Hollywood films about heroes soar at the box office. The adventure and action genres lead ticket sales as audiences swarm to larger-than-life characters. Marvel Studios and Disney’s third Ant-Man film, ”Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania,” is predicted to dominate sales with an early global start of $240 million.
The success of Marvel superheroes has also proven the appeal of the relatable hero, someone with a great destiny and powers, yet who is also uniquely human. Heroism’s defining characteristic is courage – a singularly human trait – as demi-gods have no need for courage.
The hero’s journey is a story template familiar to most screenwriting classes. Popularized by Joseph Campbell, the journey, in its most basic form, tracks a hero who undertakes an adventure, confronts obstacles, triumphs over a crisis and is transformed, then returns home changed.
The journey is a pattern that Campbell, a mythologist, unearthed in myths and religions from around the world, and it is one of risk, fear, and trials, requiring great courage. The character embarking on this journey is called a “hero” which has roots in divinity. In French, a hero is “a man of superhuman strength,” in Latin and Greek, “a demi-god.”
In my DePaul University undergraduate directing classes, I ask students on day one what a director is. Answers range from the director’s on-set duties to the director as the visionary of a script, to character traits. They describe the director as a person with confidence, someone who knows their voice, a natural leader, independent, controlled, or calm under pressure.
As a young Black woman, director and professor of filmmaking, I never fit with this image of a director. I am also an introvert; more cautious than bold, a seeker rather than a visionary, a reluctant leader, and someone who thinks darkly of endings.
I did not pursue directing because I was a visionary or had something to say. I direct because I revere stories. The root of my craft is about a relationship to story, not about personal identity. I access the divine, something greater than myself, through story, and it’s a source of courage to face a world of war, nuclear bombs, the revival of brazen white supremacy, destruction of the natural world, the threat of American neo-fascism, mass shootings, murder by police, pandemics, and an uncertain future.
A simple google search of “Hollywood director” yields images of power, confidence, or glamor. Directors, many of them white men, are flanked by camera gear, sit with purpose in the director’s seat, pose with trophies, or frame shots with their palms while the cast and crew look to them for answers. They are heroes, exhibiting courage, outstanding achievements, and noble qualities.
The Oscar-nominated film, The Fablemans, directed by Steven Spielberg about his own childhood, depicts the acclaimed filmmaker’s venture into cinema. A famous story omitted from the film is when he sneaked into the Universal Studios lot.
Young Spielberg posed as an executive, with a suit and empty briefcase, hoping the Universal security guard would not ask to see his papers. His gamble paid off, and director-to-be freely accessed the studio without a pass.
Despite this admirable chutzpah, the director has talked at length about anxiety and the dread of not being able to pull off a story.
In a TV interview, Spielberg, after directing his 27th film, Lincoln, confessed to being a nervous wreck when filming. He says, “I own my fear. I don’t want to lose it.”
America’s hero-oriented culture approaches fear as something to be mastered, and relatable heroes, although they feel fear, do what is necessary despite fear.
But what if fear is seen, not as a rite of passage to the heroic, but as a precious possession? Instead of the hero’s journey, perhaps stories could reflect the coward’s journey.
A coward is “a person who lacks courage,” in contrast to the hero who is someone defined by courage. Courage requires fear, as Nelson Mandela famously said, making the coward an integral part of the hero’s journey.
The coward and the hero are two sides to the same coin, emphasizing different things. “Hero” is a title only given in hindsight. It’s an omniscient perspective, from outside of the story, a name given to the character by those who know how the story ends—the character defeated the obstacles and reaped the reward.
The coward, conversely, is defined by fear on the threshold of a journey that requires bravery and no promise of return. It’s a human perspective from a character inside the story who faces the unknown and an uncertain end.
For me, directing is a task, rather than a title. The path I have taken is The Coward’s Journey, one in which I identify primarily with fear of the uncharted adventure that lies before me. The coward’s ending is a mystery. I direct because I believe each film is an important task, undertaken with the hope that it gives life meaning.
A hero demands something of the journey, but the journey demands something of the coward. The brave story is made for the coward, who looks at the road ahead and instead of saying “carpe diem” instead says, “courage, dear heart,” as phrased by C.S. Lewis.
Instead of telling my directing students to “be confident” and “believe in themselves,” I teach them to be afraid, and simply do the task at hand.
My sister Catherine, a classical painter who depicts enchantment in ordinary things, once disclosed an insight to me: “the coward does a task without thinking of the results. It is not about ‘being a hero’ or doing a task because it will reap her glory. The coward hopes only that her task has meaning. It’s simply a purpose to be served.”
It is possible to flip that notion and stop believing that fear makes us inadequate. Fear points us to our own unique adventure and beckons us to undertake the journey. In the face of the unknown end, fear allows us to say as Peter Pan did, that “to die will be an awfully big adventure.”
Perhaps the coward, not the hero, is the source of strength needed to face the uncertainty of our age.