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
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness