This lecture was delivered to Birkbeck Creative Writing MA and MFA students. If you’d like to watch rather than read it, you can do so here.
I’ve recently written a pamphlet, a polemic actually.
Here’s the pitch:
Today, I’m going to focus on only one of the five screenwriting gurus that I looked at – Robert McKee; and on his best-known book, Story.
Chronologically, McKee comes as the middle of the five gurus – them being:
Syd Field (1979)
Christopher Vogler (1985)
Then Robert McKee (1997)
Blake Snyder (2005)
John Yorke (2014)
We can’t really understand any of these gurus without bringing up the much earlier writer, Joseph Campbell. Way back in 1949.
And, yes, I’m very aware that these are all white men, and yes – apart from John Yorke – they’re all American. This is the main lineage of screenwriting gurus. Don’t blame me; blame the lineage. These are the go-to guys for aspiring screenwriters. These are the must-reads.
Maureen Murdock wrote an answer book to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and to Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey – The Woman’s Journey. It’s nowhere near as influential.
So why did I choose McKee to talk about today?
Well, because, of all the screenwriting gurus, Robert McKee is the one I think will be most useful for you – as a writer of fiction. He’s also the one I most respect. He constantly says, ‘I can only lead you so far – if you want to become great, you’ll have to go beyond what I can teach.’
By contrast, Blake Synder (Save the Cat!) suggests that if you only follow his dictats, you’ll end up with a zinging and sellable property rather than a boilerplate script that any producer will have seen and been bored by a hundred times before.
McKee emphasises there’s a lot more to storytelling than making this twist happen on this page. He knows that if you want to make good work you’re going to have to plunder your soul (even if you don’t believe you’ve got a soul). He’s Old Testament.
The quote from McKee that used to welcome you to his website read:
A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society. If not, as Yeats warned, ‘the centre cannot hold.’
This was beneath the banner headline: Write the Truth. From this, you’d think McKee was the old guy in the corner at conference meetings at the Washington Post. And that’s probably not a bad way to imagine him. Of all the gurus, McKee is the one who suggests that the easiest thing might be to give up – but that there’s no shame in that.
He’s never feelgood. Where Chris Vogler would give you a back rub and Blake Snyder a pep talk, McKee would pour you a good single malt.
In How to Tell a Story to Save the World, what I am most interested in is asking two questions:
- How does each screenwriting guru deal the “main character” of a story? (i.e., the Hero)
- How do they deal with stories that centre on lots of characters, not just one?
When we come on to World War Z, by Max Brooks, and the film of that novel, not by Max Brooks, we’ll see how various screenwriting gurus – and their different approaches to the Hero, and to groups – change and develop through version after version of the story.
Hopefully this will help you think about your own central characters, and what you expect of them.
The dominant idea behind all this is Joseph Campbell’s. It’s what he called ‘The Adventure of the Hero’, or ‘the monomyth’:
The mythological hero, setting forth from his commonday hut or castle, is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage.
The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark (brother-battle, dragon-battle; offering, charm), or be slain by the opponent and descend in death (dismemberment, crucifixion).
Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him (tests), some of which give magical aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward.
The triumph may be represented as the hero’s sexual union with the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), his recognition of the father-creator (father atonement), his own divinisation (apotheosis), or again – if the powers have remained unfriendly to him – his theft of the boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom).
The final work is that of return. If the powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under their protection (emissary); if not, he flees and is pursued (transformation flight, obstacle flight).
At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread (return, resurrection). The boon that he brings restores the world (elixir).
If we jump back to Syd Field’s Screenplay (from 1979), we find absolutely none of this. Field doesn’t refer to “heroes” at all. He writes about “main characters”. His take is that a screenplay should have a good strong three-act structure, not a mythic underpinning.
And Robert McKee, too, although well aware of Joseph Campbell, is much less about the monomyth than either Christopher Vogler or John Yorke. McKee doesn’t insist that all stories tell one story. He is prepared to examine stories of different sorts, not just those featuring a hero – and so he discusses ensemble movies (Network, Nashville, Short Cuts), which he calls multiplot (or multiprotagonist) movies. But his main division of films is into archplot, miniplot and antiplot.
Archplot would cover films written according to Screenplay and The Writer’s Journey. Miniplot would cover a few of them, too, but is more art film. Examples of miniplot are Wild Strawberries, Paris, Texas and The Sacrifice. Antiplot – “predominently European, and post-World War II” – would include Last Year at Marienbad, and A Zed & Two Noughts, but also Wayne’s World.
McKee doesn’t insist on Heros and Heroism. He writes more often about “character” than Syd Field’s “main character”:
McKee prefers to call his main characters “protagonists”, rather than Heroes. He says, “Generally, the protagonist is a single character.” Consider how mild this sounds beside Joseph Campbell’s insistence on triumphant individuality. And McKee immediately follows up mildness with openness:
A story, however, could be driven by a duo, such as THELMA & LOUISE; a trio, THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK; more, THE SEVEN SAMURAI or THE DIRTY DOZEN. In THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN an entire class of people, the proletariat, create a massive Plural-Protagonist.
This leaves the door open for plural stories, but doesn’t exactly encourage them. It doesn’t see any reason why a story that de-emphasises individualism might be the better one for us to tell.
Story came out in 1998. Since then, the next two screenwriting gurus – Blake Snyder and John Yorke – went straight back to insisting on Heroism and nothing but Heroism.
McKee makes it obvious that his sympathy lies with archplot rather than antiplot. The universe he wants to see on screen has coherence and meaning. He admires those who insist on nihilism or randomness, but he thinks they’re either charlatans or try-hards. There’s no bigger picture for McKee – not a theological one. He’s secular, and a lot less dreamcatcher-in-the-breeze than the recent editions of Christopher Vogler.
There’s no shame in giving up, he suggests, but there’s also no shame in writing a decent, honest cop drama.
In Story, as I hope you’ve seen, McKee’s not supplying assembly instructions for a kit. You’re expected to carve your script out of raw matter, not screw it together with an Allen key. He is most concerned with structure and design, but that doesn’t mean he is unambitious. He does love an absolute. Here’s a run of them:
Your character, indeed all characters, in the pursuit of any desire, at any moment in the story, will always take the minimum, conservative action from his point of view. All human beings always do. Humanity is fundamentally conservative, as indeed is all of nature.
No organism ever expends more energy than necessary, risks anything it doesn’t have to, or takes any action unless it must. Why should it?
This is wrong. For a start, it completely misses out camp, mischief, carnival, obsession. It also misses out altruism, self-sacrifice, political commitment and insanity. Look at RuPaul or James Joyce or Margaret Thatcher or Nelson Mandela and tell me again that ‘No organism ever expends more energy than necessary’. Humans are often excessive.
What McKee is pushing for here (with good reason) is to force you (the writer) to construct a drama in which your protagonist doesn’t blithely go out looking for an adventure – circumstances must force them into extreme and therefore Heroic action.
Does that remind you of anything?
Where the other gurus bring in Heroism through the front door, McKee brings it via the back. But his conservative view of humanity en masse is ultimately defeatist. Although he’s happy to see them acting together in old black and white movies, he’s got little sympathy for the proletariat. And he’s got no sympathy for idealists.
McKee’s attitude is a glamourised form of defeatism. And what he points out, through this, is that Hollywood undervalues tragedy. Tragedy is the great genre for both following and undermining the Hero’s journey (comedy and satire can do this, too).
Tragedy can demonstrate the appalling wounds an individual who sees themselves as Heroic can inflict upon the body politic.
The microcosm becomes the macrocosm, and a single fucked-up head becomes a whole fucked-up universe.
This is a very different story to The Hero’s Journey.
The story I’m going to tell now, in part, is the story of how World War Z went from book to film.
I hope some of you have read the book, and watched the film.
It’s time to bring on THE ZOMBIES.
We’re going to start with World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War from 2006. This was written by Max Brooks, son of Mel Brooks.
World War Z is a novel without a Hero. As you’ll know if you’ve taken even the briefest look at it, it’s written in the form of a large number of testimonies. In fact, it’s in the form Jean Stein and George Plimpton invented for their book American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy (1970).
That is, World War Z is a narrative oral history; a number of globally scattered interviews that cover the outbreak, spread, devastation and defeat of a zombie apocalypse. Scientists perform important individual roles, or make breakthroughs in understanding, but it is science itself that saves the world -as well as many individual acts of bravery and self-sacrifice. The book is exciting. The body count is very high – into the billions. To keep the reader interested, with no-one to root for except humanity itself, is a great formal achievement.
I chose to get you to read World War Z – the story of a global pandemic and the desperate search for a cure – for several reasons. This was months before I’d heard of COVID-19, or had any idea I’d be delivering this lecture via Panopto rather than standing in front of you shouting over the air-conditioning in the appropriately named B.O.4.
First, World War Z is a story about saving the world. Second, it is a perfect example of what happens when you impose Heroism upon an anti-Heroic narrative.
To get World War Z the movie, you just take World War Z the book and you process it through four generations of screenwriting manual: Screenplay, The Writer’s Journey, Story and Save the Cat!
That’s what we’re going to do now.
By looking closely at World War Z, we can see the development of Hollywood storytelling in miniature and sped up. A good book is turned into what, culturally, we now believe is a good story – and, in doing so, diversity is forced to become monomyth. Only a hero can save us now.
World War Z was optioned by Paramount Pictures for Plan B Entertainment, Brad Pitt’s company, because Brad liked the book so much.
In the time between acquisition and release, however, World War Z went through “one of the more famously troubled development periods in recent years, going from years in development hell to a production that culminated with the film’s original third act being completely re-written and re-shot”. That’s a quote from Screenrant.
The job of writing the screenplay was initally given to J. Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5, and the Clint Eastwood movie Changeling). His first and second drafts are still downloadable – although that may not be the case for long. I found them on the WayBack Machine internet archive – links will be available after the lecture.
Straczynski’s script was taken as a screen story (he got a credit for this) and then completely rewritten by Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs, State of Play), and then – after principal photography was completed and a rough cut of the film was viewable – added to by Drew Goddard (Cloverfield, Buffy, Angel, Alias, Lost, The Cabin in the Woods) after a hard read Damen Lindelhof (Cowboys and Aliens, Prometheus, Star Trek into Darkness). Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Jack Reacher) also did some uncredited rewriting, very late on. The director throughout was Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Quantum of Solace, Machine Gun Preacher).
With some detective work, you can put together the story of how World War Z went from book to movie. And the first two versions of the script do exactly that: turn a series of interviews into a detective story. In Save the Cat! terms, it’s a ‘Whydunit’:
Like Citizen Kane, a classic Whydunit, the story is about seeking the innermost chamber of the human heart and discovering something unexpected, something dark and often unattractive, and the answer to the question: Why?
In a 2013 interview with ScreenSlam, J. Michael Straczynski explained (with a little exaggeration) exactly what he did in his first draft:
In the original book, there is no narrator, there is no main character – there’s a series of interviews conducted by a faceless person with government leaders, ordinary people, military folks.
And I thought, “Okay, the most logical approach to the story is to create that character who did those interviews, and give us a point of view within the United Nations, which makes sense [to allow him], to be able to go around the world to investigate this. And give him a family, and give him – you know – kids.
And let us take this huge event, because people have a hard time understanding huge big worldwide planetary events – but a family in jeopardy, they can understand. You take this big story, and you make it small, and see it writ small, on one small family. Because you can identify with that.
If you do a little digging in the novel, there is a narrator, and the nature of his after-the-fact investigation into “The Zombie War” is clear. That’s all already there in the Introduction. But it’s true that he’s faceless and nameless.
Everything else Straczynski says is very accurate, but also very telling. He’s a Syd Field school screenwriter. He’s created a “main character”, not a Hero. At points, the underplaying is almost comic. When we meet the Brad Pitt character (Gerry Lane) on page 5 of the script, he is described as ‘aloof, distant, bureaucratic’. All well within Pitt’s range as an actor, but not within his usual archetype, which would be ‘cool, self-assured, maverick’.
What is Gerry Lane’s quest? It’s laid out for him by Robert McEnroe, senior to him within the UN. What they want from Gerry is simply to file a report. This is his dialogue.
Well, more of a systems analysis, really. Where the system worked, where it didn’t, how and in what ways the various organisational infrastructures failed to respond –
(This little speech reminds me very much of Harrison Ford’s response to some of George Lucas’s dialogue in Star Wars: “George! You can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it! Move your mouth when you’re typing!”)
By the end of his journey, Gerry has become Heroic – filing his report despite death threats from the military – but to begin with, when he receives the Call to Action, he is (as far as we can see) a very ordinary guy.
The comparison to Citizen Kane is very apt. That, too, unfolds (like the book of World War Z) as a series of interviews. In Straczynski’s Second Draft, I counted thirteen of these. This is a lot fewer than the roughly forty-five of the novel, but it’s still inert as a dramatic form. I think this is because what Straczynski wanted to write was a downbeat 1970s conspiracy theory movie – a kind of All the President’s Zombies. Haunting the background of his world-view is the Vietnam War, and the lessons the United States should have learned about cutting your losses and having an exit strategy.
One thing that did come through, from Straczynski’s Second Draft to the finished movie, was an opening scene in which a major American city goes all to shit, because of zombies. Here there’s Heroism, but it’s not initially Gerry’s. As the American forces get their arses chomped, the screenplay tells us that each shot should be “designed to look and feel Heroic, emphasising the bravery and skill of the soldiers in battle”.
The basic form of the Second Draft is to globe-hop from interview to interview, having each start with pure exposition (“Let me tell you how it was…”) that then dissolves to a flashback.
This is in no way the Hero’s Journey. As a star vehicle, what are its obvious flaws?
Brad Pitt is a johnny-come-lately. Whatever personal bravery he shows in researching and delivering his report, it’s still just a stack of paper with some words on it. And, worst of all, he can’t save the world. The most he can do, in traumatic flashback, is save his family – whatever the cost.
Big spoiler coming up –
How Gerry does this in the end (save his family) is to feed his ill, otherwise-dying daughter with human flesh – turning her into a cannibal and traumatizing her for life, because she thinks she’s no different to the zombies. And we only learn this at the very end of the script. This is the kind of moral ambiguity that a character actor might be fine with. A Dustin Hoffman or a Philip Seymour Hoffman. But not a straight-down-the-middle Hollywood star. Do you want people looking up at you, the next movie they see, thinking, ‘That guy cooked up a human hand for supper?’
To my eyes, Straczynski’s two scripts are an intelligent, sometimes brilliant but ultimately flawed attempt to adapt Max Brook’s novel. They have some great scenes along with some horribly clunky exposition.
Straczynski’s scripts take World War Z as far as Syd Field’s 1979-vintage screenplay wisdom can take it. When Michael Carnahan came on board, he was from a younger generation – not hung up on Vietnam, Watergate or slow 1970s Whydunits. What he brought most of all was The Writer’s Journey.
Without doubt one of the first things Carnahan decided was that we didn’t need a mere “main character”, we needed a Hero – and the Hero must definitely be a non-bureaucratic version of Brad Pitt. He understood, as Straczynski didn’t, why World War Z had been optioned: as a star vehicle for Brad. If he didn’t put a Hero at the centre of the action, the script wouldn’t get made and it wouldn’t stand much of a chance of being a success.
If we look at three versions of the movie poster, we can see this happening – in miniature.
How did Carnahan make World War Z a movie with a proper Hero? Well, employing terms from Save the Cat!, and using Snyderian logic, Carnahan changed the genre of the movie. He changed it from Whydunit to Dude with a Problem. As Snyder says –
..this genre has two very simple working parts: a dude, meaning an average guy or gal just like ourselves. And a problem: something that this average guy must dig deep inside himself to conquer
Dude = Brad
Problem = Zombies
By the time he finished, Carnahan put in place what is now the bulk of the first two acts of the film – up until Gerry gets on the last flight out of Israel. He kept Straczynski’s invented family at the centre of the story, not even changing the kids’ names. He also kept the character of Jurgen Warmbrunn, the Israeli Mossad agent, who is the one man in ten who must disagree with the concensus.
Apart from this, apart from completely retooling the story, Carnahan’s main work was in supersizing the unheroic Gerry of Straczynski’s scripts.
Brad Pitt is no longer a johnny-come-lately. He is on the spot, close to the epicentre, when the zombies first overrun an American City (Philadelphia). After an opening sequence in which he demonstrates quick thinking and great defensive driving to rescue his family, he is brought on board the USS Harry Truman by the military and then volunteers to go with Dr. Fassbach to investigate the outbreak of the zombie plague – not retrospectively, after the battle is lost, but right at the crucial point when the situation has become life or undeath.
In other words, this much more macho version of Gerry does actually have a shot at saving the world. The personal bravery he shows in researching this won’t just end in a stack of paper with some words on it – it will result in discovering a way to preserve his tribe, which is the whole human race.
Gerry has been Voglerized and his genre has been Snydered.
But it took another three writers, Damen Lindelhof, Drew Goddard and Christopher McQuarrie, to bring the movie home. After initial screenings, the producers, or perhaps Brad himself, clearly didn’t go for the overblown third act. How this originally ran was detailed by the website denofgeek:
In that version, Pitt’s character, Gerry, spends a great deal of time in Moscow, eventually becoming a ruthless zombie killing expert.
It’s there that he discovers that the zombies are vulnerable to the cold, but when he finally gets to relay this message back to his wife, it turns out that she’s effectively had to trade herself for the safety of their children.
She’s now with Matthew Fox’s soldier, who originally had rescued them at the start of the film… Gerry then starts a huge journey back across the world to try to save his wife – and that’s where the original version of the film was going to end.
Seven weeks of reshoots in Budapest were scheduled, after Damen Lindelhof did a hard read on the script and found it lacking, although it was left to Drew Goddard to do the actual writing.
What Lindelhof saw was that all the third act had was a battle sequence that, by the law of escalation, could only be bigger and louder than the one before. However, it wasn’t dramatically necessary. He had received and understood Robert McKee’s key message:
If I could send a telegram to the film producers of the world, it would be these three words: “Meaning Produces Emotion”. Not money; not sex; not special effects; not movie stars; not lush photography.
He also heeded McKee’s main structural advice:
A revered Hollywood axiom warns: “Movies are about their last twenty minutes.” In other words, for a film to have a chance in the world, the last act and its climax must be the most satisfying experience of all. For no matter what the first ninety minutes have achieved, if the final movement fails, the film will die over its opening weekend.
The director Marc Forster later gave his analysis:
..after Jerusalem, you are so exhausted that to have added another big battle would have been repetitive, and it would have left you feeling exhausted.
And so, strictly according to the Book of McKee, what the script needed was a meaningful Crisis and then a Climax.
In Lindelhof and Goddard’s World War Z, the Crisis comes when the possible cure (or, as Gerry puts it, “camouflage”) is located in Vault 139, a refrigeration room located in B-Wing, the half of the World Health Organisation research facility overrun by zombies. (Gerry and a brave female Israeli soldier, Seren, have ended up here after his plane crashes in rural Wales. In the YouTube clips, this is called ‘Flight of the Living Dead’.) To reach Vault 139, Gerry and his allies will have to go through the zombies, all 80 of them. Goddamit:
The Crisis Decision must be a deliberately static moment.
We freeze this moment because the rhythm of the last movement depends on it. An emotional momentum has built to this point, but the Crisis dams its flow.
As the protagonist goes through this decision, the audience leans in, wondering: “What’s he going to do? What’s he going to do?” Tension builds and builds, then as the protagonist makes a choice of action, that compressed energy explodes into the Climax.
At the Crisis, what Gerry decides is – he’s prepared to Heroically risk his own life going through the zombie maze to reach the cure – because that’s the only way to Save the World, and so save his family.
At 01:34:00, we cut from Gerry’s face, looking at screens full of the zombies that stand between him and the Cave, to an exterior shot of the W.H.O. Facility. It is during this very quiet offscreen moment (perhaps the most subtle edit in the movie) that Gerry’s choice is made. When we cut back to him, Seren is helping him suit up by taping insulating foam to his forearm – as low rent armour against zombie bites. Gerry knows what he has to do.
Cue a suspense sequence very different to the rest of the movie in mood, style and just about everything else.
What’s still needed is a McKee-type Climax:
The Climax of the last act is your great imaginative leap. Without it, you have no story. Until you have it, your characters wait like suffering patients praying for a cure.
Exactly, and not accidentally.
In Aristotle’s words, an ending must be both “inevitable and unexpected”. Inevitable in the sense that as the Inciting Incident occurs, everything and anything seems possible, but at Climax, as the audience looks back through the telling, it should seem that the path the telling took was the only path.
Given the characters and their world as we’ve come to understand it, the Climax was inevitable and satisfying. But at the same time it must be unexpected, happening in a way the audience could not have anticipated.
Repeatedly, throughout the movie, we have seen isolated characters ignored by the onrush of zombies. While everyone else is mauled, these weaklings – the chronic alcoholic, the soldier with something seriously wrong with his leg, the Arab boy with leukemia, the feeble old Jewish man – are spared. The fact they are already condemned to death means that the undead don’t see them as prey – they don’t perceive them at all.
This is the classic McKee reversal of values. As Gerry puts it, remembering his mentor, Dr. Fassbach:
I believe these things have a weakness, and that weakness is weakness – our weakness.
Our weakness becomes our strength.
In order to stage this final sequence, Lindelhof reached not for McKee but for Snyder. The movie switches genre again, from Dude with a Problem to Monster in the House.
The director Marc Forster is explict about this:
..the moment I’d heard the studio was willing to move forward with a more quiet haunted house ending which we pitched them, I was so relieved and happy.
All the rewrites worked – at least in terms of box-office.
As a novel, World War Z had been a success. It sold over a million copies. But it didn’t make anything like as much money as the film. For the movie, the budget was one hundred and ninety million dollars. The Cumulative Worldwide Gross was around Five hundred and forty million dollars (as of 15 Oct 2013). At the time, what was trailed as Brad Pitt’s folly turned into the biggest non-sequel movie since Avatar. A follow-up was planned, and put into pre-production, but seems to have finally failed. The franchise is dead, but there’s no reason it can’t rise again as undead.
We’ve now seen what happens when the wisdom of the screenwriting gurus (what makes a good story) is applied to the basic, resistant material of World War Z.
To me, the conclusion seems obvious.
What the book does, the film undoes. What the book says, the movie unsays. In fact, the movie has an opposite meaning to the book. We’re saving our own lives, says the book. A Hero – I’m holding out for a Hero, says the film.
Not only that, the Hero of the film is male, white, Western, heterosexual, married, able-bodied, affluent, liberal, sensitive, good teeth and astonishingly great hair. He could take more care of his skin, but meh.
The novel is about a scattered cast of extremely diverse people pursuing roughly the same goal – finding a way to preserve human life on planet earth.
The film is about a lone Hero pursuing his own goal – finding a way to save his nuclear family.
For a mainstream genre fiction, World War Z is well-written, radical and successful. It’s pretty close to a masterpiece.
For a mainstream Hollywood action movie, World War Z is fairly standard issue. It goes big on horror tropes but lacks any sense of humour. It isn’t The Bourne Identity, it isn’t Mad Max: Fury Road.
I doubt Max Brooks has ever been able to express his true feelings about what was done to his story. I’ve only had one property optioned by Hollywood (the novel Corpsing), but my contract included several clauses that essentially said I could never ever diss anything to do with the movie, however trash it turned out to be. On pain of losing all revenue perpetually.
Bizarrely, I also promised not to smoke on the premises of the film company.
According to Wikipedia, ‘In a 2012 interview, [Max] Brooks stated the film now had nothing in common with the novel other than the title.’
The video is unavailable.