Script breakdown by Travis Maiuro
Written by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and Jon McLaughlin; Story by Andres Heinz
Black Swan is a deliciously dark and sexy psychological thriller about obsession and innocence, set in the world of ballet. Ballet dancer Nina begins as a naive and idealistic artist. Over time, she becomes so obsessed with perfection and power that it slowly destroys her — but the script gets so deep into Nina’s twisted mind that we’re left wondering: what is real and what is not?
TONE AND GENRE
In a film that burns along with the speed of a dancer in full-force pirouette, it makes sense that the opening scene of the script wastes no time in establishing what kind of movie Black Swan will be.
This opening scene is a harbinger of the entire script: this is a movie about dancing, obviously, but we’re also dealing with demons and the malevolent, making us question what is real and what is not. We aren’t sure whether what we’re seeing here is actually happening or all part of the show, which taps into the psychological thriller elements.
Our protagonist is Nina and we meet her immediately after this opening scene. In fact, it is set up that the opening scene was actually Nina’s dream, as she is just waking up.
Beginning a script with the protagonist waking can be a tired trope and typically one to avoid. But here, it’s worth starting the script with Nina waking up as it follows the “dream,” which gives us a taste of the darkness raging war inside Nina’s head. But just as importantly, Nina’s wake up tells us almost everything we need to know about her in just three paragraphs. We see her room is still decorated like a child’s, signaling her naive and jejune personality that she eventually breaks away from. She smiles at “whoever opened” the door, which we soon learn to be her mother — Nina has no privacy and seems okay with it; she’s taken care of. And when she sits up in bed and we get a look at her feet, we see that they are “atrocious,” in stark contrast to the beauty of the rest of her. They are the feet of a dancer.
The script is still on page 2 when Nina’s mother, Erica, is introduced. So much happens in this single exchange: We learn through dialogue that Nina is preparing to start ballet season up again after a period of time off and that she’s expecting to be featured more this year. We learn, through Erica’s dialogue, that Nina is a dedicated dancer — and that Erica believes in her. We see, through a small and simple but clever “inside joke” between the two, that there is a closeness in their relationship. Through action, Nina’s puerility is showcased in the way Erica dresses Nina and kisses her head and inspects her body.
On page 6, we meet Thomas Leroy, the intense ballet director. Based on the reaction of the dancers alone, we understand that Thomas has a hold on the room.
And by page 10, the script establishes Lily, Nina’s protagonist. As Nina is struggling to pull off the dance…
The competition between the two is subtle and natural and not overt at all. Lily simply walking into the room throws Nina off and hurts her chances; a rivalry is born.
WORLD OF THE STORY
The script makes it very clear that we are in the world of ballet in New York City. Nina riding the subway and walking the sidewalks toward landmarks like Lincoln Center tells us all we need to know.
But it’s more than just New York landmarks — the script throws us into the dynamics of ballerina life, seen here on Page 4. Dancers prepare for practice, going through the ballet motions of ribbons, makeup, band-aids, and gossip.
But as this is more than just a straightforward ballet movie set in NYC, the opening dream scene clues us into the other side of this story world — the much darker and surreal side.
The dramatic situation is hinted at in the aforementioned scene between Nina and her mother on page 2, in which she mentions the prospect of being featured more in shows this season. But this doesn’t really tell us everything. It’s not until page 8 when this is elaborated on. Leroy addresses the dancers with a welcome announcement: a new production needs a new Swan Queen. Suddenly, Nina (and seemingly every other dancer in the company) has a goal — to become the new Swan Queen.
This is solidified when Nina visits the former Swan Queen Beth’s dressing room on page 9.
The way Nina envisions herself taking over for Beth fits her naive personality — it’s like a little sister sneaking into her older sister’s bedroom to try on some clothes or makeup, daydreaming about what it would be like to be older, to be popular, etc. The script doesn’t have to spell it out. From Nina’s actions, we understand what her WANT is, and what the dramatic situation will be.
There’s quite a bit going on here in Black Swan. The film flirts with a number of themes. But the most prominent themes (obsession, innocence/coming-of-age, and sex) can be seen here in these first ten pages. The script is a coming-of-age story meets psychological-sex-thriller and all of these themes can be seen as early as page 1.
We see Nina’s obsession with perfection on Page 1 and throughout — her mother saying she’s the “most dedicated dancer,” her constant stretching and backstage practicing when the other girls seem to be gossiping. These opening pages hint at the depths Nina’s obsession will sink to in the way she inspects Beth’s dressing room and steals her lipstick, needing a piece of the “best” in order to become the “best.”
The innocence/coming of age themes are present on Page 1 as well when Nina wakes up and her childlike bedroom is described; the way her mother seems to coddle her. We see these things and then meet the other dancers who are clearly not still coddled by their mothers — the contrast is stark. Nina the child versus these grown-up dancers. It’s clear, in the way Nina struggles to fully embrace the darker side of the Black Swan, that she’ll need to break free of this infantile life.
And finally, sex. Sex is also seen as early as Page 1, in the opening dream. It’s clear what the Sinister Man/Demon wants by pursuing Nina the dancer. Sex. And the way Thomas leers at his dancers, the way they throw smiles his way and bat their eyes, stripping down to show skin — it’s all about sex. Sex is surrounding Nina in her dreams and her reality and yet she seems closed off from it, too moral, too naive thanks to her mother. It’s clear sex will play an important role in the script, particularly for Nina and her (twisted) coming of age.