I’m having to do some basic clean-up of my script, even though I have imported it into Final Draft. Some things didn’t translate well in this proper format, and others, like scene headings, I just have not been familiar enough with to know if I am entering them correctly. A quick search for help lead me to this page, which as been really helpful and answered my immediate questions. Take a look.
Ever since I left the Story Seminar I have been trying to figure out the controlling idea of my story. I figure as I rewrite, I should have this clearly in mind, so it can help me guide the changes and ensure consistency. I noodled on it while driving, while cooking, while waiting for a hockey game to start – pretty much anytime it comes to mind, I’m working the problem in my head. As I have a couple of driving reasons to get this rewrite finished, I decided I would sit down once and for all and decide on one. I wrote down a list of potential lines.
Nothing seemed right, and finally, tonight, I understand why. I went back to two books – Story, by Robert McKee, as mentioned a couple times now, and, John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. It’s from McKee that I use the phrase Controlling Idea. Truby calls it a Theme Line. In either case, it is the essence of what your story is about – a value change – Truby would say a moral value – and a cause – the human behavior.
An example from McKee is, for Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry – “Justice triumphs because the protagonist is more violent than the criminals.” One of Truby’s examples is, for Four Weddings and a Funeral, “When you find your one true love, you must commit to that person with your whole heart.”
Now, I had this understanding with all of my noodling. But, how you figure it out, well, it differs between these two authors. McKee says that the well written story tells you what it is – by evaluating the climax of the story, seeing what value is brought to the protagonist. Ah-ha – this was a huge relief to re-read in the Story book. I don’t need to get hung up on figuring it out, but the story, when done, should make this easy to state. Now, Truby, if I follow his thinking correctly, presents that this should be tackled fairly early in planning the story, through analysis of other fundamental aspects of the premise of the story. Perhaps when I get to seriously developing one of my other story ideas, I’ll try shaping it up front, but in the case of my rewrite, I think I will go the route of letting the story tell me the controlling idea, rather than trying to retrofit one.
I can’t believe it’s already been two full weeks since I completed the Story Seminar. After an extra day off in L.A., and flying home, it was right back into the daily grind of work and home duties. I knew I should have just written a post while I was still there! Still, the time has given me time to reflect and decide which thoughts to share, from the four days.
As an amateur, I wasn’t sure I should be spending this much on a set of talks on screenwriting. I had investigated less expensive options, through local community school and Seattle Film school offerings, and investigated other traveling pro-workshops that might be passing through the Pacific Northwest. But then, as I was trying to at least read books I hadn’t read yet, and re-read books I knew were valuable, to focus my rewriting efforts, I found, in one book, the mention of McKee’s seminar as a must-do. Honestly, even then, if it were anywhere but my favorite place in the world – L.A., specifically near Manhattan Beach – I might have still waited. But I’m so glad I didn’t.
The McKee Story Seminar isn’t just a seminar on screenwriting, or even ‘just’ writing – it’s a seminar on life. Now, one key lesson was that movies are Not life, and this fact is what brings people to see movies. But by learning about how events change the charges of our personal values, how we make adjustments to gaps between expectations and reality, that we realize in our maturity the difference between character and characterization, and then, in the ultimate lesson, learned by analyzing Casablanca (sorry, I won’t give away that one, as the journey of learning it is more important than the final lesson), through the course of four days, it is hard to just consider the characters on your pages and in your minds. You also find yourself considering, well, yourself, in your own life movie. One evening Mr. McKee passed me while I was eating dinner, and I wanted to stop him and ask – “Does the tuition include the cost of therapy?”
It is rare in my life that looking under the hood, or behind the curtain, of something I truly love does not ruin or degrade that love. Such as my brief student internship at NASA in the late 80s. I expected everything to be modern and advanced, to be space-age-like. Instead, it seemed to be an organization stuck in the 50s, in personnel and their wardrobes, office technology and practices. The workers that had been around seemed beaten down by bureaucracy. But, unlike that experience, learning about what makes movies work, made me love movies even more. I will not watch another movie or television program without seeing them in a whole new way, and I am happy about that – not sad. In fact, by the end of the third day, I no longer felt bad for liking commercial movies, and I found a new appreciation for genres that I haven’t really liked up until now.
I do not think it would be appropriate for me to summarize here all of the key lessons, as you should buy the book or attend the seminar if that’s what you want. It’s not that I don’t have details – I took 60 single-sided pages of notes. But, I do think I can share what I liked and didn’t care for.
The days are indeed long, with 8 hours of talks worked into a 10 hour daily schedule. It’s a grind, for sure, but for me that was a good thing. Total immersion was effective. And managing a few days together was logistically easier than, say, 16 2-hour sessions over as many weeks. Part of what made the seminar wonderful was that the full seminar – all 32 hours – is, itself, scripted. And, after thirty years of doing this seminar, it was certainly well rehearsed. While at times you felt like your class was unique, with McKee going off on little tangents about current events, society or a particular scene in a recent film, most of the time you could see the class progressing through the curriculum as designed, complete with deliberate mannerisms and delivery of punch lines. On the down side, movements you thought were natural and charming day one were a bit annoyingly predictable by day four. (For me this was also true of the tangents, which students were fairly warned of in the handout at start of class, which usually consisted of extreme opinions, and often not politically correct ways. Some I agreed with, some I did not, and some I simply wrote off to generational gap.) Ultimately, the scripted nature assured that you covered all of the material. And, with clear, if rigid, rules about participating in the seminar, you know your time and investment is respected and that b.s. on the part of your cohort won’t be tolerated.
This was true of even the final day, mostly spent bonding with 230 other people, through an analysis of Casablanca and a champagne toast in its honor. This was a great finale – a bittersweet one. On one hand you are done being in that classroom, on the other, you feel like you could listen four more, even eight more days, trying to sponge more knowledge from McKee. You scoop up various books and media for sale (which I will review here in the future), hoping to take a piece of McKee home with you (I don’t, by the way, recommend the topic DVDs; was surprised at the age and brevity of the content on the one I purchased). You can see why Storylogue was created and if you didn’t think you would subscribe before class, you are probably convinced you must by class end.
In the end you leave feeling like you witnessed your own little piece of history and that you graduated into a very special part of the film industry – you are a McKee student.
My interest in screenwriting, is, logically, rooted in the love of the feature film. I have known the power of a good film since I was young: the emotions it can take you through, the escapism it provides, the characters that become a part of your life. Knowing I would write this post, I have been trying to think about the first movie memory that I have. I originally believed it was a movie called Rollercoaster in 1977. I don’t remember much about the movie, except the thrill of the first person view of riding coasters and the speakers vibrating my seat and the floor of the theater. I vaguely remember the facade of that theater, which was still standing when I moved away from Colorado Springs in 1989. Searching the Internet I don’t immediately find an image or name that sounds right, but I will ask around to see if I can find and add that info here. I also remember, at that same theater, waiting in line with my family for a much more recognizable title – Star Wars. Rollercoaster was out just a few weeks later, so it must have been Star Wars that was my first memorable theater visit. And reminiscing brought up many other memories of movies while I was growing up.
The next year, my first memory of a drive-in theater was made. I recall my sister and I trying to go to sleep in the back seat of a car, while my parents watched FM. Another vivid memory is that of being introduced to my Dad’s cousin’s awesome theater room – they had an amazing sound system, projector TV and a Laser Disc player. We watched Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978).
The Shining (1980) can’t be skipped; it was the first scary movie I ever watched and I was brilliant enough to watch it at home, alone, at night, when I was 12. I don’t think I slept for a week. That would pretty much be the story for the rest of my life – I can’t do horror flicks. I’m so impressionable, that the little black subway ghosts from Ghost (1990) gave me nightmares for weeks!! The only movie I’ve brought myself to watch – for reasons that escape me – was the Blair Witch Project (1999). I can’t even stand previews of scary movies or TV drama. I have to close my eyes and plug my ears.
Flash forward to 1983, past Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Slap Shot (1977), Caddy Shack (1980), another chapter in the Star Wars story (1980), and ET (1982). War Games – this movie really captured my attention. I felt like I was David (I wasn’t even close). I had my own computer (Vic20) and peripherals (tape disk drive, four-color plotter/printer) that I had saved for and purchased on my own. I had the little programming magazines and would type in programs. I felt different and smarter than others and knew I loved working with computers. I still recall going to some career fair and coming home clutching a Broderbund brochure. Very few movies hold a permanent place in my heart, and this is a big one!
After my Dad finally created his own home theater in our family room, with a big screen TV and a Laser Disc player, anyone that came to our house would be required to sit through a demo of the really loud parts of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – I have the scene with the mailboxes shaking permanently burned into my brain) – and the hockey scene from Strange Brew (1983). I remember my parents also really loving the Woody Allen film, Sleeper (1973), but I never really understood it, and in fact, I have just never been a big Woody Allen fan.
The Right Stuff (1983), Space Camp and Top Gun (both of 1986) would be the biggest memories after that. My love of the space program was in place from the start of the shuttle program, and was far from dampened by the shuttle tragedy; and, well, how could a 15-year-old girl not fall in love with Maverick and Ice Man. Volleyball, anyone?
Into the 90s, I favored drama and romance flicks. I would readily purchase VHS tapes, and later DVDs, of movies I wanted to watch over and over again. I’ll highlight those in an upcoming post. I remember being really moved by Forrest Gump (1994) and other dramas around the time. I also loved the asynchronous Pulp Fiction (1994). By now, I have become fairly partial to romantic comedies. I love laughing, I love happily-ever-afters, and if I’m going to escape the drama of my own life, I want to laugh and dream of how-it-could-be.
And while romantic comedies are my favorite genre, it was my fascination with the remake of Ocean’s Eleven (2001) that drew me to screenplays. A little comic book shop in the Pike Place Market stocks printed copies of screen plays, and one day in 2003, after thumbing through the selections, there was no question that I would purchase the script for Ocean’s Eleven. I wanted to see how the story weaved together in print.
That is without a doubt when my love affair with scripts began! I loved the format, the focus on dialogue, the scene intros – everything. Over the next few years that followed, I purchased a half dozen more from that same shop. I found others in book format and many in digital format. In a future post I’ll detail those that I’ve really read and analyzed, as well as what motivated to write one on my own.