The science of stories: Learning how to tell a tale is the film industry's most important skill

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Bobette Buster – a master of the craft – tells Tim Walker why creating a hit movie is no guessing game.

You need only study this week's cinema listings to know Hollywood is running out of stories. Wrath of the Titans is a sequel to a remake of a film based on a millennia-old Greek myth. Battleship is a movie adaptation of a board game. Mirror, Mirror is a version of Snow White, the fairytale first committed to celluloid by Walt Disney 75 years ago. Another big-budget take on the same story, Snow White and the Huntsman, comes out in June.

The industry is long on "re-imaginings", but short on imagination.

The problem, explains story specialist Bobette Buster, is that studios are neglecting one of the most important – and cheapest – parts of the filmmaking process: development. "I see it on screen over and over again," she says. "People who have a good idea but become frustrated with the story development process and eventually just say: 'It's good enough'. They think they can fix the problems later with marketing. Pixar is an exception: it takes apart its stories at least four or five times before putting them out and it takes the time to create a great tale, well told."

Buster is a screenwriter, creative development producer, consultant to Disney and Pixar and professor of screenwriting at USC in Los Angeles, the world's leading film school. She has lectured on cinematic language around the world and this month appears at the Do Lectures in Wales, where she'll emphasise again the centrality of story. "Few people are born storytellers," she says. "At USC a lot of students arrive thinking we should just hand them the equipment and get out of their way, but we put them through story development classes and the scales fall from their eyes: storytelling is a mentored craft and artform that has to be handed down."

Born in small-town Kentucky in 1953 ("Think Bedford Falls in It's a Wonderful Life"), she grew up listening to her relatives' tales of high drama or hilarious comedy. Her grandfather was said to have been the Buster family's finest storyteller, but her father came close.

"They had great timing," she explains, "and they always gave the 'gleaming detail': each character in a story had a defining foible or feature to make them unique. They had learned natural storytelling principles by having them passed on."

In the early 1980s, the US Library of Congress issued grants for the collection of oral histories from certain remote rural regions, where a generation was dying out. Buster went back to her hometown to take part. The accounts she collected are now in the Kentucky Museum. "As a girl, I had no idea I was growing up in the middle of a major folk art... My great-aunt died when she was 97. She could recall the stories of her grandfather, who fought in the Civil War and died when he was 94. There was a 150-year timeline of stories that felt very immediate."

After studying film at Northwestern University in Chicago and a spell working in TV news and documentaries, she won a place at USC on a graduate course in creative producing.

There she learned that the lifeblood of the industry was development and that at least $1bn per year was being spent on the hunt for stories. Studios and writers, she believed, were working at cross-purposes, leaving many promising ideas in development hell.

"I was observing this, thinking: 'Does it have to be this inefficient?'" She spent hours in the libraries of USC and the Academy of Arts and Sciences, reading old drafts of produced scripts: an unlikely early version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind by Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver; a near-unrecognisable 170-page draft of Star Wars, in which "General" Luke Skywalker was also Darth Vader. "I studied the progression from great idea to great final draft and the pattern of problems a filmmaking team has to grapple with at each stage. With that I created a set of tools to help people move through the development process better."

Soon, she put her principles into practice for director Tony Scott's development company, on films such as The Last Boy Scout (1991) and Crimson Tide (1995). "We got hold of one script," she recalls, "from a crazy new writer called Quentin Tarantino. It had already been sold. We were sent it as a sample, but Tony read it and said: 'I want to do this'. The script was True Romance and the rest is history. We developed a relationship with Quentin and helped him to get financing for Reservoir Dogs." She took what she'd learned back to USC to teach an intensive course in development, later adapting it for film schools and universities around the world, not to mention film studios.

Cinema, says Buster, is "the medium of transformation", and every story must include a character who "changes 180 degrees". Paraphrasing Anne Rice and F Scott Fitzgerald, she suggests there are only two genuine cinematic stories: re-invention or redemption. American cinema dominated the medium's first century because "The American Western is the ultimate story of reinvention. Anyone from the Old World could come to the New World. Reinvention is the American Dream."

One of Buster's lectures is on The Godfather, an anti-redemption story in which Michael Corleone chooses to become not a hero, but the great antihero. "A time-honoured story is that of the man who, for a greater cause, chooses to damn himself. That's The Godfather, or Unforgiven... In Trainspotting, Renton causes the downfall of all his friends. People say it's a film about drugs, but it's really about tribal bonding. He transforms himself by yanking himself out of that mate culture, but he breaks an unforgivable bond of trust and can never return. It asks: 'What does it take to become your own person?'"

The transformation story, she explains, was a product of capitalism. Early cinema was a trial-and-error business and its audience responded best to tales of "profound transformation, so the industry said: 'Let's find more transformation stories.'" Now, however, capitalism is damaging story.

Studios, says Buster, made a business decision to cease investing in "execution-dependent development", meaning they won't fund the development process for a new and untested idea that isn't a sequel or a comic book or a board game. "Today, The Godfather would have to be produced independently." Buster thinks some of the strongest stories in cinema today aren't fiction narratives, but documentaries.

"There is phenomenal work being done in documentaries. The constraints of raising funds and delivering ideas that can be marketed worldwide have created a really taut story discipline among documentary makers."

And as the best documentaries prove, stories – even fairytales – are far more than mere entertainment. One of Buster's recommended texts is Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment. "Bettelheim survived the Holocaust. He became a child psychologist at the University of Chicago, where he argued that those children who had read Grimm's fairytales had been psychologically prepared for the Holocaust. They'd been taught that someday, somebody might throw you into an oven; someday, a wolf might eat you; someday, you will be lost in the forest.

"Think of Toy Story 2. Woody is facing the fact that someday he will be thrown away. It teaches an audience the people they love and cherish will someday abandon them; they should respond to it by loving those people regardless. Storytelling is a profound responsibility: you are psychologically preparing people for their future."

Bobette Buster is speaking at the Do Lectures, 25-29 April,

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