My life changed in the summer of 1969 after seeing “Midnight Cowboy” at a downtown Chicago theater, compelling storytelling at it’s best. When I stepped outside the theater, I was in a lucid, bodily-felt altered state – an altered state that was triggered every time I heard the Nillson theme song, “Everyone’s Talkin’”.
“Everyone’s talking at me, I can’t hear a word they’re sayin’, only the echoes of my mind…”
This was my ‘Call to Adventure” in my Storytelling Journey. There was something inside of me connecting with something inside of that film story and I’ve been expounding about it in screenwriting seminars ever since.
In 1980, I met mythologists Joseph Campbell and Jean Houston and began to understand what had happened when I watched “Midnight Cowboy” and others films like “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I went on an emotional journey of change and transformation with the characters, and I began to understand how stories could have social impact.
Stories are a solar system that contains the journeys of the storytellers, the journeys of the characters in the story, and the journey of the audience when they experience the story. The sun in the solar system – or what connects the storytellers, the story and audience — is the universal or archetypal truths within us all.
When you create a compelling story, you are going on a parallel emotional and psychological journey along with your characters – the same parallel journey your audience will experience. You may not look or even act like your characters, but you will feel like them. This creates the resonance between you, your network of characters and the audience that can be a powerful experience.
I met “Midnight Cowboy” screenwriter Waldo Salt many years after watching his film. Waldo was a delightful, generous man who also wrote “Serpico” and “Coming Home”. ” He was one of my heroes. We watched “Midnight Cowboy” together at the Mill Valley Film Festival and I had the same visceral reaction that I had the first time we saw it. I had to find out why, from the source.
Waldo explained that the theme of Midnight Cowboy was based on main character (played by Jon Voight) Joe Buck’s fear of abandonment, having been handed over to his grandmother when he was a child. The fear of abandonment makes it difficult to commit to love relationships and to follow through on projects. This primary wound resulted in Joe Buck trying to find physical love through sex (being a gigolo) when what he needed was emotional love through intimacy through his growing friendship with Ratso Rizzo (played by Dustin Hoffman).
Waldo Salt experienced the same abandonment issues when he was blackballed as a communist during the McCarthy era witch-hunt in the 50’s. He was writing Midnight Cowboy from his personal experiences, which is why the characters are so authentic and dimensional, and why he connected so deeply with his audience.
When we tell stories we are beginning a parallel emotional and psychological journey along with our characters that ultimately the audience will experience.
Compelling storytelling is not just based on what stories we tell — it’s also based on how we tell our stories. Stay tuned for the next blog: “The Telling is Telling”.
Meanwhile: what are the films that have had the most impact on your lives? And: what are the universal truths or themes that you personally connected to?
I look forward to hearing from you.