Monday, July 6, 2009

Master the Formula! - Wycliffe A. Hill begat McKee, Field and Truby

When the work piles up, deadlines loom and second act woes howl at the door, I long for those long-promised future days where we all fly to work in saucers, learn from glowing boxes and eat out of squeeze tubes and pills (okay we're already in some of that future).

But what I really need is my robotic screenwriter.

I'm not talking about plot software. I'm talking about "Shakespeare's Ghost", the honest-to-God, rivet-covered, robotic writing machine promised by the February, 1931 issue of Popular Mechanics:

A mechanical robot that turns out plots for brain-fagged authors is the invention of Wycliffe A. Hill, Los Angeles scenario writer. Christened “Shakespeare’s ghost, “ this device is said to produce a complete outline of a fiction story in twenty minutes, to an accompaniment of whirring gears. It selects background, characters and dramatic situations from a series tapes.

Heh heh... brain-fagged. That's definitely my new favourite term for the fog that descends after several hours of straight work past the point where your brain has checked out but you're still typing away.

SG (whom I would dub "Sir Tippy Tappy" or "Shakesy G"), could take meetings with my producers and networks and record exactly what they want (within pre-programmed parameters) and he'd be a lot cooler about changes or cuts made with no thought to plot or character. Those times when he did lose his cool all that exasperated heat could be piped out through his metal, stovepipe, chimney head.

The astounding story is detailed by Paul Collins over at Slate Magazine's Summer Movies Special issues.

Most excellent by Design Crux's John
Soellner shows off his retrofuturistic touch.

SG was one of many variations on Hill's sales pitch for ease of scriptwriting. If only he had used it for his own career, which apparently stopped pretty much dead by the 1920's. But the "profoundly obscure" writer of silent cinema, along with French critic Georges Polti, laid the groundwork for an entire industry built on the promise to reveal the secret formulas of dramatic writing. Formulas that would allow every journeyman, hack , and desperate wannabe scribes to create stories that would touch the widest audience possible.

Yup. We have Wycliffe A. Hill to thank for Syd Field, Robert McKee, John Truby and even Linda Seger. Let us hope that their lives don't follow the same destructive path Hill's did. Though his formulas, delivered in the form of books, board games and good ole' SG sold, none of his later screenplays did. He grew so desperate he got involved in trying to locate a San Quentin convict's hidden stash of stolen loot and attempted to sue the man for breach of contract when he couldn't find it.

I'm sure I'd find Hill's robot writer charming for awhile but soon I'd be all chuffed up to create my own work again. Inspiration, creativity and a grudging work ethic will do that to a screenwriter. I'd place SG in a closet and cover hm carefully with a cloth, wondering if I have the time to organize a yard sale someday soon to give him a new home. And then I'd get down to work.

Oh darn, my office door is open and the television in the next room is distracting me.

If only I had a door-closing robot to help me with that.

Thank you, my dear Dr. Dippy Door.

Live the adventure.