MICHAEL HAUGE is a story consultant, author and lecturer who works with writers and filmmakers. He has coached or consulted on projects for Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Robert Downey, Jr. and Morgan Freeman, plus every Hollywood studio.
I am speaking with Michael about his career, his teaching and his first visit to Australia in May of this year. With apologies for the poor audio quality of the telephone recording.
Karel: Terry Rossio, co writer of ALADDIN, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and SHREK, says you are “the only screenwriting instructor who might be truly wasting his time because he should be writing screenplays instead.” That’s my first question: Have you ever felt like you were wasting your time?
Michael: It’s very generous of Terry to say that. We first met when I did a special event as part of the American Screenwriters Association conference where I interviewed Ted Elliott and him. It was just when SHREK was in theatres. I gave a one hour lecture about SHREK and then they came on stage and we did a Q&A. They said later they appreciated that everything I had talked about was exactly what they intended when they wrote the script.At the time they were in the midst of writing Shrek 2 and weren’t real happy with the direction things were going, and people not appreciating their approach to it, which the studio ended up using anyway.
I really don’t think I’m wasting my time as a consultant. My strength, and my passion, is for working with writers and filmmakers, empowering them to get their stories on the page and on the screen, either by working with them one-on-one, or through my lectures, books, DVDs, articles, etc.
Karel: Have you ever written a screenplay?
Michael: Some time ago I made a stab at writing a screenplay, and it was OK, but it really wasn’t where my passion was. I just have so much fun doing what I’m doing.
Karel: How would you position yourself among the known screenwriting teachers?
Michael: Good question… How would I position myself? Well, first of all I’m somebody that has been around now a long time. There are a few of us who are sort of regarded as the front guard, or the old guard.
There’s me, there’s Bob McKee, there’s Syd Field, Linda Seger, Chris Vogler, John Truby, Kathie Fong Yoneda, a couple more that I’ve probably forgotten. So I think that gives us all a certain cachet. We all have books; we all have reputations and so on.
As far as lecturing goes, we all seem to have different things that we kind of enjoy doing. Linda goes to a lot of festivals and does a lot of work outside the US. I don’t do so much outside the US and I don’t do so much lecturing as her or Chris or Bob McKee. The trip to Australia, is the first time I will have come to Australia to give a seminar or to do a workshop, so that is a bit different.
I think of that whole group I mentioned, I’m the one that does the most coaching. Linda writes a lot of books. Chris, is working for Paramount, and he travels to Europe a lot to lecture and collaborate on projects. But I think I’m the guy who is primarily a script consultant
Karel: In your view, are there any contradictions between the various story theories?
Michael: In my experience, all those people that I mentioned, Bob and Syd and Linda and Chris and John, we all have our own approach to story, character and structure. And I have yet to find anything significant about which we disagree. It is just a different way of getting at the founding principles of story developed by Aristotle, and probably even before that.
That’s why I wanted to do the DVD of The Hero‘s 2 Journeys with Chris Vogler. He uses Joseph Campbell’s model, a mythical model for approaching story. I think it is wonderful, and I think his work is among the best out there. He and I don’t really disagree on the core principles of story, we just have different approaches, so we can sort of make fun of each other and argue about that.
I will say that there are a lot of myths about screenwriting floating around, and some are perpetuated by other lecturers. Myths like ‘if you live outside LA you don’t have a chance’ or ‘it’s not what you know, it is who you know’. It is important to know people, but you can get to know people. There are ways to network and contact people and get them to read your script and you’ll get to know them.
There are a lot of things like that, that I disagree with, but not the principles that I hear espoused by the top screenwriting teachers, or by the successful writers that I work with.
Karel: We know you from your books and DVDs but what keeps you busy most of your time?
Michael: I primarily do three things: I consult with writers, directors, producers, filmmakers and storytellers of all kind; I’m invited to lecture to lots of different groups; and I write — books and articles and so on. And of course, I have DVDs and CDs of some of the lectures that I give.
Karel: You seem to have a lot on your plate. How do you organize your day?
Michael: In a typical day, the majority of what I do is the consultation. I get up in the morning and I read a client’s script, and take extensive notes on that screenplay.
Later that day, I have a consulting session with that client, either in person or by phone. If it’s the first time we’ve talked, that might take up to three hours. If it’s an ongoing client, our session is closer to one and a half or two hours.
Then I might have another session with a writer who has outlined changes they plan to make as a result of our previous sessions. I might have a third coaching session with one of my clients who wants to get my guidance on their writing process, or on their pitch. And in between, I talk to prospective clients, write articles, prepare for lectures, add information to my web site and newsletters, and answer emails.
And after I’ve been in the office for about twelve hours, I’m done! And then my wife and I will have dinner and watch television or a movie. And that’s pretty much it. Glamorous, isn’t it?!
Karel: Which are your favourite TV series?
Michael: Well right now there are two new series that may not yet be playing in Australia. The season is kind of truncated because of the Writers Guild strike here. But there is a half-hour series on HBO called In Treatment, which I love. It’s on six nights a week. Gabriel Byrne plays a psychologist, and each episode shows him in therapy with one of his clients. The series is set up so every Monday we see the same client as we saw the previous Monday, just like it would be with a real therapist. So Monday nights are about a young woman, and Tuesday night it’s about guy, and Wednesday nights it’s a teenage girl, and Thursdays a couple. Then Fridays the shrink goes to see his own therapist and talks about his own problems. It’s just talking heads, just two or three people in a room doing therapy. It’s based, I think, on an Israeli series, and it’s brilliantly written and wonderfully performed.
My other favourite series so far is Terminator: The Sarah Conner chronicles. I was a big terminator fan and they are doing some interesting new things with that franchise.
Karel: What is your favourite classic movie?
Michael: When I hear the term ‘classic’, I think in terms of pre-1950. I don’t think of movies from the 70’s on as classics in the same way. I guess you would have to regard The Godfather as a classic film. But when you say classic, I think of black and white, Hollywood in its heyday. And then I think without exception it would be Casablanca.
In more recent times, certainly Chinatown, certainly The Godfather. Those are sort of easy, because everybody puts those on the list. But I think any list of great movies would have to include Sleepless in Seattle, Shrek, When Harry Met Sally, L.A. Confidential, and a number of Woody Allen movies – but probably most of all Manhattan.
To be honest, it is an impossible question. There are so many movies that I love, so many movies I think are just wonderful. I actually hate the questions because I know I’m gonna forget to mention a movie that is just very close to me. And there are more coming along all the time!
Karel: Do you watch a movie every day?
Michael: No, I probably watch on average about two movies a week, maybe three. But I watch television too, because I also consult with television writers, plus I’m a fan. I mean there are certain TV series that I really like, so I watch those. And I watch videos, and I go to the movies about once a week.
Karel: Do you have any favourites that don’t follow the principles you teach?
Michael: Oh yeah, yeah. There are a number of movies that I think are wonderful, that I generally don’t talk about when I lecture. The reason is: I want people to understand the core of what I consider the essential principles of story and structure and character arc and love story and eliciting emotion. So the examples I use are ones that follow the formula – if you want to call it that – so they can strengthens a writer’s understanding of it.
No movie breaks all the rules, but great movies often push the envelope, or they take liberties, or they fit into a niche that is less commercial.
So people regard Annie Hall as a great romantic comedy. But the basic formula for a Hollywood romantic comedy involves deception – a character with a compelling goal is lying about something to get it, then she meets someone and falls in love, but the person doesn’t know that the hero is pretending to be somebody she’s not, as in Working Girl or Tootsie or The Wedding Crashers. Or maybe the hero is just lying, as they are in a Sleepless in Seattle or Sideways. In any case, there is almost always deception, and always a happy ending.
Annie Hall doesn’t have any of those elements. It is more like a dramatic love story, but it’s so funny that it is regarded as a romantic comedy. And it doesn’t have a happy ending. Woody Allen is pretty much allergic to happy endings because he sees love affairs and relationships as finite. So he breaks the rules, but it’s still a great movie.
Another example, one of my all-time favourite movies and one of the great screenplays coming out of Hollywood in the last twenty years, is The Shawshank Redemption. It certainly follows rules for creating empathy, and giving characters visible goals, and developing character arc and theme. But it doesn’t follow a common structure. Instead it uses a three-stage structure. We see the hero in one period of time, then we jump ahead quite a few years, see them again, jump ahead, and see them a third time. That structure is used by When Harry Met Sally, by Steel Magnolias, by Driving Miss Daisy, by numerous other movies. But those movies are a very small percentage of the movies Hollywood makes.
So that’s not a typical film, yet it’s also a great screenplay.
Here’s the way I usually say it: you can break the rules only after you know the rules so well that you can honestly say, “I will elicit more emotion, and create a better emotional experience for the audience, by pushing the envelope rather than following the formula.”
When writers get in to trouble is when they say, “I don’t believe in formula, I’m just going to ignore the rules and tell whatever story I want to tell.” Those movies rarely work.
END OF PART ONE
For information on Michael’s books, DVDs and one-on-one consultation, or to contact him directly, please visit his web site: www.ScreenplayMastery.com. To register for any of his Australian seminars, go here: www.epiphany.com.au.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.