An Interview with Robert McKee
Don’t try to tell Robert McKee, fabled “Story” guru, that Hollywood is placing stumbling blocks in the way of your success. I raised that at the beginning of what turned out to be a nearly two-hour telephone conversation with him in preparation for this article and quickly learned that he is a man of strong opinions. Did I forget to mention that he’s not afraid of expressing them, either?
“That’s all just a bunch of whining,” he said. “It just means you haven’t written a story of surpassing quality.”
Moi? Not written a story of surpassing quality? Surely you jest.
And what about the legendary “reader,” who stands guard at the gates of Hollywood success like the mythological three-headed dog Cerberus? The reader is the short-sighted jerk who wouldn’t recognize talent if it bit him in the rear-end and who tosses your script, surpassing quality or not, into the “reject” pile simply because it has no inciting incident by page 10, or plot point at page 30, or because your hero’s name is Corky.
“If the story is compelling,” McKee said, “[readers] don’t think like that. If they’re swept along by the characters and the story you’re telling, they’ll keep reading whether the plot points and inciting incidents are in the ‘proper’ places or not. It’s when they get bored that they start looking for excuses to reject a script.”
Makes sense, I thought. Puts the blame back on me – that part I don’t like – but it still makes sense. And then I found out that if you really want to get McKee exercised, just mention your belief, sincere or otherwise, that the “system” is designed to keep us amateurs out of the ranks of the professionals.
“There is no system!” he exploded when I made that mistake. “Look at what’s going on out there and I defy you to find anything systematic about it. It’s all chaos.”
Well, yeah, I stammered, defending myself less than brilliantly. But there are people out there in Hollywood making livings as screenwriters and we want to count ourselves among their number. How do we do that if we can’t break into the sys – uh, group of people in Hollywood making livings as screenwriters?
“There’s too much tendency for writers to blame their failures on the ‘system.’” McKee said. “If Hollywood rejects your script, then take it to the independent world. If you think it’s good, even if ten out of ten studios reject it, stick with it.”
He then intrigued me with this question: “Would you rather get paid $25,000 to have your story on the screen exactly as you wrote it, or get paid $1,000,000 by a studio and have your script butchered by development executives?”
Wow! Tough question. I’ll have to admit I was leaning one way, but dared not say which after those stupid “system” questions I’d asked earlier. Fortunately McKee spoke again before I had to commit.
“Nine out of ten want the latter,” he said.
Yeah, that sounded pretty good to me, too, I thought as I twirled my car insurance premium, which is due the first week of January, and my Sunnyvale property tax statement, which I need to pay before the end of the year.
“These people are not artists,” McKee continued, affirming my judgment in keeping my mouth shut. “They have no integrity and they get what they deserve – to have their names associated with bad films.”
Then McKee shifted gears, letting me know who was really in charge of this interview. “These are all questions about marketing, not screenwriting. If all you do is try to anticipate the market, it will smell insincere. Only amateurs think about things like that.”
Then he gave an example of an amateur who made the transition to professional. Andrew Kevin Walker spent three years working at Tower Records in Los Angeles to feed himself while he wrote Seven. He called the Writers Guild with a list of writers who had written scripts in his genre and found out the names of their agents.
Armed with this list, he called the first one, whose assistant, the gatekeeper, told him they didn’t take unsolicited screenplays. Walker then pitched his script to the assistant – “It’s about a serial killer who kills according to the seven deadly sins” – and the assistant immediately requested the script. The rest is history, including subsequent film credits such as 8 MM and Sleepy Hollow. The key, says McKee, is that Walker “wrote a screenplay of surpassing quality in a genre he loved.”
So what lessons can we, as aspiring screenwriters, learn from this? First of all, “Don’t worry about questions of readers and high concept and the ‘system.’ That’s all crap. Put your energy and creativity into writing a screenplay of surpassing quality.”
There’s that phrase again – “surpassing quality.” But how does one write that story of “surpassing quality”? That question brought us to a theme McKee would hammer for the next hour.
“Screenwriting is an art form,” he said. “Master it. You can’t for a moment think you know how to tell stories just because you’ve gone to the movies your whole life. I lay out the form and the principals of what beautiful storytelling for the screen is, but that doesn’t mean you know it. It must move from the head to the heart. But the first step is the intellectual understanding.”
Any practical tips for achieving that understanding?
“Read screenplays in the genre you like. You want the actual screenplay, not just transcriptions of the film. Get multiple drafts if you can. Then watch films with the screenplays in front of you and analyze them applying the principles you’ve learned. It really doesn’t matter which films. In fact, you can learn more from bad films and screenplays than from good ones.
“Then persevere – and really write well. Master the art.”
What I began to grasp from our conversation is that McKee is a man who sincerely believes that screenwriting is more than just a craft – that it is, indeed, an art. Sure, he had used the word over and over, but maybe it just took a little time for it to really sink in – he means it!
“People today don’t respect screenwriting as an art,” he said. “People didn’t think this way back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. But it takes real genius to do it beautifully.”
The really good writing today, he says, is in television. “If I were thirty-five today and trying to write, I’d write for television. You have the power to get it the way you want it in t.v. You’re the producer and the rewards are brilliant, watching characters come to life the way you envisioned it.”
So if the really good writing today is in television, what does that say about features today? I’m glad you asked, because, believe it or not, McKee had an opinion on that, too.
“For years, I’ve been a voice crying in the wilderness about the emphasis on box office in the United States. Europeans already know their film culture is in the toilet, so they’re ahead of us. But since we make so much money making crap, we haven’t figured this out. And what’s disturbing about some of these films is that they’re heartless. It’s almost as if the directors are trying to hurt the audience.
“Storytelling is the primary civilizing instrument in culture,” he said. He then quoted Aristotle: “‘When the storytelling goes bad in society, the result is decadence.’
“The way out,” he continued, “is through great storytelling. It sensitizes society to the humanity in other people. Writers of the 21st Century will have to work harder. They can’t sell out. And if they don’t sell out, they’ll have the potential to do something of beauty and value.”
As our time dwindled, just before our conversation ended, I asked McKee for any last pearls of wisdom he could share. Lest I should think he was all talked out, he offered this:
“You have to think like an artist. If you know you’re in over your head, and that doesn’t intimidate you, you might just make it. The hard part is getting in the chair and writing. It takes tremendous will power and discipline and the only way to defeat the fear is to gain the self-confidence that comes from knowing you’ve mastered the art form.
“My job,” he said, “is to give writers an understanding of the art form so they’ll have the courage to write something and put it out in front of the world. If they understand the art form, then they can learn from criticism and move forward.
“The solution,” he said, “begins with mastery of the art.”