How to write a movie

He can boast 17 Oscars and 91 Emmys, but Robert McKee didn't win them himself: his students did. Beverley D'Silva went to his scriptwriting seminar, and got some extra tips in the fag break

ROBERT MCKEE is the most acclaimed teacher of screenwriting in Britain. He has written the script for his famous course on "Story Structure" over 20 years. The other week, he was giving the seminar in London, so I paid my pounds 300 and went along. For 10 hours across three days, 150 of us sat feeding at McKee's knee.

I had come to learn McKee's magic formula for writing a successful screenplay. It is the get-rich-quick dream of the late 1990s: everyone's got at least one on the go, and the odds are surely better than they are with the lottery. So, if I want to be the next Nora Ephron, can McKee fix it for me?

"I pull no punches," he tells me in the break, through a cloud of cigarette smoke. "Screenwriting is the most difficult artform I know. It's complex, it takes longest to finish, and the chances of success are not great. I can't pretend anyone can be a writer. It is possible to be technically correct and emotionally empty. You also need talent, taste, intelligence, sensitivity - and then you must be able to master the artform. No, mine is not a guaranteed formula. There's no such thing." That's painful to hear, but at least honest - and extremely unusual in an industry which is flooded with flatulent promises and screenwriting guides. McKee had resisted adding to this pile - until now. Story: Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting is the distillation of the seminar, and at over 400 pages, it's twice as long as any comparable guide.

"It had to be [that big] to encompass the theory. I wrote it because the time was right. I'd reached saturation point: every germane question had been asked by the students and considered by me. And," he quips, "my publishers came up with an offer I couldn't refuse."

The book is - of course! - well structured. Four sections - "The Writer and the Art of Story", "Elements of Story", "The Principles of Story Design" and "The Writer at Work" - set out the guiding principles of storytelling: setting, genre, character and meaning. There are also sections on "The Inciting Incident", "Turning Point", and "Spine", and pithy quotations, such as Ernest Hemingway's "The first draft of anything is shit."

McKee is an erudite and tough-talking iconoclast who delights in trashing films such as The English Patient and Titanic - because "They are both examples of insipid storytelling. Ninety minutes' worth of story dragged out over three hours. Titanic is a catalogue of cliches relying on spectacle. And, as for the painterly English Patient - if I had to watch that bi- plane fly over the desert one more time, I'd set myself on fire."

With the rolling hellfire wit of a New York stand-up, McKee trots out jokes and anecdotes, laced with pearls of wisdom: Plot is Character, and Character is Structure, and if your Antagonist isn't as well-observed as your Protagonist, you may as well forget it. Characters reveal their true natures at times of crisis, and it all boils down to one truth: "All a good film must do is Hook, Hold and Pay Off."

McKee knows all this because he's been there, done it. He has worked as a story analyst for NBC, a screenplay writer, and a stage actor in New York. The lifelong obsession with story structure began when he was nine years old, "when my dad made me analyse Aesop's Fables - for fun".

About 25,000 people have now done the course - half of them writers, the rest directors, actors and producers. His graduates have 17 Oscars and 91 Emmys between them. His literature is emblazoned with adulatory soundbites from John Cleese, Kirk Douglas, Faye Dunaway, Quincy Jones, Carrie Fisher and Diane Keaton.

"I mustn't bang my drum too loudly, but after Nicholas Evans took my course, he wrote The Horse Whisperer. Akiva Goldsman told me he had no career until he took my course. He went on to write a few little screenplays - such as The Client, Batman and Lost in Space."

He majors on Casablanca. "I don't say we should go back and make stories and screenplays like they did in the 1930s and 1940s," he says, as if anticipating criticism. "But those people really understood the craft of the screenplay." British movies like The Full Monty and Sliding Doors, although "charming and wonderful", don't earn the McKee imprimatur of greatness. "One is hard-pressed to find a truly great film these days. LA Confidential was very good. Shine is the most powerful father-son drama since Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. But they aren't great like Casablanca."

What does Casablanca offer that his whipping boy The English Patient doesn't? "Truth," he sniggers. "Truth, and a great story which grabs the audience emotionally and intellectually, takes them through time unaware, and pays them off with a great, deeply satisfying, powerful ending."

If McKee's seminar is attended on average by 150 students at pounds 300 a head, that makes pounds 45,000. Not bad motivation for three days' work, I suggest. He looks as if a skunk had just walked past. "Money? If I was only interested in money, I'd be in the automobile business like my brother."

Great screenplay writing, he is convinced, will always be unearthed. "Just show your work to any actor or director. If it is excellent, it will get made." His biggest tip is that it's a mistake to write from the outside in. "Many teachers instruct the writing of dialogue in search of scenes, the writing of scenes in search of story. I say: don't. The critical questions should be: who are these people? What do they want? How do they go about getting it?

"Writing from the inside out is how the great writers work. To be great, you must go from the inside out, and from the outside in, to be able to see what you wrote was a pile of shit. Outside in is easy. It's journalism. Inside out is painful and dangerous. But it's the only way to write something great and worthwhile."

McKee the writer has his own set of pulsating insecurities. Because, although he's sold every screenplay he's written, some twice over, written for Columbo, won a Bafta for his television "evisceration" of Citizen Kane, and will soon see his adaptation of Noel Coward's Hay Fever filmed, McKee's page-to-screen hit-rate has not been great.

He won't pretend he hasn't been disappointed. "My own work was too dark," he shrugs. In the film business, no matter how great one's expertise, lottery odds still apply.

`Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting' (Methuen, pounds 16.99). For details of McKee's courses, contact MediaXchange (0171 734 2310).

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
    Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

    Education: Football Beyond Borders

    Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
    10 best barbecue books

    Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

    We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
    Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

    Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most