Christopher Vogler is a veteran story consultant for major Hollywood film companies and a respected teacher of filmmakers and writers around the globe. His book “The Writer’s Journey”, applying the ancient patterns of myth to modern story-telling, has helped to shape the way people in movies, TV, and publishing think about stories and is required reading at many film schools and literature programs. He has influenced the screenplays of movies from THE LION KING to FIGHT CLUB to THE THIN RED LINE and most recently wrote the first installment of RAVENSKULL, a Japanese-style manga or graphic novel. He was the executive producer of the feature film P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD and writer of the animated feature JESTER TILL.
He comes to Raindance Toronto to deliver his weekend masterclass, The Essence of Storytelling.
How did you first become interested in the idea of the hero’s journey?
From earliest childhood I have resonated to heroic stories, especially in big epic movies about knights, cowboys and mythic heroes. I don’t know how to describe it except to say they made me ring like a bell. As a young film student I was looking for the unwritten rules of story structure and found them spelled out in the work of the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell who wrote about the hero’s journey model in his book THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES.
Joseph Campbell said that modern society lacked the myths and stories that used to connect us. Are movies our new myths?
I think they can be. People certainly use them as personal and collective metaphors, as inspiration, and as models for behavior. Movies can be the personal myths or daydreams of their creators, but they also serve as collective expressions of wishes, desires and fears held by a great many people. Myths and mythic symbols arise when we need them, to mediate between our conscious minds and the vast domain of the unconscious. They help us deal with new and baffling developments in our world — such as, in our day, technology, speed, overcrowding, lack of privacy, climate change, etc.
Are audiences more familiar with mythic structure and character archetypes today and is that something writers should be aware of?
People do seem to be more conscious of the forms and even of the technical terms for these archetypes. I note that the creators of both the Star Trek TV series and HBO’S TRUE BLOOD introduced races of “shape-shifter” characters (the Shape-shifter is an archetype I describe in my book THE WRITER’S JOURNEY). The recognition of patterns in movies and TV shows is part of the fun of viewing. However, story-tellers must always seek ways to keep the old forms fresh by exploring surprising new aspects of the classic types. Our concepts of mentors, for example, are always evolving; we are probably less trusting of them these days, more aware that they may be complex beings with agendas and psychological problems of their own beyond their traditional roles of giving the hero training, guidance or magical equipment.
Is the hero’s journey equally applicable to women – or is that a different journey entirely?
I maintain that the hero’s journey describes a universal human experience and that the gender of the hero is often irrelevant to the adventure. I don’t see it as the man’s journey, but as the human journey. And yet there are great differences in the way men and women experience stories, and we need to consider masculine and feminine expressions of the hero’s journey. Maybe there is a tendency for the man’s journey to be goal-oriented and outer-directed, and for the woman’s to be more focused on feelings and relationships, with a more inward orientation. Big generalizations, I know. Good work has been done on the feminine experience of the journey by Jungian therapist and author Maureen Murdock (THE HEROINE’S JOURNEY) and by Kim Hudson (THE VIRGIN’S PROMISE). Both offer credible models to describe the distinct journey of the female.
It may be that there is more work to be done, to accurately describe the unique journey of the male. We may need yet another model to note the specific physical and emotional developments that a boy experiences on the path to manhood.
Is there a danger that writers may become over reliant on formulas and patterns instead of relying on their own instincts?
Yes of course, strict adherence to a formula is just boring. In practice, every writer has to find a balance between patterns and his or her own instincts. Audiences depend on the patterns for orientation and they seem to get a great deal of pleasure out of them, especially when they recognize a familiar, even beloved pattern but discover some surprise or reversal about it that they had never experienced before. I admire the creative approach of the HBO series producers (SIX FEET UNDER, THE SOPRANOS, DEADWOOD, TRUE BLOOD, BIG LOVE etc.) which seems to be “Give them recognizable genres but strive to find unconventional solutions to story problems.” I love it when I watch one of those shows and am sure that they will have to choose one of the only five or six known ways of solving a problem, and then am pleasantly surprised that they found a seventh way that I had never considered.
During your time in the business, have you noticed any changes in the telling of the hero’s journey?
Perhaps because of the rising influence of comic books, we are seeing a great elaboration of the “origin stories” of our super-heroes. We don’t mind “re-booting” a beloved franchise like Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Zorro, the Hulk, Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood or James Bond every few years to present alternative versions of the mythic character’s birth and evolution.
Since everyone already knows the hero outline in great detail, we can afford to dig deeper into the motivations and doubts of heroic characters. We have Stan Lee to thank for a greater degree of realism and psychological depth in our heroes.
Do different myths play better in different areas of the world?
Some stories are understood and appreciated in all cultures; THE LION KING seems to be one of them. Others may be deeply meaningful only to a specific region. The American myth of one person taking on the Establishment (ERIN BROCKOVICH) may not resonate in cultures where more value is placed on collective effort. I am told by some European writers that their proposals are being rejected by German producers because they are too much like Hollywood stories, focused more on action and physical conflict than on emotional developments.
Tell us about your next book, Memo From the Story Department.
In THE WRITER’S JOURNEY I “translated” Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey into the language of film narrative; in the new book I do the same for some other models from surprising sources. I’m looking at a Russian theory of fairy tale construction and an approach to character developed by a follower of Aristotle. I also dipped into the world of vaudeville and music halls for clues about how to structure a satisfying evening of entertainment. I co-wrote the book with my colleague David McKenna, a Columbia University film professor who urges writers to analyze stories in the light of six different environmental factors.