Thursday, March 01, 2007

Beware of this man

This is Robert McKee. I’m starting to think Robert McKee has done more harm to writers and the state of the movie industry than Rob Schneider. His two day weekend screenplay structure course became a sensation in the 90’s – EST seminars for writers. Granted, he presents some sound principles in structure. But adhering to his method forces you into a formulaic model. And worse, most junior studio execs and D-girls eagerly give up spa weekends to take the course so you can imagine what your notes will be. Have fun turning that slasher movie into CASABLANCA. (Mr. McKee spends an entire day breaking down CASABLANCA line by line.)

Any course that makes lower level studio executives two years removed from Cal State Northridge think they're suddenly experts in story structure is very destructive to the state of the art.

Yes, there are general guidelines. Screenplays should not be longer than 120 pages, especially comedies. That particular rule you need to follow because if a reader sees a script thicker than the Santa Monica phone book they’ll never read it no matter how good it is.

But the notion that the first act has to end around page 20 and the third act should start around 85 – don’t twist your story into knots trying to fit it into that template. God forbid your first act ends on page 12. The WGA storm troopers will not bust into Starbucks and haul you away. If you don’t have a mid-point plot turn, the ghost of Billy Wilder will not smother you with a pillow while you sleep.

A very general rule of thumb for a three act structure is: Act One – get your hero up into a tree, Act Two – throw rocks at him, and in Act Three – get him down. How you do that is up to you.

Here’s the Levine method: Just tell a great story.

Make it compelling, original, funny, exciting, romantic, spooky, erotic, surprising. David Mamet says the one question an audience asks is WHAT’S NEXT? I agree. Let each scene drive the story forward. Make sure each moment is vital no matter what page it’s on. Create memorable characters and situations. And allow yourself the freedom to really let your imagination go. Don’t restrict your thinking.

When I read a screenplay I want to hear YOUR voice, not Robert McKee's, or the Epstein brothers (even if they did write CASABLANCA).

53 comments :

Captain J said...

Thanks for a great post.

I'll bet the bar at one of those seminar hotels has got to be full of dudes playing Dave Matthews on the jukebox and passing out 'splodin' 'taters.

Your Protagonist said...

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing in the hands of a D-girl or boy, but I have to admit that taking McKee's seminar was a good move for this unproduced writer.

By weekend's end, I realized that I've been on the right track regarding story structure and character development.

I didn't *know* that until I heard McKee chiding me to do the things I've already been doing, and it was a real confidence booster.

Expensive, though. You'd think McKee could afford an eyebrow trimmer.

david O'Hara said...

I wasted money on McKee. Three days struting his stuff and I came away with nothing but a sore butt and an estimate of the guy's ego.

If he really knew how to write a great story - he would. Maybe even approach the status of Ben Afflect, Oscar winning screenwriter.

"By weekend's end, I realized that I've been on the right track regarding story structure and character development. "

What works - works.

In story, characters, dialouge - there is NO formula. (Except in the minds of the untalented. They NEED the idea that a "formula" exists - that if they can only LEARN the formula, it will make up for their obvious lack of talent - OR WORSE: WILL MAKE THEM GOOD DEVELOPMENT EXECS.

There is a screenwriting contest (maybe more than one), where you are judged on how close to PAGE TWENTY-FIVE you finsh your first act and start the second.

Oh, yeah... and you were docked heavily on any misspelled words. (like the audience is going to see those).

Wonder how many good stories these assholes missed out on?

TCinLA said...

Geez, you mean writing twelve scripts that became movies where Act One always ended around page 29-30 was wrong???? Oh, the howwow! The howwow!

The worst thing that ever happened to screenwriting was when the talentless hacks who could last long enough to get a Master's in Cinema| then managed to find an alternative to being otherwise unemployable by becoming Perfessers of Film. As I say to the young writers I get to terrorize every year, your teachers were FAILURES!! Who in their right mind who could actually sell a screenplay and create a career in their chosen field would ever put up with Academia?

I still think McVeigh-size truck bombs outside the Schools of Film at USC and UCLA would be the best thing that ever happened to Hollywood.

But then, what do I know? I never took a "how to find the secret of successful writing" class in my life. But I did have the good fortune to become friends with writers and learn from them.

And I still have more produced credits than all the perfessers of screenwriting in America, combined.

amitbe said...

Hey! It's not a formula. These are guiding principles. it states so very clearly on page 18 of the good book. By the way, I usually like page 18 of a book to be solidly into chapter two, not still obsessed with unresolved chapter one issues. You know why? Because it works.

Great post. I wonder though: Do you find Syd Field to be any better?

There are some bloggers in the scribosphere (Jane Espenson, John August, Terry Rossio & Ted Elliott) who attack screenplay tutoring in a bottom-up approach (as opposed to McKee & Field's top down approach). I find the former approach to work better. Especially when the advice is given by credited screenwriters. It would be cool to have a screenwriting book written by any of them.

Dwacon said...

Never had McKee's course. Studied with Carl Sautter (rest his soul), Marc Lapadula, Michael Hauge and others. But I never get notes on structure or stuff like that... only some abstract character quirk that they can't get out of their head. Like, "Why did the protagonist get a divorce? Ewww!"

Isaac Ho said...

I've found that the image of throwing rocks at your protagonist made him too passive. :)

How about having him chuck fruit back at us?

Isaac

xy said...

While I agree to some extent, truth is that if you're brave enough read the whole Story book, you'll find that McKee is no way as formulaic as other screenwriting gurus.

In fact he covers pretty much every kind of option in the screenwriting process though he spends most of the pages explaining what he calls the "paradigmatic screenplay".

A very nice blog, BTW.

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU!!

Shell

Anonymous said...

He's the guy Brian Cox portrayed in Adaptation. Is Charlie Kaufman a fan?

VP19 said...

Any course that makes lower level studio executives two years removed from Cal State Northridge think they're suddenly experts in story structure is very destructive to the state of the art.

Any more destructive than upper level studio executives two years removed from Yale who think they're experts in comedy because they've seen every Adam Sandler movie?

Rick said...

McKee is the Old Testament God of screenwriting - ready to hurl thunderbolts at anyone who transgresses.

I found his course interesting but certainly not chapter and verse on story-telling.

However his finale - singing As Time Goes By while fighting back tears - should not be missed!

Love your blog, BTW.

Tom Quigley said...

I'd like to see Robert McKee and Andy Rooney stand nose to nose and see which one's eyebrows can inflict more damage on the other guy...

Anonymous said...

I've used McKee's book as a tool when I'm stuck -- just reading about structure helps get my wheels spinning when I'm all alone. Can anyone here recommend one or two alternative screenwriting books?

Mary Stella said...

For years workshop leaders at writing conferences have touted McKee's structure. I think I like the Levine method better. *g* Short, to the point.

Anonymous said...

"EST for writers."

Brilliant.

Mark Bennett

Anonymous said...

I've never understood why anyone would want to spend hundreds of dollars and give up a weekend when McKee's whole spiel is available in book form.

My suggestion: drive out to the Iliad bookstore on Cahuenga in North Hollywood. Buy *used* copies of "Screenplay" and "Story" (and check out "Save the Cat," a screenplay-by-numbers book by the writer who brought us "Blank Check").

Pay your twenty bucks, or whatever the total comes to. Pet the one-eyed kitty for luck (unless she's asleep under the counter). Drive away feeling smug, knowing the books will be there on your shelf should you choose to consult them.

Christopher said...

Can anyone here recommend one or two alternative screenwriting books?

Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman - Good fundamentals, a little too self-deprecating and preachy on how subservient the writer should be to, um, everyone.

The Screenplay Sell by Alan Trustman - Informative on the business side of the craft, but a little too fire-and-brimstone on how everyone on Hollywood is out to screw you…which they are. It’s just a matter of learning to only let them put the head in - after they give you what you want.

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field - Great review of the 1, 2, 3’s of story structure and using the power of the visual medium to tell your story. Definitely opens you up to being formulaic though. When you read it, just keep in mind that in order to break the rules, you have to know what they are first.

Hollywood Animal by Joe Eszterhas - The Braveheart freedom speech for screenwriters. If you’re just looking for screenwriting inspiration, skip the autobiographical chapters (though I wouldn’t simply to (a) learn from his mistakes and (b) find out who he shagged on his climb up the mountain). An inspiring read to give screenwriters the moxie to make power-grabs in a city known for taking power from them. Just be careful not to think you’re him after reading it…

Anonymous said...

I love reading these comments full of righteous indignation over the fact that someone out there suggests there are RULES to an artform. "Blasphemy!" they cry, so full of vehemence and self-importance.

Let me clue all you geniuses in on something: All commercial art has rules. Screenwriting is no exception.

The gurus are simply teaching people how to write COMMERCIAL screenplays, and "commercial" isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sure, it means "stuff that sells" but that doesn't FORCE you to write "Father of the Runaway Bride, Part Deux : Gay Paree!" A commercial story is simply one that most people can sit through. You can make it about anything you want. "Saving Private Ryan"? Pretty damn commercial. Good movie? You bet.

I'm only an aspiring screenwriter, but I've been a musician half my life and this backlash against guys like McKee and Syd sounds a lot like your average dope who just picked up a guitar screaming at his band mates, "I don't need scales and chords, man! I play what FEELS right!"

Granted, there are lots of untrained musicians who write compelling music without understanding what they're doing. How do they do it? By figuring out the Rules on their own and following them.

But you guys aren't talking about them...

You're talking about that even-smaller handful of musicians that write compelling music OUTSIDE of the rules. No, not Beck, you douche. Think dead black horn players so high on heroin that they thought they were playing for God instead of 17 beatniks in a filthy French café at four in the morning. That's who you aspire to be. But you know what? The vast majority of those cats were intimately familiar with The Rules before going off the deep end because – Cliché Alert! – you have to know The Rules before you can break them.

If you still believe that you don't need what the gurus are selling, think statistically. A Jimi Hendrix or John Coltrane or (insert successful avantgarde screenwriter here) comes along once every 50 years or so. Do you really think that you're next? Do you honestly believe that you have enough talent to forsake several millennia of storytelling tradition for your own inventions?

If you said "Yes," and choose to remain ignorant of The Rules and take the hard way up, more power to you. Write what you feel and be proud of your art. Personal art is a beautiful, cathartic thing. It just doesn't usually sell. Or get made into a movie. Or put asses into seats.

And finally, even though I love this blog, I have to bring up a few points about the flag waver that started this discussion:

1) Spent his professional career writing TV sitcoms - the most commercial, structured type of screenwriting imaginable.

2) Has one produced screenplay to his credit. It's a commercial comedy.

Be careful who you rally behind.

Ken Levine said...

I love a heated debate.

Anonymous (and a reminder, you're welcome to rip me just leave a name).

I am not saying don't write commercial movies. I'm also not saying don't follow rules. You and I are in total agreement that a writer needs to be aware of structure. And having a good overview of the three act film format is pretty essential.

But there is a danger of falling into a formula and a lot of stories ae hurt by that.

And junior studio executives and readers don't create stories, they just react to them. And if their only reference is one specific structure they're going to judge everything against that model.

The best advice so far was from another anonymous reader (please leave your name, folks) who suggested just get McKee's book (used!). As one reference tool it's valuable. But if you go to his seminar, just remember, he's spouting one template, it's not the gospal.

Oh...and before I forget. I have also rewritten other well known produced movies but did not receive credit. And most of my work on those movies was fixing the story.

And now...let the debate continue.

david O'Hara said...

My gripe is the same as Ken's - the reader's who use a ridgid dogma of 'rules' instead of their instincts to tell if a story works or not - are missing some good stuff.

If they are looking for the 30 page first act, the 60 page second act, and the 30 page last act instead of "Does THE STORY AND CHARACTERS WORK for me?" then they are not doing their job of finding good material to make movies.

I hate sitting in a theater almost always knowing what the next scene is because they slavishly followed the 'rules' .

rorybaldwin said...

I've bought plenty of screenwriting books and the best resources I have found were probably the columns on www.wordplayer.com....

René said...

@Anonymous:

"1) Spent his professional career writing TV sitcoms - the most commercial, structured type of screenwriting imaginable."

A script can be both commercial and structured without adhering to McKee's "principles."

Charlie Kaufman detests McKee, but his scripts still have structure. There are many ways to structure a script, not just McKee's way.

You make some good points. Too bad they come with childish name calling and an anonymous username.

Surprising progress said...

Can anyone offer a few examples of screenplays that ignored or transcended a formulaic approach, either McKee's or others?

Anonymous said...

Y'know, as a former reader, I take offense to the generalizing that all readers are these bitter assholes who wouldn't know a good story if it woke up next to them. I recommended many writers/scripts with twelve-page first acts, no identifiable midpoint, and/or "unlikable" leads. I think more than anything else, many readers want to be entertained because they have nothing else to do but sit on their couch with your script for 60-90 minutes.

Yes, there are certainly readers who are assholes, but keep in mind that there are also a lot of readers who love story-telling and want to help writers get ahead.

Ken Levine said...

Anonymous (yet ANOTHER Anonymous),

Of course all readers are not assholes. And for the most part the scripts they are asked to read are atrocious on any level. But an overwhelming number of writers will tell you their criticism generally falls in line with screenplay seminars because that's the extent of their background.

That said, my heart goes out to anyone who has to take a stack of bad scripts home on the weekend and actually READ them. I shiver at the thought.

Anonymous XII said...

On another subject:
Cliff Claven set to appear on Dancing With The Stars?
Holy Crap!

Light on the Page said...

Funny thing. Robert McKee didn't exist twenty five years ago. Wells Root and Syd Field had virtually the only books in print on the subject of screenwriting in 1981. Cut, as they say, to 2007, stroll into any Barnes & Noble, and you will find SHELVES devoted to the craft and business of writing movies. It's madness.

It occurs to me that one way of determining how useful all of these "how-to" screenwriting manuals have been over the last quarter century is to ask ourselves how much better movies have gotten since 1981, a year that gave us RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, BODY HEAT, REDS, ARTHUR, CHARIOTS OF FIRE and THE ROAD WARRIOR.

I would submit that merely to pose this question is to answer it.

david O'Hara said...

Did former reader skim my earlier post?

I did not call all readers assholes - only the ones trying to cram every story into a ridgid formula. Or skim scripts and write their coverage based on what they thought would happen in the screenplay.

Had coverage where the reader brought up the marriage of the two lead characters. News to me. they never talked about marriage, weren't engaged... and never married. Knew another 'reader' who boasted they could read a 120 page screenplay in 15 minutes and not miss a thing.

I bounce my all work off a former reader/devleopment exec. and currently producer, Victoria Lucas.
She read all the words of every screenplay she covered. Including lousy ones. She spot checks readers that work for her. Fired some.

She has the upmost respect for what it takes to write a good story and for writers. She makes my work better.

This Lady is no asshole.

(I've shown her coverage of some of my stuff. She's quite good at estimating the age of the reader and whether or not they went to film school...and whether or not they actually READ the script.)

Sometimes coverage says more about the coverer than the coveree.

benson said...

Ehhh....interesting little known fact there, Anonymous 12, is that Dancing with the Stars was originated by the ancient Mesopotamians in about 100 B.C...But it was known as Dancing under the Stars, And then network executives changed it to "with" in 23 BC, as a means of getting cheap programming on the air....

I now have a reason to watch Dancing with the stars...Cliffie!
I believe Carla's about to puke!

Ian said...

Sorry about posting anonymously earlier, Ken. I'm the guy who suggested buying a used copy of the McKee book.

To the person who asked about alternative books, I would also suggest reading scripts from movies you've seen (both good and bad). There are now a number of sources on the net for scripts (feature film scripts, anyway). I try to read the writer's original version where possible.

doggans said...

Never been to a McKee seminar, but I saw the one in "Adaptation". And I do have a copy of his book, which I enjoyed and viewed as very useful tips and guidelines in structure, but nothing strictly authoritative.

Gail Renard said...

Bravo, Ken, from your mouth to God's ear! If anyone wants a book on writing, read William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade but most importantly, just write, write, write! Then write some more. Find your voice; listen to your voice; use your voice... and pray for a prevailing wind.

Campbell Andrews said...

One more book as yet unmentioned here- Mamet's Three Uses of the Knife. Simple, direct, proufound, and anything but formulaic. I keep a copy on my nightstand.

TCinLA said...

Surprising progress:

"Can anyone offer a few examples of screenplays that ignored or transcended a formulaic approach, either McKee's or others? "

William Goldman: "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" ("They run away? Heroes in Westerns don't run away!")

"The Wild Bunch" - the "good guys" are the "bad guys," the "bad guys" are the "good guys".

"The Bridges At Toko-Ri" - the heroes get killed. Probably the third most honest war movie ever done after "The Big Parade" and "Twelve O'Clock High". (Interestingly, all three are based on true stories, and in two - "Big Parade" and "Twelve O'Clock High" - the screenwriters were combat veterans of the events on-screen, which probably had a big effect, and the third was based on a book written by James Michener after he spent four months on a carrier off Korea)

TCinLA said...

David O'Hara:

You are indeed fortunate to know my very good friend Victoria Lucas, who is the gold standard of "readers." Her read of my Vietnam script 20 years ago gave my career the minimal "push" it's ever received that keeps me working to this day from the momentum she gave me. She's third generation Hollywood, grand-daughter of the woman who wrote the screenplay of the first (silent) "Ben Hur."

For all of you, Torie once gave me a very good view of the wall you have to climb with a script: the reader (most likely a "she") has 50 scripts to read from Friday night to Sunday evening, and it takes two hours to read one right. 100 hours of reading in less than 48? Simmple: be stupid in the first 10 pages and end up in the "round file". Be one of the five or six that get read to "fade to black"??? Leave the reader at the bottom of page 10 wanting to read Page 11. And then keep it up. And a good way to not get read even as far as page 10 is to fail to know how to write in English.

You score 100 points in my book, David, that you know Torie. Leave an e-mail - let's talk.

david O'Hara said...

Hey, tcinla

would love to talk,

you can get me at dave@marquisdesod.com or dave@peabodynevada.com.

any friend of Victoria is a friend of mine.

Ken Levine said...

tcinla,

I'm curious as to who you are too. Email me.

Ken

david O'Hara said...

Ken,

"When I read a screenplay I want to hear YOUR voice, not Robert McKee's, or the Epstein brothers (even if they did write CASABLANCA)."

I may never sell a screenplay, (I've optioned a few) but I write movies I want to see. The Development Execs. who actually read my stuff, usually ask for more. After the first one, most can tell who wrote the others without looking at the title page..

My latest one, Tarot 911, is going around now. It has gotten a CONSIDER (two reads or maybe a read and a skim) at more than 70% of the companies it was sent to.

Got it into over twenty legitimate companies (all have major Studio Deals) WITHOUT AN AGENT.

That's probably more than an agent would have done.

My philosophy about agents is similar to Grucho Mark's about country clubs. "I wouldn't join any who would have me."

(Actually, I might...)

Dave O'Hara said...

tcinla,

William Goldman says his "ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN has FOUR ACTS, not the requisite three.

I think 2001, A SPACE ODESSEY has four also. The Ape sequence, the trip to the moon, the trip to Jupiter and the climax. Of course, 2001 hardly qualifies as a classic.

I think FULL METAL JACKET is two movies.

If you want to see the FORMULA in all its glory - catch some wonderful Chuck Norris or Jean Claude Van Dam movies.

In all honesty, Dreamgirls could have benifitted from the three act formula. I think it got sidetracted in the middle.

Dave O'Hara said...

Anonymous,

(Don't know which one. Does this anonymous thing have anything to do with the courage of one's convicitons?)

Why is this dicussion so hard to follow?

Nodbody has said to toss out all the 'norms' (rules) of this art form.

What was said, the rules should not negate everything outside of the 'rules-of-the-moment.'

You been in music for a long time? How many of the great composer bent or completely did away with the 'rules-of-the-moment'? How many were slammed by their critics for breaking 'rules-of-the-moment'? Where are those critics.

If you listen to a piece that grabs you - do you not like it because some 'rules-of-the-moment' were broken.

Hell, these 'rules-of-the-moment" change to accomodate something new that won't go away - IF IT WORKS.

I have a friend, a music transcriber, who writes the music for musicians who can't write music. A lot of them don't know the 'rules-of-the-moment' - they hear what works for them - he writes it.

I repeat again - the problem with the 'rules-of-the-moment' mentality is when they are used to discard something that does work but doesn't quite fit the 'rules-of-the-moment'.

The clingers to 'rules-of-the-moment' are hoping the rules will guide them when they don't have the imagination or talent to know see a good story.

TCinLA said...

Dave:

In 2001, the ape sequence isn't an act - it's a stand-alone piece. You could do the movie entirely without it, (it wouldn't be as good, but you could) which is the proof it's not an act that is integral to the other three. To me a good wayto define an act is to ask, could the movie exist without that? I think Goldman also confuses acts because he's talking about the break-in as an act. Again, it's good to have it but you could start the movie without it and only know what Woodward and Bernstein know, and stick with their POV throughout the movie. At the moment, I am writing amovie that has a "first act" in which what might be that "first act" of 2001/President's Men only it's embedded, cutting scene-by-scene with the "real" first act, which could be done without it but wouldn't be as interesting (in my not-so-humble opinion).

cage free brown said...

great thread.
somebody asked about other books.
I'm very fond of Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" and Vicki King's "How to Write a Screenplay in 21 Days" (which is sometimes very easy to find in the Library)

now, these are both the sorts of books KL warns against. me, I guess I'm the sort of guy who likes to cook but never would have without a cookbook. I love knowing that I CAN cook if I add two cups of this and a bag of that. I guess that's why I hang onto those screenwriting books.

but.. I'm glad I read this because the Nichol's Fellowship is coming up and maybe I'll just wing it for a change. what have I got to lose?

david O'Hara said...

tcinla,

Don't think you can leave out the ape sequence. The monolith gives the apes the idea of using tools/weapons. It was planted there to do just that. As it was planted on the moon to direct us on to our next step in evolution - if we got that far. It is absolutely integeral to the story.

Even if it 'only' made the story better - that would make it integeral (for quality)

david O'Hara said...

tcinla,

Don't think you can leave out the ape sequence. The monolith gives the apes the idea of using tools/weapons. It was planted there to do just that. As it was planted on the moon to direct us on to our next step in evolution - if we got that far. It is absolutely integeral to the story.

Even if it 'only' made the story better - that would make it integeral (for quality)

Dave O'Hara said...

More thoughts on 2001, A Space Odessey:

If the monoliths are the act breaks, (think they are) then you still have four acts - three breaks.

Audrey said...

Dear Ken, are you familiar with another screenwriting guru called Yves Lavandier? Besides being a screenwriter/director (same as you), he wrote a screenwriting book entitled WRITING DRAMA. It seems to me he is much less formulaic than Robert McKee and his US colleagues. Check out his definition of the three acts. Should we beware of Yves Lavandier?

Anonymous said...

I take screenwriting classes at UCLA, and, when we workshop, newbie screenwriters are constantly trying to get other writers to fit into the McKee box, even when it doesn't make sense.

This guy's started a cult. Thanks for valuable insight on him. I'm glad someone's brave enough to do it!

Now I'll send the link to your blog to all my classmates!

Anonymous said...

I recommend reading scripts -- both shooting and first drafts -- to see how it really works. You're bound to find some great writer who shares your style and emulate them.
Good luck.

brian bell said...

ken. you suck. you owe everything to dave/

Anonymous said...

Robert McKee is one of the biggest idiots on earth .he said he's against voice over(also in adaptation had that remark)but hes favorite movie is casablanca which opens with a voice over .ha ha ha what a hack.

Matt said...

You're a moron.

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