I work with a lot of story tellers, and constantly receive requests for me to help people tell their story. This begs the question: what makes for a good story? How can you, as an individual, tell your story most effectively, whether that be to a client, an audience, a constituency, or a group of friends?

Story telling is very primal to the human experience. Human beings, being social animals, want to gather around the proverbial fire and hear the story shaman spin their magic. The campfiremagic they spin are the myths that explain the values within which we live.

The modern story shaman does something similar, but uses different mediums: sometimes the written word, sometime a moving image, sometimes the spoken word. He or she wants to draw an audience into an experience, to make them forget about themselves for a moment, to transcend themselves and connect with something meaningful.

A common thread among most stories is that they involve conflict. Conflict creates tension and tension creates interest. Conflict often requires a villain. And villains need to be overcome through a process often called ‘the hero’s journey’.

What I’d like to discuss here are methods that can complement and perhaps, in some cases, even move beyond conflict as the focal story telling device. These methods include humor, insight, and empathy. I’ll finish up with a note about being cliché.

Humor is probably the best way to open people up to you as a communicator. Most every good speaker we know of has used humor effectively. You probably remember Johnny Carson of the Tonight Show. Well if you think Johnny Carson was funny you should have heard his sidekick Ed McMahon ‘warm an audience up’ prior to Johnny – all occurring before Johnny’s famous monologue. Once Johnny was on stage, then Ed took a back seat. But Ed himself was an absolutely hilarious speaker. Humor can be key to getting an audience on your side so that you can deliver your message effectively.

Insight is also key. What is insight? Insight is the ability to cut to the core of a problem or insightquestion and distill the fundamental message that invokes the proverbial ‘ah hah’ moment. We all know what those moments are. The best story tellers provide insight and give an audience something to take home. Something to learn, you might say – but that isn’t always just a practical tip or idea. It could be an insight that actually changes an audience’s perspective on things, opens their mind up to see life in a different way. Insight can be transformative.

Empathy is perhaps the most important trait of a good story teller. Empathy allows the story teller to paint a meaningful picture and connect to their audience on a personal, often emotional level.

One documentary filmmaker we worked with told the bitter story of how indigenous people in Colombia were caught between the communist rebel guerrillas and the existing government. The women of the towns began to rise up non-violently and protest the situation. One indigenous woman had trumped up charges brought against her and was taken away from her child and to prison, and all of this after the guerrillas had assassinated her husband.

Her little boy was filmed with a beautiful, missing baby teeth smile on his face because he was, at heart, a happy child with a beautiful mother. During the interview, the child broke into tears at the fact he could not see his mother while she was in prison.

The empathy and compassion the audience feels for the child is palpable, and delivers the message of the story completely and without ambiguity. Such moments of empathy, as long as they avoid the sentimental, can be powerful methods to connect with an audience and tell a story.

Today, most people are somewhat cynical about the story telling tropes rolled out via re-tread story lines. On that note I would provide one last bit of advice that was given to me by a colleague who has worked with hundreds of writers and helps them hone their pitches to agents and publishers.

Avoid the cliché like the plague. Before you’re ready to tell your story, line up your clichés in a sort of firing squad and mow them down like a gun-slinging final tête–à–tête in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Do not be empathetic with clichés. Seek and destroy with relish. Your story will be better as a result.

These few brief tips are my take on what makes a good story. On analysis, you’ll find many of these traits exist not only in good stories, but in great speakers and classic films you enjoy. In other words, they are funny in some way (at least providing comic relief), they give some insight into the state of humanity, and they are empathetic toward their subject and/or characters. While not all modern stories, speakers and films could be said to adhere to these suggestions, the ones that last, are remembered, and loved most often do.

And it seems to me that’s good company to be in.

Don Thompson is a producer and playwright.

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Spoiler Alert: some story elements are revealed in this essay.

The word revenant means ‘one who has returned from the dead or from a long absence’.  In the case of Alejandro Iñárritu’s film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and written by Iñárritu with Mark Smith, it is DiCaprio’s true-to-history character of Hugh Glass that returns in order to take therevenatrevenge on the man who killed his son. So the story of The Revenant is one of nature and revenge, and nothing more.

That’s the simple part.

The not so simple part is actually analyzing this multi-layered film as a drama that transcends the revenge label to unveil a meditation on the relative nature of good and evil. As such The Revenant speaks to a modern audience who has in many ways lost the meaning of the word drama. The Revenant reintroduces film-goers to this recently problematic word as it explores the primal meaning of the human experience and attempts to strip bare civilized man (I say man because it is a film very much about men) to reveal what lies beneath.

Dramatists, artists and mystics, for the most part, seek to have us question the idea of absolute good and evil and hint at a common humanity that transcends our differences. The alternative is not really drama but more aptly labeled melodrama – what we are typically given in the name of drama.

This Trojan Horse agenda of the dramatist, artist and mystic – this request for us to question our simple and absolute morality – is at the heart of The Revenant. Yet, at the same time, the film portrays the tendency to seek absolutes in a relative world to be at the heart of the human experience, rising from the tendency to hate what brings us pain and to love what brings us pleasure. However, this film reveals, like any good drama will, that this primal human motive in no way shape or form delineates absolute good and evil, which is shown to be a chimera, changeable, relative, and completely dependent on your point of view.

To the Arikara tribe, the Americans are the enemy. To the Pawnee tribe, the French are the enemy.  To the lone Pawnee, the American Hugh Glass is a friend. To Hugh Glass, Fitzgerald is an enemy. To Fitzgerald, Hugh Glass who betrayed his deal with him is the enemy. To the Europeans, the lone Pawnee is an enemy. To the Americans, the Indians in general are the enemy. To the daughter of the Arikara leader, the character of Glass is a hero. To the American Captain, the child-man Bridger is revealed as a hero.  To the Grizzly Bear protecting her cubs and almost killing Hugh Glass, Glass himself is the enemy – and she is in many ways, in her primal protective mode, creating the entire dramatic context of the story.

Who then is the enemy, what then is this evil? Is it really mankind, imposing its will on pristine nature?

‘I leave the revenge to the Creator’, advises the lone Pawnee man to Glass, and Glass echoes this to Fitzgerald later in the story. The film, in conclusion, indicates it is better for human beings not to judge. This, indicates The Revenant, is the wiser path. That said, nature may not be without her own form of judgement.

As I watched The Revenant two other filmmakers came to my mind: Terrence Malick and P.T. Anderson, and more specifically Malick’s The Tree of Life and The New World and Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.  Reviews written by myself for Tree of Life and There Will Be Blood can be found here and here.

Misha Petrick has also compared Andrei Tarkovsky‘s visual style to The Revenant in a split screen video here, and Iñárritu himself suggested that Tarkovsky has had a deep influence on him. I have not seen all of Tarkovsky’s films but found the visual comparison compelling. In interviews, Iñárritu also mentions Herzog, Kurosawa, and others as influences on The Revenant.

That said, Malick’s The Tree of Life and The New World also seem to me to be visual predecessors to The Revenant. Tree of Life and The New World, like Revenant, had a love affair between nature and the camera (in the case of The Revenant, an entirely new camera technology used to brilliant effect by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also shot The Tree of Life). Regardless, the result is art: the stillness of nature and its pristine framework forms the backdrop for men’s selfish machinations.

Nature, and particularly water, factor heavily in The Revenant as forces of both destruction and renewal. Many of the scenes of Revenant are directly or indirectly associated with streams or rivers. The dual nature of water, as both a destructive and redemptive force, are key to the evolution of the story.  So too in Tree of Life did the river become a redemptive force as the young boy Jack seeks to wash his sins away with the nightgown scene. The water cleanses, renews, and washes away the old in favor of the new.

As in The Tree of LifeThe Revenant shows that humankind’s social reality exists only within the context of a wider nature that is in many ways cold and without mercy. If mercy exists anywhere, The Revenant  shows it to be in the small, individual human gesture, such as when Bridger offers food to the Indian woman or leaves the canteen with Glass with the labyrinth-like design etched on it. The key difference between The Tree of Life and The Revenant is that while the former posits that compassionate choice may exist outside of the individual human and arise out of nature itself, The Revenant  more closely associates any potential compassion with the human realm; thus Tree of Life more directly supports the view that there is some sort of proto-rational, pre-human intelligence that leads us to choose compassion. For The Revenant, the creator God is reflected as a cold and judgmental nature, a nature that is essentially detached unless that detachment is altered by human will.

Tree of Life also suggests a detached universe reflected in the primordial expression of space and time that ultimately seeks a compassionate viewpoint when individual sentience (even animal sentience) arises. To Malick, as expressed in Tree of Life, this detachment could come in the way of an errant asteroid, also hinted at in The Revenant as the meteor flies overhead and lands somewhere in the distance. Both films posit that humanity lives within a certain folly in its obsession with the petty concerns of profit and loss, of pleasure and pain. That is, unless you’re a human being, in which case these petty human considerations are of life and death importance, and the meteor passing overhead is only a brief reminder of potential destruction and judgement from above, quickly forgotten as the next distraction takes hold of one’s consciousness and edges a person such as Fitzgerald in The Revenant to salvage the pelts, get the money, and pave one’s proverbial path to Texas.

It is in the mud that humanity must apparently sludge through in order to find redemption, and receive a glimpse of love and happiness.

What then is this love? Where shall it be found? Does love really present itself only when the proper choices are made, and when mankind turns away from hatred and realizes that nature (or God?) does not really judge us at all, that this too is a concept laid upon a pristine reality by the human mind?

These thoughts and questions meander through my own mind when reflecting back on The Revenant.

As for P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood I am reminded that blood, like water, is a primal force as it is in The Revenant. Blood is, it seems, the sacrifice required for growth in this world. So is Hugh Glass ‘reborn’ from the blood and guts from the ‘womb’ of the Horse, just as much as he is almost killed by the bloody attack from the Bear. Nature both gives and takes life, and blood and violence is required. The ‘fall’ into the womb of the horse therevenant3(like a lower realm of hell in Dante’s Inferno) also rebirths Glass into the more hate-filled and obsessive purpose of revenge, whereas prior he had primarily been motivated by the desire to live and breath. It is only the mercy of women, along with restraint in judging Fitzgerald, that eventually leads Glass back to human love.

For P.T. Anderson, violence is also justified, for it makes way for the new. In There Will Be Blood Anderson seems to promote the necessary bloodletting of the weak by the powerful, as the weak would have humanity forever acquiescing and accepting ‘the will of God/Nature’ and suffer needlessly as a result. This luddite thinking must be removed for progress to occur, or so goes the modern myth. Nature and others must be sacrificed, often violently, in the name of human progress, even if that progress ultimately destroys what it sought to merely dominate.

To D.D Lewis’s character Daniel Plainview, the protagonist of There Will Be Blood, those that seek a bloodless world are naïve and stripping mankind of the very force that gives it life and propels humanity forward. Thus Heaven or ‘spirit’, should they exist, are simply bloodless realities that the weak perennially and naively seek in order to escape what cannot be escaped from, the primal force of cold nature that doesn’t give a damn about them.

To the materialist, the ‘spiritual’ scenes in The Revenant of Glass vis-à-vis his wife are but mirages, hallucinations and mad meanderings. To the spiritual, they are visions of a greater, alternative world that transcends the perennial, bloody savagery of human life – no matter how hidden, sublimated, air brushed and ‘oh my goshed’ out of existence it is in our modern era – a savagery that buttresses the material world in its quest for food and shelter. The spiritual person replies that even if such realities are created by a hallucinatory mind, what makes them any less real than the hallucinations therevenant2of money and profit, of the shimmering hope of getting some land in Texas to settle down, as was the hope of the materialist Fitzgerald, a man who mocked God? His hope too, ultimately, was a chimera, a mirage, and a pipe dream. So too might be the very notion of human progress.

Whether ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’ (with human beings the two often meld) it seems that human beings need a purpose.

It seems to me that human beings need a purpose in order to keep moving forward materially, artistically, or even spiritually. Without a purpose, whether that be revenge or love, heaven or hell, family or friends, profit or art, people cannot be adequately called human. Perhaps the problem with most of us is that we tend to let others define our purpose, rather than choose it for ourselves.

For the character of Hugh Glass in The Revenant, he very much chose his purpose by reacting to circumstances in a certain way.

For 20th Century Fox, an American Studio that put their stamp on an epic, big budget dramatic feature telling a human story that is not a super-hero movie or cartoonish blockbuster – and not gone to their ‘independent’ subsidiary to do so – perhaps that is another return from a long absence, another revenant of sorts. Time will tell.

**
Don Thompson is a producer, playwright and essayist.

 

After about a 10 year hiatus I’ve written a new play I’m really excited about. It’s called The God of this World and has many diverse inspirations, including but not limited to the possibility of extraterrestrial life, The Important of Being Ernest (the play), and new physics. gotw-poster-vimeoAfter years of reflection, I decided the only sane response artistically to our world was a bit of comic insanity, all with an eye toward the love.

Below is a link to the video we shot of the recent production at Maryland Ensemble Theater, and a teaser. I hope you enjoy. We really had a lot of fun with the production and I’m sure you’ll like it. The proceeds will help nextPix and Maryland Ensemble Theatre (MET) continue to produce and support new, innovative theatre, so be sure to share and spread the word.

Synopsis: A divorced New York City lawyer tries to convince his unemployed blogger daughter that her affair with an extraterrestrial is a fantasy. Once the lawyer’s ex-wife hears about the situation, she becomes intent on stopping any alien ‘invasion’ that may be in progress. In tandem, the daughter’s yoga-loving, poly-amorous friend meets a Harvard physicist and tests the bounds of left and right brain compatibility.

Rent from Vimeo On Demand and help nextPix and Maryland Ensemble Theatre produce the upcoming 2016 METLab Festival of New Plays and other original works for the stage.

Don Thompson

“Since… when revolutions are impossible, and bloody wars loom…”

“…when the lighting progress of science… when the distant galaxies are on my doorstep”

“…the limits of language are the world’s limits…”

The Guardian – The 40th Toronto international film festival (Tiff) runs from 10-20 September. This article will be updated as official announcements detailing the full lineup are released. The-Dressmaker-008

Read more here…

Right: Kate Winslet in ‘The Dressmaker’

The Telegraph: Wlliam Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, has dismissed the modern craze for superhero and sci-fi movies.

The acclaimed 79-year-old filmmaker, who is currently working for television channel HBO on a series about Mae West, toldWilliam-Friedkin-xlarge AFP reporter Sophie Laubie: “Films used to be rooted in gravity. They were about real people doing real things. Today cinema in America is all about Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Avengers, Hunger Games: all kinds of stuff that I have no interest in seeing at all.”

Read more here…

The rules for movie financing were radically redrawn Wednesday by a landmark Securities and Exchange Commission ruling that opens the door for online investments in start-up businesses  by the majority of Americans.

Read more here

Resilience never dies—collection of rare photojournalistic images tells stories of survival

TEN YEARS LATER – we need to remember. A great Indigogo campaign… more information here.

AFM is here, and Variety will keep us up to date:

Read more…

Naomi Watts

Naomi Watts

Lucy, the latest action sci-fi thriller from director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element), takes on some fertile new thematic territory even as it builds on past films and ideas taken from neuroscience, the New Age movement, theoretical physics, and Eastern mysticism. I felt compelled to write about Lucy because of my unique background and familiarity with some of the ideas Besson is likely influenced by. I’m pretty sure most other reviewers will not be making quite the same connections that I will set forth here, so you might find what’s laid out below an interesting (if lucyunusual and eclectic) read.

In a statement about Lucy, Besson mentions that the film is primarily influenced by his own film The Professional, as well as Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That statement can be found here and seems intended to help market the film. What I’d like to do here is open up the discussion about Lucy to some additional areas the filmmaker (to my knowledge) hasn’t mentioned. Bear in mind we may never know the full extent of what influenced Besson.

First, I think the film’s exploration of the question “what if we used 100% of our brain’s capability?” should be understood in the context of the human potential movement, which itself is an amorphous, multi-faceted phenomena. From the standpoint of  mainstream, Cineplex-targeted film making, this subject rarely gets the air time seen with Lucy. More on that in a bit.

I read one discouraged reviewer, who felt the film might get an opening weekend bump from the fact it stars Scarlett Johansson, was easily marketable from an action-film standpoint, and was directed by a filmmaker of some renown. However, lousy word of mouth, this same reviewer argued, would soon sink the ship. We’ll have to see if he’s right.  I have a little more faith in people and in the potential for Lucy to reach a very wide audience; but then I tend to be an optimist. Notably, The Fifth Element was no favorite of the critics, but went on to cult film status and endless repeats on cable.

One reason I’m an optimist is that Lucy seems similar in ambition to What the Bleep Do We Know – the docu-fiction created by William Arntz – a film that showed that there is a pent-up audience for this kind of material. What The Bleep went on to influence (or be corrected by, depending on your perspective) the TV Series Through the Wormhole Hole with Morgan Freeman, and of course Morgan Freeman ends up playing the college professor Samuel Norman in Lucy, expounding human potential ideas in much the same way that the various scientists did in What the Bleep.

The idea that ‘everything comes from nothing’ (Lucy’s ultimate enlightenment) is a concept that might seem unique to Lucy but in fact traces its roots to quantum physics. My introduction to this idea came through a ground-breaking book titled The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra, a work that became well-known during the 1970’s and was one of the first books (that I know of) to link mysticism and physics. That book inspired my film Clouds.

Moreover, the Buddhist philosophy of ‘emptiness’ and the mystical idea of the ‘light body’ are also in line with Lucy’s final enlightenment experience. You can read more about the Buddhist light (or ‘rainbow’) body experience here — the phenomena is also described at length in David Wilcock’s book The Source Field Investigations.

Now the human potential movement can be roughly divided into at least two main camps: the humanists (or one might say spiritual humanists, which I describe in another blog here) and the trans-humanists. Both believe human beings must evolve in order for the planet to survive. The former offers a human-based and/or spiritual resolution to human evolution, the latter a scientific and technological answer.

Besson is certainly laying out the argument in this film that evolution is indeed required for survival: the question will become whose kind of evolution this is. The film, to me, sides mostly with the trans-humanists and thus the corporate and scientific answer to the problem of human evolution. The main reason that corporations in general support a trans-humanist agenda is that it can be commodified, sold, patented and owned. In a nutshell, it is profitable.

The trans-humanists will argue that human evolution must at this point require scientific enhancement and an ‘upgrade’, technologically driven, of the human genome. This ‘upgrade’ (or variations thereof) would again be corporate owned and patented. To many Christians, trans-humanism, secular humanism or any other stripe of humanism is a bad thing because you shouldn’t put mankind before God.

I take somewhat of a wider, more tolerant, view of the humanism(s) and their outlook(s). Traditional humanists (again, some of whom would be more aptly called spiritual humanists) have a rich tradition of self-help and self-improvement, ranging from the practical to the esoteric.  Some of this practical advice springs from the Christian culture itself. We have as examples Dale Carnegie’s classic best-selling book How To Win Friends And Influence People, and the more recent The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. While Johansson’s Lucy obviously never read either of those books, please bear with me.

There is also a long tradition of Indian and Eastern mysticism which uses its own form of ‘upgrade technology’ in the form of esoteric meditation techniques.  I’ll use as an example the Kriya Yoga techniques of Paramahansa Yogananda, as passed down through a lineage of teachers coming out of India and (if you believe) traces its roots back thousands of years. The explicitly stated goal of Kriya Yoga is to accelerate human evolution.

Interestingly, one of Steve Jobs’ favorite books was Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. If ever there was a proponent of human evolution, it was Jobs.

Similarly, the Tamil Siddha tradition seeks to evolve human consciousness through the practice of certain mantras that, according to the practitioners, create the ‘siddha powers’ that are evident (in some ways) in the character of Lucy. Super human powers are also, of course, very much on display in film via the super hero genre, so that is no great news. Also, themes of scientifically induced enhanced brain capacity have been explored in other films such as Limitless.

What is news is that there may indeed eventually be an actual technological link to enhance human capability that will make the synthetic cocktail ingested accidentally by Lucy a very real (albeit expensive) option for some people — likely the rich who would rather evolve while sun-bathing on a yacht than while sitting in some cave meditating. Genetic screening and therapies are already a reality; rest assured the upgrade cocktail that expands IQ, memory, longevity, virility, etc. is not far behind. (An interesting article regarding genetic modification and extended lifespans can be found here.)

However, as explored in Lucy, another impact of such a cocktail could be an incredibly expanded awareness, tantamount to the mystical goals of omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence as laid out by the Tamil Siddhas. Admittedly, one can easily dismiss the whole notion of this brand of human potential as a myth, whether generated by science or yogic methods.

Proponents of yogic mysticism, however, apparently have great faith in their practices, are notably democratic and would like the entirety of humanity to evolve, not just the wealthy who can afford an expensive genetic cocktail and have zero faith in any kind of spirituality. A spirituality that might inspire, among other supposedly bad ideas, wide-spread compassion (generally propagated by mystics) that could discourage our world leader’s penchant for starting a war every five minutes and/or negatively impact one’s stock portfolio.

Yeah, give me Lucy, sexy Lucy, guns a blazing, butt swiveling, making those bad Asians impotent in front of our very eyes – now there’s some marketing potential for you.

That said, Besson slips in some very subtle story telling prowess to assure me with Lucy that he hasn’t bailed out on the love and goodness he was propagating with The Fifth Element. While Lucy comes to a much more clinical enlightenment than did Leeloo (played by Milla Jovovich) in The Fifth Element, she does, over the course of the story, stop resorting to violence. Lucy immobilizes her adversaries toward the end – she does not kill them. Ultimately she transcends the enemy. Besson, albeit in a fairly subtle way, reminds us that ultimately evolution = compassion.

At the end of the film, per Professor Norman’s wise suggestion, Lucy decides to pass on whatever knowledge she gained. It was apparently this wisdom she lacked, even with all of her new-found powers. In short, even God (or the Goddess) may need a teacher.

I am reminded of another story that shows us how compassion should go hand in hand with scientifically enhanced human evolution: a 1963 Outer Limits episode titled The Sixth Finger starring David McCallum. A YouTube link to the final few minutes of that poignant episode is here or you can find the entire episode on Hulu here.

This is how the narrator sums up the scientist’s attempt to accelerate human intelligence  in The Sixth Finger — words that could just as well be applied to Lucy:

“An experiment too soon, too swift, and yet, may we not still hope to discover a method by which within one generation the whole human race could be rendered intelligent, beyond hatred or revenge or the desire for power? Is that not after all the ultimate goal of evolution?”

As for Lucy, after initially losing her sense of empathy, her shift back toward compassion is a little less spelled out. So it may be up to me, the humble reviewer, to let you in on it. Even though Luc Besson may believe greed jeopardizes the human race, he has not jumped ship on the altruists! Lucy does eventually evolve toward non-violence. Amen.

Actually I’m sure many of you will get this point from the film itself, but in case not I feel compelled to remind you.

Still, it’s the males in the film – notably the Caucasians and the Asians (a hint at WW III?) – that in the end keep killing each other like rats on a sinking ship. This may be why the Dalai Lama says that the next step in human evolution is up to the women – notably women of the West.

He  is probably right.

Finally, let’s not let the irony of Lucy escape us. Whether through science or yogic mysticism, humans will evolve, and probably in ways unforeseen by the unenlightened, gun for hire scientists and capitalists seeking profit. In other words, nature is not without her trickery. She will eventually get us where we need to be, by whatever means possible.

**

Don Thompson is a producer, playwright and essayist. He has edited/authored two anthologies of essays: Your Life Is A Movie and  A World Without War, both available from Del Sol Press.

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