Screenwriting guru tells all

Robert McKee on why movies may be dying (but story isn't) and seeing himself on-screen in "Adaptation"

Published April 21, 2010 3:06PM (EDT)

Earlier this week, Big Think sat down with legendary screenwriting guru Robert McKee, to talk about the state of storytelling in an age where television is regaining our respect and any group of friends with a computer and a YouTube account between them can release their homemade movie to a worldwide audience. If you aren't familiar with McKee and his message, you must never have harbored any ambitions to become a screenwriter, since he's the most famous teacher of the craft in the business. You may, however, remember a foulmouthed Brian Cox portraying him in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's "Adaptation." (McKee describes what it feels like to see a version of himself on-screen in the interview.)

McKee discusses the human need to structure experience through stories, screenwriting lessons for businesspeople and why his own scripts haven't been turned into films. Visit Big Think to see the video interview in full.

What's the biggest mistake that novice screenwriters make?

The biggest mistake 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's 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 wannabe writers for the screen, is that there is so much shit on the screen, surely my shit is better than their shit.

Does a screenwriter lack creative control?

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 percent 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.

Do you think our culture is getting better or worse at telling stories?

 Oh, in terms of the skill of executing stories, I would say we’re getting better. That’s one thing.

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 postmodernism itself, by definition, means shallowness. It means a satire of the techniques of writing. OK? 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-postmodern 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 1920s to the 1970s on stage, page and screen. Everywhere 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.

 Are you optimistic about the future of storytelling?

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 through 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.

Do we need stories more today than we used to?

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.

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.

Who are some of your favorite screenwriters?

Paul Haggis is a fine, wonderful writer. Akiva Goldsman is another one. [Pete] 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 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 to 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.

Why haven't you had more of your own screenplays produced?

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 written a lot of episodic cop shows.

What was it like seeing yourself as a character in the film "Adaptation"?

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."

So, my answer to the question is: I thought it was wonderful. I loved it.

What are some screenwriting lessons for businesspeople?

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. OK? 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, OK, 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 resentment.

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.

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.

By Big Think


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