The Filmmakers Podcast hosts, Giles Alderson and Matthew Butler-Hart, spoke to film legend Chris Vogler about his incredible screenwriting bible The Writer’s Journey.
The book, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary has been re-released with a new chapter focusing on the spiritual connection that people have when reacting to a film.
Using chakras – spiritual centres, in order “to cause people to feel things, allowing them to feel things in a specific zone of the body. I think that really helps with intentionality when you’re writing a scene, when you’re directing a scene, when you’re an actor in a scene.”
Chris’s concepts for his book were inspired by Joseph Campbell, an American professor of literature working with comparative mythology and comparative religion. He took Campbell’s ideas and translated them “into the language of film because he was not speaking about movies. I found it to be a wonderful system from anthropology that could be applied and turned over to work in making commercial movies.”
At the time, Chris was reporting to studios on whether the submitted scripts were worthy of their time or not, giving him a “generous sampling of all the possibilities” and allowing him to test his theories of the 12 Stages of The Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey
“The Hero’s Journey is a pattern, which I believe is deeply engraved into the human nervous system and we respond to it almost like we respond to colour and light and sound in film. It’s another aesthetic trigger for us.”
Campbell looked at mythology as a metaphor, and Chris does the same with stories: “People take stories in as metaphors for their own lives. The story has to touch some part of your life for you to feel engaged. And The Hero’s Journey is one way that creates a metaphor – the metaphor of travel, of going on a journey, which almost everybody can relate to.”
He took Campbell’s complex ideas, decoded them, and developed it “in a way that was clear, simple, practical and useful for writers. I called that first iteration The Practical Guide to the Hero with a Thousand Faces but I reduced it to 12 steps.”
The 12 Stages of The Hero’s Journey
1. “The First Step is simply – The Ordinary World that the hero exists in. You need this as a baseline.” As an audience, we want to know who the hero is, “what they want or what’s missing from their lives and how they relate to their background.”
2. “The Second Stage – A Call to Adventure – it’s necessary in every story for there to be some kind of bell that’s rung or a horn that’s blown that says there’s a journey at hand and we’ve got to make some change and this might be difficult. It might be dangerous.”
3. “Stage Three – The Refusal of the Call
Where it’s very common for heroes to say ‘I don’t think so. Not for me, not today. I’ve already done this.’ There’s this long list of excuses that they give or a really good reason why ‘I did this before and it was a mess and I’m never going in there again’.”
This phase could instantaneously change to stage 4 or it could “extend through the whole story, like in a Hamlet he’s debating whether to take action all the way almost to the end.”
4. “The next stage often helps the hero get over this temporary hiccup of fear. And that’s Stage Four – Meeting with a Mentor.
Many stories, in mythology, provide characters who are there to reassure the hero and basically give the hero something that’s needed on the quest.”
5. “So now the hero is armed and reassured and they’ve gone through their fears and they’re ready to take the next step. And that is Stage Five, which is Crossing the Threshold.
“Where they actually go from the ordinary world, that they know, to some special world that’s new and different.” This is where the travel happens and the story begins, “there’s a nice lift that you get from the music or from the new location.”
6. “The next stage is a little stage of orientation, as you enter that new world that I call Tests, Allies and Enemies – this is Stage Six.
When you enter a new world, everything will be new and different, and you’ll have to go around gingerly touching things and figuring out what’s poisonous and what’s healthy. And who’s an ally and who’s an enemy. What are the new rules and conditions of this new world?”
7. Approach the Inner Most Cave “Stage Seven is sometimes a long phase where you’re going across a space to get to the centre – where the big thing is that you came for.
There is a period of travel as you reach that, you’ll go a little deeper with yourself and with the other members of your team, and you’ll have maybe made some first decisions or impressions about them and yourself.
This is where, as a filmmaker, as an actor, you spend a little more time getting to know the characters and build layers of relationships – romance, intrigue, comedy, all those things have a little chance to breathe here before we get to the serious matter in the centre.”
8. “The next stage – Stage Eight is The Ordeal.
This is an old word from the middle ages that means some kind of a ritual struggle.”
“It’s a life and death struggle and it often results in the apparent death of the hero. Or you’re trying to make the audience think that the hero has either died or completely failed. This is something that is so strong. We don’t even see it sometimes, but it’s almost always there. If you crack open scripts about halfway through you often will find a death scene.”
This point in the film brings the audience down and can make them depressed or disappointed “but then you bring them back up, and the hero is reborn. The team comes back and they find their feet and they start to fight back. And so there’s a lift that happens.”
9. That also laps over into Stage Nine, which is The Reward.
“That’s the payoff of this lift that you get for facing your fears. That’s really what stage eight is about. You get to the treasure, it might be your birthright, it might be some better understanding about yourself that helps you go forward to see yourself more clearly.”
Chris found it fascinating that this scene almost always included a fire place or fire or smoking. “Or they’ll look in mirrors. I find a strong tendency for mirrors scenes, where the hero is gazing at herself or himself.”
10. Ten is where you’re turning back again, it’s called The Road Back.
After getting a reward, at great cost, “we’re preciously holding it and trying to guard it as we take it home again.”
“We have to commit to finishing. And this is something that is operative in the life of the filmmaker, of the writer, of the artists. There are different kinds of energy needed to begin something, energy is needed to follow through on something, and a different kind of energy is needed to finish something. So this is summoning up that energy to complete the cycle.”
11. “The last two stages – Eleven is The Resurrection.
And here you re-stage that Stage Eight ordeal, but on a broader scale. Everything is tested. This is where you have the show-downs, where you have the courtroom battles, where you have people standing up for their rights, and taking the ultimate risk. But it’s a way of resolving all the conflicts and you want it to be comprehensive and to sort of finish the thing and make it feel satisfying, but it involves a further test for the hero.”
12. “And then the final piece, Stage Twelve, is Return with the Elixir – which is some kind of magic potion that heals all wounds.
In the current COVID crisis we’re all dealing with, this would be the vaccines that we’re looking for or some way of dealing with this worldwide problem that will bring us back to some kind of normal.
It’s not going to be the same normal, but something we can live with and resolve all of the conflicts and try to get us going into a new cycle of life.”
His last bit of advice: “If you perform these rituals correctly, it’s almost guaranteed that the audience will get this lift. It seems to refresh them and keep them going.” Chris has found these practices have been helpful for people from all walks of life and many varied careers.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of Chris’ advice, you can find more brilliant advice on the full podcast – available here.
Buy Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey book from Michael Weiss Productions here