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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Campbell’

“Everyone has a big but. Simone, let’s talk about your big but…You can’t just wish for something to come true—you have to make it happen.”
Pee Wee Herman
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

“The reason why most [comedy screenplays] don’t work is they’re not about anything.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3)

The screwball comedy (living cartoon?) Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is a guilty pleasure for many. I just recently saw the Tim Burton directed film for the first time and think I know why it has such a strong following even though it was released back in 1985. It not only addresses everyone’s “big but”—which I’ll look at in a minute— but it’s a simple story well told.

1) The opening scene begins with Pee Wee doing what he loves to do best—ride his bike.
2) In the first 10 minutes we are introduced to the quirky hero and his colorful world.
3) In the set-up we understand that Pee Wee’s bike is special to him and he wouldn’t sell it for any amount of money.
4) At the 19 minute mark he learns of his stolen bike. A clear inciting incident.
5) Pee Wee’s goal is simple “To find my bike.”
6) He begins a quest to get back what was taken. (Just like John Wayne in The Searchers and Liam Neeson in Taken.  Active hero=Thumbs up.)
7) Along his journey he meets many bizarre characters, including Large Marge—an 18-wheeler truck driving ghost.
8) There are as many roadblocks as there are set-pieces (Western, Biker, James Bond, Godzilla, Beach, etc.).
9) It has a clear ending and Pee Wee returns from his journey a better man.

When the answer to “What’s at stake?” is just a stolen bike, they get by with it because;  A) It’s a comedy, and B) Pee Wee really loves his bike.  And to show his emotional attachment to his bike they have several dream/nightmare sequences that actually gets mentioned in one book.

“Anxiety is a particularly frequent subject of dreams, both in real life and in films. The anxiety dream sequence is typically portrayed as a state of paranoia, in which everyone and everything is menacing and destructive, and the dreamer is confronted by his deepest fear. In Tim Burton’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Pee Wee is plagued by terrible nightmares in which his bicycle is destroyed. The dreams cue the audience in to the emotional intensity behind Pee Wee’s anxiety over his beloved bike. “
Psychology for Screenwriters by William Indick

For Pee Wee to lose his bike for good would be a sort of death.

But where the screenwriters Phil Hartman, Paul Reubens, and Michael Varhol really nailed it is in theme. Three different places in the film, by three different people, the words “I’m a loner… A rebel” are spoken. I won’t totally spoil it for those who never seen (or heard of) the movie, but by the end of the film Pee Wee is “humbled” and sees the need for community.

Kind of like the movie 127 HoursSay what? Am I the only one to make that connection?  James Franco starts out riding his bike and boldly proclaims, “I can do everything on my own.”

It you want your movie to be remembered 30 years from now it better be about something.

“Artists are magical helpers. Evoking symbols and motifs that connect us to our deeper selves, they can help us along the heroic journey of our own lives.”
Joseph Campbell
Pathways to Bliss

“Stories are equipment for living”
Kenneth Burke

Which brings us back to the big but.

When I was first told about Pee Wee’s Big Adventure it was a friend paraphrasing Pee Wee— “Everyone has a big but—what’s yours.” Not as in big butt of the Sir Mix-A-Lot variety, rather what’s the “big but” that’s stopping you from doing that thing you’ve always wanted to do. (“I want to _______, but ________.”)  For Simone it was leaving her jealous boyfriend and living in Paris.

For you it’s something else. What’s the “big but” that’s stopping you? Simone was inspired to live her dream and my guess is that audiences over the decades have been inspired by Pee Wee’s words of encouragement: “You can’t just wish for something to come true—you have to make it happen.”

Or as the German writer Goethe put it, “In action there is power, grace, and magic.”

Speaking of magic and bicycles—and if Pee Wee is too silly for you—check out the classic Italian film The Bicycle Thief.  

Happy New Year. And thanks for being a part of this journey. A journey that at times is like a bike ride in country with Pee Wee Herman, Joseph Campbell , Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and  John Wayne riding along side us.  Hope these posts help you and your writing. Here’s a little related JB quote and song to finish out the year.

“I bought a red bike shortly after I decided to stay in Key West, and it served me well. Key West has changed drastically from the days when you didn’t have to lock up your bike, but it’s still the best place I know to ride.”
Jimmy Buffett

 

P.S. If you ever kicked around Burbank, California back in the ’80s you may get nostalgic when you watch Pee Wee’s Big Adventure because they shot some scenes there. Places like the former Golden Mall (“Beautiful downtown Burbank”) and the old drive-in (also used for shooting Grease). And there are many other interesting layers to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure including Oingo Boingo’s Danny Elfman composing the music, and cameos by Milton Berle, Morgan Fairchild and Oscar-winning producer Tony Bill (The Sting).

Related Post:
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2) Just learned yesterday via my WordPress annual report that this now almost 3 year old post was the most viewed post this year.
Starting Your Screenplay (Tip #6)  “As long as the protagonist wants something, the audience will want something.”—David Mamet (The Verdict)

Related links: Did you know there is a Bicycle Film Festival. (I once made an award-winning short film called Bicycle Dreams that I wanted to submit to that festival, but I forgot. One of my big buts.)

Get A New Story: What’s Your Story About Not Writing? by Jenna Avery at Script

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Stop me if this seems familiar: There’s a new cop comedy coming out that pairs a loose-cannon SNL veteran with a growling, resentful partner in a semi-sendup of the 80’s buddy comedy genre. “
Kyle Buchanan
The Other Guys Trailer: Cop Out with Jokes

I didn’t see Cop Out last year, but I’ve read that it was a similar buddy cop spoof as The Other Guys. So I don’t know if it would qualify as a movie clone, but Cop Out director Kevin Smith on his blog Silent Bob Speaks fills in the blanks about the Hollywood process:

“Ideas cost NOTHING & require ZERO risk. And yet, oddly, the LEAST amount of time’s usually spent in the idea stage before a small fortune is dumped on a whimsy that’s still half-baked.

Case in point: Cop Out.

When I was brought in, there was talk of spending $70mil on a Will Ferrell/MarkyMark version of A COUPLE OF DICKS (the pre-COP title). Then WB didn’t wanna pay the actors’ full quotes, so off go they go to do the over-$70mil+ OTHER GUYS. WB then made WAY less expensive deals with Bruce & Tracy, I cut my salary by over 80%, and we were off to the races with what became a $32mil flick (which is why, hate on it all you must, but – as per two high-level studio sources & one of our producers – Cop Out turned a profit already; it did what it was designed to do). All of that came from Jeff Robinov’s idea stage. The idea that the movie could go on without Will & Mark resulted in Cop Out. And while some may harp about whether the flick was their cup of tea or not, the people who paid to have it made were content we all hadn’t wasted money.”

So now you have the inside scoop to why Ben Joseph (and his readers) in his article Attack of the Clones: Suspiciously Similar Movie Showdown find common DNA in the following films:

The Truman Show/EdTV (1998/1999)
Mission to Mars/Red Planet (2000)
The Cave/The Decent (2005)
Garden State/Elizabethtown (2005/2006)
The Illusionist/The Prestige (2006)
Juno/Knocked Up (2007)
The Arrival/Independence Day (1996)
Jurassic Park/Carnosaur (1993)

And way back in 1994/95 audiences could choose Mel Gibson (Braveheart), Richard Gere & Sean Connery (First Knight), and/or Liam Neeson & Jessica Lange (Rob Roy) for their medieval movie feast. And the lists could go on and on.  These things go in cycles.
In Vanity Fair (December 2010) Jim Windolf had an article titled “Is The King’s Speech Really Just The Karate Kid in Royal Vestments?” You’d have to read the whole article to see why he thinks that, but here’s the shorthand list:
1. A circumstance beyond the hero’s control compels him to learn a new skill or fail utterly.
2. The hero is humiliated in the presence of his future teacher.
3. The teacher’s unorthodox methods humble the student and even cause him to quit, albeit temporarily.
4. The teacher may be a quack.
5. The teacher is an outsider, with low social status in his new land.
6. The unorthodox, uncredentialed teacher is contrasted with a cruel—but more respected—educator.
7. In the teacher’s backstory lies patriotic wartime service.
8. The teacher helps fill a void left by the student’s absent father.
9. The teacher prepares the student for a grand stage, where he must display everything he has learned or suffer public defeat.
10. The teacher looks on with pride at the moment of his student’s final triumph.

I don’t remember how old I was when I actually realized that the Chevy Camero and the Pontiac TransAM were basically the same car, but I remembered it confused the heck out of me. Now that I’m all grown up I realize that some people want a Toyota and some people want a Lexus. Hollywood confuses me a little less these days as well. And even the creative process confuses me a little less. I realize that painters, cameramen, editors, actors and the rest of the freaky people who’ve joined the creative circus are drawing on a mix of creative influences to create something new that will help put food on the table.
And the stew isn’t always fresh and original, but every once in a while the right combination falls into place and it’s a large feast.
I think it was writer/director Frank Darabont who said Hollywood is like a shipwreck, and that every once and a while a survivor makes it to shore. You don’t get to make The Shawshank Redemption—quality films every year.  Actually, with even the giants two or three memorable films is a good career.
So don’t get caught up in all this talk about cloning. Like in the 1996 Harold Ramis film Multiplicity some of the clones of Michael Keaton were helpful and some were a little odd.  Tomorrow we’ll look at what Joseph Campbell has to say on the topic of monomyth and why there is really only one story. But for today we’ll let Kevin Smith have the last word of encouragement,“Ideas cost nothing yet have the potential to yield inexplicably long careers & happy lives. So go ahead: dream a l’il dream.”

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“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is a reminder of what movies are for. Most movies are not for any one thing, of course. Some are to make us think, some to make us feel, some to take us away from our problems, some to help us examine them. What is enchanting about E.T. is that, in some measure, it does all of those things.”
Roger Ebert
Chicago Sun Times

“The image of E.T. emerging from his mobile tomb summons a storehouse of symbols that mark the presence of God and divine miracle.”
Roy M Anker
Catching Light

Hollywood has had an interesting dance with religious films over the years with various degrees of successes, failures and controversy. An abridged list includes The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Robe, Seven Years in Tibet, King David, Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ.

The biggest game changer being The Passion of the Christ. Oddly, the violent retelling of the crucifixion of Christ became the all time R-rated box office champ. Mel Gibson’s $30 million dollar gamble eventually  paid a dividend of $600 million at the world-wide box office. Despite it’s predicted failure at the box office, in the year it was released (2004) it became the seventh highest grossing movie ever. (With the audience it found some would say it paved the way for films like The Book of Eli and The Blind Side.)

Speaking of The Passion, did you ever see the humorous studio notes Steve Martin wrote for the The New Yorker?:

Dear Mel,
We love,
love the script! The ending works great. You’ll be getting a call from us to start negotiations for the book rights…Possible title change: “Lethal Passion.” Kinda works. The more I say it out loud the more I like it.

But in general Hollywood has had much more luck dealing with stories that would be considered spiritual allegories. They tend to me less didactic, less overtly religious and less controversal, and generally better stories.  And the box office responds much better to them. Films I would put in this category are Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia,  Star Wars, and The Matrix. (Though it’s fair to say that not everyone is in one accord with the meanings of these films. But then again, how many different religions are there? Focus on something like separate protestant denominations and you’ll see the numbers climb into the the thousands. Getting people to agree is not that easy.)

In the spirit of Easter, one film that has been closely identified with the death and resurrection of Christ is E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called the movie,”essentially a spiritual autobiography, a portrait of the filmmaker as a typical suburban kid set apart by an uncommonly fervent, mystical imagination.”

Written by Melissa Mathison (a self-described “ex-Catholic’) and directed by Steven Spielberg (raised Jewish in Anglo-Saxon suburbs) there has been much written about the spiritual aspects of E.T., but Spielberg has said (in Take 22; Moviemakers on Moviemaking) that, “If I ever went to my mother and said, ‘Mom, I’ve made this movie that’s a Christian parable,’ what do you think she’d say? She has a kosher restaurant on Pico and Doheny in Los Angeles.”

So much detail went into the technical aspects of E.T. it would be hard to believe that Spielberg and Mathison were not at least aware of the spiritual parallels they were drawing on. (At least kicking around somewhere in Mathison’s Catholic-schooled subconscious in the eight weeks she took writing the first draft.) But I don’t think they were pandering to a Christian audience, in fact, when the movie first came out some Christian leaders were calling the film “new age.”

Spielberg and Mathison were simply trying to tell a story that would make a good movie, and in doing so tapped into their own upbringing (Spielberg has talked about his parents divorce and his longing for an imaginary friend), their spiritual upbringing, mixed with creative imagination, as well as a powerful death and resurrection theme that many associate with the cornerstone of the Christian faith. (Of course, Joseph Campbell would make the case that death and resurrection themes pre-date Christ, but that opens up a whole different can of worms.)

But in making E.T. the filmmakers made one of the most uplifting films ever and the one that the American Film Institute currently lists as the 25th greatest American film. Sitting nicely between Raging Bull and Dr. Strangelove.

© 2010 Scott W. Smith



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