Saturday, January 3, 2015

James Bond and the God Narrative

(The following articles was adapted from a rough excerpt of my upcoming new book Screenwriting and the Unified Theory of Narrative from a section entitled "Alternative Structures.")

It never fails. Whether it be online or in person, in the classroom or elsewhere, whenever someone well-versed in the basic principles of screencraft tries to express certain seemingly-unbreakable axioms of traditional narrative structure, particularly those of the protagonist's character arc, someone inevitably challenges those statements with the same dreaded question: What about James Bond? The “Bond Conundrum” has plagued dramatists for decades. James Bond is inarguably one of the most successful movie heroes of all time, yet the portrayal of the character seems to ignore many of the rules and qualifications usually deemed mandatory for a successful cinematic protagonist. As anyone familiar with screencraft should know, the protagonist's character arc is an essential component of the cinematic story's overall narrative structure, one which the other components interrelate and rely upon for the sake of development and completion. Yet in the Bond films, the protagonist does not seem to possess any identifiable character arc. He does not undergo a process of internal change in reaction to the plot's events. He does not seem to have any clear fatal flaw nor does he pursue an Internal Need. This by large holds true for the supporting characters in these films as well. (This analysis excludes the more recent incarnations of the Bond franchise, starting with 2006's Casino Royale which attempt to humanize the Bond character by putting him in a more traditional mold. For this reason, these films do not pertain this discussion.)

The commonly-offered explanation is that the Bond films have stood apart in the industry by existing from their start as an intentionally-serialized franchise, each instance acting more like episodes in an ongoing television series rather than the individual stand-alone and self-contained narratives we see in other films. This requires the Bond franchise to contain a stable, unchanging cast of characters that can be placed in one adventure after another and always return in the end to the status quo so that, like in television, the episodes can be enjoyed in any order without confusion. Unfortunately, this argument does not explain why the very first appearances of Bond in the films Dr. No (1962) and its follow-up From Russia With Love (1963) were originally successful as stand-alone narratives. Without the individual audience approval of these first installments, the serialized franchise would have never launched in the first place. This seems to suggest that the secret of Bond's success in spite of its infractions upon the standard rules of cinematic storytelling lies elsewhere, presumably in the structure of the individual films themselves.

To find the answer, it is important to note that as a character, James Bond does not in any way seem to be a common mortal man, nor is he even the exaggerated or figurative depiction of a mortal man as those often found in stories with highly fantastic settings or premises. James Bond is super-human. He is even more super-human than the likes of Superman or Hercules, as these heroes still struggle with “human issues” such as internal flaws, ethical dilemmas, or their own personal limitations. James Bond struggles with none of these. Bond is endlessly capable and endlessly self-confident. He never shows fear, never shows doubt, and never loses control of his emotions. Bond does not think, he simply acts – without a moment wasted debating the correctness of those actions. 

No sweat. Just an average day here.
In consideration of all of this, my chain of thought, for reasons I cannot remember, led me to the ancient Greek, Roman, and Scandinavian myths I read in my youth. These myths are generally of two types (with the exception of creation or cosmological myths). The first are the hero myths, stories of a mortal man or woman who dares in some way to challenge the gods. This, by various stretches of the imagination, can be considered the form that the vast majority of cinematic stories follow today. The second type are the myths about the gods themselves, in which mortal men play a minimal or nonexistent part. These myths are typically broad in scope, yet somewhat shallow in meaning, composed of tales of gods conflicting with the fickle whims of other deities, supernatural monsters, or other entities, reaching a conclusion which somehow acts to retain the order and balance of the universe.

The behavior and personality of James Bond is very much like that found in the gods in these myths. Bond himself may be considered as a modernized depiction of a god character for several reasons. The first is the effortless skill with which he achieves all things. Second, like a god, his character is unchanging and eternal (the actors who play him may change, but the character essentially remains the same). Third, unlike most movie heroes, Bond has an implied immortality. In most action sequences, the dramatic tension emerges from the audience's fear that the hero will meet some serious harm. However, this fear is never truly present in the Bond films. The audience is always certain that James Bond will find a way to survive no matter how threatening the situation. Finally, and most importantly, Bond never struggles with any kind of questions, ethical or otherwise, regarding his actions. He seems to instantly know the correct path and takes it as if by supernatural instinct. 

Oh, please. You're only amusing him.
The entire Bond franchise can be likened to an eternal saga of cosmic good versus evil in which one
and monsters...
not men
benevolent god continually maintains the order of the universe by keeping an endless supply of malicious gods bent on mischief or ruin in check. Of course, gods of evil are served by various monsters and minions, thus the Bond films are also filled with grotesque henchmen which the hero must continually fool or defeat. But the gods of myth have helpers too, often gaining aid or precious objects from lesser beings such as fairies, spirits, or soothsayers. Likewise, Bond is assisted in his quests by his own collection of “helper deities” such as Q, Miss Moneypenny, or various field agents or operatives, characters who often seem to have their own immortality or quasi-superhuman skills. This theory is further supported by the minimal or nonexistence of characters representing the common, everyday man or woman. If they do appear, they do so as little more than background players with no influence upon the plot's course of events, often doing nothing but look on in awe or occasionally provide Bond with a night of pleasure (gods are typically very lusty beings). By these similarities, it seems feasible to forward the idea that the Bond films do not follow all the traditional rules of narrative structure because they demonstrate an alternate type of narrative, one already established in lore with its own unique rules and structure.

Of course, a theory requires more than one example to hold any water. God narratives are rare, but others do exist. The 1966 Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly follows the samesuch form. Its protagonist (played by Clint Eastwood), a man with no real name and known only by the nickname “Blondie,” is another god-hero. 

He is endlessly capable, endlessly confident, and devoid of strong emotion or moral quandaries. The fact that, unlike Bond, Blondie is a self-serving antihero concerned only with his own wealth does not taint the argument. If one remembers their mythology, it should be recalled that though some gods are benign or hostile towards mankind, most are indifferent to the existence of man and its morality, acting largely to serve their own pleasures. Indeed, Blondie behaves as if he is both outside of and above the world of the common man. Neither their worries, their causes, nor even their law are of any concern to him. His only real struggles comes from the constant tricks and treachery played on him by story's two other larger-than-life beings; the impish trickster Tuco and the shape-shifting devil Angel Eyes – two characters with many mirrors in mythology. Blondie's character does not change. Like a deity, his character is eternal and unchanging. This is principally because he had no need to change. Blondie's physical abilities are already perfect, therefore no flaw could exist to interfere with them. As an “idealized being” of his place and time, he essentially lacks nothing, so unlike a traditional hero, he has no Internal Need which he must pursue to improve as an individual. In times of trouble, Blondie never needs question whether his past behavior is to blame or seek moral guidance in the future. It is all merely another up or down in an eternal battle of good and evil. Even when things are at their worst, Blonde is usually rescued by some random twist of fate, suggesting that there is some cosmic order in which he hold a part.

Like the Bond films, the conclusion of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly does not suggest that the hero's adventures have wrapped up and come to an end as they do in most. This story seems only to have been a brief episode in an endless saga which will continue on for the hero, though most of it we never get to see. The film's end is merely a pause in the existence of its unchanging god-hero.

A god narrative of a far difference character is found in the film Forrest Gump. While The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly only presents a few episodes in a suggested saga, Gump shows the saga of its hero in it near entirety. Gump's narrative presents a very non-traditional structure composed of a series of adventurous episode, one after another. The only thread which holds Gump together into anything suggesting the traditional three-act form is the one story element which never changes: Forrest's continuing desire to find Jenny and make her his love. The rest of the film, in its epic saga form, is really nothing more than the many ways an immortal god-hero like Forrest finds to fill his time while waiting to meet his Jenny again.

It might be difficult to imagine Forrest as a god-hero, however his character demonstrates the same non-traditional qualities as James Bond or Blondie. First, by way of his slow-witted and simple-minded nature, Gump perpetually exists outside of the world of the common man. He walks amongst them, but he is not one of them. Forrest's simple-mindedness actually has the effect of elevating him above others as a virtuous being. He cannot lie, he cannot hate, he cannot understand the petty arguments, prejudices, greed and anger which often consume the common mortal's life. He can almost be considered a being without sin. Second, one cannot deny that Forrest's physical skills border on the supernatural. He has the speed to become a college football All-American with no major effort. He has the strength to carry five Army buddies to safety. He becomes a world-class ping pong player only months after first picking up a paddle. He's the only captain with the skill to keep his shrimp boat from being destroyed in a hurricane. The examples go on and on. Third, he has an implied immortality both in a physical and metaphysical sense. He is not only immortal in body as he survives Vietnam and the hurricane, but immortal in spirit. As the decades pass, Gump's exploits pop up in the national media again and again, as if he were unknowingly some sort of cosmic thread uniting American history. Fourth and most importantly, like Bond and Blondie, Forrest never suffers any ethical dilemma or confusion over what actions to take. Thanks to his simple mind and pure heart, he does not think, he simply does and always comes out in the right. 

Isn't it weird how I keep showing up at these things?
As a character, Forrest Gump does not have any fatal flaw which he must overcome. Though his naivete and childish innocence do pose difficulty in his ability to understand people and situations, this is not a fatal flaw in the traditional sense. First, this is part of Forrest's innate nature, a trait which essentially cannot be changed. Second, this “flaw” is actually Forrest's greatest virtue since his innocent mind is the tool which leads him time and again down the correct paths to overcome conflicts and succeed with hardly any effort.

The Bond franchise, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Forrest Gump. Here we have three examples of highly-successful films of non-traditional structure in which the protagonists all share the same unusual heroic traits. These successes are not freak occurrences in the one-and-only monostructure of cinematic storytelling, but evidence suggesting an alternate form of structure, one with significant parallels found in the existing god narratives of myth – perhaps even providing the modern evolution of these tales. However, any further understanding of this structure and how it functions will require further investigation and hopefully uncover many more examples of its type.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

New CS Article! -- "Visceral Storytelling"

Though new articles have been slow in coming here on scribbler, please check out my most recent article published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine!

The article introduces the cinematic audience's three levels of psychological need; the intellectual, the emotional, and the visceral; and then uses a popular theory on human brain evolution to both explain why this is, and why among the three needs that the visceral is most important when it comes to providing an exciting and dramatically-satisfying experience to its audience.  A must-read for any dull script that cannot seem to grab the reader's excitement in the way it should.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sorry about the lack of new articles

I know, I know. New content has not been showing up as regularly on this site as it used to. But hopefully I have an acceptable excuse. I am currently working on my follow-up book to Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, and thus all my ideation and creativity has been poured into that as of late. This book will be on advanced topics, this time only containing the ideas and methods I have developed personally. I will try not to starve scribbler entirely, however. I would like to do some more Scriptmonk Goes to the Movies articles. They're fun and informative, and come pretty natural since I always leave the theater wanting to rant about something anyway. But if only the Hollywood will bother to offer me something worth leaving the monastery and seeing... Book updates will be forthcoming, with no doubt a sample chapter or two posted by the end of the year.

scribble on.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Humility Arc

Follow the link below to read an article I recently wrote for Creative Screenwriting Magazine. The topic is the "Humility Arc," a new concept of mine I consider to be one of the most significant discoveries I have made since publishing Screenwriting Down to the Atoms.

The Humility Arc finds in a most unlikely source an elegantly simple structure which all evidence seems to suggest has been adopted with near-universality into the Hollywood feature film, providing a fundamentally simple and easy to understand perspective on the concept of the Character Arc and its relationship to the story.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Learning Movies By Watching Movies: Watching FAST and Watching SLOW


I like to watch movies in fast-forward. Not the first time, of course. There would be little point in that. Rather, when studying a film in order to learn from it. Strange as it may sound, I recommend this as something you should try as well.

I originally started to do this as a way to save time. Whenever I am preparing a blog article or have a particular area of screencraft I wish to study, I always have to re-watch three, four, sometimes up to a dozen films for research. But frankly, I don't have that much time in my day. Movies are long. So to cut down on research time, I began to take advantage of a feature on my laptop's movie player that allows playback at 1.5x speed (50% faster than usual) without muting the soundtrack. That way, I could still watch every moment of the film in only 2/3 the time.

However, I soon noticed a surprise additional benefit to this. If I was examining these films for anything to do with plot, story structure, or character arc, I found I could see the shape and course of such things quicker and easier than I could have by watching the same film at normal speed. One difficulty that stands in the way of the developing screenwriter who attempts to learn more by watching other films is a feature film's length. To the uninitiated, feature films appear to be such wild, complicated things, but this is actually untrue. Most great films have very simple stories and clear, straightforward structure. However, this is lost on many since they cannot see the forest due to all of the trees. Feature film structure demands a certain number of story sequences, each with their own objectives that must be accomplished through a certain number of scenes (five, six, a dozen or more). In turn, every scene has its own sub-objectives there to advance the story and move the sequence forward, all requiring series of action, exchanges of dialogue, sounds, images, and the use of camera and editing. The result is that the viewer gets lost in the details and finds it hard to see the overall shape and movement of the story as a whole. Being stuck in the moment, that bit of screencraft executed only a few scenes ago becomes a fading memory. This may be good for the viewing experience (good story structure should by nature stay hidden under the surface), but difficult for those trying to use the film as a learning tool.

In short, I owe a good deal of my film education to being impatient. Watching films at 1.5x speed compressed the overall narrative, allowing me to better see and remember how one event led to the next, how one turning point related to the one before it. Zipping through scenes caused me to no longer dwell all my attention on each individual shot and line of dialogue, but instead see the scene as a whole, and thus taking away only the general movement of the scene; what was done, what was accomplished, how it was accomplished, and how its outcome changes the course of the film, leads to the next story action, and advances the sequence to its next structural turning point. You could call it a “bullet-point” method of viewing a film. Light on details, heavy on function.

This tactic will of course give you no help when it comes to learning proper pacing and scene construction (the method I describe next will do worlds of good for this). Nor do I wish to undervalue the importance of the little details of plot, theme, and character (the difference between a good story and a great film is usually found within the use of these very details). But if what you seek to understand is the broader movements of story and structure, how each scene and sequence works together to create one cohesive and functional narrative, I strongly suggest you give this a try. 150% may sound a little fast, but it is not. In fact, I was surprised to find that a lot of films (mostly poor or painfully mediocre films) actually play better at this speed. Unless the film has unusually quick-paced dialogue or dizzying-quick action sequences, you will not miss a thing – as long as you are paying attention. (If you are going to be multitasking, its wisest to play the movie at its normal speed.)

One technical problem is that most movie or video players automatically mute the soundtrack when playing at faster speeds. Watching at 1.5x speed is not much help without sound. I am no expert on audio-video products, so you will have to test this out at home or experiment with the various media players you can get online. I use Toshiba's proprietary DVD player to do this on my laptop and the Playstation 3 can do this in my living room.

I should add to this that when it comes to analyzing films you have seen multiple times, films you have watched on so many occasions that you can now recite dialogue and no longer even need the sound to follow each scene, you can watch these films EVEN FASTER. Last month, I needed to re-watch Back to the Future and got through the entire film in under twenty minutes. What does this do? It turns every scene and sequence into a tight, concise brick of action. You don't watch the scene, you instead receive the concept of the scene, the idea of the scene; basically why it exists and how that brick fits into the structural whole. It's a bit like reading a written point-by-point breakdown of the film, but far better, as you can observe how each event directly causes the next, how the flow of action to action moves the narrative forward. It is difficult, almost impossible, for one to remember every essential structural point after observing a full two-hour length film in one sitting. That is expecting a lot from your memory. But the same seen all in twenty minutes? Far easier. The whole film's structure now sits firmly inside your head.


When it comes to using films as a learning tool, it is also good to watch them slow. I mean, really slow. Not in slow-motion, mind you. I don't see any use in that (at least not at the moment). I am speaking of a technique called the “START/STOP”, something found in UCLA & USC Screenwriting instructor William Froug's book Zen and the Art of Screenwriting, Volume 2. Used correctly, this technique can teach you more from watching a single film than you might in an entire semester-long course on the craft.

Step 1: Select a film to study. Make sure it is a film that is top-notch in terms of its storytelling, one you love and admire, and ideally one similar to the types of stories you wish to create. I also suggest choosing a film that remains fairly traditional in its approach to storytelling, one considered to be the “gold standard” of its genre or type, so its lessons can may be widely applied to your own narratives, rather than something like a three-hour nonlinear art film that stands out from the crowd simply by being so different. Also (this is optional) find a copy of the film's screenplay. In most cases, you can download these screenplays online in .pdf or .doc form. You can also find many published in book form in local libraries. You will want to refer to the written script from time to time.

Step 2: Watch the film in one sitting from beginning to end. Get an overall view of the shape and form of its story, but while watching also try to identify the most important elements of its storytelling from a screenwriter's point of view; where and what are the plot's major dramatic turning points, how does the protagonist's character change over the course of events and what causes this to happen, what thematic elements seem to be present, and anything else that may jump out at you as unusual or important. As soon as the film fades to black, start writing about your observations. Do this right away while the film is still fresh in your head. You can take as much time as you need and go into as much detail as you like, but one to two full pages should be enough. Include any questions you might have regarding how the storyteller accomplished one thing or another. Make note of any particularly memorable scenes. Also mention your viewing experience on an emotional level. How did the story make you feel throughout its course? Was this the storyteller's intention? Take a moment to hypothesize on how and why the storyteller managed to move your emotions this way.

Step 3: Here comes of the fun part. And by fun, I mean grueling. Go back to the first scene of the film. Watch it to the scene's conclusion. Go back to its start and watch it a second time. Watch this one scene again and again if you like. Then, on a clean page write “SCENE #1” followed by a short slug that describes the scene (ex. “JOHN WITH MORTY OUTSIDE BIKER BAR”). Then start writing a thick wad of notes on anything and everything you notice about the execution of that scene in terms of its written craft. Watch the scene over and over to observe it on its most atomic level; shot by shot, line by line. Ask, what is the purpose of this scene? Why is it here? What does it do? How does it do it? What important information is communicated in this scene? How did the storyteller communicate it? Is any of this exposition? Information that will be useful later? Is anything set up secretly that will be paid off in later scenes? How was this executed? What is the conflict in this scene? How does it start? How does it develop? How is its outcome important – or does the scene's conflict exist as a diversion to help deliver what the scene is really about? What is the scene's moment of change that moves the story forward? How does the end of this scene set up the action of the next?

This is only a small sampling of matters to consider. Some scenes give you a lot more material to chew on than others, but try to go far beyond a few simple sentences. Expand your observations into anywhere between a paragraph and a full page or more.

Step 4: Watch the next scene and repeat the process. Then the next scene. Continue on like this for EVERY SINGLE SCENE in the entire film. Every scene. One at a time. Analyzed under the microscope. Until you have reached the movie's end. By the time you have finished, you will know this film like the back of your hand and will have learned more about screencraft than you could have ever imagined.

Don't overlook the short scenes in your START/STOP. Give them the same degree of attention you give all others. Even if the scene lasts only a few seconds, that scene has been put into the film for a reason. It communicates something significant. What is it? The opening scene of Die Hard is nothing but a shot of an airplane coming in for a landing. This may not seem like much, but this simple opening still works to communicate information and set up the following action. Since we are watching this plane, it suggests someone important to the story must be on it. Someone who has just come a long way. Subconsciously, this causes the audience to ask, “Who is this person, where did they come from, and why are they here?” Then, in next scene we learn this person is our hero John McClane, gripping the plane's armrest in fear (which suggests he must be here for something important if he hates flying this much).

William Froug suggests doing a START/STOP on one film a month for an entire year (which I guess is a lot cheaper than going to film school). However, I must have been a much more hardcore START/STOPPER than Froug ever imagined. He believes an entire film can be finished in only a couple days. Yet whenever I have done this, I worked for one to two hours a day for a month or more. By the time I was finished, I was so exhausted that I didn't want to attempt another film for an entire year. But what a reward! For instance, on my third attempt, as you might tell from the example given above, I chose the film Die Hard (it's still the gold standard for the action genre for a reason – its craft's execution is shockingly pristine!). Using Froug's START/STOP, I learned more from watching this single film than I probably had my entire time attending film school. After two months of work, I had 81 pages of single-spaced type-written notes, so much of it I found so insightful that I had to include it in my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms three years later. 

You can read some of the highlights of this START/STOP in a five-part series of articles I began in 2009 titled “Things I Learned from Die Hard.”

If you want to learn to write by watching movies (and you should), you have to pull yourself outside of the headspace of the casual filmgoer. If learning the craft were that simple, everyone with a stack of DVDs or a subscription to Netflix would already be an expert. You have to watch them smart. Watch them slow. Watch them fast. Watch them repeatedly. Watch them in terms of their tiniest pieces. Watch them in terms of their absolute whole. And do your homework. Write your discoveries down. Writing about it forces to you to think about it and develop that which begins as a tiny vague notion into a fully-realized method of approach. Watch movies like a scientist. Watch movies like a writer.

That's all I got for now. scribble on

Saturday, June 7, 2014

A Review of "OFFICE SPACE", as written by Joseph "The Hero With 1000 Faces" Campbell

The Hero of 1000 Post-Its

“…First of all, I begin by saying my theory of the Monomyth, as introduced in my popular work THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, has been much misunderstood and misrepresented as of late. The conclusion of my work was that the stories found in myths and legends are all symbolic reminders that a healthy life must be a continual process of psychogical DEATH and REBIRTH. All our lives are made up of stages; childhood and adolescence, adulthood and marriage, old age and death. The transitions between these stages, usually accompanied by initiation rituals in primitive cultures, requires that the old self “die” and then be “reborn” as a new person with new sets of values and priorities. The old must die. Only death can bring new life. And only new life can bring death.

Like how the deep subconscious summons symbolic images in dream to give shape and form to otherwise inexpressible turmoils of the psyche, the myth acts as a tool of the psyche of society. The gods and heroes are no more than symbolic archetypes used to express experiences of social and psychological change universal to man – The Universal Will. Death and rebirth. This is the way progress is made. Even the two most revered moments of Western Christianity, the story of Christmas and the story of Easter, both continually reenacted on ritual holidays, are clear symbolizations of the death of an old age and the birth a new, purer, more illuminated age. Such is the power of Myth.

The contemporary Americans have a charming tale called “Office Space.” When the tale begins, the land has grown old and corrupt. People are suffering under the weight of a power that no longer serves its true purpose. Ruling this land is Tyrant-King HOLDFAST. “Hold fast!” the Tyrant-King cries. “All shall remain as it is!” In all his forms throughout myth, Holdfast is hoarder for his own benefit, one who has succumbed to greed and avarice, who now uses his mighty power to maintain the status quo. But change is inevitable. No man can resist the cosmic cycle. Death must come to the land of Holdfast. And it can only come from one source: a newborn child. For in terms of the land, only DEATH can bring NEW LIFE! And in terms of the hero, only NEW LIFE can bring that DEATH!

All has become old and corrupt.

The hero of our story is the simple young man Peter Gibbons (no mention is made of his parents, so possibly of Virgin Birth). Peter is one of many who bend under the oppression of the Tyrant-King. Little does he know that destiny has chosen him to be the world-savior, the Renewer of Life, the Bringer of the Ultimate Boon.

One morning, whilst crossing a grassy glen with two of his cohorts, Peter is met by a fat dwarf bearing tidings of ill! (its supernatural resemblance suggestion that he has a connection with The Power.) This is the Herald, a figure repeated innumerable times in fantasy and lore. In the same manner as the Grim Reaper, in the same manner as Virgil’s first appearance to Dante, the Herald says “Stop! Change must come! Leave this road and follow me!” This is the Call to Adventure, the narrative equivalent of the psychological anxiety one feels when dreaming that signals time has come for a change.

Peter does not know if he believes the dwarf’s story, but the dwarf begs that Peter take action. Here we have a Refusal of the Call. He would not dare risk challenging King Holdfast. Like Sigmund Freud’s cases of childhood neuroses continuing into adulthood, Peter wants to cling to his existing material world out of a fear of losing what one assumes is valuable. The first step in answering the call is to let go.

Peter’s period of refusal ends when he encounters the Supernatural Aid of a monstrous old wizard. As an amulet to protect Peter from the dangers that lie ahead, the wizard casts a spell on Peter to render him invincible to his enemies. His life’s mission fulfilled, the wizard turns to dust the moment his spell is cast.

However, the invincibility spell is in fact a spell of rebirth. With the wizard’s last words, Peter dies and is immediately reborn. We see him burst from his placenta of entrancement, and look about his surroundings with infant wonder in his eyes. This is a purified Peter, untainted by corruption, unbound to any former loyalties. This is an essential step in the hero-journey. Re-birth can only come from re-birth.

Armed with his amulet of power, the hero now feels confident to follow his call of destiny into the land of unknown. However, just as societies of old projected their fears of the unknown into imagined monsters that lurked beyond the safety of the village, just as our own minds erect fears and imagined bogeymen in our subconscious to resist the uncertainties of psychological change, so it is in myth. The entrance to the zone of magnified power is overwatched by Threshold Guardians, ogres created to threaten the weak of heart and keep out those not ready for the challenges which lay beyond. At Peter’s threshold stands twin ogres, both by the name of Bob. The Bobs crush and cripple every man that faces them. His weaker-willed cohorts warn Peter to turn back, but armed by his new-given power, Peter is undaunted. In his purified state, Peter is able to trick the twin ogres. He not only convinces them to yield the way, but gains their enthusiastic assistance.

Hi. We're here to eat your bones.

It is imperative to point out that Peter’s victory does not come due to guile or show of force, but by the effortless nature of his newborn purity. His innocence, honesty, and absolute lack of rationalized fear baffles the Bobs. This is reminiscent of the tale of the future Buddha’s battle with the demon Stickyhair, where the future Buddha, at the physical mercy of the demon, nevertheless fells the monster through nothing more than his forthright confidence.

(the editor now asks the reader to imagine the next line in the snootiest voice possible.)

The “Damn, it’s Good to be a Gangsta’” montage presents, in quick succession, a series of Tests the Trials of which every hero must face on his journey. The office through which Peter journeys is a deadly desert, fraught with obstacles. With the invincibility of his amulet, Peter passes these trials with godlike ease. He has crossed the rocks that clash! And the reeds that cut! And the sand that burns! And when he finally meets King Holdfast, he brushes him aside with a brush of his hand. He is proved mighty. The kingdom is his for the taking.

From here, Peter can advance to the Marriage with the Goddess-Mother. The name of this stage has been a source of much confusion, as the Goddess-Mother is not an actual personage (though repeatedly represented as so), but a symbolic form of an intangible ideal. The “Goddess” represents the apex of comfort and happiness a mortal man may hope to achieve from the material world. A blissful all-assurance not encountered since the mother’s womb. Hence, the feminine symbolic form of the Goddess-Mother. As such, achieving this state is often represented in Western culture through the hero winning the heart of a beautiful young maiden. The Goddess is Life. By the act of wedding with her, the hero gains Supreme Knowledge of Life.

In this story, our hero claims the hand of his goddess-figure Joanna. The mythical overtones of their courtship are quite apparent. Even before Peter receives his Call to Adventure, he captures a glimpse of the goddess, much like the Greek tales of the hunter who should chance upon the sight of the goddess Diana in the forest, and is enraptured by her flawless beauty. Upon receiving his power from the wizard, Peter approaches the goddess and casts his spell upon her, for only her divine eyes can perceive the aura of pure light which now surrounds him. With each test and trial Peter overcomes in the deadly desert, he is drawn closer to the goddess’s love until the point where hero and goddess become one with each other.

Now, nestled in the bosom of the Goddess-Mother, Peter believes he has achieved true happiness. However, many a hero soon finds that such material pleasures are hollow and fleeting. The Paradise turns to rot as the hero finds there to be filth and corruption in all earthly things. Peter’s childlike bliss is shattered with such a revelation. Though his amulet has saved himself from destruction, corruption continues across the land of Holdfast, spreading and infecting Peter’s garden of earthly delights. He has entered the Woman as Temptress stage of the monomyth. Like Adam in Eden, he bites the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and is transformed once more. The scales fall off his eyes and becomes aware that he tainted by the stench of a world of wickedness and decay. Even Peter’s goddess-figure fades from beauty as our hero is fooled by a trickster character who impugns the goddess as being stained by the Holdfast’s seed.

Our heroes encounter an idol of corruption. And hence, it is destroyed.

Now, earthly things must be cast aside. Peter’s only chance for salvation is to achieve Atonement with the Father. In the most primordial of creation-myths, the earth is a woman and the sky a man. Hence, in myth, the Mother represents all earthy care and comfort, while the Father, the heavenly and divine. The Father is the All-Creator, the Source of all Wisdom, the Essence from which all life is renewed; whether that Father be present or not, made physically manifest or remain abstract. Peter knows the comfort of the earth-mother will not bring the boon of salvation necessary to renew the land. He can complete his hero’s journey only by reaching atonement (“at-one-ment”) with the Father and gain the enlightenment of His pure wisdom and truth.

However, the Father is a divinity with two faces. When first approached, He seems a figure of pure fury and terror. To gain his favor, the hero must undergo a Supreme Ordeal, an ultimate test of the hero’s character and worth. Only once the test is surpassed is the hero allowed to see the second face of the Father, the face of benevolence and mercy, and is embraced into his kingdom.

Unfortunately, our hero Peter is not first aware of this need to atone, and readies himself for battle in potentially self-destructing pride. The Father initiates Peter’s Supreme Ordeal with a flip of His divine hand, laughing at Peter’s folly by reversing his fortunes with what seems to be a simple accident, turning his situation into one of impending doom. Like Aeneas and Gilgamesh before him, Peter must descend into the darkest valley of death, face terrors and anxieties most profound, (including a comical aside where Peter is allayed by a mischevious shape-shifter trying to trick him into buying false wares), whereby Peter’s soul is purified by fire until he reaches a state of utmost humility, emptying his vessel and making himself ready to receive the Father’s truth.

Peter reaches the stage of Apotheosis with the decision to sacrifice himself, all that he has, and all that he knows by returning the world-tainted treasure foolishly stolen from Tyrant-King Holdfast and offer his own life in exchange for those of his cohorts. Apotheosis is the process by which an earthly soul transcends to a divine plane, reaching a place amongst the gods themselves. As expressed by the East Asian traditions such as the Buddhist and Hindu, Apotheosis is only possible through absolute self-denial. All pride must be abandoned, all sense of self must be discarded, even the conscious ego itself must be shattered. Only once the envelope of self-consciousness is annihilated will the hero become free of all worry and fear, one beyond the reach of change.

Peter achieves this transcendence with this act of purest self-sacrifice, and within a breath, he is atoned with the Father and is allowed to rejoin the side of the Goddess-Mother. Peter is then saved from destruction by a coincidence that could only be the work of the divine interception of the Father. Castle Holdfast burns, death clearing the path for the renewal of this world.

It is interesting to note that this final destruction comes not by the hand of the hero, but through the magic intercession of a humble troll. This suggests that the troll was a secret servant and agent of the Father the entire time. In fact, the Troll of Fire and the Herald Dwarf can bee seen as twin servants of the Father; two creatures hatched from the same egg, one dark and one light; one the Caller for Rebirth, the other the Agent of Destruction. This notion is supported by how both Dwarf and Troll are rewarded by the Father by story’s end. Both, by strokes of what the unenlighted may consider as “luck” or “fate” are taken from their land of earthly toil, and ascend to plane of blissful paradise.

Finally begins the short Return portion of the hero’s journey as found in the monomyth. At the Crossing of the Return Threshold, Peter faces the same question every hero must consider when returning to the everyday world. Will such common-minded mortals be able to understand the transcendent wisdom the hero has gained on the other side? Are they willing to drink the magical elixir he has available to share? Sadly, the answer is no. His cohorts remain too short-sighted. Nevertheless, he has cleansed the land and brought back the promise of freedom and beauty. Peter has become the Master of the Two Worlds and has achieved the Freedom to Live.

Hence, through the continual life-affirming process of death and renewal, the story ends happily ever after.


On a closing note, “Office Space” is a tale so permeated with the Universal Theme of Salvation through Death and Rebirth that, through the subconscious of its creators, this World-Redeeming truth is pronounced clearly in its text, hidden in plain sight through what might seem the most trivial line of speech.

As Samir leaves Peter’s home after their celebration, he is heard to say, as if incanting a spell of his own:

“Back up in Yo’ Ass with the Resurrection.”

Indeed, Samir. Most indeed…”

(Disclaimer: In case it needs to be said, I have to make clear that this article was not actually written by Joseph Campbell. It was written by me. Joseph Campbell died in 1987.)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

SCRIPTMONK! Goes to the Movies -- "LOCKE" : Limited Premise Reveals Bare Bones of Good Storytelling

With Locke, the 2014 Sundance & 2013 Venice Film Festival selection now screening in select theaters, director Steven Knight (writer of Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things) presents a narrative experiment most filmmakers would dare not attempt outside of the confines of film school. One location, one on-screen actor, and a real-time narrative composed almost entirely of conversations via telephone. Often such premises amount to mere gimmickry that end up stumbling on their own limitations and fail to provide the audience a narrative as satisfying as a traditional film. However, considering its self-imposed limitations, Locke is a rousing success: tense, compelling, emotional, and with more than enough drama to make the audience forget they are doing little more than staring at the face of the same actor for nearly ninety minutes. Locke provides an exceptional example for study by developing screenwriters simply because, by stripping away all extraneous elements, Locke puts front and center the raw skeleton that makes up an effective dramatic narrative.

The setup: Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy in a near one-man show) is a married father of two on the eve of the most important project of his professional career. Locke's single marital indiscretion comes back to haunt him when he learns that the child he fathered on the one-night stand seven months previous will be born that very night. Driven by a commitment to personal responsibility instilled by the memories of his own deadbeat father, Locke decides to drive straight to London, putting both his family and his career at risk, so he might be there when the child is born. On that eighty-five drive, Locke fights to keep his entire life from unraveling through an endless series of phone calls with his family, his work, and the mother of his new child.

Locke presents a noteworthy piece of storytelling in that by stripping itself of the extraneous elements found in most cinematic stories, it exposes the absolute essentials of a compelling cinematic narrative:
  1. An internally-conflicted character,
  2. a crisis,
  3. a commitment to a plan of action by the character in response to that crisis, and
  4. a constant supply of escalating hurdles the character must overcome to resolve the situation.

Structurally, the story executed through three narrative threads: a) Conversations to and from home in which Locke confesses his infidelity and fights to keep his marriage from falling apart. b) Conversations to and from his work partners in which Locke tries to make certain the construction project in which he has poured his heart and soul does not come to ruin. c) Conversations to and from the soon-to-be mother of his new child, a pitiful woman Locke does not love, yet feels accountable for.

These three threads intertwine to construct a single effective narrative for two reasons. First, all three threads revolve around the shared theme of personal responsibility.
Second, the execution of these threads collectively follow a simple and essential structural pattern that every screenwriter should recognize and emulate. To explain:

In my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, as well as in articles on this blog, I use a Frankenstein analogy to describe the story structure found in the traditional feature film, particularly as used in Acts 2A & 2B. (Read the original article HERE) In the first half of the story, the protagonist takes well-intended actions in an attempt to ameliorate the story problem, but in the process his or her actions only end up making the situation worse. The protagonist unwittingly creates a monster. (Or a “monstrous situation,” if that makes it easier.) At the story's midpoint, the monster comes to life, putting the protagonist's fate in far greater peril than it was before. In the second half of the story, the protagonist must fight back against that monster and defeat it if he or she ever hopes to rise above in the end and achieve the Story Goal.

Ivan Locke begins his story trying to do the right thing. He wants to act responsibly towards his wife, his job, and the mother of his new child. Of course, the reactions Locke receives from his actions could not be further from his ideal wishes. People react in ways that make the situation worse. Locke tries to respond, but this only triggers another reaction that aggravates things further. When watching the film, note that for every phone call Locke makes or receives, ONE thing (and one thing ONLY) is added to the mountain of sh*t Locke finds himself being buried under. This, my friends, is what we call escalation. In every good story, the story problem, as threatening as it may seem, seems fairly simple in the beginning. But then, as characters act and react, the problem grows and complicates into an increasingly monstrous situation. Finally, the weight of the mountain becomes too heavy for Locke to bear. He must become proactive and fight back. He must find a way out of sh*t mountain. But the monster he has created is a vicious beast, and continues to throw complication after complication Locke's way. To these complications, Locke must continue to summon all his strength and battle through. Though Locke does not receive a perfect happy ending, he is rewarded for his efforts with a personal victory that made his struggle against the monster worthwhile.

This is the same type of structure seen in any tense, well-plotted film. Every major event adds one more complication to the story situation, continually developing and escalating the original premise into an increasingly complex situation. The plot buries the protagonist under a mountain and then forces him or her to fight their way out. Through the simple method of one complication per phone call, Locke successfully produces a steadily-evolving and structurally sound narrative, creating compelling drama from the most confined of premises.