Seen Through Charlie Kaufman's Eyes

The screenwriting guru talks about what it was like to see himself portrayed by Brian Cox in the film "Adaptation."
  • Transcript


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 Akroyd, 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.