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

by Allen Palmer 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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