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The Story Trail

March 12th, 2015 11:52 am


In the fifth grade, I somehow convinced my history teacher to let me shoot a video project instead of writing a book report.  What I wouldn’t give now to get my hands on that long-lost technically-obsolete videotape, showing a group of ten-year-old girls dressed as pioneer women in Laura Ashley dresses and bonnets, bumping along the frontier in “covered wagons” and burying dolls who we pretended had died of cholera. I remember that everyone spoke in an inexplicable (and terrible) southern accent. But when we showed it to our class, we killed. They roared with approving laughter – and a lightbulb went off for me. Telling stories that connected with an audience was a deep, satisfying thrill – and, it could get you out of other, more boring homework.

Years later, I was crouched in a dark barn in Utah, trying to quickly rewrite a scene for two amazing actors – Elisabeth Moss and Vincent Kartheiser, who soon would be coincidentally cast opposite each other again, as Peggy Olsen and Pete Campbell in Mad Men. I was directing the scene as a filmmaker in the Sundance Writers’ & Directors’ Labs, and was madly trying to revise some dialogue on the fly to make it flow better. The scene took place in a car at night – a step up from a covered wagon, I suppose – and we were using something aptly called the “poor man’s process” to simulate the illusion of a moving car by shaking a parked car while a production assistant waggled a pair of flashlights in the background to look like a following car’s headlights.  I wasn’t sure the illusion was working – and I wasn’t sure the dialogue was working – and although the whole thing was intended as a workshop to ‘work out the kinks’ in a script-in-progress, it was pretty nerve-wracking.

The next day, in the screening room where we showed the roughly edited scene to a group of filmmakers, I was cringing in the back row, worrying that the car looked cheesy, second-guessing my script and directorial choices. But the first person I spoke to when the lights came up was another filmmaker who came up to me with tears in his eyes and told me how the scene, featuring a troubled young man, reminded him of his own nephew’s emotional struggles and thanked me for telling this story…  It really jolted me. I had been worrying about the wrong things. So what if the car looked fake? The emotions were authentic. And again, it flashed in my head: “This is what you are supposed to be doing: telling stories.”

Stories are powerful. They can convince, enchant, build community, inspire action, incite violence, or compel people to switch their brand of peanut butter. Whether they are expressed as words on a page or as images on film or video, whether they are created in service of commerce or art, they are an undeniably potent force.

I’ve written scripts for movie studios and independent film producers, directed music videos that told clear stories without a single word of dialogue, written sentences that were spoken by a fitness celebrity, paragraphs that sold cruise ship packages, and pages that helped doctors translate medical jargon into straightforward language, to better help potential patients.

Some people might think that the gulf between art and commerce is wide – but it’s really all just storytelling. Whether I’m figuring out the best way to communicate product features, or creating something new out of pure imagination and a burning desire to tell a particular tale, I love solving the problem of what to say and how best to say it. The pleasure of connecting with an audience through words and pictures is still staggering and deeply gratifying.

So I’ll keep tying my bonnet under my chin and buttoning up my gingham dress in pursuit of a laugh or a tear or a nod of human recognition. Join me in the covered wagon and we’ll bump on down the story trail together. I promise, this time, no one will die of cholera.

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