“Tell us, AO, of all of the screenwriting gurus out there, who is your favorite?”
Why Mr. McKee? Well, the answer to that is easy. I like the sound of his name. His name is like a good screenplay – dramatic, direct, and easy to remember. Of course, I’ve never read a word he’s written.
I wish I had thought of his name the day I was talking to a lady who had just produced an extremely well-received cable network film. In addition to getting that film made, she had spent the previous six months trying to sell my exciting historical drama “Colter” to Turner Broadcasting, but I had never spoken to her (she was working with another producer, the one who had actually optioned the script). Her efforts, unfortunately, were unsuccessful, but once the final rejection came down, I knew I needed to call her and see if I could interest her in something else I had written.
We hadn’t spoken three minutes when she asked me, as you have done, “So, who is your guru?” I must admit I was taken somewhat aback. She had read and believed in my work; she knew I had many more scripts written, some of which had made money. Surely my work would stand or fall on its own. I hemmed and hawed and then made a dreadful mistake – that’s right, I told her the truth.
“Well, I’ve never read any of the gurus,” I stammered. The loss of respect, the complete dismissal, was instant. Within minutes she had suggested several books for me to read and then hung up the phone.
Who knows what might have happened if I had just said, “Robert McKee”? At the very least our conversation would have continued; I may have had dissemble a bit and pretend a knowledge of Mr. McKee’s plot theories or character development strategies, but at least we would still have been talking.
So, by all means, read the gurus. You may very well be asked about them, and it will not hurt you a bit to discourse intelligently on what they have to say.
So, does this mean that Your Humble Servant does not believe in gurus? Not at all. Homer taught me about Fate and Human Foible; Shakespeare illuminated Emotion and Character; Dickens showed me how to use the injustices of the world to build the individual’s story. Between Stevenson and Tolkien, I understand The Quest in all its classic grandeur. Eisenstein’s seminal editing leads directly to an understanding of Point of View. The Brothers Epstein wrote the Perfect Film, and by accident, for heaven’s sake! For dialog I look no farther than Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Gurus, indeed. Gurus to be conjured with. Become familiar with them all.
Guru Moment #1: There’s a rather silly film from the early 80’s called “Dragonslayer.” It’s an o.k. adventure story with a really nicely executed special effects dragon. There’s a terrific scene where the young Sorcerer’s Apprentice confronts the hideous beast, Vermithrax Pejorative (heck, that name alone is a Guru Moment). The Apprentice crouches behind an impervious shield as the dragon blasts a lungful of fire at him. The inferno blazes for a long moment and then the dragon’s head lifts away from our Hero and the shot holds as the monster sways from side to side, the last of the flames burning out of its mouth. I don’t know if that moment is in the actual script, or if it was conceived as part of the stop motion animation scripting, and I don’t care. The moment has little to do with the story and isn’t even explained. Is the dragon reveling in its power, or does it have to let the last dregs of the flame out so as not to toast its tonsils? I have no idea. But the moment is a lovely one and adds some indefinable something to the movie. It gives the dragon a reality that transcends simple story-telling and mere plot advancement. It hints at histories, rules, realities that the film doesn’t explain, and thus adds depth.
Guru Moment #2: The gutsiest film moment I’ve seen in a long time is the breath-taking scene in “American Beauty” where the young videographer says to the young lady: “Would you like to see the most beautiful thing I’ve ever shot?” Dear Reader, I almost gasped aloud when I heard that line spoken. Imagine the peril that screenwriter Alan Ball was courting. What can you show the audience that will live up to that line? Mountains? Ocean? Julia Roberts? What image wouldn’t be goofy or contrived or easily rejected by a jaded, seen it all crowd? The only thing I could imagine was that the lad would show the young lady pictures he had taken of her. What else would not run the risk of letting the audience down completely? And, if you’ve seen the film, you know how far the courage of the writer extended. The “Most Beautiful Thing” was an ordinary plastic shopping bag caught in a breeze. The writer and the filmmaker made that bag truly beautiful, and in doing so, defined the theme of their film. Imagine having the confidence, the knowledge, the sheer chutzpah to commit to that vision. My heart flutters in admiration.
Perhaps in all the wisdom dispensed by the gurus, they touch upon this sort of courage. I can’t say they don’t; I haven’t read them after all. But I know from exposure to all of the gurus I mentioned above that the filmmaker’s art isn’t about plot and structure and character development. It’s about magic. And magic is hard to restrict to a specific format.
Read the gurus. By all means follow their suggestions and learn what they have to teach. If you can find one that teaches you how to let that dragon have its glorious flame, and how to find the pure beauty of a floating plastic bag, then memorize his or her every word. If not, then read the storytellers, watch the movie makers that have come before. They mined magic like it was gold, and then paved your path with it. Bon voyage!