Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

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 48-hour Sunday

September 1, 2010

Again I say, very soon (September 11 and 12) I will be in London to present a 2-day Writer’s Journey Master Class hosted by Raindance:

http://www.raindance.co.uk/site/

If you’re within reach of London, as are many of my friends and fans in Europe, please come and hear my latest thoughts about 3-D, polarity as an engine of story construction, techniques for building characters, and many other treats sampled from my upcoming book, MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT.  I’ll also present my templates for story design and character building, drawn from the hero’s journey in myth and movies.

THE 48-HOUR SUNDAY

This weekend I had one of those impossibly long days, a forty-eight-hour Sunday, caused by flying back to L.A. after a trip to lecture in New Zealand.  We crossed the International Date Line somewhere around midnight Sunday, automatically re-setting the clock to midnight Saturday and starting Sunday all over again.  Of course I wasn’t really gaining anything — just getting back the day I’d lost when I crossed the Date Line from East to West, ten days before.

I travel quite a lot these days, or at least this is a busy season after a couple of years of not much travel because of the world recession.  I’m beginning to think that there is an element of time travel in flinging your body thousands of miles at three hundred miles per hour, five miles up in the sky.  I notice that though all air travel is damaging to the body, it   feels  a bit easier, a little less stressful, to travel from West to East as I did on the return flight, because you are traveling in the same direction as the rotation of the Earth.  You go where the Earth is going, you just get there a little faster.  That’s not too hard on the human frame, just accelerating your movement through time a bit.

But in the other direction, flying fast from East to West, you are traveling against the rotation of the earth.  In effect you are going backward in time, against the flow of the time stream, and that seems to be much more punishing on the body.  The outward-bound flight from L. A. to Auckland was noticeably harder to recover from than the homeward-bound flight.

Jet lag aside, the trip to New Zealand was great fun and very eye-opening.  First it must be said, New Zealanders are nice.  Also thoughtful, considerate, helpful, compassionate, reasonable, and responsible, but primarily nice, and all the rest seems to stem from that.  They reminded me of the people of Portugal, who were also open to human interaction in a way that I don’t see or experience very often in Los Angeles, where people are more guarded.  It was refreshing to feel this openness in both countries, and I think it has changed me and how I deal with other people.  I like it.

Kiwis are also smart people, at least the ones I met.  I had good crowds full of intelligent people at both my events.  The first weekend I was in Auckland to give a one-day workshop on Friday sponsored by the Romance Writers of New Zealand, a lively and whip-smart group made up mostly of women, as you might expect.  I have always had a romance going for the romance writers and I hope I make their hearts throb a little.  They were the first audience to really “get” me and my act, and they took the ball and ran with it, creating their own heroine’s journey templates to craft more intricate, realistic and emotional plots.  The Kiwi romance writers gave me another hour on Saturday to talk about “the power of inspiration” and I Mused about how Memory is the mother of the Muses in Greek mythology, and how writers have to cultivate and harvest from their memory banks.  I finished with a version of my “Trust the Path” story that always chokes me up.

I had an interesting discussion with one of New Zealand’s most successful romance writers, Stephanie Laurens, about how certain things we write, the best things, have the power to make us feel the same emotion every time we read them.  The same is true in the movie editing room.  Sometimes you get the right combination of music and image, the right catharsis from an actor, the right punchline for a joke, and it works on you every time, making you cry or laugh, giving you a shiver down the back, even after viewing it dozens of times.  That’s a “keeper”, a bit you know will have to be in the book or the movie.

A lot of advance work had been done for this trip by the able organizers of my events, and so there was a lot of “press”, meaning I got interviewed about seven times for various media.  The process opened my eyes a bit about how things you say in interviews and on your blog are seized upon, condensed and interpreted by future interviewers.

I noticed that anything negative or critical I had said, or anything negative an interviewer had said, was picked up and passed on by subsequent interviewers.  In a print interview for an Auckland newspaper a couple of weeks before the events, I had complained about some changes that were made in translating parts of  Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” series into the film directed by Peter Weir.  From that point on, interviewers reading up on me assumed that I hated the movie and tended to throw me questions like “You really hated “Master and Commander”, didn’t you?”

In fact I loved the movie, saw it several times, and will see it again with great pleasure.  No one loves the underlying material more than I do — I have read my way through the 20 novels in the series three times over and am embarking on my fourth voyage of adventure.  Fans of a literary series like M & C or Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings are notoriously fussy and protective, and always find things to be disgruntled about in the film adaptations.  I was bemoaning the loss of some levels in the movie version — the fact that in the world of the books,  the ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin, is not only a doctor and a naturalist, but also a valuable intelligence agent, the fact that he is not only Irish but Catalan, the fact that a formidable American opponent was changed to a French enemy in the film.  But I know, as someone who has worked in movie development and has assisted in adapting many novels to the screen, something is always lost in translation.

In another instance of the media’s tendency to repeat itself, especially when negativity is involved, one of my radio interviewers picked up on the initial print interviewer’s dismissal of one of my keystone movie examples, “An Officer and a Gentleman”, as a not particularly good film.  I hope people didn’t think I agree with him.  I like that movie, was very moved by it at the time, and referred to it often as a structural and emotional model when writing development notes on other projects when I was working for Disney and Fox studios.

My swipe in this blog at one little part of “Julie and Julia” was also noticed and reanimated by one of the Kiwi interviewers.  There’s another movie I liked and enjoyed, and I was only noting one element that didn’t quite work for me.  To be fair, the same interviewer also picked up on my ecstatic and unaccountably tearful reaction to “Mamma Mia!” and encouraged me to talk about the positive experience I’d had.

Now that I know how the media machinery works, I will be more conscious when commenting on movies and books.  I suppose one can manipulate the press — by tossing out a few negative comments about something, you can almost guarantee it will be brought up by future interviewers and article writers.

After being treated very nicely by the Romance Writers in Auckland, I took off for a few days and drove the gentle, hilly length of New Zealand’s North Island, taking five days to reach Wellington at the island’s southern tip.  Along the way I sampled the wineries, marveled at geothermal vents, and struggled with driving on what to me is the wrong side of the road.  I made a quick stop at a fascinating replica of Stonehenge that’s been plunked down in a sheep field, a project of local astronomy buffs to create a working Southern hemisphere version of the monument, accurately predicting solstice sunrises and other cosmic events.

In Wellington, a bustling, hilly city on a bay,  reminding me of San Francisco, I did a one-day workshop for a local film initiative, Script to Screen.  The audience were a mix of seasoned professionals and students, many from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Wellington’s Victoria University.

The Saturday event for Script to Screen was held in a very special place, Sir Peter Jackson’s post-production facility known as Park Road (because it’s on a street called Park Road).  It’s housed in an impressive-looking building that could have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  My lecture was delivered in a beautiful theatre in the complex, supposedly an exact copy of an old San Francisco movie palace.  It was certainly lush and fantastic, done up in romanticized Moorish style with gilded mythological figures and touches of Alhambra-esque architecture.  The ceiling twinkled with fiber-optic stars, representing the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere.

I had a good response from the Wellington audience and was able to explore some of the more sophisticated aspects of the hero’s journey, such as the tragic option, in which the hero fails to learn his or her lesson or slides back into unhealthy behavior after a brief victory.

I held a four-hour workshop with the students from Victoria University on Sunday, a real highlight of my trip, arranged by their professor, David Geary.  The students were very bright and seemed hopeful about the world of storytelling they are entering.

Now I’m back on the ground in LA, prepping for the next trip — to London for the Raindance seminar.

Sept. 11-12, 2010 Workshop in London

September 1, 2010

Very soon (September 11 and 12) I will be in London to present a 2-day Writer’s Journey Master Class hosted by Raindance:

http://www.raindance.co.uk/site/

If you’re within reach of London, as are many of my friends and fans in Europe, please come and hear my latest thoughts about 3-D, polarity as an engine of story construction, techniques for building characters, and many other treats sampled from my upcoming book, MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT.  I’ll also present my templates for story design and character building, drawn from the hero’s journey in myth and movies.

May 12, 2010

I’ve been deeply buried in a project for the last six months, working on a new book with my friend David McKenna, a Columbia film professor and a fellow story consultant.  It will be coming out in the fall from Michael Wiese Productions, the publisher of THE WRITER’S JOURNEY, and will be called MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT.  We are describing the tools of the story trade, the systems and concepts that we use in our work, including a brief review of the Hero’s Journey and the character archetypes, but mostly new material.  David has written about a technique of examining scenes and characters from six different points of view, considering different environmental factors that shape a story.  I am writing chapters on fairy tale structure and an approach to character that dates back to Aristotle’s time, plus a piece on “What I Learned from Vaudeville” about how the old-timers structured an evening of satisfying entertainment.  The book is a kind of tribute to our influences, our heroes, to the people who have asked questions about story and tried to think systematically about it.

This is the same book I mentioned months ago under the working title “Boilerplate”.  Nobody liked that title — too “old school” —  so we changed it.  The title “Memo from the Story Department” refers back to “The Writer’s Journey” which began life as a short memo I wrote while at the Disney company to inform my colleagues about the usefulness of the Hero’s Journey and Joseph Campbell’s ideas.  This new “memo” continues in that effort to open up the treasure chest of story know-how.  We both struggled mightily to learn our craft and unearth forgotten story lore and now we want to share it with everyone else in the hope it will lead to better stories.  Lord knows we need them.

Weak drama makes me mad

September 29, 2009

I’m glad a couple of people have commented on my first entry.  By coincidence, I guess, two people wrote comments over the last two days.  Rishi Kumar writes about another emotion triggered by movies, specifically anger that he felt at one of the characters in “The Fellowship of the Ring” who was behaving foolishly.   I feel that anger sometimes, too, Rishi.  I want to shout at the screen when characters walk into danger or don’t take good advice.  That’s a good sign, I think, that you are involved in the fate of the characters.  Even if it’s infuriating, the filmmakers have done a good job of getting you hooked into the story.  You care enough to be mad.

I sometimes feel a different kind of anger when movies let me down or defy my expectations.  I had a taste of this let-down recently watching “Julie and Julia”.  I enjoyed the movie for the most part but was disappointed by what I felt was a structural failure.  The movie is what we call a “two-hander” meaning that the dramatic interest is almost equally divided between two characters, so that you have two protagonists on parallel journeys.  The journey for the Julia character (Meryl Streep playing the famous chef Julia Child) is fairly satisfying, dramatizing the obstacles she faced in writing and publishing her masterwork, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, and suggesting that she suffered emotionally from being unable to conceive children.  But the journey of the other protagonist, blogger Julie Powell (played by Amy Adams) is rather weak by comparison, and its weakness was infuriating.  The Powell character is trying to enter into spiritual communication with Child by cooking all of the five hundred or so recipes in her book in the course of a year, and blogging daily about it.  Although the character faces mild difficulties in mastering the skills called for by this effort, the only real dramatic problem she encounters is a slight disturbance in her marriage.  Her husband feels neglected and unappreciated because of her obsession with her blogging and cooking project, and after an argument, he moves out for a brief time.  Julie suffers alone for an evening or so, but DOES NOTHING to heal the wound.  Her mate simply gets over his fit of frustration and comes back to her FOR NO REASON.  Nothing is earned and therefore nothing can be learned, and there is no growth.  This was presented as the major crisis in the young blogger’s life, the major emotional consequence of her choice to pursue her dream, but it’s a flimsy peg on which to hang her half of the story, and when I realized that was all we were going to get on that score, I felt angry, disappointed, and ripped off.

Julie is challenged in a couple of other ways (her mother belittles her project in a series of phone calls, and the cooking project creates minor ripples in her day job)  but these are slight threats to her sense of well-being and once more she doesn’t really confront these obstacles with definite action.

Late in the movie Julie wonders how Julia Child is reacting to her blog, and is disappointed when she hears that Julia said something negative about her project.  However, this setback doesn’t rise to the level of a real dramatic crisis.  It wasn’t put forward as a strong wish or need for Julie early in the script, and it’s too late to introduce it as a heart-breaking defeat, or to put it in the language of my Writer’s Journey/Hero’s Journey model, a transformative Ordeal or Death and Resurrection moment .

Instead, the script tells us her hard work and dedication to her dream finally paid off and she is recognized by the same world of culture that earlier had embraced Julia Child’s work.  She is given the magic blessing of being noticed and endorsed by the New York Times, which like the fairy godmother’s magic wand instantly grants her wishes for fame and recognition.  Her mother now approves of her efforts.  Offers of book contracts and interview requests flow into her phone answering machine.  This is every struggling writer’s dream, but I could have enjoyed her victory so much more if her emotional subplot, the disagreement with her husband, had possessed more gravity, more real danger to the marriage, and if she had DONE SOMETHING or CHANGED in some way in order to win back his love.  Instead it played as an empty dramatic distraction, a weak, boneless gesture in the direction of a real emotional crisis.  Maybe, in the real life of Julie Powell, that brief separation seemed like the end of the world, but on screen it failed to fulfill the basic dramatic contract, and it made me mad at an otherwise enjoyable movie.

Best to Rishi and Frankie, film student from Hungary!

Mamma mia, for crying out loud

December 15, 2008

Hello blog world. I guess I am coming late to the blog party but here goes. I want to open up by inviting discussion of an issue that bears upon writing for movies but which, like many things I write and think about, has applications far beyond screenwriting, and that is “Why do some movies make me cry?” And I’m not talking about weepy scenes where somebody dies, but a different kind of crying that expresses something quite distinct from grief or sympathy with the dire plight of a movie character. I’m talking about tears of joy, tears of appreciation.

This came up recently when my wife and I went to see a screening of “Mamma Mia”. I confess I went with low expectations, my default setting these days when most movies seem to be disappointing, a waste of time, or actually painful to my eyeballs. I had little data on MAMMA MIA going in; I hadn’t seen the musical on stage and had no history to speak of with the Abba music. I figured I’d give it a shot mainly because of Meryl Streep, a trouper who usually manages to turn in a good performance no matter what movie she’s in.

As we left the theatre, my wife was wiping the corners of her eyes and remarked “My God, I don’t know why but I was crying buckets in there.” I admitted that I too had been crying off and on throughout the movie, and not just a tear and a sniffle, but great gushers pouring from both eyes and meeting in a stream under my chin. As a man, I am skilled at concealing such displays of emotion, so my wife thought she was alone in her tearfulness, but the movie had affected me in the same way. (It’s one of the joys of our marriage that we usually see the same movie — we both love it or hate it to much the same degree and we rarely disagree. If it’s bad, we both want to get up and leave at the same time, and if it’s good, we find later we enjoyed it for much the same reasons.)

In this case we both reacted spontaneously, involuntarily, to some mysterious emotional triggers in the movie. At first we were baffled and put off, as many people were, by the production’s odd rhythms and eccentric choices. We felt embarrassed for the actors who seemed to have been directed to pitch their performances way over the top, and we felt apprehension as they approached the moment of truth when they would open their mouths and start to sing.

But as soon as the performers broke the ice and began to sing, something magical happened. We found ourselves deeply moved by the simple spectacle of people singing and dancing with joy. We got choked up every time a musical number kicked in, and the tears began to flow like someone had turned on faucets in the corners of our eyes. The weeping grew to an almost ridiculous extent, climaxing with the big show-stopping “Dancing Queen” production number in the middle of the movie, where my sweater started getting wet from the tears falling on it.

I am no stranger to this kind of crying; it’s a rare experience but one of the main reasons I love movies and chose to spend my life working in the movie industry. But MAMMA MIA offered such an extreme example that it made me return to a lifelong interest in the emotional triggers, the kinds of scenes and situations that evoke these strong emotions.

I tried to analyze what was making me cry so freely in this case. I thought of other movies and situations that evoked a similar response. The same kind of thing sometimes happens when I am watching movies on an airplane, like MY DOG SKIP or OCTOBER SKY. I start out cynical, expecting the movie to underwhelm, but after a couple of reels the tears are running down my cheeks and the flight attendants are wondering if something’s wrong with me. Maybe it’s something about the high altitude but that doesn’t account for the fountains of tears evoked by MAMMA MIA which I saw at a theatre about ten feet above sea level.

If I had to put a name on the emotion I was feeling it would be “gratitude.” I was somehow deeply grateful that people were risking something and expressing their feelings through music, dance, and film. There was a kind of admiration for the audacity of the filmmakers’ vision, and appreciation for people attempting good old-fashioned entertainment.

There was also something powerful about what I call “choral movement”, a technique of film and stage directing in which masses of people move in unison. I first became aware of this as a young film student watching the early films of Sergei Eisenstein, who made crowds of people flow like rivers across the screen to evoke strong emotional responses. Later I noticed and enjoyed it in the work of directors like David Lean and John Ford, and in movie musicals from the heyday of MGM and Warner Bros. Ford in particular could wring tears from my eyes by directing a small group of people to act like a Greek chorus, moving and speaking all together. He does it a number of times in his remarkable series of movies about the U.S. Cavalry, beginning with FORT APACHE, where he stages a dependably tear-jerking sequence set at a formal dance. Officers, enlisted men, wives and sweethearts all join hands and dance together, becoming a single organism that makes a strong visual metaphor of the young nation. (Anybody know what song the regimental band is playing?)

MAMMA MIA makes effective and conscious use of the Greek chorus idea, literally providing a chorus of Greek extras, non-professional actors playing villagers who comment on the action and often move in unison to express the solidarity of the community or the infectious energy of the dances and songs. It was this sense of an entire community being moved by music and emotion that brought about the biggest explosion of tears for me.

Other things in movies and life bring about those tears of gratitude. Sometimes I get them watching movies about history, science fiction, or fantasy, when an artist has pulled off a particularly effective image or sequence. The balletic fight scenes in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, for example, or certain scenes in GLADIATOR, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, JURASSIC PARK, or occasionally in a Star Trek movie. Sometimes it’s a matter of wish fulfillment for me — I have read and vividly imagined a scene, and am thrilled at some deep, tear-triggering level of my being that someone has realized the same vision skillfully on the screen. In this way, the passion and commitment of Peter Jackson and his team in bringing THE LORD OF THE RINGS to the screen caused the tears of gratitude to flow every ten minutes or so as one after another of my favorite scenes was executed brilliantly.

Such tears are not the exclusive province of the movies, of course. Music, theatre, and even current events can trigger them. I’m thinking about the strong emotional response many people, including me, had to the election of Barack Obama. It can still bring tears to my eyes to think about that night or go back to the unforgettable image of Jesse Jackson, tears running down his cheeks and finger pressed to his lips to keep them from quivering with the strong emotions at play.

I guess what MAMMA MIA was providing with its floods of tears was catharsis, the sometimes explosive physical response to emotional situations that Aristotle wrote about. I’m curious to know if other people had similar reactions to the movie, although I’m aware some people didn’t, and in fact walked out after ten minutes because they just couldn’t handle Pierce Brosnan trying to sing. I’d like to hear from you about movies and situations that bring about tears of joy or gratitude. What is the organ of the body that is affected by these scenes? Why do we cry with joy rather than laughing or smiling? What do you think?