A structural overview of Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007) in 8 Sequences.
When I watched the film during its theatrical release, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Because of the relatively low budget (an estimated USD$25m) for its production values, Tony Gilroy was able to make some brave non-commercial decisions with his screen story.
This didn’t go entirely unpunished, as the Variety review points out:
Gilroy’s fidelity to his script comes at the expense of the pacing, which initially lumbers forward so assiduously as to feel like a throwback to an earlier era.
Some of the peripheral threads — especially Michael’s relationship with his family, both as an irritated brother and a single dad — occupy time at the outset but really don’t lead anywhere.
Looking at the story structure in the first act, we’ll find some obvious causes for the problems addressed above.
The Inciting Incident doesn’t happen until 25mins into the film and I yet have to find a clear 1st Act Turning Point. The scene with Marty (Sydney Pollack) at 51mins feels like one but at that stage Michael is already on his journey. The monumental 25mins of ‘Ordinary World’ make the story drag on to a point the audience will get very fidgety.
Then, in sequence two – and even before the end of the act – we find an abundance of scenes and characters that are not dealing with the main plot: Michael’s son, his debt, the merger and the scenes from Karen’s POV. These are simply things you cannot do without having clearly set up the main story.
I won’t go into any further story issues, but here is how I would structure the film in terms of plot points and sequences:
SEQUENCE A: Prologue, Ordinary World
00.00 Arthur’s VO: This is not a relapse.
03.00 POV(*) Bach is settling, at office late at night
04.30 POV Karen in bathroom, tormented
05.00 Michael is gambling, phone rings
07.00 Urgent job: accident, go see client at home
08.30 At client’s: What are you? Miracle worker?
12.00 Phone rings: Michael gives details to referee.
12.30 Driving, GPS flickers.
13.30 Gets out at field with horses
15.00 Car explodes
SEQUENCE B: Subplot and Call to Adventure
15.30 – 4 DAYS EARLIER
16.00 Subplot: Michael drives son Henry to school
18.30 Subplot: Michael needs $75k to repay debts
20.30 At work, assistant asks: Are we merging?
23.00 POV Karen (intercut) rehearsing + interview
25.30 I.I.: Arthur stripped in deposition room
26.00 Arthur’s VO (cont.). Did you meet Anna?
29.00 Arthur: I have blood on my hands.
SEQUENCE C: To get Arthur back on the case
29.30 POV Arthur tape, U-North people learn about Michael
32.30 Michael will get Arthur back in 3-4 days; find briefcase
33.30 POV Arthur calls Henry: Realm & Conquest.
35.30 Michael & Karen: defends Arthur. She’ll call Marty
37.30 Michael & Arthur as Mentor: “We’ve been summoned.”
39.30 POV Karen calls Mr. Verne
41.00 Arthur has escaped
SEQUENCE D: Allies and Enemies, Midpoint
43.00 POV Karen shows Marty the memo.
43.30 Searching Arthur’s office; psychiatric commitment?
45.00 Arthur followed, Michael leaves msg: janitor to janitor
48.00 POV Arthur calls Anna, call bugged.
50.00 With creditor: one week
51.00 Marty: He’s calling the plaintiffs; Michael asks loan
54.00 Looking for Arthur; with son, sees him
56.00 Mid: Arthur changed. Not the enemy.”Then who?”
SEQUENCE E: Subplot and Ordeal Plot Point
59.30 POV Arthur reads report on voicemail
63.30 POV Karen orders murder
65.00 Asks brother for support; hang for an hour.
67.30 POV Arthur killed
69.30 Brother shows up, off alcohol, in front of Henry
71.00 To son: you’re not like this. You’ve got it.
72.30 Ordeal: phone call, Arthur’s dead
75.00 In pub w/ Marty. Why?? No note. U-North settling.
SEQUENCE F: Ordeal Sequence Approach / and Reward
77.30 Calls Anna, in NY right now.
78.30 Goes to see Anna in motel, being watched
79.00 Anna: “something that would win the case”
81.00 Approach: Gets seal, to Arthur’s place
82.00 Followed, watched; searches flat
83.00 Finds Realm & Conquest; Police come in
84.00 Released from cell, “Who called 911?”
87.30 Reward: 3,000 copies of memo
88.00 POV Karen finds out about memo: ‘situation’.
88.30 Marty ready for announcement;
89.00 Subplot Reward: cheque $80k
91.00 Pays off debt.
SEQUENCE G: To get out, by bringing U-North down
92.30 Gambling // car bomb planted // phone rings, leaves.
95.30 Driving, miracle worker, fixer
99.00 Horses // Gimme cell // Explosion
99.30 Throws valuables in, runs off
100.0 Brother picks him up
101.0 POV Karen addressing board w/ settlement proposal
103.3 Climax: Confronts Karen: $10m
106.0 Resolution: Everything on record: NYPD
SEQUENCE H: Return with the Elixir – Finally Out
(*): Scenes marked “POV” are not from the protagonist’s POV.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.