Wednesday, January 27, 2010


an experiment in Feature Development

Screens at Okanagan International Film Festival
9:00 pm - July 23, 2010



Special Jury Prize
Monaco Charity Film Festival, May 2010

Best Work-in-Progress Short
Soho International Short Film Festival, 2010

The short film, Defect, was produced as part of the script development phase of a character-based feature film to be shot in 2010 on location in the Czech Republic and Australia. Whilst Defect is essentially a "work-in-progress" it has nevertheless managed to get itself invited to Swansea, Monaco and NYC's Soho International Film Festival, owing to the fact that it presents a succinct, self-contained and thoroughly dramatic story that adheres to the fundamental grammar of short-form drama, with the re-contextualisation of the problem at the end.  (see STORY - the Long and the Short of It on this BLOG)

In the course of writing, casting, rehearsing, shooting and editing Defect, the director and I (the film's writer/co-producer) had an opportunity to enter into an extremely intimate relationship with the characters - characters embodied by actors that spoke not in written language but in actual speech with its nuances, tonalities and rhythms. As a result, we were able to more effectively engage with and explore the various emotional complexities and ambiguities inherent in the characters and their relationships, whilst gaining valuable insights into a number of thematic and stylistic issues that were not altogether apparent in the written screenplay.

The exploration of character and situation by means of ALL the tools of the cinematic storytelling enterprise has opened up the on-going script development process, and re-vivified the filmmakers' interactions with characters. What is most interesting is how the sequence that appears in Defect has been transformed in the feature script because of what was learned during the process of writing, casting, shooting and editing a section of the feature script. The transformation of this particular sequence - as evidenced by subsequent re-writes of the feature script - provides compelling evidence concerning the efficacy of this kind of dramatic examination of character and story prior to actual production.

Interacting with characters in this way - with bodies and voices, with mise en scene, and the rhythms inherent in character actions and interaction, and the tracking of these energies through coverage and editing preliminary to actually producing a major film - is the kind of thing I have been advocating for years in various film schools - alas, to no avail (so far). It has always seemed to me that one must employ ALL of the tools at hand in the process of finding the characters. This is the great unheeded message of the new technology.This clip - which features a brief introduction by the director, Zdenka Simandlova as well as a trailer of the short, Defect - forms part of the press kit that will accompany the short to the SIFF.

The trailer in a slightly modified form will also be part of the script package that we give to prospective production companies and executive producers - a "window" into the world of the feature, BREAKING BREAD. Viewers should note that, apart from anything else, the present clip demonstrates the power of a well-made trailer, and how even this form of storytelling employs the grammar of drama in order to make its point.
Anyone out there wanna start a radical, new film school? Let's talk.

Official Selection : Monaco Charity Film Festival, 2010  -  Winner, Special Jury Prize
Official Selection: Soho International Film Festival, 2010 - Winner Best Work-in-Progress shortOfficial Selection: Swansea Bay Film Festival, 2010


My producer, Billy Marshall Stoneking, has said: “Dramatic stories explore the causes and consequences of anxiety."

The characters in Defect struggle to contain and alleviate their fears and anxieties in the face of an oppressive regime that threatens their very lives. It dramatises the meaning of their fear and anxiousness by showing us the consequences of the decisions that the main character makes in order to escape the injustice he and his lover suffer. In the world of the story, moment-to-moment decisions made by the characters have tremendous impact on both individuals as well as whole families.

The story focuses on a couple’s attempt to defect. Full of uncertainty regarding who they can trust, they wait for the promised lift that will take them over the border to safety, and as they wait the tension builds. An unexpected visitor is all it takes to tip the entire siuation over the edge.

Defect is a very personal story to me - a "tribal story" as Billy Marshall Stoneking - the writer/co-producer of Breaking Bread - might say. I wanted to tell the story of not one, but many people from my home country, Czechoslovakia, that attempted to do something about their living conditions in a society that, although it called itself 'the rule of people without the social structure', was in fact ruled by a few who by theft became rich, calling themselves Communists, and whose rule was kept alive by the fear spread by their State Police (secret police, StB) apparatus, who exercised violence and a net of informers to catch and punish the ones who disobeyed or attempted to escape.

My collaboration with Billy has helped me appreciate the importance of drama, and to see that dramatic screen stories are tribal stories, told by "mediums" who are either part of - or have been initiated into - the tribes whose stories are being told. It has also given me an opportunity to explore film in a much more intuitive way than I had been taught at film school. More than casting, more than coverage, beyond shot lists and working with actors, I have come to see that a good director initiates the non-initiated - cast, crew and audience - into the tribal world of the story. To do this, a director must be involved emotionally involved with the characters. I would even go so far to say that everyone on the set should be emotionally involved with characters, so long as they are the same characters.

Defect, my second short, marks the beginning of an exploratory journey in the development of the feature film project, Breaking Bread. A third short, Trust, extends this exploration and was also invited to screen at Monaco.

Zdenka Simandlova

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


In his marvellous book, On Love, the philosopher, Ortega y Gasset, writes: “…desire automatically dies when it is fulfilled; it ends with satisfaction. Love, on the other hand, is eternally unsatisfied. Desire has a passive character; when I desire something, what I actually desire is that the object come to me. Being the center of gravity, I await things to fall down before me. Love… is the exact reverse… for Love is all activity… It does not gravitate toward me, but I toward it.”

Without intending to, Gasset articulates a rather unexpected and startling insight concerning the nature of drama and dramatic storytelling.

Several years ago, a writing student that came to me complaining bitterly about the screenwriting course at AFTRS with its emphasis on miserable characters loaded down with problems and fears. She couldn’t understand why so much importance was being placed upon what she termed their “nasty behaviour”. “Why can’t we write about happy things?” she asked. “Why can’t we write about what’s good in the world, and about people who love one another and get along?”

It wasn’t the sort of question I had ever been asked, let alone one I would’ve ever anticipated. But there it was. And though I can’t remember exactly what it was I said in reply, I’m sure it had something to do with the primordial nature of human existence – that final fact of being, which is pure anxiety.

Fact is, “things fall apart” – we fall apart, or merely fall - from grace, from youth, from one relationship into the next, from jobs, from health, from life itself. To exist is to encounter hazards, and what one does in the face of hazard seems to be eternally fascinating and entertaining to most humans.

Drama cannot exist if characters aren’t involved in hazardous activities, whether they be physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual. To be is to be anxiously (and urgently) engaged in the pursuit of something that carries risk; this is the essence of dramatic action. But it can’t be thoughtless or stupidly reckless. When the pursuit is motivated by something that allows us to feel emotionally connected to the characters, the drama becomes real. And the bigger the risk, the more we care, the greater our involvement.

You don’t have to be Australian to be drawn to characters who make great efforts in the face of eternal hopelessness. That’s what great dramatic characters do, even when – sometimes – they are their own worst enemies.

The acts of characters are almost always eloquent and attractive to us when they are acts of love. Not love in any conventional sense, not romantic love – but the kind of love of which Gasset speaks when he talks about love as “…power, a vestige of energy”; the love that weeps for humankind's unnamed, unrealised possibilities, that encourages neither indifference nor passive repugnance in the face of deception (evil), but a conscientious striving to recollect that which has been forgotten, to reform that which has been fragmented, to revivify that which the eyes no longer see and the ears no longer hear, even unto death. Such a love cannot be equated with simple-minded happiness. Dramatic characters will sacrifice life itself for their love of country, family, friends.

Love is the gravity by which all things fall to earth, giving back to the source that which was taken from it. One merges into the other, and the other merges into us. It is a merging that happens both inside and outside the script.

The dramatic journey within the script is the merging of the characters with one another and with their objectives or what stands in the way of their objectives; and echoes the merging that takes place outside the script, in the intricate matrix of empathetic action and interaction operating among the screenwriter, the audience and the tribe, and their relationship with the dramatis personae and their story..

It is all right for a dramatic story to end in satisfaction, but it cannot proceed by it. When everything is happy and all are contented, we tend to metaphorically curl up and go to sleep.

If a character is to be genuinely and credibly provoked into action, then his or her heart's desire must be compelling, focused and frustrated; the wish must be heartfelt and withheld, or at least misunderstood by those who should know better; and the dream must unexpectedly revert to what it really is: a nightmare in disguise. The frustration of desire – in whatever form it takes – is the catalyst of every dramatic story. It forms the basis of every dramatic problem.

In considering character, Michael Shurtleff often asked of his acting students: “where is the love?”. It is a question every screen storyteller must grapple with, whether he or she is a screenwriter, a director, a cinematographer or a designer.Who answers that question is important – but What answers it is crucial. What in YOU is answerable to it? If you are to avoid mediocrity as a storyteller then you must not answer it in purely intellectual terms.

Love is not only a condition of openness, but an active involvement with ALL of the characters – a quality of engagement in which the storyteller’s identity is an active and creative force, in resonant relationship with all of the characters necessary for finding the story. The love that enables that is the purest act of the mediumistic filmmaker, who understands that “…splendid triggering of human vitality, the supreme activity which nature affords anyone for going out of himself toward someone else.”

Thursday, January 7, 2010

RESONANCE & The Wisdom of Avoiding "Drama on Thursdays"

Resonance is an empathetic feeling for Being in which one’s seemingly separate Presence (Dasein) apprehends and is apprehended by the presence of “an other”.

In speaking of resonance, I am reminded of a story my old, philosophy professor, Ed Field, once told me concerning an experience he'd had in France in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. From an early age, Ed had had a proclivity for striking out on his own, disappearing for hours or even days into the back country outside Santa Cruz. Being both adventurous and reclusive by nature, he never felt more at home than he did when he was alone in a grove of giant Sequoia trees, or picking his way along some treacherous, unmarked track into the labyrinthine hinterland of mariposa-covered canyons. Such odysseys would've no doubt played a part in awakening Ed's philosophical sensibilities.

When the war came he joined the Army, and by 1945 was a 26-year-old enlisted man stationed near Nancy. Still very much a loner, Ed spent whatever free time he had exploring the old French city with the same kind of ardour that he'd had for his beloved redwoods. He'd wander for hours up one narrow laneway and down another. Late one afternoon, he found himself climbing the stairs into the bell-tower of Nancy’s austere, 18th century Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l'Annunciation.

From the vantage point atop the cathedral, one had breathtaking, panoramic views of the French countryside. But it was not the visual beauty of the scene that caught Ed’s attention that day. What he noted, and remembered long after the vision had gone, was a sound - a sound and a feeling.

As he stood in the tower surveying his surroundings, some distance away, in another tower, another set of bells began to peal. To his surprise, the large, still bells beside him started to vibrate and hum. Placing his hands upon one of them he could feel the bronze shell resonating, infected by the sound waves from the bells resounding in another church, 30Ks away.

More than fifty years later, when I was staying with in space 31, at the Blue & Gold Star Mobile Home Park in Capitola, California, he suggested to me that such was the nature of love. One “sounds” and, in perfect empathy with one’s sounding, one’s beloved sounds back. Someone else could have easily dismissed Ed’s comment as the expression of a sentimental old man, but I knew what he was talking about, and it was something much more profound than some glib romantic notion.

Later, in the scattered writings he did after the stroke had made it difficult for him to write, he spent most of one day typing out the following:

“Origin means the Source of the essence of something. Essence means that the thing is just as it is. BECOMING an essence means that the thing is NOT YET just as it is. It is the thing promising to become invisible. Becoming is its INCIPIENT Being: its Being NOT YET; its hope of Being invisible and also its faith in negating its present and past visibility.”

Coming upon such a statement, without the benefit of our nearly thirty years of friendship, would, I am sure, prove a confounding experience for most readers, so let me interpret what I believe Ed was trying to express. And then let me extrapolate on how this might apply to cinematic story-finding and telling, if not to creativity in general.

Let us assume, heuristically, that a distinction can be drawn between “the storyteller” and “the screenwriter”. Let us, for an instant, consider the possibility that the screenwriter is a creation of the storyteller, a character construct formed out of the volcanic drama continually erupting within the storyteller’s imagination. A screenwriter expresses an essence and that essence is the storyteller.

Our lives ARE stories, replete with choices and errors, victories and frustrations, desires and fears, which we go on enacting and remembering and re-enacting again and again, attempting to place every emotion, every belonging or lack of belonging, every wounding and every significant relationship, in its rightful place, playing out each betrayal and every weakness, longing and sentiment, so that we might certify our existence and identity by sensing ever more vividly the eternal partnering of life and death – and how they dance us to distraction and surrender, into darkness or into light.

The life lived dramatically, like the story told dramatically, is a story of passion, vide: suffering. Being dramatic, it is an active story in which one constantly bets one’s life, risking everything for what one loves or hates, embracing great efforts in the face of eternal hopelessness. In the dramatic story world there is no place for indifferent characters.

The struggle for success at another’s expense, whether it comes easy or hard, is the core deception that inhabits the deep structure of every dramatic tale, whether tragedy or comedy. It is this deception that renders the dramatic character, as well as the storyteller, a victim of the situation of irony that is the defining mark of both the product and process of every dramatic adventure.

The irony, continually dramatized by effective screenplays and the films they inspire, is that in our weakness is our strength, in our courage is our cowardice; in our servitude is our freedom. AN irony played out large in present time, forever and ever, both inside the script and out.

In essence, to be is to be a storyteller – a tribal storyteller, insofar as each one of us expresses our original nature. But not all storytellers are screenwriters. And not all storytellers have bothered to write down the stories that they tell. Whether our passions are expressed in screenplays, or poems, novels or making bread, each of our seemingly unique and individual stories has an origin and is possessed of a mythic dimension that is in evidence everywhere, and is just as commonly ignored or denied everywhere, almost all the time.

Such a dimension is found in the story from Genesis 3:1-21, which narrates the Fall of Wo/mankind, and is continually recounted in our everlasting history, which serves to dramatise our recurring readiness to sacrifice freedom for non-freedom (servility) as consummate proof that we are free. As such, my story, your story and our story – they are all rooted in situations of irony.

For Ed Field, freedom resided in the act of withdrawing – a withdrawal into what he called “the resonance” - the continuing sound of his own solitude. “There,” he wrote, “one finds one’s genius: the bell-ringer in the tower.”

Each of us – like Ishmael at the masthead - has always been there, in our own bell-tower, as poet, prophet, composer of speech and actions, withdrawn from all rules governing those language games by which the world goes on with its economic commerce – from which even dramatic storytelling is not immune.

“The genius presiding over first-person singularity,” Ed once wrote, “has always been there as the necessary bowman of the cello, which makes the music of humanity; necessary for the becoming, the future, the not-yet- past of Man.”

When considered from this vantage point, it becomes possible to understand “resonance” as one of those illuminating, first-person-singular experiences that conducts one ever closer to the source of one’s Being.

When William Blake wrote: “to the see the world in a grain of sand / and hold Eternity in an hour”, he was speaking of such an experience. Likewise, the fractal designs encountered on the great mosques in Isfahan stand as graphic metaphors of the resonant interconnectedness of all Being, what A.N. Whitehead referred to as “the withness of the universe”.

Of course, one could, without applying Ockham’s Razor, indulge in an eternally frustrating game of addition, invoking storyteller upon storyteller as mere characters of each preceding storyteller. Like the Hindu who, when learning that the universe rode on the back of a Turtle, enquired as to what the turtle was riding on, and in reply was informed, “It’s turtles all the way down.” So, too, might one say, concerning the character of the screenwriter, it’s screenwriters all the way down”. Hence, for the sake of keeping the argument robust, let’s posit a storyteller that in some way stands within, behind and beyond the screenwriter, and understand the screenwriter as an imaginary character/friend/colleague of the storyteller’s who works best when s/he understands that the most important part of any screenplay is PLAY.

In other writings, I have talked about screen storytelling as being an act of both faith and love. Interestingly, it was an email from an ex-student of mine – Matt Hawkins – that started me thinking about resonance and its relevance to dramatic film making, and that ultimately encouraged the writing of this essay.

In his email, Matt reminded me that the directing department at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School - where I worked for seven years – had, as part of its full-time programme, coordinated a “resonance workshop” in which teams of filmmakers would “get together and share aesthetic notions before shooting (their) films.”

The principle creatives would talk over their vision for the story, bringing in photos, drawings, physical objects, pieces of music, whatever “resonated” or otherwise connected with their understanding of the film-to-be. It was a way of informing one another of the different places each member of the team was starting from in their quest to realise a unified, coherent and fully collaborative final product.

It would be inaccurate to say that the exercise was unhelpful. It was probably better to have had an opportunity to present and examine one’s views about and connections with the story than to have not had the experience at all. However, by transforming resonance from a verb into a noun, by making it into an event that merely occurs at a certain time and place, one runs the risk of sub-rating its real meaning, thus turning the experience of authentic receptiveness into a wilfully conscious activity that has more to do with personal taste and habit, than it does with genuine openness. To say: “oh yes, we did ‘Resonance’ on Wednesday” makes about as much sense as saying “we do ‘Drama’ on Thursdays.” One either works dramatically or one doesn’t; one either resonates with one’s characters or one doesn’t. When resonance is reduced to a specialised activity informing a school exercise it is next to useless.

One is either IN the drama or OUT of it. There is no halfway house in which one vicariously “feels” the energy whilst remaining thoroughly safe and immune from the rigors of confrontation.

But resonance has more to do with what’s going on outside the script than what’s going on inside it. If one is to find and tell a transforming story, then one must be transformed by the experience of finding the characters, and having the patience and courage to listen and wait for their true voices. For this to happen, one must be faithfully open to them, especially to the character of the screenwriter who, when in danger of exposure, will do almost anything to lie and cheat and scheme his/her way out of a jam.

Great drama is full of jams. Jams occur when we least expect them, and they frustrate, defy and challenge us with their presence. A jam is the story's way of reminding you you're dealing with something that has a mind of its own. A jam is the screenwriter’s equivalent to the protagonist’s obstacle. The story has an inner and outer plot, and these two resonate with each other. The script mirrors the characters; the characters mirror the script. The trials and tribulations of the characters inside the screenplay reflect the trials and tribulations of the characters outside of it. The experience of resonance is central to the finding of all dramatic stories because resonance is really what the process and product is all about – connection and disconnection and the need to reconstruct the connection that has been broken. This is the essence of drama. A present-time account of Being, with which we – the filmmakers – must resonate if we are to find ourselves in the story and the story is to find itself in us.

“Being sounds,” Ed Field once wrote; “it does nothing but sound. Earth, which prepares solitude and forgoes society in its favor, continues the sound. Listened to from the proper distance, the revolving Earth is solitude: it resonates with the primeval tone of creation as on the first day. In that continuing sound the first-person singular came to be-not-yet. Not-yet is a definition of Eternity’s ever becoming. It is also the definition of genius presiding over the singular solitude of whoever the first-person is, whose autobiography is now underway but just begun.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


The Screenwriter AS Character

When screenwriters write their scripts from “outside” the lives of their characters they rob their screenplays of the essential ingredient necessary for evoking powerful emotional responses in their audience. Any screenwriter, steeped in genre and armed with a pre-determined plot, who builds his/her characters around the story instead of the other way around, may be able to produce the semblance of a screenplay; it might even be a dramatic screenplay. So long as the screenwriter adheres to the conventions of dramatic plotting and places a active character at the center of the action, one assumes all will be well. However, the central question for any writer that is interested in producing something fresh is not who is driving the story, but what is driving the process? Only when ALL of the characters necessary for finding the story are effectively engaged and transformed by their on-going interactions is it possible to produce a script that is vital - in short, a compelling character-driven drama. When the screenwriter alone makes all the executive decisions and chauvinistically decides that only the writer can drive the story, the result is invariably melodrama.

In the story-finding process, the astute screenwriter is ever sensitive to the dynamic interactions taking place. Hemingway’s salutary advice regarding every writer’s need for a “crap-detecting device” is still relevant, only in the case of the screenwriter one must be able to discriminate between a story that is being lived by the characters and a story that writes them out of its writer's need to get to the end.

None of this should be construed as a criticism of melodrama. There is good melodrama and bad melodrama; melodrama that works, which stimulates our emotions and identification with the characters and their problems; and melodrama that, for any number of reasons, keeps us at a confounding, emotional arm’s length.

The problem with melodramatic templates, and genres in general, is that they constantly cry out for some fresh interpretation. If there is an art to melodrama – and there most certainly is – it must reside in the screenwriter’s vision and in his/her ability to disguise or imaginatively camouflage the more predictable elements of the melodramatic plot. Without such disguise, a melodrama-in-the-making constantly runs the risk of veering into contrivance or settling back into comfortable predictability. Good melodrama is difficult to write; bad melodrama is on every street corner. Have a look! Bad melodrama is where almost every would-be screenwriter starts and ends; that well-tilled common ground of popular cliché and sentimentality enshrined in forgettable events enacted by one-dimensional characters operating as plot functionaries.

In contradistinction to melodrama, the character-based drama generates energy through a series of logical and emotionally meaningful actions enacted by characters that are involved in a quest that is imperilled by risk and danger, the outcome of which is uncertain. At the risk of becoming boringly repetitive, let me say once again, this quest involves ALL of the characters whose interactions form the dynamic enterprise of actualising the story.

The actions that the characters employ to solve their problems are rooted in the character’s genuine emotional needs and desires. The emotional energy that these actions stimulate, that is built and released in the movement of characters in pursuit of their objectives, will necessarily provoke a powerful emotional response in one’s audience.

In dramatic, character-based stories, plot is the ongoing outcome of the characters’ desires, hopes and fears as these are expressed in actions. Character is the ever-moving focal point where all of the forces of the dramatic story meet and are played out. In character-centric stories, fundamental decisions concerning “what happens next?” are not based upon what the storyteller needs in order to move the tale from one plot point to the next, but upon what the characters want, why they want it, and who or what is stopping them from having it, and why.

The storyteller/character relationship – including the screenwriter’s relationship with both protagonist and antagonist – involves an exploration of the inward emotions of the dramatis personae (i.e.: the scripted characters) as dramatised by their actions, expressed in text, subtext and context.

The actions themselves are motivated by, and grounded in, the screenwriter’s and the characters’ mutual pursuit of clear objectives and goals (The Quest). Their dramatic value is determined by how effectively and with what degree of surprise and credibility they contribute to either advancing or thwarting the characters in their quest.

Allied to this is the quest of the screenwriter to liberate the characters from the straitjacket of narrow, pre-digested clichés, stereotypes and formulae, a quest that also involves the liberation of the storyteller him/herself. Such a liberation involves a transformation in which the writer becomes a receptive, responsive vehicle through which the characters speak and act.

This transformation is contingent upon the screenwriter’s ability to simultaneously inhabit a variety of vantage points or perspectives; which slightly alter the writer’s relationship with the story and the characters. In altering the “psychical distance"(1) from which the storyteller perceives the characters and their actions – as well as the storyteller’s own actions in relationship to the actual telling or finding of the story – the storyteller is afforded a perceptual contrast that enables a fresher view of both character and story. Aspects of character and story that may have been neglected, misunderstood or simply lost in the inertia and entropy of habitual examination and expectation are re-vivified when one shifts one’s psychical distance.

Stories that endure and change the way we look at the world and ourselves almost always dramatise issues that have the most powerful consequences. Prejudice, greed, oppression and faithlessness are perennial themes in dramatic stories that move us because they strike at the heart of what it means to be human.

To successfully dramatise the potency of such forces, one must have some experience of them. However, experience alone is not always enough. To become the vehicle through which powerful dramatic characters and stories come to life, the storyteller must have some feeling for those that have suffered as well as the courage to fearlessly explore and be true to the characters whose actions convey the turmoil at the heart of the drama. The feeling with which “Jesus wept” – and his reasons for weeping – cannot be foreign to, or beyond the ken of, any storyteller hoping to connect emotionally with his or her characters.

A feeling for one’s characters and the courage to follow them wherever they may take you is one of the surest antidotes to mediocrity and its yoke of predictability. This is rarely if ever effected solely from the perspective of the storyteller/character relationship. If one is to enter into the emotional energy that is the life essence of the characters, and thus become a medium through which they speak and act, then audience is indispensable.

An effective dramatic story requires an audience not only to complete its meaning and fulfil its emotional potential, but to provide a catalyst that will allow the writer to disentangle his/her ego and ego needs from the story that is trying to tell itself through the medium of the screenwriter and the screenwriter’s sensibilities and skills. To conceive and present a story that is told without reference to an audience is an absurdity, a dramatic story worthy of its name not only presents change but also creates it in the responses it elicits from both the storyteller and the audience. Until it has elicited such a response a story is not fully functional.

However, one must not think of audience as a faceless group of paying spectators. In the context of an evolving script, it is both ignorant and unproductive to reduce one’s conception of audience to mere demographics; to do so misses the important, creative contribution that audience makes to the realisation of the story-being-found.

Far from dreaming about “bums on seats”, a more productive and enlightened conception of the storyteller/audience relationship, and one that is ultimately essential to the storyteller’s own processes of transformation, involves the realisation that, far from being a generalised and sometimes quantifiable mass of potential viewers, an audience is personal, identifiable and capable of lucid visualisation by the storyteller. In short, audience is that person, known to the storyteller, to whom the story is addressed, that person to whom the storyteller is speaking.

When considered in the context of story and story creation, audience is never merely a group of people; it is a person, and not just any person, but a person with whom the storyteller is intimately associated.

The association must be close so that the storyteller can gauge the responses that that “person” would have to the characters and the actions by which the energies of the story are built and released. Conceived of in this way, audience is as much a tool of discovery as it is a final fact of appreciation. Audience is an act of the imagination, for it is not the actual person that the storyteller addresses. The storyteller’s vivid internalisation of his or her audience and the critical faculties that persona brings to an examination of character and story is what is crucial.

A storyteller looking at a script solely from the habitual perspective of the storyteller/character relationship is more likely to read through gaps or contradictions in the emotional logic whilst, at the same time, reading energy into stale or unenergetic actions; whereas the imaginative “other” – the storyteller-as-audience – functions very much as Hemingway described it, as “a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.”

In many ways, the storyteller’s relationship with his/her audience parallels the storyteller/character relationship, for just as the story is not entirely from the storyteller but depends upon the active participation of storyteller and character, so too does a story require audience to which it can be directed and through which its power and effectiveness can be challenged and tested.

To say that a storyteller can tell an effective dramatic story without the slightest hint as to its audience is on a par with saying that characters are irrelevant to the creation of emotionally compelling stories. Dramatic stories require both characters AND audiences.

This second vantage point – the storyteller/audience relationship – explores story from the perspective of it being something that is told to someone. It embraces the notion that every well-told story has a good reason for being told, and that that reason is as important a factor in its successful expression as the language that is employed to express it. Hence, the experience of developing a dramatic story is not unlike the experience of entering into an engrossing and life-changing conversation, not only with one’s characters but with the person who needs to hear and see such a story enacted. Indeed, that person – or audience – might even provide an important reason for the story’s coming-into-being.

This dialogue between the screenwriter and the audience may at first be largely unconscious, but even at the unconscious level it works to increase the screenwriter’s sensitivity to and awareness of where and how the storyteller has intruded into the story. The storyteller’s awareness concerning both his or her unproductive intrusions, as well as those authentic expressions that evolve organically out of the character’s needs or fears or desires, increases as the storyteller becomes ever more conscious and sensitive to audience. Indeed, the ear whose innate understanding of what rings true and what does not, belongs largely to the audience, or least the storyteller/audience relationship.

In the process of seemingly “disappearing” into the storyteller/character relationship, the screenwriter is still capable of aiding and abetting the dissipation of energy by unconsciously asserting his or her will over the will of the characters themselves. In the act of performing the role of the unseen player, the writer’s first goal is not always to find the drama; but, more often than not, the motivation is to protect or promote the screenwriter’s own prejudices and anxieties.

The storyteller/audience relationship enables the storyteller to lose him/herself completely without losing sight of who the story actually belongs to – i.e.: the characters. In the act of becoming one’s audience, the act of losing oneself enables one to find oneself as character, whilst challenging the wilful and unproductive intrusion of the writer/character who, if left unchecked, might go on contentedly manipulating the choices and actions of the other characters, thus compromising the power and authenticity of the lives of the story.

From the screenwriter’s point of view, the critical distance afforded by the storyteller/audience perspective is what renders the re-writing process meaningful. It calls attention to the fact that an essential element of this process is a meditative encounter with both character and story from the perspective of audience. Entering into the life of one’s audience, becoming one’s audience, is fundamental to the process of finding and entering more deeply into a relationship with the characters in the screenplay.

From the perspective of audience, the screenwriter’s perception of him/herself as “character” is vividly exposed. The prejudices and choices of the writer/character are now open to the same sort of scrutiny that was once reserved only for the characters in the script. As such, the storyteller/audience relationship can be understood as an audience/character relationship in which the storyteller addresses the audience and is addressed by it. When this occurs the screenwriter becomes an implicit character operating within the context of the other characters and their quest. Such a relationship provides a critical vantage point that allows the storyteller to retain what is useful to the empowerment of the characters while at the same time giving the screenwriter the strength and confidence to jettison whatever might be irrelevant, including the storyteller-as-manipulator with all of his/her accompanying airs, pretensions, doubts and delusions. The screenwriter who ignores this relationship does so at his/her own peril, for to create with a sense that no one is listening or watching virtually guarantees that no one will be.

In asking the question: who is my audience? one confronts the most crucial question of all: why do I care? The ultimate answer to this question can only be answered by the dramatic connections and disconnections that ensue from the collective actions of all the characters, and by those energies that are being built or released in, by and through their interactions.

Isolated from audience, the screenwriter lacks the requisite perspective to ascertain the effectiveness of the actions produced by the storyteller/character relationship. Audience permits of a contextual shift that re-constructs the dramatic experience through a non-proprietorial perceptiveness that allows the screenwriter to “read” and discern the physical, psychical, emotional and intellectual relationships operating within the script with a fresher eye and ear.

(1) Distance obtained by separating the object and its appeal from one's own self, by putting it out of gear with practical needs and ends. Thereby the 'contemplation' of the object becomes alone possible. But it does not mean that the relation between the self and the object is broken to the extent of becoming 'impersonal.' See Edward Bullough’s "'Psychical Distance' as a Factor in Art and as an Aesthetic Principle".

Sunday, January 3, 2010


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Friday, January 1, 2010


"The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable: through the embracing of one of its beings." - Martin Buber

Screenwriters that understand character-based drama - and there are very few of them - are acutely aware of the preeminence of character. It is the characters and their actions that build and release emotional energy both within and outside the story.

Unfortunately, in speaking of character, too many film storytellers automatically think that what is being referred to is the dramatis personae of the actual script. This is a limited and limiting point of view, and encourages a form of chauvinism that creates destructive and frustrating prejudices and misunderstandings for any screenwriter who seeks a closer, more intimate relationship with the characters necessary for finding the emotional potency that lies buried in the language of the screenplay.

To enter the lives of the characters in the script, one must be entered by them! But one must also be entered by one's audience, and by one's tribe, whilst all the time being sensitive to one's "multifariousness", and those hidden characters that we harbour and nurture behind the curtain of the ego.

Dramatic characters are characters that move - they act, and through their actions are changed. The on-going dialogic amongst ALL the characters responsible for birthing a dramatic screen story is informed by an emotional logic that, when in evidence, makes us - the screenwriter/character - see and feel the "truth" of what is being enacted and expressed. It is both a humbling and inspiring experience.

In speaking of the ACTION one must constantly be aware that the movement of authentic characters is both external and internal.

A character acts in order to achieve a desired objective in the physical world, something which we can see and/or hear. But in effective drama there is always an emotional component to this striving... which one grasps imaginatively by a sensitive "reading" of the what is implied by what is seen and heard.

A boxer wants to win the heavyweight title so that he can be "somebody", but the reason he wants to be somebody is so he can get his girl back. What he really wants is love. What we see is him fighting the fight of his life, losing, and his girlfriend watching the fight on the television with an expression that tells us she she cares more about him than anyone else in the world.

All drama begins with a character who becomes disconnected from something important to him or her, a disconnection that gives rise to pain (or suffering), risk and a sense of urgency, forcing the character to ACT in order to put an end to the suffering, and achieve both the outer objective and the inner goal or fulfillment of the character's emotional need or desire. In most stories the character succeeds, but not always. Vide: Chinatown.

So who are these characters that people the worlds of dramatic screen storytelling?

Where do they live when they're not actually strutting their stuff on a screen or in a script?

The short answer is they are YOU.

Characters are aspects of our selves. In fact, we are teeming with them!

In recent times, a range of teachers, philosophers, psychologists and others have attempted to delineate the basic character types found within the human family. The ideas of Freud, Maslow and others are well known. Less known is the contribution of Aboriginal "skin systems" to our understanding of human nature - an area that is ripe for study for any one with a modicum of imagination and a yearning for real adventure.

More recently, a Bolivian teacher, Oscar Ichazo, began assembling various notions derived from indigenous peoples, Sufi teachings and the work of George Gurdjieff. One of the outcomes of his research and thought was the development of a system of personality types, collected under the now well-known designation, Ennegrams.

For Ichazo, there were essentially nine archetypes, corresponding to the Divine Forms or Platonic Solids, qualities of existence that are essential, that cannot be broken down into constituent parts.

Interestingly, Plato's idea maintained enough freshness to be taken up by Plotinus in his central work, The Enneads, which ultimately found its way into the meditations of early Christian mystics exploring the notion of pure consciousness. Later, these Divine forms became distorted into the Seven Deadly Sins: anger, pride, envy, avarice, gluttony, lust, and sloth.

In discovering new ways of dealing with old problems, one can do worse than return to the wisdom of the Ancestors, which apparently is what Ichazo did. It would seem that his translations and interpretations of the ancient intuitions and insights have a contribution to make to our understanding of dramatic characters and the stories.

It might be interesting to have a look at the script you are working on now and see what character types are at play within your story.

The Nine Types

Number One - The Reformer

Highly responsible characters with a sensitivity to the suffering of others and a strong desire to improve the conditions they encounter. They are idealists, fighting for their ideals. They are mindful of right and wrong and will "play it by the book" in order to ensure that their efforts cannot be undermined by officialdom or by any insinuation of moral laxity. They believe they are "good" people, and do not easily express anger or, when they do, never do it overtly. Nevertheless, they do harbour resentment for those that don’t share their ideals or a commitment to working hard for a good cause. This resentment is frequently expressed with sarcasm, eye-ball rolling and severe, disapproving looks. They often come across as highly critical and judgemental because they invariably focus on mistakes. They are also hard on themselves, and maintain a ruthless inner who keeps a running commentary about their own shortcomings and how they are measuring up. Morals are important to them and they can be excellent models for admirable behaviour. They have a penchant for details but some time cannot see the forest for the trees.

Number Two - The Helper

Group-minded, tuned in to the feelings of others, they love nothing more than TO SERVE, sometime to the point of being irritating. They love giving advice. even when it is not wanted. They like to be acknowledged for their service, and are easily offended or hurt when not appreciated for their efforts. Their concern with helping others often means they overlook their own needs, and are reluctant to accept help from others. They give much more easily than they take, which can make them seem prideful. They are not averse to talking about themselves. and may dominate a conversation without even being aware of it. The know how to "work a room" flitting from one person to another with ease, depending on their emotional whims and where they feel they can be of most use. They are the power behind the throne; and enjoy the thick of office politics. They are nurturers - the consummate parent type. Their sensitivity can make them effective mentors. Indeed, any occupation that demands attention to the needs of others, especially the less fortunate, is the perfect niche for the Helper.

Number Three – The Achiever

Hard workers with lots of energy. They are goal oriented, with a tendency to neglect personal relationships and feelings. They enjoy success, especially the material rewards it brings, whether it is a new car, a fur coat, or a European holiday. Failure is not a word they acknowledge - setbacks are minor inconveniences on the way to greater achievements. They love projecting a winning image, and are prepared to lie to themselves and others about their situation in order to present the sort of image they deem useful to their plans. They are zealous in seeking recognition, and will willingly accept or take all the credit for a project without acknowledging others. Their competitiveness is both their strength and their weakness. They are astute when it comes to reading the desires of others... but only because it will give them the edge or enable them to manipulate a situation for their own ends. Confusing image with substance, they frequently project a lack of depth and integrity. They can be highly efficient - even if they have to cut corners, and naturally enthusiastic. They have a facility for rallying others to their cause, and can be effective team leaders.

Number Four - The Individualist

This is the tragic romantic - the character that lives with a feeling that they are missing something essential. They are full of envy and long for something that might fulfill them. They believe that life is a puzzle and that their is a missing piece that - if only they could find it, would answer all their suffering with joy. They believe in ideal relationships. Mr or Miss Right is possible. A great job worthy of their talents is possible. A different lifestyle is possible. Alas, if only! They are geniuses when it comes to identifying and analyzing their inner emotional landscape, they are obsessed with it, and love exploring the emotional landscape of those in whom they are interested. They crave meaningful connections with others, but are often their own worst enemies owing to the fact that so few people seem to understand their truly unique feelings and perceptions. Wanting some kind of meaning in their lives, they will often resort to living in dreams. They place great significance upon synchronistic meetings, personal rituals, signs and omens. They are not afraid to deal with issues such as death and grief since these also add relevance their life. They are lovers of beauty, and, given the chance, will always surround themselves with visually pleasing physical environments.

Number Five - The Observer

This character is the consummate ascetic, the minimalist, the survivalist, that can make do with very little - they prize their solitariness and privacy more than almost anything. They enjoy their own company. It gives them time to think about life and follow up their own, private passions. They may seem cold; they are often abrupt with others. They hate messy, emotional situations, and will avoid them at all costs. They are prone to keep their feelings and thoughts to themselves,a nd, as a consequence, are often difficult to read. They are reflective and the fruits of their reflections can make them interesting and stimulating conversationalists in the "right" company. They prefer discussions in depth.Ideas are important to them. It is a great honor to them to be respected for their practical suggestions and intellectual theories. They are specialists, and masters of whatever craft they choose. For them, comfort is associated with planning. They don't like surprises. They can synthesise details into coherent systems or theories and are keen observers of others' behaviour. They can provide sound and useful consul to others. They are succinct.

Number Six - The Guardian

They tend to be worriers, constantly scanning the horizon - like mercats - for any sign of potential danger. They crave safety and security, but their response to threats is not always predictable. Depending on circumstances they may either draw back challenge them head-on. Trust is an issue; they want to trust others, yet may put off potential collaborators because of a natural suspiciousness. Authority figures are especially suspect; they feel uneasy around those they perceive to have power over them. They have a hard time making decisions. They don't mind joining groups, which helps them ward off feelings of loneliness. They see the world in terms of allies or foes, those who support them (friends) and those who might oppose them (enemies). They are highly opinionated and enjoy arguing their point of view. They are psychic and sensitive to potential problems, which makes them great at troubleshooting and preparing for crises and difficulties. They make very loyal friends and great benefactors of others less fortunate than themselves.

Number Seven - The Enthusiast

They like to make plans for future opportunities to entertain themselves. This focus produces a gluttonous craving for amusing diversions that shield them from life's painful realities. As a result they shy away from responsibilities, which might limit their freedom to experience all the pleasant possibilities life can offer. They keep their options open, resist commitments. They are elusive and hate being pinned down. They can, nevertheless, see limitless potential, and love brainstorming ideas for new projects. They have vision. Unfortunately they can become easily bored, and so are not as good at following through and completing the work they have started. Synthesizers of diverse theories, they can be very persuasive in convincing others to follow their dream. They enjoy the sound the own voice and have narcissistic tendencies, demanding excessive attention. Nonchalant and irreverent, they dislike rigid hierarchical structures with routine work, preferring ad hoc teams and multiple tasks. Upbeat and optimistic they can be wonderful comedians and improvisers who have the ability to spread joy and laughter.

Number Eight – The Controller

The controller character comes on strong, fully engaged with others. This character doesn;t mind confronting others if there is a disagreement. If they become angry they don’t hesitate to express their feelings forcefully and can intimidate others with their ferocity. They are often gifted leaders, they take command of situations and rule over territory they have carved out for themselves. They can become too controlling by acting as the sole authority and invading others’ boundaries. Their animal magnetism and lust for life can manifest as excess in different areas of their life, e.g., long working hours, high-risk adventures, sensate pleasures and rollicking good times. Because they perceive situations in black and white terms they tend to reject others’ perceptions and only see their version of reality. Blunt talkers, they hate to feel manipulated and expect people to give them the straight goods. They make great advocates who aren’t afraid to break the rules or confront those in authority. Concerned with issues of justice and fairness, they will seek revenge if they feel wronged. Inside they feel vulnerable but rarely let others see it. They can move mountains for causes they support.

Number Nine - The Mediator

The main problem for the Mediator is prioritizing tasks. They readily lose focus and are side-tracked by unimportant details. Concerned with conserving energy, they tend to be slow moving and methodical. Their slothful nature craves familiar routines and creature comforts. They go with the flow, which means they have a hard time accepting changes and setting goals. They become stubborn if pushed to move faster or work harder, tending to merge with others’ agendas, then losing sight of their own needs. When this happens it's easier for them to identify what they don’t want, rather than what they do want. They prefer consensus to making decisions on their own. They enjoy ruminating more than deciding, and on philosophical considerations, a natural penchant, is also a way to put off making a decision and taking conflict is anathema to them; they will avoid it at all costs. They will also avoid problems, maintaining that everything will work out if everyone stays amiable and connected. Unaware of their own power, they can easily concede to others to avoid any disagreements. They can see all sides of an issue. They are able to spread goodwill and harmony amongst the discord of others.


Any careful reading of the above character types will make the reader aware that each of us, at different times during any typical day, manifest many of the traits of every one of these character types. It is a misreading of these types to presume that any human being can be reduced simply to type no matter how convenient it may seem. This proviso, however, not be construed as a damning criticism of the basic system or as a reason to dismiss it out of hand. The point is: we ARE all of these characters (and more) - which is what enables us to write effective dramatic scripts with characters of much greater diversity than what might otherwise be the case if we were to work merely out of the confines of our own, narrow ego.

The ego is but one specialised bundle of imaginary solutions by which we penetrate the phenomenal world - the realm of the projected imagination. Each of us during any typical day of our lives, in our various interactions with various people, is a "mediator;", a "helper", an "enthusiast", etc. etc. In finding and contributing to the birth of dramatic stories, it is our challenge not to deny, judge, censor or fear these others that inhabit our being, but to allow them their time and place in the sun of the story that seeks to shine out, fully embodied by characters and character actions. Understanding one's characters IS understanding one's selves.