Question: Does a screenwriter lack creative control?
McKee: The words that you wrote to put into the character’s mouth,
the dialogue, that may or may not get to the screen the way you wrote it
because actors often cut, editors cut, there will be improvisations and
whatnot. So, you must not mistake words for writing.
write in terms of characters, in terms of story, in terms of the events
in their lives, in terms of the meaning of everything, and the
emotional impact of the storytelling, that is 80% of writing, dialogue
and description is a relatively minor part of the creative process in
the performance arts of television and film. And so, it’s overstating
it and a bit of self-pitying to think that the poor screenwriter, or
television writer doesn’t get what they wrote to the screen because
their dialogue gets paraphrased. I mean if you think that, if somebody
writing for the screen actually thinks that their greatest creative
efforts is in dialogue, then they should be writing for the stage where
every single word of your dialogue, by law, has to be spoken by the
actors. So, it just overstates it.
And I’ll tell you another
little dirty secret about film and television, if you were to take a
finished film, 90% of the time, or a finished TV show, 90% of the time,
and transcribe a screenplay from it, and then compare that to the
screenplay from which they worked, what the writer sold, okay? You’d
see clearly that the screenplay that is finally embedded in the finished
work is far better than the one they started from. And so that, in
fact, the screenplay gets better and better and better as it goes
through pre-production, production, and post-production. But when it
does, as it does 90% of the time, the writer says nothing and just lets
the world assume that that is exactly what they wrote, the way it was
finally done. Okay? When there are changes that are detrimental, and
that happens too, then screenwriters and television writers moan and
groan that they didn’t shoot it the way I wrote it, but they don’t moan
and groan when they didn’t shoot it the way I wrote it and it’s better.
we mustn’t feel sorry for film and television writers. They understand
the reality that in fact polish and revision... it’s going to be edited
finally... that there’s other artists between them and the finished
product. If they care about that so deeply, then they should be writing
Question: Does a script that is never
made into a film have inherent value?
The vast, vast majority of all novels written never get published. The
vast, vast majority of all plays written never get performed. The vast,
vast majority of paintings painted never get hung on a wall. The vast,
vast majority of songs written never get sung in public. I mean,
that’s the nature of things. Okay? And so, again, that screenwriting
is like everything else in the arts is a tautology. And so, yeah, of
course the vast number of every act of creativity in whatever art form
never reaches the world because the vast majority of all of it is shit.
And then there’s those poor little gems of things that never—that do get
buried, unfortunately. And then a lot of crap does get to the world.
And so, it’s all unfair. It’s just all unfair. Okay?
question is, does writing a screenplay that never gets made is it of
value? Of course, it’s enormously valuable. Because, to generalize
again, most screenwriters, even the most talented of screenwriters,
their first 10 screenplays that they write never get made. Oliver
Stone, Lawrence Kasdan, Akiva Goldsman, I mean on and on. I could name
brilliant screenwriters who are now very successful who spent the first
10, even 15, years of their writing lives writing screenplays that
nobody wanted, and/or novels that probably nobody published and so
forth. And so that unproduced screenplay, or unpublished novel is
enormously beneficial to the writer because you have to fail, you have
to create at least 10 unproduced—be willing, at least, to produce—10
unproduced major works of story art in order to master the art form, in
order to grow up.
I mean, if you start writing when you are
about 20 – I mean, I used to write when I was in college, grad school.
And I had a wonderful teacher, Kenneth Rowe. And I read my plays and I
looked at them and I thought, my God, this is the work of a really
immature person. But then I was immature. There was nothing I could do
about that. Okay? And it took another 15 years of life to, when I
went back to writing, to be able to write something of quality. So
while you’re writing screenplays or novels nobody wants, you’re also
living, gathering insight into yourself as a human being and all that
becomes material for your future writing. So, indeed, those unproduced,
unpublished works are extremely important. They have to be written in
order for the writer to finally achieve their first success.
mean, you read about these things in the paper that a 23-year old writer
gets first novel published, or memoir published or first screenplay
produced. And so these things happen, and they’re just there to annoy
the really good writers that are going to take 10 years to make it. But
when they finally do, they’re going to produce works of real quality.
So, sure. Those unproduced works are very important.