I had the pleasure of speaking one-on-one with acclaimed screenwriting lecturer Robert McKee, leading to an amazing discussion about his storytelling roots, seminars, philosophy, Hollywood, formulaic screenwriting, and even his appearance — at least through the performance of Brian Cox — and behind-the-scenes role in the Oscar-winning film Adaptation.
Robert McKee occupies a unique position in modern storytelling. His teachings have spread beyond the screen to influence all media. Marketing professionals and business leaders from all over the world read McKee’s works and attend his packed international seminars for an exclusive deep dive into the narrative potential of their company’s content.
Director Peter Jackson calls McKee the “guru of gurus.” A Fulbright Scholar, McKee has won the BAFTA Award for his television series, the Cine Eagle for his filmmaking, as well as the International Moving Image Book Award for his international bestseller, STORY. He has coached over 60 Academy Award winners and 170 Emmy Award winners. At Pixar, McKee’s teachings are “The Law of the Land.” Over 100,000 writers have attended his seminars.
In the following discussion, we learn a little bit more about the man behind the legacy, and we learn a lot more about his philosophy and teachings.
Screencraft: You have this amazing legacy with your book, seminars, and lectures, spanning over 30 years. We’ll get to that obviously, but I’m interested to hear where it all started. Where and when did your storytelling roots begin and what lead you to screenwriting?
Robert McKee (RM): It began with a wannabe private film school in Los Angeles called Shorewood Oaks Experimental College. Their premise was only professionals would teach. For a while, it was quite successful with people like Dustin Hoffman teaching acting and Sydney Pollack teaching directing.
So I got a phone call from them, asking me if I would put together a course for writers. I had been on the faculty at USC Film School teaching writing and apparently they had heard of me. I was a busy writer at the time, selling a lot, nearly everything I wrote, but not always getting produced unless it was for television. So I said, “Sure, that’d be fun.” Writing is a lonely gig and this would be for Saturday mornings. I put together these lectures and workshops for eight weeks, eight Saturdays. It was a lot of fun and people seemed to enjoy it.
I got a call asking if I’d do it again. I went back a second time and what had been 20 people was now 60 people. It was now more of a lecture than a workshop because of that. And then when I was asked back for a third time, it was 250 people in an auditorium.
Then I was asked invited by Women in Film to bring it to New York. I told them I couldn’t come to New York for eight weeks, so they asked if I could possibly do it for a weekend. So I went there for a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It was a big success. Then somebody in Europe heard about it. And it just sort of grew like that. Word of mouth.
And then Shorewood Oaks went out of business.
I wanted to keep it going because it was fun, so I put a tiny ad in the L.A. Times. The seminar was called Story Structure in those days. And then the phone just wouldn’t stop ringing. And from there, I had to rent space and it then became a business.
ScreenCraft: I know you have a theater background and I’m wondering if you bring those skills and that experience to your seminars?
RM: Absolutely. The tone that I take when I lecture is much like the tone that I take when I directed plays. I talk to writers as if I was a director talking to actors, knowing that the actor ultimately has to do it. And I have to give them the stuff that they need to work with in order to do it, but they have to do it.
My philosophy is that you cannot teach anyone how to write. That’s ridiculous. No more than you can teach people how to act. You can teach them what story is, what writing is, but you can’t do it for them.
So my theater background as a director of over 60 plays, and having acted in as many, has a lot to do with what I teach being rooted in Stanislavski, having acted and directed in the theater, and having worked with The Method, to translate experience into art.
The writer is the character’s first actor. When the writer is writing, they’re acting and improvising. That’s how a character gets created. That’s how a scene gets created. The writer improvises and they act out the character in their mind.
So the writer is the first actor, and therefore they have to create what the actors are going to interpret. So basing writing on the method that an actor goes through in order to bring a character to life is very sound. It’s the same process. The writer starts it and the actor finishes it.
ScreenCraft: So we both know that a good percentage of the screenplays out there just aren’t ready or are downright terrible. Then we have maybe 4% that are just above average at best — “good screenwriters” we’ll call them — and then you have that top 1% of “great screenwriters” that are getting things made, getting the jobs, etc. What are the keys to turning a “good screenwriter” to a “great screenwriter?”
RM: A good writer cannot become a great writer if they don’t have the innate brilliance and talent. Then the other is time. There are certain art forms like music, poetry, dance, and what not, that young people can do immediately. These are the art forms for the young. What they need is a sensitivity and a passion, but what they don’t need is depth of human experience. Children dance, right?
But when you move to story, be it the novel, the short story, the play, television series, film, and so forth, stories are metaphors for life. And it takes a certain amount of time to live a certain number of years and hopefully experience to develop self awareness, insight into your humanity, etc. All of that takes time.
And so the difference between a good writer and a great writer often is that they needed years — ten years or whatever — to move to an understanding of life that gave them material worth experiencing, so when they mastered the technique they had something to say.
Now there are certain genres, maybe action and so forth, where technique is somewhat more important than substance, although I wouldn't denigrate action as being substanceless, but it’s not the same as other genres. So there are genres where the young can have immediate success.
But if you’re going to write Breaking Bad? The people who were writing that show were all middle-aged and beyond. Somebody like [Breaking Bad creator] Vince Gilligan? He moved from good to great. But it took him time.
So it takes talent, perseverance, living as deeply as you can and letting life experience accumulate to where you have some sense of irony and how things really work. You learn to care about the subtleties of relationships and you begin to sense the struggle for meaning in life. And often when you’re young, you just assume life is meaningful. And as you get older you learn that’s not necessarily true and you ask yourself, “What is meaningful?” It just takes time.
I’ll give you an example. One of my students is Akiva Goldsman (The Client, A Time to Kill, A Beautiful Mind). Akiva told me that he had struggled to be a writer for ten years in Hollywood. He was ready to quit and go into the family business. He decided to take what money he had in the bank and invest it in my seminar. Suddenly, the light went on. He cashed in a plane ticket he had purchased to go home and went on to write — I think it was The Client — and he gives me great credit for having pivoted him from working writer to successful writer. But my feeling is, he couldn’t have done that if he hadn’t spent the ten years failing.
So it was ten years of being able to grow as a human being and to able to master the craft.
ScreenCraft: It’s almost as if you have to fail to prevail. And make those mistakes and learn from them.
RM: And some people always fail and never make it. And the reason they always fail and never make it could be because they just don’t have the talent, but it’s more likely that they never learned from their failure.
They blame their failures on the Hollywood system. They blame it on anything but themselves because they really can’t critically read their own writing and go, “My God what a piece of s*** this is.”
ScreenCraft: You have to be your own best critic.
RM: Yeah, you have to be ruthless with yourself. And the reason that they often aren’t is that they have low standards. They look at the worst of movies that get made and they say, “Well, that’s a bad film, but it got made. And I can write that, or better even. “ And they do not measure themselves against the finest.
The notion that failure will lead to success? Maybe. If the failure teaches you and if you’re paying attention.
ScreenCraft: Is it that writers need to have the ability to be objective with their own work, which is so difficult for most writers to do?
RM: Yes. I think it was Norman Mailer who said, “The writer has to learn to smell their own s***.” You have to recognize when you’re writing badly and go, “My God this is s***.”
Very few writers have that ruthless high standard and self-criticism.
ScreenCraft: So what do you think are the major obligations that screenwriters have towards an audience?
RM: It’s simple. This applies to every kind of story no matter what. You have to hook the intellectual and emotional interests of sensitive and intelligent human beings. You have to hold that interest and build it for two or more hours. And then you have to reward that interest and emotion with a satisfying experience for the head and heart.
You have to hook them, hold them, and reward them with a meaningful emotional experience of whatever kind. And that is the obligation. Hook them, hold them, and reward them for their money, the two hours of life that they gave you, and that’s true no matter what you are writing. Comedy, drama, and everything in between.
To put it simply, you must not bore people.
You must give them what they want and what they want is for time to disappear. That they’re swept through time, unaware that it’s passing, and then they want to have an emotionally charged insight that satisfies them, whether it’s comical or tragic or whatever. It has to satisfy their intellectual and emotional expectations.
90% of films don’t reward you. The test of good writing and a good piece of filmmaking is the question of "Does it not only reward the first viewing, but the second viewing?" That if you see it again, and are in the position of dramatic irony, knowing the outcome and all of the expositional facts, does it draw you even deeper in and give you yet another kind of satisfaction?
How many films do we ever go to that we want to see again?
ScreenCraft: Few and far between.
RM: Yeah. There’s good writing in the world but it shouldn’t surprise us that there's so little. If you look at history, it’s always been like this. The 19th century was the century of the novel. You can fill libraries and libraries of the novels that were written and produced during that time.
The best of them you can put on one shelf.
ScreenCraft: With all of the screenwriting books out there and what not, what are you thoughts on formulaic screenwriting as far as secret formulas and structures where this story point or moment needs to be on this page and that story point needs to be on that page?
RM: It’s all bulls***. It’s just uncategorical bulls***. And the people who write these books are horribly ignorant. They have no respect for the art. And they really aren’t paying attention because if you took their formula — and writers of these types of books give you examples of hit movies and what not — but if you took that formula and actually tried to apply it to all of the examples that they didn’t use, it would fall apart. It’s bulls***.
It’s annoying to me. I warn everybody when they take my seminar that it’s not a formula. I show all of the variations and violations of the classic form.
If you took Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and apply those formulas...?
[We both break into laughter]
And so, it’s nonsense. But, they assume that the wannabe screenwriters want a formula. And they’re probably right. Wannabe screenwriters do not want to have to do the work. They don’t want to have to master the form so, like Akiva Goldsman, they can write a film like A Beautiful Mind, where the “inciting incident” happens over halfway into the film. And it worked.
Their books on writing are written to sell their books and make them money by appealing to the lowest standards possible of budding writers. And people who read my book, well, it’s difficult (laughs). You think writing is easy?
I’m old enough to see the patterns. In the last half of the 20th century, there was a critical denigration of screenwriting, saying screenwriting is not really writing. Saying that novels are writing, plays are writing, but screenwriting is not. And the reason of course is because there were so many bad movies and bad television that the people who were saying that novels were true writing were forgetting that all of the 99% of the novels that came out were s***. 99% of plays were s***. They just ignore that. Bad movies are right in front of everyone. Bad theater never goes anywhere. Bad novels just never sell.
But the film can make up for bad writing with spectacle. I once told The Hollywood Reporter that bad writing often makes a lot of money. And it’s true. And so, people who write formulaic books are saying, “Here’s the formula for writing a bad screenplay that could make a lot of money.” And there is truth in this.
But all of that is changing because of long form television. Today, in 2015, a great ambition would be to create the next great long form television. I would want to be the next Vince Gilligan. I would want to be the next David Chase. I would want to be a great show runner and create a great series because the writing is superior drama, superior writing, every bit the equal as any great play or novel. The writing is getting the literary respect that it’s always deserved.
So if you write a formulaic book, how can you take any formula and apply it to 100 hours of storytelling over eight or ten seasons? It’s absurd.
I’m going to do my television series day in London in a few weeks, and I’m going to lay out Breaking Bad for those students. The central plot has 46 acts, then there’s like two or three dozen subplots, and when you add up the number of acts in the plot plus the number of acts in the subplots, it’s over 250 acts. There is no formula that can account for this.
So all of these formulaic books are absurd when you compare them to actuality and not the selected examples that the writer has chosen.
ScreenCraft: Well, I can’t let you go without talking about one of my favorite films and scripts, Adaptation (Robert McKee was a character in the film, played masterfully by Brian Cox). How did that experience come about? Did Charlie [Kaufman] approach you?
RM: It wasn’t Charlie, it was [producer] Ed Saxon. I was working away one day and I got a call from New York. It was Ed Saxon. He says, “This is one of the most embarrassing phone calls that I’ve ever had to make. I’ve got this screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, and he’s written this screenplay and he’s made you a character in it, freely quoting from your book and your lecture without permission and we don’t know what to do.”
I told him to send me the script to see what he’s talking about. So he sent me the script, I read it, and I could see what he was up to. He needed an antagonist. He needed something for Nic Cage’s character (Charlie Kaufman himself) to push up against and what Charlie wants is to create the commercial art movie. He wants to do an art movie that makes money. And this is his greatest inner-contradiction throughout his career. How can a piece of art make money. And so I see the two Kaufman brothers. One is art the other is money. So he needed an antagonist to represent what he thinks artists have to push up against.
And when I read it, it had a terrible third act.
So I called Saxon up and told him that I could be interested, but, there’s a lot of problems with the writing in general. Not just me. So I told him two things. I want a redeeming scene. I will laugh at myself. I think what I do is crazy. I get the joke. So we can have fun with the McKee character, but I want the redeeming scene and that became the scene in the bar.
And then I said that I wanted control of the casting. And I cannot be a character in a bad movie and the third act sucks. So we have to have meetings. And they agreed to all of that.
So I cast Brian Cox, who is a dear friend of mine. And I had many meetings with both [director] Spike Jonze and Charlie to get act three to work. It finally got to a point where I said, okay, it works for about half of the audience. When [Meryl Streep’s character] says, “We have to kill him,” there will be a parting of the waves.
[We both laugh]
Half the audience will think it’s a great idea and the other half will go “What the f*** is this?” On opening night when her character says that, you could hear that half of the audience went “Great” and the other half went “What?”
So you’re going to lose half of them at that point but you’re going to get half and they’ll go with it. But originally the third act was horrible. And I take no credit, but to Spike and Charlie’s credit they took my notes seriously and they did something about it. For me, it was a lot of fun.
ScreenCraft: So many people don’t realize the point of that third act. They don’t get it.
RM: Yeah! They don’t realize that it pivots. That Charlie (as portrayed by Nic Cage) can’t write act three. Donald (Charlie’s twin brother within the film, also played by Nic Cage) writes act three. With those types of twists, you’re going to lose half of the audience, but the other half will think it’s great. And they did and the film was very successful.
ScreenCraft: Thank you so much, Robert. It's been great talking with you.
RM: Thank you. You take care now.
Robert McKee’s signature STORY Seminars and GENRE Seminars are designed to help writers learn substance, structure, style, and principles of story from the man writers call “the Aristotle of our time.” For more than thirty years, the path to storytelling success has started with Robert McKee’s legendary seminars. Robert McKee is unique among writing mentors. With his distinctive blend of award-winning scholarship, professional acting and directing experience, and craft knowledge across all media, Robert McKee helps writers think beyond formula and take the best story decisions of their career.