Kevin Flanagan of District Magazine talks to Ken About the Art of Storytelling!
It was a great year for Irish film with The Room and Brooklyn receiving Oscar nominations. Kevin Flanagan talks to Hollywood producer and author Kenneth John Atchity, about the importance of story and why the Irish are good at telling them.
Kevin met Ken Atchity at the international writer’s symposium held recently in Dublin. There he was able to get the producer’s views on the magic of story from the man who is known internationally as a “Story Merchant.”
I love Hollywood.
In 2003 I spent a month in Los Angeles attempting to sell my script to a Hollywood agent. It was memorable queuing at the local Kinko’s store where they had a photocopying machine that only copied film scripts and the queue was long! People are friendly, once they heard I was from Ireland our individual projects were discussed and phone numbers were swapped. As they say, you have to be friendly in Tinseltown because you never know who you will need on the way up (and down).
The other thing I loved was sitting in my favourite coffee shop Urth Caffé on Melrose Avenue watching drop-dead gorgeous waitresses serve us coffee. They all looked, to my naive eye, like film stars. My cynical Irish friend burst my bubble. He had been working in Hollywood for years and said, between sips of his soya latte, ‘beautiful people are two-a-penny here!’.
As I continued to sit with my mouth wide-open my friend nudged me. A famed Hollywood producer had arrived outside the patio in an open-topped Bentley. Heads swivelled as he took a table, surrounded by a group of acolytes dancing attendance. Certainly the waitress perked up.
Everyone in Hollywood, I soon discovered, was climbing the greasy pole. Actresses, writers, directors, but at the top, wielding the real power, was the fabled Hollywood producer who can make (and break) anyone. You could smell their power and sense their arrogance.
My impression of Hollywood producers had not changed over the years till I meet Ken Atchity in Dublin this June past. Atchity has produced over 30 Hollywood movies and is known in the book world as the ‘Story Merchant’ because he also sells stories to publishers–and publishes them through Story Merchant Books. Soft spoken, educated, he is not at all like the usual hustler I saw on a daily basis in Hollywood. Ken Atchity is above all a reflective man who has built his life around the concept of “story.” He has been an academic, a writer, before he became a movie producer. He loves “story” and wants to share that love.
He certainly did that in Dublin when he spoke this summer to a group of writers, and what he said has stayed with me and helped inform my own work. According to Atchity, whatever the genre – movie, TV series, book or computer game – its core chances of success all come down to story. But story is not confined to the creative arts.
“Look at Brexit,” Atchity says as we sip a drink after his lecture in the bar of the famed Gresham Hotel, “the day after the referendum a lot of British people wanted to have another vote as they were led to believe Brexit was a story about the immigration crisis. But it was also about 200 other things as well: the value of pound and the stock market. But the story was moulded around immigration and national identity and people bought into it.”
Ken lowers his glass and smiles, “Lying is an old Catholic word for what we all do all day – another form of storytelling. If your wife walks down the steps after a long night out and asks “how am I looking?” do you tell the truth or a story to get by and not stir up a row?” He takes another sip. “Everybody is telling a story!”
Storytelling goes back to the dawn of man, Atchity insists, and Homer was the greatest storyteller of them all, probably as product of the oral tradition of storytelling having to be committed to memory. It becomes deeply ingrained.
“Stories are there to warn us what happens when people bring disaster on themselves and their people. To this day story still acts as an exhortation and a warning as what happens when someone brings destruction on all around him. Great stories are changing the world by changing the perception of people.”
Atchity believes storytelling impacts profoundly on both young and old.
“You hear parents saying disparaging remarks about groups of people – say Poles or black people – and you wake up one day as an adult and you believe fully in them.”
But despite this pessimistic view Atchity thinks things in the world are actually improving.
“Fewer people are dying in wars. People are giving up smoking. Communication is helping us. As the saying goes, living well is the best revenge and we are slowly learning to leave things behind. Optimism is the more logical of two options. I love the story of the optimist who was pushed off Empire State Building and half way down says, “Well, so far, so good!”’
Atchity has always believed in the power of “story” and I ask him why that is.
“I think it all goes back to my childhood growing up on front porches in my Cajun Louisiana (maternal) family. My uncles and cousins were storytellers – some accomplished, some not so good. I loved the feeling of community that happened when they began swapping stories and jokes. And though I studied analysis and logic in Jesuit classrooms my heart was with the storytellers. As an Italian friend of mine said one day, trying to explain his new wife’s erratic behavior, “Let me tell you a story instead–isn’t life, after all, just a story?” It’s the power of stories that change the world more than anything else.”
Among a vast oeuvre Atchity has produced his share of horror movies, including Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes. But horror is a genre in decline. Does Atchity have his views on why this is?
“Aristotle’s theory was about how audience needs catharsis. They see horror on stage, walk out of the theatre and give a sigh of relief that the “horror” does not affect their lives. But in today’s world all that has changed. Daily we hear and see horrific things – decapitations and mass murder at every turn. Horror is no longer escapism. Audiences now need to escape their daily dose of real live horror by going to the movie house. There they can watch heroes in blockbusters win and the bad guys lose.”
Despite the decline Atchity still continues to produce movies in the horror genre, “At the moment we are working on a very low budget horror spoof – Friday 31st – and that maybe is the way to go.” // We discuss our best loved horror movies. One of Atchity’s favorites was filmed on the campus he was attending at Georgetown University in Washington.
“Scenes from The Exorcist were shot at my alma mater. I remember reading the book in the early 70’s and being scared to death. Having been raised a Roman Catholic I believed it was all real! From a pure horror point of view it’s my favorite.”
The Exorcist was released in 1973 but not shown in Ireland till 1998. How things have changed! Now, according to Atchity, “horror movies are relegated to low-budget productions with an occasional excursion into brilliance. The market isn’t as robust as the general market is. It’s a selective audience, that doesn’t appear to be growing—because of the advent of alternate media such as online games, web series. Cheap ones are made because the loyal horror audience will see it and is enough by itself to make them profitable even if they don’t cross over to the larger audience.”
We move on to discussing another core shift in storytelling – the move from movies to TV mega stories, Game of Thrones being the prime example. Are these TV series successful because they allow “story” to be told in greater depth?
“A series or miniseries allows the storyteller to develop the characters more fully than the restricted time allowed for a film. The best writers and directors today are in television as well as film.”
Ken has enjoyed walking in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom while in Dublin, and I ask him for any words of wisdom for modern Irish writers.
“Tell a story with universal impact – something we all care about – and make sure it has three well-defined acts and each act is powerfully dramatic. It’s also important to make sure the main character is someone we can all relate to, even if he’s not likeable. Do all that and get someone in Hollywood to give you feedback on it.”
Irish writers get on the case – you know the right person in Hollywood to send it to!
Read more at District Magazine