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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