For over 14 years, Peter Russell & Cecilia Stewart Russell have taught story development, worked as Hollywood script readers and have read 5,000+ screenplays for major film and television giants including Imagine Entertainment, Participant Productions, HBO, CBS, Walden Entertainment and dozens of others. Together, they have helped independent producers configure their scripts into hits. In 2009, Peter Russell received UCLA Extension’s Instructor of the Year for Film & Television, as his intense study of movie storyline has provided unique, original insights into each of Hollywood’s major genres.
What We Believe
We believe that stories – especially movies and screenplays – are meant to be emotional experiences…not just plot, not just action. To us, they aren’t motion pictures, they’re emotion pictures. Audiences come for feelings. That’s all good cinematic stories are. Each genre produces different feelings in their particular audience.
Why Our Seminars?
In our many years of working and teaching, we’ve realized that YOU have the power to make an audience FEEL, for example, take James Cameron – his movies hit BIG. But while the stories themselves are not life shatteringly different, it’s how he exploits and uses the rules, tricks and devices of his chosen genre to MOVE his audiences.
Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Nora Ephron, Judd Apatow…you name it. They do this, too. Understanding a genre story structure to its core lets a creator FORGET about plot, and simply improvise wildly, like a great jazz musician who long ago mastered scales, keys and beats, and can now be ORIGINAL.
As teachers of writing and lovers of storytelling, we, Peter and Cecilia, are obsessed with helping artists find and nurture their unique voice and vision. We want nothing more than to help all our students learn the rules of storytelling and then stretch them.
As story analysts for companies like Imagine Entertainment, Participant, Walden Media and many, many others, we’ve read literally thousands of screenplays and are still actively doing it. Most are not good. We wish they were. We would love to read every screenplay and be captivated by the characters and the writer’s specific view of the world.
But that’s not the case. Most screenplays we read tell a pretty good story – but the story doesn’t add up to much. Why? Because there’s a difference between telling a story and being a storyteller.
How Do You Tell a Story an Audience Will Love?
I want you to try something.
Find a friend who is not movie literate. Someone who sees, perhaps, just a handful of movies every year or so. Ask them to indulge you. Sit them down and tell them the story of The Godfather. Better still, go to Wikipedia and read them the plot of the Godfather. Read it word for word. Go ahead and make it as dramatic as you can.
Now ask them, what did they feel? What did they remember from the story? Anything?
Storytelling is in our DNA
Once upon a time we all sat around a campfire with our hairy Neanderthal family and friends. As we munched on turkey bones and sizzling gristle, one venerable member of our pack, our shaman, would sit in the place of honor, don the biggest feather band, and gather a collection of twigs and drums. The shaman would announce the beginning of the story with a massive drum roll. With a loud screech and a flourish of trills, he would end his tribal opening credits and begin the tale.
Today, we would see this honored shaman as our Hollywood director. The twigs and drums? That’s the FX — the special effects and music track for when things get tense, scary or happy. The colorful head dress? That’s to dazzle the audience — this is show business, people. Even back when we wore loin cloths and spoke in grunts the shaman knew to make it big! Make it beautiful! This is show business – its not tell-business. Feathered head dresses are great for telling stories.
Though we can’t be scientific about it, I’d imagine the story would last as long as the fire, roughly two hours. About the same amount of time as a movie. Our Neanderthal ancestors would laugh, cry, be amazed — and then all leave the campfire feeling something pleasurable and exciting — a transportation of the spirit. They’d remember the feelings. For those 120 minutes they’d stare at those flickering flames and imagine the world as it was shown through words, images and sounds.
The stresses of hunting three toe sloths and fighting off saber tooth tigers–GONE. No more worries about gathering more nuts and berries.
The next night when the fire was lit, the crowd would come back hoping for another good tale. To experience the feelings. Not because of a great plot, but the crowd came to enjoy the rushes of emotion that the shaman’s story created.
Movies Deliver Us into a World of Feeling
We sit in a dark room and let a dream come to life. It’s waking sleep. And unlike a novel, where you imagine the world personally, this is a world that feels real because you see and hear it without effort. The world is impressed on our memories and hearts like a direct hit from a wonderful drug. Because that’s what movies are–DRUGS. Designed drugs delivered in the form of images, timing, characters and dialogue.
We go to movies to get swept into a feeling. We want to get caught in a moment. Enter into a world we could never get to. Find ourselves seeing, being and feeling in situations of someone else’s imagination. Emotion is why stories grab us. It doesn’t grab our heads. It grabs our hearts. There’ s a kind of story that does grab your head, like INCEPTION, but only for people who get a big charge out of thinking – that’s why mystery thrillers are structured the precise way they are — for their own particular audience.
People don’t say “come on, guys, I feel like going to see a movie PLOT!” No, they say “I want to laugh” or “I want to cry.” That’s how they select a movie.
We feel when we get attached to characters who are vulnerable and flawed and struggling. We travel with them on their emotional journey. That journey may be a transformational one, one in which characters overcome a life challenge and triumph. That’s most common. Or it can be a journey into darkness with problematic consequences. Not as happy – but just as cathartic for an audience (a different audience, of course.)
But creating a precise feeling is what’s most important. We’ve studied thousands of stories, and we’ve learned how they create their feelings (different genres create whole different sets of feelings).
This creation is both science and art, and in screenplay it is evoked through precise, powerful structures. Not plot. What we teach is beyond plot.
We teach how to evoke feelings and your feelings are brought to life on the page. That’s all great movie story is. And we can help you learn how to do it.