A Conversation with Jim Curtan

This conversation is between Shane M. Nygaard and Jim Curtan on September 14, 2015, as part of the Minnesota Jung Association’s 2015-2016 season of event.

More information on Jim’s Workshop – Archetypal America October 23rd and 24th, 2015 in St. Paul, MN

SN:      Since you haven’t been in front of the Minnesota Jung Association (MJA) audience before, to help people get to know you a little before your visit, can you share a bit about your background?

JC:       Absolutely.  Well, I have eight years of a Jesuit education, which I love, because the Jesuits taught me how to think, and they gave up the power to tell me what to think.  I have been grateful to them for that forever.  I went to graduate school in theatre at the University of Connecticut; I taught theatre, or drama, for three years at Loretto Heights,  a no-longer-existing Catholic women’s college in Denver, Colorado.  Then I moved to New York.  I lived five years in New York. I did some stage managing, and I directed a lot of summer stock.  Then, I got a job as a stage manager with a show that went to Washington DC and then came out to Los Angeles, California.  And I stayed.  I did a couple more stage managing gigs, and then a friend of mine told me that a friend of hers (who was a talent manager) who needed some temporary help to answer phones and feed the dogs while he was on a promotional tour with a young actor.    The third day the guy was out, he said, “Are you available when I get back?  I maybe could use some help.”  The young actor he went out to do a promo with was John Travolta.  Travolta had just started Welcome Back Kotter.  Bob, the man who I was working for, said I think I have a teenage idol on my hands.  They were in Chicago in a blizzard (and this is probably hyperbole), the buses weren’t running, the schools were closed, and still the lobby of the hotel was filled with screaming teenage girls.  He said, “I want to talk to you when I get back.”  I said, “What do you want me to do?”  Bob was from Texas and very eccentric, and a real teacher for me, a real mentor.  He drawled, “I have become so good at what only I can do; I need to be free to do what only I can do.  I will need you to do the rest.  A lot of it might be shit, but if we figure out what it is that only you can do, and I think it is valuable, we will hire another person.”  A year-and-a-half later I had an office at Paramount Pictures, I was being paid by Paramount for Bob’s company to read material for John and our other clients.  John was making Saturday Night Fever.  I found Urban Cowboy through a magazine article.  Working in script development is where I first got interested in Archetypes because, when you are trying to find the appropriate material for an actor, even if you don’t know the word “Archetype,” you know what’s right for them, what fits them.  And it was archetypal.

SN:      Back then, had you heard of Archetypes?  Did you know back then what you were doing?

KevinCostner_BodyguardJC:       No.  We didn’t call them Archetypes, we said our clients have specific essences.  I didn’t represent these guys, but it’s an easy way to point it out – in the prime of his career, Kevin Costner always played a Knight; he never played a King.  If it was an Indian chief, he was working for the chief, but he wasn’t the chief.  So, that’s how I learned it.  I managed that company and we worked with, besides John, Patrick Swayze, and a few other people – I was with them as their careers developed.  Then, I left and went to work later for another company where I worked with John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe and Andy Garcia and Melanie Griffith.  Totally different kinds of actors, but I saw this at work all the time.

SN:      When you started working with these new actors after your first experience, did you build on what you had done with John Travolta?

JC:       Absolutely, absolutely.  What was interesting, of all of them, Melanie Griffith really knew what worked for her.  She had a really good sense of her archetypal self – the best of any actor I’ve ever worked with.  She was in a really risky movie called Body Double, where she played a porn star.  She said, “I can say these words and the audience will like me.”  It got great reviews, it really started her career, because she knew that.  Now, Malkovich, it had to do in part with what he shouldn’t do so he wouldn’t get typed as a creepy villain, so the movies he did, one was Places in the Heart, which was very sympathetic, and then he did The Killing Fields.  So when he played a villain in a Clint Eastwood movie, the audience already knew he was something besides a psychopath, because that’s what Clint Eastwood villains usually are.  It was knowing what their qualities were and helping them.  It wasn’t that they couldn’t play other roles, but you knew those roles wouldn’t advance their career.

SN:      Would you say you had a natural instinct for that, or was it something that developed in you, or both?

JC:       No, I knew it right off.  I’ll tell you when I knew it and I didn’t have the words for it.  John Travolta had had three huge hits, Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Urban Cowboy.  He had one stinker in the middle called Moment by Moment that he made with Lily Tomlin.  But then, he wanted to do a movie with [director] Brian De Palma because he had worked with Brian in Carrie.  Brian wanted John to do this movie called Blow Out.  I read the movie, and I didn’t know about Archetypes, but I said, “He can’t do this movie.”  My bosses said, “Why not?”  I said, “Because, in Saturday Night Fever and Grease, and in Urban Cowboy, John plays a male chauvinist who learns to treat women with respect.  That’s why women love him.  It’s not just the dancing.  It’s that women feel respected and seen by him.  He can be gracious and tender and vulnerable and not just a jerk.  In this script, he plays a sound technician who meets this girl in a mystery and she gets killed and he is recording it and he puts it in the movie as a sound effect.  That will offend his audience.”  The movie didn’t do well.

SN:      So he ended up doing the movie?

JC:       Oh yeah.  He wanted to do it because he loved the director.  He wanted to look tough because he had been playing boy-men [characters].

SN:      When you told everybody that it wouldn’t be a good movie, how did they respond to that?

JC:       I didn’t talk with John directly, but I talked with my bosses, and they said you have to stop lobbying for this. He wants to do it, and we’ve done everything we can and if we push him too hard, he’s a big star, and we don’t want him going off in a huff.  He went on to make a lot of mostly forgettable movies. Then, Quentin Tarantino put him in Pulp Fiction.  In that movie a brilliant thing happened.  Uma Thurman was being treated like some piece of meat and he dances with her like she’s a lady – he treats her like a lady.  That is exactly what made women love John in the first place, and all of a sudden, he was back.  I didn’t know what Archetypes were, but I just knew that he should not betray a woman.

SN:      You could see the patterns but you just didn’t have a specific name for a particular pattern.

JC:       I hadn’t heard of Carl Jung or Archetypes at that point.  It was a few years later that I started finding out about them.

SN:      How did you start learning about Jung and Archetypes?  And, how did you begin to transition into that world?

moore_gillette_kwmlJC:       I was still in show business, but a friend of mine gave me two books to read.  One was called King, Warrior, Magician, Lover [by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette], which is about core masculine Archetypes, and Robert Bly’s Little Book on the Human Shadow.  It really made sense to me.  Sometime later, I went to one of Caroline Myss’s classes, not because of Archetypes, but because I had been diagnosed with cancer.  From what I read about her, I thought she was a healer, and I thought this would be good.  I’ll go get healed, I’ll go get cured, and then, I’ll go back to my life.  Ha, ha, ha.  She made it clear she wasn’t a healer.  But, the first day I studied with her (it was a six-day seminar), it was as if I had always known this, and now I had a vocabulary for it.  So, when other people were asking about their Archetypes, and their lives and all of their drama, I kept wanting to know about her model – her model of Archetypes.  This was great because she was still writing the book.

SN:      So, the whole model she had for Sacred Contracts, it wasn’t developed at that time, it was just in progress?

JC:       It was pretty fully developed.  I watched her develop it over two six-day classes, and we had become friends by then.  When she started her Institute, actually before that, she invited me to teach with her.  So, I was immersed in it.  It was as if, as soon as she started talking about this, it was my native tongue.  Symbols – I love symbols.  I’m more comfortable with symbolic language than literal.  Literal people I have trouble – I’m not kidding – I have trouble understanding what they are talking about sometimes.

SN:      What draws you personally to Archetypes?  What is the appeal of speaking archetypally?

JC:       It is very similar to speaking in metaphor.  Because symbols can express things that literal, rational language cannot.  People that are “rational” (there must be a reason for everything or think it’s all logical) – there’s a place that reason and logic cannot go.  It’s not irrational and it’s not pre-rational, it’s what Ken Wilbur calls trans-rational– it goes to places where symbols reach us on a deeper level than reason.  There is a marvelous moment in Hamlet where Hamlet tells his friend Horatio about the ghost of his father.  They are both philosophy students—rationalists. Horatio doesn’t believe in ghosts.  Hamlet says, “There is more in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” which I used to think was his view of the world, but now it means in what you are studying – there is more than that –and whether the ghost was literal or was a symbol of Hamlet’s feeling doesn’t matter.  He was getting information intuitively, through whatever that was.  The same with metaphors – metaphors and symbols are the language of mystics.  I think that’s why Jung is so drawn to it.  And with his drawings and things like this, these are not A+B=C.  A lot of what Jung writes about, are in a sense, revelations, downloads, or “aha” moments.  You can reason from these insights, but you can’t reason your way to them, step-by-step-by-step.  They don’t work that way.

SN:      So, for people who might not be ‘mystically’ inclined, or if they don’t resonate with something like ‘mysticism,’ would you say it’s also a language of imagination?

JC:       Yes, it’s the language of poetry.  Poets use symbols; they speak archetypal language; they use metaphors.  Anybody can say, “I love you” but when you say “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” you’re entering another realm.

SN:      Multi-layers and infinite possibilities.

JC:       What’s in a name?  When Romeo sees Juliet and their tribal identities—Montague and Capulet—dissolve. (their tribal identities as a Montague and a Capulet  They see a world where “it is the East and Juliet is the Sun – and this is in a sense, mystical.  It’s not mystical like religious mystical, but in South Pacific, there is a great song called Some Enchanted Evening.  What happens is that, in that evening, the lovers are transported into another reality that they later  have to integrate in the cold light of day, because what they experienced in that heightened moment, changed them.  Then it was about, did they have the guts to go with what they now know that they didn’t know.  There is a lyric that says, “Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.”

SN:      Great example.  And to change the topic, for reasons other than just changing it, let’s talk about “Archetypal America.”  For your lecture and workshop, in the description you start off with the quote from Ken Burns’ The Civil War: “The main American theme, I think, is freedom.  It’s about individual freedom in opposition to, or intention with collective freedom.”  Can you talk a little bit about that?

JC:       This has been part of our culture from the beginning, and we can see that being played out right now in politics.  You can see the collective, like you can see somebody like Bernie Sanders saying, this is what’s good for everyone.  And, somebody else saying, this is what’s good for me.  For example, I have a right to a gun, or my children have the right to go to school safely.  All children have a right.  It’s about the struggle between my individual freedom and rights and the good of the culture, the good of the community – not the tribe so much, but of the community.  People who have come together.

SN:      Which connects very well with Jung and his process of individuation.

JC:       Yes.  And, there is a point where, see there’s individuation, and then there is reintegration, because you have to individuate – that’s the Hero’s Journey to me.  But for the Hero’s Journey to really be complete, you have to return and integrate your authentic discovered self, your unique singular person.  It’s important to integrate it with the whole.  Who does the Grail serve?  How and what does your integrated-self  serve?  After you’ve done this heroic journey, the ego thinks it’s just for you, but the lesson you learn is that it isn’t.  And, if you never learn that it isn’t just for you, well, you’ll be an adolescent forever.

SN:      So, if we take this process and map it on to America archetypally, would you say perhaps each State works toward its own individuation, yet remains part of the United States, the collective?

JC:       I don’t know that I would put it that way.  Because I don’t think each state is like that.  I think, rather than individual states, we have many conflicting cultures.  Where it really comes to a head and we still haven’t resolved it is in the Civil War.

SN:      Text books and history classes teach us that the Civil War was long ago and it had a specific finite period.

JC:       The North and South are still at war with each other today.  There are people that are still upset that there is a black president because it’s a reminder that their ancestors lost the war.

SN:      All the recent brouhaha about the Confederate flag…

stagecoach-movie-poster-1939-1010417025JC:       Yes, exactly!  I mean, just think, that’s 160 years ago, and they are still fighting it and they are saying it’s part of our heritage.  Well, it’s part of the heritage of racism and losing, but people hang on to that just as stubbornly.  We see it from the other side too.  There is a marvelous moment in the movie Stagecoach.  The movie was released in 1939, interestingly enough, the same year that Gone with the Wind was released, which really sentimentalizes slavery and the South.  Stagecoach takes place 20 years after the Civil War. The war, has devastated the country, not just with all the people we lost, but it devastated the country as a whole—economically, psychically, spiritually.  It was like a depression.  What you have in Stagecoach is an Archetype in itself.  It’s an Archetype that’s repeated in movie after movie, like the Poseidon Adventure, where a bunch of strangers have to come together in crisis, or on a spaceship, or wherever you have it.  On the Stagecoach, you have a rebel who fought for the South, a doctor who fought for the North, you have a man who keeps saying over and over that he’s from Kansas City, Kansas—not Kansas City, Missouri because Kansas was a free state, and he’s letting people know where he stands.

You also have the West which is Libertarian.  The United States has a very strong Libertarian streak, and it’s particularly strong in the West.  Then you have the banker in the movie who believes that business and corporate America should be running everything.  Does that sound new?


SN:      The symbolism is just astounding.

JC:       It’s amazing!  And, you also have the nominal outlaw, who is really the good guy, which is a big part of the Western thing (“we can handle our own problems”); the heroine is a prostitute; and the other woman on the stage coach is a pregnant woman married to a Union soldier, but whose father was a Confederate general.  So, you’ve got all of the stresses, strains and tensions of the culture in this one stage coach.  It’s pretty phenomenal – it really is.  Another element, not well-known is that  the Civil War was also fought in the West; there were battles fought in the Arizona Territory where this film takes place.  Lincoln needed to keep the West. If the Confederacy captured California or any of the western territories and it could put an end to the dreams of empire, the great expansion.

SN:      Ah…

JC:       California was battled over a lot, and then, they headed east.  The other piece of the cowboy western we have translated into our space movies. It’s the myth of “the great do-over” – “Okay, we messed this up, let’s head west.”  The French philosopher, Rousseau talked about “natural man.”  The notion of natural man as always glorified, unspoiled by civilization.  John Wayne represents that.  This is the first of a series of films he made with the director John Ford.  Over thirty years they developed John Wayne’s archetypal character, a man trying very hard to stay separate from civilization.  He really can’t bear it because freedom isn’t there, and the culture is corrupt.  When I started to research this, just based on my intuition, my gut instinct, about why I love this movie so much, I found that there are so many books written about this director, and about John Wayne, that the director John Ford really, more than anybody else, created the myth of the Western.  He and another great director, Howard Hawks, used John Wayne over and over to create this American mythos.  Before Stagecoach, there had been some silent westerns, some silent movies, but the westerns were just for kids to go see on Saturdays.  They weren’t taken seriously.  Stagecoach was nominated for best picture, best director; and it didn’t win best director or the Oscar, but it won New York Film Critic Circle for Best Director.  This elevated westerns to a mythic genre for adults.  You can see Clint Eastwood as being a descendant from these – it’s very clear – the Loner.  The completely self-reliant person who may work for the system but is at odds with it.

SN:      So, would you say, if we link in Jung a little bit here, would you say the characters that he plays are individuated?

JC:       Yes, yes, yes.  But there is another piece of it.  They are not entirely civilized or domesticated

SN:      So, is that part of being individuated?

JC:       That’s where that tension is.  The tension is in the individual freedom.  By itself, individuation.  Or, is individuation really when you can be in full relationship with others, as an individuated person rather than as a tribal person.  This is a real strain.  What happens is that the Archetypes I talk about, like the Pioneer and the Scout, they are always in search of freedom – autonomy.  They don’t want their fate determined by a whole rigmarole of laws and hierarchies.  They don’t like hierarchies.

SN:      How does that usually go for them?

JC:       It goes pretty well.  That’s why this is one of the great things about the United States, why people still come here.  They see a possibility to escape class and start over.  That a person can come here, and if they were of a certain class, in a European country then they would always be of that class.  But, it’s not just self-individuation, its self-invention.

SN:      Okay.

JC:       When Rousseau talked about the noble savage, [the noble savage] hadn’t been corrupted by civilization, which figures deeply into this.  But the other piece of it, in the myth of the west, is that what we’re leaving behind us (civilization) is spoiled.  It’s been littered.

The people go west for freedom.  A few brave scouts go out and explore the unknown, the frontier, places that have not been mapped.  If they survive, they come back and tell people about them.  A few brave pioneers hear freedom in this – a chance for a better life, my own plot of ground, whatever it is, and they head into this frontier, and they live pretty much in harmony with nature.  But then, as it gets a little more civilized and they write back to their relatives in Boston or Philadelphia, and say the air is clean and the land is fertile, and we’ve made a few roads, well, then the settlers come, not the pioneers.  And what they bring with them are the banks, the churches, the schools, the courts, and all of these social constraints that the pioneers left civilization to get away from in the first place.  Because they felt constrained; they couldn’t be free and independent. Then these so-called civilizing institutions come in, and instead of people being neighbors, they start competing with each other, by becoming greedy for land they shared before.  When the only person was ten miles away, you became good neighbors.  And, you didn’t have a lot to gossip about.

SN:      What do they say?  Good fences make good neighbors?

JC:       With civilization, comes gossip.  And classes and hierarchy that these people left to get away from so that, in Stagecoach, the prostitute, who is the most virtuous character in this movie, and who comes to prostitution because her parents were killed by Indians and she was left an orphan, and how else is an uneducated woman going to make a living in the wild west?  The self-righteous church ladies judge her, when she is more decent than any of them.

SN:      And, that still continues to this day.

JC:       You bet it does.  So, you see, in Stagcoach, a microcosm for our culture.  But there’s also this yearning to recapture purity and innocence, so that when we have polluted an area enough, we want to move and find a less polluted area.  Or, now, because we have polluted this planet so much, unless we can come together and work like the people on the stagecoach, we don’t have a lot of hope.  There’s another Archetype that I didn’t put in the description, and that’s the Gambler.

SN:      Oh yeah, Kenny Rogers.

JC:       But, it’s also the person who is willing to risk everything for a better life.

SN:      It sounds like there is just going to be so much to cover.  It’s going to be an exciting lecture and workshop!

JC:       Isn’t this fascinating material?

SN:      Oh, it absolutely is.  I could literally talk for hours and hours and hours with you.

JC:       I hope you can listen for hours and hours.

SN:      You know I can.  But for now, if we can wrap up the conversation, I’d like to  do a few general “favorites” questions.  Do you have a favorite myth out of all the myths that you have encountered?

JC:       Do you know what comes to me more than anything else?  I don’t know if this qualifies.  It’s a fairy tale.  It’s Pinocchio.

SN:      My next question was if you had a favorite fairy tale, so that covers the terrain of both.  Why Pinocchio?

JC:       I love “I’ve got no strings.”  I love cutting the strings so you can make your own choices.  Again, it’s about individuation.  It’s about – and what I noticed at least in the Disney version, this is not as true in the original book – most of the lies that Pinocchio tells in the Disney version are people pleasing.  He doesn’t want to get in trouble so he tells them whatever they want to hear.

If I looked at myths, hmm, I love the myth of the Odyssey; I love the myth of Ulysses.  And, particularly, I love the character of Penelope, Ulysses’ wife.

SN:      What’s the draw to her?

JC:       It’s amazing.  Ulysses has been away, he’s been lost for over ten years after the war, and his wife is the queen of Ithaca.  She is the queen and as long as she is unmarried, she has power.  But, all of the men in the region are courting her; they want to marry her because then they become king of Ithaca.  Remember, we think of Greece, but this was barbarian Greece.  This wasn’t the Greece of Aristotle and Plato.  This takes place before that.  These suitors are showing up at the castle; they are eating her out of house and home; and they are insisting that she make a decision.  So, she does this brilliant thing.  During the day when they are there, she is weaving a tapestry and she says, when I complete the tapestry, I will make my decision.  So, when they leave for the night or retire, she goes back into the room where she is making the tapestry, and she unravels parts of it because she doesn’t want to finish it.

SN:      Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

JC:       I love that story.  We all do this when we don’t want to make a decision.  We keep unraveling.  I love that part.  There are so many characters in the Odyssey that are, like the Sirens.  I love the Sirens.  Sometimes I think that the Sirens though, the song that made them all jump off the ship, was a commercial.  Like “double your pleasure, double your fun…” You know when you get a tune stuck in your head that you don’t want in your head and you can’t get it out?  I think that’s what the Sirens did.


JC:       I wanted to do the Odyssey as a musical about advertising where Ulysses works on Madison Avenue and the sirens are jingle singers and they are always looking for songs that you can’t get out of your head until you shoot yourself.

SN:      I know you have seen hundreds and hundreds of thousands and thousands of movies, but do you have a favorite movie out of all of them?

JC:       Yes.  I could never teach it.  All it does is give me pure pleasure, and that’s Singing in the Rain.

SN:      Aw, nice!

JC:       It’s been my favorite movie for 50 years.  I have it on my DVR so I can play it any time I want.  If it’s on, I will just watch a couple of numbers from it.  There is something about it that refreshes my soul.

SN:      Great.  How about a favorite musician?

JC:       That’s tough.  It would be between Cole Porter and George Gershwin.

SN:      You can keep two.  Do you have a favorite song?

JC:       I have a lot, but the one that – there are two.  One is Being Alive from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company; and the other is a Gershwin song called Someone to Watch Over Me.

SN:      Excellent.  How about a favorite book?

LambByChristopherMooreJC:       Yes.  I think, I will give you two again.  One of them is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos.  It makes me howl every time I read it.  The other one, which goes to myth, is The Once and Future King by T.H. White.  I love that book – it is one of the best books about love I ever read.  Oh, and I’ll give you a third one – I love Lamb by Christopher Moore, because he totally turns the Jesus myth on its head.  It’s the story of Jesus told by his best friend Biff.  Biff never figures out that Jesus is the Messiah, and Biff keeps trying to protect Jesus because Jesus doesn’t know how to defend himself, and he goes on the road with him to defend him.  It’s hilarious!  There’s one thing, Jesus thinks he might be the Messiah but he doesn’t know how to be a Messiah so he decides to go find those three wise men he’s been told about – because one is in China and one is in India and one is – I can’t remember where else, maybe Japan.  On the first birthday he is away, he is in China, and he’s homesick, so the Chinese people fix him a nice birthday dinner which is how the custom of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas got started.

SN:      Aw, got it!  Thank you so much for taking the time to do the interview, Jim.  Looking forward to your visit in October!

More information on Jim’s Workshop – Archetypal America October 23rd and 24th, 2015 in St. Paul, MN

2 thoughts on “A Conversation with Jim Curtan

  1. This is why Jim’s workshops are such treats. The brilliance just never stops flowing out of him. Great questions. Shawn!

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