Talking to Screenwriting Guru Robert McKee

Screenwriting supreme Robert McKee has been lecturing for some 20 years. Made famous by Charlie Kaufman’s portrait of him in Adaptation, McKee continues to tour the world with his Story seminar motivated by the success of former students such as John Cleese, who wrote A Fish Called Wanda after taking the seminar, and Akiva Goldsman, who won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind (a script he rewrote after attending the seminar and spending 10 unsuccessful years in Hollywood).

Though McKee has worked as an uncredited script doctor and consultant for years, his biggest credit is for a Turner TV Bible mini series, starring Richard Harris. I caught up with the guru in a Spanish restaurant on a sunny day in southwest London.

“I lived in the movies when I was a kid. I’ve always been immersed in story. I started in theatre, acting and directing. I was invited to give lectures at a private film school where Dustin Hoffman was teaching and acting, and Sydney Pollack was directing. I was a TV writer at the time. What I discovered was that people didn’t know their craft. It was trial and error – but there was more error. They would waste enormous amounts of time and their work would never reach the fullness that they would want because they really didn’t understand the craft.”

“Every time I offered these lectures, the population doubled. And I realised people didn’t understand story from the inside out, from the creative struggle. If you go to music school, you’re taught music theory, in art school, you learn to understand form. The education of the writer is different. You’re taught criticism, not creativity.”

“I’m teaching the fundamentals – the chemistry of story – and people were stunned. I realised there was a real lack of education for writers. So I was teaching the craft, the underlying principles of their art and they were thrilled by it. I realised there was a need for this.”

“If you want to be a celebrity, don’t be a screenwriter. Be an actor or director. Stanislavsky asked his actors, “Are you in love with the art in yourself, or yourself in the art? If you’re in love with yourself in the art, get out of here.” I tell the same thing to writers. They’re going to spend ten years of their lives struggling to master this very difficult art form. You’re going to go through such hell, the truth is you probably won’t succeed. Chances of success are not very good. If you’re doing it for money, they’re not going to survive. They better be doing it because they love writing.”

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