There’s no doubt you’ve heard of the ‘lucky number seven,’ a real scene-stealer if you ask me. The star in my mind, is seven’s older and wiser sibling, number Eight. The best thing about Eight? When it gets all tipsy and uninhibited — say at a holiday party where all the other guests seem overly upright and linear, and Eight is just hanging out with its curves and such and then just falls right over! Do you think Eight gets even a little bit self-conscious in this situation? Not a chance. In fact, that’s when things get really interesting — when Eight topples right over into Infinity.
As a person of letters, I sure have been thinking a lot about numbers as of late. Since the start of the apocalypse a few weeks ago, I’ve returned to a specific place in my dreams and musings quite a bit. It’s somewhere I had no idea existed until I was lucky enough to visit it a few years ago — a place where Eight adds up to a delectable mystery known as Castel del Monte (Castle on the Mountain). You may have seen it before and not realized it, perhaps on the back of an Italian issued one-cent Euro.
The builder of this far out and fascinating citadel was the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who by the way, died in the year 1250. (Go ahead, add those numbers up!) Let’s just call him Freddie for fun. Freddie was known during those times for his, wait for it… love of peace and justice! Imagine that!
This castle has a whole mess of Eights everywhere. From the octagonal floor plan, to Eight towers, to groups of flowers painted in Eight — the theme is in every detail. The most amazing thing about the castle though, as we contemplate it in the year 2016, is that there is no universal consensus among people who study these things as to what the actual purpose of it was. It doesn’t have the features of a regular fortified castle such as a moat, drawbridge, or underground tunnels that would suggest a military purpose. There’s no kitchen! Some have theorized that it was a super swanky hunting lodge. Really?! Without stables?
What were you trying to tell us with this masterwork of wonder, Freddie?
When I went to the castle it was with a group of, no joke — 16 writers from around the world, chosen for a screenwriting fellowship funded by the Apulia Film Commission. The concept was to fast track the development of scripts to bring more film and television production to Apulia, way down south in the heel of the boot. Needless to say, all 16 of us felt pretty damn lucky.
The day we visited Castel del Monte was magical and mystical, just like all of our days in Apulia, where pretty much anything was bound to happen. This was due to the fact that the program leaders never told us in advance where we were going, creating a very raw and real backdrop that kept us on our toes emotionally — literally not knowing what was going to be around the next corner. Consider that by this point in the trip, we’d been on the high seas with a dozen officers of the Italian Coast Guard, visited stylishly dressed inmates at a men’s prison (not one standard issue prison jumpsuit to be found), and heard harrowing stories from too young of patients at a drug rehab. We even met a Clown Priest! (it’s a thing) So who knew where we’d end up next.
After touring the inside of the castle, some of us were drawn to the center of the octagonal courtyard. Standing there with three of my new Italian friends, we sort of inexplicably hooked arms and felt a rush of energy course through our veins.
Lots and lots of eerie things happened over our several weeks there. I mean, these were sixteen highly creative and tuned-in people. Basically, we were all kind of laying our souls bare to allow the stories we were there to work on flow through us without the usual angst that writers so often suffer working in solitude.
According to http://www.charmingitaly.com, “the octagon was the favorite shape for buildings erected by the Templars, the famous warriors who are said to have fought to defend the Holy Grail. The octagon is also said to evoke strong symbolic and esoteric images. Some say the Holy Grail was octagonal itself and that it was hidden in this Puglian castle.”
Were our eight feet standing on the spot where the Grail was once hidden?
Another incredibly lucky thing for our group was having Christopher Vogler one of our as our writing coaches. https://chrisvogler.wordpress.com I’d stared at Chris’s picture on the back cover of his brilliant bestseller The Writer’s Journey for well over a decade. The book’s title is a play on The Hero’s Journey, made famous by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell (A Hero of a Thousand Faces) whose ten hours of interviews with Bill Moyers will change your life.
Chris is known the world over for translating Joseph Campbell into a form for film people to use to make sure that their storytelling succeeds by leaving audiences with that deep catharsis they unknowingly crave when they watch a movie. (As generous and big-hearted of a man Chris is, I wouldn’t be surprised if he translated Campbell’s work to prevent Hollywood from producing any more dreck.) As a story analyst at Disney in the 1980s, he blazed a new trail with a little ditty he penned called Memo From the Story Department and revolutionized the thinking about story for the screen.
I’d been struggling with certain aspects of my story, mostly because it was based on a real person I had not yet been able to interview, so I had lots of blanks to fill in. Her name is Sally Becker, a Jewish painter who saved hundreds of Muslim children from war torn Bosnia in 1993. http://www.sallybecker.co.uk Sally became known as The Angel of Mostar, named after a town with a very beautiful and symbolically important bridge, the Stari Most, that separated the Muslim and Christian sides of Mostar. During the war, the bridge was blown up, which gave me the idea to title my script Bridge Keeper to honor Sally as someone who was working to bridge the gap between warring sides.
After one of Chris Vogler’s mind-blowing lectures, he passed out his business cards to all of us. They have these gorgeous illustrations from the newest edition of his book, so there are several designs to choose from. He was so instrumental in helping me find the heart of my story (screenplay structure is NOT for sissies!) that I felt most drawn to the card with the skeleton key. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to the small castle in the background, but the very next day, we arrived at Castel del Monte. I pulled Chris’s card from my back pocket, flashed it in his direction for a knowing nod from my guru, and stormed the castle in search of answers.
It happened quickly. In the chapel on the first floor, I knew that my character would have to come here, to Castel del Monte (she’d been living in Puglia at the start of the story) to have the whopper realization that would send her across the Adriatic Sea with no plan for how to save those children. Carved into the wall above me as plain as the red nose on that clown priest, was a cross, a Star of David, and a crescent moon with a star. Movie-Sally would gather her courage standing here, after receiving a message from a Roman Emperor who lived some 800 some years before her — that it’s our humanity that binds us, no matter what terrible deeds are done in the name of religion or anything else.
Perhaps part of the mystery of Castel del Monte is that it holds many more answers. Could it simply be a monument to peace? With a little luck, we’ll learn to ask the right questions, and trust that wisdom is infinite.
The number eight is the symbol of infinity, eight is the eighth day after the seven days of creation, and so goes beyond creation.
–Apulia, A Film Tourism Guide