Thursday, October 25, 2007

Bring on the Hero

"Australia and Germany are two cultures that seem slightly herophobic."
-Christopher Vogler

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 essential 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 quote above and I got seriously distracted.

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 is a smart man and he 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.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Writing in Sin

Losing a wonderful actor like Heath Ledger at the age of 28 is sad. But watching his last Australian movie CANDY is saddening in more than one aspect. I'm baffled that so-called established filmmakers can get it so wrong.

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

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

What's the Story?

The Metro Screen story structure workshop sold out and it seems there will be another one soon. If soon is not soon enough, you can register now for an intensive one-day session on 1 June 2008.

This one day workshop is intensive but fun. It teaches you to distinguish between those screenplays with a strong potential to reach a wide audience and those that are just a fun read. You will finally understand what the 'three-act-structure' really stands for.

The workshop is packed with examples of great and not so great movies and at the end YOU will be able to point at the main causes for strong or poor box office results for most movies.

The great careers in our industry are not built on volume of work but rather an informed choice of projects. This applies to writers, directors and producers but equally to screen technicians and particularly to actors.

Why do you think Matt Damon is the #1 box office actor today? Does he act better than Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, De Niro, Pacino etc.? No. He is a screenwriter and story genius. He understands which scripts will make money.

Without the knowledge taught in this course, you stand a better chance of winning the lottery than making it in movies. A bold statement but painfully true. Story structure is not just another aspect of screenwriting. It's what makes or breaks your movie career.

This is the last opportunity for 2007 to take this course in one day. Of the 10 available places for each day, some will be taken by fimmakers on the waiting list from last month's course. Don't miss out this time!

Screenwriters - Does your concept hold up? How to improve the structure?
Actors - Which projects to fight for? Which projects will kickstart your career?
Producers & Directors - How to distinguish between hits and duds.


The wonderful, sensational and inspirational NSW Writers Centre under the jacarandas of Callan Park, Rozelle where parking is never a problem. Check out the second hand book shelf with gems at $2 to keep you entertained during the breaks.

"Karel's course is excellent. It finally sunk in, having studied structure twice previously with high calibre teachers. Karel delivers crucial basics, sound models and advanced techniques that work. Thank you Karel for sharing your extensive knowledge."
-Brenda Jackson

"I came to you with a bunch of scenes in the hope of finding a story and when I look back I'm still surprised at how far we have come. Now the script has won the 2007 Monte Miller award. Thanks again Karel."
-Nathan Fielding, Winner 2007 AWG Monte Miller Award

"He never gets distracted with the little stuff that tends to fix itself when the important parts are working harmoniously. Karel is a rare beast amongst story consultants - a film literate and long-standing aficionado of many film genres. I hold Karel in very high regard."
- Kieran Galvin, Writer / Director PUPPY, Writer FEED