Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

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
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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?