Big Think Interview With Robert McKee
Robert McKee: Well, the three great medias, not only screenplay, but it’s also the theater, play writing, and the prose. I mean, those are the three primary. And they get mixed a lot. TV is a sort of combination of all three really, novel, theater, and film. Graphic novels are another form that combines novels as a basis, as the title suggests, with films, sort of, like cartoons.
And the principal differences between the three of them is the level of conflict that interests the writer of each of them. And so, you have stories—they all tell a story—but stories involve characters in conflict with their social or physical world, in personal relationships with friends, family, lovers, and an inner conflict within their own natures between themselves, their subconscious mind, their body, their emotions, and so forth. The novelist tends to be interested in inner conflicts; characters in conflict with their own contradictory natures, their own contradictory desires, their emotions. Playwrights tend to be more interested in personal relationships, of family, friends, lovers—because the theater is a form for dialogue, primarily. And talk is the way in which people in personal relationships work those relationships out for better or worse, right? And so the power and the beauty of the theater is personal conflicts.
The power and beauty in film is the extra personal conflicts of characters in conflict with their physical world and their social world. And so all three media can tell complex stories because you can work with inner conflict, certainly, in a film, you can work with personal conflict naturally in a film, and in a novel, you can do all three, in a play you can do all three. But the strength of each of them tends to be at one of those three levels. And so, if you’re trying to make a career choice as to what kind of writer should I be, you really need to ask another question; which level of conflict in life really interests me the most? And then you would presumably move into that medium. But I know a lot of writers whose real interest is not at the level of conflict that the medium in which they are writing is strongest in. And so a lot of independent filmmakers, for example, are really interested in inner conflict. And so they should be writing novels and not trying to make films of people staring into space, coming to big decisions in their lives, or whatever, it would bore people.
And so, which level of conflict interests the writer is a critical choice. And a lot of writers don’t understand their own instincts and they get... Stanislavski, the great acting teacher once said: “You have to figure out whether you’re in love with the art in yourself, or yourself in the art.” And too many people go into film, especially, or television because they are in love with the idea of themselves in the art. They want to be in the movies, they want to be in TV, or even in the theater, or whatever. When their natural talents and interests lie elsewhere. So, that’s a critical choice as to which medium you choose because it has to pair up with what really interests you.
Question: 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.
Question: Are the best screenwriting opportunities in television?
Robert McKee: Absolutely. Well, you’ve got, I don’t know, countless channels; hundreds perhaps of channels, going 24 hours a day, consuming material at that rate. And so the number of series and specials at commercial networks, but primarily at HBO and Showtime and at the satellite networks, the subscription networks is enormous. It’s huge. They can’t—and it seems to just be ever expanding in terms of the number of series and the number of episodes per series. And so when you have, like, “The Sopranos” ran for nine years, “Six Feet Under” ran for seven years doing, I don’t know, 20 episodes a year. Okay? That’s almost 200 episodes of “Sopranos.” When you have these kinds of enormities, it just demands ideas and quality writing from the writing community. And so the opportunities of what’s already there in order for a writer to write episodically are enormous, but the most wonderful possibility is that you create a series, you’re the next Dick Wolf. Okay? And why not? I mean, they all started somewhere. They all started generally as episodic writers who then got to know people and pitched a series idea. And television, without question is the most creative medium to write today. It is doing things with storytelling that are really wonderful and exciting, and it has length greater than any novel. It has... camera moves in close and so it focuses on dialogue scenes like the theater. On the other hand, it can move out of doors and can do what a movie can do, up to a point. The budget won’t allow spectacles of the “Avatar” kind, but not yet.
But it can also, like a novel, crawl inside of characters' heads because it can get in close, you can see the subtext vividly in the actors' performances. I mean, in a wonderful series like “Damages,” Glenn Close just turning and looking at somebody is, you know, enormously rich in her thoughts and feelings. And so TV takes its strength from all three of the media, and then does it over months, years of time. It’s an enormously creative medium. If it were a young writer wanting a career in the performance stories, certainly television would be my first choice today.
Question: Has digital technology changed screenwriting?
Robert McKee: No, I can’t say that for sure because stories are a metaphor for life and as a result, you’re really saddled with life. And so you can’t get all digital about life. Okay? And so you still have to have characters even if they’re cartoons. They still have to have interactions with each other in their world. They still have to have desires that they’re pursuing. There’s still a question of value or survival or death, love, hate, truth, lie, courage, cowardice, I mean these values are eternal. And so, no, I think, how would I know, I’m not a scientist of this kind, but if I had to guess that the digitalness of things is part of the shallowness of things. And so, I don’t think it changes the way they tell stories, but it certainly appears to have an effect on the content of the stories that they tell.
It certainly changes the way they write in terms of their inability to punctuate. Their inability to spell. Their inability to write a coherent sentence. Their literacy is of a kind I’m not familiar. And it would be annoying; it seems to me that if you had to read these things, reading the same sentence three times over to try to figure out what the hell the guy meant because he cannot communicate in language. I’ve experienced that many, many times.
And it does have an effect of this kind. Even more so than ever, it makes people who don’t write disdain screenwriting, because they become less and less literate. Now that’s, again, a general overstatement. Generally speaking, the films that get made are written by literate people and that’s why they get made because they really have characters, they tell a story. I mean, I’m sure a film like “Up in the Air,” which is adaptation of a novel, that screenplay was probably, I haven't read it, but I’m sure it was superbly written, or George Clooney wouldn’t do it. Because he’s a literate guy. But, yes, I see these trends toward less and less literacy. But you know, in screenwriting, literacy is not a big problem, not on the screen because everything that is literate on the screenplay is going to be turned into images anyway. And so if the screenwriter cannot describe in a literate way it doesn’t really matter. What really matters is the story that they tell. The actors are going to improvise and rework the dialogue anyway. And so, if they can tell a story – I mean, there’s no necessary connection between literacy and storytelling. A story can be danced out in ballet. A story can be mimed. Stories can be cartooned. I mean any way in which people can communicate stories can be told, and language is only one of them. And so the literacy of the screenwriter, in that way, is not a critical factor if somehow they manage to tell a story that grabs people.
But I think there’s an intimate connection often between the literary sensibility of a writer and the quality of their characters. And inasmuch as a film is still concerned about character and character complexity, then the kind of digital mind that we’re talking about is not really interested in character complexity anyway. And so the sort of thing they write is of a cartoony nature, often. And which is, you know, I thought “Up” was great, and I know that [Pete] Docter that had written it is certainly a literate guy. So, I’m just not an expert in the area of digitalness. I just don’t know.
Question: 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.
Question: Do you think our culture is getting better or worse at telling stories?
Robert McKee: Oh, in terms of the skill of executing stories, I would say we’re getting better. That’s one thing. Okay, I think it’s clear. For example, I mentioned the series, “Damages,” and in fact there was just an article in New York Magazine the other day about “Damages” and the brilliant way in which that series does something that really has never been explored quite that way before. They use flash-forwards as hooks. They give you glimpses of the future, but only glimpses, and so they put you in a state of semi-dramatic irony. You know more than the character knows. The character’s going to die. Okay, you know that. This character is going to die. Then you go and flash-forward to the death, all right? And now you watch... you go back and you watch them in the present. So, you know what he doesn’t know. You know he’s going to die, but you don’t know how or why he’s going to die. And so, and you don’t know who did it, who killed him, and so forth. And so there’s lots of hooky questions and curiosity, but it’s also a bit of dramatic irony. That’s amazing.
When you see it, you wonder why hasn’t this been done before? So, in terms of executing stories, I would say that the techniques are better than ever.
In terms of the content of the stories, that’s another question. And in terms of what these stories are about, the depth to which they bring their characters, I would say, no. The stories are more shallow overall. And that’s a huge generalization. But post-modernism itself, by definition, means shallowness. It means a satire of the techniques of writing. Okay? Calling attention to the techniques of writing, and that, of course, divorces you from the content by the very nature of it. And so in this post-post-modern world, or wherever we are now, I would say that as a grand generalization, that the content of stories are not the quality that they were in the 50 golden years from the 1920’s to the 1970’s on stage, page and screen, every where in the world, especially the English-speaking world, the films, the plays, and the novels of that period were magnificent in content.
And so we’ve learned to be more clever, more experimental, and more skilled, often, in the telling of stories today, but I can’t say that the content is what it used to be.
Question: Are you optimistic about the future of storytelling?
Robert McKee: I never lose faith in story, film may come and go as an art form, and art forms have come and gone. Opera, more and less, came and went and then just gets revived endlessly. There’s very little cutting edge opera today. There are art forms that rise up and dominate a period of time in human history and then recede. And so film goes though that and recedes. So what, because there will always be story. And the medium of the future, I think, is television. But certainly the novel and the theater is still alive and well, for the most part, despite some pretty mediocre storytelling.
And so, the art of storytelling, the art of story, I never worry about. People will always tell stories and they will tell really great stories and beautiful stories. But the medium of the future, the medium that writers choose to do what is the best work in the future that changes.
Human beings... a great critic said once, Kenneth Burke said, “Stories are equipment for living.” Human beings need storytelling in order to make sense out of life, in order to live as well and civilized as a human being can. And so they will go to the storyteller for meaningful emotional experiences that they cannot get from life, and then it’s just a matter of which medium the storytellers of the future choose to dominate that period in time, and then that too will change in time.
Question: Do we need stories more today than we used to?
Robert McKee: The time that people spend in stories created for them by a storytelling artist today compared to 50 to 100 years ago, it’s triple or quadruple what it used to be. Do they need it more? Maybe. You could make an argument that the disintegration and relativization of values in contemporary society is so blurring that people desperately need stories to help them make sense out of life because what we are used to agree upon nobody agrees on anymore. Society is, it’s obvious, but is so splintered and so split. I mean, there’s a spectrum that runs from "I am my brother’s keeper" to "Every man for himself" and we call that liberals, and on the right conservatives. And this argument over are we our brother’s keeper, or is it every man for himself, has never been more ugly and fragmenting of society. And so people are clustering now, depending on their position on that spectrum, of caring or not caring in such ways that they cannot even talk to people who are anywhere else on that spectrum.
And as a result, there is more chaos in daily life and then throw in the great recession and a few other chaoses like wars, and people are desperate. And they need story. Yeah, I think you could make an argument. Now, are they getting the quality of stories, comic or tragic, that would help them live through this really ugly period in history? Probably not. But the writers do their best. Because the writers are just citizens too, you know? And they’ve got no necessarily more philosophical, psychological insight into this than anybody else. So the writer has to be a philosopher of a kind today that they’ve never had to be before. They have to make sense out of a kind of chaos that no one ever confronted before. I mean the worst thing that, you know, a hundred years ago, and the worst thing that could happen is that you die. So, people told stories about how to live well, live meaningfully if you could, or tragedy. But death was the worst thing. Well, there are far worse things now. Far worse things. And people are literally in living hells. They’d be better off dead, all around the world. The suffering in the Third World today is of an extreme that the Third World has never suffered before because, generally speaking, in the Third World people didn’t starve to death, they could farm. But even that in many ways has been lost and for a lot of reasons. But yeah, the world is in a worse state than I know from history, and people would probably say, the Black Plague was the worse. But I don’t think so, because people understood the Plague: You get sick and you die. Who can understand the banking system? Who can understand love? Who can understand parenting? I mean these are things people thought they knew; they don’t know anymore. And so the Plague at least was clear. It was terrible, but it was clear.
The problem for people today is confusion in a world that should make sense. In a world in which you have more communication than ever, makes less and less sense than ever. And so you need storytellers to make sense out of that chaos, but it’s as I said, it’s a chaos of a very different kind today, and the writer struggles.
Question: What's the worst screenplay-writing advice you've ever heard?
Robert McKee: That there are certain points, certain pages in fact, in which certain things must happen. You got 120 pages—although screenplays are getting shorter, because the emphasis on spectacle becomes greater and greater... And so, anyways, say 100 pages. And properly typed in the right format, a page is equal to a minute of time. And so they say, at a certain page, therefore at a certain minute, more or less in the film, there must be a major turning point of some kind, or expositional point, a revelation of some kind perhaps. And that the worst advice is to—many, many books that say certain events must happen at certain pages in a screenplay. I mean, that is the most destructive possible thing to say to a young writer. And to actually destroy a young talent by actually convincing him that he has to pretzel his work into these page counts, that is just terrible.
But there is a rhythm, and in order to reach anything like a satisfying limit of experience for these characters, generally, you need a minimum of three major reversals. Okay? And you spread those... it could be four or five, I mean “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was in seven acts. It could be seven, eight, nine acts structures, I mean in “Speed,” if you counted the major reversals in a chase film like “Speed” or whatever, it's probably nine. Every ten minutes something explosive happens. Right? But three is a minimum. And if the film is, again, 100 minutes long, and you’re going to space those three out in some kind of fashion, then clearly one of these is going to happen, perhaps at the very beginning. There may be another one somewhere in the middle and maybe one toward the end, or it could be the first one happens like 30 minutes in, and the next one happens like 90 minutes in, or whatever. Okay, so you can have, obviously if they have 100 minutes of storytelling, you can’t have three major events happen, bang, bang, bang, in the first 15 minutes and then leave 75 minutes worth of resolution. Okay? Nor can you make somebody sit there for 75 minutes in which nothing happens and then bang, bang, bang three things happen in the last 15 minutes. So, obviously these events have to be distributed with a certain rhythm. Exactly what that rhythm is, is so idiosyncratic to the nature of the story that is being told that you cannot predict, or demand that they happen on certain pages, but you can point out to the writer, of course that there is a rhythm and that you have to hook the audience’s interest, hold it, and progress it for up to 120 minutes, two hours, even more in many films. And to do that you’ll need at least three major reversals and then you’ve got to work out how to distribute them.
So, there’s certain forms. There’s a form, but by the page is a formula, and that formula kind of thinking is very destructive.
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.
Question: 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.
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.
Question: What was it like seeing yourself as a character in the film "Adaptation?"
Robert McKee: I took my son to a screening at Sony. And it’s one thing... I’ve seen myself on screen many times because I’ve done umpteen TV series when I lived in England and interviews on TV, so it’s not surprising, even though I myself played myself in another movie called, “20 Dates.” And so it wasn’t that big a thing to see Brian Cox do me. But imagine what it would be like for a son to see his father portrayed in a major motion picture. And so he came out of the screening and I said, “Paul, what did you think?” And he said, “Dad, he nailed you.”
That whole thing came about as I was sitting in my office one day working and the phone rang and it was a producer, Ed Saxon, calling from New York with a very apologetic tone saying, “This is the most embarrassing phone call I’ve ever had to make. I don’t know what to do, but here’s the situation. There’s a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman. He’s written a screenplay and he’s made you a character in it, and he has freely quoted from your lectures and quoted from your book without permission, without copyright. We don’t know what to do.” I said, “Well, send it to me, I’ll read it. And I’ll give you a sense of what I think.” And so I read it and I saw what he needed to do. He was trying to write this film about the worse case of writer’s block in history, and he needed an antagonist. And he needed somebody to represent Hollywood in an antagonistic way. But in a way that would cut both ways. And so he had twin brothers. One loves my book and is writing a huge action piece with great success. The other is struggling to make an independent film and this is the inner conflict in Charlie Kaufman and many writer/directors like him. How to make a commercial art movie. Okay? And so he needed my character to have something to push against.
The third act of that script was awful. He just ran out of ideas. It was really awful. And so I called Ed Saxon back and I said, well first, I called William Goldman, and I said, “Bill, they’re trying to make a movie and they’ve made me a character in it. What should I do?” And he said, “Don’t do it.” And I said, “Why not?” And he said, “It’s Hollywood. If they’re out to getcha, they’ll getcha.” I said, “But I’m going to ask for and I’m going to get control over the casting.” He said, “Okay, okay, let’s say you got control of the casting. Who do you want?” I said, “Gene Hackman.” He said, “Fine. It’ll be Gene Hackman with big bows of purple bows around his neck. If they’re gonna getcha Bob, they’re gonna getcha. Don’t do it.”
So then I called my son and I said, “Paul,” and I told him, and he said, “Dad, do it.” And I said, “But William Goldman said, they could satirize me.” He says, “So what?” He says, “You’re going to be a character in a major motion picture. What difference does it make?” And so I thought about it and I thought, if it’s done with humor, if it gets a laugh, I know I’m a controversial person and so I called Ed back and I said, "If we have fun then I’ll play his villain for him, but if two things... one, I have to have a say in the casting. Two, the third act sucks and I can’t be a character in a bad movie. Three, I want my redeeming scene." And so they agreed to all of that and so we had many, many meetings over the act three problems until it got to a point where I would finally agree. And then of course, my redeeming scene in the bar, which becomes a pivotal scene, I think Charlie understood from that scene that even McKee couldn’t help him. And that’s why Donald writes Act 3. And if you watch the film carefully you’ll realize that Charlie’s character only writes the first two acts and then he brings in Donald from Hollywood and Act 3 is Donald’s version of an Act 3. Right?
And then I asked for a list of the actors that they were thinking of casting and they gave me a list. Surprisingly, because see I didn’t know whether this could be the Dan Aykroyd, Danny Devito School of Casting, right? But the list they gave me was the top 10 middle-aged British actors alive; from Christopher Plummer to Michael Caine. And on that list was Brian Cox. And I said, start there and ask him. And they didn’t even know who he was. The casting director knew, of course, but I said, "He’s the best British actor you don’t know." And Brian’s a friend of mine. And he was a student of mine up in Glasgow. And I know Brian’s work. And Brian would not sentimentalize me. Other actors I couldn’t be sure because actors love to be loved. And so while they’re going down the poor screenwriter’s throat in that lecture scene, an actor like Christopher Plummer, or somebody would also put up, but I’m doing it for the right reasons, I’m kind of – you know? And I didn’t want that because that’s an idiotic question. And he deserves to be answered in that tone of voice so that he gets it, the notion that there’s no conflict, that real life is without conflict is the most naive ridiculous thought a person could have. And right now you and I are in this interview full of conflict. As we’re sorting out ideas and trying to make this work, or whatever, I said that being – so anyway... I didn’t want to be sentimentalized because I don’t lecture that way. I don’t want to be loved. I want them to love the art. I want them to learn from me and love the art, but I don’t want groupies, I don’t want to be loved. And so I knew Brian would do that and give that kind of edge to it, and it was great.
So, my answer to the question is: I thought it was wonderful. I loved it.
Question: What are some screenwriting lessons for businesspeople?
Robert McKee: Well, in business, the problem is persuasion, how to get people to do what you want them to do. How to get the employees below you, wherever you are in the pyramid of power, how to get the people below you to do what you want them to do; how to persuade the people above you and the board of directors, or higher management, or whatever, to recognize that what you’re offering is of real value and do things again to further your work, and the corporation as a whole. So, the problem is persuasion. And there are three ways to persuade people. One is rhetoric, and this is, of course, the PowerPoint presentation where you try to build an argument out of facts. This pie chart, that statistic, this quote from authority, this blah, blah, blah, therefore at the end of the day, we should do this. The problem with rhetoric and PowerPoint presentations is that the people you’re making the presentation to have their own facts, their own statistics, their own authorities. And while you’re laying out all of your evidence, they’re arguing with you. Silently. Because they know they have another set of facts. Okay? What’s more, they know in your PowerPoint presentation you have left out everything negative. Everything that’s wrong with this company, everything that they have failed at, every projection that says this is not... everything that is negative has been left out, and they know from business because they are in business too, that the business world is full of things negative. All kinds of problems and labor unions and government agencies and who knows what, okay, that are in your way. But the rhetoric leaves all of that out. So they know you’re lying. They know that you are distorting. And so PowerPoint presentations rarely ever work to persuade anybody.
A second way to persuade is coercion. You can bribe people, you can bully people, you can seduce people, you can threaten people, you can manipulate people in one way or the other, either by seductions or by abuse. And you can get them to do what you want them to do that way. That is every day at the office. The trouble with coercion is that it is short-term. You might be able to bully somebody into doing what you want, or seduce somebody above you to see things your way, but because it’s not founded on anything real, in turn, that snake will turn around and bite you in the ass. And so coercion as a short-term affect may or may not help, but in long-term, it just builds resentments and blah, blah.
The third way to persuade people is with story. You take all the facts that you would have used in a PowerPoint presentation, you take all the emotional impact that you would have used coercing people, and you create out of that a story that imparts those facts emotionally. And the story stars you, or stars the corporation, or your division as an underdog up against very powerful forces and admits to the existence of the negative. When you tell a story, it isn’t just and then, and then, and then, and we all lived happily ever after. It’s that and then, and then this and that, and that and this, and by admitting that somebody stole our patent and we had to go out and fight that in the court, but we got it back, some competitor stole our best people, but we rehired and we got even better people, and so forth. By describing the dynamic of life, and therefore this product is now, da, da, poised to win the market share, or whatever.
By telling story dynamically, you hook them emotionally, because everybody’s rooting for an underdog struggling to succeed. You tell the story honestly because you’re admitting all the negative side, and you’re telling the story emotionally because they get involved and they have a huge stake in the storytelling. Is this company, or is this product going to win?
And so storytelling is, by far, the greatest leaders of business and government, for that matter—people with great power gain that power by being able to communicate a story to the citizen, to the workers, to the board, that hooks them and holds them and pays off. The trouble with that, of course, is it takes talent to do that. Not everybody is a natural storyteller. That’s why people lean on PowerPoint presentations because it’s an essay form and they can do that. But it’s dangerous to tell stories if you don’t have talent because you just bore people.
But the best leaders have that talent, or they learn that craft and the know how to beguile people and move them and excite them with their visions and persuade them.
A conversation with the author and screenwriting guru.
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