Friday, October 2, 2009

"The Memo That Started It All" by Christopher Vogler

From time to time people ask me for a copy of the original seven-page memo that was the foundation of THE WRITER’S JOURNEY. For many years I lost track of the original version and could only offer to send people the longer versions that evolved later, or point them to my book, where the memo was embedded in the first chapter, but they weren’t satisfied with these solutions, apparently believing there was something almost magical about that original terse, blunt statement of my beliefs. They had to have the “legendary seven-pager” which I had called “A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES”, but I was never able to lay hands on the original short version. Until now, that is.

After upheavals of home and office, and sifting through many files and boxes, I have finally come across the raw, original text of The Memo, and I offer it here to you, with the hopes it will have some of the magical effect on you that people attribute to it. But first, I’d like to share some of the context around the creation of this little document.

It was written in the mid-1980s when I was working as a story consultant for Walt Disney Pictures, but I had discovered the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell a few years earlier while studying cinema at the University of Southern California. I was sure I saw Campbell’s ideas being put to work in the first of the Star Wars movies and wrote a term paper for a class in which I attempted to identify the mythic patterns that made that film such a huge success. The research and writing for that paper inflamed my imagination and later, when I started working as a story analyst at Fox and other Hollywood studios, I showed the paper to a few colleagues, writers and executives to stimulate some discussion of Campbell’s ideas which I found to be of unlimited value for creating mass entertainment. I was certainly making profitable use of them, applying them to every script and novel I considered in my job.

Eventually I arrived at Disney where a strong corporate culture and a string of hits were being created by executives Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Memos were a big part of that corporate identity, a means of persuasively communicating concepts and attitudes, and all of us who worked at Disney at that time had to learn the memo art form, following the example of Katzenberg, an absolute master.

I suppose the discipline of writing succinct development notes, story coverage and research memos kindled in me a desire to express the exciting ideas I had found in Campbell in a clear, concise way. I wanted to once and for all get them down as creative principles, a set of reliable building blocks for constructing stories, a set of tools for troubleshooting story problems.

So I took time off from my story analyst job and spent a week in New York City with David McKenna, a good friend I’d met years ago while doing theatre in San Antonio in my Air Force days. We’d followed parallel paths in film and theatre, and eventually converged as story analysts and consultants. He is a great film buff and a good guy to bounce ideas off of, and together we shook out the details of the Hero’s Journey as it seemed to apply to movies. We worked out terminology and discussed scenes from films in every genre to demonstrate the variations of the Hero’s Journey pattern. We wore out his VCR looking at old movie clips. At the end of this intense phase I went back to L.A. and pounded out the seven–page memo, sending the first copy to McKenna.

I gave copies of The Memo to my story analyst friends and to key Disney executives including Ricardo Mestres of Hollywood Pictures and David Hoberman of Touchstone, both divisions of Disney. “Interesting,” was all that most people said, at first. But I knew, I sensed somehow, I was on to something. I had the vision that copies of The Memo were like little robots, moving out from the studio and into the jetstream of Hollywood thinking all on their own. Fax machines had just been invented and I envisioned copies of The Memo flying all over town, and that’s exactly what happened.

Feedback started coming in that suggested I had hit a nerve. I heard young executives buzzing about it, telling their friends about it. It became the “I have to have it” document of the season at talent agencies and in studio executive suites like that of Dawn Steel at Paramount. And in the sincerest form of compliment, it was promptly plagiarized. One instance was right under my nose in the studio. A junior executive had taken off my title page and substituted his own name as author, and then submitted it to Jeffrey Katzenberg, who read it and pronounced it a very important document at a meeting of his development execs, making it required reading for the entire staff.

Fortunately someone at that table had already read The Memo and knew I was the true author. I heard about it on the studio grapevine within minutes and immediately sent off a letter to Mr. Katzenberg, asserting myself as the author of The Memo and requesting deeper involvement in story development. He called me right away and put me to work with Disney’s Feature Animation division, where I began doing research and development work on THE LION KING and many other projects. When I arrived I found The Memo had preceded me, and the animators were already outlining their story boards with Hero’s Journey stages.

The Memo served as a handout when I began teaching story analysis at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. And that’s when it began to grow, as I developed the ideas more fully and added more examples. Eventually I included material about the archetypes and soon there was enough material to contemplate a book, and thus THE WRITER’S JOURNEY was born from a humble seven-page acorn.

But people continue to attribute special importance or powers to the original seven-pager, especially those who had been around when its impact was first felt. At one point, a museum dedicated to screenwriting requested a copy for a display of what they considered the milestone documents and books in the history of the craft. And so I give you The Memo, thus releasing many more little robots to distribute these ideas far and wide, to influence movies, computer game design, or whatever field where they may be useful.

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