Creative Screenwriting Expo. Los Angeles, CA.
November 16 & 17, 2002
I am an east coaster who steeps daily in the science of high tech, using my spare time to find some magic in stories. On a quest for enchantment, I take a trip with some friends to a screenwriting seminar in the heart of that magical land known as Hollywood.
Arriving in Los Angeles, I am actively looking for the magic. We see a minor celebrity at the baggage claim, and it’s thrilling to have someone to jump out of pop culture and do something as commonplace as retrieve their luggage. Ok, this is what Iâ€™m looking for, if I have already been charmed at the baggage claim, I shouldn’t be disappointed. We board a shuttle bus packed with other budding screenwriters and we head off down the Los Angeles freeway towards our hotel. It’s night time and for a few moments a subway car with Friday rush hour commuters travels next to us on the elevated highway, we look at each other vacantly for a moment until the train descends from our view leaving behind flourish of blue sparks from it’s roof. I see magic in this. The motion, the sparks, the people, the night. We arrive at the hotel and it invokes the feeling that we’re in exotic Morocco. I’m entranced. I’m happy.
Saturday morning we walk over to the convention center to pick up our registration material and begin our classes. The number of people at this event is staggering. One long line for class registration, one for people participating in an on-the-spot writing competition, and another for the opportunity to pitch their story ideas directly to producers. I’m astounded by the number of people that have a stories to tell, and want, also, to be a part of the magic of Hollywood.
As classes begin I realize that there’s a science behind motion-pictures, and not just on the technical aspects of camera and lighting, but of story. From engineering school I know about how the internet works, computers, cell phones, television, etc; these things appear magical to those that haven’t studied the formulae and models used as a baseline to create these things. And I begin to see that the art of story-telling comes from a methodical study of human behavior, of how the human mind interprets images, remembers information, and connects thoughts together to achieve an experience. The most moving works in cinema start with that foundation from the earlier models and formalae, which is an analysis of the old tales, the mythology and folklore that comes to us from the mists of prehistory. More than one speaker spoke of Carl Jung’s archetypes and collective unconscious, and Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces.
The three speakers who gave me the most information were Kevin Downs, Richard Krevolin, and Melody Jackson. All three were good teachers that have read and analyzed countless screenplays, and could distill their knowledge into understandable morsels of wisdom appropriate for a two day seminar.
Kevin Downs spoke about character’s inner motivation. He used the example of Hannibal from Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal is a captivating character revealed through his actions. But itâ€™s because of his solid inner motivation that his behavior rings true. Well, so, what’s his inner motivation? We think quietly for a moment, we have a hard time putting our finger exactly on it. Then Kevin tells us, Hannibal is a cannibal because he wants to prove his superiority by showing that he’s not a member of the human race. Yes, I think, of course. This is what makes him compelling without any blatant exposition in the film explaining this. His action gives us this information, but it comes to us at a base level of understanding. The audience couldn’t say it outright, but that’s itâ€¦ he wants to be better than the rest of the human race, and he shows this by eating people while drinking chianti.
Richard Krevolin spoke about structure with a remote control in his hand as he fast forwarded through a tape of Stand By Me. He showed us how the movie is bookended by a modern day narrator, with the bulk of the story shown in flashback. The hero is a boy on a journey which will make him a man. The speaker shows us coupling, when a certain battle is lost in the first half of the story, it is there so it can be won in the second half of the story when our hero can then handle it. Our little hero spills some blood towards the beginning of the film, we learn this is a symbol invoking an initiation right. We hear the sound of flies on the soundtrack when our hero is simply walking along, we learn this implies death. I’m beginning to feel used at this point, am I such a chump to fall for all these machinations? The speaker tells us that we have to check in with the bad guys every ten to twelve minutes so the audience can see them being bad and they’ll remember this for the final conflict. If it’s more often then ten minutes, then it might not be the hero’s story, any less than ten minutes, we might forget about the bad guys. Toward the end of act two or beginning of act three we should have a revelatory monologue, so the actor that plays our hero gets a chance at the Academy Award. Now, I definitely feel used. Well, so if you’re watching a movie, how do you know when we’re transitioning from act to act? The music swells, he says, always. At this point I become cynical, though I hang on his every word. He says that if the writer’s hand if present, then the writer has failed, it should be an organic experience. Yes, I believe thatâ€™s where the magic lies, but how?
I find the answer in Melody Jackson’s lecture which began with new age music and the lighting of a candle. She spoke about tapping into the mythical archetypes to tell the most moving story you can tell. We’re trying to create the sort of movie that afterwards leaves you standing on the sidewalk outside the theater speechless. You know you were moved, but you can’t find the words explaining how. By using archetypal energies we can get there, she says. The archetype of the mentor, the trixter, or the eternal child. The father-son relationship, mother-daughter, lovers. Events such as milestone birthdays, anniversaries, funerals. Dilemmas such as love vs. money or career or loyalty. Life changing moments as when the doctor calls you into his office and tells you he has bad news. That deep primal feeling you have when you hear this, that’s the level we want to reveal in our stories. Things we all can understand as we experience them safely with the onscreen characters as the vessels for our emotions.
And so, with all this newly learned information I walk back to my Moroccan flavored hotel feeling somewhat used and disenchanted, thinking all those years as a movie-goer were just me being duped by film-makers. I’m a beguiled puppet, how depressing.
Nearly back to the hotel, I see for the first time there in the distance, nestled into the side of a hill, the misaligned white block letters spelling HOLLYWOOD. I smile because I realize that I am willing to be manipulated to experience these timeless stories. And it’s a thrill to aspire to contributing to the behind-the-scenes wizardry. My pilgrimage to Hollywood was all I had hoped for.