Proof of the Hero’s Journey: my life as a screenwriter

by on April 5, 2011

in Australian film industry, Events, Film analysis, Hero's Journey, Screenwriting tips, Story structure

Old-fashioned typewriter

I subscribe to the Hero’s Journey because I see its shape in the films I love but also because it describes life as I’ve experienced it. Here I illustrate the Hero’s Emotional Journey with examples from my own torturous but ultimately rewarding time as a screenwriter.

The Hero’s Journey isn’t smoke and mirrors. It’s life.

From the first time I read Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, it resonated for me. What he said rang true and when I looked at the films that moved me, time and again, I saw the same archetypal steps that Vogler – via Joseph Campbell –  had identified. Now, nearly 20 years later, I can see that I’ve unwittingly been on a Hero’s Journey of my own: a flawed protagonist with a desperate desire facing seemingly insurmountable resistance who’s forced to confront his failings and ultimately make a decision about whether what he’s always wanted is what he really needs. It’s not a pretty story, but it’s further evidence that the Hero’s Journey isn’t smoke and mirrors. It’s life. While I make no pretence at being in any way heroic, here is my own personal Hero’s Journey.

Step 1: Incomplete (Ordinary World)

My Ordinary World was the life of an IBM salesman where I was strangely “Incomplete” despite winning Go-Getter of the Month in April 1985 and being named Tiger of the Year in 1986. My “Want” was to become a screenwriter but my flaw was that at that stage I didn’t truly want to be a screenwriter; I just wanted the romance and cachet that went with being a screenwriter. Was I in for a shock …

Step 2: Unsettled (Call to Adventure)

I was “Unsettled” when an LA-based Australian producer said she liked my concept for a romantic comedy about a couple of opera singers but that I had to learn my screenwriting craft. To do that, she said, I had to go to LA. There was a further Call to Adventure from an extraordinary woman called Meredith, but, at this point in my life, I was deaf to it. I would sort out matters of the heart after I became a successful screenwriter – which should only take a year or two at most, right?

Step 3: Resistant (Refusal of the Call)

I found several “reasons” to resist my Call to Adventure. I did a budget – for the first time in my life – and used it as evidence to prove I couldn’t afford to go to LA. I also told anyone who’d listen that I didn’t want to have my creative instincts corrupted by Hollywood. But it was all a smokescreen. The truth was that I was scared I wasn’t good enough to be a screenwriter and worried that if I went to LA that would be made abundantly clear.

Step 4: Encouraged (Meeting with the Mentor)

My encouragement came in several forms. I met with fellow Australian screenwriter Stuart Beattie (Collateral, Pirates of the Caribbean) who had been studying at UCLA Extension and said it was fantastic. But, in truth, it was the frustration of my day job and the unlikelihood of my dream ever materialising if I stayed put that convinced me to overcome my fears and apply for film school in LA.

Step 5: Committed (Crossing the First Threshold)

The Threshold Guardian for me was the admissions process at UCLA Extension. In order to satisfy the visa requirements I had to prove that I had sufficient funds to support myself for a year. I didn’t have nearly enough money to do that, but by being a little creative I was able convince the authorities that I was a person of means and I was accepted into their program. My journey was now about to begin in earnest. I hopped on the plane and headed to Hollywood.

Step 6: Disoriented (Tests, Allies & Enemies)

The disorientation came in deciding which of my UCLA Extension teachers I could trust and whose opinions I should take with a grain of salt. I had brilliant tutors in Vogler himself, Emmy Award-winning Lila Garrett and UCLA English Professor, Lynn Batten. But I also had a lecturer who constantly made proclamations with which I (vocally) disagreed, and who told me that my operatic romantic comedy had very limited potential. It would take some time, but ultimately I was to be proven wise to ignore that discouraging and “Disorienting” advice.

Step 7: Inauthentic (The Approach)

The inauthenticity of my desire to be a screenwriter was that it was that it was largely ego-driven. I wasn’t committed to entertaining my audience. The only role they had in my grand scheme was to certify my genius. This egocentric approach is, to be frank, not uncommon among filmmakers but it’s difficult to sustain and will inevitably lead to a precipitous fall. It certainly did for me.

Step 8: Confronted (The Ordeal)

I hit my first Ordeal when, with my money nearly exhausted and my writing failing to make an impression on any of my tutors, I contemplated giving up on the dream and returning to Australia. Or worse. Dark days indeed. Fortunately, at this point, Lynn Batten invited us to read Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth and it was a revelation. It made clear to me for the first time what storytelling was really about, and my screenwriting was suddenly no longer about me. The audience wasn’t going to buy tickets to come and marvel at my dazzling wit; they wanted to be taken on an emotional journey that reconnected them with “rapture of being alive”. It was a humbling moment that shattered my Identity and set me on the path to crafting stories from my more grounded Essence.

This was far from the last of my confronting Ordeals. Stints as a temporary secretary at Universal Studios, pizza chef in Ireland, dogwalker in Bondi, nanny in Surrey, hostel manager in New York, script reader at the UK Film Council, copywriter on a toilet paper account in Sydney, and housekeeper to a demanding German countess (in a mansion once lived in by Marilyn Monroe) all tested my resolve – but not nearly as much as the intractable daily challenges of screenwriting. I suffered terribly from depression but would always decide to carry on, partly because it was great in those moments when it all came together but mainly because I felt I had gone too far to turn back.

Step 9: Reborn (The Reward)

My writing didn’t immediately transform after I became aware of the Hero’s Journey. However, with persistent toil the shift in attitude eventually manifested on the page and good things started to happen. That operatic romantic comedy of “limited potential” won me representation at one of London’s most prestigious agents, Hugh Jackman attached to play the baritone and Working Title came on board to make it. The BBC also put my TV series into development, Film4 commissioned me to adapt a novel and I was having teleconferences with Dreamworks about my feature animation Lamb Stu. Things were going so well, I returned to Australia after five years in the UK to see whether Meredith, the woman I loved, but to whom I’d never given my full attention, would marry me.

Step 10. Desperate (Road Back)

I think that it would be fair to say that I reached a “Desperate” moment at this point in my life. Hugh Jackman left my romantic comedy to go play The Boy from Oz on Broadway, Working Title consequently lost interest, Film4 didn’t ask for a second draft of the adaptation, the BBC didn’t commission my TV series, Dreamworks discovered they were already doing a sheep feature animation with Aardman (Wallace and Gromit), my producer on the operatic romantic comedy wanted to replace me and when, instead, I took the project back, my UK agent encouraged me to seek fresh representation. I was 45, with no assets, no skills other than my now dubious screenwriting craft, and I was about $20k in debt. To cap things off, when I proposed to my soul mate, Meredith, she knocked me back. Yes, “Desperate” would pretty much cover it.

Step 11: Decisive (Resurrection)

The Climax of my own personal journey wasn’t that someone finally decided to make my film. It was the decision to turn my back on screenwriting and try to figure out why this wonderful woman didn’t want to spend the rest of her life with me. When I’d done that, and confronted a few more painful Ordeals in the process, and she finally said,”I do”, up on Little Knobby at Crescent Head, that was it; that was my Resurrection.

Step 12: Complete (Return with the Elixir)

Ironically, to get what I’d always wanted I had to first give up on it. Having elevated my relationship above my career in my priorities, I was able to return to screenwriting with a fresh balance. I wrote a new draft of the operatic romantic comedy, found a new producer, who attached an LA-based Australian producer, who attached a Hollywood producer, who gave it to one of the biggest players in American independent cinema -who financed it. It looks suspiciously like the script I started 18 years ago might actually get made but, if not, it doesn’t matter. OK, so it wouldn’t hurt financially if the cameras do eventually roll. But, whether the film is produced or not, I’ve been altered by the journey and that’s what life – and great stories – are all about.

This is an excerpt from a longer article that appears in the AFTRS journal, Lumina. Click here if you’d like to order a copy of Lumina Issue 7 which focuses on Screenwriting.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Helen Connolly April 5, 2011 at 9:52 pm

oh wow – this is fabulous – so candid and so real – thank you so much for sharing. I can really relate to Steps 1, 2 and 3!

Sanket April 6, 2011 at 7:06 am

Great breakdown of your autobiography.
We mostly don’t realize about our ‘need’ until we have had it.
And, then ‘Nirvana’ is attained. Just as you have!! :-)

Paul Green April 6, 2011 at 9:21 am

I use the Hero’s Journey when pulling together powerpoint pack for work. I know – I should use it for good not evil.

Allen, thanks for sharing that. Who’s attached to play you? Hugh? :)

Matt April 6, 2011 at 9:21 am

Beautiful journey Allen – brought me to tears in the third act! Something I can definitely learn from, thanks for sharing.

Allen Palmer April 6, 2011 at 9:30 am

Well, Paul, if they were looking for a good likeness, some have unkindly commented that my doppelganger is Kevin Rudd. But Bill Murray is rumpled enough – and sufficiently grumpy.

Peter Tosh April 6, 2011 at 2:03 pm

Your posts are a terrible burden on the soul of the screenwriter. You tell people what is important and what is necessary to write a good script when your credentials don’t extend as far as a decent screen play. You encourage banality and structure, reinforcing the demise of one of the youngest forms of art.
How can you feel OK telling people what they have to do to be successful, especially in a field as objective as writing.
I have read a few of your post, concluding you are a fool. “Why Social Network shouldn’t work but does,” what a crock… A good movie is a good movie off what it has to offer the world. Tell Terrence Malick that a voice over is bad screen writing.
OUT!

Allen Palmer April 6, 2011 at 2:32 pm

You won’t be back, Pete? That’s a pity. We’ll miss your erudition and bonhomie.

Peter Tosh April 7, 2011 at 3:44 pm

On the contrary my friend, I will be with you always as a voice of reason.
I admire your bookish and some what petulant reply. It is actually quite a clever deflection. But the validity of your teachings is questionable without proper discourse with outside parties. I offer my thoughts as a chance to vindicate your role as mentor to new generations of writers. Talk soon…
Absolute regards,

Peter.

John G April 10, 2011 at 8:20 am

Pete, it sounds like maybe this is just you refusing the call, dude.

Allen, I love your blog. Your insights have helped.

Tom May 12, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Life really is a funny journey isn’t it? Thanks for sharing that Allen. My heroes journey consists of being knocked back from every major film school in the country (AFTRS twice) and never saying give up. Funny enough those knock backs steeled my resolve…made me more determined. Made me realize I didn’t need to be in film school that I was never going to be that kind of filmmaker, that I could fail or succeed on my own terms. Now I have a string of projects in development and I’m off to direct a short film in Berlin next year with a creative team of filmmakers with a common goal..its in the failure and the set backs where you find your true voice and vision..not in the success, that’s just a byproduct of the struggle.
Advice: write a page everyday, find a good DOP/Producer(maintain that relationship), find some good actors with passion and ambition and be open to collaboration, build creative relationships, slowly doors open. You don’t need much to make a good short these days, its all about the story. Make your own luck and be brutally honest with yourself..and don’t take no for an answer, but listen to and consider all the advice that comes your way…its just another pathway on the journey that leads to yes! (corny I know, but true)

Rod Garlick May 12, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Great insight, Allen! I never thought to look at my own life & career against the journey motif, but I will now.

Rod Garlick May 12, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Great insight, Allen! I never considered looking at my own life against the hero’s journey (mine has been anything but!) and it opens the mind about what’s important and what’s just dumb. Thanks!

Tom May 12, 2011 at 3:02 pm

PS@ Pete Tosh, it sounds like you’re at that stage of your screenwriting career, whereby you feel that you alone have the keys to what quality screenwriting sounds, reads and feels like. All I can say is that at this stage in your career you’re very vulnerable, isolated and really just afraid..mainly because that the little voice in the back of your mind that mumbles “you ain’t got it kid” is getting louder and louder and so you find yourself on Blogs like this shooting down imaginary bombers who you think are raining down an Arclight of bullshit on your personal parade of what “real screenwriting is”. Here’s the deal Pete..its many things, not one thing, its collaboration every step of the way, its picking and choosing what you feel is relevant to you and discarding with confidence what isn’t. Its about embracing failure with more gusto than you would success (you’ll quickly work out the fear of success and failure are the same thing) Its about finding your own style and failing on your own terms. What its not about is being the self appointed gatekeeper of truth ( I mean how arrogant is that?)..when you’re playing that role all you’re really doing is holding all the potential in..mainly because of fear. Fail trying, don’t scream from behind a keyboard. Go on Pete, get out there and fail a little..it hurts..even more so if you don’t try..and die wondering.
PS: Terry Malick is a genius, friend of mine worked on The Thin Red Line, said you couldn’t meet a nicer guy..use all the V/O you want!

andrew May 12, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Great article. I might do a 6 month course next year.
And Tom, your advice clarifies a lot.

Mark Trask February 29, 2012 at 12:08 am

Surely you’ve made the “Peter Tosh” character up?? I wouldn’t blame you… a wonderful plot device for the blog. Character name is a little too obvious though.

Allen Palmer February 29, 2012 at 6:48 am

Indeed, Mark. You’d think with a name like that you’d be less inclined to serve it up. But apparently not …

The Coop October 19, 2012 at 10:38 pm

Was put onto your site by a mate studying at AFTRS. Really enjoyed this post specifically. Looks like a fab resource and blog Allen thanks. Recently finished a screenwriting / directing course at Met Film in Ealing London. Always on the look out for more wisdom and ideas thanks. Keep it up.

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