Can Story be Taught?

Charlie Kaufman: Screenwriting seminars are bullshit

Donald Kaufman: In theory, I agree with you. But this one’s different. This one’s highly regarded in the industry.
Charlie Kaufman: Don’t say industry.
Donald Kaufman: Charlie, this guy knows screenwriting. People come from all over to study with him.

Adaptation (Spike Jonze, dir., 2002)

We have come from all over to hear Robert McKee. We are sitting in a cavernous, over-air conditioned auditorium in Rhinebeck, New York, arrayed on uncomfortable folding chairs at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies—a bucolic complex two hours outside New York City where one can also enroll in Yoga classes, guided meditation seminars, and empowering drumming sessions. And most of us are out close to $600 for the privilege. At the front of the room, McKee is gathering steam. He is a tall, thin man with a slight stoop, who paces the front of the room deliberately and slowly. He has trim white hair and a distinctive upper lip. He somewhat resembles Sam the Eagle, that often put upon Muppet Show guardian of decency and moral rectitude.

“I will not patronize you,” McKee tells us. “I will use clear, simple, plainspoken vocabulary. I will use profanity.” Most of us write this down. He pauses for a moment.

“If that offends you, there’s the door,” he barks. “If that scares you, then you have no business here, because you’re a dilettante. And I will not waste my life with dilettantes.” The especially diligent students write this down as well. On the first day of his Story Seminar, McKee establishes his persona. He is gruff, bombastic, outspoken, and a little outrageous. As promised, he swears repeatedly. He has been giving a variation of this seminar since the mid eighties and he knows where his laughs are, how to position a dramatic moment, how to frighten his audience or to shock them into listening.

McKee trained and worked as an actor for many years before he went to Hollywood to become a writer, and clearly enjoys the sound of his own voice. He makes jokes, he digresses, and he pauses periodically to express his disdain for the current administration and its policies. At one point, he launches into a complex tirade against a big budget French film called Queen Margot (1994), a historical epic about genocidal religious wars in 16th-century France.

“I had trouble saying this before, but not after 9/11,” he says, raising his voice a little. “I do not believe there will be peace on earth until we remove the scourge of religion. I do not mean spiritualism or the sacred, but the political entities we call organized religion. Religion makes evil possible.”

I wonder if the paying customers are a little annoyed by the turn the lecture has taken—we’re here for McKee’s insights on writing, not geopolitics and religious conflict. But then, he reels us all back in. The Huguenot massacres in Roman Catholic France are the ideal historic vehicle for a story that would have deep resonance in our own time. “And that stupid film ruined it,” shouts McKee. “Queen Margot means we cannot use this event again. It is wasted.”

Films, McKee argues, are not just entertaining stories or even works of art. They have real, important, urgent value in reflecting back our lives and illuminating our weaknesses. “We need honest stories to shine a bright light into the dim corners of human nature,” he tells me earlier, during a phone interview from his home in Sedona, Arizona.

Robert McKee [the character]: If you can’t find that stuff in life then you, my friend, don’t know crap about life. And why the fuck are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don’t have any use for it. I don’t have any bloody use for it.

Charlie Kaufman [later]: What you said this morning shook me to the bone. What you said was bigger than my screenwriting choices. It was about my choices as a human being.

Most people are familiar with McKee’s shtick thanks to Adaptation, the 2002 Spike Jonze film by celebrated screenwriter Charlie Kaufman that follows a desperate, lonely writer named Charlie Kaufman as he struggles with his adaptation of Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief. Charlie’s twin, an optimistic, foolish man named Donald, who is working on a hackneyed and ridiculous thriller, recommends McKee’s seminar to his brother. At Omega, McKee uses the same joke that his screen counterpart, played by Brian Cox, opens with: “Years from now, you’ll be at a fancy Hollywood cocktail party,” say both the real and the fictional McKee. “And you’ll be telling everyone how you spent three days in a room with this asshole, all for the sake of your art.”

Even before Adaptation, McKee had earned a formidable reputation. He has offered his seminar about a dozen times a year for almost 20 years. He does it regularly in New York and Los Angeles, and has also taught in San Francisco, Boston, Las Vegas, London, Paris, Sydney and Singapore. All told, more than 45,000 students have taken the three-day course. He has sold more than 110,000 copies of his book, also called Story, which he first published in 1997.

His stock message is fairly simple: Writing requires tremendous hard work, preparation, and talent. And screenwriting demands that you know certain principles about structure before you can be truly successful. “If you do not master the form, you will not do an authentic variation,” McKee says. “You will copy other people who do these variations. You will think you are independent, but in fact, you are simply imitating other films that you’ve seen. And anybody who imitates is not an artist.” Part of his appeal is this tough love stance. He maintains that one of his primary goals is to discourage people from writing; he is not in the business of cheerleading.

Screenwriting instruction is a lucrative cottage industry, and McKee is certainly not its only practitioner. There are dozens of seminars an aspiring Kaufman could take, whole shelves of how-to guides at your local bookstore. And McKee did not invent the screenwriting terms that are now such common parlance: the “three act structure,” the “beat,” the “inciting incident,” to name a few that he uses frequently. He has no special credentials, nor has a single film or mini-series that he penned ever been committed to film. Yet he has become the best known and arguably the most respected teacher of screenwriting working today.

“I think his book is by far the most useful book on screenwriting I’ve ever read,” says Peter Friedland, an aspiring writer and trained actor who also took the Story seminar. “He has made accessible a lot of folk rules about storytelling, playwriting, dialogue writing, and story structure that otherwise you would have had to go to a lot of different sources to accumulate. He also has a knack for putting it in really plain English.”

McKee skillfully straddles the line between high-minded, intellectual discourse and a populist sensibility. He manages to be both smart and comprehensible. He name-checks Aristotle and Fellini while reassuring you that he liked Men in Black (1997) as much as the next popcorn consumer. But perhaps even more impressive than McKee’s expert, charismatic delivery or his appealing blend of high and low rhetoric, is his status as a kind of oracle of the rules of screenwriting that keeps bringing in the audiences.

“Every writer wants to be reassured that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Michael Colton, a comedy writer who has worked on both television and film projects. “He’s not out there promising success, but he does lay out a vision for you to follow. And his seminar does energize you. It’s a catalyst.”

Charlie Kaufman: Let me explain something to you. Anybody who says he has the answer is going to attract desperate people. There are no rules Donald, and anyone who says there are is just—

Donald Kaufman: Not rules, principles McKee says. A rule says you must do it this way. A principle says this works and has through all remembered time.

Charlie Kaufman: My point is those teachers are dangerous if your goal is to do something new. And a writer should always have that goal. Writing is a journey into the unknown.

Of course, McKee is not actually in the business of discouraging writers. Quite the opposite, he makes his living on the scores of people every year who hope to enter the world of film through its most accessible portal: the script. But he is right when he says he does not offer an open, welcoming view of the profession

McKee is essentially a conservative, though he resists that label. (“I’m an old Marxist Leninist from way back,” he assures me.) He preaches the canon, the outline, and a traditionalist approach to language and story structure. His opening dissertation at Omega is an assault on the misuse and abuse of the English language. “People can’t say what they mean,” he tells his audience at Omega. “And if you’re a writer, you’ve got to hate euphemism. Everyone says ‘share’ these days. Have you noticed that? You can’t just ‘tell’ someone something anymore. So I will share this whole fucking course with you.”

McKee argues that everyone must know the rules before they break them—even the most avant-garde of filmmakers. Talent is not enough to put together a great script. One must understand the basics of how scenes, acts, and entire story arcs are assembled. Only once you know these conventions can you bend them.

This is especially true for independent filmmakers, McKee says. They often think they are writing a quiet, intimate movie about the complex interior life of a character, when in fact they are writing a stultifying story in which nothing happens and nobody changes. “Minimalist works are finding a larger and larger audience,” he says. “And most people who are writing don’t understand the difference between inner conflict and passivity. If they make films that are really about people who are passive, these are often boring. But if they make films about people who seem passive, but are in fact full of inner turmoil, then that’s going to be a good movie.”

McKee admonishes his students to remember that the way to have a career in independent film, as well as mainstream Hollywood, is to make good movies that people want to see. “I try to inspire independents to realize that if you write a screenplay of surpassing quality and produce it with great skill, and if the movie breaks even or makes a little money, you’ll be making another movie the next year. You can’t make a really enigmatic film, lose money, and then expect to make another film.”

The worry is that seminars like McKee’s will turn out Hollywood worker bees all busily manufacturing cookie-cutter scripts. Wendy Sax, the artistic director of the IFP Market and Conference, warns that not everyone will find the answer in McKee’s workshop. “Screenplays have a formal structure, and learning the architecture and engineering of a story is not only useful but necessary,” she says.

“However, many writers also have an innate sense of storytelling, an intuitive feel for what works. Sometimes, for them, focusing on how to deconstruct a story ends up being more harmful than helpful. To the extent McKee’s course inspires writers to follow their curiosity and use their imagination to find the novelty within the form, his coursework can be very empowering. But if writers mistake the form for the substance, they run the risk of producing work that is vacuous or derivative.”

Others have pointed out the old adage that those who cannot do, teach. Why is a man who has never seen one of his movies made teaching the art of storytelling for the movies?

“I know my talent,” McKee says, “and I think what I’ve done is follow the greater talent. I do have a talent for writing fiction. I’ve written mini-series and episodes and screenplays that have been optioned endlessly but never made. I look at [those scripts], and I think they’re good. But they’re not as good as Story. My book is better than anything I ever wrote as fiction. And I have enormous satisfaction in realizing where my real talent lies.”

There are some ironies to the persona McKee has adopted. He preaches a complete and thorough knowledge of the fundamentals, and yet his work has popularized age-old principles made readily available in a three-day course. He is a screenwriter best known for teaching, an actor best known for playing himself across international stages. So perhaps it is fitting that he will probably be remembered in the end as a character in a Hollywood movie about the trials and tribulations of making movies.

McKee worked closely with Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman on his likeness in Adaptation. He read several drafts of the script and had approval over their choice of the actor who would play him. He says the casting director sent him a list of the ten greatest living British actors, and he singled out Brian Cox.

“It would have been flattering, of course, to have Christopher Plummer play me,” says McKee, “but Brian is a magnificent actor. And he doesn’t do what many actors do. Many actors, even when they’re playing a bad guy, are really saying ‘love me love me.’ Brian doesn’t do that. And the story needed an antagonist. I don’t want to be loved. I want them to love the art. So I told Charlie, I’ll play your antagonist. I’ll do it, as long as we have fun.’”

Shortly after the fictional McKee makes his appearance in Adaptation and instructs Kaufman to find an ending for his shapeless mess of a script, the film goes in a wildly new direction. Characters fall in and out of love, they are caught up in the drug trade, and there are car chases and murders and animal attacks. Some critics felt that the film went awry at that point, selling out its characters and finding a plot that “real” stories don’t have.

McKee’s answer to this criticism is that they’ve missed the point. “The joke is that Donald writes act three,” he says, “and if you don’t understand that the writing baton has passed from Charlie to Donald, then you’re confused. You have to go in knowing it’s an avant-garde meta-commentary on itself. If you don’t get that, then it’s lost.”

At the end of Adaptation, Donald is killed in a car accident, and the movie’s pace and tone begin to resemble the film’s first half again. The story ends hopefully, but ambiguously. Charlie has finished his script and finally realized he can be happy, but he is no less alone than he was at the beginning of the movie.

Maybe, like Charlie, every screenwriter has to embrace their inner Donald, the guy who worships the rules, the gurus, the how-to books and the instructive seminars. Then, if you’re any good, you reject the formula and kill off that part of yourself—preferably in an exciting car chase that will give your third act just the punch it needs.

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