Interview: Christopher Vogler, Author of ‘The Writer’s Journey’
By Erin V.
Two weeks ago, I attended a panel at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference, which ran April 9th & 10th. The one I attended was with author/script consultant Chris Vogler who gave a talk on story structure in film. After the panel I had the opportunity to speak with him for about 15 minutes, and the interview is transcribed below. We talked about everything from the story memo that started it all, to music in film. Enjoy!
First off, a bit about your book – when did you decide that you were going to write the first one, The Writer’s Journey? Now that was a process that started actually when I was in film school and I found [Joseph] Campbell’s ideas, and I wrote a paper for a class explaining why Star Wars was so successful – because it had this stuff in it – and then I wrote a memo when I was working at Disney, just a seven page memo, trying explain it to people in the studio, that here’s this great old technology, but it’s still useful today. So here’s the seven-pages of examples, and I used examples from current movies and classic movies. And that spread around town very fast – it was like a virus, and it was in the brain of Hollywood. And I knew from the reaction, that I had found something really useful.
So then I said, now I’ve got to work with the ideas, and fill in all the blanks. And that took a period of time – took about seven years, I taught a class in story analysis to work out story with the students. And one thing is that an agent came to the class, and heard this lecture, and said, ‘that’s a book – I can see it, on the shelf – you’ve gotta do that book,’ and so that told me, ok, she’s right. And I’d sort of felt that, but I needed that reassurance – she was sort of like a mentor to me.
So, how did you decide to go with MWP? Well that was the result of having hit a real brick wall with conventional publishing in New York City. I went to New York, I had a high-powered agent, I went to many agencies, it even got interest in some places, but it would always be shot down by the marketing department – they couldn’t figure out how to sell it. So I just was about to give up, and then a friend of mine, who has a bigger mouth than I do, was talking to Michael Wiese at the gym – they were on exercise bikes together side by side – and he said, ‘Are you that kind of publisher? Interesting, because I have this friend and he’s having trouble getting published.’ So he put us together, and Michael said, ‘this is the kind of book I want to do.’
How long did it take for you to write that book? Well the actual writing of the book followed the seven-year period of trying out the ideas, but to actually sit down and write it, it was about nine months, I guess of quitting my job for a while, taking time off, going back to the job, so you know, it could have been done more quickly but it took about nine months to figure it out.
Now the second book that’s coming out this Summer is actually named after the memo [Memo From the Story Department]. When did you decide that you were going to do a second book – and with a co-author this time? Yeah, well the co-author was a fella who I’d known for years and years. He was a stage director and I used to be an actor. So I’d worked with him on stage, and he helped me on the first book to fill in a lot of the examples, because he was a big film lover, and he had lots of video tapes and we got our material basically from our conversations together. And over the years I’d always wanted to do something with him, because he had great ideas, and he didn’t think of himself as a writer so I sort of twisted his arm and forced him to do it. It was just fulfilling a dream – I wanted to do something with him to share all what we’d talked about because I thought it was useful.
Actually, one of the things I really liked about that book is the sort of conversational aspect – the way that you kind of give a critique on each other’s chapters – because even with co-authors you don’t often see that kind of conversation in the text…
And how long did it take to write that book? Now that was about a year all together, because we were working on different coasts – he’s in New York, I’m in L.A., and we were only able to work together in the same place for a few weeks, and then we’d go off and work on our pieces. It took a long time to just figure out the architecture of the book and what we were going to put in. Of all the stuff we know, what are we going to write chapters about? So that’s what took most of the time.
In the new book – what I liked is that there were a lot of chapters about different things, such as structure from myths and the old Vaudeville shows. A lot of screenwriting books just focus on the technical aspects. Was that always something you were interested in – looking at things from different angles? Yes, yes – because both my friend David McKenna and I, are sort of ‘Jacks of all trades’ – I mean, we’re just interested in a lot of different things. And we found useful things in all those different areas. I had a military background – he is more of a sports fanatic than I am – and we took lessons from all those experiences, that we thought would help with writing, so it was just to try and put together all these different tools… That’s how we thought of it – kind of like a tool kit that would have everything in it that you would need to crack a story, or to critique things, or analyze your own work.
The idea of drawing on different areas reminds me, in your panel, you talked a little bit about the use of music in film. In particular, it interested me what you said about different musical elements, because I do a lot of interviews with composers. Can you elaborate a bit on the musical aspect? I just think that the two things – music, and storytelling/screenwriting – they’re really forms of the same thing. To me it’s like water that can exist as ice, or steam, or liquid water, and it’s still water. And so you’re communicating – you’re playing the musical instrument of the human emotions, and music is organized in very much the same way as the stories, in that you have to, sort of introduce a theme, you have to develop the theme, and maybe turn it upside-down, and then draw it up into some kind of climax. So, you have many of the same tools and language even… a lot of overlap there.
And that actually makes me think of the use of the leitmotiv, like in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which of course, like you were talking about today, is a very mythic story. Hearing about different instruments used at different points of the story – I’d never heard it laid out like that… I hear a lot of music, but you don’t think of it. Yeah, they’ll sometimes go a little far with it and get into the area they call ‘Mickey Mousing’ where you literally telegraphing every little thing to the audience…
Yeah, he’s happy now, so the music is ‘da, da, da, da, da, da,’ or, ‘ooh, it’s scary now,’ so, that can be taken too far. But I like it, when they have a simple theme that expresses the hero, or his ambitions, or for her problems. And one for the villain and everybody’s got one, and then there’s a love theme…
…or when they’ll take a theme and play it in major or minor, or be changing it with the story. I’m thinking, for example, of Up which had Ellie’s theme, you hear different elements of it as you go on…
So back to screenwriting, what advice would you have for aspiring screenwriters, or those that are struggling with a script? Well, if you’re stuck on a script, there’s a useful thing, which is just put it in a drawer and work on something else – Mark Twain used to do that, he had several things he said that were ‘in the trunk’ and when I get stuck I’ll just put it aside and work on the other thing. But I think, if you’re talking about writer’s block, a useful thing for me, is that I meditate. And to sort of go down in an elevator in my mind, and then I step out into a screening room (and this is all in my head), but in the screening room I sit down and I say, ‘ok, roll on – what do you have?’ And then I wait to see what shows up on the mental screen. And that works very well because it’s sort of passive, I’m not doing anything, I’m just watching. But my subconscious then goes to work for me.
Just going back a second, with starting screenwriters, what’s the first thing they should learn as a sort of basis? Well I think you certainly need to read a lot of screenplays – that’s a big help, because you’ll find if you read ten scripts, you’re going to find one or two that are really sweet to your ear, and that reflect the way you would like to write and so you’ll take all kinds of things out of them. Tricks and techniques – and even how they type it on the page can reveal tricks. So reading a lot of scripts is a most useful thing. And then? Doing some acting – that was a big help to me, because I figured out, ok the dialogue has gotta be short because I’ve got to memorize this, and actually it’s better for it to be punchy and short.
So, acting is good, and then some psychology, it really helps to have been through some psychological exploration, because then you see patterns – and I think that’s one of the most important things, is finding patterns that the audience recognizes, that a lot of people will respond to, and put that in the story. To make it psychologically realistic.
Now earlier in the panel, you were talking about all the different story stages (found in The Writer’s Journey). Sometimes you have all these ideas that you want to add in – how do you decide how much is too much, how much is too little, and what to add in? Yeah, this is hard. This is like what an artist faces – how do I know when the painting is done?
Yeah, you always want to add something…
You’re always thinking – ‘is this enough or too much?’ And that just comes from experience. Also it’s very helpful to sometimes see if you can set up a reading of the script. And that will tell you a lot – if you just have some actors or friends just read the parts out loud with an audience, then you’ll see ‘Oh, that was way too long – I didn’t need to explain all that, they got it right away!’ So that one is a big help in deciding. And then the other thing is – I think of it like a knife to cut with – and that knife is, let everything in the script deal with the basic theme. Does it tell me something more about the basic theme of the story – the one word human quality that the story is about, like trust, or loyalty, or betrayal, or friendship, or lust, or whatever it is. And we want to study that so everything in the script should tell me something new about that – a new viewpoint about that one word or idea.
I actually have another question, not so much about the whole story, but about the main character – if you have several characters, how do you decide what character you’re going to follow as the main character, or will there be some cases where you will follow several main characters in a group? Yeah, I’d say first for beginning writers, it’s best to just have one principal hero, and then it’s clearer for the audience, and it’s clear for you. But as you get more sophisticated, you might have 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 heroes, and then the audience will pick one, that they identify with the most. And maybe a different member of the audience sitting over here will pick that one, but the other one across the room says, ‘no, no, I’m more like this guy, I want to find out what happens to him/her.’ So the audience can participate… But – I must say – in the studio system, we would always try to encourage the writers to pick one, and let’s try to write this particular draft giving the movie to that character – and if that doesn’t work, we can go back and give lines to the others and spread it around differently – but let’s see what happens if we just follow one character.
I’m dealing with a script just like this right now in the studio, and that’s the problem, is that the actor who’s going to play the part, doesn’t want to be on the screen all the time. He wants somebody else to take some of the screentime because it’s too much pressure. But we all feel, is it’s his movie, so he should be in every scene even if he’s uncomfortable – this is what the audience wants. So you just find out by experiment basically.
We’re getting short on time, so is there anything else you’d like to add before we start wrapping up? Well, I would just say, this idea I talked about [in my panel] today, of trying to find where the triggers are for the emotions, and always be thinking emotionally. Not so much about ‘won’t this be a cool special effect,’ or ‘isn’t this a good funny line of dialogue,’ how does this make me feel? How does it make someone reading the script feel (or watching the movie)? So I’m really interested in trying to figure those things out.
For example, one thing that really seems to move an audience, is when somebody’s in a corner by themselves, and then one person shows up to help them, and you feel ‘wow, that’s great – here this one person was all alone, now he’s got a friend – the two of them are together’ and then another one comes, now it’s three of them standing together, then four and five, then ten and twenty, and now you’ve got like the whole army is gathering. And the audience goes along with that and they get more excited, and they feel more of a shiver down the back or something – you get these physiological reactions. So, I look for those things, and try to encourage people to make a list for yourself of the things that move you in the script – what are the things that you remember, moments that you remember – let’s try to create similar things.
Do you have anything else you’d like to add? Ok, well I would just say that, you know, the best way to write, is not to try to anticipate trends – just tell the story. Tell the best story you can, the story that means the most to you. The one that has the most emotional charge in it for you. If you’re trying to figure out, out of ten stories which one you gotta tell, the one that moves you the most, the one that amuses you or excites you, or scares you the most – that’s the one that the audience is going to like too. Trust your own feeling.
…because in some ways, you are the audience…
That’s how I’ve always seen it, I’ve always thought that I’m a pretty good representative of the audience. And you know, I wasn’t born into Hollywood royalty or anything – I was just a kid from Missouri, and what I like, I think a lot of people will like. So I trust myself in that way.
So that’s all the time we have, so thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me today. It was my pleasure.