Film stories feed the soul

‘A story is a living thing,” says screenwriter Amnon Buchbinder over the phone from Toronto, “and a living story nourishes the soul.

‘A story is a living thing,” says screenwriter Amnon Buchbinder over the phone from Toronto, “and a living story nourishes the soul.”

Buchbinder’s new film, Whole New Thing, which he also directed, is being shown in Whitehorse as part of the fourth annual Available Light Film Festival, with the director himself in attendance.

Buchbinder also teaches screenwriting full-time at York University as well as running a busy practice as a story editor for feature films.

And he’s written a book about screenwriting, The Way of the Screenwriter, which came out last year and has been lauded by a number of prominent Canadian filmmakers, including Atom Egoyan and Bruce McDonald.

Screenwriter and teacher Peggy Thompson calls its new approach to screenwriting “visionary.”

The book explores Buchbinder’s key notion that story is about more than craft — that it is, in fact, a living entity.

“I kind of blurted it out in class one day and felt it to be true, but hadn’t really put concentrated thought into what the implications of that were, or even what it meant,” he says.

“So I wrote the book to figure that out.”

Buchbinder’s vision of story has nothing to do with the kind of formulaic stories that fill our television and film screens.

He compares such material to junk food, and says that “where the key function of story is to reveal meaning, formulaic narrative serves to drain our experience of meaning.”

What he’s learned through working with thousands of aspiring screenwriters, he says, is that “a story is a living thing. And you don’t work on a living thing, you work with it.”

Story, in fact, is a central part of Buchbinder’s book — he devotes a whole beginning section of the book to storytelling.

The “way” referred to in the title is that of Lao Tzu, the 6th-century BC Chinese philosopher whose four central precepts Buchbinder uses as an unlikely basis for his book.

Those precepts, says Buchbinder, point the way toward mastery, in this case of the craft of screenwriting.

And mastery, he says, is a very different thing from competence, which is the focus of most texts on screenwriting.

“Craft should not be a yardstick with which to beat the screenplay,” he says. “Craft is a tool the writer applies to herself, to release the screenplay.”

That was something he learned from his students, he says.

“What I found in the classroom was that a lot of principles of good screenwriting are counter-intuitive,” he explains.

“I thought that if you could talk about screenwriting in a way that was paradoxical, that would help students to write.”

The first paradox, says Buchbinder, is: How do you apply craft without making your storytelling formulaic?

Another paradox, again drawn from Lao Tzu’s principles, is that “what is most important is hidden.”

“Devising revelations is the primary activity of the screenwriter,” says Buchbinder.

He quotes the philosopher Hannah Arendt: “Storytelling reveals meaning, without committing the error of defining it.”

Buchbinder sees story as offering the potential of an “empathy workout,” the psychological equivalent of a physical workout for the body.

“Story has the potential to help us stay ‘young,’ which is to say to exercise our capacity of belief.

“This is why, the more deranged our society and world become, the more we long to immerse ourselves in story, which promises to return to us some sense of innocence.”

Buchbinder discovered movies early, having started making his own films at age 12 when he was given a Super 8 camera for his birthday.

This was a year after he and his political-activist parents had immigrated to Canada from Missouri in 1969.

“Toronto was a great improvement,” Buchbinder says. “There was a lot more to discover and I was just getting old enough to want to explore a larger world.”

He subsequently studied film in California, where he received both his BFA and MFA in film from the California Institute of the Arts.

But he didn’t get really serious about the craft of screenwriting until after film school.

In fact, he says, he was exasperated with the whole idea of story and thought it wasn’t the most interesting thing you could do in a film.

“There was so much crap being done under the guise of storytelling,” he says. “But then I realized that that didn’t mean it had to be crap, and that story was actually a very powerful form within which to explore the human experience.”

Buchbinder’s newest film is the story of Emerson, a precocious home-schooled 13-year-old who develops a crush on his male high school English teacher when he’s sent to his local rural school for the first time.

Shot in Halifax, the film was co-written with playwright and actor Daniel MacIvor, who also plays the role of the teacher.

The Toronto Film Festival called it “a delightfully unconventional coming-of-age story …. Smart, funny, and poignant.”

The film, which is just entering theatrical release in Canada, will also be shown in Haines Junction on March 3, at 7 p.m.

Buchbinder is giving an artist talk about his work on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Alpine Bakery.

Cost is $20, or $15 for Yukon Film Society members. Those interested should register at, or call 393-FILM (3456).