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Word Perfect

June 14, 1998|IRENE LACHER

Here in the land of Aimee Semple McPherson, there are more than a few gurus offering to lead you to your higher self. All of them want your higher self to have a happy home, but you may have higher sights for your higher self--a home with a swimming pool.

In that case, there's a special kind of guru just for you. And, oddly enough, there's a Macpherson who lives in this leader's beckoning realm: You know her as Elle.

Of course, Elle has select company in her special world. There's Tom and Nicole. Also Dustin. And don't forget Jack.

"Jack Nicholson said, 'I know people don't like me, but they sure want me at their parties.' We have a new aristocracy we call the cultural elite. At the top of the pyramid are filmmakers. So you want to go to those parties? What are you willing to risk?"

How about your weekend off?

We are sitting at the feet of the storied Robert McKee, who conducts the EST equivalent of screenwriting class--a 30-hour, three-day marathon of McKee holding forth on story structure, nonsmoking prisons, character arcs, annoying cell phones, seven-part television formats, annoying auteurs, "Casablanca," annoying critics and annoying film schools. (Unlike EST, you may go to the bathroom, but be quick about it.)

Oh, yes. The prince of screenwriting gurus also deconstructs movie stars' looks: Michelle Pfeiffer's ("proof of the existence of God") and Paul Newman's ("handsome in an unfair way").

We are here because we are taking the McKee Challenge. We had crossed his path while Out & About and presented him with our impossible reality: We write for our supper, we live in Los Angeles and yet we do not have a screenplay in us.

We don't write fiction. No matter what they say.

"Biography is fiction," says McKee, newly wed to former L.A. district attorney spokeswoman Suzanne Childs. "Autobiography certainly is fiction--any statement about the self is self-serving. Documentary is fiction. Wherever you place the camera creates a whole new meaning. What shots you cut, what you eliminate, gives a whole new meaning to the experience."

Ouch. Like any smart perfect master, McKee has distilled his wisdom into a bible, "Story: In Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting" (ReganBooks). The 466-page doorstop recently dropped off the L.A. Times bestseller list after 18 weeks of healthy sales.

And after 15 years teaching his "Story Seminar" here, as well as there and everywhere (particularly New York and London), McKee has become enough of a bushy-browed icon to play himself in Fox Searchlight's upcoming "20 Dates." The romantic comedy was written and directed by novice indie filmmaker Myles Berkowitz, who took McKee's course three times.

The Myles Berkowitzes of the world take the course in the hope of becoming the John Cleeses of the world, to mention one famous follower who is much mentioned by the not-shy McKee (along with Kirk Douglas, Griffin Dunne and a cast of thousands).

Kinda funky for someone who's only now, at the tender age of 57, seeing his first feature film go into production: "Hayfever," a $5-million adaptation of a Noel Coward play starring Joanna Lumley and Greta Scacchi, films in Ireland this summer. It's McKee's lucky 13th sold script--the first dozen options bit the dust.

"In a way, it's expected, because on average, for every 20 screenplays optioned, they only produce one," McKee says after class. "So I'm ahead of the game."

Perhaps. But McKee's unwavering claim to be the font of screenwriting truth still irks some alums.

"If people have a complaint about Robert McKee, it's that he's teaching you the rules," Berkowitz says. "But he also teaches you how to break the rules so you're fresh.

"When I'm giving notes [on someone else's script], I'll say, 'I think your inciting incident comes too late.' And they say, 'That sounds like Robert McKee, and I'm not a follower.' So I say, 'Let me put it in other terms. You don't have a beginning.' "

After absorbing one-third of McKee's course at the Pacific Design Center recently (hey, a girl needs her weekend), we maintain our Ripley's Believe It or Not status. Still no screenplay in us. Just tasty hors d'oeuvres.

Nonetheless, we are practicing our McKee-isms. Repeat after us:

* "We do not make movies about life. We make movies about movies. We are losing the war on cliches."

* "If the Japanese ever figure out how to make a Hollywood film, Hollywood will know the agony of Detroit."

* "In the history of film, every time we come up with revolutionary technology that approximates reality, audiences flock to see it. . . . Now we're suffering through the period of CGI [computer-generated imagery]. We're going to suffer through awful films while the audience knows you don't have to make a good film as long as there's a spectacle. But that will pass. Audiences will say, 'Been there, seen that.' "

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