TranscriptQuestion: What's the biggest mistake that novice screenwriters make?
Robert McKee: The biggest mistake they will try to make—that they will make—is that they will try to adapt to whatever is trendy. And so they’ll look at the hits, they’ll look at last summer successes, or even the independent films, you know. And I’m sure that after a film like “Boys Don’t Cry” got out, Hollywood was inundated with interesting little small stories of small town characters in some kind of brutal sexual relationships, or whatever. On the other hand, “Avatar” of course and films like that spin loose imitators. And so they will be more concerned about selling than they will about creating, and the attitude often of young writers, or wanna-be writers for the screen is that there is so much shit on the screen, surely my shit is better than their shit. And so, they want to get made, they want success, they want to be in the movie business, and so they will imitate whatever they see, assuming that because of awful stories like “Transformers” get made that they just have to find another toy at Toys R’ Us and imitate that and build a movie around it.
Question: What separates a good screenwriter from a bad screenwriter?
Robert McKee: Well, there are degrees of goodness and badness. And so, it could be a very subtle difference. And in that one, you wouldn’t know. You just wouldn’t. But usually you can tell pretty well. Even if they’ve written 20 screenplays, that doesn’t mean that they have mastered, for example, the craft of exposition. I can pick a screenplay up or a novel, whatever, within a few pages recognize whether or not this writer has a degree of craft, a mastery of craft, to a certain degree at least, simply by noting how they handle exposition. If they handle exposition beautifully, it generally means this is somebody that is really, even though they haven’t been made or produced, or whatever, this is somebody who has thought deeply about the craft and knows how to draw the reader into their story and not tell them and burden them with exposition too soon and too heavy-handedly, but draws it with curiosity and empathy into the story, and indirectly and invisibly as it were, we’re gathering in the exposition that we know, but we’re not conscious of it.
That technique alone requires years of practice. And trial and error. Generally I can tell in the way in which the writer describes what kind of imagination the writer has, at least visual imagination. I can tell within the first dialogue scene of whether or not this writer, even in an action piece has any sense of subtext, or do they write their dialogue on the nose. I mean, there are certain... When people perform in the Olympics, and you have judges sitting there giving them five, six, seven, up to 10, and so forth, what are they looking for? They have ways of judging a performance. Okay? There’s a... Some of it is just sensory, there’s a quality of relaxation in the work, there’s a quality of confidence in the work, there’s a quality of centeredness in the work, and so some of these things are sort of ineffable, but you can judge a performance of figure skating based upon these. Plus, did the blade land at a certain angle? Okay?
And so, it’s the same thing. Writing is a performance, just like figure skating. And I can read it and have a sense, again, of confidence, of control, of precision, of one thing or another. Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean that by the end of the work, I’m going to be wowed. But I can tell from the beginning of the work whether or not the writer has mastered their craft to a certain degree. But that is one thing. But there are lots of people with superb craftsmanship and nothing to say. Steven Spielberg, brilliant craftsmanship, and nothing to say. M. Night Shyamalan can really light a scene and really shoot, and he’s got a cartoon mind, comic book mind. He’s got nothing to say. And so, the mastery of craft is no guarantee overall, on the other hand, you may see people are still struggling with the craft, but they have passion, they have insight, and they really understand human behavior in relationships, or whatever, or they have some wonderful imaginative ideas about alternate worlds in whatever genre.
And so, noting the quality of the craft is no guarantee of excellence, but it’s an interesting thing that a lack of craftsmanship and a lack of insight into life seem to go hand-in-hand. It’s no accident that bad writers also have nothing to say. Okay? Having something to say seems to inspire people. All right? But not necessarily. So, it’s not an easy thing necessarily, and they can make mistakes and you can judge books erroneously by covers, but there are touchstones you can use along the way that give you a sense of quality, versus banality.