Screenwriting: Pamela Jaye Smith Interview
March 11th, 2004
by Kenna McHugh
Pamela Jaye Smith has collaborated over twenty years in the film business as a consultant, producer, write and director of features, TV, commercials, documentaries and corporate films.
Paramount Pictures, director Wes Craven, Universal Pictures' "Mommy Market" starring Sissy Spacek, "Vampire in Brooklyn" starring Eddie Murphy, Lifetime's "Lady Killer" and "A Very Brady Sequel" are some of Pamela's clients.
Various projects have taken Pamela to the Arctic, the Andes, SE Asia and New Zealand. She has filmed on the largest off-shore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, slept in grass huts and eaten guinea pig under Ecuador's highest volcano, caught her own sushi breakfast in the Leyte Gulf, and rappelled in the jungles of Mindanao searching for lost WWII Japanese gold.
Pamela's MYTHWORKS is a consultation and information service featuring Applied Mythology and the Physics of Metaphysics. MYTHWORKS offers seminars, lectures and classes for film-makers, including the UCLA Writers Extension Program. She consults with organizations and individuals re-designing themselves, their images and/or careers.
I was fortunate to catch up with Pamela and ask her about the film industry. This inspirational interview will send you off writing with great spirit from the heart.
KENNA: Tell us a little bit about your background and what you are currently working on.
PAMELA: After lunch our fifth grade teacher had us lay our little heads on our desks and rest while she read from THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY. Rigged beauty contests, bribery, pouting heroes, presto-chango sorcery, high adventure... I was hooked on mythology -- these were really great stories!
Typically for the Midwest at that time, I received a well-rounded classically-based education with science, math, music, art, history, religion, literature and languages. Like a lot of kids in the sixties, I went through wanting to be a doctor, lawyer, missionary, musician, jet fighter pilot, etc., and so picked up lots of great information in many different fields.
Having always written stories [my first "commission" was in the fourth grade, from a fellow student], time eventually brought me back around to that. Actually, what happened was that I tried acting and was so wretched that it was scorchingly obvious if I wanted to be in the film business I'd better "get behind the camera", fast. With a degree in English and Latin from the University of Texas at Austin, I took film studies during the last year and then formed a production company with Monty Hayes McMillan, a fellow UT film school grad and currently a filmmaker here in Hollywood. A couple of years in Austin included writing, producing, and casting on local and Hollywood-comes-to-Texas productions. Then a whole lot of us Texas Ex-es moved to Hollywood to pursue careers in the heart of the film industry.
Four years at Universal Studios in production was a great background, and the following years of freelance work covered features, TV series, MOW's [movies-of-the-week], commercials, documentaries and corporate films. Projects range from GILLIGAN'S ISLAND to the U.S. ARMY.
Current projects are my Myth for Media book, co-authorship on a book on the new leadership paradigms with a U.S. Army Major General [retired], and a weekend workshop at UCLA Writers' Extension program. I do seminars and workshops for media groups and for an Army think-tank. I'm doing some writing-for-hire and MYTHWORKS consultations on scripts for various writers and producers.
And like most writers, I too have the novel-in-progress.
KENNA: What is more important plot driven scripts or character driven scripts?
PAMELA: "Ah, -- that -- question". My answer is -- an integration of both. Engineers love structure; people love heart. But even heart needs rhythm and form. If mythically correct, a character plugs into a theme, and once in it, is subject to the inherent "drivers" of the plot, yet is free to twist and turn them according to that character's unique approach and response.
What I do with MYTHWORKS is help the artist identify the Mythic Theme and Plot Points. Some examples would be STEALING FIRE FROM HEAVEN, the Prometheus story where someone from a higher position takes pity on a disadvantaged people and brings them a forbidden gift, like fire or knowledge. Another good theme is LOST LOVE RESCUED, the Orpheus and Eurydice myth where one lover must brave the underworld to rescue the lost love.
So once you have the Mythic Theme, then you identify the various characters' archetypes and they play along the plot points with their own individual personalities, at liberty to rearrange things, take them in different directions, etc.
Good storytelling always contains two things: Familiarity and Surprise. The plot-drivers can give you a sense of familiarity; the character-drivers a sense of Surprise. Getting an effective dramatic balance between them is the trick.
KENNA: I agree with "a good storytelling always contains two things: Familiarity and Surprise." Can you give an example of this?
PAMELA: Some movies which carry this duality throughout the storyline quite effectively are RANSOM, FATAL ATTRACTION, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, THE CRYING GAME.
A movie that did it well in a particularly individual way was MY LEFT FOOT, with that memorable embarrassingly long restaurant scene.
When working with clients we brainstorm a scene or scene sequence going from the usual, cliched, stereotyped form to as far out as we can get, and then draw our way back to something that works well for their particular story.
KENNA: How did you become a consultant for movie productions?
PAMELA: Actually, it was a class assignment. After years of on-my-own reading and studying literature, history, religion, myths, cross-cultural anthropology and mysticism, I was anxious to learn about the Physics of Metaphysics, how all that stuff really works together on an energetic and physiological level. Fortunately I came across renowned teacher and speaker Georgia Lambert, who was giving classes in just this very thing at the Philosophical Research Society in LA.
Meanwhile I had an active career in the film business as a producer, writer and director, at that time with heavy emphasis on corporate and scientific projects. Our class assignment was to make the esoteric information useful in our regular profession. What a challenge -- metaphysics in the film business?!
However, looking at the paradigms for how psychological motivation, frequencies of focus, patterns of energy, etc. all unfolded from higher planes to lower [just like the Greek philosopher Plato had said], it struck me that this would be great stuff for story-tellers.
"The Mythic Themes" was an obvious linkup: every story needs thematic integrity. "The Seven Frequencies" help define the mood or tone of a story [e.g. the difference between a comedy and a black comedy]. "The Centres of Focus", using the chakra system, answers that age-old actor's question, "What's my motivation?" And of course symbols and imagery. All the things that go to make up great storytelling and art in any age and any place have their foundation in the ancient Wisdom teachings.
Making esoteric information applicable to everyday life and the very practical business of film-making is an ongoing process. I had some gracious guinea pigs early on who let me practice on their projects and refine my presentation of this unique information. Emmy-winning director-writer Bruce Logan and Production Designer Cynthia Charette were two of my most enthusiastic early supporters and I've now worked on a half-dozen of Cynthia's movie and TV projects. She's a delight to collaborate with because she's so marvelously creative and really "gets" the importance of putting as much deep meaning and symbolism behind what you see on screen as possible. The more deeply you can plug into the audience's heart the better. Director Wes Craven, himself a Classicist and former professor, was rewarding to work with because he certainly knew how to utilize the mythic suggestions to good effect.
Much of my business now is from referrals and word of mouth; it's really terrific to have satisfied customers spreading the concepts of MYTHWORKS. I also consult for our Army on issues of Ethics and Values, the Warrior Spirit for the 21st Century, and Empowerment. MYTHWORKS works with individuals and organizations redefining their focus, myth, or image.
Best of all, this is such a wonderful way to make good use of that otherwise useless collection of bits and bobs of information in all those diverse fields of study.
KENNA: You wear many hats in the film industry: which one do you like to wear the most?
PAMELA: This has changed over time, but eventually brought me back to writing and the more one-on-one creative aspects.
When I first got into film I enjoyed doing as many different things as possible [casting, a.d., continuity, grip, wardrobe, sets, craft service, etc.], figuring that not only was it fun but it'd give me better insights as a producer.
Production itself is fascinating and rewarding: all that stuff and people and equipment and events which need to be put into efficient, effective order. When it really works, it's quite satisfying.
On-set work as a producer and assistant director is exhilarating, to say the least. You have to maintain a holographic vision of all the component parts and how they need to fit to make the best whole. Plus people skills and enough technical knowledge to have a sense of when things are going right or not.
The lessons learned and the friendships made during the intensity and challenges of production are invaluable and precious. I've done hundreds of unusual and exciting things because of my film profession: traveling from the Arctic to the Andes and through S.E. Asia, filming on the largest off-shore oil rig in the Gulf, rapelling down cliffs in the Philippine jungles searching for lost Japanese gold, braving the sand-blast winds of the California high desert, exploring the hi-tech world of defense and commercial inventions, working at the major studios, and dealing with such a variety of people...!
But having done all that for a number of years, it's nice to be back in the more solitary and scholarly creative world of writing, consulting, and development. As anyone who wears a bunch of hats will bemoan, it's really really hard to write when you're in production.
Also, after a while, you find people want to go "give back" to their profession and teach others, share their knowledge, etc. It's great to be able to do that, plus adding my special spin of the more esoteric perspective.
KENNA: When you write a script do you have a special message in mind at the onset or does the message come to you as you write?
PAMELA: Most of my stories come almost full-blown from dreams and the message is inherent. Others arise from a concept in current events and so in those instances I'm dealing with the message first. New sub-themes may arise from the various characters but usually I'm onto the Theme/Message before I actually put fingers to keyboard. Sometimes the message is an emotion, sometimes a political statement, sometimes a question: "What if -- ?"
When doing writing-for-hire or story consultation , I try to get from the client what their message is and then tailor the story around that. Sometimes the client doesn't really know and that's where MYTHWORKS can really help in identifying the main Theme of the story so you can get message integrity into the script.
There seem to be a couple of main writing streams. One is where the writer plugs into the existing story in his head and "reads the hologram", putting down a scene here, a bit there, and eventually -- voila, as if by magic, it all fits. That's the more right brain approach.
Another is to logically structure the piece and then flesh it out. That's the left brain approach.
I think either way works very well, just depending on how the writer is creatively "wired". Good partnerships can ensue when you put the two streams together.
In the re-writes is where I search for consistency in theme to be sure I haven't gone down a side-track. Side-tracks are fine for exploration but you always want to come back to the main theme, or message.
KENNA: Wow, I never looked at an emotion as a message. I know there are many emotions and that these are the actor's palette. In looking at this concept of an emotion as a message, I get sort of excited about it. I can see a character being driven by hate. But, how could that be an emotion as a message?
PAMELA: Emotions are at the core of any good drama, and it is usually an emotion out of balance in one direction or the other. It is the results of indulging in or not following an emotion which carries a message.
My favorite is DUTY VERSUS DESIRE. This is always a good one and is woven all through the chivalric love stories. Actually, most gripping love stories have a version of this one: Samson and Delilah, King David and Bathsheba, Brunhilde and Siegfried, Romeo and Juliet, AIDA, BETRAYED, the Arthurian Grail love stories of TRISTAN AND ISOLTE, Arthur/Gweneviere/Lancelot, WITNESS, DEAD POETS SOCIETY, M. BUTTERFLY, THE ENGLISH PATIENT.
Novelists Tennessee Williams, Graham Greene, Malcolm Lowry and Somerset Maugham all do compelling work with emotions as central story theme. Think of THE GLASS MENAGERIE, UNDER THE VOLCANO, OF HUMAN BONDAGE.
Guilt, revenge, pride, insecurity, greed, hatred, love, false sentiment, prejudice, idealism which flip-flops into fanaticism... all are emotions ripe for dramatic conflict. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, FATAL ATTRACTION, QUIZ SHOW, to name but a few.
Though the human race as a whole is finally developing a mental body [via education, science and technology, world political and economic bodies, CNN, the internet], most people are still ruled by their emotions, so the story-teller has always got plenty to draw from in that arena.
KENNA: Historically, women have played a big role in establishing the industry. Until recently, women haven't really been acknowledge. Do you believe that the industry is turning around for women?
PAMELA: Absolutely. I was fortunate to be interviewed for Dr. Linda Seger's recent book "WHEN WOMEN CALL THE SHOTS, The Developing Power and Influence of Women in Television and Film". She reviews and reveals the incredible input by women in the history of our industry, much of which had been lost or glossed over. Her interviews and case studies with current women in the industry vividly illustrate this growing awareness of and support for the input of creative people who happen to be female.
One reason I think this is turning around is that we are slowly, very slowly, but surely rising above the divisive gender conflicts and getting to the point where we are dealing with each other as minds and hearts first. Then body types may or may not come into consideration. The more women we have who promulgate what I call the "Alpha Babe" mythos the better and faster we'll accomplish this.
As more women get over the separatist victim mentality, as more are willing to see assertiveness and independence not as "male" things but as "powerful things lately predominated by male humans" the better off we'll all be. Nurturing is great, up to a point. But it doesn't get much initial creating done. For that you need brave, innovative minds and great inclusive hearts willing to go beyond the personal scope that's been relegated as woman's way for so long. For the kind of creativity our industry calls for these days you need an outreach, a networking, an expansiveness which can work hand-in-hand with that more internal, nurturing, creative style. Basically, it's like the difference between a writer and a producer: one's internal the other's external but it has nothing to do with gender and both are essential for the inspiration to product to audience effect.
Every day there are more women leaders in world politics, business, finance, religion, science, and the media. It's almost a moot point to question the position of women in the world anymore -- save for those persistent pockets of repression which hold on for dear life in all the above-named places as well as the home and personal lives.
One thing which has really impressed me is the tremendous amount of encouragement and support among film business women. I've been very fortunate to have a number of very supportive friends and colleagues who've gone out of their way to help my career and my creativity. In particular Dr. Linda Seger has been an outstandingly generous and inclusive mentor, connecting me to some of my best clients and projects.
Personally I've had marvelous experiences with supportive men as well, whether in partnerships, as clients, bosses, co-workers or subordinates. Icky people are icky people regardless of sex, and inappropriate behavior can never be either predicted or excused by gender.
But I think it's vital that we always try to come from the highest focus possible and for us in this business in particular that means a high creative focus. It's said that physically men are positive [input] and women are negative [receptive]. Emotionally, men are negative and women are positive. But on the mental planes none of those separations apply. This is where we all want to meet each other first and do most of our work -- in the world of ideas.
More than "turning around" for women, I'd say the film industry is moving to a higher turn of the spiral where we'll be working together more inclusively in ways that will exponentially increase the power of all our creative forces.
KENNA: What exactly is "Alpha Babe" mythos ? Maybe, give an example of this.
PAMELA: ALPHA BABE is my name for outstanding humans who exemplify the higher qualities of integrity, daring, innovation, honor, interconnectedness, caring, loyalty, vision... and who just happen to be housed in a female body.
A few examples of Alpha Babes are Pallas Athena, Greek Goddess of war and wisdom, Joan of Arc, author George Sand, Madame Curie, Amelia Earhart. In the arts, a few examples are Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in THE TERMINATOR, Angela Basset in STRANGE DAYS, some of Geena Davis roles (not THELMA & LOUISE) and of course XENA WARRIOR PRINCESS.
I coined this after learning about the Caribbean Blue Wrasse fish, which has an interesting capability. Like a lot of animal groupings the Blue Wrasse has a head male, a head female, the second female, children, etc. If the Alpha Male [dominant male] fish is removed from the school, the Alpha Female undergoes a physical transformation and becomes a male fish, taking on the role of Alpha Male. The Beta [2nd in line] female moves up to Alpha Female, and so on along the hierarchical structure. If an Alpha Male is re-introduced into the school, the transformed female who was playing the role of Alpha Male will undergo another physical transformation and become the Alpha Female again, with the rest of the chain moving back down a notch as well.
The point is that the individual can alter to carry out a role and is not limited by its physical sexual characteristics. I think it's a wonderful analogy for today's women. Don't get locked in any sexually stereotyped role, be flexible, rise to the occasion, be an independent individual and serve the needs of the group for the greater good. For humans these transformations can be instantaneous according to the situation. And I'm certainly not suggesting that either males or females should rule [animal groups vary greatly in this], but simply using this as an interesting example of how malleable sexual identity can be.
KENNA: How important is it to be in Los Angeles to work in the film industry?
PAMELA: Ah, the eternal question... must I live in LA? It's funny that people who don't live here can hardly wait to get here and people who do live here can hardly wait to get out. It seems to depend on a couple of things: what you want to do, and how established you want to become.
If actually being "in Hollywood" is for you, then you'd better well be here. The excitement, the glitz, the swirl of possibilities... yeah, some of it's just made up, but there is something to be said about the atmosphere at the major studios or on a location set of a TV series or commercial. You get the feeling that "This is it!" And in a sense, it is.
But there's plenty of work all around the world these days and so much independent work available that Going-to-the-Coast is no longer necessary to work in the film industry. You might actually have a more pleasant life not being here.
With so many Hollywood productions going out of town, out of state and out of country, if you establish good connections with your local film commission, supply houses, and production companies you might pick up quite a lot of Hollywood work right where you live.
A number of people work locally on a Hollywood production, move to LA for a year or so and make lots of good connections and establish themselves as a "professional", then move back home. They are now "from Hollywood", which carries local cache for work there, and they'll get the phone calls for work when Hollywood comes to their locale.
Then, if you do the LA routine for many years or just get so well established and desirable, you can live anywhere you want. This works better for people who don't have technical or crew positions, like writers, actors, directors.
Just as in real estate it's Location, Location, Location, in the film business it's Relationships, Relationships, Relationships. Since so much of this business is carried on socially, it's to your advantage to be where the action is. I've gotten the majority of my work from friends-of-friends, referrals and chance meetings rather than cold submission of resumes or screenplays. Being in the heart of the action can help, but it's no guarantee, either.
Another thing to think about is the Fish Factor. Would you do better as a Bigger Fish in a Little Pond or a Littler Fish in the Big Pond? All a matter of personal taste and inclination. There's a lot to be said for either. There may seem like more work in LA but there's also a lot more competition.
If you're considering a move, I'd suggest researching the business in the area via the local film commission, TV studios, etc. and start a real analytical assessment of the pros and cons to include pay rates, amount of work, standard of living, cost of living, short-term goals, long-term goals, family and personal relationships, support systems, weather, etc.
If you make a move, your next step would be to assess what's offered in your field in networking organizations and join up. Then start forming those Relationships which will be better than gold for your career.
KENNA: Did you ever doubt your success? If so, what did you do to overcome that doubt?
PAMELA: Doubt...? Hah!
Yes, quite often. It's an essential part of the check-double-check system that keeps you on track. It's also an unfortunate side effect of the creative process. Because you're tapping into higher creative energies but can only express them through your own instrument [mind, experiences, education, abilities, culture, facilities, etc.] you inherently know that you haven't really quite ultimately, totally, uniquely, personally expressed that greatness which you sensed and which got you going in the first place. That's just part of the deal of being human.
Then there are those darn markers of success -- the bench-marks any industry or profession sets out as signals of accomplishment. Your first screenplay sale. Your first feature as D.P. A TV series. The Award. In a business awash in awards, some meaningful and some not, it's hard to keep track of who got which from what. And as the old Hollywood adage goes, "Yeah, but what've you done lately?"
In a status-conscious business and a status-consious world it's hard not to get caught up in that self-assessment which can really rip your foundations away if you're not careful. What helps is to periodically review your specifically laid-out goals and the means and methods you've chosen to achieve them. You've often done much better than you think or feel.
Occasionally I'll just ring up a good friend who'll patronize me for a few moments and specifically ask them to rave on about how great I am, what a terrific job I'm doing, what creatively wonderful things I'm turning out, etc. Sometimes just hearing the words gets you out of that self-critical mood.
And -- transfer your measuring system from outside to inside. Giving others the means to say whether you're ultimately successful or not is deadly.
Career Counselor Judith Claire has some wonderful tools which have really helped me move ahead professionally and has made a great difference in the success of my career. She's quite good at dealing with those doubts that naturally arise. Working with her at those down times has helped get my work back on track by actually writing down personal and professional good points and products, and listing all the little wins and victories one can think of.
Taking a break can also give you some perspective. If you can't bear not to keep doing it -- the writing, the acting, directing, music -- then it IS who you are and you must stay with it. If you can walk away from it, it's not that important to you after all. Remember that at the heart of most people's desire to be in this business is an overriding passion for creativity in this field. Just as it's fruitless and counterproductive to be in a romantic relationship that isn't centered on passion, so too for art. And yet....
There comes a time in most people's lives when it's time to let something go. This could be a relationship, a career, a story, a project. Sometimes, it's just over or it obviously isn't going to work. The trick is to figure out if it is and then detach from it and move on. The times of doubt are there to keep us on track -- or get us off that track if it's no longer appropriate. Doubt leads us to self-examination, which can lead us to renewed or totally new dedication.
True dedication is doing what you MUST do because you can't not do it. Joseph Campbell would call it "following your bliss". I've often wondered though, where were his instructions on finding and identifying Bliss in the first place....? It's a continual process and if we can learn to use doubt as a Tool, a Sign, and not as a Destination, then we're much better off.
It is deadly difficult to continue producing without any signs of recognition or rewards. It's said that "emotions are the power factor of manifestation" and that without an emotional charge on something there's no life in it. If the artist is discouraged and can't find the magic anymore, that's an awful place to be. It's the Dark Night of the Artistic Soul and must simply be got through by remembering that your first instincts on what you're doing with your art and your professional were most likely right.
Just as everything carries the seeds of its own death within it at its birth, so too do most things carry the fulfillment of their own destiny -- if we can manage not to mangle or destroy it. So too with your own creativity, career, project.
Get back to your original Purpose. Re-define your Mission, your Vision. Refine your Means and Methods. Then, knowing this is what you are meant to do, get back in there and go for it with Vision, Focus, and Persistence!!!
Please visit Pamela's website Hollywood Mythlink
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