Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Lady MacBeth (2017) | Directed by William Oldroyd

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)
A Study in the Power of Counterpoint

From its screenplay through its casting and on out to its camera work, this bare-knuckled psycho-thriller employs compelling counterpoint techniques to sharpen both meaning and emotion.

Traditional creative technique calls for content to dictate form. We, for example, convey the intimacy of a love scene with tender words, sensitive acting, and soft light wrapped around the lovers; we express the violence in action scenes with raucous dialogue, athletic stunts, and high-speed editing.

But for this reinvention of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, screenwriter Alice Birch, cinematographer Ari Wegner, and director William Oldroyd pulled the form-follows-content principle inside out.


LADY MACBETH dramatizes three murders: the poisoning of an old man, smothering of a child, and smashing of a man’s skull until his brains spatter the room. The camera, however, photographs this twisted animality with precise, balanced, often dead-center symmetry, followed by long, slow static portraits of the killer staring straight ahead. Why?

Cinematographer Ari Wegner took her inspiration from the 19th century Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi, who in turn took his inspiration from the interiors of homes. Natural light fills his softly shadowed rooms. A piece of furniture on one side precisely balances a solitary figure on the other, sitting or standing with her back to us, looking out a window.

The Dane’s work might remind you of “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1” (1871), commonly known as Whistler’s Mother. Like the American master, Hammershøi’s symmetrical compositions are calm to the edge of uncanny.

In theory, symmetry, soft light, and long held static compositions should defuse energy and relax us, but when these aesthetics conceal hideous deeds, counterpoint unnerves the mind. Calculatedly framed rooms of sepulchral stillness—nothing out of place, certainly nothing human—creep us out. To bring us to the edge of terror, Wegner’s obsessively balanced monochrome compositions focus a hypnotic tension between frozen form and scalding content.


LADY MACBETH arouses the high-tension question “Will Katherine get away with murder?”, then answers it in a breath-catching final sequence you will never forget.

To prepare for this turning point, director William Oldroyd made three key casting choices: Florence Pugh, a white actor, as Katherine, the master’s wife; Naomi Ackie, a black actor, as Anna, her servant; Cosmo Jarvis, an actor of mixed race, as Sebastian the stableman.

Audiences may be confused to see servants of color in Victorian England, but the British Empire covered the globe, so why not. This ingenious black/white counterpoint makes the oppression and humiliation of Katherine by powerful, privileged males all that more harrowing, but more strategically, the bold casting sets up a stunning pay-off at Story Climax. As a result, 19th century Northumberland becomes a perfect anachronism for racial and gender politics today.


A character dimension brackets two contradictory qualities in one soul. To create a complex role, a writer first imagines a trait—something physical or behavioral—then looks for an opposite facet to counterpoint it.

Florence Pugh first portrays Katherine as a frail porcelain beauty imprisoned in a dark world, victimized by cruel men. Her lover (Cosmo Jarvis’s dark, rugged Sebastian) enters the story as a morally vacant sex athlete.

When her father-in- law and husband discover her adultery, Katherine plans and executes their murders, making Sebastian her partner in crime and herself owner of the estate. Soon after, her dead husband’s bastard son and heir shows up, while Sebastian holds him down, she suffocates the child.

This last crime overwhelms Sebastian. Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, his conscience drives him to distraction and confession. Guilt counterpoints his criminality, dimensionalizing his character to powerful effect.

At climax, Katherine betrays Sebastian, destroys Anna for good measure, and gets away with it by manipulating race. She is, after all, a white woman. Her counterpointed dimension of victim/villain, innocent/psychopath, makes her one of the most fascinating characters in recent cinema.

Lastly, many critics have hailed LADY MACBETH as feminist in spirit, but when did feminism become an advocate of evil?

How Do I Get Over Writer’s Block?

Robert McKee discusses the dreaded phenomenon of writer’s block and suggests some strategies for overcoming it.

Steve Pressfield’s The War or Art is a necessary ally for anyone who has ever faced writer’s block. Robert McKee wrote the foreword for the book and is a long-time fan and friend of Pressfield. For members, Pressfield is featured in a lengthy Storylogue interview.

Quotes of the Week:

“To find the truth, make your own heart pound when you write.”

- Robert McKee

“Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliche, it’s the key to victory over fear and it’s cousin, depression.”

- From Robert McKee’s STORY: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting

Article of the Week:

“Why Writers Are The Worst Procrastinators”

Megan McArdle explains the psychological origins of the writer’s habit of waiting (… and waiting, and waiting) to work.


Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

My Cousin Rachel (2017) | Directed by Roger Michell

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

Thinking of adapting a novel to the screen? If so, don’t miss MY COUSIN RACHEL. This suspenseful summertime treat offers an excellent case study of a brilliantly told novel skillfully escorted from page to screen by writer/director Roger Michell.

We’ll look at three of its storytelling strategies—all originating in the novel, all needing special treatment on screen, and all interrelated: (1) the open ending, (2) first person point of view, and (3) the unreliable narrator.


To set up her novel, Daphne du Maurier invented a backstory in which the first two husbands of a captivating woman die in uncertain circumstances. Gossips spread rumors about murder, but the medical authorities ascribe both deaths to natural causes.

From that set-up, Du Maurier could have written a novel about Phillip, the prospective third husband of the widow Rachel, a man who senses he could become her third victim. The plot could have built to an either positive or negative climax in which Phillip discovers for certain that Rachel is innocent or for certain that she’s guilty, and acts accordingly one way or the other. Either ending would give the reader closure.

Instead, the novelist opted for ambiguity and an open ending. Du Maurier’s answer to “Did she or didn’t she?” is like staring at a gestalt:

Could be either but we’ll never know which.

To create her open ending, Du Maurier took a page from the playwright Luigi Pirandello. His plays dramatize the ways subjectivity warps the truth. He asks, “How can we ever know what factually happens in life when every human being sees things from a subjective, and therefore biased, point of view?” The Pirandello premise has inspired wonderful tellings such as Kurosawa’s film RASHOMON, Ian Pear’s novel The Instance of the Fingerpost, and Sarah Treem’s television series THE AFFAIR.

Now imagine Roger Michell’s task. How to write and direct the film so that some people come out convinced she did it, and others are just as certain she didn’t, but no one leaves confused. Solution: Write every line of dialogue, and then direct every scene so each word, look, and gesture creates a perfect double entendre—two opposite meanings that force the audience to choose. Next, sit back and let personal biases sway people the way they always do.

The natural impulse of cinema is to leap through time and space, cutting from image to image. So, how to film a novel that’s persistently located in the protagonist’s mind and strictly limited to his subjective point of view?

One choice is to rewrite it into the objective third person point of view. Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example, is narrated by a schizophrenic mental patient, Chief Bromden. As Chief tells us his tale, he hallucinates walls oozing slime and people growing and shrinking like Lewis Carroll creatures from beyond the looking glass. Instead, for the 1975 film, screenwriters Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman stripped the novel down to its essential events, put Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) at the center of the action, and re-envisioned the story through the cool eye of an omniscient, free-moving camera.

For MY COUSIN RACHEL, however, Roger Michell realized that du Maurier’s ingenious ambiguity wouldn’t work unless the camera locked into Phillip’s (Sam Claflin) POV and stayed there. So Michell’s script and editing constantly call for angles that either look at Phillip while he reacts, gaze over Phillip’s shoulder while he acts, or survey scenic landscapes while he narrates VO.


Experienced readers know that exposition told in a first person voice may or may not be factual. Of course, many first person narrators are perfectly honest and can be trusted. We, for example, take Ishmael’s descriptions of the characters and events in Moby Dick as statements of fact.

On the other hand, in works such as FIGHT CLUB and GONE GIRL the audience senses that a character’s version of events (no matter how vivid and impactful) cannot be trusted. Such characters then become the fictional device known as the unreliable narrator.

This strategy has many variations. In some tellings the narrator’s unreliability is hinted at, but not revealed until the very end when we discover the whole story was a calculated lie (THE USUAL SUSPECTS) or a massive rationalization (ATONEMENT). Other narrators may be unreliable for reasons of insanity (THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI) or post-traumatic delusions (LIFE OF PI, JACOB’S LADDER). One of the most common variants is a story told by a gullible youth or naïf (FORREST GUMP, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, HUCKLEBERRY FINN).

This last variation was Daphne du Maurier’s choice. She wrote My Cousin Rachel (1951) in the first person voice of her seriously naïve protagonist, Phillip Ashley. Letters from his guardian, Ambrose Ashley (who may be suffering from a brain tumor and therefore delusional), make him highly suspicious of Ashley’s widow. Nonetheless, he falls madly in love with her.

Throughout the novel Phillip seeks the truth by constantly studying body language and facial expressions with an eye to ulterior motives or duplicitous thoughts in the subtexts of other character’s words and gestures. His inner monologues are spotted with “maybe,” “perhaps,” “possibly,” “as if”; he wonders aloud if his imagination, his “fancy,” is deceiving him or are his suspicions true; then as he reads minds, he becomes more and more sure of his surmises.

Two examples:

While questioning Rachel’s Italian friend, Rainaldi, Phillip muses: “He took up a pen between his fingers, and tapped it on the table, as if he were playing for time or trying to distract me. Was it my fancy or did a veiled look come over his dark eyes?” In other words, was Rainaldi lying? Is he up to something? If so, what?

Later while talking to Rachel: “I knew from her voice that she was talking to convince herself, not me.” In other words, she’s lying to herself. But what lie and why?

As we read du Maurier’s first person novel, we know that the other characters could be innocent and that Phillip’s suspicions could well be a distorted male gaze, but because we’re fixed in the POV of an unreliable protagonist, we have to judge for ourselves who or what to believe.

That’s literature. Roger Michell’s problem is how to turn it into cinema, and he found the solution in his casting and directing of the actors.

As we watch Rachel Weisz’s subtle performance, we sense her flow of unspoken thoughts, but what are they? Rachel’s subtext alternates between seeming innocence and what could be either regret over not being able to save her two fatally ill husbands or guilt about poisoning them. It’s for us to decide.

The same is true for the writing that underlies Sam Claflin’s impressive performance. Phillip doesn’t know anything, so he suspects everything. His country-boy character arcs from innocent to lethal in a seamless portrayal of how naiveté leads to the paranoia that sends a woman to her death.

If you’re interested in adaptation, watch for novels coming to the screen, read the books first, sketch the way you would do it, then see the films. You’ll learn fast.

Does Acting Help Your Writing?

Robert McKee explains how acting experience is an invaluable asset when writing for the screen. As a bonus, Mckee also tackles a question about the importance of a story’s plot.


Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Wonder Woman (2017) | Directed by Patty Jenkins

McKee Says: It Works, But… (Spoiler Alert!)

Over all, WONDER WOMAN successfully combines a coherent script and amiable casting with eye-catching spectacle and the triumph of good over evil. What’s more, the revival of this iconic protagonist in these contentious days makes it an important social event. Delighted little girls in my audience shouted “Wow!” scene after scene. It’s a hit and doing what Action spectacles are designed to do: making money.

However, I can think of two ways in which the film doesn’t work and cost it a bigger box office.

1. Repetitious Action:

I counted ten action set pieces: one rescue, one escape, and no less than eight assaults by Wonder Woman. Action becomes boredom without variety, so the director is to be congratulated for inducing pace, variation, and a sense of progression into a screenplay that repeated Wonder Woman’s mania for confrontation end to end.

2. The Character of Ares:

First, casting a British actor as villain is a dreadful cliché. Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal the Cannibal and Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber set the standard decades ago, but persistent copyists have worn the meme to its nub.

Second, an Action story can only be as exciting as the villain and his tactics make it. A cliché in that role sucks energy out of the telling.

The Action genre can deliver a positive climax in just one of three ways: The hero overpowers the villain; the hero outsmarts the villain; or the hero does both—outsmarts and overpowers.

Outsmarting means discovering a hidden flaw in the villain and, in a jiu-jitsu like move, exploiting it. Needless to say, a climax that pivots on the hero outsmarting the villain is far more satisfying than her overpowering him with brute muscle. But then an amazing feat of outsmarting calls for a screenplay with mental muscle.

Ares has no hidden flaw to discover, outsmart, and exploit; he’s just weaker than Wonder Woman and so ripe for defeat. We’re told that he was once the most murderous god on Olympus. If so, that doesn’t say much for the power of Zeus and his fellow deities. I doubt that Satan, the Christian god of evil, would crumple like Ares.

The Moral Question:

The Action Hero is, by definition, a good person who uses evil means to defeat evil. The hero will be as lying and deceitful as evil, as clever as evil, and most importantly, as violent as evil. In fact, the hero will ultimately do these things far better than evil, destroy evil, and then go back to being a good person again.

Of course, the notion that people who use evil means to do good will not be corrupted by these tactics, or that once heroes take life-and-death power into their hands, they will it back to the people is naïve. But then Action has always pitted an idealized purity of good against undiluted evil. That’s the core of this genre.

Because action heroes must be violent, they have been almost exclusively male since Homer. Recently, however, long form television series such as HOMELAND, GAME OF THRONES, VIKINGS, and THE AMERICANS have added fiercely heroic killer women to the ranks. Now WONDER WOMAN.

Always bear in mind that Action writers never intend for fictional violence to be taken as a literal model for behavior. Rather, they use it as a metaphor for the courageous strength we all need to face life. For that reason, society has generally accepted the role of Action tales in the lives of boys. On the other hand, if our sorry society is to progress, we must empower women as an equal, hopefully greater, force for moral good.

Therefore, some questions: Are we comfortable using violence as a poetic for girls in the same way we have always used it for boys? Have Action stories made boys better human beings? Will they have a positive influence on girls? I hope so because the trend is clear.

Who Is Maya Deren and Why Does She Matter to Your Screenwriting?

How did Maya Deren change the filmmaking world?

Maya Deren, the mother of the avant-garde cinema and its movement, greatly influenced some of the most respected filmmakers of our time; from Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman to Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch.

Her 1941 groundbreaking film MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON demonstrates a tour de force filmmaking artistry, using no decorative photography, no spoken words, and only single drum beats. To this day it stands as the beacon of avant-garde cinema.


May 28th, Robert McKee will end the Beijing GENRE Festival (May 25 - 28) with THE MASTERPIECE Day. He will analyze Maya Deren’s MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON, and Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning film CHINATOWN. Robert will also address the state of current Chinese films.

A Brief Bio of Maya Deren

Maya Deren came to America in 1922 as Eleanora Derenkowsky. Together with her father, a psychiatrist and her mother, an artist, she fled the pogroms against Russian Jews in Kiev. She studied journalism and political science in at Syracuse University in New York, finishing her B.A up at NYU in June 1936, and afterwards received her Master’s degree in English literature from Smith in 1939.

Maya Deren

In 1943 she made her first film with Alexander Hammid called MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943). Through this association she changed her name to “Maya”, a Buddhist term meaning ‘illusion’. She made six short films: MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943), AT LAND (1944), A STUDY FOR CHOREOGRAPHY FOR CAMERA (1945), RITUAL IN TRANSFIGURED TIME (1945-1946), MEDITATION ON VIOLENCE (1947), THE VERY EYE OF NIGHT (1959). She also made several incomplete films, including THE WITCHES CRADLE (1944), with Marcel Duchamp.

Maya Deren was the first filmmaker to receive a Guggenheim for creative work in motion pictures (1947). She wrote film theory, distributed her own films, traveled across the USA, Cuba and Canada to promote her films using the “lecture-demonstration format” to inform on film theory. Deren established the Creative Film Foundation in the late 1950’s to reward the achievements of independent filmmakers. [READ FULL BIO]

The Principle of Infinite Pains: Legendary Filmmaker Maya Deren on Cinema, Life, and Her Advice to Aspiring Filmmakers.


“There is no Avant-Garde any more. There is only Retro Garde. Filmmakers are imitating the auteurs of the past and recycling tired works of the past. I am tired of movies about movies. What we want to see is movies about life…about characters that express the nuances of life.” -ROBERT MCKEE