When most people start writing, they usually start at the beginning. It makes sense, right? Introduce your character. Set up your story, and go until you hit the end, right? Sure, it makes complete sense. But what if you don’t know the end?
Beginning writers a lot of times will write when “inspiration strikes.” Which is great: go ahead, and let inspiration carry you. But once inspiration dies out, what then? Because inspiration will last you through page 20, page 30 maybe. The first major turn, or the first great idea pops in your head, and once it’s written, inspiration’s moved on. That’s why the more seasoned writers tend to take this rule to heart: know your ending.
It’s how you get from point A to point B. From one place to the next. To look at it another way: would you get on a plane that has no destination? So why treat this journey any differently?
When you know you’re ending, every piece of your screenplay rings with it. Themes ring stronger. Turning points become clearer. Because now, you have a focus. When you know you have to end up in one place, you stop spinning your wheels where they don’t matter. Every scene in The Shawshank Redemption wraps around Andy’s freedom. Every conversation we hear brings Harry one step closer to Sally in Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally. And in the entire Harry Potter series, every turn, every character, every scene, every piece of dialogue wraps around one thing: to kill Voldemort.
To dig a little deeper, let’s start with the final line of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 epic There Will Be Blood.
Daniel: I’m finished.
Finished with what, exactly?
There Will Be Blood is one of those films that’s been critiqued, reviewed, and rapped poetic about so many times that whatever I say won’t really change any opinions. It’s Greed vs. Ambition. Family vs. Independence. But for the most part, and for this article, There Will Be Blood delves deep into the world of religion, and one man’s – no, two men’s – battle to become God. And how do you end a movie about a battle to become God? With your own rendition of the final words of Christ himself.
With that in mind, scene after scene of P. T. Anderson’s script rings with turn after turn of two men starting from a vision, and setting each other’s flame afire to become the man most like God. Nay, not most like God, but God himself. The Third Revelation.
Abel Sunday: The Lord sent you here. The Prophet Daniel. This is according to the revelation of the true word.
Daniel: I think it is. Yes.
And again on Page 75:
Daniel: I want to rule and never ever explain myself.
Daniel: I must confess that I only know of two revelations… there’s the one in the Old Testament, and the one in the New Testament… isn’t that right?
Eli: That’s right, Daniel.
Daniel: What is the third?
Eli: Me……..I am the Third Revelation.
The fight between the two men begins immediately. And while you’ll think what you want concerning the casting choice of Dano against Day-Lewis, if you look in the script, these two characters are toe-to-toe. Eli is Church. Daniel is Oil.
Eli believes that God controls the oil well; Daniel believes that the oil well makes him God. Each character even comes attached with his own Judas. While Eli’s brother Paul sells out the Sunday farm to Plainview and Co., Daniel’s fake brother Henry uses familial trust to get his own piece of Plainview’s pie. The two are so incredibly linked that they even become family by marriage, after Daniel’s adopted son H.W. marries Eli’s little sister Mary. But to pit these two together, there is no scene so memorable, so rewarding, and so telling as each character’s baptism.
Yes, both characters. Anderson’s script is so in tune with its ending, that the two biggest scenes in the film are actually the same one, mimicked to each other’s point of view.
Daniel’s Baptism by Eli
The Church of the Third Revelation
Eli’s penchant for religious drama is taken to new heights here. When we first met the church, we saw Eli slap the “devil” out of a woman and get her to walk again. Now, however, Eli has his immortal enemy in his church, and his goal is to get Daniel under his wing. But Daniel’s goal has nothing to do with God, which, again, is mimicked later. Daniel’s goal is about securing land– Bandy’s land, which he’s been trying to attain since he first moved to Little Boston. And Bandy has promised him the tract after he is baptized.
Eli: Now is there a sinner here looking for salvation? A new member? I’ll ask it again: Is there a sinner looking for God?
Again and again, Eli calls him a sinner. And he makes Daniel cry it out in this exchange:
Eli: We have a sinner with us here who wishes for salvation. Daniel. ARE YOU A SINNER?
Eli: The Lord can’t hear you, say it to him, louder, Go ahead and speak to him, it’s alright…
Eli: Down on your knees and up to Him.
He pushes Daniel onto his knees, beneath him.
Eli: Look up to the sky… and say it…
And then the two of them begin this back and forth. Daniel asks Eli what to say, and repeats exactly what Eli tells him to say. At first, no emotion, but after persistence from Eli, he puts everything into it, including:
Eli: I ABANDONED MY CHILD. (Beat.) SPEAK TO HIM AND SAY IT SINNER.
Daniel: I ABANDONED MY CHILD.
Eli: SPEAK TO HIM, SAY IT LOUDER.
Daniel: I ABANDONED MY CHILD. I ABANDONED MY CHILD. I ABANDONED MY BOY.
After which, Eli makes Daniel walk through the doors of Christianity by begging for the blood of the Lamb, and slapping him repeatedly across the face.
Let me repeat that. Eli makes Daniel walk through the doors of Christianity by begging for the blood of the Lamb, and slapping him repeatedly across the face.
Got that image? Good. Then let’s move onto Baptism No. 2.
Eli’s Baptism by Daniel
Daniel Plainview’s Bowling Alley
It took me several viewings to realize the link between Daniel’s baptism scene and the very end. You walk away from the first viewing knowing it’s an important scene, but you’re not sure why. Until you realize that it’s the exact same scene, but this time, it’s Daniel doing the baptizing.
Eli wakes Daniel from a drunken sleep in the bowling alley, fresh from Vegas. He pours a drink, while Daniel drinks water. We are quite aware that Eli has been away, doing some sinning of his own. And while he comes on the premise of bad news, it’s the actual news that hinges the two scenes. The death of Bandy, and the sale of Bandy’s lot.
Bandy. The one man who never sold to Plainview, but the one man who got Daniel into the Church of the Third Revelation. And now Bandy has brought Eli into the Church of Daniel.
Eli: Daniel, I’m asking if you’d like to have business with the Church of the Third Revelation in developing this lease on young Bandy’s thousand acre tract.
Daniel: I’d be happy to work with you…
Eli: You would? Yes, yes of course. Wonderful.
Daniel: But there is one condition for this work.
Daniel: I’d like you to tell me that you are a False Prophet… and that God is a superstition.
Something that Eli has spent the entire film conflicting. But this is about knowing our endings during the writing process, and just as Eli doesn’t believe he’s a false prophet now, Daniel never believed that he was a sinner 30 pages earlier.
Still, just as Daniel needed Bandy’s land before, Eli needs the money from Bandy’s land now. So, just as Daniel did, he chooses to forego his beliefs for his own prosperity:
Eli: I would like a one hundred thousand dollar signing bonus plus the five that is owed with interest.
Daniel: That’s only fair.
Eli: …I am a false prophet and God is a superstition. If that’s what you believe, then I will say it.
And now for the fun part: Remember Eli’s “down on your knees” and “look up to the sky” and “say it louder”? Daniel makes Eli do exactly the same:
Daniel: Say it like you mean it. Say it like it’s your sermon.
Eli: “I AM A FALSE PROPHET. GOD IS A SUPERSTITION.”
Daniel: Those areas have been drilled.
So we’ve matched the baptism scenes, one for one, but what about that blood of the Lamb bit that Daniel had to ask for? No, Daniel doesn’t make Eli beg for help, but that’s not in Daniel’s character. Instead, he breaks him down to nothing. Tells him his brother was the real Prophet. Tells him that HE is the Third Revelation. He’s older and wiser. He throws bowling balls at Eli. Until on page 129, Eli begs for a “new way from Daniel, which Daniel gladly gives, in the form of a bowling pin.
Remember those slaps across Daniel’s face? Begging for the blood of the Lamb? The final moments between Eli and Daniel:
Eli: DANIEL, PLEASE FORGIVE ME, I BEG YOU. I BEG YOU.
Instead, Daniel knocks Eli cold with a bowling pin. Once. Twice. Three times. Then, it is the dead Eli that is washed in the blood of… well, himself.
And what about Daniel finally telling Eli that those areas have been drilled? We, as the audience, most likely didn’t see that coming. But it makes sense. After all, we’ve spent the entire film drilling everywhere but Bandy’s land. Why wouldn’t they be dried up? It’s that kind of simplicity that knowing your ending can give you. That kind of idea, that kind of closure to a through line – the story of Bandy’s land – not only takes knowing your ending, but it takes planning the entire story around it.
The one thing that stands in Daniel and Eli’s way has been taken away, and not by some Deus ex Machina or act of God, but by Daniel. By Plainview. And that act puts him over and above the world of Eli, because not only does he control everything, including the land that the Church and Eli Sunday’s land (yes, by the way, Daniel owns Sunday), but he also outsmarted him. The kind of outsmarting that takes a lot of planning. And yes, which will also eventually lead to a cool milkshake line of dialogue.
Is there any chance that Anderson didn’t know that Daniel was going to win the battle? No. Of course not. These two scenes alone show that calculated decisions were made simply to resonate that Daniel would, in fact, beat Eli. He would in fact reign. And knowing that gave Anderson a world of possibilities to write within the context of it all.
It’s usually a fear of writers, that outlining will lock them into something. That knowing where their characters are headed will cut off their creativity. In fact, it’s the opposite that’s true. Knowing where you’re heading means that you can stop worrying about where you’re going, and start worrying about how you’ll get there.
The possibilities are endless. Tell one scene two ways. Tell it thirty ways. Send your characters to hell and back, as long as you know where back is. And don’t be afraid to pencil something in that last index card, or that last page.
And if you get a little nervous, just remember Plainview, sitting alone with his bowling pin in hand, and a bleeding dead Preacher at his side. That’s certainly not a lack of creativity.