Beyond a Book/Film Review: Robert McKee’s Story, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The English Teacher

I want to review my experiences at inForming Content 2014. I want to discuss what has changed in the past few weeks since the spring term ended and the summer term began. I want to continue probing the ways my ideas about theatre, performance, narrative, and collaboration have begun to change and alter. Unfortunately, I’m still processing and this liminal state doesn’t want to be put into words yet.

One aspect I am able to discuss is the new perspective I have on screenwriting and more importantly, how narrative works in film, theatre, and the novel. Some might say that I’ve been studying this all semester in my independent study. If I were going to take a break, then maybe I should stop considering this same question and really turn my brain off. I agree with this plan of relaxation, but it just didn’t happen that way. I tried to read Robert McKee’s Story at other points during the course of the semester, but even over winter break I couldn’t get into it. Miraculously when I picked it up the week I finished the final paper for my independent study, it clicked. I found myself waiting for long streetcar rides and quiet afternoons at the library to dig back into its pages of instruction about plot, character, the journey of the hero, genre, and other screenwriting terms.

Even more miraculously, McKee’s advice didn’t come off as cliché but clear and inspiring. I thought I would hate the book–especially after watching it mocked in Adaptation–and decided that when I wanted to learn about screenwriting, I would pick another manual. But yet again God had another plan for me because my relatives sent Story to me as a belated birthday present this fall. Broke international graduate student wanting to learn how to craft better screenplays as well as amazing play scripts? I had no other free option.

McKee’s writing is very matter-of-fact. Flipping open to a random page would make him sound like a know-it-all who seems to miss that film is an art, not something objective that can be parsed out and broken into rules. In fact, McKee is well aware that film is an art and that screenwriting is a very personal and potentially emotional process. He exhorts his reader to review all the possible options of what to write based on what story he/she feels compelled to tell, not the one that looks the most lucrative. The screenplay only written to earn money or just check off the boxes of character, conflict, and final resolution as described in Story will fail according to McKee because the great stories, the ones that are worth telling no matter the medium, genre, or budget, are the ones that have a burning need to be told behind them.

Reading McKee’s book has changed the way I write and “read” stories. While working on Operation 24 at Unit 102 a few weeks ago, I thought about how to craft plot twists that make sense and realized, when working super late at night/early in the morning, how important it really is to work backwards from the ending once it’s figured out so that all the pieces fall into place without the audience noticing until the exact right moment. But mostly, his techniques of analysis have altered the ways I watch movies. In some ways, it’s annoying. I now sit down in front of my computer or in the cinema and start parsing out the ways gaps are created between the main character’s wants and his/her current situations. But in other ways, it enriches my “free time” and turns even those moments into creative research.

The day I finished the book I discovered that the theater near my new apartment has Tuesday night cheap tickets. Sold! I couldn’t wait to see Wes Anderson’s new film The Grand Budapest Hotel after hearing rave reviews from my grandma and stumbling across one of his earlier films, The Darjeeling Limited, a week or two earlier (also Houston, TX represent!). As the movie opened and the various frames around the inner story unwrapped to reveal a tale about a hotel lobby boy and his epic adventures with the Grand Budapest’s illustrious concierge Gustave H, I found myself following the plot and the characters, but also noting how each building block allowed the story to move forward. I noticed the subtle ways Anderson built a narrative that made sense, and yet also kept me waiting on the edge of my seat to see what would happen next. It was not only an engaging film, but a great example of world-building and the different layers that can turn a good story into a complex, great one.

Last night, while searching through Netflix, I stumbled upon another great example of McKee’s storytelling advice: The English Teacher. I had just seen Julianne Moore in another great story, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon (not enough room here for me to review every single great recent film), and wanted to watch her in action again. I loved the film at first because it depicted a romantic, idealistic English teacher entirely motivated to share her passion for literature with high school students and her reunion with a previous student, a playwright who had recently graduated from the NYU Dramatic Writing program. Here were two characters I could relate to very, very much. As the story proceeded, the character of the playwright began to annoy me. There’s no way a successful playwright would act that way! He’s so immature, I would be more realistic and, therefore, further in my career if I were in his position–and suddenly, McKee’s voice came into my head reminding me that the character wasn’t a real playwright, but a character. And a secondary character to boot, which meant he was mainly there to provide conflict. Any time he got stupidly emotional or the main character allowed herself to get swept away from her common sense into a tangle of passion and mis-matched intentions, I reminded myself that these conflicts are what make a bleakly comedic story live. They might not be my cup of tea in the moment, I might relate a little too closely to the characters to see them stomped on by the world, but I wouldn’t have smiled as the credits played at the end of The English Teacher if those hopeless moments at the pit of the story hadn’t happened.

I may not be ready to unpack the live performances I’ve been making. I may not be ready to go back to the theatre or to discuss some of the amazing shows I’ve seen since my last theatre review (Beatrice and Virgil at Factory, A God in Need of Help at Tarragon, just to name a few), but I am still studying story through everything I watch, read, hear, view, and live.

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About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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3 Responses to Beyond a Book/Film Review: Robert McKee’s Story, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The English Teacher

  1. Pingback: Beyond a Book Review: The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris | gladlybeyondaustinausten

  2. Pingback: Beyond a Book Review: Gone With the Wind–Reading the Book | gladlybeyondaustinausten

  3. Pingback: Beyond a Book Review: Gone With the Wind–The Visit | gladlybeyondaustinausten

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