The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

My expensive chart says your expensive chart is full of shit

Full post behind the jump

When you decide to come to LA to fulfill your moviemaking dream, there is a vast and seductive mechanism in place to take your money from you and make you feel good about it. There are casting workshops, storytelling seminars, pitch festivals, boot camps and so many, many other bite-sized promises of instant success.

I standing in line with a girl I was dating for a casting workshop she wanted to attend.
From the start I didn’t buy into it, but even while waiting in line, the poor dreamers were being hustled – in the parking lot, other struggling actors were trying to sell them envelopes with plastic windows on one side, so the casting director can see your headshot without even opening it up. The thinking is – if you buy these envelopes, which, you know, everybody is doing nowadays, you have a marginally better chance of having your face in front of that gate keeper for possibly a half-second longer. And that’s all it will take, really, because you’re special. Your face has that magic – all you need is for someone to see it, and tomorrow will be what you fantasized. All you need are these special envelopes, which really aren’t all that expensive when you think about it!

Many of these hucksters came out with their own dreams, and then figured out how to hit the price point. How to charge just little enough money to defuse peoples’ suspicions, so they think –
well, maybe it’s a scam, but the casting director from this show will definitely be there, and it’s worth it just to meet them! When I was a development executive I participated in some pitch festivals, where I’d get paid $50 (it was called a “travel stipend” to skirt some laws) and a buffet dinner to listen to writers pitch for two hours. And not only did I never hear a worthwhile story, not only did I start recognizing some of the same sad misfits at every event, not only would I get stalked on my way to the bathroom, I realized that any executive of genuine importance had long ago given up and sent their intern instead.

But every year the bus pulls into town with another 50,000 aspirants on board, so there’s always enough of the wide-eyed and self-doubting to refresh the cycle. Undoubtedly one of the most successful practitioners of this whole sick voodoo is Robert McKee, the self-styled screenwriting guru and author of
Story, a book which I rank right up there with Dianetics in terms of its ability to make simple, common-sense ideas seem absurdly complex, mystic, and requiring a genius to translate for us at a hefty fee.

McKee, some of you might remember or realize, appeared in the Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufmann film
Adaptation, played by Brian Cox. Having met McKee, I can tell you the only flaw in Cox’s performance was that the real McKee is not nearly so kind and generous. But I’ll get to my encounter with him later.

I thought about him today on realizing it’s perversely appropriate that he stick his nose in this whole sorry waste of time and money. Here’s the background for those of you who don’t know:

Philip Anschutz is a billionaire many times over, who owns thousands of movie theatres, the odd sports team, that sort of thing. A few years ago he decided to get into film financing, and because he has the quirk some rich people have that after a certain point they can do things that aren’t about making as much extra money as possible, he decided that he would only make movies that were morally uplifting and/or based on books. He wanted to make movies that would encourage more people to read. Counter-intuitive as that sounds my hat’s off to him for being willing to invest in it. Since he co-financed The Chronicles of Narnia, which made, at last count, eighty zillion dollars, it’s safe to say he’s fulfilling his mission and keeping his movie interests in a profitable way for now. But there’s a huge black eye he and many others in Hollywood are still sore over, and that’s Sahara.

Clive Cussler is a very successful asshole who has sold a gajillion books about globe-trotting adventurer Dirk Pitt, who Cussler wants everyone to know has blond hair and blue eyes, and must have blond hair and blue eyes, not that there’s anything wrong with his fixation on that. One of those books, Raise the Titanic, was adapted into an amazingly stupid movie in 1980, and Cussler swore off the town.

That is, until Anschutz called and offered him an obscenely rich deal that not only included a way above-market fee for the rights to Dirk Pitt, but gave Cussler rare creative control. They set to work on an adaptation of Sahara, hiring Oscar-winning writer David S. Ward (The Sting) to pen a script that Cussler immediately deemed garbage. The studio hired many other writers, all A-List-ers, at terrible expense, none of which satisfied Cussler. He was happy, though, that they cast Matthew McConaughey, and spoke admiringly of his blond hair and blue eyes.

Eventually the director quit, Cussler kept trying to write drafts on his own and insert them into the process, and the project (with a budget in excess of $100M) was handed to Breck Eisner, a young director who had never done a feature film, only a pilot for The Sci-Fi Channel and an episode of the miniseries Taken, and whose ability to leapfrog beyond his talent and experience in the business had absolutely, positively nothing to do with his being Michael Eisner’s son.

Mysteriously, the movie bombed.

Now the saying goes that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan, and this was never more true than in Hollywood. But for some reason, the production of Sahara was so rank with bitterness, and its subsequent failure so thorough and spectacular, that just orphaning the thing wasn’t enough. People wanted a blood sacrifice.

Cussler and Anschutz are now embroiled in a lawsuit over who is “responsible” for the movie’s failure. Anschutz alleges that Cussler meddled beyond the dictates of his contract and then garbage-mouthed the movie in the press before release when he didn’t get his way. Cussler alleges…well, I’m not sure, but the gist of it is that the movie would have been a blockbuster and an Oscar-winner if they’d only listened to him.

I have to admit I relate to this agony, having been through production on movies I really hoped would be good, only to see them going awry and writing long, Cassandra-like editing memos about it. But let’s just say I have my doubts in this case.

Here’s where McKee comes in, as an “expert witness” denouncing Cussler’s work. The article states that, at his generous “consulting rate” of $500 an hour, he has raked in over $60,000 as an “expert witness” in this case. That amounts to over 120 hours of work; or, to go by Hollywood averages, an hour for every page of a screenplay.

Now, not to tarnish Mr. McKee’s credentials, but it usually took me, at most, about 60-90 minutes to tell if a script was clearly crap – you know, the amount of time it takes to read it. Amazingly, McKee’s opinion has turned out to be exactly in line with the guy who paid him $60,000 – he has declared, under oath, that Cussler’s screenplay is riddled with flaws.

Now, I haven’t read it, so I don’t know if it’s true, but I am very familiar with this windbag. He charges over $500 for a three-day “seminar”, at which he barks and howls about story structure and conflict and, well, the same stuff every screenwriting book and class out there talks about. Several celebrities have attended his seminars and he quite prominently advertises their names, because clearly John Cleese and Peter Jackson were fumbling retards before he showed them a couple of graphs.

He doesn’t, not to put to fine a point on it, have any produced screenplays of his own, although he did write an unknown number of episodes of Mrs. Columbo in the 70’s, and a TV movie in the 90’s about Abraham, which was nominated for Emmys for hairstyling and makeup. I don’t make it a habit to discount people on this basis, because I do believe there are people who can be very effective teachers without necessarily being world-class practitioners. But that doesn’t convince me I owe $500 to a guy who will tell anyone in earshot that he thinks Citizen Kane is worthless.

What he is very talented at is, a) marketing, and b) confidence. Like David Koresh or Rush Limbaugh, he excels at vacuum-sealing you inside his environment and then blasting you with his own Care Bare Stare of absolute certitude. You believe, and you pay, because of the innate willingness many people have to defer to the strongest will in the room.

It’s a handy arrangement, because he’s preached to thousands upon thousands of students, and, strangely, almost none of them have ever achieved anything. And yet they will never blame him for this. This is how the guru game works – it is always your own fault for failing to understand and implement their wisdom properly. It is always your own weakness to blame. The message is perfect, you are the flawed instrument.

There’s a place for these books and seminars, I want to be clear about it. But it’s more like a tonic, a cleansing experience for you to refresh your awareness of things you basically understood already. There are books by David Mamet and Linda Seger that I happily read multiple times, because they keep me on the right track. McKee doesn’t want to be your study buddy, though, his self-image is far more Messianic.

Back in 1999, before I really knew his angle, my parents paid for me to go to a lunch he was speaking at in Fountain Valley. I was fresh out of college and had just moved back home after the immolation of a 6+ year relationship. I think they wanted to get me excited about writing again, and his credentials certainly seemed impressive.

So I went, and his spiel was compelling. He reminded us to think in terms of choices and obstacles, to amp up conflicts because of the feelings underneath them, not by artificially inflating the circumstances. Good stuff. At one point someone raised their hand and he practically screamed “there’s NO questions during the lecture!”, but you forgive that. After all, the man only had an hour to tell us what’s usually so brilliant as to require three days.

There was a movie in theatres at the time that he wanted us all to see. A movie that, he thought, represented everything that could be good about screenwriting. A movie whose genius was so subtle, so beyond the perception of mere mortals, that he declared that the Motion Picture Academy would never, ever have the grace or insight to give it an Oscar.

The movie was American Beauty. Oops.

I was fortunate enough to be seated at his table during the meal break, and there were two questions I wanted very much to ask him. First, he had taken a tangent into stage work, and had stated with no exceptions that there’s no such thing as a good two-act play. Not that it has structural difficulties, simply that there’s no such thing. This bothered me, because I had just finished a play that I thought was the best thing I’d ever written, and it was two acts long. It was over-stylized sentimentalist pap, but hey, I was 22, and at the time it was one of the best things I had written.

So I asked him it was true, making sure to preface it with a mention of the play I had just finished. I never even said the title, the genre, or anything about the plot. He looked me square in the eye and said there was no way it could be good. And that if it was any good; then it wasn’t actually a two-act play, I’d just put the wrong number of act breaks in.

I’d thought of holding back on my second question, because it seemed potentially impolite, but in the face of that the civility threshold had clearly been lowered, and not by me. So I went to question number two – McKee had spoken about the inciting incident; the action which smashes the old order and sets the drama in motion. He declared, as usual with no doubts or exceptions, that in any good script the inciting incident always happens in the first scene.

Very well, I asked, but what about Hamlet? Isn’t the inciting incident in Hamlet the murder of the King, which happens off-stage well before the action of the play begins?

McKee gave me a look that could tunnel through a mountain, and then revealed his trump card. The murder of the King, he insisted, is not the inciting incident in Hamlet. It’s the appearance of the ghost. Realizing that this was a trap, that there’s no reason for the ghost to appear without the murder, he elaborated, saying that Hamlet is a murder mystery, and that the rule about murder mysteries is that the inciting incident comes in two parts – the crime and the discovery of the crime.

And that’s the moment, the moment where he dismissed the greatest drama in the English language as the structural equivalent of a Law & Order episode, that I really understood Robert McKee. It became clear the mountain he shouted from was really just a balloon heated to inflation by his own ego. It’s a rhetorical trick – he was applying his own rule backwards, picking something that happened in the first scene and declaring it the incident by its placement there, not looking at the story for the true incident and seeing where it occurred. It’s when I realized that it was possible to obey every one of his rules and still write a terrible script, or to break his rules and write Hamlet.

Robert McKee will always have a fresh crop of willing acolytes, who will give him $500 they could have spent renting 100 of the greatest movies ever made, which would have been much better for them. I believe that, deep down, he knows he’s full of crap, but believes, like so many do, that if he can bluster enough people into not seeing it, it will make it not so. He and this idiotic lawsuit deserve each other, because they all buy in to the two false premises that doom you in Hollywood every time. 1) That you can capture artistic merit on a chart, and 2) That said merit has anything to do with financial success or failure in the movie business.


  • Bob McKee's comments and displays of hubris are the plastic window of his envelope. Thankfully, his influence will not outlast that of Shakespeare and Orson Welles. And, as for this Cussler business, I think of the ending of "Clue", when Michael McKean says to the Chief, "They all did it." As for your dissection, Nick, I say, "You've done it again, Wordsworth." Well done, indeed.

    By Anonymous Michael A. De Luca, at 9:50 PM  

  • Hey, you know, you guys are right, I used to use STORY to teach a class on writing, but after checking out IMDB, this guy has no credentials. There's no way on earth I'm going to use that book again. He does talk sense, but he's not the poster boy for screenwriting!

    I agree Mamet's book Bambi vs Godzilla and even On Directing Film teach us more about screenwriting than a year of classes with ol' Bobby Mckee. He comes to London a lot, I thought about going... b*gger that!

    One thing, I would have to say that I agree that the appearance of Old Hamlet's ghost is the inciting incident, and this is where we can differ on the story or the plot. The entire story includes the death of the father, but the play itself begins after the death of the father, so I guess it depends whether the inciting incident concerns the story as a whole or the plot of the play.

    By Anonymous Markje, at 5:16 AM  

  • You raise a very good point - since reasonable people can disagree about which incident deserves the label, it becomes little more than a rhetorical exercise. It obscures the underlying lesson about cause-and-effect in setting up dramatic circumstances, and teaches people to think in formulas rather than stories. I would like McKee a lot more if his book were 100 pages long - he could say all the same things, many of which are quite handy, and be a lot more accessible.

    In the screenwriting classes I teach, I'm always quick to stress that if it were as simple as a formula, anyone could write "Butch & Sundance". All you can really do is share general principles, offer your own feelings about why they work in some cases and not in others, show them excellent examples, and then do your best to encourage their productivity. Writing can't really be taught by seminar - you have to actually read their stuff and help them see the development of their voice.

    By Blogger Nick, at 8:56 AM  

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