Thursday, January 3, 2019

"Revisiting A Moment"

New thoughts on a long-past experience…

I guess it was between television seasons.  Or I was not currently working, which is still “between television seasons” except they are further apart.

A writer friend and I, both of us toiling in television, decided to take legendary Robert McKee’s eight-week-every-Saturday-morning’s “Story Seminar.”

We knew television, as much you can know anything that’s made up.

We wanted to know – and write – movies.

So we sign up for the guy’s seminar.

Robert McKee was a detectably muscular fellow – at least for a writer – with gray hair.  The gray hair said, “Experienced respect.”  The “detectably muscular” meant he could hurt you if you did not accord him enough of it.

The content of that seminar, which I am sure he had delivered hundreds of time (leading me to wonder how much he was worth), involved Robert McKee, deconstructing the screenplay of Casablanca, exposing its intricate – and enduringly effective – underlying structure. 

Out of those numerous hours of scriptorial tutelage, I recall only one thing.

At the end of our eighth and final meeting, Robert McKee revealed what he insisted was “The most important rule in screenwriting.”  Which is, unequivocally, the following:

“Know the ending before you begin.”

Which makes practical sense.  If you know where you are going, you are amply prepared to avoid wrong turns and extraneous side-roads.  (Although you may miss out on the “Dancing Chihuahua” roadside attraction, which is me, taking an “extraneous side-road” with a contrarian example.  Do you really want to miss out on the “Dancing Chihuahua”?) 


That was the headlining message of the McKee tutorial:

“Know exactly where you are going.”

That’s the key (or is it the “McKee”?) to successful screenwriting:  Include only what you need; exclude everything you don’t.  And the best way to determine the proverbial wheat from the chaff?

First, know the ending.  And then write the script.

That’s what he told us.

That’s what we heard at the end of ”Session Number 8.”

The thing is – and you need be no great “Movie Buff” to know this –

The script for Casablanca had – and actually commenced filming – with

No agreed-upon climactic ending.

They determined the ultimate resolution during the filming.

Thereby breaking…

“The most important rule in screenwriting”:

Know the ending before you begin?

Casablanca… didn’t.

The question – which immediately jumped to my mind but not to my mouth – then is:

Why use Casablanca as an example of “The most important rule in screenwriting”, when Casablanca famously did not follow that rule?

I did not raise my hand when he asked, “Any questions?”

Was I intimidated?


Was I afraid of sounding like a big, know-it-all “Smartpants”?


Was I a hundred percent certain of my facts?


Was I afraid the guy might hurt me?  Or at least yell very loud.


And now for a fresh thought that recently buzzed into my mind.

Over the years, the guy has delivered this seminar hundreds of times. 

Did I really believe I was the first one to think of that question?

I had never considered that before, but it matters.  My fear of McKee’s imagined volatile reaction was grounded in the arrogant belief that, of the thousands of people who had taken that seminar, no one before me had ever raised their hand to inquire,

“Why did you use Casablanca as an example of “Know your ending” when Casablanca itself did not know its ending?”

I alone spotted that glaring contradiction?

Who exactly the heck did I think I was?

… was the new thought, entering my mind.

He must have heard that question dozens of times.

And I bet he had a “knockout” prepared answer.

Yet there’s me, pondering the consequences of “rocking the boat”, asking a question he had never previously been asked.

And now, I am heartily chuckling at my personal expense.  Wondering, “Is that really the way you actually see yourself?”

And the naturally following,

How much of this blogatorial bushwa reflects an equal lack of reasonable humility?

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

This entry - both style and content - could have been written by William Goldman. (It's a good compliment!)

Your pal Ken Levine has roasted McKee before now: One of the commenters notes that McKee also warns against voiceovers. Guess what Casablance begins with?