Film Courage: What three things does a great story have to have?
Dr. Ken Atchity, Author, Publisher, Producer: What three things? Well, it has to have a hook that gets people instantly involved in the story and that’s a huge part of the story itself. And it’s got to have a very strong character in the story that you care about and other than that, it has to have twists and turns that lead to a surprise ending. If I had to just say three things, I guess that’s what I would say the three things are. Every story needs that because a story about nothing is not going to hold anyone’s interest.
And sometimes writers when they begin their careers think that if they just write, they can write about anything but the truth is they need to write from their heart about things that matter to everyone and if they do that, you can hardly go wrong. Because stories are really not about words or word choice or anything like that. They’re about conveying the power of a character facing a dilemma that you have no idea how he or she will resolve and when you do that you’ve got everyone’s attention.
And in ancient times there was a thing called The Oral Tradition which I used to teach as a professor of Homeric Greek. The Iliad and the Odyssey were sung at campfires and everyone in the culture knew the stories. We are publishing a book right now on Homeric song and how it worked and how it held culture together. And my first book those…I call those stories the shield of memory and it was because of those stories that a person knew how to deal with himself in battle or when facing an attacking boar or when facing an angry wife or when facing pillagers trying to burn down his village. He would instantly think of the story of Heracles who did this or that or the story of Aegean who did this and that and that’s all they had. They didn’t have books for learning. It was all passed along through the oral tradition. And I think stories have never failed to play that role in human life and when you think about it you know “What’s your story?” is probably the most human response to any encounter and it goes from the court of law where the jury is trying to decide which of the two stories do they believe, to a political campaign where the voters are making that decision, to a first date where you are going “Do I believe his story? I just don’t believe it? I can’t buy his story?” That’s the ultimate human turn down, you can’t buy the story. And it goes through everything. Advertising is conveying stories that people will want to buy the product. This is how humans operate on a daily basis so to me it’s absolutely amazing that an industry has been created where people will pay millions of dollars for stories and where stories can basically conquer the world and I believe unite the world.
I mean look at all the work we are now doing with China in the movie business. I just saw Lara Croft in Tomb Raider (the new version of it) where the male lead is Chinese and she is Western and clearly as a producer I’m watching it going “This was a Chinese financed movie,” because I understand how it works for the market…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).
“You cannot fail at being yourself, which means doing with all your might what you were born to do with your light, your vision, and your time.” ... let us remember the words of Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset: “I think the only immoral thing is for a being not to live every instant of its life with the utmost intensity"
~ Jose Ortega y Gasset
Film Courage: What key steps did you take to go from being a tenured professor? Most people would do many things that aren’t good to be in those shoes. I’m sure first of all you had to deal with social pressure, people were probably trying to talk you out of it…maybe not? What steps did you take?
Dr. Ken Atchity, producer/author: Well…in retrospect you can always make it look more planned and logical than what it was at the time. But I basically…I ran into a very inspiring many whose name is Norman Cousins who was the editor of Saturday Review world of those days and he came to speak in a class of mine at Occidental College and it turned out we shared a motto that no one else in the world had ever heard of and that motto was a single sentence by the Spanish philosopher [José] Ortega y Gasset that said “I think the only immoral thing is for a being not to use every instant of its existence with the utmost intensity.” And I had never heard anyone else quote that, but after his talk in my class I asked him to come to my office and I showed him that it was framed above my desk and so needless to say we bonded.
Long story short, I asked him what I should do when I grow up which I’d asked male authority figures all my life basically. He told me after we got to know each other that I should consider the entertainment business because it was much broader than the academic world and people can basically do whatever…anything creative you’re encouraged to do basically. You can find your own way. There are no rules and schedules and all of those kind of things that we find in academia.
And I love academic you know? The world and the ideas that are exchanged and all of that. But it was restricting and it was (for me) suffocating. Which is a word that means a lot to me personally. It’s my most ancient nightmare being suffocated and I’ve never been suffocated in the…
Film Courage: Ken, as a tenured professor in your mid-40s, what made you think you could change careers?
Dr. Ken Atchity, producer and author: Well, this is America and you can do whatever you want to do. It’s one of the great things about this country.
What I was doing was very related to a career I’m in now. It was developing stories, developing writers, and of course, teaching a number of things that I no longer teach like classical literature and Italian literature.
So it’s all united by storytelling. I had no idea which world was sort of the bigger world of ideas, the world of academia that I had been in for 17 years, or the world I went into. And I discovered that the world I went into was really the world of ideas, because it’s a world in which people are tracking ideas across continents to find out who owns the rights to a story.
They pay lots of money to acquire the story (at least they used to pay lots of money) and they spend millions of dollars to turn the story into a movie and they’re fiercely competitive about the world of ideas. The motion picture business is the jungle of ideas and it’s survival of the best idea and the best business people.
I always so it’s called show business for a reason. It’s not just about show, it’s about the business of how stories get developed into movies that the whole world can see.
Film Courage: I’m hoping we can go back to maybe before you made this transition to wanting to be in film? Was there something that happened, was there a time in your life that where you felt like “You know what? I want a new challenge.”
Dr. Ken Atchity: That’s a good question because I’ve reflected on it all of my life since then and it was actually provoked by my receiving tenure. I actually belonged to an untenured faculty committee against tenure. One day when I was a Fulbright professor in Bologna, Italy, I got a telegraph from the Dean of the faculty at Occidental College telling me that I’d received tenure in my absence.
And my reaction to it was not very understandable to my friends and colleagues. I became deeply depressed for about a year. And it took me a long time to figure out why I was depressed and it was because I had really never asked to be in this golden cage where nothing can happen to you. It was like the most secure place you could be and I realized at the time that my father’s chief value in life was security. He was a child of The Depression and security was all important to him. And I had to admit to myself that it wasn’t that important to me. I never worried about being secure. I’d published lots of things and I was in demand as a speaker and just never had to worry about it.
And what I valued was freedom and I didn’t feel and I didn’t feel freedom when under a structure where you had to behave a certain way and you had to know a year in advance that on the week of October 12th you’d be teaching the 8th book of The Iliad. And it was wonderful to be teaching The Iliad, but that to know a year in advance you were going to be somewhere.
I now live in a world where I don’t know where I am going to be tomorrow literally and it’s complete opposite, it’s a free world. And of course I realized that as I got older that freedom is as much an illusion as security (both of them are illusions), but it was my illusion. Security was not my illusion and so I’ve lived with complete insecurity. But with the freedom to express myself creatively and in every possible way (which is what the film business allows me to do) and so that was very exciting to me.
Film Courage: And do you ever tell people that? If they are looking to be in a creative pursuit whether it’s being an author or screenwriter or actor, that security will probably be something that they will not encounter and to be okay with that?
Dr. Ken Atchity: Absolutely. I mean this is not a career to wish on anyone. You have to have a burning desire to do it and you have to be willing to sacrifice anything to do it and to persist despite every setback and I can tell you that this is a business in which (a career) this never gets easier, I don’t care how many movies you’ve done. The next one is going to be the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced, the world changes all the time. It’s been changing ever since I’ve been in it which is around 30 years now and it never gets any easier and it never gets any more secure and even if you’ve had windfalls and lot.