Bring on the Hero

About ten years ago I was first introduced to the Hero’s Journey. Since then I have found myself regularly relying on it when explaining story structure. Today I wanted to write an article about why I believe the Hero’s Journey is such a popular model for screenwriters and story teachers. Then I stumbled on the following:
“Australia and Germany are two cultures that seem slightly herophobic.”
Christopher Vogler

The National Screenwriters Conference is over and I didn’t attend. But thanks to ScreenHub I know I missed an interesting discussion between AFC script guru Karin Altmann and Clubland scribe Keith Thompson.

I recommend reading the whole article, (as a matter of fact I recommend getting a subscription to ScreenHub and reading the full coverage from the conference) but here is the quote that set me off on my journey today:

Keith is wary of scripting how-to books, believing that they hold the potential for all movies to end up looking the same. Similarly, an overt focus on structure may be to the detriment of the script overall. He prefers to discuss scripts using more generic terms such as beginning, middle and end. The hero’s journey (a la Campbell and Vogler) should be approached warily.

Keep this in mind and let’s go back to that quote above this post.

Australia and Germany are two cultures that seem slightly herophobic.

Vogler must have good reasons for such a statement. In the case of Germany I accept the statement without further ado. Didn’t their last hero get them in a bit of a pickle?

But on what basis would he put Australians and Germans in the same context?

The Australians distrust appeals to heroic virtue because such concepts have been used to lure generations of young Australian males into fighting Britain’s battles. Australians have their heroes, of course, but they tend to be unassuming and self-effacing, and will remain reluctant for much longer than heroes in other cultures.[…]

That doesn’t mean we don’t have heroes at all:

The most admirable hero is one who denies his heroic role as long as possible and who, like Mad Max, avoids accepting responsibility for anyone but himself.

Now that last definition sounds like familiar Hollywood territory to me and it can be applied just as much to Maximus in Gladiator and John McClane in Die Hard as to Spider-Man, who needs to be constantly reminded of his responsibility as super-hero.

We all know that the movies Australians like are not very different from the rest of the world, as prove the numbers.

Obviously the situation is very different when we look at the type of films we are making. Suddenly Chris Vogler’s words are getting a different meaning.

Have a look here: Australian Films at the Box Office

What does this teach us? If anybody is herophobic, it is the Australian screenwriter, not the cinema goer.

Ironic how I was going to make a very different point about the Hero’s Journey but via a little detour I have come to the same conclusion:

If Australian filmmakers want to re-connect with the Australian audience – or any audience for that matter – they better stop refusing the call of the Hero’s Journey.

Bringing Up Baby

I was surprised to read the following quote from respected Australian screenwriter Keith Thompson:

“an overt focus on structure may be to the detriment of the script overall. He prefers to discuss scripts using more generic terms such as beginning, middle and end. The hero’s journey (a la Campbell and Vogler) should be approached warily.”

Not only does it show a grave lack of understanding of the depth and importance of the Hero’s Journey, it goes directly against most forms of successful storytelling.

I find it a dangerous statement, as aspiring screenwriters may have taken it as sound advice from a working screenwriter. The fact that it hasn’t sparked more controversy in the industry is another symptom of a film industry lacking a genuine storytelling culture.

On the other hand, Karin Altmann’s views on script editing are completely in line with those held by successful professionals around the world.

The following article, containing the quote, was reprinted with the kind permission of ScreenHub.

NSC 2007 – Script Editing
by: Anne Richey
Screen Hub – Monday 22 October, 2007

The first draft’s done. The characters are in place, and the story has been established along with what you would like to say. Except for maybe that characterthat scenethe way the story is resolved Time to call in a script editor.

The next question is who do you choose? With places like the AFC unable to recommend script editors to you, the best way is probably to ask around, and to find a script editor with the style you will best respond to. And their styles do vary.

To illustrate this point, Keith Thompson and Karin Altmann outlined the different methods they use to assist the writer to improve the script.

Keith Thompson, script editor on more than 20 produced feature films and five or six mini series, takes a very fluid approach. He considers his role to be the editor of the writer, not the script. He looks for a way for the writer to find the truth in what they are writing, whether through getting to know the characters better, preventing self-censorship, or any of the variety of other hurdles which the writer must find their way over.

In order to find the truth in the script, the writer must first reach a place where they can recognise what the script is about, and just as importantly, why they should be the one to write the story rather than anyone else, Taking this kind of psychological approach creates a less defensive atmosphere where the writer feels more confident in developing the script further.

Importantly, the script editor should not make suggestions about the script, but rather, encourage the writer on a path to finding the answers for themselves. The aim of the game is to emphasise the good and reduce the bad.

Keith is wary of scripting how-to books, believing that they hold the potential for all movies to end up looking the same. Similarly, an overt focus on structure may be to the detriment of the script overall. He prefers to discuss scripts using more generic terms such as beginning, middle and end. The hero’s journey (a la Campbell and Vogler) should be approached warily.

Unlike Karin Altmann’s approach, he also prefers to avoid the use of cards to work out the structure of a script. He prefers overall to avoid theory and stick to encouraging the writer and developing the script. Karin takes a structuralist approach in a similar way to Robert McKee, starting with the logline, premise, one pager, treatment and then on to developing the script. While Keith agreed that this does work in some cases, he certainly doesn’t believe that it works in all. His theory is that sometimes people need to work out the script while writing it, particularly the first draft.

Engaging in weekly meetings with the writers he’s working with, his role is more that of an encouraging spectator, facilitating ways for the writer to achieve the right outcome. As people only get one chance to read a script for the first time, Keith uses a colour code method for the first draft read-though notes, with a different colour once he knows what the story is about and how it ends. He finds it to be a helpful way of differentiating what should be worked on, depending on the perspective taken,

Karin Altmann’s approach is far more analytical and mechanical. She believes that a script editor shouldn’t get involved with the first draft, and that the script editor’s purpose in the ensuing drafts is to assist the writer’s internal judge. To her, the script editor’s role is to identify not solve problems, and it is not their place to provide scenes, lines or dialogue. They should always remember that they are the script editor, not the collaborator.

Script editors really take the role that producers and directors should be taking if they were better trained at the role, as they have an ongoing investment in making the project as viable as possible. She believes that as time goes on, and more training is developed in the industry, script editor role will gradually disappear, replaced by others with a vested interest in the film.

When editing, she tends to focus on the story more than the writer. She wants to know not only what the story is about, and why the writer is doing it, she also wants to know what the story is really about and why the writer is really doing it. When reading a script for the first time, she likes to imagine it as though watching a movie. On the second read, she uses the one-line scene breakdown method. She finds this to be the best way to determine the strengths of the emotional logic, rhythm and narrative logic. It help in identifying the gaps between the intention and the result, and provides a strategy for moving forward.

Ultimately, the script editor is the servant of the story, not the writer or the producer. They identify the places where the script is in need of resolution, and provide the writer with the pathways to achieving a better script, rather than rewriting it on their behalf. Stop banging your head against the keyboard when trying to move forward with your next draft. A good script editor is all you need.

Anne Richey
Anne Richey is a writer with an engaging demeanor, a systematic approach to organisation, and a criminal mind.

(Reprinted with kind permission of ScreenHub)

Writing in Sin

After seeing CANDY tonight, I’m baffled that so-called established filmmakers can get it so wrong. And let me tell you, it is not THAT hard. First: a three ‘part’ structure is not a three ‘act’ structure. And a movie lacking drama will fail. Guaranteed.

My fifteen students of Saturday’s workshop could have told you CANDY would never be a success. Sensational performances, strong direction and technically flawless. But: the absolute essentials for a screen story are simply not there. When will we finally get it right? Do Australian screenwriters really believe theirs is the only job in the world you can just ‘do’ without first learning the skill? Let’s not be naive.

Look at these figures: In 1983, a report on “The State of the Australian Film Industry” by Deloitte Consulting identified that only 11 films out of over 250 had made a profit during the previous 10 years. 20 years later Variety reported that the FFC invested in 169 feature films in the previous 15 years of which only 8 had turned a profit. If I can add up, that’s 19 out of more than 419. In a total of twenty-five years OVER FOUR HUNDRED MOVIES HAD LOST MONEY. I bet you’re surprised so many were even made.

In response to an earlier post on this blog, Jack Douglas identified the Seven Sins of Australian Cinema. I would love to share these with you:

“1. Weak or non-existent desire for a goal in the protagonist.

Few characters are memorable or to be cared about because they rarely want anything much.
Tthe national ‘quiet achiever’ or ‘aw shucks’ syndrome yields passive heroes and heroines.
Cate Blanchett’s character in ‘Little Fish’ wanted to open a video shop – but did we really care?
The list of goalless protagonists in low concept pottering plots (a la December Boys) goes on and on.

2. Imitation of overseas styles and trends and often an inability to find original cinematic forms
mirroring rich local content (the legacy of a colonial culture).

Weir Schepisi et al have highly original cinematic visions – but not embracing local content since the 80’s. Interestingly two ex-Dutchmen (Cox, de Heer) have been our most innovative directors in recent years. They are not fettered by the neocolonial cultural cringe.

But has an Australian film ever significantly influenced an overseas movie maker?
That’s the real litmus test. Where are the specific locations in our feature films? The bush, generic suburbs or tourist shots abound. But few filmmakers have explored with loving detail the couleur locale of our major cities – like Scorsese explores New York, Truffaut Paris or Wilder LA. Our audiences continue to live vicariously through the cityscapes of others.

3. Original talented screenwriters who think cinematically and form a screenwriting community.

In the US of A screenwriters fall out of the trees and pump out over 60,000 spec scripts per year. Can Ozzywood transform us muffin-munching leather-jacketed scribblers into suffering and disciplined artists with ‘cinematic brains’? A tall order, my friend.

4. A lack of uberpromoters like Harvey Weinstein or Jerry Bruckheimer.

Where’s the cinematic counterpart of Harry Miller? Glenn Preusker (‘Kenny’) may be the only marketing genius we have.

5. An inability (in screenwriters, directors, producers and funders) to identify the potential movie stories with the right form for a compelling high concept cinematic narrative.

For example, the Ned Kelly story doesn’t have the right structure for a movie (hence none of the Kelly films work). Other bushranger histories (e.g. Moonlight, Thunderbolt) have greater potential. Compare Cecil Holmes’ ‘Captain Thunderbolt’ (1953) with, say, Mora’s ‘Mad Dog Morgan’ or Jordan’s ‘Ned Kelly’. Which is the best movie of the three and why? Which one is closest to depicting the ‘hero’s journey’? Americans make movies, the British produce films, Europeans create cinema – we do features.

6. Ignorance of screenwriting structure

Some local films should not have been made at all and many could have been vastly improved with some hefty panel beating on the bodywork of the script. If Steve Kaplan had got his hands on ‘Kenny’ in time and manipulated its floppy narrative spine… who knows? it might have won an Oscar.

7. Our contemporary box office audiences

The average Australian movie goer is aged 40-60 and going to the pictures for a nice night’s
entertainment (as Frank Cox mentioned). Our baby boomers (and their attention-deficient offspring) want entertaining genre flicks not life-challenging redemptive cinema – that’s for the film festivals.

And a flick is just that – an experience you flick from your consciousness as soon as you leave the theatre.”
-Jack Douglas