Monday, September 1, 2008

STORY: Lipstick on a Pig is Not Good Enough

The book, Story, by Robert Mckee, which came highly recommended to me by my editor, without question, is intended for writers who are as serious as Mckee about telling a good story. So serious, in fact, that it almost reads like a textbook. But that’s a good thing folks. If you’re starting out, as a screenwriter, or if you’re a writer at any level, this book is the first you should read, over and over again. (And apply its principles, of course.)

From an insider’s POV, Mckee, deftly lays the solid foundations and the principles of screenwriting and offers a broad overview of Hollywood screenwriting and storytelling in general, in a way that you “get it” without sounding too heavy-handed.

Here’s one quote you’ll never forget: “If the scene is about, what the scene is about, you’re in deep shit.” In a nutshell, this is all you’ll ever need to understand about the all-important and ever-so-elusive “subtext”, mind you.

Mckee starts, appropriately enough, with “The Decline of Story” and champions his cause with all the major nuts and bolts you’re going to need to bring this “decline” to a much higher plane. And in my view, he succeeds brilliantly at outlining the many steps you need to know in order to get there.

(Scratch the needle across the vinyl record right here folks, or the laser’s optical eye, if you’re under 35.)

I’m as much a skeptic as you. And I ask myself: Why can’t I think of one screenplay that Mckee has written? As in Oliver Stone’s, “JFK”, or Tarantino’s, “Pulp Fiction”.

Which movie can we tag Mckee’s name to? Well, if you read the fine print, in this case, the back flap of the book, you’ll find that it says: ‘Mckee has written numerous television and feature films,’ and that, ‘in addition to writing and lecturing, Mckee serves as a consultant to major film production companies such as, Tri-Star, and Golden Harvest Films’, and so on. Yet, it never mentions any of his screenplays that have been at least optioned, let alone any that have been produced. Although, there is a long list of Mckee’s students that have either written or produced impressive movies, themselves.

Hmm…the only answer I can come up with is; that you’ve probably never heard of Oliver Stone writing a bestseller on the art of screenwriting either. He’s probably too busy either writing another screenplay or directing another movie, while Mckee is probably just as busy teaching his craft to sold-out crowds. Fair enough. (Focus, people, focus.)

But there’s a catch, ladies and gentlemen, and here’s where Mckee’s all-important disclaimer comes in: ‘ “Good story” means something worth telling that the world wants to hear. Finding this is your lonely task. It begins with talent. You must be born with the creative power to put things together in a way no one has ever dreamed.’

In other words, for those poor souls that weren’t born with that “creative power”, there’s not much hope for you, and not even Mckee’s fine “STORY” will save you. (If you want to write over-and -above the “decline”, that is.)

All those writers who want to wing-it by trial and error, or for the sake of the almighty dollar, are of course welcome to do so without Mckee’s help. And that’s why, as in years passed, Hollywood will crank out dozens of movies that audiences will most likely see only once, and then just as quickly forget about them. They’ve paid their hard-earned $10 bucks, sat in an uncomfortable chair with their boat shoes stuck to the floor, and as always, they’ve left the theater in disappointment: trying to find a shred of redeeming value in the last 2 hours of their routine lives.

But even though most theatre-goers have been bilked by Hollywood’s movie-making machine, everyone else in the movie-making food chain has been well-fed. Actors such as, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Angelina Jolie, are easily taking in 10 to 20 million per film, and you’ve just paid part of their fortune folks. But in the end, nothing was lost. After all, you got away from the kids, your spouse, or your wonderful mother-in-law.

And it was well-worth the $10 bucks and the $3 dollar box of Good & Plenty. I should know.

Now, as for Mckee and his book: he’s the seller; and we’re the buyers. End of story.