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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 22nd July 2005

Robert McKee


Robert McKee saunters up to the front of the stage and meets the audience's gaze head-on. "The essence of reality," he says, punching the air with his forefinger, "is scarcity." He looks from face to face, nodding knowingly. "That's the essence of life-to be in unrelenting and endless conflict." Punch, punch, punch. Under normal circumstances this audience wouldn't pay much attention to a (change) loud-mouthed American telling them his philosophy of life-particularly one with such huge forearms. It's composed of BBC producers, theatre directors, literary agents-people not in the habit of listening. Yet last weekend in London's Scientific Lecture Theatre you could hear a pin drop. "Everyone knows that the meaning of your life is in your own hands and it will be until they pat you on the face with a shovel, my friends."

Each year, Robert McKee gives the same series of lectures and each year some of the most powerful people in the media pay good money to hear them. The course is called 'Robert McKee's Story Structure' but this scarcely does justice to the range of topics, from Aristotle's 'Poetics' to Arnold Schwarzenegger's performance in 'The Terminator'. At times even Robert McKee himself can't quite believe it. "Years from now you'll be standing around boasting of how you spent an entire fucking weekend with some arsehole from Hollywood," he says. But Robert McKee isn't just any Hollywood arsehole, he's that legendary figure, the last of the existentialist warrior-intellectuals, a Hollywood Screenwriter.

To hear him speak, you could be forgiven for thinking screenwriting is more than just a livelyhood. "Why write? Why do I put myself through this hell?," he asks, rhetorically. "I could argue writing is the most difficult profession in the world and screenwriting is the most difficult of all." The answer, needless to say, is an overwhelming sense of vocation. "If you have to do it, my friends, everything else is harder. If you have a talent you have this monster inside you and you have to feed it and it eats pages."

The rewards, of course, are substantial. As one writer put it: "They ruin your stories. They trample on your pride. They massacre your ideas. And what do you get for it? A fortune." But screenwriters aren't just another battallion of Hollywood hacks, "schmucks with Underwoods" as Jack Warner famously called them. They are, according to Robert McKee, "the Marcel Prousts of the Twentieth Century". Punch, punch, punch. Winding himself up into an evangelical fervour, he anticipates the verdict of history: "Every epoch has a dominant art form, and the dominant art form of the Twentieth Century is the cinema. The people who create the stories of this art form will be recognized as the great story-tellers of the Twentieth Century." And the audience-these jaded, cynical professionals-goes completely nuts. It doesn't matter that Robert McKee's only work to reach the screen is a couple of episodes of 'Columbo'. He's a Hollywood Screenwriter.

It all started when Herman J Mankiewicz wired his fellow journalist Ben Hecht from Hollywood in 1926: "Will you accept $300 per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around."

Soon after arriving, Hecht was being paid between $50,000 and $125,000 a script. "Tremendous sums of money," he said, for work "that required no more effort than a game of pinochle." Hecht, the patron saint of screenwriters, worked on over sixty movies, including 'Scarface', 'Wuthering Heights', 'His Girl Friday' and 'Notorious'. Yet, in typical screenwriter style, he maintained that he'd only ever produced hack work. "My chief memory of movieland," he wrote in his memoirs, "is one of asking in the producer's office why I must change the script, eviscerate it, cripple and hamstring it? Why must I strip the hero of his few semi-intelligent remarks and why must I tack on a corny ending that makes the stomach shudder?"

Screenwriters love to complain. The idea is to give the impression they are great writers-artists, in fact-who have 'sold out'. They regard the huge sums of money they're paid as completely justified since they're not just performing a service-they're selling their souls. "An able writer is paid a larger sum than a man of small talent," said Hecht. "But he is paid this added money not to use his superior talents." The screenwriter's favourite analogy is with prostitution. David Mamet, the playwright turned writer-director, says: "Working as a screenwriter, I always thought that 'Film is a collaborative business' only constituted half of the actual phrase. From a screenwriter's point of view, the correct rendering should be, 'Film is a collaborative business: bend over.'"

Of course, everyone in Hollywood complains endlessly-and wouldn't give it up for the world. "I know a lot of moguls in the shoe business who've mortgaged everything they've got to get into the movie business," says Robert McKee. "But I don't know any movie moguls who've mortgaged everything they have to go into the shoe business."

Another of the screenwriter's conceits is that, in spite of being a whore, he is nevertheless an honourable man (the vast majority of screenwriters are men). Like the anti-heros of Hollywood Westerns, he's an outsider, a man with his own private code, refusing to be intimidated by money and power (the studio), not impressed by authority (the producer), going his own way (becoming a director). He may be for hire but he can't be bought, not outright. He is a gunslinger (like Shane), the screenwriter's second-favourite analogy. "I liken myself to a successful outlaw," says John Milius, co-author of 'Dirty Harry', 'Magnum Force' and 'Apocalypse Now'. "To be worth a shit in the world, you've got to blaze your own trail. Nothing else is any good. Whatever you're going to do you're going to do alone."

The screenwriter's great problem is how to retain his manliness in such a cissy profession. Being a writer is dubious enough-just look at the effort Norman Mailer makes to prove he hasn't been emasculated. But a writer in Hollywood doesn't even have the saving grace of pain and suffering. Consequently, screenwriters go to ridiculous lengths to compensate. As part payment for 'Dirty Harry', which the producers wanted in three-and-a-half weeks, Milius demanded a Purdy shotgun. "I don't spend a lot of time with actors off the set," he said in a recent interview in 'Playboy'. "I consider it kind of an unmanly profession. I'm not sure that an occupation where one spends his life waiting by the phone and dressing up is an occupation that deserves respect."

The solution is to become what in Hollywood parlance is known as a 'hyphenate'-a writer-producer, writer-director, or like Oliver Stone, a writer-producer-director. The decision to become a hyphenate is usually prompted by the frustration of having no control over your material once it has been sold-another blow to the writer's masculinity. Robert Towne, who wrote the original screenplay for 'Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes', was so disatisfied with the finished product he insisted they change his name in the credits to 'P H Vazak'-the kennel name of his dog. Even the highest-paid writer in Hollywood has no creative control. Two months after selling 'Basic Instinct' for $3m, Joe Eszterhas was fired from the set.

Yet for all his pissing and moaning, the Hollywood Screenwriter is secretly rather proud of his profession. He adamantly denies that there is a formula to writing a successful film-McKee: "What I teach is form, not formula"-but insists that it is a craft, with its own principles and techniques, just like being a sculptor or a painter (or Michaelangelo). "I would point out to you that literary talent is a common talent," said McKee. "When God gave out literary talent he gave out a lot." It is not literary ability that makes a great screenwriter but his mastery of the craft. McKee: "Talent without craft is like energy without an engine-it just burns."

In a typical screenplay, the protagonist is an ordinary person, a bit bored perhaps, whose life is thrown out of kilter by an extraoridnary event. This is the 'inciting incident'. (Note: the inciting incident may be a coincidence, but coincidence must be kept to a minimum thereafter. A plot should never be resolved by a coincidence, the cardinal sin of deus ex machina.) The story then concerns the efforts of the protagonist to restore their life to equilibrium. (Change) Inevitably, in the course of doing this they discover a side to themselves they were never aware of and become a better person.

The story is divided into three acts (sometimes more, never less), each act into scenes, and each scene into beats. In a typical scene, the protagonist embarks on a difficult task, only to discover that what is required of him is far more demanding than he first thought. It is under these testing circumstances that 'deep character' is revealed. (Note: deep character must always be in sharp contrast to the protagonist's outward appearance.) As the film progresses, the hero is required to take greater and greater risks, eventually placing their life/career/marriage on the line. Everything should come to a head in the 'third-act climax', the most emotionally satisfying moment of the film. The ending can either be upbeat, downbeat or-the most satisfying-ironic, in which the hero recovers his self-respect but has to say goodbye to Ingrid Bergman at the airport.

Ideally, in the course of the story certain values should be affirmed, others denied.

But a good script doesn't try to say too much-it should have one 'controlling idea' and one 'counter idea'. (Note: the smart writer builds up the counter idea.) Sometimes this is dictated by genre-the controlling idea in crime stories is 'Crime Doesn't Pay'-occasionally it's at the discretion of the writer. The important thing is that everything must be geared to expressing it. Arthur Miller, for instance, reduces his controlling idea to a sentence and sellotapes it to his typewriter.

The art of great screenwriting is to tell a story in pictures. The best scenes should communicate everything in visual terms. Here is Truffaut on 'Scarface': "The most striking scene in the movie is unquestionably Boris Karloff's death. He squats down to throw a ball in a game of ninepins and doesn't get up; a rifle shot prostrates him. The camera follows the ball he's thrown as it knocks down all the pins except one that keeps spinning until it finally falls over, the exact symbol of Karloff himself, the last survivor of a rival gang that's been wiped out by Muni. This isn't literature. It may be dance or poetry. It is certainly cinema." Or as Robert McKee would say, "That's screenwriting."

This is all very well in theory, of course. But most screenplays are put together on a much more ad hoc basis than this and are rarely the work of one author. Take the script for 'Alien3', released in America tomorrow. In 1986, cyberpunk author William Gibson ('Neuromancer') was hired to write "two drafts and a polish", only to be interrupted by the 1987 writers' strike. In 1988, Eric Red ('Near Dark') was brought in to do a "five-week job". Unfortunately, when director Renny Harlin ('Die Hard 2') read it he handed in his notice. Next came David Twohy ('Warlock') and while everyone liked his version he hadn't written a part for Sigourney Weaver. So the producers hired Vincent Ward ('The Navigator') in 1991 and put him to work with Jon Fasano ('Another 48 Hours'). Fasano was replaced by Greg Pruss who wrote "five arduous drafts". Ward and Pruss quarelled, and Larry Ferguson ('The Hunt For Red October') was called in to do a "four week emergency rewrite". Weaver refused to do this version and producers Walter Hill and David Giler ('Alien', 'Aliens') produced a draft of their own. The version which eventually reached the screen was a combination of this and another one written by David Fincher, the 27-year-old first-time director.

Of Gibson's original screenplay, only one detail survives. "In my draft, this woman has a bar code on the back of her hand," he says. "In the shooting script, one of the guys has a shaved head and a bar code on the back of his head. I'll always privately think that was my piece of 'Alien3'."

Another problem is that audiences no longer seem that interested in classic Hollywood storytelling. They are too sophisticated to be moved by the clichéd story-lines, too knowing to be taken in by the hoary old plot-devices. They have become too cynical to accept at face-value the (change) trademark affirmation of wholesome Hollywood values. Most contemporary filmmakers don't attempt to draw an audience into a story but invite them to laugh at the absurdity of classic storytelling, like the Coen brothers and David Lynch. Hollywood has become obssessed by what it calls the "dark side", films depicting alien, valueless worlds which their protagonists have little impact on. The great existentialist screenwriter, who believes adversity is the only test, action the only truth, is beginning to look like a bit of a dinosaur.

Robert McKee dismisses these "campy little films" as a passing fad. "People can take that pose and be too sophisticated to be manipulated by a classical story and that person, let me tell you, that person will take that attitude and go see 'Silence of the Lambs' and walk out shattered." Punch, punch, punch. "This is the single most difficult time in history to be a writer because we are met by a greater sophistication in the audience and a deepening cynicism in the world and therefore you either capitulate to that or you challenge yourself to write even better and that's serious business and that's where it's at." Punch, punch, punch.

The Hollywood Screenwriter of old may be out of fashion. But last weekend Robert McKee managed to convince 300 skeptics that he is needed now more than ever. "We're in a terrible time, no question about it. Now how are we going to find our way out of this if we ever will? God knows it wont be politicians but it will be statesmen. It wont be hack writers it will be artists." Schmuck or no, it's time to dust down that Underwood.

The Guardian, May, 1992

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