Category Archives: Story
One of the blessings of my work is the opportunity to connect with artists across genres and learn about their creative journeys. Recently, I had the joy of interviewing Carl Falk – an LA and Stockholm-based songwriter/producer who’s been behind some of the biggest pop hits of the last decade.
A behind-the-scenes kind of guy, Carl’s unassuming confidence, humility and quiet grace are unmistakable. You get the impression that listening is one of his greatest strengths – and one of the keys to his long-standing success. (Carl’s written and/or produced for One Direction, Nicki Minaj, Lawson, Taio Cruz, Labrinth, Nicole Scherzinger, Lindsay Lohan, Dani Minogue, Journey South, The Backstreet Boys, Westlife, Darren Hayes, The Wanted, David Cook, AJ McLean, Clay Aiken, Russell Crowe, and more.) In addition to songwriting, Carl also has his own band – “Pilot” – that performs mostly at private events.
Here are some excerpts (and sound advice for all creatives) from the interview:
Fear and faith are issues that every artist has to contend with on their creative path. How do you handle fear?
Fear is the worst thing to have the room, in writing a song, to be afraid to speak up. When you get started as a songwriter in a writing session you may be afraid to speak up. The more songs you write, the more songs you produce, the more confidence you gain, I think that’s the best way to handle fear. To be really prepared. If you say something, if you have a vision, and you speak up, you never know, sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s good. Either way, you have to speak up. How do you handle fear? Be prepared, believe in yourself, have confidence in yourself, and realize that what you bring to the session, is going to be something good.
How do you know when the song you’re working on is working?
If a song you’re working on is just okay, but doesn’t feel like magic, find something else. Don’t waste your time on writing. It may seem like a great song, but you need to aim higher than that, and accept that sometimes it takes weeks to write a song. When it’s done, everything in the song feels like, ‘that is what it should be, three and a half minutes.’ That happens because you worked on every little detail.
As a producer, you are at the forefront of the business side of music. Given your experience, what would be the most important advice you would give an aspiring songwriter?
Looking back at my career, I think the best advice is this: it doesn’t matter if you write the best song in the world, the biggest mega smash in the world, if the right person never hears it. You have to surround yourself with people who are creative, inspired, but also have the contacts to get the songs out. There are so many fantastic writers, but they don’t have the connections to get their songs to the right people. It doesn’t matter what your song is until the right person hears it.
I think the first key is to put people who aren’t doing the same thing in a room. That is what true collaboration is. Not three doing the same thing. We bring different things to the table. We are all doing different things, but wanting the same results. That is the most important thing for collaboration or co-writing — to work with people who bring something you don’t.
‘The Numinous Place’ is the world’s first truly multidimensional work of fiction – technology and creativity merge harmoniously to create a uniquely experiential new medium. Every aspect of ‘The Numinous Place’ feels chillingly authentic…From realistic news reports and video to genuine documents, articles, diagrams, photographs, websites and phone calls; readers will believe they are witnessing actual events unfold, as they immerse themselves in a discovery that will change the world forever. And, the powerful narrative moves beyond the screen into the real-world and beyond with an interactive element that has only ever been dreamt of before. – thenuminousplace.com
Hollywood screenwriter, Mark Staufer, recently unveiled the prototype for The Numinous Place. I caught up with Mark, and Dean Johnson, VP of Innovation at Brandwidth, the firm who designed and developed the app, to see how things are proceeding for this emerging franchise that is generating a lot of buzz.
Mark, you unveiled the TNP prototype and introduced it to the world at the Frankfurt Book Fair. How was it received?
The Frankfurt Book Fair was like the second moment of truth for The Numinous Place after Kickstarter. With nearly every major publisher and more than 300,000 (yes—Three. Hundred. Thousand) industry professionals in attendance, this was the best possible launch-pad for us. We were confident we had the goods, but with so many people, I was concerned we might get buried. I was also worried I was skiing way off-piste—I know Hollywood and how it works, the world of books is a different animal: impenetrable, haughty, somewhat hidebound. And The Numinous Place is so different from what they’re used to. I was anxious I was turning up at a cat show with a platypus. But, you know, I’ve always believed this is my destiny project, and that our time had come, and in the end everything conspired brilliantly. I’m overwhelmed by the response.
Dean, how was it from your perspective?
The positive response in the US, at the Frankfurt Book fair and back in the UK has been quite overwhelming. It really does feel as if the audience is ready for someone to raise the bar. Six months ago, this wouldn’t have been the case.
Without giving away trade secrets, how did Brandwidth adapt technology to meet Mark’s vision? What was the greatest challenge?
It’s all about the seamless narrative as we are still primarily catering to readers, not viewers or gamers. They don’t want interactive content to break their reading experience and obstruct the well-written text. Our audio enhances, video is contained within the key text and interaction occurs as a result of the narrative, not in spite of it. The secret is to produce an app where the technology is recessive, not excessive. Mark understood all this so the text and the tech met in the middle.
How much of a “stretch” has TNP been for Brandwidth?
Brandwidth works with some of the largest global brands to select, design, develop, market and maintain great digital content. The end product takes many shapes on the most appropriate platforms – from Enterprise-level websites, apps, iBooks, 3D and gestural screen technology to the future of Smart TV.
That sounds a little dry, but when our clients include publishers, music labels, TV and film studios, automotive manufacturers and museums with some incredible raw materials, we love bringing this stuff to life and engaging our audience. TNP wasn’t unfamiliar, but presented an interesting challenge.
One of the misperceptions I see in this type of work is that collaboration within publishing just exists for licensing deals and a client/supplier relationship. The Numinous Place wouldn’t have existed without genuine teamwork across an incredibly diverse set of disciplines, from writer, musician and dream expert to designer, developer and marketer.
Dean, what do you see as technology’s role in facilitating Storytelling? What should writers be aware of as they approach new work?
Apps allow us to push the boundaries, and Apple’s platform in particular caters to the highest possible denominator, rather than the lowest. Transmedia projects are employing gaming and multiplatform (and multi-reader) participation with mixed results. There’s a great opportunity to appeal to a different audience with these elements but not necessarily a familiar readership. Too much interaction can be a distraction, but I envisage future developments taking the story beyond the book, with online and electronic billboards continuing the narrative between reading sessions. Well, perhaps not that far in the future.
Authors should be aware that there’s a whole bunch of bells and whistles available. Throw everything at your readers and you’ll soon find you’ve lost your audience. I would advise them to write with technology in mind, rather than adding the digital experience as an afterthought.
We were confident that we had a really great story to tell, even so, we were telling that story in a way like never before and the publishing industry isn’t renowned for radical forward thinking and risk-taking. Also, attracting a publisher for the e- and print-book parts of the puzzle was just part of it. We also needed investment for the four app-book versions which would allow us to release and market them, and hopefully begin developing the game, and screen adaptation. We ticked all the boxes.
That’s wonderful. Did the Universe open any different opportunities beyond what you had imagined while you were there?
As always, the Universe had much more in store than my mere imaginings. I met some wonderful people, who I made a deep connection with, and the whole experience underlined my belief that you get back what you put out. The publishers and investors who came my way were the ones who got it, and if they didn’t at first, as soon as I showed them the magnificent prototype that Brandwidth designed, they got very excited. Showing works better than telling with The Numinous Place, definitely. I met a Brazilian writer and publisher, Francisco Pereira who offered support and guidance and will be my friend for life. And, after my presentation, author Jonathan Gottschall approached me. Gottschall is a bloody genius, by the way—check out his website, and if you’re a writer, or in business, or just interested in the immense power of story, you gotta get his book “The Storytelling Animal.” Seriously, buy it right now.
We evolve as our projects do. Mark, what changed in/for you during your time in Frankfurt?
I trust my intuition much more. It’s the most profoundly important sense/talent that we human beings possess, and it needs to be nurtured and tuned. The Numinous Place is a supernatural thriller, but it’s also a spiritual quest. The main character, Henry Meat, has insisted on certain narrative directions that I’ve sometimes fought against for writerly reasons. Even though my brain tells me that such-and-such should now be happening, Henry will fight me tooth and nail if it’s not the authentic story. Sometimes, I’m just not even sure where he’s taking me plot-wise, and I’ve put it down to luck when things work out in the narrative and it comes together. Now I realize that with Henry, and with life, you’ve gotta have faith and rely on your intuition. I’m also cognizant of the fact that I sound a little crazy with all this “Use the force, Luke” Sufi-stuff. Don’t take my word for it—dive in yourself: see if intuition and trust and honesty don’t improve your writing and your life.
How important is it for creatives to have faith and stay true to their vision during the development/financing/production phases of projects? Words of advice?
OK, so let’s talk about energy for a moment. The Dao, the Force, the Universe, nature, chi, the Field, prana, lung, the Gods—even if you’re a complete atheist like I used to be, and materialist science is the infrastructure within which you place your faith, at some stage you must let go. You must construct each of the phases of your creative endeavor to the best of your ability, and only when you are supremely confident that you’ve done your best, and the time is right, should you move onto the next one. And then, at some stage, when your intuition tells you everything is aligned—and you possess the energy necessary—shepherd it out into the Universe. The right people will find it, and they will help you.
I should add that, initially, when I sent the Numinous Place out into the Universe, it clearly was not the right time.I didn’t listen to my intuition, and about a year ago, I sent the manuscript and concept to more than 100 agents. The few replies I received were pretty dismissive. Even though they didn’t even read the manuscript, they didn’t see the vision and couldn’t understand what I was trying to achieve. Things have moved along now technologically, and for us as well—we’re still operating without representation which is clearly not an essential piece of this particular puzzle. I’m sure there are some big-thinking agents out there, the Universe just doesn’t believe The Numinous Place needs one at this point, and maybe other creatives need to approach their work in such a way. The old ways are not always the best ways.
That can be so true. We really do need to start looking at our work in terms of what will best serve the story and facilitate reaching the audience. We need to be courageous in being willing to be different. What’s next now for TNP?
Business stuff. Deals. Putting the pieces of the puzzle together—app, ebook, print-book, game, screen adaptation. Lots of meetings. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m looking forward to going back into the dark room and getting on with the writing side of things. Henry’s getting impatient. Luckily, I have good people around me who are handling the business side of things. But I should mention, our philosophy, even with business is much more “Bhagavad Gita” than “Art of War.”
Thank you, Mark and Dean. We’re looking forward to following TNP.
We are always being guided.
When I just happened to turn on PBS a couple years ago to find BBC’s Wallander (which I had never watched before) coming on, I had no idea that it was about to change how I write.
(Note: BBC’s Wallander is a compelling series about a Swedish detective played by Ken Branagh – who has won a BAFTA TV and other awards for his performance in the series. I recently had the joy of interviewing Peter Harness, lead writer for Wallander Series 3 – you can read that here.)
To say there was something refreshingly different about how this crime drama was presented is an understatement. I was riveted.
Unlike most American crime dramas, you were not assaulted by a furious pace of brutality, blood, gore, and a predictable A to B to C race to solve the investigation. The audience was given time to think and absorb the story without it ever once losing momentum. Branagh gave a poignantly engaging performance with a depth of character not often seen in TV crime dramas. The story was set amidst stunningly beautiful landscapes where nature’s tranquility sharply contrasted against the pain and gruesomeness of Wallander’s daily life.
The writers, directors, producers and actors honored not only the audiences’ intelligence, but also the character’s integrity. They told a story about a man and didn’t manipulate him for plot or convenience. What came through was authenticity. Something the human spirit always recognizes and responds to.
Three things hit home:
1.) You can use nature as a powerful “third” character to juxtapose pain against well-being.
2.) You can completely captivate an audience, even when the character is just sitting in a chair, worrying over his vulnerability, when you allow the character to be fully himself.
3.) You can elevate any story when you focus on creating something visually and emotionally beautiful that resonates with the human spirit.
That afternoon proved to me that what I envisioned as a writer was possible to achieve. It inspired me to let my characters have their way, to trust them fully, even when what they want to do story-wise may prove unconventional. It reminded me, too, to always seek to elevate a story – any story – to its highest realm, to reach deeper into the human heart.
Would I have discovered these concepts if I hadn’t turned on the TV that afternoon? Maybe.
But I’ll forever be grateful to the entire creative team on BBC’s Wallander for lighting the path for me.
New York Magazine published an interview with actor Mandy Patinkin in which he talks about the impact of a script’s subject matter on an actor’s soul.
I quote from the interview:
“The biggest public mistake I ever made was that I chose to do Criminal Minds in the first place. I thought it was something very different. I never thought they were going to kill and rape all these women every night, every day, week after week, year after year. It was very destructive to my soul and my personality…I’m not making a judgment on the taste [of people who watch crime procedurals], but I’m concerned about the effect it has. Audiences all over the world use this programming as their bedtime story. This isn’t what you need to be dreaming about.”
Thank you, Willa Paskin (@willapaskin), for including this in your article. And thank you, Mr. Patinkin, for being willing to talk about it.
I’ve written about why writers should respect actors. Much of writing is spiritual in nature. The source of material is rooted in spirit and we draw on the spiritual connections we have to this material to access characters and translate their stories.
Actors do the same. Only more intimately, as they allow characters to embody and live vicariously through them. There is an inherent risk in material that includes graphic violence, crime, loss or torture. And while it is an actor’s job to make these scenes real in the mind of the audience, there is an underlying authenticity that makes them real to the actor’s spirit as well. It doesn’t matter that the mind knows that what is taking place is crafted and not spontaneous.
Without a way to safeguard the soul, actors can suffer from trauma – even to the extent of first or secondary post-traumatic stress disorder. But even more so, exposure to trauma can shift your spirit so that you start to see more of the dark side of life and less of the light. And this can lead to enjoying your life less, feeling fear more, and generally developing a distrust in the goodness that abundantly flows around you.
How do you protect the soul while delivering an authentic performance?
- Know yourself. Know where you begin and the character ends. Know what you believe, value, hold to be true. Separate yourself from the character and the story.
- Be mindful of the real spiritual nature of characters. It’s not talked about a lot, but characters are real and exist in their own dimension. Writers are the first to interact with the character, but actors must physically and emotionally experience a character and their story.
- Remember you are a conduit. Not a character. Why are you an actor? Because you love storytelling? You are a conduit, facilitating a character’s story. You acquiesce to a character’s experience in order to share their story. If that story resonates with you in some way, you will connect to it on a deeper level. Choose roles that call to you.
- Be aware of what a role is asking you to experience. Violence and trauma that serve a purpose in a character’s arch can be dealt with in a way that respects the actor’s soul and well-being. Support in the form of a confidential creative-spiritual life consultant, preparation for traumatic scenes and actions, and taking time to process how trauma affects you are all steps that can allow traumatic scenes and roles to drive inner growth, not damage it.
- Understand that it’s going to impact you. Know ahead of time that violent scenes and acts are going to affect you. It’s going to bother you. It should.
- Put boundaries on antagonists. Antagonists bring values and acts that conflict with moral principles. Their thoughts, desires and actions are not ones that will nurture your spirit. Actors who portray antagonists* are not antagonists themselves. Find ways to connect to things that support your moral beliefs, goodness, and compassion in your real life. Put boundaries on antagonist characters.
- Develop a safe place. One just for you. No character intrusion allowed.
- Don’t forget to create your own story. Your life goes on while you are in character. Keep it interesting and focus on what you do want to experience in life.
What if you’ve already been traumatized?
- Accept that your feelings are real. Emotion and expression are an actor’s lifeblood. But they are your spirit’s lifeblood, too. It doesn’t matter what caused your feelings, what matters is that what you feel is real. If a role or scene bothers you, it’s okay to admit it. In fact, the more perceptive and sensitive an actor you are, the more likely that it will bother you. There’s no shame in that.
- Ask questions. Mr. Patinkin asks a relevant question when he ponders if violent scenes are what we need to be falling asleep to. Violence certainly serves its purpose. But it requires a purpose with context for the human soul to embrace it. I, too, question the point of entertainment that involves senseless, overdone, graphic violence without ultimately delivering a life-giving story. This is a question for culture. But as storytellers, we need to be mindful of why we present stories the way we do and ultimately, the impact those choices may have on the human spirit.
- Seek healing. The farther up the A-list you are, the more complex wounds you’ll most likely have experienced. Navigating these wounds can be a complex process as well. Don’t let yourself lose hope that healing is possible. Don’t lose sight of who you are as a being of Source. Whole. Happy. Safe. Contributing.
What about the crew?
Anyone who witnesses traumatic scenes or assists in designing them is also impacted. You don’t have to be an actor to feel the trauma. Witnessing violence portrayed as real can be very difficult to deal with. Everyone involved in the Story should be mindful of trauma and be empowered with ways to work through the emotions involved.
*A note for actors who portray antagonists. Depending on the depth of evil your character involves, you need to be extra careful to guard your spirit. The things your character may think, feel, fantasize and do may be frightening. As you give this character permission to tell a story through you, you will come up against the dark realm of the soul. One that can be shocking in itself and present some of the deepest questions in life.
You may grapple with questions about human nature, humanity, suffering, and what has to happen to a human spirit and mind in order for it to commit atrocious acts against others. As you physically live out the character’s actions, you may find yourself struggling with your own identity in all of this. Audiences will relate to you for the dark characters you portray – and may not get to see the goodness in you as a person separate from the character. Don’t lose sight of the goodness in you. You are not the character; the character is not you. You are an actor, an artist. Let what you have learned of the dark side shine light on your work.
We are all responsible for tending to each others’ spirits
No matter your role, we are each responsible to tend to each others’ spiritual well-being during the storytelling process. Storytelling is a way to unite, to enjoy the creative calling and responsibility we’ve each been given.
Be sensitive to what others’ may perceive. Be mindful. Be kind.
We Must Meet Each New Work for the First Time
As artists, we develop style, routines, working habits that shape how we approach our work.
It can be tempting to move on to the next project as more or less a subconscious continuation of the last one. Especially when we’re busy and have little time between projects. We know we’ve done it before and so we assume we’ll do it again the same way. But no two projects are ever alike. What worked so beautifully before may or may not work for this one. Staying open to new processes is essential and one of the primary ways we develop as artists.
Each new work deserves to be met with a creative openness that combines our wealth of experience with fresh humility and respect.
We Think We Create, When In Fact We’re Being Created
If you see your creative project as something that must be done, achieved, strived for, accomplished, completed – you’re looking through a very narrow lens. Projects must be brought forth and brought to their finished form, yes; but they have far more to create in us than we ever create in them.
Each new work brings something to you, the artist.
Each new work develops insight, perspective, experience in you.
Each new work prepares you for the next work.
If you’re not looking at your project with this in mind, you won’t be able to fully receive its blessing.
The Most Important Thing You Can Do is… Listen
There is nothing more important, in fact. Listening comes first, comes second, comes last.
You have to listen to the work, be receptive, interact with Guidance.
If you throw too much of Yourself into your work without knowing where you end and the Work begins, you’ll miss its soul spark. It is an interactive process – you listen to the work, you receive the work, the work reveals itself through your creative process over and over and over again until it emerges and you fade.
Projects Choose You Because They Trust You…So Let Them Trust You
Artists receive creative work from Source. We are conduits. We stand between the Unseen and the Seen. Our gifts allow us to translate the Unseen into the Seen. We do not actually “create” anything. We are provided with ideas, insight, guidance, inspiration, stories, characters, concepts – all because we have been deemed Trustees of this Unseen World.
It’s our job to say yes to our calling.
Each new work counts on us to bring the best of ourselves to it.
Each new work trusts us – more than anyone else it could have chosen – as the right person to emerge itself through.
That’s why we must meet each new work as new work.
Because we are the only one who can greet it.