TranscriptQuestion: Does a screenwriter lack creative control?
Robert 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.
What you 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.
So, 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 novels.
Question: Does a script that is never made into a film have inherent value?
Robert McKee: 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?
But, the 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.
I 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.