Screenwriting Guru Robert McKee Rates the Oscar Nominees

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'All story is fiction' says the longtime screenwriting teacher of debates over accuracy in biographical films.

All right everybody, settle down. Class is in session. And Robert McKee, the creative writing instructor who travels the world lecturing about how to write a successful screenplay and whose book Story: Substance, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting is one of the go-to texts in the field, is about to grade this Oscar season.

His judgment? Surveying the 10 screenplays competing for the two writing trophies at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, he says: “This is quite a nice year. None of them are embarrassing.” (OK, class, everyone can relax a bit — especially those of you like Toy Story 3’s Andrew Stanton who have sat in on McKee’s seminars.)

McKee credits the writing in such TV series as In Treatment and The Wire for raising the level of screenwriting by educating audiences to appreciate subtext and not just spectacle.

“Great writing is in the subtext,” he explains. “Often producers and marketing people, they want it all in dialogue or voice-over because they have no respect for the audience. But the Academy has always favored what I would call ‘indoor movies’ — intimate, psychologically complex stories. The Fighter, King’s Speech, The Social Network, even Winter’s Bone are all really indoor stories, the kind of thing cable TV does, but they are outnumbering the big productions here.”

“But I’ll tell you what most impresses me,” he says, pointing to Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right, from director/co-writers Debra Granik and Lisa Cholodenko, respectively, as well as True Grit, with its spunky heroine, Mattie Ross. “It’s the number of women writer-directors and the number of women protagonists.” Pointing to a recent study of Wikipedia that found that less than 15% of its contributors are women, he notes, “Some professor who studied this says that 85-15 is normal balance of male to female in any enterprise. Women are just not assertive enough. But I look at this list, and it’s higher than that, and it’s about time. If there’s anything this world needs in terms of storytelling, it’s, for god’s sake, let’s hear what women have to say as writers and directors. I never had a sister or a daughter, so mother-daughter relationships fascinate me, and The Kids Are All Right had a lot of that.”

The other thing that strikes McKee about this year’s movies is how adaptations dominate. (And having been portrayed onscreen by Brian Cox in 2002’s Adaptation, McKee knows a thing or two about that subject.)

Setting aside the Academy’s distinction between what’s adapted (Toy Story 3, for example, because it’s based on existing characters) and what’s considered an original (The King’s Speech, for instance, though it draws from the historical record), McKee counts seven of the 10 nominated screenplays as adaptations of novels, existing characters or real-life events. And it’s those true-life stories in particular that presented real challenges.

“The first problem any writer faces with a biographical subject is the enormous amount of material,” he says. “Every life has hundreds of thousands of hours and many characters, and you have to boil it down to two hours. The problem is interpretation — realizing that whatever interpretation you might come up with, someone else might take the material and turn it on its head.”

In the case of 127 Hours and King’s Speech, he says, the writers did have the advantage of a set end-point — Aron Ralston’s arm-severing escape, King George VI’s climactic speech — toward which they could work.

The Fighter had that too. But, in McKee’s view: “One of the most interesting things about The Fighter is trying to discern what kind of drama it is. Is it a sports movie? A coming-of-age drama? No, what it really is is a domestic drama. The family as a group is really the protagonist with all this self-destructive stuff going on, promoting the kid while they are tearing him down. It’s an impressive piece of writing in terms of figuring out where its heart really is.”

But his highest marks go to Aaron Sorkin’s Social Network because the life in question, that of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, “doesn’t give you a great ending the way The Fighter did, so you have to make some ending about some other thing that changed and make audiences care about it. Sorkin had a great challenge because he had a protagonist who is not particularly empathetic because he’s awkward and closed-off socially. But he did a brilliant job of making the hows and whys of what he did quirky enough so that the process really intrigues us. He knew exactly where to create tension in the audience’s mind. You don’t have a big climax, but you have a big resolution.”

Journalists are busy debating the veracity of such movies as King’s Speech and Social Network, but McKee has no patience for that. “I will never understand that debate,” he says. “All story is fiction. Autobiography is fantasy. Biography is fiction in the sense that you have to make choices. And out of the enormity of the material, the sliver of choices that you make is an interpretation of what could be dozens of contradictory interpretations. And they are all more or less true.

“All we ask of biographers,” he adds, “is that they make a fair, heartfelt and honest interpretation of their characters, knowing that 99 percent of the facts will be cut out, certain things will be merged and the chronological order of certain things will be changed.”

He adds: “Journalists get trapped because they don’t understand the difference between fact and truth. They think fact is truth, but fact is not truth. Truth is how and why what happened; it’s always an interpretation. If you don’t like it, go write another movie.”