“So many gurus and so few good writers. Where are all these lessons going?”
Larry Gelbart (Tootsie)
Here’s the straight story. There are many screenwriting gurus out there and I thought I’d warn you about them. Actually, I just need to warn you about your addiction to them.
Back in November I was doing a video shoot in the Bay area and the fellow I was interviewing said he had a friend who worked at George Lucus’ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) who might be able to give me a tour if I was interested. (Is there a reason I wouldn’t be interested?) I took the photo of Yoda at the ILM headquarters at the Presidio in San Francisco a couple of hours later during my Forrest Gump-like experience. Who doesn’t want a wise and powerful mentor to help guide them from the dark side? The trouble is always knowing who to trust.
A couple of years ago I spent seven months of my life producing real estate and financial infomercials. As far as infomercials go, these were big budget fares that were well done.
I’ve had worse gigs and definitely ones that paid less. It was a good experience as I worked with a talented group of people and learned a ton of production techniques. A common question my friends asked about the shows I was working on was “Are they true?”
Well, they weren’t really false, but they didn’t quite tell the whole truth. For instance the sound bite you heard on TV was, “I made $10,000 on my first deal.” What was edited out was this guy explaining how it took him two years to put together his first real estate deal. Another fellow said it was not uncommon for him to make 100 lowball real estate offers before one got accepted.
Infomercials never touch on how hard it is to make money because infomercials work emotionally on how easy things are to do. They skip showing the scenes of Rocky running up the stairs and pounding the beef. Instead they pound the testimonials of how much money people say they have made until you hear what you want to hear. The executive producer where I worked was fond of saying, “There is no such thing as over-the-top in infomercials.”
Most of my work was focused on the success stories. Two-minute vignettes that showed how a person or couple used such and such products and became wealthy. In the business this is called a zero to hero story. (I have that in a folder of potential titles for a future script.)
A zero to hero is someone who was down on their luck, went to a seminar or ordered books and audio products and applied the principles and in a short time became wealthy. Who among us doesn’t yearn for the magic formula?
The history of this in our country goes way back to Ponce de Leon looking for the fountain of youth in St. Augustine. Come to think of it, in another time and place weren’t Adam and Eve just looking for a little more knowledge?
Infomercials have a tremendous failure rate and the ones that do succeed focus on just a few categories:
1) Kitchen & Cooking (George Forman Grill)
2) Beauty & Fitness (Chuck Norris and the Total Body Gym)
3) Self-improvement (Tony Robbins)
4) Making Money (Rich Dad, Poor Dad)
5) Leisure (Time –Life Music)
Basically they touch on our deepest longings in life to look good, feel healthy, and have money. You want to believe the infomercials, that’s why they work.
Here’s the problem as it applies to screenwriting seminars. We want to believe they will give us the missing link and make us a better writer. Many writers are like crack addicts thinking the next book, workshop, audio series, writing software will make them a better writer. Just one more hit off the pipe and we’ll quit.
There may be a kernel of truth in books and seminars (my blogs are intended to pull out those kernels for you) but the fact is if you are reading or searching more for the secret of writing more than you are writing then you are heading down the wrong path.
John August the screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and a Drake graduate here in Iowa) wrote this on his website blog , “The truth is, there’s no magic formula for writing a great script. (Or for that matter, a commercial one.) Anyone who tries to convince you that theirs is the One True Way is deluding themselves and you.”
Robert McKee who wrote the book Story is the main screenwriting guru. On his website he lists the number of major award winners and nominees who were his former students. (Of course, he taught at USC so many professors there could make the same claim. And those that have been to his workshop, I imagine have learned from other guru’s workshops and books as well.) But his advertising materials imply that he is the reason for their success and if you attend his class you’ll be walking down the aisle to accept your Academy Award.
After all, didn’t one of his students Akiva Goldsman do just that? Well, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of A Beautiful Mind does credits McKee’s class with helping him make the transition from novelist to screenwriter. But the fact is Goldsman has a MFA from NYU and was, by his own admission, a failed novelist for 10 years. And if he started writing as a teenager he probably had many teachers who he learned from, but more importantly he was writing. (Getting in his 10,000 hours of education and practice long before he took a three-day seminar with McKee.)
There’s a glaring problem in respect to gurus and I’m not the first to point it out. Take McKee for instance, he’s not only not won an Academy Award he’s never had a feature screenplay of his produced. Ever. Zero. If it was all formula you think he’d have had one hit movie made in his lifetime. McKee’s is an academic and people with Ph.Ds are analytical by nature. McKee is brilliant in telling students why a film works. Many critics can do so just as well, they just don’t have the theatrics or business acumen that McKee has to become a screenwriting guru.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that McKee is a bad writer or that he hasn’t sold any scripts before, or that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’m just stating a fact and making an observation. With McKee there is a disconnect, a gap between what he knows and what he’s done. (I’m sure if one of his feature scripts gets made, he’ll die a happy man. But then again, if it’s not a good movie it could damage his whole legacy.)
August writes, “To read his brochure, you’d think that everyone on Hollywood has taken McKee’s course, but the truth is, I don’t know anyone who has. Wherever I hear his name brought up, it makes these tiny hairs rise on the back of my neck, because it usually means the speaker is going to cite some piece of screenwriting gospel, or use some cleaver word like “counter-theme.”
McKee does such a through job of breaking down Casablanca you think that its writers attended his seminar, until you realize the movie was made before he was born. He also does a several hour breakdown of Chinatown.
“I’ve never met McKee and have nothing against him, but to read his bio it’s clear that he’s not a very successful screenwriter and never really was,“ August continues on his blog, “That’s not to say he can’t be a great teacher, just as many great film critics are not filmmakers, nor do I think that there’s anything wrong with a screenwriting class per se, especially if it helps you get off your ass and write. But I would rather have dental surgery than go through a structural analysis of CHINATOWN.”
That is the fundamental difference between successful screenwriting gurus and successful writers. It’s like the engineer who builds the car and knows how it works and the race car driver who takes that engineering feat and does something amazing with it. But there is a tension there, and it’s rare to find a person who can do both well.
In fact, if you took the five top screenwriting gurus you might find five produced films between them. Maybe. And of those five films, you would have five films that were little known and/or poorly reviewed. That’s why they’re doing seminars, because there is more money to be made teaching this stuff than writing screenplays. (Or more nicely put, their real gift is in teaching.) And the flip side is even if the working screenwriter took the time off writing to do a seminar the chances are it wouldn’t be very good. (Joe Eszterhas has been a screenwriting box office rock star, but I’d recommend McKee’s book Story over the one Eszterhas wrote to help screenwriters (The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood).
In the book Screenplay; Writing the Picture (Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs) make this observation:
“It is interesting to note that few Hollywood screenwriting gurus have ever sold a movie (and Aristotle never wrote a play). This is because the ability to structure a story and the ability to analyze the structure of a story are two totally different talents. They come from different parts of the brain…Good writers seldom have an analytical understanding of what they do or how they do it. Instead they have a practical understanding of dramatic techniques.”
And screenwriters learn those practical techniques in a class, seminar or book and if that teacher finds a larger audience he or she becomes a guru. It’s a beautiful thing. Just don’t kid your self into thinking that the guru is the answer. Writing and rewriting is the answer. If you forget that you are lost and can become dependent on a guru…and then the next guru.
McKee is so popular in some circles he could form a cult if he wanted to. Americans love gurus. I’m a fan of business guru Tom Peters, marketing guru Seth Godin, and even McKee himself.
I attended one of McKee’s first public seminars on screenwriting. The year was 1984 or ’85 in Los Angeles. (Back when he was a guru in training. And back when he didn’t just read from his book as I hear he does today.) I was a recent film school grad, working as a photographer, and studying acting and hungry for my break in the industry and didn’t blink at the cost that at that time equaled a week’s salary. In fact, I still have the tapes from that seminar and have listened to them many times over the years.
McKee’s insights into screenwriting were more articulate than anyone I had ever heard speak on film. It is a class that I recommend to this day, but it’s best if you have at least a script or two under your belt. Because there is a danger there. As Morpheus says in The Matrix, “There is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.”
Speaking of gurus did you see where Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died earlier this month?
He was famous for (temporarily) being the guru to the Beatles in the 60’s and bringing Transcendental Meditation (TM) to this country in the 50’s. Few people realize that in 1974 he started a college in Fairfield, Iowa that is still there today.
Fairfield is one of the most interesting places in the US. Mother Earth News called it one of the “12 Great Places You’ve Never Hear Of.” The article said, “Your image of southeast Iowa probably doesn’t include the world’s premier ayurvedic health spa, more restaurants per capita than San Francisco or 25 art galleries on the downtown square but these are some of the many features of Fairfield, a surprisingly sustainable and cosmopolitan town.” (It’s also about an hour away from the Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop that keeps coming up on this blog.)
Fairfield is also home to Hawthorne Communications whose founder Timothy Hawthorne literally wrote the book on infomercials. After I moved to Iowa and was looking for production work there I naturally met with Hawthorne. No work came out of it but he was kind enough to give me a copy of his out-of-print book “The Complete Guide to Infomercial Marketing” that he told me was fetching $125. on ebay.
And to bring this full circle back to movies, David Lynch was a follower of the Maharishi and makes occasional trips to Fairfield. I’m sure there is some connection there and his directing The Straight Story featuring Richard Farnsworth as an elderly man who drives a riding lawn mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his ailing brother. (Watch that film again and ask yourself how Lynch’s practicing TM for 30 years effects that material. And I dare you to watch the Catholic-influenced Koyaanisqatsi in the same night.)
There is no doubt that Lynch is an artist and one of America’s most original filmmakers. The “I am not an animal” scene from The Elephant Man is one of the most moving scenes recorded on film. From the first time I saw Eraserhead in a college film class my perception of what movies could be was altered.
But I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag by saying that Lynch’s work at times can be a little hard to understand.
I believe enough in cross-pollination to think that a trip to Fairfield might do McKee some good and if Lynch could sit though McKee’s seminar it might also do him an ounce of good. I’d pay to watch those guys in a room debating story structure and the roll of screenwriting gurus.
By the way, anyone interested in employment or an internship at ILM check out this section of their website: www.ilm.com/employment.html
Photo and text © Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith
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