Friday, December 18, 2009


When the painter, Jackson Pollock, spoke of a painting as having "a life of its own," he underscored the core insight and action of every creative artist. To create anything (as opposed to merely "copying") is to work as a MEDIUM.

The workings of the Mediumistic Filmmaker/Artist/Storyteller present a way of Being that is familiar to anyone that has overcome the fear, stagnation and unfocused idleness of habit (read: technique, method, formula) that is antithetical to every act of authentic creation.

Stop thinking of film, costume, words, paint, clay as mediums of artistic expression!! - they are the MEANS of expression - the tools employed in the act of expressing the MEDIUM, which is always the ARTIST and the artist's VISION as it tears out of his/her soul.

As such, "the position of the artist is humble; (he/she) is essentially a channel." (Piet Mondrian)

To work as a MEDIUM is to ACT as character, in concert with all the other characters necessary for finding the drama.

Storytelling is an act of Love. The imposition of formula, method or template to the finding of story is invariably unsatisfying, not because structure and pattern are unimportant but because formula is NOT structure, anymore than the numerals on a paint-by-numbers canvas board are the painting. The resort to formula is too often merely an expression of the fear that renders love impotent.

There are no methods or sure-fire techniques for dealing with these fears and anxieties other than stepping off the cliff, or entering the belly of the beast, or spending 40 days and nights in the desert. The most difficult part of any journey is taking the first step.

The long dark night of the soul is not merely a condition of salvation, but is an act of openness, of faith, of love.

No matter how desperately one manipulates the playing pieces to win a game, the game itself is not worth winning so long as transformation has been left out. Art is not about self-expression, so much as it is about self-transformation, and in the art of finding the story ALL of the characters - including the storyteller - are transformed.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


"You specialize in something until one day you find it is specializing in you." - Arthur Miller

Dialogical cinema cannot be meaningfully reduced or pigeonholed into any preconceived genres or categories. It is not a style, so much as the essence of style - the source of freshness and originality that defies elucidation in terms of either a linear or non-linear form of narrative. It is not limited to or subsumed by experimental, alternative or hybrid films or filmmakers, nor is it susceptible to description by means of appeal to the conventional jargon that is commonly employed in delineating and analysing the usual component processes of that most unusual of obsessions, that strangely occult occupation that calls characters out of the darkness to enact and play-out their dramas round and within the virtual campfire of cinematic storytelling.

Whether the story is fictional or factional, whether the screen is large or small, in a theatre or on one’s laptop, it is the interactive impulse made present that is the core of the dramatic action and the soul of character-based, screen drama. From idea to script to production through to post, an dynamic and interactive environment continually shapes and paces the emotional energies expressed by the actions of all of the characters necessary to the finding the drama.

Depending upon one’s perspective, and at which point one embarks upon one’s relationship with the characters, the dialogic operating within, behind and through the characters’ actions may be viewed as either a process or an outcome, or both. It is important, therefore, not to interpret “Dialogical Cinema” as merely a consequence or product of a certain kind of methodology. Likewise, it would be inexact to think and speak of it merely as a technique for the development of story.

Dialogical cinema is not noun but verb – a doing more than a having. One can DO it much more effectively than one can possess it, and has little if anything to do with what one knows, for knowledge is of no use to it. Indeed, knowledge is almost always its enemy.

Dialogical cinema is a way of being – a way of being with oneself and one’s characters, and with whatever story is trying to get itself born by means of whatever storytellers are attracted to it.

Dialogical cinema takes seriously the idea that dramatic stories are not merely ABOUT relationships and problems; they ARE relationships and problems. And the relationships and problems are not confined to the script. The actual screenplay is but an artefact of a dynamic, interactive continuum that all the characters undergo in the process of becoming acquainted with one another; it is but one side of a dialogical interface that echoes and mirrors what is being played out – often unconsciously – in the inner and outer dramas of the filmmakers, their audience and their tribe/s.

The central question facing the prospective screen storyteller is where do I position myself in terms of the drama? Basically, there are only two choices: in or out. One is either inside the drama, or a mere spectator. Alas, the experience of viewing a spectator-generated film is something with which most of us are all-too-familiar; it is equivalent to, and about as exciting as, listening to a blow-by-blow account of a heavyweight-title fight filtered through the intermediary of some guy who heard about it from some guy who heard it on radio.

Far too many screenwriters, “create” their stories at arms-length, or even farther. Whether it be due to a fear of “cheesiness” or simply a lack of insight or an impoverishment of taste, the great majority of screen storytellers – would-bes and already-have-beens - creep uncertainly into that most dangerous region on Earth – the world of character-driven drama.

Screenwriting programmes, cameras, lighting rigs, sound recording devices, monitors and editing software; the deals and tax breaks, the casting agencies and training schools that feed into the materialisation of the dream - that make it shareable – all of these are unquestionably necessary to the enterprise. However, regardless of how important they may be – and I often wonder whether films schools generally are a boon or a bust as far as eliciting native creativity is concerned - they are merely the MEANS by which a story is told. The means, unfortunately, is of little use without a MEDIUM.

To effectively enter the world of character-based drama, both cast and crew must work as mediums. The job of the medium is to conduct emotional energy – to be open and receptive to it, to continually free it and keep it moving and building and releasing according the deep emotional logic of the characters’ actions and understandings.

To work as a medium is to been intimately connected with the emotional energies of a story as these energies flow from scene to scene, and within each scene. To work as a medium is to have the courage to let go, to allow oneself to listen to and respond authentically to the other characters, to give them permission to become what they will, to trust.

A storyteller caught up in the thrall of dialogical cinema conducts the life of the drama by becoming the life of the drama, and allowing the Drama to become the storyteller’s life.

Dialogical cinema is revolutionary, not necessarily in a political sense, or even aesthetically; but as a powerful, living energy that flows freely every time a screen storyteller has to courage to relinquish control, to set aside the sophisticated chauvinism that refuses to treat the other characters as less than one’s equals.

The success of any dramatic screen story – its ability to move us, to change us – depends on the quality of the interactions that occur both inside and outside the script. The evolution – or “making present” – of any story world, is necessarily interactive. Indeed, the dialogical drama can have no being apart from the living interaction of MEDIUMS – a collaboration whose alchemical-like union swirls with equal amounts of dread and delight around and within the field of original characters whose problems, goals, plans, anxieties and points of view are made fully present only when the emotional energies at play are conducted mediumistically.

Media is best conducted when conducted by mediums. But it will always do whatever it is told to do by whoever is manipulating it. The written word has given us The Koran as well as Mein Kampf, and the advertising jingle employs the same seven-note scale as Beethoven’s Pastoral.

Every dramatic story develops from the interactions of those characters relevant to the story’s natural history and final cause. However, if one works only with the characters in the script, one aborts whatever opportunities the other characters had to become actively involved in living the drama, and thus contribute to its potency. The damage done by storytellers whose ignorance of these characters is allowed to pass unchallenged and uncriticised, thus subverting the potential of the story that is trying to birth itself, is incalculable.

Standing in marked contrast to this narrow-minded, fearful, and controlling style of filmmaking, is Dialogical Cinema, in which ALL of the characters relevant to the finding of story are engaged and interacting with one another. One of the great – and mostly ignored - lessons of the new, so-called interactive media is that it provides a rather vivid metaphor of a largely hidden process whose usual domain is the imagination. It externalises the fundamental dialogical relationships and elements of mediumship in ways that the black squiggles of a written language seem less and less able to convey with any degree of power or eloquence.

But the “new media” is only another means to an end, in a universe teeming with means, and like any other means for expression must go begging for a storyteller – who is ready and eager to step away from the “second-life” we so carelessly and habitually understand as “reality” and take up the adventure that is the true and enduring territory of the MEDIUM.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


NOTE: The following memoir is from the online bio-site,

The American expatriate poet, Charles Hasty, had been cajoling me for years to spend some time in Mexico in the hope that he and his wife and myself might be able to create a kind of poets' colony down there, so in the summer of 1997, sitting in a cyber-cafe in Florence, having discovered the wonders of email. I wrote to Charles telling him I was on my way to the States and, perhaps, if he still thought it a good idea, I'd come down to Mexico.

A number of minor and not-so-minor mishaps (disasters might be the better word) had made me reappraise my options. It'd been my intention to spend a year in Tuscany, watching the figs ripen and later the snow falling; getting to know each season intimately while working on my next play. But after breaking three ribs in a motorcycle accident, then waking the next morning to discover the cistern had gone dry, I'd started to have second thoughts.

For two weeks in mid-July I carried bottled water in a backpack from the shop in Petroio - a daily journey of ten kilometres. It was so hot I usually ended up drinking two of the four bottles before I got home. So this was what Jean de Florette felt like! And since my Italian was woefully deficient, and no one within miles spoke any English, I felt even more isolated than the would-be flower farmer.

Italy wasn't turning out to be the sort of place I'd been hoping for, not that I'd had a clear idea of what I was hoping for; all I knew for sure was this wasn't it. To make matters worse, I'd taken to talking to myself, which wouldn't have bothered me had "we" only had something in common. The only thing that even vaguely cheered me up was the thought that maybe I was having a nervous breakdown.

A letter from my old friend & teacher, Ed Field, settled the matter once and for all - a letter heavy with symbolism... allusions to Percival and the prodigal son. He reminded me that I had a place to stay in California if I needed it. For weeks I'd been fighting against it, but I was finally beginning to accept the fact that staying wasn't going to prove anything to anybody; and that leaving without having finished my play wasn't necessarily a failure.

With the figs still not ripe, and snow still a month away, I walked into Petroio, rang up my friendly cabbie in Sinalunga, and the following morning - bags packed, and with the house returned to the pristine state in which I found it - rode like a conquering hero into Florence where I rested at the Hotel Europa for a few days, wrote some emails, and took in a few sights before catching my flight back to America.

Ed's place was a book-stuffed mobile home next to the Capitola Mall, outside Santa Cruz. The Blue and Gold Star Mobile Home Park, Space 31 - No Animals or Children - and in easy walking distance of Pacific Ocean. The salt air aromatically mingling with the scent of suntan lotion and exhaust fumes from the nearby interstate.

I recalled my first journey to Santa Cruz, more than forty years earlier. I was seven. My mother, sister and sister's boyfriend, Clay, had made the hour-long drive down from our apartment in San Mateo one weekend. We'd planned to meet some friends of my sister's at a place called Half Moon Bay, but couldn't find it, and eventually ended up at the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz. The day was overcast and cold; the amusement park shrouded in fog and empty except for us. We wandered through the mist like shadows looking for a summer that had already gone south.

My most vivid memory was the merry-go-round. One of those colorful old carousels with rearing bejewelled horses and mirrors everywhere. There were also brass rings you could reach out and grab as you passed by, which you were s'pose to throw into the mouth of a clown painted on canvas. If you got your ring in his mouth, you won a prize. What, I'm not exactly sure. Probably another ride. But it wasn't the prize that excited me - it was the rings. Magical objects, shiny and full of promise. The problem was, my arms weren't long enough. I'd lean as far as I could, to the point where if I leaned anymore I was gonna fall off the horse, but each time I swooped by the rings were just out reach. It was a cruel amusement for a solitary seven year-old on a shiny white horse in a deserted fun park. I trace my interest in poetry to that seminal event.

Ed Field was a retired university philosophy professor who'd been a kind of mentor to me during the time I was at college, after my parents had died. We hadn't seen much of each another since I left the States in 1972 to go to Australia. Now, ensconced at space #31, I was looking forward to renewing my friendship with Ed prior to making the long trek down to central Mexico. Part of me was hoping he might be able to help me put my life back together again, or at least make a running start at it.

I tried to tell him everything at once, about my life, my doubts, why I'd left Australia, and how I felt empty inside and had no idea what I was doing anymore, or even if it made any difference. He listened patiently, or nod and smile and make himself another cup of coffee. When I ran out of words, he'd lean forward and ask me something like: "what is the flower in the flowerpot outside your window saying?" He was speaking metaphorically, but for some reason it made me feel miserable. Probably cos I could never think of a good answer. "No worst!", he'd proclaim, referencing Gerald Manley Hopkins. Now and then, I'd ask a question or burst into tears.

Most evenings were taken up talking about his work-in-progress, a study of paideuma and the application of modus tollens to the mistake of humankind's situation of irony - me, lying on the floor, and he, sitting in the mobile home's only easy-chair. He did most of the talking, though it was difficult for him. A near-fatal stroke two years earlier had affected his speech. Waitresses and shopkeepers found it difficult to listen to him, mainly because it took him so long to get his words out. But I didn't mind. We joked about it. I told him how the stroke had finally slowed down his speech to the point where it approximated the speed of my brain. He'd type one-fingered during the day and present his "lecture" - usually a half-page of writing to me each evening, which he'd get me to read aloud prior to discussing it.

He'd write things like:

"Freedom is the name God hides behind. Its other name is Love, without action. Romantic love is abyss in the mind, [Gerard Manly] Hopkins' cliff from which you hang until you understand that LOVE is something you DO without action on your part. Until you understand that love is without action; the activity of love leads to lust in action... straight into a situation of IRONY... - see Shakespeare:

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjur'd, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and prov'd, a very woe;
Before, a joy propos'd; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

"There is no irony in love. If there is, there is no worst that can befall. The point where it is impossible to ask, Why? The absence of foundation or ground is the essence of love."

* * * * * * * * *

After I'd been at Ed's about a month, I came down with e-coli poisoning. Every night for a week, a huge clown with a spinning bow-tie appeared at the edge of my bed. We'd stare at one another, its head bobbing up and down like a giant inflatable out of some Gothic Easter Parade. And all the while, a million insistent voices bombarded me with questions, endless questions, as though I was the chief witness in some kind of monstrous inquisition. When it felt like my head was going explode, I'd scream: "Shut up! SHUT UP!", and everything would go quiet. Then... a voice... then another... and another, and soon they'd all be back again.

I didn't meet very many people during the four months I was there, though one of the poets I'd met during my stay in Paris, Will Staple, drove down from the mountains for a visit. He gave me copies of his two books, I Hate the Men You Sleep With and The Only Way to Reduce Crime Is to Make Fewer Acts Illegal. I'd heard some of his poems at Shakespeare & Co. when I'd been staying there, and had enjoyed them. Poems like...

"Eastern Mysticism"

what good did
getting up
every morning
at 5:30 to
meditate do?
your girlfriend
left you.

We spent the day together, and he invited me to come up and stay with him for a while in the Sierras, but I never took him up on it.

While I was in Santa Cruz, I went to several poetry readings. None were particularly memorable, though I did manage to lay to rest any remaining vestige of awe I might have still been harbouring concerning the so-called art of Beat poetry. One of the readings I attended featured Robert Creeley and the shopkeeper/poet, Larry Ferlinghetti. I use the diminutive of Lawrence because he impressed me as diminutive.

The first thing that surprised me about this duo was how they read mostly old stuff. Larry read from Pictures of a Gone World, which was more than forty years old; and Creeley wasn't much better. "Drive, he sd." They were like two, 50s rock'n'roll singers trotting out their greatest hits. They'd done it a million times. And they were doing it again, with as much enthusiasm as one would expect from someone who'd done it a million times.

To be fair, Creeley did have some new stuff, stuff he'd written at a writers' retreat in Key West. He mumbled something about Wallace Stevens speaking to him; or maybe what he meant was that Wallace Stevens was speaking through him, I can't remember. Whatever concordances there may have been between his new stuff and "The Idea of Order at Key West", were completely
obliterated by a rather hackneyed and overly cerebralised self-back-slapping nostalgia for lapping waves, endless beaches, and the good life 'mongst one's fellow writers. It was difficult deciding which image was least tired. All I could think about was how the ex-insurance salesman must have been spinning in his plot.

When the poems were done, the M.C. threw it open for questions from the floor. The place was packed with university students and a few of us who could actually remember when Jack Kerouac died. Hundreds of hands went up. Everyone had something they wanted to know. But unfortunately, the questions weren't much. No one asked: Why are you still reading old stuff? or When are you gonna write something about what's going on in your life now? For many of these kids, Creeley and Ferlinghetti hadn't really existed until they'd suddenly materialised in the lecture hall; for others, well, their reputation had preceded them - these were legends we were dealing with. So they got the sort
of treatment you'd expect from fans, rather than the engagement that might have been possible had there been enough lovers and doers of poetry to make it dramatic.

Instead of drama there were questions like: "Is it true that Kerouac wrote all of Mexico City Blues on pot?". And "Did Burroughs kill his wife by accident, or did he mean to do it?"

This went on for about thirty minutes, and I was on verge of leaving when a young woman over near the wall stood up and asked: "Mr Ferlinghetti, I've been writing poetry for about a year now, and I was wondering if you might be able to tell me what you think a person ought to know if they want to be a good poet?"

I couldn't believe my ears. A question! A real question! After all that prurient and predatory interest in Jack's drugs, Burroughs' crimes and Corso's gayness it was a sudden blast of bracing fresh air.

I looked towards the stage. Ferlinghetti grasped the side of the podium, staring hard at the women, as though she'd broken one of the rules of the game. He glanced at the M.C. (can you believe this?!), then sipped some water from a paper cup, ala e.e. cummings.

"Would you mind repeating the question?"

The audience burst into laughter, and the young woman looked round as if she'd committed a crime, or as if she was desperate to find some hole into which she might crawl.

"Good question," I interjected, wanting to let her know there was at least one person in the audience who was on her side.

"Well," she stammered... "I was, you know... I just wondered if... well, I dunno. What things are important to know... you know... if..."

"This is why I don't teach in a university," Larry said, playing to his audience. He beamed as they laughed uproariously.

"Answer the question," I yelled, but it was drowned out by heavings of deceit.

The young woman sat down.

"Just write... that's all," Larry said at last. And with that, the Q & A was over.

It took two months to regain my strength after the ecoli had done its work. During my convalescence, the long-awaited email arrived from Mexico, a brief note from Charles telling me that they'd received my Florentine missive and that the University of Sinaloa wanted to translate and publish one of my plays as well as a collection of poems, and that I oughta get down to San Miguel pronto.

NOTE: This article first appeared in "Performance Poetry", on May 15, 2001.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Whatever may have been the case in years gone by, the true use for the imaginative faculty of modern times is to give ultimate vivification to facts, to science, and to common lives, endowing them with the glows and glories and final illustriousness which belong to every real thing, and to real things only. – Walt Whitman

The Cambridge Dictionary tells us that the word, “documentary”, comes from the Latin "documentum" – meaning ‘a lesson, example, or warning’; from docere, which means ‘to teach’. But apart from those documentaries whose purpose it is to impart raw data in the form of techniques, methods and processes (e.g.: “how to build an ant farm”), what does the documentary – any documentary - offer by way of instruction?

In a word, it offers EVIDENCE; and when done well, it does so compellingly.

The art of documentary is the facility to compel an audience’s imaginative involvement with its subject by promoting an intellectual and emotional engagement with what is "actual" Whatever its subject matter, the dramatic documentary seeks to enlarge or enhance in its audience a more complete understanding and appreciation of actual people, places, and events, by making them as fully present as possible. Sometimes, as is the case with cinema verite, the documentarist assumes a “fly-on-wall” perspective, purportedly recording the life and living experience of its subject as it actually occurs, though the verite element – unless executed in secret – is often impacted or polluted by the presence of the filmmaker (“observer effect”), and almost always by the decisions that the filmmaker/editor makes in the edit suite.

Perhaps the simplest description that can be made concerning the documentary film is that it is the cinematic application or assignment of meaning to reality, in distinction to “fictional” narratives that tend to assign “reality” to meaning (premise/theme).

Because reality is essentially unknowable, people seek clues to it in the life around them. Documentary filmmakers tell their stories to make sense of their experience and of their feelings for that experience. However, there is also an ironic side to it. No doubt, the experience of making a documentary impacts upon the filmmaker’s understanding of that experience, but so too do the meanings that a filmmaker assigns to the film and its subject (his/her prejudices, assumptions, expectations and secondhand knowledge) determine the nature and variety of the evidence that is available and accessible to him/her.

There is also a sense in which one realizes that the most potent elements of any documentary are invisible. One might even go so far as to say that a filmmaker examines the visible in order to find the invisible; employing the sayable and heard in order to express the unsayable and unheard.

What is visible belongs to time and space – to history: the naked details of measurable actions and reactions as these are described and quantified by any sociologist, statistician or historian – but film documentary, when conceived and realized with the grammar relevant to drama, creates a sense of participation, involvement, and interaction by applying meaning to reality in the form of story. If a story is to be effective, however (i.e.: emotionally compelling and memorable) – indeed, one might say if it is to be a story at all! – it must not only be dramatic, but must also provide evidence – dramatic evidence – about something that actually matters.

In terms of documentary filmmaking, the filmmaker’s chief concern must be with is CONTENT, and content is “newsworthiness” – that is, any action (or series of actions) that is momentous, rare, or arresting.

As storytellers we are the custodians of many “dreamings”. Those dreamings that offer unusual insights and inspiration concerning who and what we are; that provoke ideas that impact on our well-being and the well-being of those with whom we identify, are newsworthy. They impel our sympathies and rouse our courage and curiosity. In short, they have value, offering lessons in living in the form of dramatic actions and events that show us what life is like - or has been like – and what it might become.

If a documentary is to compel our interest as well as our sympathies, the story finder/filmmaker will need to navigate the actual with some instinct for drama. He/she must be able to recognize it wherever it appears, in whatever guise, and enter it, re-construct it, and work with it, whilst all the time managing the anxieties created by its appearance and provocations. It is a task ill-suited to those who have little faith in “the withness of the Universe”.

As is nearly always the case, the primary issue at the heart of almost every dramatic story – including dramatic documentaries - involves a relationship, or several relationships, that provides the emotional context for the evidence presented, and whose ultimate success or failure commands our attention by provoking both hope and dread. Whether the focus is upon a family (Brother’s Keeper), an organization (Enron, the Smartest Guys in the Room), humanity's problematical and unpredictable associations and struggles with its surroundings (Up The Yangtze), or that complex web of dynamic conflict and collaboration by which the physical environment prospers or is impoverished (Darwin’s Nightmare), the dramatic documentary provides much more than the naked “facts”.

The dramatic presentation of evidence is the presentation of evidence embedded with problems, goals and plans, as expressed and given form in the living words and actions of those "characters" with whom the documentary is concerned.

As with other forms of drama, the central questions are: Who wants what? Why do they want it? Who (or what) is (or has been) stopping them from getting it, and why?

The issues raised by these questions and the strategies employed by the characters in order to solve or overcome the problems or opportunities with which they are faced, form the grammatical spine of every dramatic documentary. As the filmmaker uncovers the emotional energies that lie buried in the characters' needs, hopes and fears, the grammar facilitates in the apprehension of the emotional significance of the so-called facts, continually guiding both filmmaker and audience back to the impetus for action – to the characters’ needs and objectives, as well as the risks. It also assists the filmmaker in becoming ever more sensitive to the selection and rhythmic ordering of events, thus enabling the effective building of emotional energy. As is the case with any drama, as the emotional relevance of the evidence builds we begin to care about what we are seeing and hearing.
At the heart of every dramatic story is a problem or opportunity that must be overcome, addressed or exploited if one is to have a chance of achieving one’s goal. Stated in another way, the effective chronicling of relationships requires conflict or disconnection to make it newsworthy.

Conflict is what separates the dramatic documentary from home movies. In the dramatic documentary there is always something at risk. The higher the stakes the bigger the drama. Every dramatic rendering of factual events - in contradistinction to the "dramatized documentary" - works to draw the audience into the matrix of relationships, and thus, into an emotional relationship with those whose actions are driving the story. It is the drama that gives us a chance to identify with the characters, what they are doing, and what is happening to them.

Dramatic, factional storytelling, like fictional storytelling, requires characters that, in the act of grappling with a problem or opportunity of some magnitude, are actively pursuing a plan of action that will enable them to overcome their problem or seize and make a success of an opportunity. The key word here is “grappling”, because the quest must provide a challenge that includes risk, threat and the possibility of failure.

The quest need not be world-shattering. It can be intimate and thoroughly insidious as in the endless and subtle power struggles that transpire between mother and daughter in Grey Gardens. Or in the seemingly impossible quest for approval, partnership and love as presented in Sherman’s March. What is important is that the human or human-like characters are striving to attain perceivably important goals or objectives, whether it be to win a spelling bee (Spellbound), a court case (The Staircase), to get down a mountain (Touching the Void), or to help a disabled relative become independent (Best Boy). Unless there is someone in whom we can invest our hope and belief, someone who carries out the “good fight”, who risks all for justice, or truth or love, or life, there will be little reason to care.

In the film, Bus 174, a former street-kid bails up a city bus in Rio de Janeiro, taking a dozen hostages and demanding a weapon and a flight out of Brazil. The film presents not only the chronicle of the siege – one young man surrounded by hundreds of armed policemen and countless television cable news services – but also an intimate look at the life and times of the hostage-taker and the relationships and disconnections that led him to board bus 174 on that fateful day. What it shows us is a man in need of a gun and a ride out of down; what it conveys is how society makes victims out of what it perceives as its weakest, and how the absence of human understanding and love is the crime of the century, every century.

In 1947, Frederick Lewis Allen wrote: “One of the strangest things about the Depression was that it was so nearly invisible to the casual eye (and to the camera for that matter). To be sure, the streets were less crowded with trucks than they had been, many shops stood vacant… and chimneys which should have been smoking weren’t doing so. But these were all negative phenomena. There just didn’t seem to be many people about.” One could “almost feel” the Great Depression, but it was not something that you could automatically see, simply by gazing out your window.

We examine the visible to find the invisible, the sayable and heard in order to discover the unsayable and unheard.

The art of documentary is to make the invisible visible.

Films mentioned in this article and highly recommended::

Best Boy

Brother’s Keeper

Darwin’s Nightmare

Up the Yangtze


Bus 174

Touching the Void

Grey Gardens

Sherman’s March

The Staircase

Enron - The Smartest Guys in the Room

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Filmmaker, Steven Jennings, recorded this impromtu interview with Billy Marshall Stoneking in the upstairs corridor of Tolarno's Hotel, St Kilda, whilst the writer/producer/mentor was in Melbourne recently conducting one of his legendary screeenwriting workshops.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


“The second-handedness of the learned world is the
secret of its mediocrity.”
- Alfred North Whitehead

The spirit of creativity conveys a sense that anything worth doing is worth doing well, and that the achievement of excellence requires something more than a passing interest. Superficial observation wedded to a passive acceptance of conventional jargon and the uncriticised assumptions and prejudices that accompany reductive thought and its crystallisation into simplistic information systems may be enough to earn you a PhD from Oxford or Harvard, but they will not guarantee either the agility or connectedness that produces works of remarkable insight and originality.

“Happiness resides in swiftness of thought and feeling.”(1) A swift sureness inspires joy - the deft touch that is eternally fresh. Far from being bestowed by the Academy, these qualities are distrusted and feared by those who would exploit the scarcity of talent for their own reward.

If audience is the stubborn, creative adversary of the selective blindness that bedevils every assumption, prejudice, and choice made by a besieged screenwriter, then mediocrity is the besieged writer's most welcome companion, the secure and comforting reminder that one’s feet have never left the ground.

Where audience and tribe cajole great efforts in the face of eternal hopelessness, mediocrity is that sense of decorum and chauvinistic control that elevates mere effort above wonder, and makes a virtue of the obvious and insignificant at the expense of substance, passion, and inspiration.

Mediocrity is symptomatic of that pervasive human tendency to manipulate and subdue whatever forces or exigencies one imagines might threaten one’s security and comfort, the drive to serve one’s self at the expense of everything that is admirable. It manifests as a knee-jerk reflex founded upon the assumption that the writer is in control, that the screenwriter alone decides – the masterful puppeteer whose inveterate string-pulling invariably hangs him in the end. In seeking the apparent safety that such control seems to offer, the writer runs the risk of robbing the dramatic experience of its authenticity by employing strategies that rely almost exclusively on avoidance and denial.

Mediocrity is not a cause; it’s an effect - a virulent psychic cancer that opportunistically thrives whenever the dialogical relationships that vitalise and invigorate the creative odyssey are not present or have been abandoned or left to atrophy. In short, mediocrity is a manifestation of the writer/character’s inability or unwillingness to manage fear.

Fear accompanies every creative act; it is an essential ingredient of the dramatic experience. It is never a question of “how do I rid myself of it?” – for fear can never finally be banished from the creative quest – but rather, what is its proper function within the context of finding the story?

Interestingly, the word, ”mediocre”, has its origins in the world of mountains, and – one assumes – mountain climbing, as the Latin, mediocris, is derived from medius “middle” + ocris “jagged mountain”, thus suggesting someone or something that is halfway up or halfway down. The word, “mediocrity” first appears in 1531 in the Middle French, mediocrite, from the Latin (nom. Mediocritas), meaning “a middling condition” (e.g.: neither here nor there).

Growing up in the American public school system of the 1950s and 1960s, I was continually taught the value and importance of dedication, hard work, and good sportsmanship – qualities that proclaimed and defined the American way of life and those underlying ideals that had shaped and would continue to make the country great. Part of me always wondered what people in other places thought and felt, and whether they, too, had the same or similar beliefs. My parents rarely spoke about them, or if they did, it was done in a vague, unfocused kind of way. that made me imagine that As a kid growing up in the States after World War II, it was difficult imagining that America wasn’t the centre of the universe – and that those “others” couldn’t possibly be as “real” or as favoured as we were – or, at least, no more real than those naked tribal people marginalised in the pages of National Geographic, whose presence in the reading rack next to the toilet mutely validated the manifest destiny and pre-eminence of that “sweet land of Liberty”. Paul Goodman characterised the inculcation of such notions as “growing up absurd”. And it was so easy to do! At a very early age, without being aware of it, I had been informally enrolled in the school of mediocrity.

When considered in relation to mediumistic, dramatic screen storytelling, mediocrity is symptomatic of the writer’s inability or unwillingness to form intimate, workable relationships with the characters that are necessary for finding the story, including the writer’s relationship with him/herself. The usual cause of this inability or failure of will is the uncriticised belief – on the part of the screenwriter/character – that he/she is in charge of the drama. In this way, mediocrity masks a pervasive chauvinism that makes it impossible for the characters to operate freely and openly and to forge authentic relationships with one another.

The underlying wisdom of all dramatic action is founded in the characters and their relationship to one another, as expressed through what they do and say, both inside and “outside” the script. The problem with mediocrity is: it doesn’t take anything seriously except itself, certainly not the characters who, when they are in its thrall, little more than markers whose actions serve only to express the obvious.

Mediocre writing, as Faulkner rightly characterised it, is writing “not of the heart but of the glands”.(2) It involves the seduction of the writer into the delusion of discovery accompanied by the unpaid-for satisfaction one commonly derives from believing one has engaged with the characters when all one has really done is encountered one’s own inertia fuelled by laziness, boredom, fear or whatever need is peculiar to one’s temperament. There is security in inertia and its steady predictability, as well as a semblance of control - an irony to be sure, seeing as how its source is the avoidance and denial of authentic emotion.

What one must finally understand is that we are not the masters of drama or dramatic screen storytelling – we are its characters: dramatis personae, audience, tribe and screenwriter. If character-driven drama is to mean anything at all it must take all these “players” into account, and find the means to liberate them, to allow them to do the work (read: action) that is their story, that is their meaning.

The quest to free drama from the grip of ignorance and unacted fear and desire is the quest for the heart of one’s own true story – “the dreaming” that is one’s own true character and the forging of one’s truest and most authentic relationship with every other character that in concert wit oneself enacts the story of one’s becoming.

(1) Rainer Maria Rilke. The Duino Elegies, Faber. (Stephen Spender translation)

(2) From William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech, December, 1950.

Monday, September 7, 2009


 An Ecology of Dramatic Screen Storytelling

"Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of deeply felt needs and the assuagement of pain. One has to keep this constantly in mind…”

- Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions

The empirical investigation and extrapolation of an organism’s relationship with its physical environment is preeminently the domain of the science of ecology. The identification of ecological fields are expressible as sets of dynamic, vital relationships occurring as natural processes that affect the sustainability of all members operating within that system. While the value and scientific usefulness of such investigations is undeniable, the application of an ecological model to areas of human endeavour not previously interpreted in ecological terms is also capable of producing a number rather unusual and useful insights that are both surprising and illuminating. This is particularly the case when it comes to dramatic, screen storytelling as experienced by the storyteller in the act of finding “the drama”.

In seeking to uncover and examine the ecological dynamic of the set of “natural” relationships that define and vivify the dramatic adventure, one must first assume a process or number of processes in which mutually generating and mutually sustaining sets of identifiable activities are taking place. In terms of the processes relevant to the finding and realisation of dramatic screen stories, these will involve all the conventional considerations of genre, plot, character development, and theme, as well as the dialogical experience, internal and external to the actual screenplay.

Because these primary relationships operate as essential elements in the composition of every dramatic story system, one might posit, at least heuristically, that the way in which these agents transact and transfer emotional energy between and amongst themselves determines the nature and emotional quality of the underlying dialogic, as well as the potency or otherwise of the story-being-found. Ultimately, their meaning and value resides in the expression and appreciation of a dramatically viable screen story.

We can assume that great stories do not happen by accident. They can no more arise from dead matter than maggots spring spontaneously from rotting meat. Nor will an infinite number of monkeys sitting in a room with an infinite number of laptops ever reproduce the classics, though they might come up with “To be or not to be, that is the Gazornin Plan”.(1)

The process of finding the story-that-wants-to-get-itself-told is the outcome of a series of intuitive, intricate and intimate mental and emotional adjustments and re-adjustments transpiring empathetically between and among ALL of the story agents (read: “characters”), including the dramatis personae, the storyteller/s, the audience and the tribe, as they confront and struggle with their anxieties in their quest to grow and overcome and heal. Every effective screenplay owes its development and final realisation to these interactions and to the symbiotic relationships that are forged and sustained as a result of the shareable or dialogical nature of the mediumistic, story-finding enterprise. Considered in this light, it is not such a great leap to suggest that what we have here is something approximating a working ecology.

All dramatic stories involve “findings”. The characters in the script find what they need to restore order or love or trust, while the screenwriter struggles through draft after draft to discover why he/she is writing the script to begin with. The best stories impact their audience by virtue of a series of inter-related acts of discovery made by the characters (including the storyteller) AND the audience. Each act of discovery tends to build energy or interest by keeping the energy viable and continuously moving throughout the life of the story. An ecology of dramatic storytelling must necessarily posit this inter-dependance; indeed, the characters require each other if the actions they take are to make any sense whatsoever.

In terms of the evolving screenplay, dramatic choices and actions are largely determined and bounded by the societal, cultural, political, economic, legal and/or spiritual contexts in which the actions of the characters are set. These circumstances can be the source of both positive and negative forces affecting the emotional well-being of the characters. They provide the basis or ground for the dramatic problem or opportunity that will goad the characters into dramatic action. For dramatic action to be credible (clearly motivated) the characters’ circumstances must in some way be jeopardised or challenged by the presence of something they have not previously encountered. Whether it be the report of a dead body (as in Stand By Me) or a severe and grave threat to their existence, or the existence of loved ones, as in Deliverance or John Ford’s The Searchers, dramatic characters are stimulated into action by problems that cannot be ignored and will not go away. A dramatic problem carries with it a sense of urgency, and prompt action not only from the characters inside the screenplay but also from those who have a stake in what those characters do. One might say that the characters inside the screenplay are not the only characters whose attitudes, hopes and fears prompt action.

Ecologically speaking, dramatic stories are environments in which storytellers, characters, audiences and tribes meet and address one another within the context of a narrative founded upon the purposeful actions and interactions of characters grounded in an emotionally charged and tribally based logic that operates by way of cause and effect. The logic presumes a set of identifiable circumstances that provide the contextual basis for the characters’ actions. Stanislavski referred to these as “the given circumstances” – the totality of necessary assumptions a dramatist makes concerning the world that the characters inhabit. One cannot hope to enter the drama so long as one refuses to enter into a relationship with the environments that define and condition the scope and value of every character’s actions.

And just as the characters inside the script’s story-world possess “given circumstances”, so too do their “external” partners – namely the storyteller, the audience and the tribe – possess their equivalent “tribal circumstances”. Naturally, in the process of finding the story, it is necessary that the screenwriter work from a vantage point that is connected to or affiliated with one or more of the tribal groups whose story is being told.

Taken together these circumstances provide the impetus for the meaning and nuance of the emotional energy generated within each scene and between one scene and the next, as well as in the transformation or modulation of this energy as it flows sequentially from one scene to another throughout the entire narrative. The given circumstances constitute the elemental dramatic forces operating within the story world, and play an essential – though oft times overlooked - role in the ecology and, ultimately, the dramatic intensity of the story.

Despite the innumerable variety of possible story-worlds, what is common to all is the dynamic flow of energy by which a story moves and lives, conducted by a series of inter-related and highly intuitive transactions amongst all the agents of change, set within a logical, coherent and necessary set of preexisting conditions.

As I have said, a story is never a given. Its life begins as a potentiality, and very often remains a potentiality, especially if the natural interplay of dramatic forces is stymied or interrupted by the imposition of choices and actions that abuse or disrespect the story’s essential ecology.

In the name of clarity and market forces, a story’s nature is nominally referenced in terms of genre; however, the deep structure of any story – its inner workings and un-workings – is not so easily pigeonholed, nor should the application of genre inhibit or otherwise constrain the creative filmmaker. To be limited by such phenotypes runs contrary to the range of possibilities and adventures that genre considerations invite us to explore and experience. One could say we have lived with genres long enough to realise that they were invented to be re-invented or even transcended; and that this is always possible so long as the filmmaker understands the nature of the form and the grammar with which he/she is playing. All that one can say with any certainty is that in drama, action IS nature, and nature is change; and that fresh and credible change is unlikely short of an intuitive and empathetic understanding of the story’s ecological nature.

Any passionate screenwriter with a modicum of talent and an obsession for finding the drama will, like some driven protagonist in quest of a seemingly impossible goal, fight the fight, which is ultimately a very personal struggle against those self-imposed demons that are the writer’s own expectations, prejudices, and unspoken fears. Writing this, I can almost hear the howls of derision from those whose university courses and creative writing teachers offer faint-hearted training in all the by-products of story. In my experience, Story already exists - in Eternity - and the job of the storyteller is to find a way of getting close enough to it to actually hear it, and letting it become and find its way unhampered by the insecurities that the writer – that all writers – harbour; to bring it down to Earth so that it can more easily be heard and seen by one’s audience.

In the beginning one proceeds with little more than a shred of an idea, an experience, a smell, the hope that something might be found – but even these are not enough if one places too great a reliance upon one’s intellect. The ecological coding of each story is far too intricate and complex for the mind to navigate it with one’s intelligence alone. If one is to trek into the heart of a story one must conceive of the journey as a work of love. In other words, one must become part of it.

Stories are living creatures, but only for those who do not feel the need to kill them in the act of writing them down. The inhabitant of Chestnut Ward still warns us over decades: “with usura hath no man a good house.” (2)

Built in to the imaginative structure of every story’s potentiality is an impulse for its own conservation. Indeed, every story worth telling seems possessed of some kind of organic mechanism for preserving its own integrity. This is evidenced, in part, by the experience of every writer that has laboured over a story enough to discover that it contains a profound and seemingly impenetrable core that is not easily entered - a hidden truth or value that, if it is to be fully realised, must be suffered over and fought for. You can take from a story whatever you like, so long as you pay for it. And a story, like a good writer, possesses its own in-built crap detecting device for weeding out its serious suitors from those who merely wish to exploit it for their own ends.

Every great drama exacts its own price. It will not be farmed, or manipulated, or otherwise abused without incurring such damage as to lose its identity entirely. One must pay for everything one finds. Conceivably, the most “expensive” might even cost you your life, and if one is to pass somewhat unscathed from the profane (mediocrity) into the sacred (originality). one must find the appropriate forms of supplication.

One could say that a story’s intrinsic potency is protected by a veil, and that this veil is the most singular and profound artefact of its ecology of any screenplay-in-the-finding. This veil, or self-conserving “instinct”, operates in conjunction with the storyteller, the audience and the tribe in concealing the story’s essence – its source and power – from anyone who would seek to employ it for selfish or unworthy ends. Interestingly, every story worth telling has as part of its ecology this self-preserving faculty.

The best way to observe the ecology of a dramatic story is by actually entering into and becoming a part of those interactions by which and through which one finds it. As a mere observer you may experience some kind of passive appreciation for what is there, but when you actively enter the fray and live with the characters and their desires and frustrations for weeks, months or even years, you begin to gain some insight into the organic quality and operation of that rich and often sublime matrix of energies that is the dramatic experience. As you do so you, begin to realise that the story itself has a will of its own, a will to be told; and not only that, but a will to be told in a way that is true to itself, even when this is contrary to the expectations and prejudices of the storyteller.

An effective storyteller is one that has grappled with, and endured, frustration and enough fear to be possessed of a willingness to listen to what the story wants to say quite contrary to whatever plans or insecurities the storyteller in his/her anxiousness may have desired to impose on it. As a story is allowed to become its own “person”, the essential ecology that regulates the interactions between all of the agents in the storytelling enterprise is ever more clearly grasped and appreciated. In ascertaining and respecting the story’s essential integrity, one frees it to become a more active, intimate and vivid interlocutor whose dramas are played out both within and around the actual artefact that is the screenplay itself.

The most significant consequence of this freeing of the drama is the storyteller’s unavoidable encounter with what I some times refer to as “the unresolvable problem”, but for the sake of brevity shall henceforth be referred to simply as “The Wall”.

To confront The Wall is to face the story at the epicenter of its being. It is the focus of the inescapable initiation ceremony that every story worth telling requires of its storyteller if he/she is to find and ultimately reveal (or make present) the essential secret/sacred lore that fuels and sustains the active power of the story-being-found.

In acknowledging this phenomenon, Cassavetes stated one of the more sublime truths of dramatic, screen storytelling, namely that “film-making is about asking questions concerning things for which one has no answer, while holding (oneself) tenderly open, ready to come across new questions at any moment.” (3)

While every dramatic story worth telling harbours within its becoming a series of obstacles and complications that the script’s characters must navigate with some degree of ingenuity and unexpectedness, the experience of The Wall is an altogether different kind of experience, both in degree and in its ability to derail the entire enterprise. Standing inexorably between the storyteller and his/her understanding of the story’s final cause or purpose, The Wall defies thought and application of any method to its ultimate solution. It is not susceptible to thinking. Thinking is its friend. If you can think of some way of getting around it or through it, you’re wrong. You cannot think your way around The Wall. It is not about thinking. If you think you’re wrong.

To THINK up a solution only robs the drama of its native integrity and authenticity. Thought, too readily tied to the past and past experiences, invariably leads the screenwriter into imposing actions derived from already existing stories. This is the essence of formulistic storytelling; and the uncritical adherence to any formula constantly runs the risk of transforming the narrative from a genuine exploration of a character’s fears, needs and choices – as expressed in dramatic actions – to a plot driven machine in which the central concern of the storyteller is to neatly hit every relevant plot target so as to effect a transition from a beginning to a middle to an end. To operate in this way invariably produces a story that is either predictable or stale; for is the storyteller is able to think up a solution to The Wall, then there is every likelihood that the audience will be able to do so as well.

When one arrives at The Wall one arrives at the “question for which one has no answer”, which is the singular means by which every dramatic story protects and conserves its most powerful and transformative energy. The Wall is the last test of both the characters’ and the storytellers’ ingenuity; it is the sacred initiation into the final meaning and truth towards which the actions of all the characters have been leading - the final artefact under-scoring the unassailable nature of creation – the act of discovery or inspiration that no amount of learning (or thinking) can manufacture except in facsimile.

In the process of finding a powerful and fully realised dramatic story one experiences the equivalent of the “long dark night of the soul” and proceed without knowledge or any guarantees that one will ever find one’s way to the other side. Great and timeless stories – stories that live and move audiences – will not be used or appropriated in the name of money or fame, and they contain within their innate organic processes the means to block every predator who would think or act otherwise.

As an audience, our ability or willingness to care must be built on something more palpable and enduring than sentimentality. The sentiment that drives a character to action must be authentic, and enlivened by an emotional intelligence which we – the audience – admire and might seek to emulate. We are much more prepared to form an emotional connection with a character whose actions evidence resiliency and ingenuity than we are with a character that merely wants to avoid trouble because it makes him feel uncomfortable. The Wall offers both a challenge and an opportunity to discover what is fresh and unexpected.

Character-based screen stories are always subject to – and not uncommonly subverted by – the needs and fears of those who tell them, namely, screenwriters, directors, producers, and others, whose extra-narrative agendas sometimes work to confound or distort the story and the story-finding process in ways that trivialise those emotional energies that might otherwise encourage, motivate and empower the characters. There are no handy methods or sure-fire techniques for dealing with these fears and anxieties. The application of method – as has already been suggested - can itself become an expression of fear; and if allowed to operate unchecked and uncriticised will constantly stand between the storyteller and the story that is seeking to get itself told.

The Wall is the means by which a dramatic story initiates a story-seeker into a story-finder. It is the final initiation and obstacle that every storyteller must face and deal with if the story is to give up its secrets.

The Wall, or the unresolvable problem, is organic to the essential logic and grammar of dramatic storytelling. It proceeds from the dynamic nature of the dramatic quest, which requires the characters to act in the face of increasing urgency and risk, under growing threat to their well-being. For a story to be effective, there must always be the possibility of failure or unexpected calamity; whatever opposes the main character/s must be formidable enough for both the audience and the storyteller to fear that it may be insurmountable, making impossible for the protagonist to ever attain his/her ultimate goal or objective.

Problem, goal, plan - as each new plan for overcoming the problem fails, a new plan must be devised, and each new plan in turn must fail if the story is to go on building the sort of emotional energy that will keep the audience emotionally involved in the protagonist’s quest. Eventually, the challenge to overcome the forces of opposition becomes so great it appears that there is no way out, no way of continuing the fight short of repeating what one has already done. When one arrives at this juncture – when the character and the storyteller arrive at this seemingly unresolvable problem – everything stops. The writer looks at the character and asks: “What’re you gonna do now?” And the character looks back, and says, “I dunno. You’re the writer; what’re you going to do?” When this happens, one has reached The Wall. Interestingly enough, the wall is where the real writing begins – if one has the courage and stamina for it.

So what is one to do?

For many writers, what they do is look at another screenplay whose characters faced a similar or approximate problem, and they make their characters do what those characters did. This is common in the world of high concept filmmaking, where spectacular effects and archetypal conflicts are devised to make up for whatever is lacking in genuine dramatic passion and originality of vision.

A less common alternative is to THINK your way out of the problem. What would I do? The screenwriter asks, and if his/her own life is anything to go by they usually opt for the least dramatic alternative. But even when the screenwriter dares to be dramatic, this is seldom if ever a satisfactory solution because if YOU can think of it, so can your audience; and if they’re able to see it coming – which they probably can – then they’re way ahead of the game and the screenplay again fails by virtue of its predictability.

Successful screenplays succeed because of the authentic discoveries they allow both the storyteller and the audience to make. Surprise is “the magic” that makes the difference between mediocrity and freshness.

But if thought promotes predictability and formula leads to staleness, how is one to confront and successfully navigate The Wall? The answer is graphically illustrated in Escher’s famous “Print Gallery”, which depicts a kind of mobius journey through a European print gallery with no way out, only an area of bright, white light at its centre. Have a look at it.

The screenwriter facing The Wall is like a fly that has flown into a fly-bottle – a large glass container with a very small entrance and the promise of free space all around, except one is separated from it by impenetrable glass.

What one must do is think. Think up something, anything that the character might do to resolve or overcome the unresolvable problem. Write it down in script form. Commit to it as you write; make it convincing, using every bit of talent you have, and when it is down, go for a walk, clear your mind, forget about it for a few hours or a day (if you can). Then come back to it, read it critically, from the vantage point of your audience. It doesn’t work, does it? And you can hear it, you can see it -, and you can see why.

So think of something else, and commit to that and write it out, using all your ingenuity as a writer to make it work, and then go for a walk, or a drive. When you come back it – as audience – you’ll see that his doesn’t work either. And so you think up something else, and the process repeats and repeats and repeats, and every notion is written out and examined later, and nothing you write down works.

Eventually, depending on how many possibilities you can think up, you will come to the realisation that you can’t think yourself over The Wall. This is no mere intellectualisation; it is an existential fact that threatens your very identity and existence. Metaphorically at least there will be much gnashing of teeth and eyeball rolling; maybe you’ll throw yourself in front of a bus, or wind up homeless, living in the street, or maybe you’ll just abandon the project altogether and resume your job as a copywriter. Or perhaps the long dark night of the soul, which is the task of The Wall, will cause you to abandon all belief in what you think you know – perhaps, in one blinding moment of insight you will acknowledge that you know nothing at all. When you can do that, when you can manage that apparent nothingness (a nothingness illustrated by the central white “light” in Escher’s “Print Gallery”) you have arrived at that place where you have the first and last best chance of hearing your characters, and of them hearing you. “Hey,” they whisper to one another, “maybe this writer really is committed to finding our story – maybe we should take pity on him/her”. And then, from the depths of nothingness, one looks again at the characters and their desires and one notices something one has never seen before. The way around The Wall becomes vividly clear, and the solution or course of action for which one has been searching, is revealed in all its obviousness and simplicity.

The way through or over or around The Wall is always simple; when one finally sees it, it is obvious. It stares one in the face, so that one is inclined to ask; why didn’t I see it before? One is overcome with the realisation that The Wall was never in the script to begin with. It was in YOU, in those prejudices and assumptions and expectations you brought with you from the very beginning into the process of finding the story. Some of the assumptions had their use and permitted you to enter and successfully navigate parts of the story world you were seeking, but many of your most cherished and uncriticised prejudices were not only irrelevant but actually prevented you from penetrating into the unique nature of the story you sought. As the emotional energies of the characters’ actions became more intense, these prejudices and assumptions reached critical mass, creating a blockage that metaphorically stood like a wall between you and the final important discoveries that carried and conveyed the ultimate meaning and power of the story adventure.

The drama, if it is to happen, occurs both inside and outside the script. Both the audience and the screenwriter-as-character are adversaries insofar as their expectations, fears and prejudices, subvert or trivialise the story. The ecology forged by the dynamic inter-play of these characters in their interaction with both the dramatis personae and the relevant tribes that speak through these characters provides the coherent and natural system out of which The Wall is formed and operates as the final provocation of authentic discovery. The Wall is the final test of faith concerning the storyteller’s readiness and worthiness to reveal the secrets that lie buried in the hearts of the characters. It is both an obstacle and – if one acts in good faith and with courage – a promise of the exhilaration that accompanies the experience of originality. It is the final initiation ceremony into the sacred lore of the story that one has been looking for – the story behind the story, if you like – that last crucible through which ALL the characters must pass if are to be fully born, alive and forever free. It is only when the storyteller is surprised by what he/she finds on the journey that the audience has a chance of being surprised. The Wall is the means by which ingenuity, originality – and, indeed, the experience of discovery – enter the story and make it eternally fresh.

(1) From a comedy sketch by Bob Newhart, as performed on The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart

(2) Ezra Pound. From The Cantos. Faber.

(3) John Cassavetes, quoted by Ray Carney in “Non-contemplative Art: Thinking in Time, Space, and the Body”, from The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies (Cambridge University Press)

Monday, August 17, 2009

THE ART OF PITCHING: There must be BLOOD, but it needn't be a blood sport

PITCH SPORTZ is a radical and exciting workshop that provokes and inspires filmmakers to find and employ their own, unique characters and styles in preparing and presenting the best possible pitch for their scripts and film projects.

The first incarnation of this workshop happened on Sunday, 16 August, 2009 - and from the response and excitement generated among its participants, there will definitely be more.

While the experience is still fresh in my mind I thought it might be useful to mention some of the issues that arose from the presentations and interactions that occurred.

Pitching can be a rather dreaded and unnerving activity for most of us. The idea of fronting up to someone and telling them how great one's story is can seem at times almost unAustralian. The diffidence with which one navigates the cool hipness of the so-called film scene frequently conspires against the expression of genuine emotion or personal committment.

A script or story idea may have much to recommend it, but if the screenwriter, director or producer is unable for whatever reason to imaginatively and succinctly conduct the listener/investor/production comany into the core emotional experience that the film offers, the script or project may never have its time in the sun.

The first and most important thing you need to understand is that you are NOT selling a script - or rather a collection of words ABOUT a script; you are selling a character - and that CHARACTER is YOURSELF.

When Kurt Vonnegut was voted into the Academy of American Authors he was asked to give a speech. Omn the night he sat up on the dais nervously riffling through the pages of what he was going to say. A colleague who worked for the Academy, who was sitting next to him, turned and asksed what he was doing. ""Just making some last minute corrections in what I'm going to say," Vonnegut replied. "Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," his friend said; "they're not interested in what you say, so much as what you are."

One could equally apply this wisdom to the art of the pitch. It's the characters, stupid! and YOU are the CHARACTER! As a character you are addressing an audience. The words you employ to communictae your ideas may certainly be relevant and useful, but on their own they won't
be enough. What they are looking for is not something that you or anyone else can easily put into words - something extra is required - that secret ingrediant that is some times referred to as charisma or spontaneity. Really it is about you - the ego with all of its anxieties and negativities - getting out of the way. "Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still."

The greatest pitcher is like a jazz musician through which a great riff drives the action - improvisional, fluid, unafraid and living dangerously - and above all - fresh. Alive. Inspiring!

So here are some questions/tips that may be helpful in organising your thoughts and, and helping you develop a strategy for creating a fresh and successful pitch.

You might also want to bring your pitch along to the next PITCH SPORTZ workshop and test it out in the arena... But for a start, you might ask yourself:

What is it? (your project - genre, style, medium, etc)

Who is it for? (at whom is your project aimed?)

What sort of experience do you want your audience to have… and why is it important?

What other shows is it like?

What makes it UNIQUE?

What is the HOOK? Does it have a hook?

Why do you LOVE it? Show us the love!

Remember : When you pitch you are both CASTING AGENT and CHARACTER.

Cast the character that is appropriate to the pitch. The well-cast “character” is that part of you that can most effectively present (make present) the energies inherent in the project.

Memorise the pitch – don’t read it.

If you use AV aids make sure they are appropriate. Don’t bring in polaroids to hold up if they can’t be seen.

Don’t race through what you have to say – pace and timing speak volumes as to your
feelings concerning what you are pitching. The truth is always in the SUBTEXT.

Don’t give us the impression that you want to get to the end as quickly as possible. We will begin to doubt your commitment and love for the project.

Make sure the combination of YOUR CHARACTER and YOUR PROJECT are Credible – if you're pitching a show about a funny, quick-paced and original comedy series, don’t do it in an unfunny, plodding and stale manner. We won’t believe you!

Never apologise! I don't care what you MEANT to do, only what you actually DO!


NOTICE: For more information about the Art of the Pitch, go to

Friday, August 14, 2009


The poet, Muriel Rukeyser, once said: “the world is made of stories, not atoms”. You don’t have to be a poet to understand this. Have a look around.

Stories are a force of nature - the source and outcome of every birth, death, dream and transformation. They are Nature’s way of becoming conscious of itself. Indeed, our humanity and inhumanity is grounded in them, tangled in the mystery of “how come?”, and the suspense of “what now?” When one works with story, especially in the alchemical realm of cinema – that modern-day campfire that calls us to re-imagine humanity’s strengths and weaknesses - it makes us more conscious of ourselves... and of each other.

The films you are about to experience are a testament to a creative and collaborative exploration made by a diverse group of individuals into the nature and meaning of their tribal origins.

Some of them have never made a film before. But for all of them, the challenge was to find a way – their own way – of presenting their tribal identity – of making what they are vivid and present to others.

Each film in its own way expresses an essence – a source that identifies the filmmaker and the filmmaker’s idea of his or her tribal connections. They are like cinematic calling cards that show rather than tell what a person is, so what you will see and hear is not so much WHO these filmmakers are, but WHAT they are. In their origins they belong to tribes, to those others that have come before – the Ancestors, if you like – as well as all those that will come afterwards. The acknowledgement of this essential continuity is the realisation that to be is to be part of a tribe. No man is an island. And no woman either.

The way in which each film has been made, and ultimately its style - is just as significant as what it actually says. If a film seems like a work-in-progress, look again – it’s not because it is unfinished, but because the filmmaker’s life is itself a work-in-progress.

Each of us has his or her origins - the places from whence we have sprung – geographically, culturally, politically and spiritually. As storytellers we are the carriers of the wisdom and the follies of our tribes. They speak through us, and live by virtue of our re-membering them. And by their grace and the stories they have told us, our lives are made that much richer and more meaningful.

Finally, let me say how much I appreciate those who participated in the first Canberra Tribal Workshop, including Adrian – the person that made it all happen, who attended every session with just as much passion as any of the participants.

Thank you all for your trust, your common sense, your generosity, honesty and talent. It was, for me – as it always is – an extremely moving experience, seeing the courage, good humour, tolerance and resiliency with which each one of you navigated your own fears and each other’s differences

And thank you also for revealing something quite profound – the fact that what we have in common is so much more powerful and than what separates us.

When we work from our origins – when we have the courage and care of showing one another the sources of our BEING - we begin to recognise and appreciate how the source for each one of us is the same source for all of us – an insight we overlook at our collective peril. Thank you.