by Catherine Ann Jones
After writing ten produced plays in New York City, I was wooed by Hollywood and began to write feature films, television movies (when they had them!), and television series.
I wrote for a popular television series called Touched by an Angel. Among the fan mail one day, we heard from one viewer. This man had decided to kill himself. It was a Sunday night and he happened to have the television on CBS where he watched an episode of Touched by an Angel. Moved by the story, he wept then decided to give life another chance. He wrote to us and thanked us for making a difference in his life.
After earning a living from acting in NY, I grew disenchanted with the roles of women in new plays, so decided to write my own, ten were produced. In 1989, I was wooed by Hollywood after writing an award-winning play, optioned by MGM. I began also to be offered writing assignments- both features and television movies. You might say I was the flavor of the month writer in Hollywood. Driving on the Hollywood freeway, I heard a Bill Moyer’s interview with David Putnam on NPR radio. David Putnam was for a year head of Columbia Pictures, and producer of Chariots of Fire and the Mission. Putnam said something which stayed with me. He said, “If movies could be what they might be, there’d be no need to go to church.”
As you know, many seem to want more from today’s films and television. If this is so, then why are we getting the films we are? Because, as a rule, the creative people rarely have the power in Hollywood. It’s a little easier in television as writers more often move on to producing. For instance, I was assoc. producer for The Christmas Wife, a movie I wrote for HBO, turning down a more lucrative contract with the networks, I opted for less money and more creative control. I cast the film myself, with Jason Robards and Julie Harris, earning a co-producer credit. We received 4 Emmy nominations including best film and best writing. Though I have been fortunate and sold nine scripts, for those of us committed to socially-responsible media, sometimes we lose.
However, “times they are a changing.” There’s been a shift, and though it’s only the beginning, there is a new pulse in Hollywood, an opening for consciousness raising films. Last week I was guest speaker for ISLEE, a group of filmmakers in LA committed to such films. Also invited to give a talk at GATE conference in Los Angeles, Feb 4, 2012, focusing on conscious-raising films and music.
Parallel with writing films and television, I was invited to teach graduate screenwriting at USC Graduate Film School in LA, #1 film school in America. As a teacher and writing consultant, I believe it is important to support your vision, not mine. However, more and more, the students would be writing derivative spin-offs of the latest blockbuster thrillers. I pondered, “If you’re not going to write original stories in your twenties and thirties, then when?” So after seven years, I quit teaching graduate school and later launched The Way of Story: the craft & soul of writing workshops first at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur then elsewhere in the states, Europe and Asia. The idea is to teach an integrative approach to writing, where you bring all of yourself to the table – not just the left brain. After a few years, I wrote The Way of Story book – which ironically is now required for several schools such as New York University writing programs. I guess the moral is ‘follow your own star’.
The Way of Story: the craft & soul of writing is for all forms of narrative writing with a special focus on dramatic writing. Craft alone is vital but not enough. It is the integration of solid storytelling technique with experiential inner discovery that delivers a great story. The book is also a memoir where I make use of my personal and professional journey to illustrate story.
Now more than ever before, it is time to reach deep into the creative psyche and offer something of true value to our world. If we could infuse filmmaking with even a portion of the vision and value we possess, then movies would indeed rise to what they might be.
Story has been the foundation of rituals that empower both individual and collective values since society began. Story provides both identity and standards to live by and is thus essential to our well being. It serves as a mirror reflecting who we are and what we believe in. What story would you choose to live by? The answer offers a clue to your soul, your deepest self. I’m sure you’ll agree that it is soul which gives meaning to both life and art. If not now then when?
“Become the change you want to happen.” – Gandhi
**Catherine Ann Jones will be teaching at this year’s SBWC, June 14th.**