First, Break All The Rules
When I asked this student to give me one thing she remembered above anything else, she replied: "That you can break the rules, and get away with it."
I was relieved that she was not my student. In itself there's nothing wrong with trying to be different but too often the filmmakers don't realise all they're doing is setting themselves up for failure. Heath Ledger's last Australian film, CANDY, was an example of such a film that broke the rules. And failed. The film doesn't have a clear point of view and it doesn't have a clear structure.
I am not sure which film this student had in mind as a successful example of non-conventional structure, but I bet you it was PULP FICTION. Ever since 1994, filmmakers have been hoping to get away with it in the same way Tarantino did. In my view PULP FICTION has done far more damage to the craft of screenwriting than its success will ever justify. The irony is that PULP FICTION is relatively conventional in its structure, just not linear. Check Linda Aronson's book SCREENWRITING UPDATED.
But all that is beside the point. The point is that writers often think "But my script is different" or: "Hollywood makes crap, audiences don't want to see that stuff anymore." This one I keep hearing, too: "Trust me, it works in my head and the film will be very different from the script!" That's probably what Darren Oronovsky thought before he made THE FOUNTAIN, or Terry Gilliam (with each of his movies).
Call me conservative but the more I learn about film, the more I am convinced audiences are conditioned by an increasingly structured type of filmmaking. Time and time again I hear people rejecting structure one minute, and raving about highly structured films the next.
Ever since the story of a boy and a princess in space 30 years ago, audiences have been conditioned by a more sophisticated version of the 3-act structure, i.e. the Hero's Journey. And this process accelerated after Christopher Vogler wrote down the "new" paradigm.
LEARN THE RULES, THEN BREAK THE RULES
I have had the pleasure and honour of meeting and working with dozens of writers who are dedicated to learning the craft. They read, study, analyse and write.
Most of them learn with the intention of later applying what they have learned. Others take the basics on board and explore ways of being original and creative within the boundaries. Yet others fully intend to knowingly break the rules with their first screenplay.
Now the latter may be unwise.
In stead of "Learn the Rules, then Break the Rules", I'd rather say: "Master the Rules, then Bend Them." First prove that you understand the craft by getting a successful produced credit. Whatever David Cronenberg has ever done, in 1979 he wrote and directed a perfectly formulaic, perfectly entertaining racing movie. Before Simon Beaufoy ventured into the complex structure of SLUMDOG MILLIONNAIRE, he earned his kudos with THE FULL MONTY. Before Paul Haggis wrote CRASH, for years and years he wrote formulaic TV drama.
First master the rules, then bend them.
As a writer you won't know if you actually master the craft until the film goes out and is successful. Believing that you can learn the rules and break them with your first script, is a dangerous illusion.
Of course, every year there will be at least one success story of a breakthrough screenplay that didn't apply the principles. Everybody will write and talk about that one person. They fail to mention the fifty thousand screenplays registered with the Writers Guild that didn't get made that year.
Bottomline: if you are in this game for the long term, it pays to look at the statistics before you decide on your strategy.
RULES AND PRINCIPLES
McKee speaks of 'principles' vs. 'rules'. Rules say: "you must do this". Principles say: "this works", or rather: if you do THIS, the outcome will be THAT. Then you choose.
Here is a principle I discovered from analysing countles movies: the Inciting Incident is an event that happens TO the hero; never an action BY the hero. Then I found all these great movies that broke that principle: ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, COOL HAND LUKE, THELMA & LOUISE etc. Looking further, I realised another principle may be at play. In these examples (and many others), the hero DIES at the end of the story. They're not breaking a rule, they're just following another powerful principle.
Two examples of bending the rules:
While watching RATATOUILLE with my now four year old son, it struck me as odd that the death of Auguste Gusteau was mentioned early in the story. Surely death is something that belongs towards the end of Act Two, near the Crisis (in Hero's Journey: The Ordeal). I was stunned when I realised the Pixar boys were effectively telling a complete mini Hero's Journey within that first sequence of the movie leading up to the Inciting Incident. They were not breaking any rules, they were APPLYING the rules on multiple levels.
CASINO ROYALE was both a critical and commercial success, although it was perceived as a 'different Bond'. The film bends the structural principle towards the end of Act Two. The physical death (and subsequent resuscitation) of 007 is a clear crisis moment, after which follows the obligatory chase scene (the Road Back). But rather than venturing into Act Three, the Crisis is prolongued and we have a Crisis with two further plot points: the car crash and Bond's torture in the hull of the ship (007's metaphorical death). The result is a totally gratifying film that bends the rules, while being extremely aware of them.
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
I was working with a client on a screenplay that reminded me in some peripheral way of the French rural drama JEAN DE FLORETTE, starring Gerard Depardieu.
The screenplay was adapted by director Claude Berri and veteran scribe Gerard Brach, from a hugely successful original French classic by Marcel Pagnol. The film had been a breakout arthouse hit across the world, with major prizes in its home country but also in England and the U.S. where it was nominated for a Golden Globe.
Although I had seen this film last about ten years ago, I didn't remember much of the plot. I did remember the characters and even individual scenes. Not the plot.
Because the structure is quite extraordinary.
The whole film is structured following a text-book three-act structure. Inciting incident, first act turning point, second act are all 'tres formulaic'. But what seemed unusual to me, and the primary reason why I think this film still looked so fresh to us: the story is structured around the antagonist's journey.
My advice: don't try this at home. As a beginning screenwriter, make sure you try your hand at convential material before you venture into unexplored territory. The screenwriters of Jean de Florette were both highly experienced, with many successes to their names.
Master the rules, then bend them.