Question: Who are some of your favorite screenwriters?
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.
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?
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.
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
But in the meantime, while I was going through that
period, I started to teach writing about writing, and writing about
Question: 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.