How I wrote the screenplay for One Hundred and One Dalmatians

August 22, 2014

I am known as a story analyst and consultant but I am also a produced screenwriter. True, my screenwriting output has been modest. I can claim a “screenplay by” credit on only one produced feature film, the 1996 animated feature JESTER TILL, or as it was known in Germany, TILL EULENSPIEGEL. And I have a credit of “additional story material by” on THE LION KING, shared with about twenty other people.

Till English poster

But that’s not quite the whole picture. I have another writing achievement in the world of feature animation.
I wrote the screenplay for Disney’s 1961 classic ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS.

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Hold on a minute there, buster, you animation buffs are saying. The record shows that veteran Disney animator Bill Peet gets sole “story” credit for adapting the novel by Dodie Smith.

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Chris Vogler’s name appears nowhere in the credits.  How is it possible that I could have written the screenplay for a Disney cartoon feature released in 1961, at which time I was a 12-year-old living in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri? Was I a child prodigy? Or did the modern-day Vogler get into the WABAC machine with Mr. Peabody and time-travel to 1961 to deliver the script?

It was neither childhood precocity nor time travel and yet, I must insist, I wrote the screenplay for 101 Dalmatians, even though my name does not appear on the movie or in the record books.

This is how it came about. In 1994 I was employed by Disney as a story analyst and researcher. I had worked my way over ten years into a dream job, where I was paid to research subjects of great interest to me, topics like current trends in comic books and children’s literature or the movie potential of fairy tales and legends from world culture. I had won the reputation of being able to respond quickly to densely detailed assignments and was often tapped for the inevitable emergencies that arise in the story department.

One day I got an urgent memo from a Disney executive saying the studio was undertaking a new effort to make live action feature films from some of Disney’s classic animated features. They had decided to start with One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

According to the corporate brainstorm, it should be relatively easy to develop live action versions of the animated features, using the script of the animated film as a first draft. Just stroll over to the animation department file room, make a copy of the screenplay, and hand it to the live action screenwriters as their first draft. Much of the heavy lifting of plotting, characterization and dialogue was already done. It could save months or years of costly development.
Good idea, but there was bad news from the animation archivists. They reported that there were no screenplays in existence for the classic animated features, because in those days, they didn’t write screenplays.

The technique of creating full screenplays for animated features didn’t come into vogue until the 1990s when Jeffrey Katzenberg took an interest in running Disney Feature Animation. Until then, the animated features had been created from short outlines and storyboards, using hand-drawn images to lay out the sequences and actions of the proposed film. In Walt Disney’s time, and in the decades since his death, no one ever bothered to write down all the visuals and dialogue in screenplay form. The story existed in the form of the story boards, but mainly it lived in the collective minds of the animation team.

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Writing credits for animated features in Walt Disney’s day were rarely if ever expressed in terms of “screenplay by”. Typically credit was given for creating the story with terms such as “story adaptation” (Snow White, Pinocchio), “screen story by” and “story development” (Dumbo), or just “Story” (Cinderella, The Sword in the Stone). Credit was usually shared among eight or ten animators, except in a few cases such as One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone, where Bill Peet got the high honor of sole writing credit in the form of “Story by”.

In the case of 101 Dalmatians, the closest thing in the archives to a screenplay was a highly technical document called a “continuity” which was simply a list of the lines of dialogue along with precise notes on timing and movement for the animation camera department. There was also Bill Peet’s original outline adapting the novel, something that we would call today a “treatment”. But there was no screenplay, with shot-by-shot descriptions of characters and their actions interspersed with dialogue.

So the studio turned to me. Create a screenplay, they said. Here is a videotape copy of the animated film, here is the continuity with all the dialogue, here is Bill Peet’s outline. From these materials, we would like you to create a document in screenplay format, accurately reflecting the finished film.

And we’d like you to do it in three days.

So I put myself in a small room with a VCR and a typewriter and reverse-engineered a screenplay, describing the movie shot-by-shot and inserting the appropriate dialogue.

It was largely a technical exercise, with only a small amount of creativity required to bring some life to the shot descriptions. I was not making up any of the actions or dialogue, I was not creating the humor and suspense. And yet I felt the pride of authorship, for where there was no screenplay before, there was now a screenplay.

I turned in the script, my script, on Monday morning. I made a case that it should be treated as a special kind of authorship, and that in addition to my story analyst time for doing the work, it should be submitted for consideration of getting me into the Writers Guild so I could secure all the good stuff that comes with it. But no dice, said my supervisors in the story department. No way would the studio ever pay a penny over the union hourly rate. I was already making a small fortune in overtime, they pointed out.

The best I could do was to insist that they put my name on the script in some form. We agreed to “Screenplay assembled by Chris Vogler” and that’s how it went into the studio archives.

But still I can say I wrote the screenplay for 101 Dalmatians. It’s a teeny tiny footnote (just a toe-note really) in animation history, but I thought you might find it interesting as an example of the oddball assignments that sometimes come along for story analysts and consultants in the movie biz. It takes nothing away from the brilliance and warm humor of Bill Peet, or the artistry of directors Clyde Geronimi, Wolfgang Reitherman and Hamilton Luske and the rest of the talented Disney team. “Assembling” a screenplay from their work, which I had so admired and enjoyed when I saw the movie in 1961, only gave me a greater appreciation of their amazing talents.

Good show, Syd

November 21, 2013

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The founding father of modern screenwriting theory, my colleague Syd Field, passed away a couple of days ago, leaving a gap that can never be filled. I was in London last weekend, participating in a “Screenwriters Summit” with colleagues Linda Seger, John Truby and Michael Hauge, when we got the news, hours after we had finished. Syd, our peerless leader, was supposed to be there with us but obviously couldn’t because of his illness.

I only got to know Syd a little in recent years, either meeting him in airport waiting areas as we were going off to various screenwriting events, or appearing with him in a couple of Screenwriters Summits. But I saw him speak about his ground-breaking approach to story structure back in the ’80s when he gave a presentation at Disney Feature Animation. It was a jaw-dropping revelation; a simple, clear analysis of the natural and necessary turning points in any well-told story. I was working out my own theory of story structure at the time and though I tried hard to be skeptical of Syd’s approach, I couldn’t. It just made sense. It still does.

I could sense even then that Syd Field was a unique character, combining an easy-going, reassuring manner with a thread of something more profound. You could just tell this was a highly evolved, spiritually aware guy. I didn’t find out until much later that Syd’s meditation practice and deep exploration of Eastern philosophy were the sources of his positive vibe.

Lots of words come to mind as I think of Syd. Kind. Open. Inspiring. Generous. Encouraging. With every breath he sent the message, rare in Hollywood, that “You can do it.” I’ll miss him, as will thousands who were touched by him. There will never be another. So long, Syd. Good show.

Picking up the thread

July 31, 2013

Tick, tick, two years went by since the last post.  I moved my household a couple of times and traveled quite a lot to talk about the Hero’s Journey and its uses in screenwriting and life. I’m interested in the life applications these days and talk about the Hero’s Journey as a philosophy of life as much as a guide for story-telling.

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In 2011 I did a true whirlwind tour of Australia, giving workshops and consulting on movie projects in Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne, and from there went to Houston for my first “Storymasters” event, a workshop conducted with my colleagues, top New York book agent Donald Maass and LA-based novelist James Scott Bell.  We’re a good team and decided to make it an annual event, meeting again in 2012 in the Seattle area, and this year (2013) we’ll run it in Minneapolis Nov. 8-10.  (Details at:  http://www.free-expressions.com/story-masters/)

In the spring of 2012 I gave a workshop on “The Essence of Story” in association with the Raindance film festival people in London, then went on to do a series of events in Poland.It’s an exciting place with great traditions and lots of youthful enthusiasm and talent.  Then I spoke at a conference in Toronto where I got to meet one of my idols, screenwriter and producer Pen Densham. 

In the fall of 2012 I made a major breakthrough, giving a workshop in France for the first time, in the busy city of Lyon.  (France is not an easy market to crack for international screenwriting lecturers.)  It was a three-day “Masterclass” in which I opened up on a number of subjects including the importance of the organs of the body in processing the emotions stirred up by a story.  The event was a hit, largely because of the support of the French TV star Alexandre Astier, a young man who attended my workshop in London years ago and took it on himself to organize the Masterclass in Lyon.  He has a big Twitter following and used his influence to fill the hall with filmmakers, writers, actors and directors.  He’s made a success with a long-running series of short comedy pieces for French television, Kaamelott, based on the legends of King Arthur, and says “The Writer’s Journey” helped him organize his design.

This year’s travel is far from over and I’ve already been to Paris, Stockholm, Toronto and southern Italy.  The French publisher of my books, Dixit, arranged the Paris workshop in April which I hope will become an annual event.  It was held in the famous Balzac cinema just off the Champs Elysee, launch pad for many a New Wave masterpiece.  In Stockholm I worked with editing students at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, under the guidance of master film editor Michal Leszczylowksi. 

In June I returned to Toronto, this time for a workshop sponsored by the Toronto branch of Raindance.  There is so much writing talent and sheer brainpower there.  Having a beer in a pub with some of the participants after the workshop was one of life’s great pleasures.

I’ve just returned from a pretty amazing workshop in southern Italy, the Puglia Experience 2013.  The government of Puglia, the region of southeastern Italy on the bootheel, put on this elaborate event, in which sixteen screenwriters from all over the world were invited to sample the food, drink and sight-seeing of the area, while working on screen stories based in Puglia.  The event was steered by enthusiastic screenwriter Jim V. Hart (Spielberg’s HOOK, Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, and the current animated feature EPIC), aided by an outstanding Australian script consultant, Claire Dobbin.  The Italian staff put on a great show, arranging adventuresome field trips in which we learned about various aspects of Apulian life that were featured in the stories being developed.  I played the role of the guy who lays down basic screenwriting theory and inspiration.  I loved this amiable, intelligent group of writers and enjoyed sharing with them some of my more esoteric theories about the Hero’s Journey and life.  Jim Hart is a great showman and a natural cheerleader, and the fact that we both have a strong devotion to the 1958 movie THE VIKINGS with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis meant that the three-note horn call from the movie’s soundtrack became the comical signature of the entire workshop, with Jim and I leading the group in blaring out the theme at every bus stop and in every resonant castle crypt.

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And now I’m enjoying a month of NO TRAVEL before hitting the road again.  Up next is a visit to the American-themed film festival in Deauville, France in late August, where I will give a talk about last year’s prize winner, BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD.  I’m back in LA Sept. 6-8 for the Story Expo, speaking about “Organic Storytelling” and engaging in a dialogue with my colleague Michael Hauge about the process of creating a hero.  (Details at http://storyexpo.com/.)

And sometime between now and the end of the year, I’m supposed to show up in Mexico City, London and Moscow!  This could be The Year of Traveling Too Much.  But I must say I’m enjoying meeting people from other cultures who are all trying to tell better stories and understand a little better how the world is made.

 

 

Vogler in Barletta castle

July 31, 2013

Vogler in Barletta castle

A writing program, the Puglia Experience 2013, brought me to this sea-side castle in Barletta, in south-eastern Italy.

New Book! New Workshop!

August 5, 2011

Memo from the Story Department: Secrets of Structure and Character. You need this book!

It’s finally here, my new book! A year of work and a lifetime of conversation with my co-writer, Columbia University film professor David McKenna, has yielded MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT: Secrets of Structure and Character.  It’s just out from Michael Wiese Productions, ISBN-10: 1932907971 and ISBN-13: 978-1932907971.

A couple of years ago, I found myself thinking about a book I had long wanted to write, a collaboration with my colleague, New York-based story consultant, performance coach and Columbia professor David McKenna.  David and I have been comparing notes about the untracked territory of story construction since we first met in San Antonio, in the early 1970s, and it was high time we put our heads together to write a book on what we’ve discovered.

We talked and argued for months about the nature and purpose of the book, and finally agreed it should be something like a tool kit, a set of techniques and ways of thinking about stories, and life, derived from our experiences in working for various movie studio story departments on East and West Coasts.  We both have found many essential tools that helped us understand how stories work.  I wrote about one such set of tools, Joseph Campbell’s mythic outline, in my first book, THE WRITER’S JOURNEY.  People expect me to speak exclusively in the language of the Hero’s Journey model, but in practice I use many different tools and terms when working with stories, and so does David.  We wanted to share with a larger audience some of these alternate frameworks, templates, systems, and ways of thinking that we have found so useful.

I’m really pleased with how the book turned out.  You never really know, even when you’ve seen galley proofs, what you’ve created until you hold the first actual, really truly published copy in your hands.  This one feels good!  It’s a compact guidebook, packed with useful techniques and exercises, and breezily written in the voice of two old friends batting ideas around.

Among the tools in the kit you’ll find handy items like David’s “Want List”, an array of common human drives that motivate characters; my chapter on “What’s the Big Deal?” where I look at scenes as business transactions; and David’s “Five-Year Plan” for managing your career.  In the spirit of “The Writer’s Journey”, I unearthed some ancient story treasure, in chapters on what I learned from Russian fairy tales and from a little-known follower of Aristotle, a man named Theophrastus who wrote the first study of character types, over 2500 years ago, and influenced many later plays including “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”.

David’s major contribution is a big chunk of the book dedicated to exploring what he calls the Six Environmental Facts, a method for analyzing characters and scenes in the light of time, place, economic conditions, social surroundings, religious beliefs and political environment.  It’s a great way to immerse yourself in the world of your characters, and by looking at them from these different facets you may find your ideas “crystallizing”, leading to unexpected connections and insights.

I round off the book with some thoughts on the quality of showmanship and a list of key questions to ask yourself about your script or novel.  I think you’ll find something useful in this volume that will enhance your understanding of story and encourage you to make your own contribution to the body of knowledge.

Future of Story Conference Aug. 27, 2011

UPCOMING WORKSHOP

I also want to invite those of you in the Los Angeles area to an exciting new story conference later this month (August 27, 2011).   It’s called THE FUTURE OF STORY and you can find out more about it at http://www.mwp.com/thefutureofstory/

This gathering of experts to discuss where storytelling is headed is the brainchild of Michael Wiese, publisher of my books and head of Michael Wiese Productions, (MWP), the most successful line of self-instruction books for media pros.  For several years Michael has been staging some very cool gatherings in Los Angeles for the growing circle of self-empowering MWP authors, an opportunity for us to share the techniques we’ve all learned for surviving in tough times and nurturing our creativity.  These mini-workshops have gone so well, and have generated so much encouragement and empowerment, that Michael and his VP, Ken Lee, decided to take it public.  The essence of the MWP “brand” is a generous spirit of sharing the information that we have learned the hard way, to make things a little easier for storytellers of the future.  Many of the MWP authors had the same reason for writing their books:  they looked around for a book in their area of expertise, and there wasn’t one — yet.

Myself, noted screenwriter and producer Pen Densham (author of RIDING THE ALLIGATOR), and skilled story consultant and author Pilar Alessandra (THE COFFEE BREAK SCREENWRITER) will chair  panels with MWP authors who are all experts in their crafts, exploring the fascinating question of what lies in the future of story?  Don’t miss this chance to see passionate, articulate storytellers look into the crystal ball and express their hopes and dreams for the future.  I’ll conduct a panel on the future of Developing the Story, Pen’s group of authors will look at the future of Writing and Rewriting the Story, and Pilar will chair the panel on what lies ahead for Pitching the Story.

There will be a break for dinner and networking on the site, in an interesting movie studio complex in the heart of vibrant downtown L.A., catered by a selection of  L.A’s famously delicious food trucks.  The day will be topped off with a special screening of Michael Wiese’s new film “Talking with Spirits” about the mysterious spirit world of Bali, in a unique dome-shaped theatre within the complex.  It should be an exciting and mind-opening event!

Hero’s Journey Short Form

February 24, 2011

I just got an email from a graduate student wondering how the 12-stage outline of the Hero’s Journey I describe in “The Writer’s Journey” might be shortened for commercials or short-form Web content.  The question about a streamlined version of the narrative comes up often, in regard to short films as well as Web content and games.   I’m of the opinion that we have so many ways of communicating the stages of the human journey in short-hand images, and the audience is so quick at picking them up, that we really don’t need to omit anything, but I can see the value of stripping the experience down to its absolute essence.  So here is my most streamlined version, aimed at preserving the essential experience of the Hero’s Journey, some suspense about the outcome and a little bit of challenge and growth for the hero.

1. The Ordinary World can be communicated efficiently in a single image.  The backstory of the hero can be assumed based on what we see about his/her appearance, behavior, social status, etc.

2. The Call to Adventure, IMHO, is essential.  The audience needs to know there is something at stake, something happening that the hero must react to.

3. Refusal is useful to establish fear, suspense, and to tell you something about the hero, but it’s not strictly necessary.  So cut that from your abbreviated Hero’s Journey.  Or, acknowledge it quickly and efficiently, with a single look of doubt on the hero’s face, quickly overcome.

4. Meeting the Mentor, again, is useful but not necessary.  It can be implied by the hero’s belief system, indicated with a glance at some talisman or symbolic object that suggests the hero’s source of inspiration, or it can just be left out altogether.

5. Crossing the Threshold is fairly important, signalling that the hero is now committed to the adventure.  But in a really compressed version, you could just skip this step and the next two (Tests/Allies/Enemies and Approach), and cut directly to the Ordeal.  As with all the steps, there is a quick short-hand way to represent this movement — the hero simply crosses a bridge, goes up a flight of steps, enters a new room.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies allows the hero and audience time to marvel at the new world and to build personal connections.  In the short form, the hero may simply glance at the wonders of the new world and move on directly to the ordeal.

7. Approach is used to deepen character and relationships, create suspense and give the heroes time to bond and prepare for the Ordeal.  None of this may be necessary in the super-short form.

8. Ordeal is absolutely essential.  There’s no story without it.  Ideally this should be a difficult test that threatens the hero’s life or sense of self, and that makes the audience think the hero has died or failed.

9. Reward is also vital to our sense of a story.  There must be some consequence for the hero’s action.  THE STORY CAN END HERE.  This is acknowledged in the fairy tale theory of story construction offered by Vladimir Propp.  (I write about this in a chapter in my new book, MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT.)  Sometimes the hero just kills the dragon and claims the princess, and that’s that.  If you take the off-ramp at this point, the Reward takes on some of the qualities of the Return with the Elixir, summing up the theme of the story and giving the audience a moral viewpoint on what happened.

10.  But many stories extend the narrative and create suspense about the final outcome.  That’s the job of THE ROAD BACK, where some new development or challenge arises, or where the hero has to summon willpower to finish the job despite further resistance.  (In Propp’s sample of 103 Russian fairy tales, many of them continue at this point with episodes describing the hero’s journey to the court of the king and his efforts to claim his reward.)  The Road Back is not strictly necessary to fulfill the contract of the Hero’s Journey, but it’s amazing how it asserts itself even in the shortest versions of the narrative.  Often it’s expressed as a chase scene, with the hero fleeing from or chasing villains, and we only need one shot of the hero running to get all the benefits of this step.

11.  Even in the short form, there is room for a Resurrection, a second visit to the death-and-rebirth territory of the Ordeal.  For example, the hero might seem to fail at the Ordeal, quickly learn his lesson, and come back for a second match with the opponent, at which he may seem to die and be reborn all over again.

12.  Return with the Elixir is the audience’s takeaway, and in a highly-compressed narrative could be a freeze-frame ending or a little visual treat that sends the audience away laughing or nodding in recognition.  Or you pop in a surprise image that shocks the audience or suggests a future development.

SO…the absolute bare minimum, I would venture, is

1. an implied Ordinary World,

2. an efficient Call to Adventure,

3. a distinct Threshold Crossing,

4. a death-and-rebirth Ordeal(or Resurrection)  and

5. a Reward (or Return with the Elixir).

In reality, almost always the other pieces are either implied or present in truncated form, and the audience will labor mightily to fill in any blanks you leave.  For example, the audience will fill in a wild night of partying if you just show a teenager sneaking into the house at 4 in the morning.

Hope that clarifies.  The ancient world believed firmly that a single image, a statue or a vase painting, could convey the whole drama of a great story, so we have permission to cut this sucker to the bone.

The influence of “The Writer’s Journey”

February 21, 2011

 

It’s hard to tell how much influence “The Writer’s Journey” and my thinking have had on current cinema.  I work on a lot of projects behind the scenes but rarely get a screen credit and usually can’t talk about what I’ve done because my contracts forbid it.   It’s difficult to guess how much the book may be shaping modern storytelling.

The Writer's Journey 3rd edition cover

However, there’s a suggestion from two sources that it is part of the toolbox for at least one contemporary filmmaker, Darren Aronofsky.  Here’s a link — http://creativescreenwritingmagazine.blogspot.com/2010/12/black-swan-q.html — to a Creative Screenwriting podcast of an interview with the writers of Mr. Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN, Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz.  About halfway through the discussion they mention how Mr. Aronofsky uses the 12-stage outline from “The Writer’s Journey” as a set of reference points for designing his stories.

And here’s the man himself, in an article from TheBrowser.com — http://thebrowser.com/interviews/darren-aronofsky-on-making-movies — in which Mr. Aronofsky is asked to describe five books that have been influential in his career.  “The Writer’s Journey” is one of them, standing in good company.  The other books he cites are Sidney Lumet’s “Making Movies”, Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”, Kirk Douglas’ autobiography “The Ragman’s Son” and Francois Truffaut’s excellent “Hitchcock”.  Mr. Aronofsky has kind things to say about “The Writer’s Journey” and its influence on his thinking about movie story-telling.

It’s particularly cheering to me that an avant-garde, independent-minded filmmaker like Mr. Aronofsky can find something useful in “The Writer’s Journey” which is sometimes viewed only as a template for conventional, orthodox narrative.  It shows that the Journey concepts have a lot of adaptability and that in the hands of an intelligent artist they can be used to support highly unconventional and original stories.

I’ve had some interesting conversations with Mr. Aronofsky on the patterns of myth and psychology that I was exploring in “The Writer’s Journey”.   During the production of THE WRESTLER he showed me some drafts and we talked about how to handle the complex emotional situation he created at the end of the film.  I look forward to more creative collaborations of that sort.

Mickey Rourke at full intensity

Happy New Decade

January 22, 2011

Since my last post I’ve been to a film festival in Mexico.

I was invited to speak at a university in the border town of Mexicali, in a fertile farming region east of San Diego.  The UABC, Auotnomous University of Baja California, held its first film festival and I had the honor of opening the event with a presentation on the Writer’s Journey.  My host was the head of the UABC film school, Professor Sergio Ortiz, a passionate documentarian of Mexican life and a renowned teacher of film-making.  He filled my head with tales of “magic Mexico” and introduced me to a rich world bubbling with creativity and spirit.

Like most North Americans I knew next to nothing about Mexicali but quickly discovered it is the center of a unique universe, a separate world as distinct as Portugal, South Korea or Bavaria, with many surprising influences.  The region is a below-sea-level desert like Death Valley, with some of the hottest temperatures anywhere, but enterprising explorers recognized that it had once been an ancient seabed, and that its soil and sunshine could produce abundant crops if water could be provided.  So railroads and a canal were built by Chinese laborers, bringing water from the Colorado River.  Chinese far outnumbered Mexicans in those days because the tycoons refused to hire Mexican laborers, and Mexicali still has a thriving Chinese population, largest in Mexico, and a Chinatown-style district, called La Chinesca.  The desert floor was turned into huge farms growing cotton, fruits and vegetables and the area is still a major supplier of food to the U. S.  It’s also become another Silicon Valley with tech companies building “maquiladoras” or factories near the border.  Nearby are other towns where French, German and British influences can be found in customs and cuisine because of early attempts to colonize or exploit the resources of the place.

Like all places in the world it is haunted, swarming with the spirits and ideas of all those who have lived and died there, peopled by dream figures, heroes and monsters, devils and temptresses.  We jumped at the chance to take a drive with a young film professor, Paulina, and a student, Luis, out to a mysterious region known as La Rumorosa, a high plateau amidst stony mountains, whose name suggests the wind that constantly whispers up there.  We wanted to see some rock paintings made by the people who lived there as nomads a thousand years ago, including one famous image of a figure with strange snaky horns sprouting from his head, called El Diablito, the Little Devil.  Supposedly the winter solstice sun shines through a cleft in the rocks, sending a shaft of light that illuminates just the eyes of the figure.  He looked like a playful shaman to me, a Trickster.

All summer and fall I traveled to different countries to conduct my workshops and feel like a stone being tumbled in a mechanical rock polisher. Each country has done something to me, grinding away at what I thought was an already fully-formed personality.  I emerge from the tumbler smoother, calmer somehow.  It has to do with the people in all these countries.  They have changed me.  It started in Portugal, where I could see that people were warmer and more open, more human, than is ordinary in L.A.  I enjoyed this feeling and tried to bring it back with me to the city, discarding the nervous, guarded, suspicious attitude that is the L.A. social norm.  I found if I greeted strangers with the open, curious, accepting view I had seen in Portugal, they soon relaxed and treated me more humanly, even in L.A.

Kimchee and me

October 26, 2010

Well, it’s been quite a summer for traveling. Lisbon, Munich, Auckland and Wellington in New Zealand, London and now I’m just back from two intense weeks of lecturing and consulting on 3-D film projects in South Korea. There I was the guest of Seoul’s Dankook University, which is running a program to explore 3-D Storytelling.

I’d never been to South Korea before and found it fascinating but also somewhat challenging.  I often felt like an astronaut in a science fiction story, stranded on an alien planet.  The language barrier is a huge mountain range that is very difficult for a Westerner to cross, and I can only imagine that it’s just as hard for Koreans to make their way in the U.S., outside of Korean enclaves like “Koreatown” in central Los Angeles.  I would walk for four five blocks in the busy Gangnam district of Seoul without seeing a single American or European, and found that few shopkeepers, restaurant workers or taxi drivers spoke English at all, leading to some inconvenient misunderstandings.

While S. Korea is proud of its rich traditions, it’s also thoroughly modern, at least the parts I saw.  Seoul is built up like downtown Los Angeles or Manhattan, but that same density of development is extended over a much larger area.

The film business in Korea is flourishing at the moment.  I saw some wonderful films, including a Korean War movie that I really liked, English title “71: Into the Fire”.  Directed by John H. Lee, it’s a kind of Alamo story about 71 ill-prepared student soldiers, holding a school against an enormous North Korean army, led by a charismatic, stylish general.  All the actors were good, but I loved this actor the most.  His name is Cha Seung-Won, a tall, slender guy exuding cool and wearing a dashing white uniform.  He reminds me of early Lee Van Cleef.  Apparently he is a top model in S. Korea and like other actors in the film, is part of a South Korean phenomenon known as K-pop.  In recent years Korean rock stars, models and actors  have become cool and very popular throughout Asia.  Korean culture in general, with its unique mix of traditional and modern styles, is considered cool and interesting.  71: Into the Fire was cast with fan favorites from pop music and fashion, and like Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra in their day, they bring a lot of style and presence to the screen.

71: Into the Fire is representative of the new Korean cinema, which has successfully competed against Hollywood product in Asia with a strategy of adopting Hollywood style and polish but applying it to uniquely Korean subjects.  It works, producing films that are quirky and original, but thoroughly enjoyable on the technical and artistic levels.  71: Into the Fire has battle scenes, stunts and explosions that would pass muster in a Spielberg movie, balanced by good cinematic storytelling and compelling characters.

Another S. Korean film I enjoyed was OLD BOY, directed by Park Chan-Wook.  It’s a twisty thriller, working from a “Count of Monte Cristo” premise but with some daring touches and all the style of a Korean Tarantino movie.

The core of my work in Korea was to “talk story” with a small class of graduate students and film professionals, four hours a day  for two weeks, Monday through Friday.  About half of the students understood English fairly well and got what I was saying on the first round, but for the rest we had an interpreter who repeated each English sentence in Korean, and who translated into English the questions and comments of the students.  As you can imagine this was time-consuming, meaning I could transmit about half as much information as normal in the given time.  It required a great deal of concentration on everyone’s part.

But it seems to have gone over well.  I felt that the students were ready for it and eager to hear both about standard Hollywood story concepts and the more mythical approach that is my stock in trade.   My book (The Writer’s Journey) has been translated into Korean and so many of them knew about it but were interested in my recent thinking.  I gave them a little preview of some material I will be presenting in my next book, “MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT: Secrets of Structure and Character” that I’ve just finished with my co-writer David McKenna, and that will be published in summer 2011.  One of my chapters is about the traditions of “vaudeville”, a term none of the Korean students had heard before.

A few cultural tendencies became clear as I worked with some movie treatments the students had written.  There is a strain of fatalism in S. Korean, or perhaps it’s more like being in love with a beautiful death.  Many of the films I saw and many of the student projects ended in the death of the hero.  I felt something that I had also noticed in Portugal this summer — a kind of sad but beautiful nostalgia for times past, and a resigned acceptance of inevitable change.

Compared to the U. S., Korean society gives higher priority to the group than to the individual.  Family names are given first to emphasize that one’s family is more important than one’s personal name and identity.  If people want to appear more Westernized and less traditional, they will sometimes turn their names around Western style, personal name first, on one side of their business card, while still giving it in traditional order on the Korean flip side of the card.  Some who have traveled extensively in the West or who deal with foreigners a lot will make up more Western-sounding names for themselves.  The director John H. Lee, who lived in the U. S. and went to the NYU film school, also has a traditional Korean name, Lee Jae-Han.

One of my guides told me that Koreans tend to describe things in a general way, as if thinking habitually in terms of the collective rather than in the language of specifics.  I found I had to keep encouraging the students to add more personal details and specific adjectives to describe their characters.  They tended to just give the character’s name without identifying any special characteristics at all.  As a representative of Hollywood storytelling, which places high value on the individual, on one person’s ability to change his or her life and even change the world, I felt I needed to nudge them slightly towards a more personal style of film-making and thinking.  This is assuming they will want their films to travel beyond the Korean market.

They seemed to find my wide-open Western style refreshing and grew quite emotional as the two weeks came to an end.  On the last day I gave them my closing story of “Trust the Path” which always chokes me up and usually makes the audience tear up a little too.  The students threw a nice party for me that evening, with a full traditional Korean feast, sitting on cushions on the restaurant floor, and barbecuing beef and pork over hot coals in pits embedded in the low tables.

I hope Korean film-makers will continue to express unique Korean themes.  Their movies, with their inventive plots and unpredictable rhythms, are already being scrutinized as Hollywood remake material, and a few have made it into the art house circuits, but I’d like to see them reaching wider audiences around the world, without compromising their special Korean qualities.  Perhaps a new generation of well-traveled film-makers like John H. Lee will be able to work easily in either Korean or English so we can more easily see and hear what this vibrant culture can produce.

HAIL CENTURION

September 7, 2010

Since I’ll be in London in a few days I thought I’d see a right old British-made movie and caught a matinee of CENTURION, Neil Marshall’s film about a Roman legion that vanished in what is now Scotland.  I enjoyed it on many levels.  For one thing, it is quite similar to an idea I’ve been cooking for years, and I’ve gotten over my ego enough now that I wasn’t crushed to see someone else realize it.  Eventually all my projects will get made by Other People Productions, and I am almost as happy about that as if I had produced them myself.

For another, they got it right on those things that matter to fans of (more or less) accurate historical and military subjects.  The armor, weapons, and fortifications were all convincing enough, and the depictions of Roman camps and forts were particularly realistic-looking.

I was pleased that Marshall was content to tell his story without benefit of Jerry Bruckheimer-style over-the-top athletics, supernatural embellishments, and egregious special effects.  Just good old-fashioned action.  No one was flying through the air or doing impossible somersaults like in PRINCE OF PERSIA, and there were no fantastic, digital gimmicks like the skeletal pirates and monsters in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  Nothing wrong with those elements in their places; it’s just refreshing to see a movie that doesn’t depend on them.  To do a period piece “straight up” these days without the crutches of heavy CGI or fantastic elements is an act of courage.  The female Pictish hunters who pursue the Romans so doggedly seem almost supernatural with their keen senses and quick reaction times, but it’s all quite believable and within the bounds of movie “reality”, whatever that is.

I took pleasure in watching good actors working and in seeing all the other arts of cinema being exercised by pros who should be working more.  I want to live in a universe where more movies like this can get made and seen.  CENTURION is getting art house distribution in the U.S. and it will be a long march through hostile economic territory before it makes back its reported budget of US$ 12 million.  But it might get there, through the long tail of selling rights to DVD, cable, download, etc.  It will make a good companion to my GLADIATOR DVD.

I liked the way Marshall “bookended” the story with identical statements made by the main character (Michael Fassbender’s eponymous hero, Centurion Quintus Dias) at beginning and end, to the effect that “This is neither the beginning nor the end of my story.”  We first see Quintus running bare-chested through a frozen Highland landscape, being pursued by vengeful Picts.  This is a flash-forward, tossing the audience some information from the middle of the story’s actual temporal order.  It has the effect of putting us in immediate sympathy with the hero, a determined survivor, and in fear for his safety.    Marshall is then able to reel back his story to a chronological beginning, when Quintus’ boss, General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West) is sent north to put down unruly Pictish tribes.   It was important and necessary, I think, to establish an emotional bond with Quintus in this flash-forward, or else the audience might easily be confused, perhaps thinking the movie is going to be about General Titus, a larger-than-life character played by a charismatic actor who eats up the screen in the early scenes.

At the end, Quintus has bested all his enemies and overcome every obstacle, and instead of rejoining the Roman army he returns to a now somewhat safer Scotland, falling exhausted from his horse into the arms of a Celtic maiden with a bit of intuition and healing power.

The line “This is neither the beginning nor the end of my story” is repeated, suggesting that this apparent happy ending may not go on happily ever after, and that in the mostly realistic world the movie presents, there may be other opponents and obstacles to face.  And maybe a sequel.

One little thing amused me — the word “Okay” has now crept in as an acceptable expression in movies depicting long-ago times.  Marshall used it a couple of times in short succession — once in subtitles translating a bit of Pictish dialogue, and then again a few seconds later in dialogue among the Roman characters.   I guess “okay” is such a useful expression that it has become part of a standard English or international vocabulary, and no longer connotes a contemporary or American idiom.  (The true origin and meaning of O.K. or okay is much disputed but it originated in the U.S. in the early 19th century and has a particularly Yankee ring to it.)   In a movie like CENTURION it still jars my ear and distracts me, taking me out of the illusion that I am watching a story taking place in another time.  It reminds me a bit too much of my own time, like seeing a jet plane cross the sky or noticing that a Roman soldier is using a mobile phone.   I found it amusing because I had just chastised a writer for using “Okay” in a script that took place in the 4th century A.D.  I accept that historical dialogue needs to be a bit contemporary so that characters don’t sound stilted, as if they were reading from an antique translation of the Bible.  We want the characters to sound a bit like we do, but to my taste “Okay” is a bridge too far.

I also felt a small sense of impatience with the structure of the film, which seemed to have one or two extra loops or sequences.  My sense of a satisfying structure called for the movie to end a bit sooner than it actually did, and I couldn’t quite figure out where the act breaks were falling.  Several times I thought “Ah, this must be the end of Act Two, and now we will be accelerating towards the climax,” but found that these turning point events were actually marking smaller increments of the story, and the real end of Act Two was still to come, several scenes further along.  It was a fairly complex story in which Marshall had to track different groups of the fugitive Romans who had gotten separated as they fled from their relentless Pictish pursuers, so that may have accounted for the structural intricacy.

It may not be a movie for everyone — my wife wouldn’t have enjoyed it because of the intensity (or honesty) with which violence is depicted.  Almost every stroke of the sword or thrust of the spear is a lethal blow, with bodies transfixed and heads lopped in half or sawed off with some difficulty.  But that’s how it was, folks!

The film delivered an extra treat for me because I followed my usual practice of sitting all the way through the end credits, something I learned to do in film school, out of respect for all the people who worked on the film.  It’s also a good source of information about what skills were required to make the movie, what music was used, and where the movie was shot.  In this case, the extra reward was one of the last lines in the credits, something like “Thanks to Walter Hill and Zenophon (sic) for all the inspiration.”  I hadn’t consciously realized the Hill-Xenophon connection until then, but instantly recognized that Marshall was acknowledging his debt to two storytellers whose work had influenced and inspired his own.  Walter Hill’s film THE WARRIORS (1979) about gangs in New York bears a plot similarity to CENTURION, in that both films describe the escape of a small band through hostile territory after the death of a charismatic leader.  Hill’s film,  a cult classic that has spawned a video game, a TV series, a comic book series and an upcoming Tony Scott remake, was based on a novel by Sol Yurick that was based in turn on an ancient work, the “Anabasis” of Xenophon, a Greek soldier in the service of Cyrus the Great of Persia.  When Cyrus was assassinated, Xenophon and about 10,000 Greek mercenaries had to fight their back to Greek lands through thousands of miles of rough terrain, peopled by hostile tribes.  The exploits of the gang members in THE WARRIORS, and of the Roman survivors of a massacre in CENTURION, mirror those of Xenophon’s companions in the Anabasis (“Up Country” or “The Journey Upcountry”).

All this goes to support my belief that there is treasure in the stories of the past, and that the classics can be mined again and again for contemporary stories, for science fiction, or in this case, to provide some plot points and inspiration for  a story taking place in a different time period from the original source.  I had an interesting discussion about that with a group of film writing students in New Zealand, at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington.  I talked about a chapter in my new book on how A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM is the lineal descendant of a pamphlet on character flaws written by a follower of Aristotle.  I love to find examples of new stories based on old ones, and CENTURION is a good one.

CENTURION is also notable for being partially financed by the UKFC (United Kingdom Film Council), a funding body which supported many worthy films that might never have reached the screen otherwise.  The world economic flinching has brought about some changes and I understand the UKFC has been cut back severely, which is a shame, because other CENTURIONS may now never get made or be seen.


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