Nobody Knows Anything (part 1)

or: Why the path to your enlightenment is blocked by charlatans.

Hands up anyone who has bought a “How To…” book thinking it might teach them something about film making.

I can bet you, nine-out-of-ten times, you could have saved yourself the time and money and gone without those books. If you’re happy to pay good money to people who are only going to state the obvious and tell you what you already know, then it means you’re too dumb to live. Take heart: it also means you’re exactly dumb enough to work in Media.

Pretty much all the “How To…” books in the world are so much guff, written by people who have little or no professional experience in their chosen field. Your average bookshop is packed with self-help guides that claim to cure you of your smoking, excess weight or writer’s block. At the risk of stating the bloody-obvious, you always need to check the credentials of the people who write these. The vast majority are frauds who are essentially selling you snake oil.

Smoking: Paul McKenna used to plant stooges in the audience of his hypnosis stage-show – he’s about as credible as Uri Gellar. You want to know how to quit smoking? Do NOT let this annoying twat’s voice lull you into some kind of hypnogogic state. Just decide whether you’re a smoker or a non-smoker. If you’ve just decided that you’re a non-smoker then, congratulations, you just quit smoking. Chewing a lot of gum helps, too.

Weight loss: Gillian McKeith had to drop the “Dr.” from her name – she’s a faecophillic fraud. You want to know how to lose weight? Do NOT stare at your cack. Eat less junk, eat more fresh stuff, get off your arse and do some frackin’ exercise.

Writing: You should be getting your screenwriting and film-making advice from the very best people. People who have spent years honing their craft. Experts, auteurs, masters of the art or, at the very least, some blogging dude who’s spent 14 years on-set, at “the pointy end”. Essentially, someone who’s been in The Business for more than 5 minutes and has paid their frackin’ dues.

To my mind, the greatest “How To…” offences are crimes against screenwriting. The script is the foundation of any piece. The best director/actor/cinematographer in the world cannot make good work from a bad script and yet, armed with a first-class script, only the weakest directors/actors/cinematographers could fail to make a half-decent film.

Two of the most famous and best-selling ‘gurus’ of screenwriting are Syd Field and Robert McKee.

Hands up anyone who can name one thing that they’ve written (apart from the books). Go have a look at IMDB – I’ll wait ’till you get back:

Syd Field

Robert McKee

Now, would you rather take advice from these no-talent fucks, or from these guys:

William Goldman: – multi award-winning genius. He’s forgotten more about writing than you or I will ever know.

David Mamet: – quite possibly crazy as a loon, but the greatest living playwright. Gives John Ford and Henrik Ibsen a run for their money.

Joe Eszterhaus: – don’t laugh – the guy’s a multi-millionaire because of his writing. There’s a lesson in that! Showgirls aside, the guy can build a mean storyline.

Robert Roriguez: – poster-boy for all lo/no-budget film makers. The very definition of an independent film maker. Has turns his budget limitations into virtues.

Kevin Smith: – I just can’t get enough of this guy. I’d pay good money just to watch him and Jay recite “three blind mice” for two hours.

All of the above have written books that, in various ways, teach you how to write a script. Here’s my potted reviews of a few of them:

“Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting” by Syd Field
– Badly written (that should be your first warning sign). He’s like one of those teachers who drones and you don’t really take it all in.
– He’s the guy that made “three act structure” famous. Pity. You talk to writers who actually make a living in Hollywood and they’ll tell you that the “classic” structure of a movie is actually FOUR acts.
– He makes a living from these books and not from writing. His “expertise” is, therefore, suspect.
– 1/10 – might be good under a wobbly chair.

“Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting” by Robert McKee
– Badly written (there’s a theme emerging, here). If you ever have trouble sleeping, this book will do the trick. If his lugubrious prose doesn’t send you off to the Land of Nod, then just whack yourself in the head with this weighty tome. He can suck the life out of anything. Even his thesis on Casablanca takes all the fun out of it. It sickens me that he’s famous for noticing how good OTHER PEOPLE are a making films.
– He’s got the worst case of talent-envy around.
– He, like Field, makes a living from these books and not from writing. His “expertise” is, I say again, suspect.
– 2/10 – it’s so thick, it could stop a bullet – that might be useful.

“Adventures in the Screen Trade” by William Goldman.
“Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business” by David Mamet
“The Devil’s guide to Hollywood: the screenwriter as God” by Joe Eszterhaus
“Rebel without a Crew” by Robert Rodriguez
“Silent Bob Speaks” by Kevin Smith

Each of these gets 10/10.

These people actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to living and working in movies. Whatever your taste in films, at least one of these guys will ring your bell.

Now, you might notice that these 5 books do not purport to teach you how to write, whereas the first two do nothing but that. What they do teach you is how to be a writer and a film-maker. THAT is the lesson you need to learn. Formatting and “three act structure” don’t mean a damn thing unless you get WHY you’re doing this.

If you’re after fortune and glory, forget it. Chances are, it’s never going to happen. Haven’t you seen “Sunset Boulevard”? You’ll end up dead in the gutter, bitter from defeat.

If you’re doing it for the craik, good luck to you. Have fun cruising getting your crew off Mandy’s and cruising the indi festivals, waiting for your big break. You’ll have a great life filled with fun and anecdotes you can tell the grandkids. Just don’t give up your day-job.

If you’re writing because you have no other choice, the first two books will do nothing but rob you of your inspiration. The other five will amuse you, inspire you and get your creative juices flowing – trust me. You WILL succeed, because your intensity will not just open doors, it will burn the doors to cinder and maim the Execs on the other side. Rock on.

If you’re worried about formatting your script, there are websites and software for that sort of thing – keep your money in your pocket:

wordplayer – probably the greatest writing website, everevereverever!
script-o-rama – the web’s best script-emporium.
Microsoft Templates (no.. really!)

The lesson? Pick your teachers carefully. Ask yourself, “why should I listen to this person?”

If you’ve ever done a creative writing class or (god forbid) you’re in the middle of a Media degree, you should already know what the “bad teacher” warning signs are. Take a good, long look at your teachers, then ask them for their resumés and prepare for a good laugh. You’ve got about a 50/50 chance that the person standing at the front of the class has little or no ‘real’ experience in their subject.

Example: by the time I had finished a summer as an intern at the BBC, I had more on-set experience than the head of my university’s media department. You can imagine how much confidence I had in the man, going into my final year (another story for another time).

Our universities are packed with these charlatans, passing-on mediocrity to generation after generation of starry-eyed teenagers who dream of making it big in The Industry.

Do not… I beg you… DO NOT fall for their shit. They will speak what sound like GREAT TRUTHS and you will only realise with the hindsight of experience that these people were only repeating lines from a bad “How To…” book. The sooner you get out from under the tutelage of these fucks, the sooner you can start your career.


Now… who’s off to buy another “How To…” book?

Thought not.


Do you have any suggestions for a reading list? Post them here.


~ by mchawk on 1 June, 2008.

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