Happy New Decade

January 22, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Kimchee and me

October 26, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


September 7, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:


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.


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:


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.

Harry the Explainer Explained

August 7, 2010

A few days ago I sent off the manuscript of my next book, MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT, to my publisher.  I’ve co-written this one with Columbia film professor David McKenna, with whom I’ve been puzzling out the mysteries of story for many years.  It will be published in the summer of 2011 by Michael Wiese Productions.  Looking over the manuscript I saw that David off-handedly mentions a nickname of mine, “Harry the Explainer”, in reference to my tendency to lead him down various rabbit holes of arcane knowledge.  I thought it was time to explain the concept of Harry the Explainer, an alter ego of mine, an expression of one side of my personality and part of my professional “brand”.

I was always good at explaining things.  I loved “show-and-tell” days at school and would lug in my plastic Viking ship model to explain all about Vikings to the class.  At an early age I pieced together a theory of evaporation based on observing that the sun somehow sucked the water out of the clothes hanging on my mother’s wash line.  I asked my mother “But where does the water go?” and she said “Up in the clouds, I guess.”  From this I reasoned out the whole cycle of rainfall, evaporation, cloud formation, etc.  and in school the next day explained it to Sister Mary Patrick, who was so astonished by my Carl Sagan act that she made me repeat it in front of the whole class for their edification.  Then she marched me down the hall to the next class and had me repeat it for them.   Explaining things had gained me status and recognition.  Thus a ham was born.

But the term “Harry the Explainer” didn’t enter my consciousness until much later when I was at the USC film school.  An important teacher of screenwriting there was Mort Zarkoff, a colorful, larger-than-life veteran of TV and movie writing.  Mort terrified us with the realities of show business, but he also inspired us with his willingness to share a vast heritage of practical show biz know-how.

I remember he was telling us how to get a story started, laying down principles of story construction that I still use today.  He was making the point that exposition, the presentation of the necessary facts for the audience to understand the story, should be cleverly inserted in a casual way, so as not to bash the audience over the head with blunt information.  As an absurd example, he said it was a mark of bad plays that they began with an appearance by a “Harry the Explainer” type, a character such as a butler in a nobleman’s household, who tells the chambermaid “We must hurry because Sir Edward Toffington is arriving on the noon train for the engagement party of his daughter Edna and Lord Botheringshot’s son Nigel.  Also arriving will be the actress Lily Mcintyre who was once in love with Nigel, and the American explorer, Mr. Daniel Blaine, who was briefly engaged to Miss Edna,” and so on until the entire cast of characters and all their relationships are bluntly recited to the audience.

I took Mort’s point and have since tried not to play Harry the Explainer when setting up a story or a scene.  But something about the name resonated with me as a compulsive explainer.  In film school and in just clowning around with my friends, I often found myself concocting long, elaborate explanations of things like how the days of the week got their names or why the military needed spy-in-the-sky satellites.  At one point, and David can confirm this, I took several years to develop a gigantic explanation of the significance of diatomaceous earth that was so complex it required pages of diagrams to unravel it.  (Diatomaceous earth may be the most important substance on the planet, by the way.  Someday I’ll explain why.)

When I would launch into one of these rants, it was almost as if I were immersing myself in a character, Harry the Explainer.  He was a more positive form of the archetype Mort Zarkoff described, a guy who explained things but in a painless way, with a wry, irreverent show-biz voice not unlike Mort’s own.  Eventually I found an outlet for the Harry persona when I started teaching, with classes on story analysis and the hero’s journey concept at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.  Harry came in handy many times in my studio career, too, where I won a reputation for being able to absorb a large amount of material quickly and spit back a concise, coherent synopsis conveying the essence of the idea, in what I hoped was an entertaining way.

Harry the Explainer gets a workout in the new book, MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT:  Secrets of Structure and Character, where I lay out some of the story-cracking tools that I use in addition to the Hero’s Journey and the Archetypes of character.  David’s voice is quite different from mine but he, too, is an entertaining explainer, and in a voice even more irreverent than mine he has set down some of his “Director’s prep” techniques and other useful tools he’s acquired.

And Harry the Explainer will be fully employed for the next few months, because I’ll be on the road for much of the fall, with trips coming up to Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand to speak to writers’ groups, to South Korea to teach workshop at a university, to New Mexico and old Mexico for conferences, and to London for a seminar put on by the Raindance Institute.

Summering it up

July 4, 2010

I’m just back from trips to present workshops in Lisbon, Portugal and Munich, Germany, both happy experiences where I met lots of interesting, bright people.

Next up is a rare local appearance in Los Angeles.  Though it’s my home town, I hardly ever show up in person here.  I’ll be speaking from 3:00-7:30 pm Saturday, July 17 2010 at the Palms-Rancho Park library at 2920 Overland Ave, L.A. CA 90064.  The event is put on by GLAWS, the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society.  The link for info about the event is http://www.glaws.org/sse/1007/index.html.

In August I’m going to New Zealand to give a workshop for the local Romance Writers Conference.  Here’s a link to an article about the me and the event.  http://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times/features/3879916/  The workshop is Saturday, August 21, 2010 in Auckland and the URL for the event is: http://www.romancewriters.co.nz./conference.php

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.

What I’m up to

September 29, 2009

I thought it might be interesting for people to get a sense of what I’m doing these days.  I work for the major studios as a union story analyst when such jobs are available.  Most recently I was at Paramount but all of Hollywood seems shriveled by the worldwide economic slump and I haven’t had a studio gig in a year.  Hello Hollywood, I’m available!  Meanwhile I do consulting jobs for various companies and go around the world giving lectures and seminars on story structure and the “Hero’s Journey” pattern derived from mythology and the works of Joseph Campbell.  I am working closely with the Swarovski crystal company on a number of film projects, and I consult with directors and writers on their screenplays.  In recent times I had a hand in Roland Emmerich’s 10,000 B.C., Darren Aronofsky’s THE WRESTLER, Helen Hunt’s feature directing debut THEN SHE FOUND ME, and a couple of Will Smith movies, I AM LEGEND and HANCOCK.  I had fun on all these projects but am particularly pleased about 10,000 B.C. where I can find scenes in the trailer that I definitely influenced.  These were some of the big turning points in the movie and I’ve discovered one of the things I’m good at is identifying and magnifying the effect of these turning points.  In one case, at the climax of the movie, I was insistent that the gold capstone of a pyramid had to be toppled in order to fulfill the requirements of an epic movie, and there it is toppling spectacularly in the trailer.  Cool.

And I have my own projects.  My book THE WRITER’S JOURNEY is in its third edition and has sold over 250,000 copies.  I’m working on another book, working title BOILERPLATE, that will present essential concepts and principles for writers and creative artists.  I’m writing a historical novel set in a time and place I love, and I’m scheming how to revive the manga or graphic novel that I started, RAVENSKULL.  The first installment was published by Seven Seas but it didn’t perform well enough to continue the series.  I don’t feel too bad; the same thing happened to Patrick O’Brian after sales of his first Aubrey/Maturin novels were disappointing, but an American publisher saw merit in the series and revived it.  Ravenskull is a medieval fantasy written as a sequel to Sir Walter Scott’s IVANHOE and I had the time of my life collaborating with the artist, the talented Elmer Damaso.  The next chapter is all mapped out and I’d love to see it in print.  Maybe I’ll write it up in novel form.

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!