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Storytelling in a Digital World

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.

Advances in digital technology don’t change the way writers tell stories, but they do have an effect on the content of the stories that are told.

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