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09/29/2003 - Hollywood, the Hero?s Journey, and You

This is an article by my friend de Bouronne, whose insights on the craft of screenwriting I have found useful...

Writers want to create. We see the act and state of creation as an invitation to our inner poet. But if poetry suggests to you a Walt Whitman ramble, consider the screenplay to be a Shakespearean sonnet. And as the sonnet brackets, Hollywood confines by demanding some soul-destroying, creativity crippling formula. Or so we may believe. Hollywood: the dizzy slut who gave us Godzilla and never paid the doctor when we had to get shots. Hollywood, where the executives live. Creative. And otherwise. Grim fellows in glossy suits who have learned to mouth the words "Hero's Journey" and are always talking about...money. Money. It's disgusting, isn't it?

But if I tell you that ninety-nine percent of the movies audiences most enjoy are flawlessly executed Hero's Journeys, you're not surprised, are you? Offended? Of course not. Because you've done your homework. And you know what audiences enjoy. And you do want to satisfy an audience, somewhere, don't you? I thought so.

And you understand the qualities of the Hero's Journey: a reluctant protagonist, compelled to suffer a series of trials that will reveal his inner self and restore balance to his world. Let's look at a single element of the Hero's Journey: the Refusal of the Call. Our Hero...reluctant. Rick cynically disengages from the corruption around him (a bit of a fake, that...but some other time). Ripley tells Burke "It's not my problem" when he invites her to revisit her favorite Aliens. Jerry regrets his grand mission statement in Jerry Maguire. Thelma doesn't want to go with Louise, Captain Miller would prefer not to save Private Ryan, Lilo throws a fit and gets a Stitch. Been there, done that.

So when I tell you that the Refusal of the Call propels every decision and every revelation Lester makes in American Beauty you aren't surprised, are you? Well, maybe a little. Because the "Refusal" is not written as speech or individual action. But I promise you it is there in every year and every minute of Lester's past heartbreak and sorrow as he refused to act while his wife evolved into a materialistic shrew, his daughter became a stranger, and his own dreams died. The Refusal of the Call is where Lester has lived for years and it is written and filmed as his behavior: beating off in the shower. Ridiculing himself. Enduring the ridicule of his wife and child...until at last, he can't live there any more, and accepts his Call to Adventure. But you knew that. You knew that the Refusal of the Call does not have to be a direct statement or individual action because you've studied Tender Mercies and Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Notting Hill and American Beauty and you know that in each of these stories the Refusal of the Call is a private agony where the protagonists have lived for years. An agony that compels them to finally accept their Call to Adventure.

So when some fellow in a glossy suit mentions that he'd like to see something which sounds like a Refusal of the Call, or phrases a question in terms of a Supreme Ordeal, you forgive him. Because you know he is only hoping you have done your homework. And you have. You know he is only reminding you of the audience which has been waiting for your story since we were painting in caves. An audience which only wants to give you...some money.

For other essays by de Bouronne, please click here..


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