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Former CIA Clandestine Operative
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"Gimmickry" Posing as Experimentation

Question: Who are some of your favorite screenwriters?
Robert\r\n McKee:
Paul Haggis is a fine, wonderful writer.  Akiva Goldsman is \r\nanother one.  Docter at Pixar.  But I don’t have favorites.  And it’s \r\nnot like rock n’ roll.  It just isn’t.  Where you can pick a favorite \r\nand see that they’re doing something really innovative in music.  And it\r\n comes out every six months there’s a song or an album, or whatever.  \r\nIt’s not like that because the time between starting up a screenplay or \r\nnovel or a play and actually seeing it on stage, page, or screen, is \r\nyears of development and work and it goes on over long periods of time. \r\n And so, there was a time back when, 50-60 years ago, when screenwriters\r\n were under contract to studios and they were turning out three, four, \r\nor five screenplays a year.  And directors were directing two and three \r\nand four films a year.  Michael Curtiz, who directed “Casablanca,” by \r\nthe time he died had directed 120 films.  Well, those days are gone.  If\r\n a director gets to direct 12 films in his lifetime, he’d be a success. \r\n And so you can’t trace development and who’s doing the cutting edge \r\nthing or whatever like that in quite those ways.
I think the \r\nthree guys who write, produce, and often direct “Damages,” the two \r\nbrothers,, Zellman brothers and Kessler, those three guys are doing as \r\nexciting work as writers as anybody in film.  Film is a very... \r\nHollywood film is very conservative.  They do not take risks.  \r\nTelevision is experimental.  I mean watching “The Sopranos” or whatever,\r\n or “Six Feet Under,” was an example of applying to television the \r\nprinciple of the novel known as the unreliable narrator.  You could \r\nnever be sure when you’re watching “The Sopranos” or “Six Feet Under,” \r\nis this a dream sequence?  Is somebody hallucinating this?  Did this \r\nactually happen, or are they just having fun with us, or whatever.  I \r\nmean, until you saw enough of the episodes to realize that the whole \r\ndamned episode was a dream.  Nobody does that in film.  You can’t do \r\nthat in the movies.  You know, it costs $30, $50, $100 million to make a\r\n film.  You can’t have that kind of experimentation.
And when \r\nit comes along, when such experiments do happen like “The Usual \r\nSuspects,” where somebody pulls the plug at the end and you realize \r\nKevin Spacey made the whole damned thing up, it’s a big... it’s a form \r\nof cheap surprise.  It’s a big, huge, cheap surprise.  It’s not as if it\r\n was being done like Luis Bunuel would have done in the ‘60’s to really \r\nexpress the absurdity of life.  When film does tricky storytelling \r\nthings like that on occasion, it’s not as if it’s driven by a theme.  \r\n“The Sixth Sense,” for example, and the mind-fuck ending is just cheap \r\nsurprise.  It’s what film students do.  But it’s not as if that \r\nfilmmaker has a deep philosophical understanding that runs against the \r\ngrain of contemporary sense of reality.  I mean, he’s just having fun \r\nand so he just does his film school thing; the mind-fuck, or the \r\nwhatever.  And so, film is very conservative in that way.  You can’t \r\nexperiment like that.  Or, if it’s an independent film, you can do films\r\n like “Pi,” you know, [Darren] Aranofsky’s film, right, which is \r\nextremely experimental for the sake of experimental.  And these guys all\r\n went to film school and they were taught Bunuel and Truffaut, and \r\n[...], and Bergman. And they were taught the classics of avant-garde and\r\n so they imitate what used to be really dangerous stuff in the ‘60’s, \r\nand so today there’s no avant-garde.  Today it’s a retro-guard.  Today \r\nwe have people going back to imitating eccentric forms of the past \r\nbecause they went through film school and they think they should do that\r\n and that makes them an artist.

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

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.

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