My philosophy (or why I believe people go to the movies)

What sort of movies do you want to make? I want to make movies that people want to watch so, for me, film is all about the story. Informed and inspired by Joseph Campbell, I passionately believe that movies should take audiences on an emotionally satisfying journey that reminds us of the agony and the ecstasy of the human experience.

Why do people go to the movies?

Have you ever met anyone who doesn’t like movies? Not everyone likes sport, or reading books, or watching TV – and some people, apparently, aren’t even all that keen on sex – but everyone loves movies. They seem to be the one thing in the world we all enjoy. Why is that? What is it about movies that has this extraordinary universal appeal?

The guy who helped me find the answer: Joseph Campbell

Trying to get a handle on why people want to watch movies might seem like a very obvious and fundamental question, yet a lot of screenwriters – even professional screenwriters – don’t seem to have wrestled with the question. I didn’t for years.

But, when I was living in LA, making absolutely no progress with my writing and close to giving up on the whole crazy idea of becoming a screenwriter, I stumbled upon a book: The Power of Myth by a guy called Joseph Campbell. It changed my life.

Joseph Campbell was not a screenwriter and The Power of Myth is not specifically about screenwriting but he did change the course of cinema history.

Have you heard of a film called Star Wars? Actually, I think there might have been a couple of follow-ups. Campbell was George Lucas’s story consultant on that fairly successful mega movie franchise. So he has reasonable screen cred.

Campbell was a guru on mythology and the Power of Myth is literally a conversation about stories: why humans need them and why they love some more stories than others.

As a young man, he gathered up about 5,000 years worth of myths, folk tales and legends and disappeared off to a cabin in the woods. When he emerged, he had some staggering insights on story that have transformed the narrative understanding of those fortunate enough to have entered his orbit.

Campbell’s most important discovery for screenwriters

Joseph Campbell is best known for the Hero’s Journey, a classic, universal storytelling model that I discuss in my section on Paradigm. However, while that 12-step character odyssey is going to be a revelation for you and a constant companion through your screenwriting career, I think there is more fundamental lesson for us in The Power of Myth. It’s the answer to the question of why people love the movies.

Asked by his interrogator what it is, across all time, creeds and cultures, that has attracted us to story, Joseph Campbell says:

“I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive …
… so that we can actually feel the rapture being alive.”

Life is tricky. As human beings, we have hopes and dreams, fears and failings, allies and antagonists. We struggle to get work, pay our bills, find love, achieve fulfilment, squeeze into our jeans, survive family Christmas gatherings and assemble flat-pack furniture. We need help dealing with all that. And help is there, has always been there, in stories. Movies are just the ultimate medium – to this point – for humans to experience stories.

Campbell’s description of what people seek from story – “rapture” – evokes religion but Campbell was no Christian evangelist. Like me, he believes that story is superior to religion because its pleasures are entirely non-denominational.

Cinema is the modern, secular cathedral. As humans we enter that darkened theatre seeking, I think, three things:

  1. To expand our emotional bandwith – to feel sensations that we rarely experience in our normal lives.
  2. To reconnect with our higher selves – to be reminded of what humans are capable of, in terms of both good and evil, and to alter course if we’re steering more towards the latter than the former.
  3. To be reminded we’re not alone – that by the collective reaction of others in the audience we realise that we are not the only ones wrestling with life’s eel.

In short, we go to the movies to get a lube, brake check and wheel alignment for our souls.

For a film to be able to do that – and not bore the pants off us – it doesn’t necessarily need to be sumptuously shot, and it doesn’t need to be cerebral. What it does need is a truly great story. That’s why, at Cracking Yarns, we worship at the altar of story. If you want to write movies that have some chance of attracting an audience – and keeping you in gainful employment – then climb on board.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

andrew April 5, 2011 at 9:50 pm

i once read a blog that claimed the only reason we watch film is to worry. Human’s like to worry. I thought to myself, if I ever meet this guy in the street, I will break his nose. How can you think you can summarise a hundred years of film history with one word?
Your philosophy I like. You cover it all and it seems geuine.

Dith August 18, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Genuine input. Those 3 points is why we all love movies. Lately many advanced movies are produced but not many catch our heart. The story itself should be great, not the technology. Technology is just a tool to blend and align the story in more beautiful way in visuals.

Robert February 23, 2012 at 9:29 am

Whilst this site has been a revelation to me in regards to filling in the gaps which many screenwriting books tend to ignore (Characters Arcs, etc) I can’t say that I agree with the philosophy that every audience member wants to go to the cinema to be moved.

I think that in itself, is subscribing to a very Australian attitude, and due to this attitude, is why the local industry has been in the dumps for the last forty years, with writer-directors running around wanting to tell ‘Personal’ and ‘Moving’ stories, which end up being kitchen sink dramas full of self indulgent garbage. This attitude has led to the industry being penetrated by ‘Arty’ types, who wouldn’t know what the average Joe on the street wants to watch because they’re too obsessed with their own hipster lifestyle to pay attention, and even worse, they DON’T CARE what the audience wants to see.

Most certainly, there is an audience for the above mentioned kind of stuff, but a larger component of us go to the movies to escape our lives, not to be reminded of them. The Blockbuster Crowd, and myself and many others in general, don’t always go to the cinema to be moved, or to have a personal message by the writer rammed down our throat: we go, because sometimes, we just want to sit in a dark room for two hours and forget about the world outside, eat a bunch of junk food and be lightly entertained by watching stuff get blown up sometimes. This is the type of crowd the Hipster Filmmakers of Australia roll their eyes at; they hate us because they don’t understand us, largely due to the fact that they are so self obsessed and self indulged with making movies that change lives and giving us their ‘Message’, that they forget what it’s all about: Entertainment.

Film is about escaping life; not being reminded of how much of a struggle it is for all of us sometimes.

Granted, starting a character off who is struggling in life and then taking him/her on a wild journey to realise that life is in fact, fun-whatever, is a natural character arc. But I’ve tended to find that in Australia, every film screams the message that life is horrible for the entire duration of the film, with some half assed character development that leaves the character, and us as an audience, just a LITTLE bit less depressed than they were at the beginning. For the price of admission, it’s no wonder the majority of us stay away in droves.

The largest component of cinema audiences want to be ENTERTAINED. If you can’t understand that, then form an orderly cue in the ‘Unemployed Writer’ section, and join the others who only care about ‘Moving’ an audience with their ‘Personal’ stories, which in reality, the majority of us don’t care about. Besides, if you are aiming for an audience that is seeking the answers to life on a cinema screen, you’re aiming for an incredibly small audience, and anyone looking for the answers of life from a film is someone who promptly needs medical supervision.

Entertain us first and you’ll get our attention; then you can move us.

Allen Palmer February 23, 2012 at 10:34 am

Hi, Robert,
Thanks for taking the time to respond but I’m afraid you misunderstand what I mean when I say “moved”. We are actually in furious agreement.

I, too, feel that too many recent Australian films have failed to entertain. But the reason that they have failed find an audience is not because they were “moving” films. On the contrary, it was because they failed to move us.

While the writers and directors might have felt they were dealing with “moving material”- gritty kitchen sink dramas – audiences, generally speaking, didn’t agree. They were not moved.

Let’s clarify something. When I say moved, I mean moved to a state of high emotion. Laughter, grief, horror, tears. At the key moments of a film, if it’s working for me, I will cry. Not everyone is like that. Not everyone wants that. But that’s what I’m looking for. A film that pushes me to all emotional states and then deeply affects me to the point of tears.

“Entertain” is a very slippery term. I’m sure Transformers sets out to entertain but because it does not move me, it fails. However, if a film moves me to laughter and tears, I can guarantee you it will have been entertaining.

Robert February 23, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Thankyou for your response, Allen!
After your clarifications, I now understand what you meant by the term ‘Moved.’

I guess I was jumping the gun, because whilst you say the term ‘Entertain’ is a slippery term, hearing ‘I want to write a script that moves people’ in Australia tends to generally lean towards a very singular way of thinking, that being the depressive films we have been forced upon us by unrelenting ‘This is what I was taught to write in film school’ filmmakers, and behind them, Screen Australia.

But that’s another topic, which I have found, that not even dozens of beers amongst a dozen screenwriters can solve. But by God, we have tried many times, and I’m afraid that by the time we find an answer, we’ll all be alcoholics.

On the subject of beers: I probably owe you quite a few beers for pointing me in the right direction in terms of character development; having the character’s main plot Want, running in opposition to their subplot Need, was the biggest ‘Aha’ moment ever given to me by any screenwriting book-website. Many thanks.

Off topic (Was I actually talking about something coherent to begin with?): Considering that it’s Oscar season, is there any chance you would be able to do a mini dissection of some of the films selected for best screenplay, both original-adapted?

I only ask this because the dissection and work you did on The Town-Social Network, were the best breakdowns of a script that I have ever read, they were just superb.

In particular, I have found The Descendants to be a very polarising subject, and would like to know what your thoughts are on it?

Otherwise, always looking forward to more posts, and keep up the impeccable work.

Allen Palmer February 23, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Hi, Robert,
I am finding it difficult to give much time to my blog because I am preoccupied with writing my own scripts and teaching at AFTRS. But things might settle down shortly. I do have a number of topics I’m keen to write about.

EC January 24, 2013 at 9:23 am

Hi Allen,

First of all, thanks for the great site, I really learn a lot from you.

I was reading your post and Robert’s comments, and then it hit me. How about all those James Bond movies? Where are the “Hero’s Journeys” in those films?

Aren’t James Bond movies the most enduring and longest-running movie franchise?

On a related note, how do you do “Hero’s Journey” on TV series? For example, TV series on Perry Mason, or TV Soap Operas for that
matter. All those TV series are greatly entertaining, consistently successful, and long-running; but where are the 12-steps of inner transformation?

Star Wars Episodes 4,5,6 are really one story (Hero’s Journey). Any addition before and/or after are just redundant.

While epic Hero’s Journey-type of stories are great (and let’s face it, there aren’t too many out there that are successfully done). At the end of the day, it’s the Series (both in TV and books) that consistently make writers money and keep the scores of them employed year-in and year-out.

I would very much appreciate your thoughts on this, thanks.

Allen Palmer January 24, 2013 at 10:21 am

Hi, EC,
James Bond films operate at a lower level. It’s mere spectacle and release of tension, which is fine if you all you want is entertainment. But if you want a film to really move you, it needs to engage at a deeper level, deal with a bigger issue, and have this transformative opportunity. It’s why James Bond films never get nominated for Oscars. TV series like Perry Mason and soap operas are the same – it’s just build tension and release. It’s just entertainment and there’s a place for that. But series like Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men and Breaking Bad go deeper – they have the character deal with a big metaphysical issue, they have them grapple with their demons – put id, ego and superego at war with one another – and we sit riveted as these flaws cause them to unravel. The best TV tends to be tragic because the hero can’t transform – otherwise the series would be over.

Howard koor March 3, 2014 at 7:15 am

We do go to the movies to escape but in a very special way. We go to see life in a higher finer vivid way. We BECOME the character and we live through them. If the film is great and the acting is strong, we escape ourselves by living through them. Campbell is a genius to illuminate it the way he does.

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