'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Robert McKee ('Story')

The author and lecturer on screenwriting, who was famously portrayed in 'Adaptation,' discusses his "principles," critics and view that TV, not film, is the medium in which writers should now aim to work.
Robert McKee

"The art of story makes us civilized, makes life worth living," Robert McKee, the best-selling author (Story: Style, Structure, Substance and the Principles of Screenwriting) and legendary lecturer ("STORY: A McKee Seminar") on the topic of screenwriting, says as we sit down to record an episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast on the eve of one of his biannual screenwriting seminars in Los Angeles.

Virtually everyone in show business knows who the 75-year-old is (if not from his work then from his portrayal in the 2002 film Adaptation), and many have paid good money to find out what he believes about screenwriting, but few can tell you much about him as a person and how he came to do and believe what he does — until now.

(Click below to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Amy Schumer, Harvey Weinstein, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Kristen Stewart, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Ridley Scott, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore and Lily Tomlin.)

Born in Detroit, McKee received a scholarship to attend the University of Michigan, where he initially intended to be a dentist, but soon fell into acting and directing. After procuring bachelor and masters degrees, he moved to New York and spent seven years beating the pavement there. He eventually returned to Ann Arbor to pursue a Ph.D., at which point he settled on the topic of story structure for his dissertation. It proved too massive a topic to address for that purpose, but it became the focus of his life. 

Eventually McKee moved to Hollywood hoping to make it as a screenwriter for the movies. His work sold, but always ran into one roadblock or another. "Over the years I had 20 either options or outright paid-to-right originals," he says, "for Warner Bros., for Fox. I made a lot of money on screenplays that never got made." He paid the bills with these options ("I sold one script five times") and by writing for episodic TV ("I always liked writing for TV because I knew it would get made"). 

One day, he got a call from Sherwood Oaks Experimental College, a new establishment at which only people who were active in a field could teach it. The director asked him to lead eight three-hour Saturday morning classes for writers and then, on the basis of the popularity of the course, asked him to return to do it again. McKee recalls, "What I thought was common knowledge — to me it was common knowledge — was really missing in the education of people who wanted to write. Nobody at the university had ever taken them through the simple inner-life of a story, and the dynamics of character, and the dimensionality of character. They were slack-jawed."

He soon started receiving invitations to teach his course in other parts of the U.S. and around the world and, at the urging of one host, condensed it into longer lectures that could be taken during a single weekend. "It just took over my life," he says with a smile. "I found out that as much as loved to write, writing about writing, lecturing on writing, was far more satisfying for me." Why? "For one thing," he says, "when I lecture I get to perform, and I spent a lot of my life on stage acting." And why are his seminars so popular? "People know that when I'm lecturing, I am telling them the truth. I do not pamper people." He adds of the persona he inhabits at the front of those rooms, "It's the best version of me."

McKee had long wanted to write a book about story, but delayed doing so because he first wanted to know "every conceivable question from a writer." After a number of years of teaching his seminars, and finding that the questions he was being asked were becoming repetitious, he felt he was ready. "I found that writing Story was so satisfying," he says. "Writing about writing is more compelling to me than writing story."

Because of his strongly-held and often contrarian views on screenwriting and story (e.g. he despises Citizen Kane), his no-nonsense demeanor and his own resume's absence of many screenwriting credits of note, McKee is a controversial figure. "It's so weird that Robert McKee knows all the secrets to writing a perfect screenplay, but has chosen not to," one critic tweeted recently. His response? "That statement and statements like it are simply illogical. Aristotle never wrote a play; Aristotle, to my knowledge, never even attempted a piece of fiction. And yet his insights into plays and into literature and Homer were by far the most profound for the 2,000 or more years that followed. And so it's a specious thing to say that somebody who knows a lot about writing and can explain it clearly should also be able to write it, as well." He adds, "I wanted to be the Ingmar Bergman of something, and I found that I can write about writing as well as it's been written about, and that that is my gift, that is my talent, and why not pursue that? As I did, with great satisfaction. And so fools who say, you know, 'Well, if he's so good, why isn't he famous for being a fiction writer?' don't understand writing and certainly don't understand my career. But I've heard that many times. People make that categorical, logical error, and I forgive them because they're ignorant."

Recently, McKee began reviewing current releases on his blog, and began inciting more controversy with his labels of "Works," "Doesn't Work" and "Almost Works" — especially since his "Almost Works" grade of Spotlight, the film that won this year's best original screenplay and best picture Oscars, suggests it didn't work. He feels that too many people buy into "the intentional fallacy" when evaluating works like Spotlight. "You do not judge a work of art by what the artist says they intended to do," he asserts. "You judge a work of art by the work of art. When that writer's dead and gone, that work has to stand on its own." (What work does he loved? "If I had to watch a film for the umpteenth time, it would be Groundhog Day," he says.)

Interestingly, McKee, who has spent a lifetime working with people who are trying to write scripts for films, now says that he "absolutely" would focus on writing scripts for television if he was a young aspiring writer in 2016. "Cinema has become extremely conservative," he says. "I would not be writing a movie. I would be creating what I hope to be the next great TV series." He continues, "Studying long-form [television] has taught me things about writing and character development and character complexity that the cinema never taught me. Because long-form television is character." (Among his favorite current shows: Vikings, Game of Thrones and Horace and Pete.)

How many of the students who pay hundreds of dollars to hear McKee's lecture will ever receive as much money in compensation for something they write for film or television? McKee doesn't pussyfoot around the question. "If I have 200 people in a lecture, and two of them actually end up writing something of quality for which they get a fair check, that'll be an exceptional class. The odds are at least 100 to 1." He pauses and continues, "But making that a criterion for judgment is a great mistake. A lot of bad writing — and I mean really insultingly bad writing — makes a lot of money. What every writer has to understand is that you have to find the satisfaction in the work itself. The writing has to be what's important — the struggle to create something of real quality, to test yourself as a human being, to test your craft. The writing is really the only thing that will give you satisfaction. If you make money, fine, that just makes it possible to move on. If you don't make money, you go find a shit job somewhere so that you can pay the rent and keep writing."