If you’re not an aspiring screenwriter, you probably know Robert McKee best through his portrayal by Brian Cox in “Adaptation,” where he’s both a tormentor and advisor to Nicolas Cage’s twin writers. Here’s the scene where he reads Charlie Kaufman (or is it Donald?) the riot act over his attempt to write a script “where nothing much happens… more a reflection of the real world.” (Side note: Sounds a little like Kaufman’s “Anomalisa,” doesn’t it?)
McKee is famous — or, in some corners, infamous — for breaking writing down into a system of easily digested formulae, imparted in books and in his three-day seminars. (“Past students include Peter Jackson, Russell Brand, Jimmy Fallon, Julia Roberts, Geoffrey Rush, Kirk Douglas, David Bowie, Meg Ryan, John Cleese, and many more,” his website notes.) Many professional screenwriters remain skeptical of McKee and his method: As “Billions” creator Brian Koppelman wrote at Indiewire last year, “[F]or someone who wants to be an artist, a creator, an architect of an original vision, the best book to read on screenwriting is no book on screenwriting. The best seminar is no seminar at all.” Sitcom veteran Ken Levine once said, “I’m starting to think Robert McKee has done more harm to writers and the state of the movie industry than Rob Schneider.”
McKee’s system is largely reverse-engineered from successful screenplays: According to Levine, he “spends an entire day breaking down ‘Casablanca’ line by line.” But now he’s turning his analysis to new movies in a series of movie reviews, including many of this year’s Best Picture nominees, judging them by whether they “work” or don’t. In the “McKee Says: It Works” category go “Brooklyn,” “The Big Short” and “The Revenant“; “Carol” and “Room” don’t work; and “Spotlight” “almost works.” (So close!)
Here he is on “Carol”:
“The Inciting Incident of a Love Story arrives when the lovers first meet and the specific qualities of that encounter shape the drama that follows. CAROL, set in the 1950’s, opens with a shop girl meeting a married woman, a scene saturated with unspoken thoughts and feelings. As a result, the audience naturally anticipates a character-driven tale of psychological complexity inside a secretive lesbian world. Instead, the film quickly switches genre from Love Story to Social Drama. The telling’s actual Inciting Incident happens when Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband decides to use her lesbianism as a legal ploy to win custody of their daughter. This mangy cat of a plot then drags in a scruffy pile of bedraggled clichés — an abusive husband, a chauvinistic society, a sleazy private eye, and a legal system prejudiced against women. When screenwriters switch genres like this, it’s because they aren’t up to writing complex characters for a Love Story, and so they take the easy way out: Social Drama.”
Switching genres, you will quickly discover as you read McKee, is a no-no; it’s also, according to McKee, what sinks “Room.” But even that single paragraph is filled with unexamined assumptions about what “the audience naturally expects,” not to mention the idea that failing to give the audience what they expect is necessarily a bad thing. For McKee, Social Drama — a genre that implicates larger prejudices — is inherently inferior to “Love Story”: “the easy way out.” Describing a legal system biased against women’s interests is a “bedraggled cliché,” rather than an accurate depiction of the times.
One finds the same bias towards heroic individuals and away from political or collective storytelling in McKee’s comments on “Spotlight”:
“One sure test of a story’s power is the answer to this question: If the protagonist does not ultimately get what the protagonist wants, what does she or he stand to lose? In short, what’s the worst possible thing that could happen if the protagonist fails? Answer: If The Boston Globe journalists did not get their scoop, then Boston Herald journalists would get it instead. Almost nothing of value to the world would have been lost. One way or another, the criminality of the Catholic Church would have been exposed, as it has been all over the world, and the Globe reporters would have gone on with their lives.”
McKee doesn’t say who he thinks the protagonist of “Spotlight” is, and arguing that the Globe’s competition would have gotten the story if they didn’t indicates a basic failure of attention: One of the movie’s central points is that only the Globe has the resources, human and institutional, to do the story of sexual abuse within the city’s Catholic clergy justice. (Not everyone has lawyers powerful enough to sue the church, or priesthood directories that go back decades in their basement.) But as they say in journalism, wait for the kicker:
“Here’s a thought: During the decades that priests sexually abused Boston children, Boston lawyers for both the plaintiffs’ families and the church made a lot of money keeping this hideous truth from the world. Why not tell the story from the point of view of a lawyer who makes a living defending sexual criminals who rape children and then say, goes to Mass on Sunday? That could be interesting.”
Maybe because that’s not the story “Spotlight’s” Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy wanted to tell? Or maybe because McKee’s preferred story turns an indictment of institutional corruption into one of individual failings, effectively letting the Catholic Church off the hook? Or maybe because the story of a hypocritical lawyer has been told far more often than a nuts-and-bolts examination of how reporters built an investigative story. Bedraggled cliché? McKee’s alternate “Spotlight” crams a half-dozen of them into a few lines.
Jason Zinoman wrote the definitive profile of McKee for Vanity Fair in 2009, and its ending cuts to the heart of his method’s shortcomings:
“In the last few hours of the lecture, which features a screening and examination of the movie ‘Se7en,’ McKee gives it to us. His analysis is often trenchant, zeroing in on the homosexual subtext and the way the visual themes — or ‘image system,’ as he calls it — are built on religious art. Referring to the final showdown between the two heroes and the psychotic killer, McKee suggests that the movie is a warning to never ‘underestimate evil. It is human and capable of great creativity.’ His idea is that the movie presents the killer, played by Kevin Spacey, as an artist whose work is death and destruction. It’s a provocative point, but it misses part of the reason for the brutal force of the character. ‘It doesn’t matter who I am,’ Spacey says during the final showdown. ‘Who I am means absolutely nothing.'”
“The screenwriter is telling us something here. The serial killer is not a real person with a plausible psychological life, or at least one that matters. His evil is too bizarre and terrifying to understand. It’s not human. It is what mankind has always feared most: the unknown. But McKee cannot conceive of the unknown. To him, the most incomprehensible acts (mass murder, terrorism, the decisions of movie executives) can always be broken down, explained, and made sense of. What’s missing from his lecture is truly the essence of horror, and arguably of life itself: that moment of reckoning when you look up at the vast madness of it all and admit that you have no idea what it’s all about. That’s scary stuff, in part because it means you question everything, even your own mind. Over the course of the day with McKee, it became clear this idea has not occurred to him.”
The problem, of course, isn’t McKee so much as the budding writers who swear by his methods, and the studio executives who gravitate towards scripts that lure them in with familiar beats rather than doing something new with the form. But at least the writers and directors he’s criticizing this time around know better than to take him seriously.
You may like ROOM, but, guess what, story science proves YOU’RE WERE WRONG!!
ROOM (2015) | McKee Seminars
— lenny abrahamson (@lennyabrahamson) February 18, 2016