Revisiting Joseph Campbell

In a few weeks I’ll be teaching a workshop about story-telling, designed for the executive directors and communication directors at non-profit organizations in New Jersey. Asking a screenwriter about story-telling isn’t a bad idea, but as I prepare I realize that it’s the first time I have ever been asked for my own comprehensive theorization about what a story is.

Which means: it’s time to get re-acquainted with Joseph Campbell.

When I first read him, shortly after college, I loved every word of it. Bill Moyers’ fascination with him had rubbed off on lots of people at the time,  and we eagerly tried to wrap our heads around every concept. His ability to break myths from around the world down into their component parts was sheer genius:

The Call to Adventure

The Refusal of the Call

Supernatural Aid

Crossing the Threshold

The Road of Trials

The Meeting With the Goddess


In the years I was writing screenplays since then, these concepts were always an extra, shadow vocabulary we had at our sides – the writers and producers I’ve worked with and me. The road map was always Syd Field or Save the Cat or someone’s notion of the three act structure, but if you could stand up and champion a point in a narrative by using the structure du jour and then punctuate it by pointing out that it roughly corresponds to one of Campbell’s elements of myth, then you won that point handily.

Reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces again, I am two thirds thrilled. One thing I deeply appreciate about Campbell is how he often skips the obvious example and goes for something on the B list of Greco-Roman myths and then offers a second and third example from other mythologies. The chapter on The Road of Trials is a prime example. This stage, Campbell writes, “has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals.”

Psyche paying the boatman Charon to take her to the Underworld.

Psyche paying the boatman Charon to take her to the Underworld.

“Oh, like Hercules, or Jason,” I thought. But no. Instead he tells the story of Psyche, who was so in love with Cupid she would do anything to please Cupid’s mother Venus. Venus forced her to do a series of trials, including going to the underworld.

Then Campbell thrills us with with an anthropologist’s account of how shamans among the Lapps heal patients by taking their own out-of-body journeys to the  underworld, while two women and a girl guess by watching his every twitch what part of the underworld he is in. “The women may be unable to locate the shaman’s position in the yonder world, in which case his spirit may fail to return to the body.”

You get the sense that  you are witnessing a grand theory of all stories for all time when you read Campbell. Then he lapses into Freudian jargon. In this case he quotes a Dr. Géza Róheim: “Human groups are actuated by group ideals, and these are always actuated by the infantile situation.” Suddenly he has put you off. You wonder, do you have to buy into these Freudian notions to accept Campbell’s ideas about the universality of myths? And the more he insists on making his points by listing examples from dreams recorded by psychoanalysts, you start to wonder about his initial examples. Did Campbell really figure out “one composite adventure” (his phrase) of world story-telling, or was he  just cherry-picking anecdotes from his knowledge of world mythology to illustrate “ten common things that stories often have” (my phrase), the way a screenwriter might pick a nugget of theory from, oh say, a Jungian professor of mythology? I don’t know. He’s useful to reread, and enchanting enough two thirds of the time.

How Much Do You Pay the Writer for a Short?

Discussing short films with a few different friends recently, we kick around ideas and talk about how much we’d like to work together, and before you know it we enter that nebulous zone regarding pay. Either we make some joking acknowledgement that we don’t have the money to pay ourselves, or someone whispers that there actually is some money in it. Here’s how I wish every “up and coming” writer would start answering that question of how much to pay the writer for a short:

“Can you pay me at least as much as you pay your sound guy?”

Take it as a rhetorical game-winner in some contexts, or take it as an honest question. It moves the conversation in the right direction. Under some circumstances, producers really might want to ask for a freebie and aren’t trying to rip anyone off. A writer likewise (like a D.P. or an actor) might want to do a freebie out of their own self-interest. If you’re not getting paid, however, then this question is still the springboard to discussing why you’re doing it, and what you want to get out of it.

Usually a short film germinates like this. A producer and/or director think they have a great idea for one. It would be a needed credit, and a showcase for someone’s talent. It might provide festival exposure, or it may just be fun, a noble ends unto itself. They have friends with technical skills willing to help for free or reduced rates, and they have a little money. So they write a synopsis or maybe even a rough draft of a script.

The producer: What do you think of this story?

The writer: It’s okay. Personally, I’d make the following changes.

Producer: Good idea. Can you rewrite it for me?

“I’d like to,” says the writer, and then you enter that zone. If it’s a terrible idea, you say you’re too busy, which is how we say “No” in our culture. If you love the idea, and it’s your best friend who you know is paying for it with money she’s saved copy-editing, then you’re inclined to say, “Don’t pay me, spend it on the film.”

Most often it’s somewhere in the middle. It’s an okay idea, not your favorite. The work they’re asking you to do is fixing deficiencies, not really going all out creatively. You realize that the whole premise is based on a free location, or a relationship that’s not going to pay any dividends, and you’re not that desperate, so you hedge. “Is there any money in this?” you wonder. You want to bring good vibes all the time, and you don’t want your pay to get in the way of your friends’ project, but you’re also human and tend to do work that is about as good as you’re getting paid for.

That’s where you pop the question. “Can you pay me at least as much as you pay your sound guy?”

The entertainment world runs on three currencies: dollars, credits, and favors. It’s astonishing how high up the food chain of independent projects you go before work gets paid in dollars. It’s more likely that you negotiate some kind of additional credit, and/or a promise to help you back when you get your own pet project going. This is why so many of us inflate our own rates. “We charge a thousand dollars a day,” a post-production audio engineer once told me, “but what do you have?”

That phrase, “but what do you have?” essentially means, “Let’s make a deal for a reduced rate and some combination of the other currencies,” and these other currencies are the capital that short films get made with. That’s why I often say it is harder to make a 90-minute feature than nine ten-minute shorts. At five minutes per day, a producer can shoot a ten-minute film in a weekend, and talented people will spend a whole weekend doing a favor, or trying out some new relationships. Shooting for eighteen days is another matter. Then they’re taking themselves off the job market, and landlords generally don’t take favors or short film credits for rent.

Which brings me to the sound guy. Every competent producer knows that viewers have a higher tolerance for a hit-and-miss video image than they do for poor audio. Getting clean sound is that important. Furthermore, no one has ever put “from the sound recording engineer who brought you Little Miss Sunshine” or “from Werner Herzog’s boom operator” on a poster. Nor have I met many sound recordists who are secretly writing screenplays on weekends: they are more likely to be in bands. So the sound recordist is relatively impervious to the other kinds of currency, and on indie projects he is sometimes the highest paid person on the set.

Fair enough, but what about you? Are you so desperate for a credit that you’ll work for someone who expects you to write for nothing? What kind of lines of dialogue is that sound guy going to record if you wrote them on the subway on your way to your bartending job? Writing is work, like auto repair or putting up sheetrock. It’s easy to do it badly. It takes time and experience to do it well.

The counter-argument says, unlike the sound guy, the writer’s credit does have some currency, and you can work in your spare time, so you don’t have to be compensated for the days you’re off the job market. This holds true if the producer is flexible about when you hand in the writing. You can always find a day to rewrite ten pages sometime in the next month, if you love the story. If they need it by tomorrow, though, unless it’s the greatest project ever, loaded with the other two currencies, then they’d better offer you a number.

There is no one way to resolve this, but it’s in everyone’s interest if the understanding becomes explicit. Some producers read in a book that they should give everyone a written contract, and that’s fine I guess, but what really has to happen is the conversation: What are you expected to do, and to get back, and why are you really doing it. You can start that negotiation by saying the magic words: “Can you pay me at least as much as you pay your sound guy?”

Stoker: A Future Without Screenwriters


I am disoriented and can not possibly sleep yet. What a difference between watching a film near the end of its long, accomplished theatrical run (“Zero Dark Thirty” on Monday) and catching one that’s been in theaters for a day and gotten a hot and cold reception. That was “Stoker” tonight.

I got the feeling, during much of it, that I was watching one of the great young actresses of cinema, Mia Wasikowska, getting sexually violated. Halfway through what seemed like an awful movie, the dime store Freudianism, garish emotions, and straight up misogyny got so ridiculous we literally screeched with laughter, and I started wondering whether I was missing something subversive – obviously, I must have been, right?

Wrong! Andrew O’Hehir at Salon is one of my favorite critics, not least because he knows that there is a time to call bullshit, and he called it on this film. “Each of these characters seems freakish and disconnected, both from each other and from any actual or fictional vision of reality,” he writes.

He even supposes that the Korean director, critics’ darling Park Chan-wook, might not have understood the English script by Wentworth Miller, but I see the opposite dynamic at work.  This is one of those films that’s all about the director, and Park found a no-name screenwriter whose first draft could be hi-jacked, and who’d dutifully keep plugging lousy dialogue into the most laughable plot developments he might insist on. Watching “Stoker” is like looking at a future without screenwriters. One fantastic shot after another creating all their intended poetic inflections, and none of it offering any feeling whatsoever.

Zero Dark Dirty


After essentially boycotting “Zero Dark Thirty” for weeks on account of its endorsement of torture, someone pointed out Michael Moore’s defense of it: It’s a film that proves the opposite, he says, and is more about how men ignore women in the workplace. I found “The Hurt Locker” terrific, even after an actor told me that his brother was in Special Ops, and that it took too many liberties for him to get into it as a film. “So what?” I figured. Should we let that prevent us from appreciating a well-told story. And yet here I was, with my own ideological axe to grind, shunning a film I hadn’t seen yet.

So I finally arrived, with high expectations. Michael Moore got it pretty much right, but the film grated on me nonetheless.

I often think that people who go to theaters are like people who vote in primaries. We think of ourselves as insiders, tastemakers, viewers whose ticket purchases and opinions set the agenda for the greater public. Arrogant? Yes. But it also means that we get a very different viewing experience when we see a film at the beginning of its theatrical release, when the jury of opinion is still out, versus the end, when ten of us sit in a vast theater whose manager wonders why he didn’t book something newer. (I guess that’s like voting in the New York Presidential primary!) Add the passing of the Oscars to that swing, and the wondrous new cinematic sensation seems smaller: its post-theatrical marketing plan is already in place, and you’re just there to attend a film.

Not that I’m complaining! Anything that’s heavy on the cinematography is going to be more spectacular on a giant screen, and that’s a good enough reason to hurry up and catch it before it’s consigned to home video. These are the films I find myself rushing to see at the Village East or the Quad or other NYC theaters where important films go to pasture for a while before they leave theaters.

“Zero Dark Thirty,” for all its “based on true events” pretensions, was full of moments that happen in movie genre-reality, but generally don’t happen in reality-reality. I can forgive one or so of these, but at two and a half hours it expects you to swallow too many of them. God bless screenwriter Mark Boal (who also wrote “Hurt Locker”and “In the Valley of Elah”) for bringing the Iraq War and the uglier side of the War on Terror to American screens, but he went so Hollywood this time around, it felt insulting.

When the CIA heroine and her best work pal happen to be in the dining room for a hotel bombing, I said “Okay, we’ll give you one. Maybe it even actually happened.” But when that same pal was present for a bombing and betrayal that even my companion who didn’t remember the headlines could see coming minutes ahead of time, I felt depleted. When the new CIA station chief had his desk-pounding scene, it felt unearned. (Michael Moore thought this was the hidden tribute to Obama, the speech that says “don’t torture, be detectives.”) Even if we give him that, militants soon attack the heroine directly as she’s driving through an embassy gate, and I was feeling, “Just get on with it.”

The thematic crux is: Sometimes you’re just so sure of an educated hunch that you have to go with it. Or: The story of a woman who guessed right. Which feels so trite after watching militants get tortured for 45 minutes. When Bigelow takes control of the film from the writer and turns it into a play-by-play of the night raid, it seems like a creative solution to the fact that he’d beaten this particular narrative horse to death already.

I can’t help comparing this movie, unfavorably, to Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” (written by Scott Z. Burns), which had the same “just the facts, ma’am” air about it, but challenged you to appreciate the heroism of people who weren’t necessarily provoked by an escalating spiral of vendettas, but rather just doing their jobs, with efficiency and some extra passion because they knew they were onto something important. Something tells me that’s how bin Laden got found. It’s just my hunch, and I’m going to go with it.