he did not want to do the most – bartend – is the thing that brings him the peace and security he was seeking.
Indigo Wilmann is the founder and owner of Visual Yarn, a screenwriting workshop that focuses on writers who are struggling to create a consistent writing practice. Her goal is to transform writers who are entrenched in fear, excuses, and doubt, into writers who are living with passion, consistent creative expression, and joy. When she’s not writing, walking their Chihuahua, or watching a Game of Thrones episode for the 6th time with her fiance, she’s editing her latest short film, Casting Gate.