"Gimmickry" Posing as Experimentation

Film has hit a dead-end as a storytelling medium, says McKee, because it's expensive and conservative—and what experimentation there is exists more to show off than to provide meaning.
  • Transcript


Question: Who are some of your favorite screenwriters?
Robert McKee:
Paul Haggis is a fine, wonderful writer.  Akiva Goldsman is another one.  Docter at Pixar.  But I don’t have favorites.  And it’s not like rock n’ roll.  It just isn’t.  Where you can pick a favorite and see that they’re doing something really innovative in music.  And it comes out every six months there’s a song or an album, or whatever.  It’s not like that because the time between starting up a screenplay or novel or a play and actually seeing it on stage, page, or screen, is years of development and work and it goes on over long periods of time.  And so, there was a time back when, 50-60 years ago, when screenwriters were under contract to studios and they were turning out three, four, or five screenplays a year.  And directors were directing two and three and four films a year.  Michael Curtiz, who directed “Casablanca,” by the time he died had directed 120 films.  Well, those days are gone.  If a director gets to direct 12 films in his lifetime, he’d be a success.  And so you can’t trace development and who’s doing the cutting edge thing or whatever like that in quite those ways.
I think the three guys who write, produce, and often direct “Damages,” the two brothers,, Zellman brothers and Kessler, those three guys are doing as exciting work as writers as anybody in film.  Film is a very... Hollywood film is very conservative.  They do not take risks.  Television is experimental.  I mean watching “The Sopranos” or whatever, or “Six Feet Under,” was an example of applying to television the principle of the novel known as the unreliable narrator.  You could never be sure when you’re watching “The Sopranos” or “Six Feet Under,” is this a dream sequence?  Is somebody hallucinating this?  Did this actually happen, or are they just having fun with us, or whatever.  I mean, until you saw enough of the episodes to realize that the whole damned episode was a dream.  Nobody does that in film.  You can’t do that in the movies.  You know, it costs $30, $50, $100 million to make a film.  You can’t have that kind of experimentation.
And when it comes along, when such experiments do happen like “The Usual Suspects,” where somebody pulls the plug at the end and you realize Kevin Spacey made the whole damned thing up, it’s a big... it’s a form of cheap surprise.  It’s a big, huge, cheap surprise.  It’s not as if it was being done like Luis Bunuel would have done in the ‘60’s to really express the absurdity of life.  When film does tricky storytelling things like that on occasion, it’s not as if it’s driven by a theme.  “The Sixth Sense,” for example, and the mind-fuck ending is just cheap surprise.  It’s what film students do.  But it’s not as if that filmmaker has a deep philosophical understanding that runs against the grain of contemporary sense of reality.  I mean, he’s just having fun and so he just does his film school thing; the mind-fuck, or the whatever.  And so, film is very conservative in that way.  You can’t experiment like that.  Or, if it’s an independent film, you can do films like “Pi,” you know, [Darren] Aranofsky’s film, right, which is extremely experimental for the sake of experimental.  And these guys all went to film school and they were taught Bunuel and Truffaut, and [...], and Bergman. And they were taught the classics of avant-garde and so they imitate what used to be really dangerous stuff in the ‘60’s, and so today there’s no avant-garde.  Today it’s a retro-guard.  Today we have people going back to imitating eccentric forms of the past because they went through film school and they think they should do that and that makes them an artist.

And so I would say that as a storytelling medium, film in particular has hit a dead end. Its, as I said, very expensive, it’s very conservative and experimentation is there to more show off than meaningful, it’s just gimmickry, it’s... something’s got to give, and I don’t know what the hell that will be in order to film to revive itself as an art form.  As a form of entertainment and a form of commerce, film is doing better than ever.
Why haven't you had more of your own screenplays produced?
Robert McKee: Oh well, that’s such a generally unhappy topic.  I’ve sold, or optioned, or written for-hire 12 screenplays in Hollywood.  One of them I have optioned four times over.  And as far as all of my screenplays are concerned, none of them ever get produced.  They have all floundered for various reasons, no less than three times I’ve had studios change administrations in the middle of a development of mine, and so when new presidents come in they throw out everything that’s in development from the previous administration. And on it goes.  It’s one of those sad development hell stories where you make money.  I mean, I made a lot of money, but you don’t see it on the screen.
On the other hand, everything I’ve written for television gets made.  And so, I’ve wrote a lot of episodic cop shows.  I wrote the pilot for the Turner bible mini-series.  I wrote “Abraham,” directed by Joseph Sargent who is a wonderful, Emmy Award winning director, which starred Richard Harris and Barbara Hershey and Maximilian Schell. It was a fine production.  And so when I write for... when I’ve written for TV, they get made and they hold up and it’s good writing.  But screenplays... the guild once did a study of how many of all the screenplays that get optioned, how many actually see it to the screen.  Out of every 20 scripts where serious money is paid, one gets made.  So, the odds are 20 to 1, so I’ve... right now, it’s only 12 to 1 for me.  So... but that’s neither here nor there.  That’s just the way it is.  It’s just bad luck.
But in the meantime, while I was going through that period, I started to teach writing about writing, and writing about writing.
What's the most satisfying part of teaching screenwriting?
Robert McKee: There’s so many of them.  Every time one of my writers wins an Oscar, a Booker Prize, a Pulitzer Prize, and Emmy, whatever, or they call me and they tell me that they got something published that was unpublishable and then they came to my class, did a rewrite and now it’s in the world, whether they win awards or not. But when people take what I teach them, think it through... all I try to do, I cannot teach people how to write, nobody can teach how to do anything like that.  I just give them things to think about.  I just want them to think.  I am categorically opposed to what I call, the "Vesuvius School of Writing" where it’s all magma.  That the writer just sits there and it just explodes out of them and it’s sort of automatic writing and they just, their subconscious mind just, whatever.  This ridiculous way of teaching creative writing, there’s no craft, there’s no thought, there’s no rewriting, there’s no understanding by the writer that it’s all some sort of innocent spontaneous—that is such idiocy.
And so I can't teach them how to write, but if I can give them things to think about, things to consider, elements of craft and process so that their work improves and talented people think about what they’re doing at some point in a way that is very useful to them as a result that I put the idea in their head that "these are things that can be thought about and here’s a way to think about it."  It doesn’t give you the answers; it just raises the right questions.  If I can get writers to ask the right questions of their own work and find answers based upon insights that they’ve gained from my writing, my lecturing, then my day is made.