Every Story Ever Told – My take on the Hero’s Journey

[ What follows is the script for my Toastmasters Speech #2, given in Sendai, Japan]

Introduction

What if I told you that stories as diverse as the ancient Chinese fable ‘Journey to the West’, the life of Jesus as written in the New Testament, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the 12th Century Japanese work Heike Monogatari, the Harry Potter books and almost every action and fantasy work ever filmed or written all followed the same pattern?

I want to expose that pattern to you. It will give you insight into movies and stories, and quite possibly change the way you watch and read them for the rest of your life.

Back in 1949 a man named Joseph Campbell first published a book called ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, where he broke story characters down into a series of archetypes or character patterns. Campbell travelled the world, including a stay in Japan studying folklore and Noh theatre, and honed his theories into something called the Monomyth.

I want to cover archetypes in another speech, because today I want to focus on the Monomyth, or as we often call it – The Hero’s Journey.

 

My simplified Hero's Journey Diagram

Body

The Hero’s Journey is broken down into 12 basic stages.

Stage 1 – The Ordinary World Whether you are a carpenter or a spaceman or a boy who will be king of the wizards, you inhabit a world that is ordinary to you. Every story needs to show the ordinary world of the hero before it can explain the ‘extra-ordinary’ world he is about to enter.

Stage 2 – The Call To Adventure This is where our main character, our hero, has his world changed. Either externally or internally. Maybe an old wizard shows up and invites him to join a quest – as in Lord of the Rings, or a princess appears in a hologram as in Star Wars.

Stage 3 – Refusal of the Call Our hero says “no, I don’t think so” to the adventure before him. Indiana Jones thinks it’s impossible to find the Ark.

Stage 4 – Meeting with the Mentor Our hero meets someone who is well versed in the tools of the new world, who can guide or train our hero at the start of his journey into the unknown. Think that scene where James Bond meets Q, the person who gives him all those great weapons, or when Hagrid tells Harry Potter who his parents were.

Stage 5 – Crossing the Threshold Finally our hero is ready and can plunge headlong into the story and the world before him, one with different rules and values than his own. Frodo leaves the Shire, Luke Skywalker leaves Tatooine, Alice goes down the rabbit hole, Sherlock Holmes steps out onto the streets to solve a crime

Stage 6 – Tests, Allies and Enemies Our hero is tested, finds new friends, and finds new foes. Story is struggle – in his tests these cases our heroes find out who is friend and who is not. And we, the audience, learn what kind of skills and values our hero really has.

Stage 7 – Approach The hero and his allies prepare for the major challenge in this new world – to get the thing he came for. Usually this is physically a cave or enclosed space that the hero approaches. Dorothy and her friends finally get inside Oz.

Stage 8 – The Ordeal This is the darkest moment for our hero, where we, the audience, fear for his life and root for his success. Our hero enters battle and confronts death, maybe even dies. Out of the moment of death his reborn with greater strength.

Stage 9 – The Reward The hero gets the thing he wanted. Campbell called it ‘the elixir’, others call it ‘the sword’, but it is something that could be taken back with the hero. There is celebration, but still the risk of losing what he has won.

Stage 10 – The Road Back Now that he has what he came for our hero has to fight his way back. He is usually chased by those that protected the thing he came for.

Stage 11 – The Resurrection The ultimate fight as our hero breaks out of the special world. The hero returns home, bringing with him the treasure that can change his ordinary world.

Stage 12 – New Life Back to the same old life as stage 1. Sherlock Holmes goes back to 221b Baker Street, Frodo is back in the Shire, Dorothy is back in Kansas. But things are different. Life is never the same when you’re a hero.

It’s easy to apply this structure to action movies, as any good action movie made now uses this as it’s template. Any Role Playing video game, like the Final Fantasy series or the ones where you have to get league points, also relies heavily on this theory.
New sensation the Hunger Games blatantly follows it. And so does famous anime like ‘One Piece’. Each ‘Voyage’ of ‘One Piece’ puts Monkey D Luffy through the Hero’s Journey.

Conclusion

I hope you’ll leave here tonight and start to see the Journey in books and movies.

But, it’s not just fiction that follows the Hero’s Journey. It is also in our own lives. We may not slay dragons or enter a magical world, but I bet that each of us needs to learn, overcome obstacles and return with a treasure that will make our lives better.

Joseph Campbell said

The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.

Maybe this room is your cave, and speaking is your fear. But if you conquer it, you’re a kind of hero, don’t you think?

Favourite Film Book(s)

We all know the situation. Someone asks you to recommend your favourite xyz… movie, book, song, band, vacation spot, etc etc. It’s impossible.

So, when we were asked to write about our favourite book on filmmaking, I knew that it too was impossible. Filmmaking is such a wide term, that the best I could do was narrow it down into ‘best in group’. I mean really. How can you compare the best terrier to the best gun dog?!

Screenwriting

At heart I still think of myself as a creator, and for me in the movie business that means the screenwriter. If it ain’t on the page there’s no way it’s hitting the back of the CMOS sensor! I’ve taken all the big courses (McKee, Truby, etc) and read all the big books (Sid Fields, McKee, etc), but for me the one that really gave me the ‘aha’ moment was this one.
The ‘Writer’s Journey’ unlocked – read: spoiled – movie watching for me for a very long time after I read it. It felt ‘right’ and seemed to definitely mimic what I was seeing on screen in movies that I loved.

Is it easy? No. It is still tough to follow Vogler’s map with enough creativity to make something unique and compelling, but, it does give you the signposts along the way.

When I am developing a story I try to run it through a few templates, or story engines, to first give me a deeper understanding of the story I am trying to write and second to hopefully find a template that matches to make writing the script even 1% easier! I still use other templates and engines, but, my master template, the one I overlay onto any story where there is a central character, is the one outlined in Vogler’s book.

The ‘Writer’s Journey’ takes us through two significant structures. The first is ‘The Hero’s Journey’, where our central character goes through 12 steps (no addiction required!) that covers the entire script, in order, from start to finish (Vogler, 1996 : 18). (Interesting to note that these points are in script order, which may not match the unwrapped timeline of the character – i.e something may happen 20 pages in that is a flashback, but it is still 20 pages into the structure and therefore should be along that path).

The second structure Vogler covers is the hero’s ‘Inner Journey’, a further 12 steps that cover the same timeline, but delve into character emotion (as opposed to character motion). (Vogler 1996: 82)

Ah, read the book!

Vogler also has a great website that gives you a great introduction to the material. You can find that here.

Shooting

Film is a language. And what I find is that in the throws of production you can sometimes forget how to speak. My next book is again invaluable. It’s actually 3 books.

The ‘Master Shots’ series by Christopher Kenworthy is like the greatest directing assistant ever. Over the three volumes Kenworthy outlines shot setups for nearly every scenario. When you are going through your script and storyboarding ideas, Kenworthy’s volumes are an amazing starting point. They cover what the audience is expecting, after a lifetime of media ingesting.

The shot list is pretty impressive, from Fight Scenes, to Dialogue, to Love Scenes (and that’s just volume 1!). The latest edition covers blocking and camera movement and even gives tips on cutting to different takes together.

I know there will be some eye rolling from the ‘serious directors’ in the audience. They want to learn and hone their craft and give and original spin on things. But, in my opinion, at least 80% of any movie that hopes to find an audience has to speak in accepted visual terms. And I feel the Kenworthy series gives that to a director.

Of course, film directing can’t be learned from a book. Sitting with this on your lap will not get over the fact that your film, your script, is different (hopefully) and will have situations and settings that are of course not covered. But it is a good starting point. If you didn’t spend $50,000 on going to film school this will still put you in very good company.

Gosh, after writing this I want to go back and read it again!

Producing

My favourite book on producing is actually one I just read. It’s one of the few books I’ve read on the subject that talks about the whole tip to tail job, not just line producing (the work done during the few weeks of production).
‘The Producers’ by Tim Adler is in essence a series of profiles covering 7 different independent producers and their styles. The book is fairly recent (2006, but I believe written in 2001/2002) and thereby gives a somewhat modern approach to the subject (though there is little talk of low budget or the internet). It is also nice that the subjects are ‘independent’ filmmakers. It puts it into the realm of the likes of ‘us’.

Adler manages to really cover a wide range – from Michael Douglas’s early days with ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ to Duncan Kenworthy and Andrew Macdonald’s work with Richard Curtis to Marin Karmitz producing Kieślowski’s ‘Three Colors Trilogy’.

Throughout each interview you get a warts and all look at the role of producer. The lengthy process of getting a film produced (Douglas quotes it as being on average 5 years (Adler, 2006; 62)) comes up again and again. Again and again we hear how the producer drives the production from concept, and often script creation and development, through actual production and onwards to distribution.

Each subject has a slightly different take on it. But, despite it all, I came away inspired. Producing is not for everyone. Maybe it’s not even for me, but, with every chapter I felt more and more like it was an exciting, stressful, wide ranging discipline. Quite simply, this book solidified my desire to become a producer.

What Started It All

Back in 2001 I was living in Spain and was a little bored and frustrated with my situation – personal and professional. I felt like I was missing some creative challenge or output. I surfed the internet and stumbled across Rick Schmidt, his book, and his ‘Feature Workshop’ program.
I bought Rick’s book ‘Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices’ and my mind was blown. Making movies was something I’d always dreamed of doing but also thought was beyond my reach. Rick changed all that. Rick inspired a whole generation of filmmakers in the US (including Robert Rodriquez, director of Sin City). Rick covered all the things we now take a standard in the low budget film world – getting permissions, raising money, finding cheap alternatives, getting production value, etc. He was a maverick.

I signed on to go to one of Rick’s insane Feature Workshops. A dozen strangers get together and write, shoot and edit a feature film in about 10 days. It is madness, and of course rarely is the output watchable but it is meant to give you a taste of what is needed to get the job done, and, to show you it CAN be done!

It, quite simply, changed my life.

And, not for the least of which that it was Rick that told me about Raindance. If I remember correctly he said something like ‘there’s a guy in London who has a cross between a film school and an adult education program’. It was Rick that pointed me to my first Raindance experience in 2002.

The book now seems obvious, but, there are still thousands out there who will be inspired by it.

Bibliography

Vogler, C. (1992) The Writer’s Journey, London: BoxTree

Kenworthy, C. (2011) Master Shots Vol 1, 2nd edition: 100 Advanced Camera Techniques to Get an Expensive Look on Your Low-Budget Movie, London: Michael Wiese Productions

Adler, T (2006) The Producers: Money, Movies and Who Calls the Shots (Screen and Cinema), London: Methuen

Schmidt, R. (1995) Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices: Revised Edition, 2nd Edition: 2000, Penguin Books

What goes around, comes around – life lessons and comedy in Groundhog Day

Yes. ‘Groundhog Day’. It is perhaps not the coolest, hippest film choice I could have made, but, in all honesty, it is a film that has rarely been equalled in it’s combination of profundity and humour.

The Story

I am sure I don’t need to tell you the basic outline of this plot, as the film has woven itself into the lexicon of western culture, but, here goes.

Groundhog Day tells the tale of jaded TV weatherman Phil Connors who goes to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to report on the annual Groundhog Day festivities. He then gets stuck in a time loop and repeats the same day over and over. As he reruns the day over and over – we never find out how many times, but it is implied it is in the tens of thousands of days – he goes through many stages. First disbelief, then fun, then boredom, then despair and then finally an awakening.

My Significant Film

I love the film because of it’s natural simplicity. In fact, it’s so simple that at first viewing you can easily miss – as even influential film critic Roger Ebert admitted he did – the film’s deeply profound and spiritual meaning. The film shines after repeated viewings. It has touched and inspired thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people from all walks of life around the planet. It has influenced popular culture. It has been praised by Buddhist and Christians.

And it’s funny.

But it has darkness, not black comedy. That is also very appealing to me. Life is full of humour and tragedy, and the combination of this also adds to the film’s natural, unpretentious feel.

It’s a film I would love to make. It embodies pretty much everything I like about story-telling and filmmaking. It’s simple on the surface, the story is laden with reveals and understated philosophy. The directing is solid, and minimal. It has some rom-com schmaltz that actually serves the purpose of pulling the film out of a very dark place.

The Script

From a (unproduced) screenwriter’s perspective the script is tight and clever. With a celebrated comedian in the starring role, and a very experienced comedic writer-director, without a doubt some scenes were improvised, but even taking that away there is a polished aspect that can only come from many revisions.

The script combines comedy and fantasy, but does so without any pre tense or edifice. In fact, this is the film’s charm – the absolutely natural way that Phil Connors reacts to his situation.

The script is a perfect example of seed planting and foreshadowing. Right from the opening line, the script tells you exactly where you are going to go. The opening line is this:

‘Someone asked me, if you could be anywhere in the world, where would you like to be?’

Throughout the setup of the film – the first 20 minutes before Phil gets stuck in the loop – many characters talk about being stuck, and planning for their future.

The Production

The film had a budget of $15 million. For the early 1990’s, that was not a small budget, but looking at the film you can see that there are many large set pieces involving lots of extras. But, for the rest of the film, it is small and intimate. For a ‘fantasy’ film (actually on AFI’s top 10 fantasy films) there are no special effects (don’t count the Groundhog!). It is just straight filmmaking. The film was shot over the course of less than a month.

The Money

On initial theatrical release the film did very well – grossing over $70 million in the US, with a further few millions in other major markets – but in the 20 years since its release it must been in the hundreds of millions of dollar around the world. It still ranks as a popular online sale and rental, when most other comedies from that time have been left behind.

Recognition

The film has been recognised by the AFI and designated a national treasure by the Library of Congress. Not bad for a rom-com fantasy.

References