Best Psychology in Film

Kat Marshall Woods

We love them. We hate them. We’re vexed by them. We’re terrified by what they might do next. Whether the characters in movies and television shows melt into our hearts or get under our skin, there’s no denying that “reel life” psyches leave an indelible imprint on our “real life” perceptions. In her new book, Best Psychology in Film, author Katherine Marshall Woods, Psy.D. shares her expertise regarding exploration of the psychological dynamics found within Oscar winning and nominated films. Whether one is behind the camera, acting in front of it or sitting in the audience watching the finished product, the book’s takeaway value on what makes a compelling film “tick” is priceless.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: What attracted you to psychology as a profession?

A: From early childhood I was attracted to psychology. I recall asking my mother what profession would allow me to sit and listen to an individual’s problems and help people. From that time on, psychology was my focus with the goal of being an integral part of people’s healing. I believed it would be an honor to hear individuals’ stories that ranged from happiness to pain and allowed the opportunity to be trusted with such intimate information. I have not been disappointed; it has been my honor to serve my patients in what I hope has been as meaningful to them as it has been for me.

Q: Given the diversity of specializations in this field, what types of experiences have been the most influential in shaping your career?

A: What a difficult question! I feel that all of my work has influenced me to become the professional I am today. Whether I provided services within academic settings, mental health hospitals, outpatient treatment programs, private practice, or the Middle East, or teaching university classes with doctoral students, I can easily track how each of these experiences have honed my professional skills and developed my professional self. With the array of experience I have been afforded, I feel now well equipped to apply what I have learned to screenwriters who are in the midst of developing themes and developing their characters as it pertains to psychological dynamics and interpersonal interactions.

Q: Psychology and film make for an interesting combination. How have you connected these two fields?

A: My main interest has been to share what psychology has to offer to those naturally interested in the field and in a manner that is inviting to those who give little attention to psychology in an effort to spark curiosity. Using film, a source of entertainment, to illustrate psychology in a welcoming way has been ideal to marry the two fields.

Q: You also have a background in media. Tell us about it.

A: My first employment included working with children and building a semester curriculum to teach a class. I chose Cartoon Education, a class for children to view cartoons together and discuss the morals found within the episodes. Thereafter, I became employed as an intern at a national insurance company within their visual communications department. There I learned how to perform numerous media activities, teleprompting, editing, etc. Since becoming a psychologist, I have been frequently asked to be the talent/expert. Stepping onto the set always feels like coming home.

Q: What inspired you to develop Best Psychology in Film?

A: For several years I wrote for American Psychological Association’s journal, PsycCritiques regarding psychology and film. In an effort to share these ideas, I began contributing with The Huffington Post and Medium. For the last years, I have continued to contribute to Medium and now Thrive Global. Best Psychology in Film became a way to share these ideas with my readers who wished to think deeply regarding the films they enjoyed.

Q: What governed your focus on films which were nominated for Academy Awards and those that won within a specific year?

A: The Academy Awards is a time of the year when people congregate to films. Whether it is for the fashion displayed on the red carpet or an interest in the films deemed as extraordinary; these films have been most likely viewed and discussed. Because these films were recommended by such an esteemed organization with many viewers support, I felt Best Psychology in Film might capture those works that would be able to include many people in the discussion. Otherwise, it is suggested in Best Psychology in Film that one might view the film prior to reading the associated chapter to personally relate to the book.

Q: What chapter/film was the most enjoyable for you to conceptualize using psychological theory?

A: Chapter IV: La La Land. This film was surprising to me. Though I very much enjoy musicals, I admittedly lacked excitement to view this film. It was also a film that I initially lacked a clear link to the psychological theory that would be best suited to explore. However, after multiple viewings, I found myself seduced by the characters’ passions, determinations and support of one another. I was hooked; singing and poorly performing dance routines in my home! Once the dancing began, the psychological theory was soon to follow.

Q: What are your three favorite films that you remain most intrigued by psychologically?

A: The Shining (1980) as this film highlights the presence of psychotic symptoms budding in an individual (Jack Torrance, performed by Jack Nicholson) and the presence of an early onset of psychosis in his son (Danny, acted by Danny Lloyd); Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) that depicts the hardships on a single mother providing for a child and four elderly grandparents made light by the hopes and inspirations of a young boy who wins the opportunity to view paradise in fantastical chocolate factory and The Color Purple (1985) that illustrates the effects of generational and cultural trauma.  All of these films, I could watch a million more times than I already have only to learn of additional psychological theories that apply.

Q: Does Art imitate Life or does Life imitate Art?

A: Honestly, I think both occur. The beauty of art is that it documents life, what it has been and what it is presently. In concert, art also offers possibilities of what life can be. And when art makes suggestions regarding how the world can be, it has the power to inspire its viewers and support change; allowing life to imitate a different reality, one that art proposes as an alternative.

Q: What do you believe is the takeaway value of Best Psychology in Film for readers? And for Hollywood?

A: I am hopeful that readers will take that psychology is an unavoidable aspect in our lives. Psychology is indeed the study of individuals and the way in which we navigate our world. If this is agreeable, I believe the art of film that strives to visually share individuals in their most natural and complex states can benefit from considering the psychology within the themes and characters to create richer productions.

Q: Despite the fact there has been no shortage of crises, tragedies and conflicts throughout the world in recent months, the Los Angeles Times gave much more front-page ink during the month of May to the final season of Game of Thrones than to actual news. In your view, what has driven the obsession of fans to care more about the fate of fictitious characters in fictitious realms than events transpiring in real life?

A: Consistent, structured investment. Game of Thrones has been a collection of narratives that have included the intensities of human nature. Using fictitious realms, animal and human-like creatures have allowed for the stories to become a vehicle to engage the adult fantasy mind. This series has been an outlet for many to feel similar as the characters and wrestle with similar conflicts (typically less intense than depicted in the series) of love, faithfulness, loyalty, humiliation, torture, war and rage. Being based in fiction allows for the viewer to engage in such conflicts and primitive raw behaviors in the safety of our own living areas while being entertained.

Q: Briefly, what was the process that led to your being hired for film projects?

A: Initially, I was requested to be an expert psychologist upon documentaries and was asked to take the role of a psychologist in a scripted series. Thereafter, I was asked to review scripts for writers, provide a psychological perspective upon the work, ensure the representation of psychology and interpersonal exchanges represented a realistic experience and provide set accuracy when there was a psychological scene (i.e. ensuring a therapist’s office appeared accurate). Since, I have offered my services through PsychMinded Media, a business created to house this work.

Q: As a psychologist, do you limit your consultation to films which have a psychological aspect?

A: Absolutely not.  I am a strong believer that psychology is all around us. It is within every interaction we have with others and when we are taking part in our own solitude.  Because psychology is ever present, I have had the privilege to consult on films that do not have an overt psychological aspect.

Q: When you’re not writing and consulting, what do you do for fun?

A: There are four activities I faithfully turn to for enjoyment: quality time with my husband and dog, visiting my neighboring organic farm to harvest and take in nature, exploring unfamiliar places and resting with a Vogue magazine for inspiration!

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: Currently, I am consulting on a number of short film productions, offering psychological perspectives of films upon panels pertaining to cinema works and conceptualizing my next book publication.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Cinema and media works have great power to display individuals in a manner that captures the richness of the human condition. It has been amazing to be a contributor in this industry while using my love for psychology to offer greater authenticity to the work. I am hopeful that I will remain as fortunate in the future!

 

 

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Once Left the Field of Valor

ONCE LEFT IN THE FIELD OF VALOR

As of this writing, Hulu is debuting an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, a satirical novel about the insanity of war. It, thus, seems only fitting to feature an interview this month with R.C. Sprague about his latest release, Once Left the Field of Valor, a gripping story about a young lieutenant’s guilt and post-traumatic stress to deliver a German soldier’s death letter to his lover. Military enthusiasts and fans of historical fiction will want to add this one to their bookshelves.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Your stint as an Army pilot has not only taken you around the world but also allowed you to see humanity at both its best and its worst. How much of your own personality and personal experiences shaped the development of Damien Shaw’s moral journey and are embedded in the story?

A: Damien Shaw is a character that reflects a lot of myself. At times he has a rough exterior, which many people have told me I do. About two years into writing the book I gained a new understanding for the guilt that plagues Damien throughout the book when two of my friends were killed in Afghanistan. Just as with Damien, it took me a while to come to grips with what happened.

Damien’s home town of Sackets Harbor is actually a small town in northern New York only a few miles from Fort Drum which was where I was stationed during much of the writing process.

Q: When did you start writing Once Left the Field of Valor?

A: I started writing Once Left the Field of Valor in the summer of 2012. During a lack luster lecture at the U.S. Army’s flight school, I began writing the first chapter. The idea came to me the night before and after sharing it with my wife, I knew I had to tell the story.

Q: What inspired the title?

A: I wanted the title to sound correct for the setting. I drew inspiration from classics like All Quiet on the Western Front and  For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Q: Plotter or panster? And why does your chosen method work effectively for you?

A: I am absolutely a panster. When writing fiction, I find that free flowing allows the story to surprise me and keeps me wanting to write. It may sound strange, but my imagination keeps me on the edge of my seat with unexpected twists and turns. There are scenes in Once Left the Field of Valor where I was like wow I didn’t see that coming. I really enjoy the twists and turns that come with being a panster.

Q: Did you know the novel’s ending before you began Chapter 1?

A: The ending was a mystery to me until the late chapters. Even then, and now, I wonder if I should have chosen the alternate ending. Luckily, reviews have cited the ending as surprising and well written, so I guess I chose wisely.

Q: Had you written anything prior to this and/or dabbled in other genres?

A: Writing is a main part of who I am, and I have done it for as long as I can remember. Once Left the Field of Valor is my debut novel. Prior to releasing it, my published works were non-fiction leadership and sports articles.

Q: What appeals to you about this particular genre?

A: I’m a history buff who loves to study people. In a situation such as war, I wanted to get into the mind of a soldier and paint a picture for the world. I feel historical fiction allows reader to time travel and live in another time.

Q: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of the writing process?

A: Balancing life demands with writing. While writing Once Left the Field of Valor I had three kids, moved three times, spent nine months in Afghanistan, and worked full-time. Luckily, I’ve gained better understanding for how to squeeze in writing!

Q: And, conversely, the most rewarding?

A: I love watching characters develop and take on lives of their own. Certain characters such as Albert were initially supposed to have a minor role. As I wrote him through his back story, it became more elaborate and his impact on the story became crucial to the plot.

Q: How have your talents as a lyricist influenced your ear for writing dialogue?

A: Writing song lyrics forces the creator to hone in on the flow of the words. When writing dialogue, I always say it out aloud to test whether it sounds natural in a conversation. Just as with song lyrics, conversations are filled with slang and broken sentences. I’m hoping that my dialogues sound natural and don’t detract from the story.

Q: Tell us about the characters in your debut novel and which ones you most admired or despised.

A: There are so many characters that are close to my heart in this story. Aside from Damien and Emily, my favorite characters are without a doubt Madame and Albert. Their roles as supporting characters were instrumental in Damien’s journey. By far my least favorite character is Geordan. His brutish attitude and insufferable demeanor made him despicable but a necessary supporting character.

Q: Historical fiction often calls for in-depth research in order to make events ring “true” for one’s target audience. There’s always a risk, however, in either overstuffing a narrative with too many facts that make the text read like a history lesson or embroidering it with so many liberties as to deviate significantly from reality. Tell us about your own research strategies to embrace a plausible balance.

A: When researching the time period, I watched several movies, read books, and went to military museums to get an idea of what it was like to live in that time. I take great pride in getting the locations of major historical events correct and painting a scene that allows the reader to flawlessly fall into the book.

Q: The cornerstone of Once Left the Field of Valor is a bloodied letter penned by an enemy soldier to the one he loves. Is this letter’s hold on Damien of supernatural essence or is its impact all in his head?

A: There is some form of supernatural connection with the letter. Whether you call it fate, divine intervention, or a self-fulfilling prophecy, the letter is the key to Damien’s future.

Q: Favorite quote about redemption?

A: My favorite redemption quote comes from Lewis B. Smedes, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” I think it’s such a powerful statement and really sheds light on the cycle of guilt that plagues many people.

Q: Like many authors, you decided to go the self-publishing route. What governed that choice?

A: Breaking into the traditional publishing scene is a difficult process. I felt that my story would resonate with readers and needed to be released without any further delay or bureaucracy.

Q: What did you learn about self-publishing that you didn’t know when you started?

A: Self-publishing can be a very tedious process. Properly formatting your document can be an ordeal. Overall, I do enjoy the creative freedom that self-publishing gives me.

Q: What are you doing to promote the book?

A: I have completed several written and podcast interviews, all of which can be viewed on my website rcsprague.com. In addition to interviews, I held a free eBook event in April and did a live reading on Facebook. I’m quite active on social media and can be found on Facebook and twitter @rcspraguewriter as well as @rcsprague on Instagram and Youtube.

Q: What would you like readers to take away from this story by the time they turn the last page?

A: I want readers to know that redemption is possible. A person can overcome their past and take back their destiny.

Q: What do you think readers would be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: One of my “guilty pleasure” is singing along to showtunes.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: In July I’ll release my debut poetry collection, The Soul Behind the Mask. Additionally, I’m revising my second novel which is the first in a three-part series called Tales of a Toy Soldier. I hope to release part one of that series in spring/ summer 2020.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I just want to say thank you for the opportunity to conduct this interview and I hope everyone has enjoyed getting inside my head.

 

 

The Handy Wisconsin Answer Book

Wisconsin answer book

Since this website’s debut in 2012, we’ve had the pleasure of introducing a global readership to lots of new books and new voices. This time around, we get to introduce our readers to an entire state: WISCONSIN! And, of course, we had a good time picking the brain of one of The Handy Wisconsin Answer Book‘s co-authors, Mark Meier, who has put together a fun answer book chock-full of tidbits about his home state. (Had this nifty reference been available when Love, Actually was filmed, we like to think that the Wisconsin-enamored Colin Frissell (played by Kris Marshall) would have tucked a copy into his duffle bag when he set off to meet American girls who would find his accent adorable.)

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: “Knowing the answers,” wrote an unknown author, “doesn’t take away the wonder. It actually makes it more amazing.” Assuming the same sense of wonderment can be ascribed to the heart of America’s Dairyland, what was your inspiration to pen The Handy Wisconsin Answer Book?

A: The project came about from a former coworker. The publisher approached Terri (Schlichenmeyer) about writing the book, but she was getting ready to build a new house outside the city. “I don’t have the time to devote to such a big project. Can I have a coauthor? I know this guy . . . .”

She asked me, I talked it over with my wife, and I dove into something totally unlike anything I’d ever written before.

Q: Which came first in the book’s development—the questions or the answers?

A: Pretty much that was a 50-50 mix. Researching one thing brought up questions that needed answering. Sometimes getting one bit of information resulted in two or three questions, which came up with two or three more, and eventually I’m forced to limit the questions for that chapter.

Other times finding interesting bits to write about was like pulling teeth. Then the questions followed the answers. “This interesting thing happened. Now, what can I ask to use that as an answer?” Sort of like an episode of Jeopardy!

Q: So how did you go about finding questions that readers would find interesting?

A: I operated on the assumption that if I’m bored, the reader will be bored. If I find something interesting, there will be readers who are interested. It’s not a 1:1 ratio, but chances are anyone reading my chapters of the book will be able to tell the bits where I was bored.

There’s one corporation in Wisconsin. . . .

But I don’t want to cast aspersions.

Q: Are you a native Wisconsin or a transplant from somewhere else?

A: I was born in La Crosse, and grew up outside a community just north of that city. I still live in that same area, though much of what was my grandpa’s farm is now inside the city limits.

Q: What’s your favorite thing about living there?

A: I like the climate. I like the history. I like my connection to my family, which has been in the area for more than a century. I feel connected here, in a way I’ve never experienced anywhere else.

And I like the cold winters. Weird, huh?

Q: What was the funniest, weirdest or most thought-provoking tidbit you discovered during your research about The Badger State?

A: In early Wisconsin racing there was a guy who drove with a rooster in his car. His daughter called his Chevy coup a “Chicken Coop,” and told him he had to have a chicken with him. So he did.

Roho the Rooster was with him for every race, and even went out to the bars to party with the racers. (Anyone who knows the state knows how hard Wisconsinites can party.) The bird drank beer from a shot glass, ate peanuts, and eventually passed out drunk along with some of the other racers.

On a radio interview that racer was confronted with a caller who thought it was terrible to put that rooster in such a dangerous position. He replied something like, “Lady, I’m in the car too!”

Roho died of pneumonia right after that season of racing. They actually performed an autopsy (yes I know there’s a different word when they do that to birds) to find an official cause of death.

Q: Tell us about interactions with your coauthor as well as anyone else who chimed in on the book’s content.

A: Having a coauthor definitely adds a level of complexity to any project. From the start we had eight topics, and Terri assigned them. The topic I was most leery of was Sports. You see, I’m kind of a sports moron. I had to ask someone once what “that yellow thing was” the refs threw onto the field in football games. “And I’m supposed to write about Wisconsin Sports?”

As it turns out, that topic was the most interesting part of the project for me. The History chapters she wrote is where I thought I’d be good, and Terri told me later it was like writing about trees growing.

Q: Does it have to be read front-to-back or can readers pick and choose chapters and read them out of order?

A: Each Q&A is supposed to be brief. The rule of thumb is “two paragraphs, tops.” But the editors told us from the start, “If you need more than two, see if you can split it into another question. If you can’t, don’t sweat it.”

So the whole thing is written in bite-sized pieces. You can open up to any page in any chapter and not worry about missing the flow. Sure, there might be three questions in a row about one thing, but even if you start with #3 in that series you don’t really miss out. Read the other bits next week or next year.

However, if you want to make sure you get to every question, it makes sense to read it front to back. You might not find everything fascinating, but you’ll learn a lot you didn’t know.

Q: Who’s your target readership?

A: There shouldn’t be anything inappropriate, so there’s no worries about letting young kids read it. Some of the vocabulary might be a bit advanced for the younger ones, but anyone with a curious mind will appreciate what the book offers.

As I mentioned above, I’m not a fan of sports. I found those chapters fun to write, and I’m guessing other non-fans will find out a lot of interesting things a sports fan might already know. (Who received Brett Favre’s first forward pass as a Green Bay Packer? Brett Favre.)

Anyone who lives in or wonders about the state of Wisconsin should read this book.

Q: What are you doing to market the book and which methods are proving the most successful?

A: It may (or may not) surprise people to know I almost always have copies of every book I’ve published somewhere nearby. When people find out I’m an author, they ask what I’ve written. I can show them.

I also have been posting on social media through the whole process. There were posts about it before I even signed the contract more than two years ago. Terri has done the same.

Terri is a book reviewer appearing in more than two hundred publications worldwide. She knows a lot of people. One of them manages our local Barnes and Noble, and that’s how we secured a book signing for June.

I know some people who run a local cable TV show, and appeared for an interview. That clip was posted to social media, so I was able to share that with my followers.

The publisher is a mid-sized operation, so they have access to major distributors. They also have a budget for promotions that, while small for them, is much larger than Terri or I could afford. We all have a hand in it.

As for which is the most successful, I’d have to say that word of mouth is probably the best for me. I can’t evaluate how Visible Ink’s efforts are playing out, since it’s so early in the process.

Q: Had you done any writing prior to The Handy Wisconsin Answer Book?

A: I’ve published mostly science fiction, but before Handy Wisconsin it was all fiction.

Q: What about the craft of writing most appeals to you?

A: I love words. Finding “that one word” that means exactly what I need is thrilling for me. Crafting stories makes me feel more alive than working at my “regular” job.

Some people like to drive fast, others like to shoot hoops, set up computer networks, cook the perfect steak, or build houses. I create universes.

Q: Conversely, what daunts you?

A: Editing. At times I despair of getting across exactly what I mean, especially when I read a passage to some of my critique partners and they give me a puzzled look. Sometimes the solution is just another word choice, but other times it requires major surgery. But it’s sometimes frustratingly boring to the point where I want to NEVER read about those characters again.

Second place, and it’s a close second, is marketing. These things are not what I’m gifted for.

Q: How do you cope with writer’s block?

A: I can’t say I’ve ever had writer’s block. If it exists at all, I’ve never experienced it. I’ve been burned out to the point I didn’t write for a couple of years, but that’s not “blocked.” I’ve hit difficult parts of one project or another, but I go to work on something else. Is that “blocked?” I don’t know.

I’ve heard people talk about being blocked, but I can’t really relate because I’ve always had something to write. For those reasons I doubt there’s really such a thing as writer’s block.

Q: Any new projects on your plate?

A: My current project is taking a novel and making it three separate books. What I thought was a finished product was really more of a sketch than true novel. Since it was too long anyway, fleshing it out made a lot more sense, and was really a three-part story to begin with.

I have a rough idea of a book series that could end up to be in the neighborhood of thirty novels or short story collections. While working on the above project I’m researching for the bigger one. Those two should keep me busy for the rest of my life, and if I run out there are some smaller works I have in mind.

Q: Best advice to aspiring writers?

A: Write. Writers write, and if you’re not writing you’re not a writer. Simple, but not easy. Every story you write will be better than the last one. If you’re not getting attention with the ones you’ve already written, write a new one. Then another one.

I think Tom Clancy’s first novel published was Red October. It wasn’t his first written. There were at least two before that. He didn’t stop. You shouldn’t.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Find a critique group. Nobody writes in a vacuum until you hit it so big people will buy anything with that name on it. Again using Tom Clancy, if you look at his later books, they all could have used an editor. Rumor has it he had the attitude, “I’m Tom Clancy. I don’t need an editor.” As a fan of his writing, I’d have told him, “Yes you do.”

Every writer needs someone who can tell them they need more of “this” and less of “that.” “Something else” needs to be changed, “another thing” needs clarification, and “are you kidding me” should be left out entirely.

I’m totally convinced my writing would be unmarketable trash without a critique group. If you can’t find one, form one. Twenty years ago my group consisted mostly of “aren’t we good” kind of people. Eventually the skill level of some improved, and people not willing to get better moved out of the group. It takes time to build a group, but they’re instrumental. Don’t skimp on getting other eyes on what you write.