How The Lion King Got the Hero’s Journey Treatment: Thanks to Synchronicity and Some Help from a Plagiarist

August 7, 2019

Rafiki Simba Sunbeam

One of the joys of my professional life is that I had a chance to influence the original version of Disney’s The Lion King, and I have a plagiarist to thank for it.

It was 1992 and I had been working in the story department of Walt Disney Studios, primarily on the live action side, with little involvement with the separate, closed-off world of animation.  I had developed a reputation as a guy with broad general knowledge and a talent for ferreting out good story ideas from folklore and history.  Unknown to my bosses, I was working out the secret code for generating movie stories, believing I had found it in the “Hero’s Journey” pattern of myth and folktales identified by writer Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  I had discovered Campbell in film school at the same time the first Star Wars movie came out, and was convinced his myth-flavored memes had something to with the galactic cultural impact of the franchise.  As I entered the film business as a script reader, I found Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” concept a reliable tool for analyzing and troubleshooting contemporary movie stories as well as epic fantasies.

After working at Disney for some time, I set down my translation of Campbell’s ideas into the language of filmmaking, writing it up in the style of the corporate memos that were popular at the time and calling it A Practical Guide to the Hero with a Thousand Faces, a seven-page statement of the essential operations that create an effective story.

I distributed copies to my fellow script readers and a few executives at Disney but got little response.  One executive thought The Hero with a Thousand Faces was a novel I was trying to set up as a Disney movie project.

But before long, the corporate rumor mill buzzed with the news that the studio’s chief of production, Jeffrey Katzenberg, had come across a copy of my memo and recommended it at a meeting of top executives.  However, according to friends of mine who were in the room, the credit went to a mid-level exec who had plagiarized it by removing my cover sheet and submitting it under his name.

Katzenberg was excited about the memo.  By coincidence or synchronicity, he had encountered Campbell’s ideas at around the same time and thought my memo was a cogent restatement of his complex theory.  Boiled down to twelve bullet point operations, my spin on the Hero’s Journey was accessible to screenwriters and useful as a guideline for many of the studio’s projects, especially his baby under development over in Animation, then called King of the Jungle, but soon to become The Lion King.

As soon as I heard that Katzenberg was encouraging his execs and writers to pay heed to the memo’s message, I wrote him a letter, claiming authorship and asking for more involvement in the studio’s story-making process.  This was a bold and risky move, jumping over many levels in the chain of command and penetrating the sacred veil of the inner circle of power, which was as forbidding as the disembodied head of Oz the Great and Powerful.  To my amazement, he called me as soon as he received the letter, and told me there was a place for me in the recently-revived animation department.  They were on a roll after the success of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and excitement was high over the next major project, Pocahontas.  But I was sent to work with the group developing King of the Jungle, considered to be the B team, with more modest expectations.

I wasn’t sure how far my Practical Guide memo had penetrated into corporate culture and was pretty sure I would have to do a job of salesmanship to explain the virtues of my way of conceiving a story, but this turned out to be unnecessary.  I could see as soon as I walked in that they had already digested The Memo, for there, on an official Disney Animation corkboard, was pinned the entire storyboard for King of the Jungle, with the twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey clearly marked as signposts.

I later learned Katzenberg himself had urged that his writers, directors and top animators read The Memo which seemed in his mind to be a good match for the needs of this story.  According to studio legend, the story that became The Lion King had a personal element for Katzenberg, reflecting in some way the deep emotions he remembered from a fateful moment in his own coming of age.  Of course, the script also drew on other sources, including Disney’s classic Bambi, a bit of King Arthur and even Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

I was summoned to a presentation of King of the Jungle’s story board, acted out in the grand Disney tradition by directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff who took on the parts of all the characters while they referred to preliminary drawings pinned to long corkboards.  In the audience were some story consultants like myself, the writers and department heads and some Disney old-timers called in for their reactions.  The production was already pretty far along, with some scenes roughly animated and a few fully animated and colored, including the spectacular opening number, The Circle of Life.

When Allers and Minkoff finished their lively presentation, I joined in the discussion, making a few suggestions that seemed in the spirit of why I was there – to lend some mythic dimension to the story of the young lion king.  Although I feared it was too late to make changes to the beautifully animated Circle of Life number, I made a couple of suggestions that were taken to heart and found their way into the finished film.

Most of my notes involved the character of Rafiki the baboon who serves as a kind of comical Zen master and occasional life coach for young Simba.  At that point he was ill-defined as a mythic Mentor, failing to perform the essential functions of that archetype.  I thought of a couple of touches that would enhance his almost religious aura: anointing the infant Simba’s forehead to mark him as a chosen one, and having a shaft of sunlight shoot out of the parting clouds just as Rafiki holds up the baby to show the adoring animals, creating a sort of stained-glass window effect and giving the ceremony an endorsement from nature.  One of the directors, Rob Minkoff, thought it over and said yes, Rafiki already was carrying some mysterious gourds and maybe he could crack one open to anoint the cub’s forehead with its juice.  The shaft of sunlight idea met with general agreement – in fact there was a kind of spark of excitement in the room — and I spotted some of the animators sketching the scene on their drawing pads.  In the finished film, the shaft of light is timed perfectly to coincide with the climax in the musical composition, and the effect is quite dramatic.

It’s hard to say who is responsible for an idea in a film, especially in animation where hundreds of people are commenting, critiquing and trying out different solutions.  I may have been the first, the fifth, or the twenty-fifth to suggest something, but every opinion has weight, and even if you are chiming in after someone else expressed an idea, you are helping to influence the group’s ultimate sense of what’s right for the story.

I was happiest when the team took one of my notes and ran with it, usually transforming it into something excitingly different from what I could have imagined.  At one point I was asked to do a Hero’s Journey analysis of Hamlet since that was in the back of everyone’s minds in the conflict between Simba and his usurping uncle Scar.  I was also tasked to provide the writers with a list of the best-known lines from Hamlet, and they turned these into clever parodies of Shakespeare, with Hamlet’s “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well,” becoming “Alas, poor wildebeest, I chewed him well.”  The choice of Jeremy Irons as the sardonic voice of Scar went a long way to giving his character a Shakespearian flavor.

Other touches that I thought would add some mythic resonance:  Feeling that Rafiki and Simba dropped out of contact for too long in the second act, I recommended that Rafiki should use his mystical powers to track down Simba and continue his training.  This was effectively translated into the visual language of animation with a scene of Rafiki sadly smearing a cave drawing of Simba because he fears the cub must be dead.  Then, in a later scene after Simba has transitioned into adulthood, Rafiki senses that Simba is still alive and adds an adult lion’s mane to the drawing before setting out to find him.

I also felt that Scar’s self-centered, cruel leadership should result in visible harm to society and the environment.  This was realized in the film by brief transitional shots that showed plants withering and waterholes drying up.  The idea survived into Julie Taymore’s theatrical version of The Lion King, where the effect was achieved by brilliantly simple stagecraft.  At the beginning of the second act, the lights come up on an empty stage, covered with a circular piece of blue silk fabric that represents a watering hole.  Then, it is slowly pulled from the center down into a small hole drilled into the stage floor, so that the waterhole seems to dry up before our eyes.  I got the shivers when I saw it.  The simple bit of stage magic was more powerful than the fanciest, most expensive movie special effects that you could imagine.

When I saw the fully-animated final version of The Lion King, it was clear that the directors, writers and artists had done their best to give the story some of the majesty and timeless quality of myth.  They confidently steered the story in the Hero’s Journey direction at the end of the second act, when Rafiki finds Simba and leads him on a vision quest to meet the spirit of his father.  Rafiki is at his best here as a wise-cracking Yoda-like teacher who issues knocks on the head along with pearls of wisdom.  The scene is another connection to Hamlet, mirroring a scene where young Hamlet confronts the ghost of his father, who urges him to confront the uncle who murdered him.

There was a lot of suspense around the release of The Lion King.  We all liked it but had no idea how it would play for an audience that didn’t already know the story.  Disney had been on a roll with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin all scoring solid hits.  Some wondered if The Lion King, an original story not based on a well-known fairy tale or children’s book, would fail to top them.  To everyone’s relief, it surpassed them all, becoming the most successful animated film ever, and for a while, the most profitable motion picture in history.  Why?  Mainly because people were enchanted by the talents of the animation team, the gorgeous renderings of the animals, the earthy, Broadway-influenced comedy of Timon and Puumba and the exuberant, African-themed music.  But there was also a secret sauce, the Hero’s Journey patterns that resonated for audiences in every culture around the globe.  The challenge of growing up and claiming your rightful place in the world is a classic Hero’s Journey motif that struck something deep in many people.  The familiar stages of the hero myth were not the only principles guiding The Lion King; some of Walt’s own heart and way of thinking steered the ship along with the team’s good instincts for comedy and a wonderful sense of fun.  But the Hero’s Journey definitely played its part and I can say that this is one case where it was applied consciously to make the work more accessible to a broad audience and give it a sense of magic and the powerful, primal rhythms of life.

To complete the story, people want to know what happened to the plagiarist.  I have forgotten his name; I don’t hold a grudge and in fact I thank him, because without the irritation of having my work stolen and presented at the highest levels of the company, I might never have had the chance to make my modest contribution to The Lion King.  Many people knew about his plagiarism and he might have endured slight damage to his reputation, but I doubt it.  At the time, I offered this prayer I learned from an old screenwriter, a veteran of Warner Bros. glory days: “O Lord, may they get exactly what they deserve as soon as possible.”

My memo lived on, spreading virally all over Hollywood by the primitive means of fax and copier, becoming part of Hollywood lore and eventually becoming the cornerstone of my book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, about to be re-published with a 25th anniversary edition by Michael Wiese Productions.

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On my own doorstep

January 15, 2015

Viking horn

For some reason, most of my workshops these days are given far from home.  In 2014, for example, I presented my 2-3 day “Essence of Storytelling” masterclass in Stockholm, Paris, London, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bari in southern Italy, St. Louis and New York City, but not for years in my home turf of Los Angeles/Hollywood.  I have been hoping for a chance to unfurl my still-evolving ideas about the power of storytelling before a home-town audience, and the opportunity has come at last.  On Jan. 24 and 25, 2015 I will present the “Essence of Storytelling” at the Hyatt Concourse Hotel at 6225 W. Century Blvd. Los Angeles 90045, on the corner of Century and Sepulveda. (Note that the venue has changed.)
If you live in or near the Los Angeles area, this is a rare chance to hear me explore the ancient roots of story and the exciting modern developments of storytelling for TV, movies, novels, games and the Internet, without having to travel to Sweden.

Details about the event are at http://www.christophervogler.com/#!course-outlines/ccov.

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I’ll be covering my fundamental concepts of the Hero’s Journey and the Archetypes, of course, but will also dive into new territory.   I explore the essential operations that must be performed to make an emotional connection with the audience.  I look at the latest discoveries in science about how stories move us so deeply, through the brain and the organs of the body.  I share my beliefs about how stories teach lessons through want and need, and how polarity, catharsis, conflict and intention can all work together like beautiful music to create stories with a ring of psychological truth.  I demonstrate how these ideas have been applied to make successful, emotionally satisfying movies and TV shows.

My recent travels have expanded my thinking quite a bit and I will gladly share with my L.A. audience what I have learned.  For example I work in a program (The Puglia Experience) in the southern Italian region of Puglia that concentrated this year on developing TV and Internet series that could be shot in that beautiful and culturally diverse region.

My career in Hollywood has been almost entirely in feature film development, but like everyone else I am fascinated and thrilled by the recent flood of new energy and potential in TV formats.  By studying successful shows such as Downton Abbey, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Vikings, etc. I began to understand some of the design principles that the creators of those shows are employing, and I had a chance to apply those principles to sixteen long-form storylines being developed by the workshop participants.  The lessons I learned from that work will be part of the 2-day L.A. Masterclass.

So if you’re within range of Hollywood or the LA area, come in for a complete course in what makes stories tick and how we can craft new models for an exciting future.

 

 

The Writer’s Journey Inspires a Symphony

September 21, 2014
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A new symphonic poem by Luigi Maiello inspired by The Writer’s Journey

As I write this, I am listening to a new piece of music, a symphonic poem. Discovering a new composition is always enjoyable, but there is a special joy in this one, because it was inspired by my book THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, and the 12-stage Hero’s Journey model that I describe there.

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Titled “The Hero’s Journey”, this symphonic poem is the work of Italian composer Luigi Maiello who contacted me recently to tell me how he was inspired by the structure of my book to write twelve compositions expressing the different energies of the 12 Stages. He writes music for movies, TV series and computer games, and says “The Hero’s Journey” music is already being selected by directors as theme music for their productions.

You can buy and hear the music yourself at https://itunes.apple.com/it/album/the-heros-journey/id871342884.

I’m very excited about this development, because I have always dreamed of influencing and inspiring other artists to create works that express the spirit of the Hero’s Journey.  I get a lot of pleasure out of collaborating with creative people, and have had quite a few good experiences of it in my years of association with Disney Animation.  I also had the joy of working with graphic artists Michele Montez and Fritz Springmeyer on the third edition illustrations for THE WRITER’S JOURNEY; with comics illustrator Elmer Damaso on RAVENSKULL, my manga spin-off of IVANHOE; and with a great team of European and American animators on my animated feature JESTER TILL.

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“Stages of the Journey” illustration by Michele Montez from THE WRITER’S JOURNEY 3rd Edition

And now someone has been inspired all on his own to create a stunning musical work from the skeleton of my Hero’s Journey outline. I am all the more thrilled because it sounds like epic movie music I would write myself if I had the training and talent. In my mind’s eye as I listen to these pieces I see vast clouds parting to reveal the palaces of the gods, lands of wonder and enchantment, and the mighty deeds of giants and heroes. Here are depths of danger, pinnacles of triumph and tragedy, and glimpses of sublime mystery. It’s perfect soundtrack music for the writing projects I’m doing now.  The composer describes it as a kind of “universal soundtrack” for the eternal story of the Hero’s Journey.

It’s fascinating to listen to the different tracks and how they express the varied aspects of the Journey.  Like the 12 stages themselves, each composition projects a distinct energy, sometimes menacing and full of portent, sometimes racing along with all the excitement of a movie chase, and then again surging with hope and aspiration to reach higher planes.

 

 

A page from RAVENSKULL illus. by Elmer Damaso

A page from RAVENSKULL illus. by Elmer Damaso

Please support the artist, all artists, for we certainly need them and their healing power and inspiration. It’s all about inspiration — the storytellers and musicmakers of old were inspired by the power and beauty of nature, people like Joseph Campbell and Vladimir Propp were inspired by them to write their theories, people like me were inspired to reinterpret them for modern media, and people like Luigi Maiello are inspired again to create new works. And doubtless others will be inspired by Luigi’s soaring, epic music to express visions of their own.

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