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CHARACTER, AUDIENCE & TRIBE
in the Art of Collaboration
transcription of a talk by Billy Marshall Stoneking
“Successful people are always looking for opportunities to help others.
Unsuccessful people are always asking, "What's in it for me?”
― Brian Tracy
Having a working understanding of the means by which stories convey meaningful (emotional) energy (i.e.: by way of a dramatic grammar) enables the screen storyteller to conceive as well as articulate critical and constructive insights about the characters and their actions, and the degree to which the selection and ordering of these actions works to clarify or obscure the emotional and physical journey that is the story. Conversely, non-intuitive storytellers - particularly if they are not fluent in the grammar - will struggle to become an effective member of the collaborative team.
It is important not to misconstrue what I mean when speaking about the grammar of drama. It involves much more than a vocabulary or a simplistic set of descriptive rules that designate the modulations of dramatic action. It is neither academic nor prescriptive; but rather, phenomenological. The grammar isn't so much a way of talking about drama as a way of entering into it, which ultimately requires one to let go of those presuppositions, prejudices and predispositions one has inherited from others and cultivated with the ongoing gathering of knowledge concerning dramatic screen storytelling. Even so, and even at the best of times, constructive and illuminating discourse concerning story is a rarity.
When I first took up my appointment to the screenwriting department at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in 2001, insightful comment and criticism regarding the story-making process was practically non-existent. Inter-departmental script conferences were little more than thinly disguised recitations of each team member’s personal ambitions, prejudices and fears. Critical analysis seldom progressed beyond “I don’t like the ending” or “It wouldn’t happen like that in real life”; or “Poor people don’t talk like this”, and that was about as far as it got. It was as if the students didn’t know what they were looking at, or what they might usefully be looking for. As far as story was concerned, they had no way of picking it up, turning it over, hearing it, smelling it, tasting it, shaking it, seeing what it was doing and why it was doing it.
What we were both sensitive to, and what made the collaboration so useful to both of us, was the recognition of what we held in common, and how our shared understandings were focused on our passion for character and the energies that the characters’ actions were building and releasing in the rhythmic flow of narrative time.
storytellers are working at the top of their game – whether they be editors or sound recordists, cinematographers or designers, directors, producers or writers – they are presenting not only the emotions of the characters in the story but also their own emotional relationship with them as it develops and takes form behind, beyond and within the story.
Dramatic stories are dialogical by nature. They are dialogical because they are told in a context, to an audience. They are also dialogical in the sense that they are received; they come from somewhere. When I began to think about where a lot of my own stories and other writings had come from, I remembered those years I spent in the desert, sitting around campfires, listening to Pintupi elders like Tjungkarta “Nosepeg” Tjupurrula and Tutama Tjapangarti chanting the stories of the Dreamtime. Caught up in the journeys of the ancestors, the entire world became a living drama. Those trees over there weren’t merely trees; they were the digging sticks of the Namputarkatjarra women. And this clay pan here, this is where the patjarta man musters all them poor buggers to warn them of the danger of the evil mamu.
Tribe, for lack of a better word, refers to the relationship that exists between the storyteller and whoever it is that is speaking through the storyteller. Who is it that is speaking through me? Or, more precisely, who am I speaking for? Who is my tribe?
The notion of tribe is ontological. To be is to be part of a tribe. Hence, it is neither fad nor fancy, neither “front” nor fashion. Our stories, in the context of tribe, take on an entirely different meaning, and, as was the case with audience, when we view them tribally we view them and hear them with entirely different eyes and ears.
(Above) Caesar's writers, comprising the legendary "Writers' Room", included some of the best comedic minds of the 1950s - pioneers of television comedy. Veterans of the Writers' Room included Mel Tolkin, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks, Neil and Danny Simon, Aaron Ruben, Gary Belkin, Woody Allan and Sheldon Keller. (New York City - circa 1953)
As I looked at the boys on the screen I was reminded of the script development process where both the writer and the director were seeking to find their own, individual stories in the story that was slowly beginning to emerge. During one of the early script conferences, both Ian and Peter admitted they had indulged in the same kind of criminal behaviour that was becoming ever more apparent in the actions of the characters in the script. Indeed, Ian – the writer – had had a friend that had been caught and incarcerated for a crime Ian was also involved in, but because Ian was a few weeks younger than his mate, he managed to avoid imprisonment, and this had made him feel extremely guilty. It hadn’t occurred to me then, but, looking at the film again, the full significance of what was confessed that day came flooding in. It was a tribal story! It was being told – or rather found – by two members of the same tribe – two young men who shared a profound tribal connection by virtue of their past involvement in juvenile crime. It wasn’t a matter of each one twisting the story to fit his own needs and prejudices; it was a question of realising that they were telling a tribal story that was common to both of them.
So I leave you to consider these three primary relationships and their efficacy in the creation of effective collaborations and the making of compelling dramatic stories. These three perspectives from which storytellers might view their characters and enter ever more deeply into their dramas will always inform the very best character-based stories. These three primary perspectives that form the basis of a "mediumistic" approach to storytelling allow the storytellers working collaboratively with each other to conduct the story’s energy from inside the emotional life of the character's, not at arm’s length, but from the inside, in the dynamic and intimate interplay of needs, fears and actions.
(LEFT) Gayby baby, Maya Newell, with her two mothers, Liz and Donna.
 Film and television editor (credits include Blue Murder, Young Lions, Two Friends, Crocodile Dreaming, etc) and head of editing at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.
 See Bullough, Edward. “'Psychical Distance' as a Factor in Art and as an Aesthetic Principle” from British Journal of Psychology, Vol. 5 (1912), pp. 87-117 or at http://www.csulb.edu/~jvancamp/361_r9.html
 Sophia's television credits include adult and children's drama (Something in the Air, Mirror Mirror, Escape of the Artful Dodger, The Wayne Manifesto), telemovies (Time's Raging, I've Come About the Suicide) as well as the feature film Silver City, which was screened internationally and was the recipient of 3 AFI Awards.
 John Lonie is a novelist and screenwriter. Currently, Head of Screenwriting at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in Sydney.
 Award-winning short film (9 mins), produced by AFTRS students in their first year, directed by peter Templeman, written by Ian Irvine, produced by Stuart Parkyn.
 The German anthropologist, Leo Frobenius used the term paideuma for the tangle or complex of the enrooted ideas of any culture and period. The American poet, Ezra Pound, employed the word to denote “the gristly roots of ideas that are in action."
 Sentimentality, Pornography, Propaganda, and Violence
 Well-known and critically acclaimed Australian poet and essayist, author of more than thirty books of verse and prose.
 Born c. 1926 at Marnpi in the sand-hill country south-west of Mt. Rennie, Mick is a one of the major artists of the Papunya/Tula school of dot painters.
 Born in the early 1920s in the area north of the Petermann Ranges, Tutama’s pencil drawings provide “visual poems” in Singing the Snake (Angus & Robertson, 1990).
 Painter, actor, storyteller, guide, translator and full-time raconteur, Nosepeg was the first tribal Aboriginal man Elizabeth the Second ever met. On meeting her in Toowoomba in the early 1950s and being introduced to the Queen of England, he replied, “Really! I’m Nosepeg; King of the Pintupi.” The Queen’s response is not recorded.
NOTE: Collaboration can be fun where two or more heads and hearts are better than one. These guidelines will get you thinking about how to be a fair partner as well as get those things that you need to allow your creativity to soar.
1. KNOW "THE CHARACTER"
Get a bio, or resume and referrals -- Ask in a nice way. A friendly background check will help prove s/he’s legit or a fringe wannabe. Lack of experience is NOT a reason to reject someone. There are plenty of very talented people who just need a chance. It is like a marriage where you’ll be spending loads of time with them. Make sure your potential producing partner is “writing savvy.” Even writers collaborating have to see if communication styles are compatible. Seriously, finding out how sensitive they are to criticism or how they like feedback. Some people prefer in your face, others need a bit of hand-holding. There are the memo freaks and those that prefer long walks in the park. It's all good -- just work it out. I am west coast (I like hand-holding and gentle honesty) My writing partner is New Jersey East Coast (and she likes to give it rough, but can't take it) --
two very different styles -- but it can work!
PERHAPS collaborate on a scene or two to verify if there's chemistry and a shared vision, or a vision that is shareable.
2. HOW EQUAL?
Going into any partnership, it’s imperative to establish boundaries. Will the financial contribution be equal? Are costs shared for Xeroxing, postage, registration, space rental, petrol, expenses for travel going to/from meetings, meals and resources? Should expenses be spent by the partner with deep pockets be taken off the top in any sale?
3. OPTIONING LITERARY MATERIAL/LIFE RIGHTS
Often collaboration will spring from an existing work. You may be embarking on an adaptation of a book, true-life story, magazine article or play. Have underlying rights been secured or cleared and/or is there an option agreement in place prior to collaboration? If you are the one controlling the option, make sure that there are appropriate time-frames built in for extensions; so that there is at least a year to adapt, research, and develop an underlying true story, magazine article, short story, play, poem, book, etc. And Make it "legal" -- Write down what you each want / see happening out of this exchange: so you can see where the different POVs lie. Do not run away from conflict - use it, cultivate it, shape it and transform it into creative energy - the form of conflict resolution. Get an attorney or using a boilerplate AWG/WGA collaboration agreement. It will always always come back to bite you if you don't, and it's so easy to do.
Disclose limitations / parameters of available time for work and writing (picking kids up from school, elderly parents, etc. should be acknowledged.) Perhaps give 2-hour notice (or as agreed to), should a predetermined meeting be rescheduled.
5. PROBATION PERIOD
See if it can work before you actually “commit, commit.”
If you are collaborating for the first time on your original idea – give yourself one month to see how the collaboration goes. If it is your original idea that you are sharing with a writing partner, you can have a piece of paper that states, that if it does not work out and you use any of their ideas that you’ll pay them X.
6. THE BAD SIGNS:
o Is your partner chronically late?
o Do you and your partner argue a lot over every little decision?
o Does your partner call in sick often or constantly gripe about a physical malady?
o Does your partner constantly take phone calls and texts?
o How deep does your partner’s passion for this project run?
o Are you attracted to your partner? Just don’t go there – likelihood it will destroy a good thing—your script!
o If you’re already romantic or friendship precedes the partnership, have in place a “safe word” to trigger a needed time out, (My word is “tumbleweed.”)
Reprinted with permission from the author, Devorah Cutler-Rubenstein
After graduating Cal Arts Film School (Peewee Herman & Ed Harris were among her graduating class), Cutler-Rubenstein started her career as assistant to legendary Agent-turned-Producer Jerome M. Zeitman at 20th Century-Fox, where she assisted in the development of numerous projects including her first produced studio feature, the sci-fi thriller, DAMNATION ALLEY.
Script development as well as film production often involves collaborative actions, where two or more people, working for common goals are required to set aside their personal wills to power and cooperate for the betterment of the project at hand. The fundamental ear-mark of emotional intelligence is the facility to dedicate oneself to the harmonious interactions of the group in which one is working whilst at the same time maximizing the shareability of the experience of making a dramatic story that matters. The best intentions of every individual are some times not realized for a variety of reasons, and when this happens the story and the project suffer. Being aware of HOW things can go wrong, and being able to identify the often unconscious strategies that one's team players employout of their insecurities and fears can go a long way towards neutralizing the negative forces that might otherwise undermine even the most worthy projects.
The 15 Hidden Control Strategies
1. Filtering: You take the negative details and magnify them, while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation.
2. Polarized Thinking: The hallmark of this distortion is an insistence on dichotomous choices. Things are black or white, good or bad. You tend to perceive everything at the extremes, with very little room for a middle ground. "If it it doesn't happen this way, then it'll have to happen that way.", etc.
3. Over-generalization: You come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence. If something bad happens once, you expect it to happen over and over again. 'Always' and 'never' are cues that this style of thinking is being utilized.
4. Mind Reading: Without their saying so, you know what people are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, you are able to divine how others are feeling about script or story or process. Mind reading depends on a process called projection. You imagine that people feel the same way you do and react to things the same way you do.
5. Catastrophizing: You expect failure, or catastrophe to strike and say so. Worse-case scenario thinking.
6. Personalization: This is the tendency to relate everything around you to yourself. For example, thinking that everything people do or say is some kind of reaction to you. You also compare your ideas to the ideas of others, trying to determine who's smarter or has more insight.
7. Control Fallacies: There are two ways you can distort your sense of power and control. If you feel externally controlled, you see yourself as helpless, a victim of fate. The fallacy of internal control has you responsible for the pain and happiness of everyone around you. Feeling externally controlled keeps you stuck. You don't believe you can really affect the basic shape of the story/film, let alone make any difference in improving it. The truth of the matter is that we are constantly making decisions, and that every decision affects the creative process. On the other hand, the fallacy of internal control leaves you exhausted as you attempt to fill the needs of everyone around you, and feel responsible in doing so (and guilty when you cannot).
8. Fallacy of Fairness: You feel resentful because you think you know what's fair, but other people won't agree with you. Fairness is so conveniently defined, so temptingly self-serving, that each person gets locked into his or her own point of view. It is tempting to make assumptions about how the screenplay would change if people were only fair or really valued your opinion. But the other person hardly ever sees it that way, and you end up causing yourself a lot of pain and an ever-growing resentment.
9. Blaming: You hold other people responsible for what's not working. Blaming often involves making someone else responsible for choices and decisions that are actually our own responsibility. In blame systems, you deny your right (and responsibility) to assert your needs.
10. Shoulds: You have a list of ironclad rules about how you and other people should act. People who break the rules anger you, and you feel guilty if you violate the rules. The rules are right and indisputable and, as a result, you are often in the position of judging and finding fault (in yourself and in others). Cue words indicating the presence of this distortion are should, ought, and must.
11. Emotional Reasoning: You believe that what you feel must be true-automatically. If you feel stupid or boring, then you must be stupid and boring. If you feel guilty, then you must have done something wrong. The problem with emotional reasoning is that our emotions interact and correlate with our thinking process. Therefore, if you have distorted thoughts and beliefs, your emotions will reflect these distortions.
12. Fallacy of Change: You expect that other people will change to suit you if you just pressure or cajole them enough. You need to change people because your hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them. The truth is the only person you can really control or have much hope of changing is yourself. The underlying assumption of this thinking style is that your happiness depends on the actions of others. Your happiness actually depends on the thousands of large and small choices you make in your life.
13. Global Labeling: You generalize one or two qualities (in yourself or others) into a negative global judgment. Global labeling ignores all contrary evidence, creating a view of the world that can be stereotyped and one-dimensional. Labeling yourself can have a negative and insidious impact upon your self-esteem; while labeling others can lead to snap-judgments, relationship problems, and prejudice.
14. Being Right: You feel continually on trial to prove that your opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable and you will go to any length to demonstrate your rightness. Having to be 'right' often makes you hard of hearing. You aren't interested in the possible veracity of a differing opinion, only in defending your own. Being right becomes more important than an honest and caring relationship.
15. Heaven's Reward Fallacy: You expect all your sacrifice and self-denial to pay off, as if there were someone keeping score. You fell bitter when the reward doesn't come as expected. The problem is that while you are always doing the 'right thing,' if your heart really isn't in it, you are physically and emotionally depleting yourself.
*From Thoughts & Feelings by McKay, Davis, & Fanning. New Harbinger, 1981. These styles of thinking (or cognitive distortions) were gleaned from the work of several authors, including Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, and David Burns, among others.
Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes talks about giving script notes and the importance of every one "being on the same page:
I am often shocked by people’s rigid inaccessibility and their failure to listen to reasons, their disregard of facts, their defensive attitude and the indifference by which they prohibit discussion. Even when assent occurs I am often unsatisfied, because it was not based on true insight but on yielding to persuasion; because it was the consequence of friendly cooperation, and not a meeting of two souls… Not merely an exchange of words, nor friendliness and sociability, but only the constant urge towards total revelation reaches the path of communication… Then I realised that I myself share part of the blame for this insufficiency. The fault does lie only with others. I, too, am human like them. The same sources of inhibition of communication exist in me as in them.
- Karl Jaspers
What we seek as collaborators in "the dream" is an unprecedented form of communication - a creative and transformative dialogue that will enable us to effectively interact with one another and to achieve a shareability of emotional experience that enables us to fulfil our roles as custodians of ‘the story’.
Such communication is only possible when we penetrate the elaborate maze of self-imposed defenses and deceptions we employ to avoid exposure or to shield ourselves from scrutiny or possible criticism. When we resort to such defenses, we are likely to frustrate any possibility of making authentic contact with ourselves or our collaborators (including the characters) at the core of our being.
To engage in Creative Dialogue is (1) to lower the barriers that obstruct healthy and creative relationships, and (2) to provide an antidote to the destructive consequences of living in a monological world—a world in which people talk without listening, not even to themselves.
Creative Dialogue begins as an experiment in "radical honesty" - or what James K Baxter referred to as "rigorous emotional honesty", where participants relate to one another on the basis of their mutual awareness of and willingness to share their "hidden agendas", i.e.: those underlying assumptions and motives, feelings and projections, defensive strategies and manoeuvrings, that allow fear to control the agenda of any possible creative enterprise.
How does one start to deal with this fear? Where does one begin?
START WITH YOURSELF - with your physical being - it is helpful to attend to the rhythm of your breathing, by way of slowing yourself down a little. Use silence creatively - allow the PAUSE to enter your script. Dialogue is not all talk. Speech and silence blend dialectically (and dramatically) to allow participants to become centered and present as they engage and interact with one another. One must MAKE ROOM for listening. One of the Aboriginal expressions for "ignorance" is pina wiya - literally, "no ears".
Creative Dialogue moves in the "opposite direction" of conventional discourse.
In the midst of Creative Dialogue, instead of moving forwards, authoritatively advancing one’s position and presenting one’s ideas, you move in a more circuitous, reflexive way, by going backward into yourself. That is, you relate to others through a bodily felt sense of your own process of relating as it is occurring at that moment. In this way, you are not merely presenting an abstract content, a collection of finished thoughts and fixed ideas; you are disclosing—to yourself and others—the thinking and feeling and sensing process that lies behind what you are trying to express. And I do the same for you authentic communication becomes possible. This allows you and me – us – to "see behind the scenes," to hear the subtext of our discourse, to make transparent underlying motives and hidden agendas that are normally invisible in the defensive posturing of habitual interaction.
Crucial to this process is our ability to suspend or slow down your thinking, so that you can be receptive to yourself and others; to listen deeply, and mirror back to one another "a view of some of the assumptions and unspoken implications of what is being expressed along with that which is being avoided" (Bohm et al., 2002).
Each participant should have an opportunity to examine the preconceptions, prejudices, and the characteristic patterns that lie behind his or her thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and feelings, along with the roles he or she tends habitually to play. By tapping into the dynamic—sometimes formless and chaotic—substrate that lies beneath the fixed positions we customarily hold, the Dialogue becomes a process of creative participation between peers, a free-flowing exploration in which we can play together in the otherwise unconscious, unknown territory of the social psyche or "interactive field," as Jung has called it.
Rather than obtaining ready rewards, gaining fast closure on specific goals, and receiving food for our egos, Creative Dialogue encourages and inspires a willingness to be aware and responsive to the ever-changing, open-ended field of process and flux where the questions far outnumber the answers.
Naturally, this can prove frustrating at times, for even with a clear introduction to the process, it would be very optimistic to assume that Creative Dialogue will flow or move toward any great depth during a first meeting. When a group begins to talk together it will often experience confusion, frustration, and a self-conscious concern as to whether or not it is actually engaging in Dialogue. It is important, therefore, to remember the old Chinese saying: “Perseverance furthers”, and to use the energy of the anxiety dramatically so as to be able to transcend it.