"Watching The Lord of the Rings” by Christopher Vogler
"The Screenwriter in the Editing Room" by Christopher Vogler
"On The Firing Line" by Christopher Vogler

"What's the Big Deal?" by Christopher Vogler
"Fusing Fact and Fiction for Art's Sake" by Brad Schreiber
"Biographical Sketches Revitalize Telepic World" by Brad Schreiber

 "Watching The Lord of the Rings” by Christopher Vogler

Sometimes I like to see a movie twice; once to watch the movie, and once to watch the audience. You can learn a lot from watching the audience, how involved they are, how restless, how they breathe, when they lean over to talk to each other, when they don’t understand something.

I saw “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” for the first time early in the movie’s run, in a packed house, and concentrated on watching the movie. Watching movies is an uneasy process for me, since I am observing with a lot of agendas most movie-goers don’t have. I am watching professionally, both as a writer judging a fellow of the craft and as a worker in the film industry who needs to keep up on trends and be able to debate points with colleagues and bosses. Every movie becomes a tool or a weapon whose success or failure you use to prove your point and defend the movie you want to make. Every movie is evidence. I also watch with the eye of a teacher and lecturer and have to keep track of plot points and running times and earmark potential clips to illustrate ideas I talk about. To top it off, I’m scanning every movie for points of correspondence with my theories about the Hero’s Journey and the archetypes that I see pervading everything. I’m especially interested in things that seem to contradict, plot elements or editing choices that defy either my perceived patterns or Hollywood’s unwritten but standardized code of story development.

“The Fellowship of the Ring” is so loaded with Hero’s Journey “evidence” that I don’t need to dwell there. Suffice it to say that reading the books as a teenager was one of my first experiences of modern-day myth-making, showing me how a writer could revive the potency of mythic patterns. When I was trying to work out and systematize those patterns for myself in my twenties and thirties, “The Lord of the Rings” was a major source of orientation, providing vivid examples of the heroic way stations such as the selection of the hero in the Ordinary World, the Call to Adventure, the fateful meeting with a Mentor, and so on. It’s all there, big and obvious, in fact so obvious that it must have been a worry for the filmmakers. Because everyone from George Lucas to He-Man, Master of the Universe to Dungeons and Dragons has been feasting all these years on the archetypal imagery in LOTR, mining its icons of demons and dwarfs and wizards with pointy hats, wouldn’t it seem, well, a little old hat?

It made over 300 million dollars in its first run, so I guess not. Timing is everything, and they may have been lucky to come along at a time when the world imagination was bruised by reality and desperately needed the Tiger Balm of myth to ease its pain. I like to think the movie would have worked at any time because there was a commitment, in the books and in the faithful adaptation, to giving depth and dimension to the archetypes that have been turned into clichés by other hands.

What was interesting was how the movie seems to challenge some of the unwritten rules of Hollywood development. These are truisms that everyone quickly learns and most of the time they are true and useful, but like any convention they can stultify creativity. There will always be an embattled borderline between common sense and artistic risk-taking.

It’s hard to imagine “The Fellowship of the Ring” surviving a conventional Hollywood development meeting. For one thing, it doesn’t have a “happy ending” and in fact leaves matters unresolved in a way that is quite risky. The filmmakers were gambling that people were willing to wait three years to resolve an overall dramatic question: Will Frodo resist temptation and survive Orc attacks to fulfill his mission? It’s more radical than the story links that Lucas plants in the Star Wars movies, like Darth Vader surviving the Death Star battle or Luke Skywalker getting a wink from Princess Leia that lets you know there’ll be a sequel. Lucas ends each movie on an upbeat, celebratory note, evoking a sense of community or group spirit. By contrast, at the end of “Fellowship” the heroic team is scattered and grieving, the principal hero isolated and uncertain. Not the sort of thing that reassures movie executives. I can hear the dialogue in the typical; Hollywood story meeting: “The characters keep talking about this place Mordor for 125 pages and you’re telling me we don’t even get there until the third movie?!”

Another element that would have provoked vigorous objections in a conventional story meeting is the fact that there are two of everything. What I noticed on the first viewing was how polarized this story is, how shot through with duality, pairing and twinning. It’s not only split into the two obvious camps of good and evil but further polarized into pairs and twins at every level, the ultimate buddy picture. There are two pairs of Hobbit adventurers, two lanky-haired human warrior nobles, two white-bearded wizards, two races of monstrous Orc warriors, two otherworldly women, and two elaborate sets depicting shimmering Elvish dreamworlds. Even the taciturn elf Legolas and the sputtering dwarf Gimli make a Mutt and Jeff pairing of opposites.

All this doubling would probably be the first thing conventionally-minded execs would want to change. “Hm. We have two of everything. Why don’t we combine the two human warriors into one guy? And just have one girl. And one monster. And one set.”

Thankfully the development of “The Lord of the Rings” went on mostly outside the Hollywood arena, for doubling and twinning have their value. Ask Buñuel, ask Hitchcock. In movies like “That Obscure Object of Desire” or “Strangers on a Train” they used döppelgangers to give resonance and a sense of life’s mystery to their works. Polarization and doubling are great engines of conflict, allowing the audience to experience contrasting reactions by different characters to the same situation and tugging on conflicting drives and desires within each person viewing the story.

Hollywood’s cookie-cutter narrative conventions don’t apply when a film has a broader vision. The fellowship of artists and craftspeople who brought forth this version of “The Lord of the Rings” are working, like Lucas in the “Star Wars” movies, on an epic canvas. An epic is a series of adventures linked together by a single great struggle or quest, some unanswered question weaving many threads of narrative into a coherent tapestry that will bear being told over a long period of time. Repetition, doubling, twinning, echoing and mirroring are the instruments of epic, bringing out the music and magic power of names and probing the mysteries of identity. Hollywood thinking may say the doubling is redundant, but an epic marches to a different heartbeat.

The episodes or chapters of an epic like “The Lord of the Rings” may not require the usual neatly wrapped but often sterile resolution of Hollywood conventional thinking. The filmmakers were signaling the audience that it was going to be a long ride with a bigger vision than a single blockbuster Friday night opening.

Wait; doesn’t this long-term storytelling fly in the face of the famous short attention span of modern audiences? Don’t they want instant gratification? Maybe the impatient choppiness of current entertainment and the breathless pace of technology have generated a desire for something to countervail, something patient and deep, something willing to work in you over a long time, something to link the parts of your life. It took three Christmas seasons to unfold the full epic of “Lord of the Rings” and with “Star Wars,” most of our lifetimes. Audiences, young and old, are saying “That’s OK. We like that once in awhile.” There’s something reassuring about the artist who thinks we’re going to live long enough to enjoy all this story in the post 9-11 world.

The repetition, the doubling, and the long strands of inter-connected narrative all mean something. They say that life is a series of cycles, and that we will likely meet the same kinds of archetypal guardians, opponents and allies at various stages along the way. But the nature of the conflicts changes as you age and grow over the span of an epic. Reading “The Lord of the Rings” in my 20s, I was inspired by its idealism but also terrified by its vision of middle life and old age as a patient, plodding struggle against the mundane grinding of evil. Seeing the movie meant something else to me from my current perspective, around the corner of age fifty, reminding me that the raw intensity of youthful dreams still has purity and power. At the same time I felt the death of comrades in the movie keenly, for comrades have started to fall around me, and I looked to the story for the courage to continue the struggle without them.

Like any good mythic cycle, J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” keeps drawing parallels appropriate to every time and place. In creating the story, Tolkien was reacting to the hammer blows of industrial revolution and world war on his beloved English countryside. In the 1950s the books seemed like a prediction of the uneasy struggles of the Cold War, and in later decades strangely reflected both the trippy odysseys of many hippies and the harrowing battle experience of grunts in Vietnam. Today, the first installment of the movie version resonated with the titanic, polarizing struggle against terrorism and, like the events of Sept. 11, invited consideration of what’s human, heroic, and evil in our fellow men. The image of the twin towers shadowed the movie (and all movies for awhile) like a ghost, forcefully brought to mind by the looming presence of Saruman’s dark tower, a true axis of evil. Eerily, Tolkien titled the second book in his trilogy “The Two Towers”, providing the title for the second episode of the Trilogy.

My first viewing of “The Fellowship of the Ring” had another impact on me, quite a physical one. It gave me a complete spinal adjustment, so bone-shakingly righteous was the battle against the monsters in the depths of Moria Mines. I actually felt my vertebrae snapping into alignment, making eights buck admission seem like a bargain compared to a session with the chiropractor. It was the most physical catharsis I’ve had in the movies in years.

I depend a lot on bodily reactions to evaluate a movie or a script. My mentor, popularizer of myth Joseph Campbell, used to say the archetypes, symbols, and narrative patterns of myth operate on the organs of the body, triggering physiological reactions. When I had to evaluate a great many scripts as part of the studio assembly line, I depended on my body to tell me whether the things were any good or not. My criterion became “It must stimulate two organs of my body to get a positive recommendation” and when I reported verbally to executives on scripts I’d read I would describe its physical effect on me – it made my blood run cold, it made my heart pound, I choked up, I laughed out loud, etc.

So, hoping for another spinal crack, I came back a second time later in the run of the movie, but instead of a lumbar release I got to see how the movie was playing for young American manhood. This was my viewing to watch the audience.

The theatre was empty but for me and a scattering of young males who reflected the ethnic diversity of Los Angeles, prime cannon fodder for the war against terrorism. I sensed they were either just out of the military or thinking about signing up; there was a certain professionalism about their running critique of the movie.

Since it was just us guys in the theatre they felt free to loosen up and react loudly and enthusiastically, in short, they were a good audience. It’s as close as I can get in L.A. to the conviviality and involvement of a pre-Giuliani 42nd St. grind house where the audience talked back to Clint Eastwood and Sly Stallone.

With warrior eyes, the eyes of young men who had survived the streets of L.A., my audience rated the weapons and tactics of the little band of brothers on the screen. The Elf Legolas, looking like a slender surfer dude, got top marks for his awesome archery, handling his bow like a machine gun and even flinging an arrow bare-handed in a pinch. A good man to have on your squad. They gave Boromir his props for the way he went down fighting impossible odds, like Roland in the pass of Roncesvalles or the doomed Rangers in Mogadishu.

My fellow movie-goers weren’t just hooting and hollering through the battles, however. They were struck to respectful silence by the spell of Elvish magic and the ethereal radiance of the two Elf women, Arwen and Galadriel, portraits of idealized womanhood such as Henry V’s knights would paint on the inner surface of their shields. When the gallant Arwen defied the Ringwraiths at the river crossing, the young could-be warriors in the darkened theatre had to furtively dab the corners of their eyes. Tears fell again as Samwise Gamgee grieved over his comrades’ capture and death and the utter failure of his mission. The characters of fantasy didn’t seem so distant from the lives and emotions of these young men, who might soon being facing opponents no less dangerous than those on the screen.

Clearly, the revival of Tolkien’s mythic creation in this time of terrorism was serving the purpose the myths have always served, to present role models and ideals, to give signal lessons in tragedy and triumph, to give orientation and anchorage in the stormy seas of life. It’s also a pretty good manual of close combat at the squad level. My audience might have been escaping into a fantasy, but they also were drinking up this stuff with an eye on reality, looking for ways to carry themselves in battle and on the street.

“The Lord of the Rings” speaks of vast conflict and shattering polarization, but tells us there is power too in unity, and that behind the masks of dualism we are one. People of good will can band together like the heroes of the tale, putting aside differences in common cause, trying to make the world a little better despite immense forces to the contrary. Against darkness and apparent evil, we have the shield of fellowship and the comfort of unity and community.

As the legend says, “One Ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.” We were certainly bound in the darkness, me and that afternoon’s audience for the first chapter of “The Lord of the Rings,” fellow travelers on a long journey together, seeking meaning for our shadowed world in the mirror of a myth, just as humans have always done.

  "The Screenwriter in the Editing Room" by Christopher Vogler

The screenwriting process, I discovered, doesn’t stop when the writer hands in the final draft. A film is re-written many times in the production and post-production process by the choices of directors, actors, producers, editors and technicians. These choices can have drastic, deep-reaching impact on the whole concept of the work, evolving it into something more, and sometimes less, than the vision the screenwriter has labored to put down on paper. I have always assumed that opportunities to shape the narrative continued deep into the process, but because most of my work has been in pre-production I rarely got to see just how true that is. Then I got one of those out-of-the-blue phone calls. In the language of myths that I expound in this book, this was my Call to Adventure.

The voice on the line was that of actor Steve Guttenberg, veteran of mainstream Hollywood entertainment such as POLICE ACADEMY, COCOON, DINER, and THREE MEN AND A BABY. He said he was a fan of my book and that he wanted my help on a new project he was undertaking. He was about to start shooting his first feature film as a director, an adaptation of the Broadway play P. S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD.

Intrigued, I met Steve at a Santa Monica deli and discovered he is an intelligent, high-energy, upbeat, sincere guy. He has been part of the movie business since he was a brash eighteen-year-old infiltrating himself onto Hollywood lots, and his move into directing is a natural progression. His approach to directing his first feature was to surround himself with smart people in key positions.

One of his advisors had told him that rather than producing an original story for his first film, he would be better off optioning an existing property, something that already had a track record and some kind of reputation. He was able to secure the rights to P. S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD, a play and novel by the late James Kirkwood, co-author of A CHORUS LINE.

I later discovered that many people have fond memories of this material from having seen productions of the play or from having read the novel at a certain formative time in their lives. It deals with the dashed hopes and unquenched creative drive of the artist on the fringe of show business. It’s known for its intense two-character scenes which are often chosen by student actors for their exercises. Various producers and studios had tried to develop a movie version over the years, but until now no one had managed to bring it to the screen.

Steve quickly laid out the story of P. S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD. A down-on-his-luck actor walks into a barrage of bad breaks one New Year’s Eve. In short order his best friend has died, his one-man play has folded, his girlfriend is ending their relationship, and his cat is sick with a bladder infection. Someone has burglarized his apartment, taking the only copy of a novel that he labored over for a year. He wishes he could get his hands on the burglar, and unexpectedly that wish is granted when the burglar strikes again. The actor catches the burglar, knocking him out in a struggle and tying him up. At first he seeks revenge on his enemy, a feisty, funny guy who hurls insults even while tied up on the kitchen sink. But the actor soon realizes the burglar is human, in fact more human that he is in many ways. By the end of the evening, they’ve gone through a crisis together and they’re on their way to becoming friends.

It was a courageous departure for Steve, who gained stardom as the likeable hero of broad, commercial comedies and fantasies. He wanted to try something different, he said, to show what he could do as an actor but more importantly to establish the range of things he’d like to do as a director.

Steve was now just a few weeks away from starting to shoot the movie. He had secured financing, had co-written the script with standup comedian and screenwriter Jeff Korn, and would serve as producer as well as directing and acting in the film. He would play Jimmy Zoole, the down-and-out actor. He wanted my help in looking over the script before going into production.

I jumped at the chance to influence a “go” picture. Much of what I do, even for major studios, is working on scripts that might get made, someday. This was more immediate and real than ninety per cent of the projects I deal with. I agreed to serve as a consultant, one of several “godfathers” who would help guide Steve through the process of making an independent film.

My first step was to go home and read the current script and its underlying material, the stage play and the novel. I felt the script was a little scattered in its attempt to touch on the many themes explored by playwright and novelist Kirkwood. It seemed to be about many things -- the frustrations of being an actor, the difficulties of love, the torments of creativity, the dangers of dependency, the meaning of friendship, the challenge of adversity. When Steve and I met again, I made a few suggestions for refining the narrative to support a single theme, something that I hoped would encompass all the interesting sub-themes while creating a coherent dramatic experience. I suggested that the core of the play was the idea of what it means to be human. The playwright presented two men, reacting to difficult situations in different ways. One (the actor) responds from a baser, less human part of himself, while the other (the burglar) reacts in ways that show he is more evolved, more completely human. The journey of the hero in this case is to recognize the humanity of his enemy, acknowledge his own brutality, and begin to change for the better.

I offered this observation along with many lesser notes about details and mechanics of story. Steve accepted my notes and incorporated as much as possible into the script before commencement of shooting.

After Steve and his crew had been shooting for a few days, I visited the set and looked at the dailies which they had already assembled into a rough cut of the first scene. I was impressed with the production value but a little concerned over the direction they were taking in terms of coverage and camera angles. Steve and his editor, a talented young man named Derek Vaughn, had chosen to keep the camera at an almost Martian distance from the actors at first, with a plan to gradually move in tighter as we got to know the characters better.

I thought this approach was a little too intellectual, and that it defied the desire of the audience to see deeply into people’s faces, to read the play of emotions in their eyes. I suggested that they back up their bold experimental approach with slightly more conventional coverage, and more closeups, just in case their experiment didn’t work.

I also felt the scene they showed me was overcut, jumping back and forth between the actors unnecessarily in the effort to generate tension. I counseled them to relax and trust the materiaI, the dramatic situation, to provide the tension. I think they heard me. In the end they struck a balance between artful, innovative technique and sturdy, classic methods that let the story tell itself.

Then I went away for awhile, only visiting the set a couple of times during shooting. From those visits I could see that Steve was an unusually collaborative filmmaker, welcoming suggestions from everyone including the fellow who delivered the pizzas. He kept a happy set for the most part, and I was pleased to see that his screenwriting partner, Jeff Korn, was on set most of the time, rewriting lines and scenes as needed, or reminding Steve of why they had decided, months before, to set up a scene a certain way.

As the crew completed principal photography and Steve and Derek began to edit the picture, Steve’s line producer, Kyle Clarke, approached me about taking on a bigger role in the production as an executive producer. He felt, and Steve agreed, that someone was needed to guide the production through the next phase. I found myself accepting the role without any real notion of what that might mean.

Steve and Derek, meantime, had edited the film to a rough cut of around two hours. They screened it for audiences of crew and friends and began making changes based on feedback from the viewers. What we saw in all these early versions was a fascinating, unpredictable, but ultimately exhausting expanse of drama and comedy. There was simply too much of a good thing. The scenes, one by one, were riveting, but the audience was worn out by the struggle between the two antagonists. Certain scenes seemed to repeat information, or developed ideas and backstories in greater detail than was really needed. The story began strongly with a rousing argument between the actor and his girlfriend that played much funnier on the screen than it did on paper. The audience roared at the impotent fury of the actor as his girlfriend walks out on him on New Year’s Eve. However, the movie then turned much darker as the actor discovered and confronted the burglar, and their conflict, at first mesmerizing, seemed to lose focus and drive. In addition there were many rough spots in editing and sound that drained away the good will of the audience.

I had a hunch there was a real movie in there somewhere. Professional filmmakers who saw the rough cuts agreed, predicting that Steve had months of editing ahead to bring out the potential in the material. Everyone sensed that another eye was needed to find the movie in that embarrassment of riches. This is not an uncommon situation and is no slight upon the skills of the director. Directors understandably grow close to their material and may not be able to see all the possibilities in what they have shot.

While the situation stewed, I visited the editing room to give my notes on the most recent version. I spent an afternoon going over the film scene by scene with Steve and his editor, Derek. By the end of the day it was clear we clicked and could make a formidable team. Somehow I balanced between Steve’s impetuous, restless creativity and Derek’s intellectual, almost Vulcan logic. I found myself coming back the next day, and the next, and then pretty much every day for the following four months, during which we chopped and shaved the film down to a tight eighty-four minutes.

I fell in love with the editing process, realizing it is an extension of the writing process. I relished the absolute power to shape the narrative, to seek out and emphasize different themes at will, to direct the thoughts and feelings of the audience.

We were joining in the writing of the film, in the telling of the story, as fully as the screenwriter. We were able to make choices over such things as point of view, degree of comic intention, level of intensity, tempo, rhythm, and velocity. For example we made the choice early on to tell the story primarily from the actor’s point of view, on the writer’s principle that the story “belongs” to whichever character has the greatest distance to travel.

We did a lot of writing with silence. In many cases, lines of dialogue had been written and filmed to explain things or to express a character’s reaction to a dramatic turn, but we found that a more effective statement was to say nothing, or to find a hint of a smile or a glint in the actor’s eye that said it better than words.

In one scene, a critical moment when the actor rings up a shady friend of his, inviting him to come up and harass the tied-up burglar, we struggled for a long time with the dialogue on the other end of the phone call. Lines had been written and shot, showing a character receiving the call on the other side of town, but the footage was technically flawed. We decided not to use it, leaving us free to write any dialogue we wanted for the other side of the phone call. It was a tempting opportunity to lay in a number of ideas that would help to explain Steve’s motivation or add shadings of menace, and we wrote and recorded several versions of this call. However, it occurred to me that we could also delete that half of the conversation, so that we only heard Steve’s end of the call. When we tried it, we found the effect was electrifying. It threw much more weight to Steve’s character and his action, making him appear more brutal and calculating. It also gave more emphasis to the burglar, who is listening intently to Steve’s half of the conversation for clues about his fate. It put the audience in the same position, getting the same information that the burglar gets.

This experience was but one example of a principle that kept asserting itself in the editing (re-writing) process. Every time we made a change, especially when we cut something we had become attached to, we would discover three or four unexpected benefits from the change. There was abundant endorsement for the idea that “Less is more.”

Another principle emerged that works as well on paper as in the editing room: It’s better to be clear than to be pretty. Often we were faced with a choice of approaches to a scene or a shot -- one way was artful and mysterious, a little obscure or clever, while the other option was straightforward, not as interesting perhaps, but certainly clearer. Again and again we found that the overall purpose of the work was better served by the simple, clear choice. Intelligibility and lack of ambiguity allowed the audience to participate fully in the experience, following every idea and emotional development, instead of intermittently losing the thread of the narrative while we tried to impress them with an arty shot or an obscure reference. In our process we made many “passes” over the entire film from front to back, looking for and correcting various things, and one of our passes was devoted entirely to intelligibility, rigorously asking ourselves if everything made sense, if the intention of the scene was clear, if the audience could understand everything the characters said and did, and more importantly, why they said and did everything. We sacrificed many beautiful shots and actor moments because their intent was not entirely clear. “When in doubt, cut it out” became our motto.

Focus was another useful principle that came into play as we re-wrote the movie through editing. By determining the intention of each scene, and eliminating anything that did not serve that intention, we achieved a much greater sense of focus and direction. Focus had been scattered in the production phase because there are so many things to keep in mind and keep track of -- lighting, sound, performance, set decoration, continuity, a variety of themes and motifs that you wish to be consistent, and so on. It was as if a great many lights were aimed at different subjects in a frame, producing a fuzzy, out-of-focus effect, but when we shut off the distracting side lights and illuminated a single subject, the whole picture came into sharp focus. We tried to maintain a laser-like focus throughout the film, so that there is certainty about where it’s going and what you’re supposed to be considering from moment to moment.

The natural impulse when adapting a stage play to film is to “open it up” by adding exterior scenes or action sequences. Most plays are designed for minimal sets and as few actors as possible. The P. S. team had shot ample material to “open up” the play, including excursions to a local grocery and a New Year’s eve party at the home of the actor’s rich aunt. They had also staged the physical and verbal battles with an eye towards avoiding the sense of claustrophobia. The hero frequently went to the window to look out and sigh, and some of the fight scenes were covered from a P.O.V. across the street, outside the building. The team shot the film in such a way that the audience had opportunities to escape, fearing that they would tire of being caged with two angry men in a small apartment.

In fact we found that just the opposite was true. Instead of opening it up, what worked best was bottling it in. We were stoking a boiler, and the excursions and trips to the window let the accumulated energy dissipate. What the audience seemed to like most, and what they really needed from the narrative and dramatic point of view, was to be as close to the two men as possible, right in their faces, nose to nose. That’s where the action was, and the dramatic explosions that the script was trying to ignite could only happen when the pressure was kept tightly contained.

With that in mind, we cut the film again and again, looking for ways to streamline it and throw focus onto the dramatic conflict at the spine of the story. We had to sacrifice some moments of comedy and even a few substantial scenes to do it, but it was worth it. One elaborate scene had been shot outdoors for a moment in the film when the hero returns to his apartment from a party he has been to. He sees emergency lights and fears that something has happened to the burglar whom he left tied up. Rounding a corner, he sees a firetruck and crew attending to a car fire, and is relieved. Although considerable time and expense had gone into this scene, in the end we left it out because it didn’t serve the hard dramatic core of the narrative. Many other scenes and moments, though effective on their own, went the same way. Perhaps the expense could have been avoided by more thoughtful, rigorous screenwriting before production began.

The editing process began to seem something like building a boat. The spine of the story, the simple idea of a man discovering his own humanity, became the keel. To that we attached the ribs, the key turning points and confrontations. Over those we laid the planks, the individual scenes and speeches. Then we began to plane and sand, shaving the craft down to an efficient shape that could cut through the water. At one point I thought of the old Viking story of the shipwright who astonishes his apprentices by gouging deep wedges out of every plank on a ship being built for the king. They think he’s ruined the ship for some reason, but upon reflection realize he’s simply guided them to plane all the planks down to the level of the gouges, producing a ship that is almost supernaturally light and slender, slicing through waves instead of shouldering them. That’s what we were doing, cutting to the bone, making the most efficient version of P. S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD possible with the footage that had been shot. To Steve’s credit, once he grasped the principle, he led the charge, ruthlessly taking his axe to many scenes that featured his acting skills, but did not serve the speed and efficiency of the boat we were building. In one memorable session he suggested a drastic cut that eliminated fourteen minutes of intense and moving exchanges beween the two antagonists. He was right -- although these scenes deepened the characters, they did so at the expense of the velocity and sense of narrative drive.

One of our most effective tools became the manipulation of the audience’s breathing. We discovered that by cutting out all pauses and hesitations in the dialogue during tense scenes of conflict, the audience tended to hold their breath or to breathe very shallowly until we reached a climax or turning point in the scene. Then we would create a pause, sometimes by drawing back from tight, edgy closeups to a more serene long shot, sometimes by allowing the actor on screen to sigh or draw a breath before beginning the next run of dialogue exchange. These pauses subtly cued the audience to breathe, creating an important moment in which the brain changes gears, the mind absorbs realizations, the emotions flood in.

The screenwriter working on the page has many of the same techniques at hand, and can control breathing and other physiological functions in the reader. It’s a thrill to read a good script that takes charge in this way, getting your eye to fly along the page, clicking seamlessly through sparse volleys of crisp dialogue and action that get your pulse pounding, leaving you gasping, and then every so often, under precise control, letting you rest, recoup, and reflect.

Narrative is biological, working on the organs of the body, playing them like the instruments in a symphony orchestra. When I evaluated scripts as a development executive at Fox, my criterion was that they had to affect me in at least two organs of the body, grabbing my gut and raising a lump in my throat, or making my heart throb and bringing a tear to my eye. I came to depend on my body as a judge of material in other ways. If my head nodded or my posterior went numb while reading a script, I knew the writer had succeeded in boring me. If I grew restless in my chair and began tapping my foot, I knew the writer had overstayed his welcome.

My impression is that writers rarely have anything to do with the editing stage of the filmmaking process, and that by and large they are excluded from the editing room. If they are lucky, they might get a chance to comment after a screening of a version, but it would be unusual for a writer to be invited into the day-by-day process of editing. In the case of P. S., the three-person team of Steve, Derek, and myself took a run at editing a version of the picture all on our own, but then were most eager to get reactions and ideas from the primary screenwriter, Jeff Korn, and invited him to spend several days with us as we did one of our “passes” over the film. There were many opportunities to write additional dialogue, voice-overs, parts of phone conversations, and “wild lines”, that is, lines over shots in which the actor’s lips are not shown so that any reasonable dialogue can be inserted. We got out of many difficulties with Jeff’s help, and kept the new elements consistent with his “voice” and style of writing. In addition, his eye and ear were useful in testing our choices, pointing out where we had failed in our intention to make things clear and crisp. He often was the only one who could remember why choices were made long ago, and guided us to recover the original intention of a scene or a line of dialogue.

One of the last stages of post-production is smoothing out sound and music. This stage, like all the others, was a continuation of the writing process, and we found ourselves rewriting the script by the subtle choices about where music begins and ends, where the climax of a piece of music is placed, and what version of a piece you select. Screenwriters are often told that they shouldn’t put specific music cues into a script because producers may not be able to secure the rights, and it’s probably unwise to hang an entire story or major plot point on the lyrics of a Beatles tune or a Beach Boys recording. However, it can be very effective to mention a familiar composition, quote a line from a pop song, or suggest a type of music when you are writing the script. The reader sometimes resonates to these suggestions, and as an executive evaluating scripts, I would find myself humming the music the writer had mentioned, or unconsciously reading the script with the rhythm of the music that the writer had planted a few pages before.

As we polished P. S. and added levels of sound effects we also added a dimension of reality, creating the impression of a consistent sound ambience in the apartment, and now and then evoking the feeling of a whole city pulsing outside the building. Once in awhile, the sounds of cars and people outside helped to emphasize the hero’s isolation and loneliness. Again, these tools are also available to the screenwriter, who can sometimes drop in a telling reference to the sounds in the environment, summoning up another sensory stimulus for the reader, and contributing to the overall effect of the story being a lived experience with depth and dimension.

Finally, I observed that the writing process continues, in a way, in the minds of the audience members who see the finished film. They complete the circuit, taking in the images, words and sounds that the writers and their collaborators have assembled and drawing conclusions from them. Each person arrives at a unique judgment of the film and its characters, writing his or her own version. How often have you gone back to see a loved or hated old film, only to realize you remembered it in an entirely different way, and that you have rewritten scenes in memory to match your own idea of things?

Screenwriting is a process that extends far beyond the composition of a screenplay, stretching both backward into the imagination and experience of the writer, and forward into the hands of the directors, editors, producers, and technicians who will continue to shape the vision. On P. S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD I had the chance to see how the screenwriting truly continues through the entire filmmaking process, even if it isn’t always the nominal screenwriter who is doing the writing. Along the way I discovered that some of the tools of post-production and techniques of film editing could be just as useful at treatment or screenplay stage to focus the story and invite the full participation of the reader. It’s good to try on the other fellow’s hat once in awhile, and I wish all writers could have the experience of time in the editing room, so they could see how closely the worlds of editing and screenwriting are bound. Screenwriters should be more involved in all phases of production, and smart producers and directors will budget for some of the writer’s time in the post-production phase to insure continuity of voice and vision, and to make full use of the writer’s skills in the editing room as well as on the page.

"On the Firing Line" by Christoper Vogler

A behind-the-scenes look at the development of THE THIN RED LINE, Terrence Malick's acclaimed comeback film.


My four-and-a-half-year run as a development executive at Fox 2000 led me into some fascinating and varied arenas of story, from a seven million dollar labor of love (SOUL FOOD) all the way to a $100 million special effects inferno (VOLCANO). But undoubtedly the highlight of that period was the opportunity to work on Terrence Malick’s filmed essay on war, THE THIN RED LINE.

Fox 2000 is a division of 20th Century Fox, producing feature films under the direction of Laura Ziskin, president of production, an experienced producer of quality films like NO WAY OUT, THE DOCTOR, HERO, TO DIE FOR, and PRETTY WOMAN. Fox 2000 was started in 1994 to expand Fox’s slate of feature films.

At some point in 1997 I was delighted to learn that Ziskin had decided to support Terrence Malick’s comeback film, an adaptation of James Jones’ epic novel of World War II, THE THIN RED LINE. Malick, a famous recluse known and admired for two artful feature films from the early 70s, BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN, had virtually disappeared from Hollywood’s scope for twenty years. Now he was back, with an ambitious project to film Jones’ complex, controversial novel, a semi-autobiographical account of his experiences in the battle of Guadalcanal.

We got into the development rather late, after Malick had already been working on the script for many years. We contributed notes and suggestions about editing the script, which was about 180 pages long when we first saw it. It was a unique document, unlike any other screenplay I had ever seen. It included long descriptions of action and patches of inner monologue, detailing the tortured thought processes of the men under stress. As I discovered when I read Jones’ novel, Malick had in effect transcribed large portions of the book, simply changing the narrative to present tense. The effect was a dense and challenging read. It was difficult to sort out the many characters. Some had similar names, a feature of Jones' book. Jones seemed to be suggesting that the soldiers were almost interchangeable units, at least from the Army’s point of view. Again, the characters were hard to sort out because some of them weren’t in the story for very long before being shot to pieces.

This was a script that had to be read more than once. After several readings it began to make sense and the major themes and character relationships began to emerge.

My first assignment was to read the novel of "The Thin Red Line" and compare it to the script, so the studio would know what characters and situations were taken from the book and what Malick had invented, combined or cut out. James Jones is a wonderful writer who was able to project himself convincingly into the minds of many characters, breaking the basic novel-writing rule about sticking to one point of view. At the end of that book you're beginning to get some idea of just what hell those young soldiers went through.

I wrote a memo on what I thought the major themes were, basically that the young men became a kind of family under the intense stresses of combat. The army and the war try to dehumanize them and they must fight to maintain their individuality.

My second assignment was to prepare a briefing document that described the military situation at Guadalcanal and its importance in the war. Neither Malick nor James Jones spent much time setting the campaign into its historical context, preferring to dramatize the disorienting subjective experience of troops thrown into combat with little motivation or preparation. I learned that this was the first major amphibious landing by U.S. troops, and America’s first opportunity to respond in force to the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. In less than a year, the U.S. geared up its military and launched the Pacific campaign at Guadalcanal, first in a chain of islands that would have to conquered to push the Japanese back to their homeland.

Next we began to send notes to Malick and the production crew who were just about to start shooting in northern Australia. These notes presented suggestions for trimming the script, combining and eliminating characters to emphasize certain themes and relationships. Malick took these suggestions with good grace and continually strove to streamline the unwieldy but fascinating script. While looking for characters to cut, we all had our favorite characters whose presence we fought for, like Mazzi and Tills, two G.I.s who provided some comic relief.

From the beginning of our involvement, we backed Malick as a respected artist and trusted his instincts. Malick added some scenes at the beginning that are not found in the book. These involve Jim Caviezel's character, the wandering rifleman Witt, and show him going AWOL and living with a native tribe, to explain the kind of trouble that Witt got himself into, and set the tone of contrast between the peaceful, beautiful village life and the horror of war.

It was a little worrying because the movie could have turned into a HEAVEN’S GATE or APOCALYPSE NOW situation where a great artist struggles to find a form and the production never comes to an end. But we trusted Malick to make it into a beautiful design, and in fact he not only produced a powerful film, he came in on time and on budget.

Once the picture started shooting, my job was to view the dailies as they came in on videotape. This was a huge job because Malick had at least two crews shooting at all times. He did a lot of improvising with Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and the others while a second unit was out shooting butterflies, shadows, and explosions.

He seemed to be a gentle, patient director who guided and calmed the actors with the simplest directions possible. "More scared," he would say, "As scared as you've ever been in your life.”

He shot a tremendous amount of film, enough, as Nick Nolte has said, to make a whole other movie without duplicating any of the footage. Sadly, some wonderful performances and ideas had to be cut, because something had to go. There was simply too much story, and everyone knew it all along, including Malick.

The part of Fife, the scrawny company clerk played by Adrian Brody, was a major element of the story in the book and the script, and yet was cut down to two lines in the finished movie. In the dailies we saw a wonderful friendship between Fife and Witt being tested by battle, and Fife's loyalty to his fellow soldiers driving him to return to the front lines even when wounded and entitled to go back to the States. All of that was gone, including Fife getting into fights with other GIs as he developed his self-esteem, getting wounded, and being questioned by an Army doctor.

I felt terrible for the actors who worked so hard on scenes that didn't make it into the movie. Adrian Brody, with his quizzical looks and talent for comedy, created a person who was very real to me, and it didn't feel right to see the movie without him. There were other characters, just as fully realized, who had to be cut.

The final product was an amazing movie, a harrowing view into the hell of combat. Reviews were mixed and the box office was disappointing to those of us who worked on it. But few could disagree that Malick had brought forth a haunting visual masterpiece. I feel there are other movies waiting to be made in the material shot for THE THIN RED LINE and I'd love to see alternate versions someday. Wouldn't it be an interesting experiment for a studio to finance the re-editing of the material shot for a film like this? Perhaps the same director could come back in a few years and re-edit his own material, as has been done in a few cases.  Or, if he happened to be in a generous mood, the director might allow his editor to exhibit his preferred cut, or even allow some other director to re-edit his raw footage into a totally new film. Maybe there’s another THIN RED LINE sitting in film cans in a vault somewhere, with equally brilliant performances and stunning visuals waiting to be edited into another masterpiece.


What's the Big Deal?
article by Christopher Vogler
April 12, 2007

Hollywood is a sink-or-swim industry where they rarely take time to teach you anything. But I once got a useful lesson early in my career when I was a reader for Orion Pictures.  Our story editor called a meeting of the readers to tell us none of us had any idea what a scene was.  I was surprised; I thought I knew.  A scene is a short piece of a movie, taking place in one location and one span of time, in which some action takes place or some information is given. 

Wrong, she said.  And proceeded to explain that a scene is a business deal.  It may not involve money but it will always involve some change in the contract between characters or in the balance of power.  It’s a transaction, in which two or more people enter with one kind of deal between them, and negotiate or battle until a new deal has been cut, at which point the scene should end. 

It could be the reversal of a power structure.  The underdog seizes power by blackmail.  Or it could be the forging of a new alliance or enmity.  Two people who hated each other make a new deal to work together in a threatening situation.  A boy asks a girl out and she accepts or rejects his offer.  Two gangsters make an alliance to rub out a rival.  A mob forces a sheriff to turn a man over for lynching.  The meat of the scene is the negotiation to arrive at the new deal, and when the deal is cut, the scene is over, period.  If there’s no new deal, it’s not a scene, or at least it’s not a scene that’s pulling its weight in the script.  It’s a candidate either for cutting or for rewriting, to include some significant exchange of power.

The story editor pointed out that many writers don’t know what a scene is, either, and put in non-scenes that are just there “to build character” or to get across exposition.  They don’t know when to begin and end a scene, wasting time with introductions and chit-chat and dragging the scene out long after the transaction has been concluded.  The scene is the deal.  When the deal is done, get off the stage.    

I found this principle very useful in pinning down the essence of a scene, and I found it also works at a macro level in identifying the bigger issues in a script, for every story is the re-negotiation of a major deal, a contract between opposing forces in society.  

Romantic comedies are a re-negotiation of the contract between men and women.  Myths, religious stories, and fantasies rework the compact between humans and the greater forces at play in the universe.  The terms of the uneasy balance between good and evil are re-evaluated in every superhero adventure and story of moral dilemma.  The climax of many movies is a courtroom judgment that lays out a new agreement, passing sentence on a wrongdoer, proclaiming someone’s innocence, or dictating terms of a disputed transaction.  In all cases, we go in with one deal and we come out with a new deal having been cut.

Knowing when the big deal of the movie has been cut tells you when the movie should be over.  Many movies today go on long after they have truly ended, as far as the audience is concerned.  They know it’s over when the last term of the deal has been decided, and they get restless if the filmmaker goes on with extra flourishes and codas and flashforwards to ten years later, etc.

And at the most macro level of all, storytelling itself is a deal.  It’s a contract between you and your audience.  The terms of the deal are these:  They agree to give you something of considerable value--their money--but much more importantly, their time.  You are asking them to pay attention to you and you only for ninety minutes.  Think about that!  Focused attention has always been one of the rarest and most valuable commodities in the universe, and it’s even truer today, when people have so many things vying for their attention.  So for them to give you even a few minutes of their focus is huge stakes to put on the table, worth much more than the ten bucks or so they shell out, and therefore you’d better come up with something really good to fulfill your part of the bargain. 

There are many ways to fulfill that contract.  I used to think the “Hero’s Journey” model that I describe in my book THE WRITER’S JOURNEY was an absolute necessity.  I still think it is the most reliable way to honor the terms of the deal with the audience, providing them with a metaphor for their lives that includes a taste of death and transformation.  They tend to read it into any story anyhow, and it’s actually hard to tell a story without including some of its elements. 

But I’ve come to see it’s not the only way to hold up your end of the deal.  At a minimum, you must be entertaining, in the original sense of the word, to hold their attention with something a little novel, shocking, surprising, or suspenseful.  Be sensational; that is, appeal to their sensations, give them something sensual or visceral, some sensation that they can feel in the organs of their bodies, like speed, movement, terror, sexiness. 

A good ride to another place and time can fulfill the contract.  I don’t remember being moved much by the story of THE ABYSS, but I felt well repaid by being taken to a cool dark place under the sea for two hours on a hot summer afternoon.  Giving them stars they like in appealing combinations or new costumes is a way the studios have always used to uphold their deal with the public.  If you loved Kevin Costner in his cavalry outfit, you’ll love him in tights as Robin Hood.  Sheer novelty weighs heavily with audiences, justifying the investment of their time and attention.  It’s worth a lot to people to be able to talk about the movie everyone’s buzzing about, be it PULP FICTION, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, or 300.  Fulfill a deep wish the audience has, to see the dinosaurs walk again in JURASSIC PARK, or to fly and wield superpowers in SUPERMAN.  The audience will forgive a lot of story problems and plot holes if other terms of the contract are satisfied.

At first, I resisted the idea that it’s all wheeling and dealing. It can’t just be about business, can it?  But I came to see it is, in a way.  From the Bible on down, we have lived by our contracts, for the Bible is an account of the deals made between God and his creation.  We all have an unwritten deal with the rest of society, called the social contract, to behave ourselves in return for our freedom and relative safety.  The essential documents of our civilization are contracts, agreements made or statements declaring the terms of a new deal, from Hammurabi’s Code and the marriage contract to the Bill of Rights. 

Just be sure when you tell your story that you’ve thought about “What’s the deal going down here?” in every scene and “What’s the big deal?” of the whole story.  Think of the attention and time your clients, your audience, have put on the table, and try to fulfill your part of the bargain with something that at least entertains them, stimulates and amuses them, and maybe even transforms them a little bit.

Fusing Fact and Fiction for Art's Sake by Brad Schreiber
  Daily Variety, Feb. 20, 2002

Henry Ford said it is bunk. Napoleon said it is a set of lies, agreed upon. But history, as depicted in motion pictures, can revive interest in people and events which may otherwise remain generally overlooked.

In the recent past, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman won the Golden Globe award for his script about the schizophrenic, mathematical genius John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, based on the book by Sylvia Nasar. The biopic posed historical challenges, as Nash had in reality divorced his wife Alicia before returning to her, had a child out of wedlock and homosexual tendencies. Miramax Pictures allegedly participated in a campaign to discredit the accuracy of A Beautiful Mind, and by association, Universal.

But as Goldsman explained, "The architecture was really genius, madness, Nobel Prize." As for the enduring commitment between Nash and Alicia, he acknowledged, "They divorced, then they lived together for decades. Then, they remarried. So, the fact of John and Alicia is that they started married and ended married ... he was in Europe for a year. That's not the movie either, you know what I mean? There's certainly compression".

Perhaps Gregory Allan Howard had even more of a daunting task concerning economy of storytelling, as he is credited with the story and wrote the original draft for Ali, about one of the most recognizable people on the planet. "What I wrote was a father and son story," says Howard, one which concentrated on Muhammed Ali's life from age 12 to 40, as opposed to the decade covered in the film.

Howard prefers relying on interviewing to get at historical truth, a technique which proved quite effective when sixty interviews resulted in his script about a 1971 football team helping to integrate Alexandria, Virginia in Remember the Titans. He feels Hollywood generally fails at biopics. "If you have a true story, you should try to adhere to it above the 50 percent level, otherwise there is no point. You might as well just make everything up."

When Richard Eyre co-wrote and directed Iris, he knew that most viewers would not be familiar with author and philosopher Iris Murdoch, her battle with Alzheimer's disease or the book Elegy for Iris, which her husband, John Bayley wrote about their life together. The film depicts Murdoch both young and old, with the help of Kate Winslet and Dame Judy Dench. "I never saw it as a biographical picture," Eyre contends. "I saw it as a relationship and the story of the young and the old (Murdoch) was a necessary device ..."

Eyre elucidated Murdoch's views through a series of lectures in the film, but realizes that an emotional truth is often a substitute for an historical event. "I'm not being entirely facetious where I say certain elements of it are not biographically true, in the literal sense. You know, who knows what goes on in private in a marriage?"

As resident historian for the series History Vs. Hollywood on the History Channel, Steve Gillon gives Hollywood high marks on its recent biopics. "Historians have not been involved enough in using the opportunity of these historical films to engage the public in a larger debate about the events that are described in film." As an author specializing in post-New Deal America and a professor at the University of Oklahoma, Gillon has consulted on the History Channel's examination of films like The Patriot, U-571, 13 Days and their powerful two hour doc, The True Story of Black Hawk Down.

"The most difficult question a historian has to grapple with is causation, is what leads people to do the things they do ... when you take that 300 or 400 page book and try to turn it into a film that is dramatic and can reach a wide audience, you make further compromises to the complexity of the personality you can present."

Gillon, whose books include That's Not What We Meant to Do, examining legislation which achieved the opposite of its intended effect, lays out clearly the battle lines between historians and historical films: "I think historians have to understand the requirements of filmmaking, sort of the limitations...and the need and desire to reach a wider audience. And filmmakers also need to understand the importance of presenting as much as possible a portrait that's historically accurate."

Biographical Sketches Revitalize Telepic World by Brad Schreiber
Daily Variety, June 14, 2002

While network telepics have generally receded into the mists of time, there are still TV movies that can artistically compete with those of the silver screen.

TNT's "James Dean" seems one of the front-runners in the category this year, a nice successor to ABC's winning biopic last year, "Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows."
The script for "James Dean," written by noted playwright Israel Horovitz, was a feature project for seven years, originally at Warners, before Turner Network Television decided to bring it to life. Finding an actor, outside of a then-too-young Leonardo DiCaprio, to play Dean was a dilemma, solved with a career-making performance by James Franco. And Horovitz's psychological insight into Dean's abandonment by his father became the fulcrum of the storyline.
"Why would a father ship his wife's body back on a train with an 8-year-old son, never go to the funeral and never pick the son up again, never bring the son back out to him?" Horovitz recalls of the ideas that helped fuel the creative process.
The train ride from Santa Monica to Indiana book-ends a unique chronology that Horovitz created, working with former Actors Studio cohort director Mark Rydell in a fashion Horovitz describes as "very invested." Their agreement to not work on the project if the right actor was not found suggests just that.
A cultural icon of an entirely different stripe, convicted killer Gary Gilmore, in 1997 was the first person in over a decade to be executed, by a firing squad no less. His brother, journalist Mikal Gilmore, wrote a searing, honest memoir that won the National Book Critics Circle award for biography and became HBO's "Shot in the Heart."
"I actually tried to keep myself out of the book as much as possible, until my place in the story became the narrative drive," explains Gilmore, played by Giovanni Ribisi, matched in onscreen charisma by Elias Koteas as older brother Gary. "I never saw it as about me. I saw the book as about family and I saw the central character as my father ... and the hero as my brother Frank."
"I know in a way Mikal's book was so popular, so you're actually responsible for the popularity of the book," says writer Frank Pugliese, who focused on the relationship of the two brothers, with flashbacks including the alcoholism and physical abuse that were a large part of the family dynamic.
Mikal praises the production for not settling for an ending with the ever-popular idea of closure, especially in such a dark tale. "The story is the consequence, the story is the aftermath ... that there are things that you have to live with that you cannot live with. ... And that the only grace that you're left with is memory and love and a kind of limited forgiveness."
Executive producer Tom Fontana was an essential element, having proved at adept at a gloves-off approach with "Oz," his HBO prison series that has upped the ante on dramatic shock value.
"One of the things I learned about with 'Oz' was that these are people who pay for this specifically so they're coming to it the way that people who go to the theater go to the theater. ... They're not like other television audiences," he says. "They seem to want this kind of intensity as opposed to backing away from it."
Audiences and critics demand a certain accuracy in historical feature films. But do cable and network biopics get held to the same standards of the truth and nothing but the truth?
Pulling no punches, Showtime's "The Day Reagan Was Shot" concentrated on the power vacuum that ensued after the assassination attempt on the life of the president. Writer-director Cyrus Nowrasteh exhaustively researched the event, producing a riveting portrait of Alexander Haig, played by Richard Dreyfuss, and the little-known fact that a medical student got past security into the hospital room of the president.
Nevertheless, Nowrasteh objects strongly to the concept of total accuracy for either feature or television films. "If we accept these standards, what are we going to do, take about a dozen of Shakespeare's historical plays and throw them out? There's a larger truth at work here in some of these historical adaptations or dramas that's more important than the accuracy of each incident."
Steve Gillon, University of Oklahoma history professor and resident historian for the History Channel, feels "The Day Reagan Was Shot" and "Shackleton" particularly capture an essence of history and character.
"Maybe because it's a smaller audience they're appealing to," he says, "but these television movies … do a much better job of dealing with personality and motivation and the complexity of human nature than do Hollywood movies, feature movies which present a very superficial and very monodimensional view of character and personality."