Keith Cunningham

 

 

Dramatic Storytelling in a Changing World

Our world is changing.  The epochal climate change agreement reached at the COP21 Climate Summit in Paris in December 2015 announces, if belatedly, that urgent steps must be taken now to avert civilization-busting climate catastrophe.  At the same time, the advent of peak oil and the decline of the era of cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy is already changing the way we live and our expectations for tomorrow.

What does this have to do with the media?  Or—what does the media have to do with all of this?  Without making a blanket generalization, it is possible to say that the media have become the most powerful force shaping public opinion today, for good or for ill.  We are all impacted by hundreds to thousands of media messages every day.  And each message seems to want something from us: our attention, our time, our investment in its 'story'.  At the same time, if a piece of information is not featured where we can find it and access it, then it is virtually invisible.  As information, it virtually does not exist for us.  This was the fate of too much important climate science up to the present day.  It was buried on page 28 of the newspaper, or at the back end of a newscast, just before Sports and Weather.  That in itself was a kind of message.

In the cinema, climate change has typically been treated as a source of hysterical fear, the setting for dystopian eco-thrillers.

 None of this helps people understand and adapt.

The media in the past did help to shape public attitudes in ways that constituted an obstacle to climate awareness.  But now the media—as the consummate vehicle for disseminating ideas—has the chance to take on a new role of proactive leadership.

With the media, we must keep in mind some basic things about how it all works on the audience:

—whatever goes up on the screen models attitudes, expectations, and behaviors for the audience.

—whatever is repeated is reinforced, both psychologically and socially.

—when messages are repeated again and again multiple times, we pay less direct attention to them and also have less conscious control over them.  The messages increasingly bypass consciousness and go directly into the unconscious.  Gradually, the become habituated; they become 'second nature'.  This is to say the messages become internalized and increasingly somaticized.

Is it possible for drama to take on large-scale real world topics, explore them responsibly, and model successful paths through crisis to new ways of living on this beautiful Earth?  As a film student in the 1970s, influenced by masters of the golden age of cinematic humanism like Bergman, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, and Satjajit Ray, I know this question can be answered positively.  We know that today some filmmakers, TV show runners, and media executives with vision are trying.

 'A Dream of Europe' - TV Series Concept Development

Take a look at my new Writers' Room project at the DAI, the Deutsche-Amerikanische Institut in Heidelberg.  The call for applications goes until April 15.  See the UPCOMING page and the DAI web site for all details. 

(http://dai-heidelberg.de/…/ausschreibung-writers-room-expe…/)

My writing work becomes more and more integrated with my work as an advocate for a sustainable future.  This also implies necessarily a sustainable set of practices in the media.  Looked at from the widest and most inclusive framing, this means going back to the roots of storytelling, myth, and drama—back to the roots of how a society and its values are shaped by the storylines they adhere to.  In this case, it is the cinematic storytellers who, on the whole, still represent a ‘flat-Earth’ worldview.  

People cling to outmoded ideas often out of fear of the unknown, and climate change presents humanity with the greatest unknowns it has ever faced.  At the same time, the new challenges appear to demand a new dimension of solidarity in the society in order to prevent further social fragmentation and a 'devil take the hindmost' barbarism from taking over.

What does it mean to be fully part of the Universe, to belong here?  

Society—local society and global society—needs a new guiding story.  This is a real human need, even more vital than new energy sources.  In fact, the right story IS an energy source! That need for a relevant new story is not fulfilled by cinematic superheroes, nor by fear-mongering.  We are called to a vision quest, a collective hero's journey toward a future that the wise among us have already begun to articulate.  Humanity will dig down into its creative resources to adapt and hopefully to thrive in new conditions.

For those of us in the media, we also need a new story about the new values that can guide us in our work, and that will ask of us a deeper and more integrated creativity, based on a new conceptual foundation.  It will not be enough to amuse and distract an audience for the length of a movie or a TV episode.  The stakes will be more than market share.  This is why I am convinced that there are unprecedented opportunities coming for talented and dedicated storytellers working in every medium.

 In fact, the time is now.  And the training for that brave new world of deep story is already at hand....  

SEMINARS AND WORKSHOPS

Since the beginnings almost 30 years ago, my screenwriting seminars and workshops are always evolving.  For the past 2 years, I have been focusing my work on a smaller number of professional institutions.  One consequence has been that during this time there have been fewer seminars open to the public.  This is why I am happy being headquartered in Berlin: it will give me the platform to expand the public offerings once again while continuing to serve film schools and professional organizations.

You will find the full current schedule on the Seminars/Events page.

 

CONSULTATIONS

The demand for consultations is steadily increasing.  So many of the seminar participants find them exciting and productive and come back for consultations.  Among the recent sessions, I am proud to have consulted on Bottled Life, by Urs Schnell and DokLab of Bern, Switzerland.  Bottled Life is the controversial investigative documentary about the Nestlé corporation’s attempts to commodify the water we drink.  Find out about it at:

http://www.bottledlifefilm.com

 And find out more about consultations with me at the Consulting page. 

The Soul of Screenwriting

  

The Soul of Screenwriting is consistently getting 5 star reviews from readers at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.  Here is a recent comment from a writer:

 Dear Keith,

 I want to relay to you my deepest thanks for the amazing help and inspiration your book on the Soul of Screenwriting has been. I am currently adapting my novel, ... set in New Zealand and Samoa, into a film screenplay and have had enormous pleasure in the challenge of structuring along the 16 Story Steps and the Mythic model.  It goes without saying that whatever the final result, it will be immeasurably better with your help than had I not read your book.

And a most amazing thing -- your exposition of "MODE versus NEED" actually helped me resolve a personal psychological crisis. It made me wonder -- How much of me is in my main character, and how much of him in me?  (Shakes head slowly in some consternation).

Thank you for your deep perception into what makes a great story, your fluency in describing your ideas and your compassion to share these with fellow (and in my case, beginner), screenplay writers. 

Serious writers sooner or later want to go beyond following somebody else’s tips and formulas about creating drama for the screen: they want to know what it all has to do with themselves, their own creative process, and their understanding of life.  Sooner or later, they want to go beyond characters who are manipulated like puppets and really get into the creative encounter.  The Soul of Screenwriting was written for these serious writers as well as writers starting out on the path.

In The Soul of Screenwriting, I give the writer a guide to her own creative process as well as the greatest in-depth story paradigms that really work, some of them derived from the insights of all-time top screenwriters such as Waldo Salt and John Sayles.  The fruit of my long years of collaboration with my seminar partner Tom Schlesinger, The Soul of Screenwriting will give you an understanding of why drama has the power to transform people.  You will understand how the dynamics of drama speak the language of deep psychological change so that you will possess understanding.  This will liberate you from mechanically following someone else’s tips—and it will liberate your own deeper creativity. 

I have brought to bear all of my research into the dynamics of the creative process, my insights as a psychologist, and my practical experience as a writer to produce a book that will grow with you through a creative lifetime. 

Many readers find The Soul of Screenwriting a unique treasure among screenwriting books.  At least one person got angry because, as he said, “You actually have to read it!”  If you are not intimidated by reading, this might be the book for you. 

Buy the book!!

To find out more, go to the Writing/Publications page. 

 

The Story Arks Institute

       

The weather is changing all around us.  The atmosphere is warmer, more turbulent, and more laden with carbon, now over 400 ppm.  The seas and oceans are changing, also warming and becoming more acidic than in millions of years.  The very earth beneath our feet is changing as it becomes more loaded with synthetic chemicals.  People view this with both alarm and denial.  They look for leadership.

Very often the message that comes from the media is simply, “Sit back and enjoy the show.”  That message may sell movie tickets, but it is far from an adequate response to the crisis. 

The artists of any culture have always had a function to look ahead.  They are like the lookouts at the top of the ship’s mast who are the first to see the iceberg off the starboard bow, or the first to glimpse the promised landfall in the distance.  This comes from the way art and storytelling force us out of left-brain logical sequences into whole-brain syntheses that include the intuition. 

Sometimes the visionary gifts of the storyteller can be put in the service of market-driven goals, but at crisis points storytellers have a larger and more ancient task: to serve the community and see a way forward.

The Story Arks Institute is designed to be a platform where media professionals can come together to think, visualize, and respond more proactively, using their professional storytelling skills and media reach to focus the important issues for the larger public.  Call it a “visionary think-tank for the new stories” that will foster the changes humanity needs to adapt and survive.

Defining stories as entertainment is itself limiting.  It places 'entertainment' as the frame around stories.  But stories are more important than entertainment, and more important than the market.  Stories—good, healthy stories—are how we understand our presence in this world.  They should guide us in how to live individually and collectively in harmony, in tao, with the natural and social environment that supports us.

If we ask how stories can serve society and that larger harmony, rather than serving the market only, then that different framing leads to new possibilities.

 The Story Arks Institute is currently initiating projects with a number of research institutes, governmental bodies and NGOs that will bring scientists and film/video makers together.  These new projects are all being designed to use the power of the media to visualize and dramatize the human issues involved with climate change, urban design and regional planning, technology addictions, the paradoxes of progress, and a host of other topics.

One major project in development is a personal collaboration with my colleague Claus Josten. It is not a Story Arks Institute project, but is in the same spirit. It is a far-reaching concept involving many partners. We plan a complex interaction of filmmakers and society across the Euro-Mediterranean region that will include collaborations between filmmakers and scientists, film festivals, and a unique forum process designed to bring science, media arts, and the public together in the countries taking part in the project as well as shared across the project region. We will make more details public as the stages of the project progress. 

You will find more info and news at the Upcoming page and at the Institute web site:

http://www.storyarksinstitute.net