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Robert McKee is a creative writing teacher known particularly for his "Story Seminar," a multi-day screenwriting lecture that he has given at venues all over the world. He is the[…]

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.

Question: Who are some of your favorite screenwriters?
Robertrn McKee:
Paul Haggis is a fine, wonderful writer.  Akiva Goldsman is rnanother one.  Docter at Pixar.  But I don’t have favorites.  And it’s rnnot like rock n’ roll.  It just isn’t.  Where you can pick a favorite rnand see that they’re doing something really innovative in music.  And itrn comes out every six months there’s a song or an album, or whatever.  rnIt’s not like that because the time between starting up a screenplay or rnnovel or a play and actually seeing it on stage, page, or screen, is rnyears of development and work and it goes on over long periods of time. rn And so, there was a time back when, 50-60 years ago, when screenwritersrn were under contract to studios and they were turning out three, four, rnor five screenplays a year.  And directors were directing two and three rnand four films a year.  Michael Curtiz, who directed “Casablanca,” by rnthe time he died had directed 120 films.  Well, those days are gone.  Ifrn a director gets to direct 12 films in his lifetime, he’d be a success. rn And so you can’t trace development and who’s doing the cutting edge rnthing or whatever like that in quite those ways.
I think the rnthree guys who write, produce, and often direct “Damages,” the two rnbrothers,, Zellman brothers and Kessler, those three guys are doing as rnexciting work as writers as anybody in film.  Film is a very... rnHollywood film is very conservative.  They do not take risks.  rnTelevision is experimental.  I mean watching “The Sopranos” or whatever,rn or “Six Feet Under,” was an example of applying to television the rnprinciple of the novel known as the unreliable narrator.  You could rnnever be sure when you’re watching “The Sopranos” or “Six Feet Under,” rnis this a dream sequence?  Is somebody hallucinating this?  Did this rnactually happen, or are they just having fun with us, or whatever.  I rnmean, until you saw enough of the episodes to realize that the whole rndamned episode was a dream.  Nobody does that in film.  You can’t do rnthat in the movies.  You know, it costs $30, $50, $100 million to make arn film.  You can’t have that kind of experimentation.
And when rnit comes along, when such experiments do happen like “The Usual rnSuspects,” where somebody pulls the plug at the end and you realize rnKevin Spacey made the whole damned thing up, it’s a big... it’s a form rnof cheap surprise.  It’s a big, huge, cheap surprise.  It’s not as if itrn was being done like Luis Bunuel would have done in the ‘60’s to really rnexpress the absurdity of life.  When film does tricky storytelling rnthings like that on occasion, it’s not as if it’s driven by a theme.  rn“The Sixth Sense,” for example, and the mind-fuck ending is just cheap rnsurprise.  It’s what film students do.  But it’s not as if that rnfilmmaker has a deep philosophical understanding that runs against the rngrain of contemporary sense of reality.  I mean, he’s just having fun rnand so he just does his film school thing; the mind-fuck, or the rnwhatever.  And so, film is very conservative in that way.  You can’t rnexperiment like that.  Or, if it’s an independent film, you can do filmsrn like “Pi,” you know, [Darren] Aranofsky’s film, right, which is rnextremely experimental for the sake of experimental.  And these guys allrn went to film school and they were taught Bunuel and Truffaut, and rn[...], and Bergman. And they were taught the classics of avant-garde andrn so they imitate what used to be really dangerous stuff in the ‘60’s, rnand so today there’s no avant-garde.  Today it’s a retro-guard.  Today rnwe have people going back to imitating eccentric forms of the past rnbecause they went through film school and they think they should do thatrn and that makes them an artist.

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