Tag Archives: robert mckee

LSF #7: Graham Linehan on the Meaning of Laugh

4 Nov

Graham Linehan is an insanely talented comedy writer. He not only created Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd (and now Count Arthur Strong, which I haven’t yet seen), but co-created the Ted and Ralph characters on The Fast Show and wrote for Chris Morris. I met him once, in the early ‘90s, in a Soho media watering hole. He struck me as very serious. Funny, in a dry way, but essentially very serious about what he does. Which so many very good comedians are – always picking apart the Meaning of Laugh and the Theory of Fun.

Which is lucky for aspiring comedy writers, if he is giving a panel at the London Screenwriters’ Festival. Here were some of the highlights:

On his new production company: “I’m setting up a production company. Whoops, I shouldn’t say that in a room full of writers – try to space it out, don’t all send me stuff at once. Write a pitch; if we like it, then you write a draft. I want to get excited about a project so I can go in with the writers and help them sell it.”

On now directing his comedies as well as writing: “When you’re on set, you watch what the director does. One thing I realised quite quickly is that you don’t really need any skills! And when I’m writing, I see it like on a television screen in my head anyway. So if you want to direct, try to get in on a set and observe the director.”

On script gurus: “I think I screwed myself by going to a Robert McKee lecture too early. He does a terribly dangerous thing, which is to teach you to write a classic, not to write a first draft. You have to give yourself the freedom to be terrible on the first draft.”

On creating characters: “I’m not a fan of the character profiling thing – what their eye colour is, or where they went to school. I find lines of dialogue that suggest an attitude. There’s a great piece on this by Dan Harmon on his blog: his suggestion is to go through your phone contacts and stop on someone who provokes a strong reaction in you, then start writing down things that you associate with them or that describes them.

“I always make a distinction between above the line and below the line. ‘Above the line’ character traits are how that person sees themselves, and ‘below the line’ is how they really are. It’s brilliant when those are opposites.”

On the three moments: “Geoffrey Perkins said a great thing to me: you really need three great moments in an episode; the rest is filling it with gags. Three things that the next day people will say, ‘Did you see that?’ So any episode I ask myself, are there those three moments?”

On the trap: “Griff Rhys Jones said all sitcoms need a trap, a reason why the characters don’t just up and leave.”

On how, even if you’ve created something, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll consult the writer (yikes): “If I had to do The IT Crowd again I wouldn’t put it in a basement. It was a hook, an Upstairs, Downstairs sort of thing, but it made it hard to get people down into the basement plausibly. I found out about the American version of The IT Crowd online, and by the time I did it was shot, nearly, and it was an absolute carbon copy, including all our mistakes – like setting it in the basement. [The US series was commissioned in 2007, was written, and was to have starred Richard Adeoye again, but was cancelled before production by a new incoming head honcho.]

“Why did no one tell me about it? It was when Talkback were getting really big, and the left hand didn’t know what the right was doing. Also they just thought of it as a property that could be sold, like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire; but no, it’s not just changing ‘arse’ to ‘ass’, there’s a whole lot of tweaks you need.”

For the first of my London Screenwriters’ Festival blogs with Joe Eszterhas, click here. Tomorrow: Steve Pemberton of Psychoville and League of Gentlemen.

The write stuff: Robert McKee

10 Nov


Robert McKee is often accused of ruining cinema. That’s because, more than anyone, he popularised the notion of three-act structures, turning points, inciting incidents and all the beats in between that rake in so many £250 cheques at screenwriting courses on both sides of the Atlantic.

Here’s what McKee had to say about that at the Barbican today. “You’ve heard people talk of the ‘tyranny of the three-act structure’. What the f*** is that? Was Tennessee Williams a tyrant? These things are said by people with their heads so far up their asses they need endos in their stomachs to see where they’re going.

“Yes, there is a crisis [in film]. But it’s not a crisis of form. We know how to tell stories, we’re getting really good at it; right now I see a resurrection in the skill and craft of storytelling. This is a crisis of content. Films are being made by people who have nothing to f***ing say! They think it’s all a game, a technique, just marketing.”

Over a tour-de-force two hours, McKee took the audience of 250 right back to first principles. This was not the “how” of story-telling. This was the “why”.

He went back to the Greek philosophers, and their key question: why and how should we live our life? And he examined, one by one, where in the 21st century you might find the answer:

* Philosophy: “Yeah, but who today reads Kant or Spinoza?”

* Science: “In the 19th century, people thought science was the answer, it would cure everything. We realise now that science has utterly failed us. Cellphones are toxic, the internet and Tweeting have almost eliminated human relations, emails are a Tower of Babel.”

* Religion: “For many of us it’s an evangelical joke. The worst things humans do are in the name of God.”

* Art: “So where the hell do people go to answer Aristotle’s great question about how to lead your life? They go to the movies! The most civilising of all arts is story. Music, art, dance create feeling, but story is, as Kenneth Burke said, ‘equipment for living’. Stories are metaphors for life. Each and every one of you [who writes scripts] is a life poet. You create a metaphor that express a meaningful, emotional truth about what it is to be a human being.”

I’ve been to a lot of scriptwriting courses and seminars, but this was the most inspiring. Simply put: find your voice; write what matters.

Amen to that.