Nick Russell as Jason in "Signs"

I wrote in my last blog that five minutes wasn’t enough screen time to engage in a love story. Thanks to colleagues on Step2CollaboTV I’ve been watching a cracking   short film called Signs Directed by Patrick Hughes(2008)  which proves that 12 minutes IS enough time. As I  watched the film , and realised that it was 12 minutes long, I got to thinking about the number 12 in Creative Screenwriting Theory, and of course it took me to Vogler (98).

I first met Chris Vogler in Sitges, Spain , coincidentally in  1998 . He was putting  the finishing touches to his book “The Writer’s Journey-Mythic Structure For Writers”. This book is itself  based on “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell . First published in 1949 this is a seminal work of comparative mythology, which Vogler then  adapted for screenwriters. (It’s interesting to note that Campbell was no slouch at the movies either. He sat at the shoulder of George Lucas through the filming of the first star wars movie and you can see his imprint throughout the film

Anyhow, back to Chris Vogler and Spain. We met at a month long creative workshop on screenwriting called PILOTS in the beautiful Catalonian town of Sitges.  PILOTS was the Programme for the International Launch Of Television Scripts,  an EEC  MEDIA scheme  to try to create an indigenous European TV industry capable of exporting our product around the world, in the same way as the Americans had been doing for years. Through this somewhat quaint and naïve initiative, I met such luminaries as Caryn  Mandebach (Roseanne, 3rd Rock From the Sun, Nurse Jackie), John Wells (China Beach, E.R , The West Wing) and uber script guru  Robert McKee (Story 1999). All of them gave fascinating insights into the world of the screenplay, but by far the most interesting for me at the time was the talk Chris gave and our subsequent discussions on his ideas about the 12 stages of the  “Hero’s Journey”. When I’ve been stuck in a rut or unsure of the way forward in a script, I have often consulted my well-thumbed copy of his book to see if I can find an escape clause.

So when I noticed that Patrick Hughes film was 12 minutes long, I wondered to what extent I could analyse it terms of Vogler’s stages of the hero’s journey. Now Vogler’s been around for a while now, and any number of attacks and critiques have been made on his work. Have a look at this link for an example.

Chris Vogler

But with that proviso take the next 12 minutes of and watch a Signs and then let’s see if we can shed some light on it’s internal structure with the help of Chris Vogler.

Ok, so wasn’t that a good movie? Wonderful acting, great design and cinematography. (If you don’t think so you might as well stop reading now as I doubt if my modest blog will change your mind ) Anyhow, let’s assume if you are still here that you did like it. The question then has to be….”How did it get to be like that? “  By accident? Did the writers, Hughes, Fleet and Worthington just happen on this way to tell that story? Well, maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t , but in hindsight I  can see perfectly how analysing the film through the prism of Vogler’s Hero’s journey  gave me, and I hope can give  you,  a real insight of why “Signs”  tugs the heartstrings and works for us as viewers.

Before I go through the 12 stages, A WARNING. Vogler’s theories are simply a tool to help the creative writer. Like any craftsperson or artist, the screenwriter should have lots of tools in their tool bag. Sometimes you need a jackhammer, and sometimes you need a scalpel. The trick is to know which one to use at which time. So…these are not principles, or rules, they are simply practical hints that just might  be able to dig you out of creative the cul de sac your writing could have taken you down. Remember, great writing defies the  rules, but we all might need just a little  practical help along the way before we hit the heights of genius. So, here’s an analysis of the 12 stage Hero’s Journey  on this short film .With thanks to Aristotle(1996), Field(1984) Campbell (2008)  and of course  Vogler (1998).

1) THE HERO IS INTRODUCED IN HIS OR HER  ORDINARY WORLD.

0’.0” –3’.11”  In the first three minutes of  “Signs” we  see our “Hero” Jason in his ordinary, banal, meaningless  world. He is bored and loveless, his job is uninspiring, and most importantly, he is lonely. We see him on an escalator, spotting a lovely girl going in the opposite direction, in a  park ,shyly  watching  another  girl, on a train watching lovers kiss, and  at work, alienated from his boss and workers. Jason lives a loveless life. Even his mum and dad don’t understand him.

2) THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.

3’ 12” . It’s the moment when Jason  glances at  Tracey  through the window of his office. If this had been a heist movie it would be the point that  the robbers burst in , in a western, it’s the bit  where the trail boss offers you a job on the cattle drive, but this is a love story, and so it’s the point at which  boy “meets” girl. Field  calls stage two  “the inciting incident”. It’s where the movie starts “moving.” All that goes before it is setting up the ordinary world, and you can  get away with this set up for quite a while, if it is done with style.In a 12 minute movie,  Hughes waits 3 mins and 12 secs before that fateful glance. Structural Perfection.

3) THE HERO IS RELUCTANT AT FIRST

3’ 25” Jason  looks away once, twice, three times. He is shy. He doesn’t want to get involved. His life may be boring, but he is too set in his ways, too comfortable in his misery to break out of his comfort zone.

4) THE HERO IS ENCOURAGED BY THE WISE OLD MAN OR WOMAN.

4’.14”  OK so there’s no  Obi Wan Kenobi giving Luke Skywalker his father’s light sabre, there’s no Gandalph and there’s no older figure. You could argue that the words of his father about “girlfriends” are echoing in his mind but Jason’s real mentor in this movie  is Tracey herself. He is completely unable to engage, until her joke about the photograph gives him  “permission” to communicate. Jason is no Lothario, he is shy and introverted. The girl has to make the running,  and  we LOVE him for it.

5) THE HERO PASSES THE FIRST THRESHOLD.

4.19 . That smile means that Jason  is entering  the special world of his story for the first time. This is the point  at which the story takes off and the real adventure gets going. Where the wagon train starts, Apollo 13 blasts off, the Rubicon is crossed and the romance begins. Our hero Jason  is now committed to his journey… and there’s no turning back. It’s the end of the first act. Gulp.

6) THE HERO ENCOUNTERS TESTS AND HELPERS.

4’.25” Our hero is forced to make allies and enemies in this  special world. He has to surmount  barriers and face problems he has never had before . As Vogler puts it , these…. “ challenges that are part of his training. In STAR WARS, the cantina is the setting for the forging of an important alliance with Han Solo, and the start of an important enmity with Jabba The Hut. In CASABLANCA, Rick’s Cafe is the setting for the “alliances and enmities” phase, and in many westerns it’s the saloon where these relationships are established.” (Vogler 98)

In our film, the venue is the space between the two buildings, but the challenge is clear. Jason has to engage with and keep interested this vivacious, beautiful young woman. One wrong note and all is lost. It’s dangerous. If he gets caught, then boss will fire him. He is wary and scared, but he goes for it, getting more and more confident. In a good rom com this sequence can go on and on and on as long as we like the characters and can engage with the hero, up the ante between him and the object of his desires.

7) THE HERO REACHES THE INNERMOST CAVE

5’.12” Jason’s cave is the meeting room. Hey it’s not the death star and it’s not the minotaur’s lair but this is 12 minute short, not an actioner. Jason dares to message Tracey  in front of the boss. He would  never have dreamed of  doing  this only days before . He is turning from loser to bruiser, and risking his career, all in name of….luurve.

8) THE HERO ENDURES THE SUPREME ORDEAL.

5’.20 “This is the moment at which the hero is in deep jeopardy  physically. It usually occurs about half way through a narrative. Field says it was the discovery that “something happened” round about page 60 of a 120 page feature script that made him start thinking seriously about structure. (Field 84) Here, Jason risks all. He  faces the possibility of exposure, ridicule, the sack, and whatever else , and for Jason it takes place in the meeting room, where he is so intent on “messaging” his new love , that he falls backwards on his chair…but….

9) THE HERO SIEZES THE SWORD.

5’.37” ….Jason survives the fall, and rises up reinvigorated. He dared to rebel and survived. He now decides to take control with his new found courage.  The hero’s supreme ordeal usually grants him a better understanding of women, leading to the moment in a love story where he finally decides to make his feeling clear. It’s getting more and more daring…OMG did she REALLY draw picture of her boobs? Zowie this chick is HOT! And mysterious and everything else you ever wanted in a partner.

Kesti Morassi as Tracey

Jason finally decides to commit. Through a series of unfortunate events (heck it is  a romCOM.)   he is stopped from taking the final plunge and asking her out …but just when he goes for it….. horror of horrors, that moment that we’ve all been dreading…boy loses girl.  It’s the end of the second act. At 8’.28” the hero’s REALLY on the deck now. This isn’t a physical test like the supreme ordeal, this is mental. He has loved and lost…literally and metaphorically.  Normally this cues stubble chinned hero’s  staring at half empty whisky bottles, or lipsticked heroin’s  stepping  out with inappropriate partners,  and every other cliché you can think of…but  Hughes et al are too cute for that. They simply return Jason to that nether world of loneliness which he inhabited before staring at his lonely table with redundant sign 9’.08”

10) THE ROAD BACK.

9’.42” Literally a flash of inspiration. SHE’S BACK! Phew. Thank heavens for that! Not only is she back, she’s promoted and even more desirable, and along with her,  our new emboldened hero is reborn. He won’t need a second chance to ask the girl out. The going’s got tough and  the tough are about to get going.

11)RESURRECTION.

10’.25” It takes him an instant to suggest that they  meet. The timid Jason of Act 1 is transformed, and we love it ! He’s ready, she’s ready,  he emerges from the special world, transformed by his experience.

12) RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR.

10’.47” Our  hero comes back to his ordinary world, out in the street, framed in long shot in the crowds, with the power to heal the sickness in his past life. Here’s the thing…this is a love story, and the “secret” he is about to share   has been shared with audiences a million times in the past. There’s nothing new in this “secret” but if it’s served up well and  structured in a way we haven’t seen before, we’ll blubber and sniff just like we always do when a good movie tells us “ love conquers all. “

Hughes is smart enough not to give us the kiss cliché at the end, but leaves us with a question. Will they get together? Ever speak? Kiss? Is she deaf? I don’t know , and I don’t really care. The point is that  it all works, and even if none of the people involved in creating this wonderful short film never read the  work of Campbell or Vogler or Field, we can maybe use there theories on narrative structure  as a way of helping us to write movies that work.

Next time I’ll have a look at dialogue to die for. Any suggestions for good (and bad ) dialogue, gratefully recieved.

Aristotle (1996) Poetics,(trans Malcolm Heath), Penguin.London.

Campbell J (2008 ) The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Third Edition Pantheon New York

Field S. (1984) The Screenwriter’s Workbook . Dell

McKee R 1997  Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting. New York. Harper Collins

Vogler C (1998)  The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Michael   Wiesse,  Los Angeles