The Rumpus Interview with Robert McKee

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Robert McKee is best known to the world in two ways: as the guy who teaches the popular STORY seminar in Los Angeles and around the world to would-be screenwriters, and as the character in the film Adaptation who teaches a popular screenwriting seminar at which the Charlie Kaufman character is berated after standing up and asking tentatively and desperately, “Sir, what if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens? Where people don’t change?”

The three Robert McKee scenes in the film are (like the rest of the film) brilliant, and they’re on YouTube in their entirety. They’re worth watching, because together they comprise a pretty fair (though rather more comical) portrayal of what it’s like to speak to McKee, as I did, several years ago, over the phone.

I was writing a small profile for one of Toronto’s weekly newspapers about his three-day STORY seminar, which was coming to town, and he was eager to talk and gave me nearly two hours of his time, never once coming off impatient or rushed. When we got off the phone, he did so reluctantly. Clearly he was engaged in his favorite activity: arguing about the necessity of meaningful narrative in film and fiction.

The companion book to the seminars, also called STORY, has only been released in hardcover. It is in its 19th printing, and was on the LA Times bestseller list for 20 weeks. It’s arguably the most popular screenwriting guide of our time. His classes are intense: over ten-hour days, McKee stands at the front of a lecture hall and speaks with unflagging energy. It’s an impressive performance, and one leaves with the impression of someone who had found his fight – against an opponent that will never die – bad stories or no story at all.

The Rumpus: People call you a story guru –

Robert McKee: Yeah, I hate that.

Rumpus: I was going to ask how you feel about that.

McKee: I think it’s demeaning. Guru has a negative connotation of some guy with these highly specious ideas, duping thousands of idiot people into following and believing and paying a lot of money, all right? I mean, that’s not the original meaning of guru, but that’s the connotation that it has. And when you look at people who have come to my course, they are not fools and they are not being duped. They obviously learned a lot or they wouldn’t have come back more than once. So to be called a guru is annoying to me, but I’m particularly upset because it’s disrespectful of the students. It says they’re idiots, and they’re not. Why they can’t use the word lecturer, teacher, author? Why they have to use guru? Of course, it’s just sneering.

Rumpus: You’ve published this book that encourages people to master the art of story. How is that compatible with saying, as you also have, that a person will write how they write?

McKee: Well, if you understand the artform, you will write whatever it is you’re going to write, but better. What’s it really like to work as an artist? You go into your imagined world for some period of time, and let’s say you’re a writer – you dream up a scene and you write a page. What’s the next thing you do? You read it. And while you’re reading it, you’re critiquing it. Does this work or not, and if not, should I reorder it? Should I cut it? Should I change it? Would the character say this, do this? You go inside and outside, back and forth, creativity and criticism, and the quality of criticism – the guide to creativity – is absolutely rooted in your knowledge of the artform, however you acquire that knowledge – through reading and thinking about what you’re reading, or through reading my book or whatever!

Rumpus: You speak a lot about what you term “classical structure,” which you say is basically a model of the human mind, and the reason people get so much satisfaction from it is because that’s how we feel the world works: there are closed experiences of absolute change and there’s some kind of meaning in reality.

McKee: Well, what’s your point of view?

Rumpus: Well, I was raised in a very atheistic household, so for me I feel that we desire meaning and we desire to believe that there is meaning in our lives, but I more or less feel that meaning is something our brain imposes on the world, but the actual truth of the world is not that.

McKee: Well, I’m an atheist as well, and there is a longstanding tradition of pessimistic philosophy that takes the position that the order we see in the universe is not there, there’s constant randomness, and the mind imposes order on that reality. But what the greatest pessimists, like Nietzsche and Sartre and others have also said, is that what a human being must therefore do, and what a human being can in fact do, is create order out of their little corner of the universe. Humans always struggle to make meaning out of their little piece of reality, and the way they shape that meaning or try to live that meaning is story.

Rumpus: But there are different truths. If you tell about truth from the point of view of the human, then yes, story makes sense, but you can also tell the truth about the universe as abstracted from the human.

McKee: Well there are certain things we do know, no matter what your point of view. You’re going to die. You live in the flux of time. Everything you create in this life is going to be destroyed, and you too are going to be destroyed. Those don’t change no matter what your point of view. But you’re obligated to make meaning, even if the meaning is absurd. We go to writers to say: make sense of this – even if it is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Even if the sense that you are making is that there is no sense. As an audience, I expect it. I demand it. You can’t escape it. It’s part of the ritual. Why else are you bothering to write?

Rumpus: Right.

McKee: The desire in human beings for order, for meaning, to understand causal connections, the desire to control your existence is genetic, all right? Because the underlying imperative of life is to survive, and chaos is the enemy. Therefore you must bring order. You must be able to predict, you must be able to take an action with a sense of what will probably happen when you take the action, and have some confidence that you’ll get the results you intended, or you’re out of control and therefore death is right around the corner. The classical model shows retroactively, when you get to the ending, how indeed everything was connected, and gives you a model for experience that, somehow, will help you live well.

Rumpus: But what about the role of randomness?

McKee: Well, classical design shows how after that random thing happens, you have to reshape your life in response to it. So what’s important for artists to realize is that your obligation at some level is to make meaning out of life, whatever that meaning may be, and express it beautifully, so an audience that sits there reading or in the theatre is experiencing a sense of the truth – whatever that truth may be. And if enough artists honestly express with some insight their sense of the truth, we’ll have all the great spectrum of truths out there, and human beings can pick and choose amongst them and live their lives in a more satisfying way.

Rumpus: I often think that role of the artist is to tell the stories that are sort of unconscious in the culture. That’s why Woody Allen’s love stories are so great, because you have this cultural idea that love is going to make everyone happy, right? And his is sort of the unconscious — that more often than not it leaves you perplexed and hurt and so on.

McKee: Exactly. One of the greatest of all the pessimist philosophers was Arthur Schopenhauer, and he said yes, love never works out – it’s all pain, it’s all suffering, it’s all awful – except for those few people who actually obtain it and therefore irritate the rest of us. The truth of the matter is that everything is possible. There are these people who find romance, and it’s not phoney, and they really love one another, and they’re devoted and sacrifice for each other, and they have this remarkable, ideal experience, and they go to the grave holding hands. So it’s not unrealistic to desire the ideal, it’s just that it’s naïve to think that against all odds you’re going to obtain it.

Rumpus: So many of the conflicts people experience are internal. How does one dramatise that?

McKee: Those stories are the hardest tell on screen, because you can’t photograph thought, so you have to imply it – through conflicts with family, conflicts with work, conflicts with whatever – to lead the audience to understand that’s what going on here is a profound war within a human being. It’s tough, it’s very difficult, but Sofia Coppola pulled it off wonderfully in Lost in Translation, and it was done beautifully in Leaving Las Vegas.

Robert Mckee portrayed by Brian Cox in Adaptation

Rumpus: You were a character — there was a Robert McKee character — in the movie Adaptation

McKee: I helped them. I consulted.

Rumpus:I wonder if you feel like the third-act problem was solved in that film?

McKee: Up to a point. I mean, if you get the joke that Donald is writing the third act – that the first two acts are written by Charlie, but then Charlie is helpless in trying to write the third act. He even comes to my character and my character says, Just give us a great third act an everything will be forgiven. Well, Charlie can’t give us a great third act, so he brings his brother in from LA, and his brother takes over the movie. His brother goes to New Orleans and his brother gets the binoculars and whatnot, and finds out that Susan Orleans is heading to Florida, and follows her down to Florida, and there he goes. So if you get the joke that Donald takes over the third act and writes it the way a Donald writer would, then it’s wonderful and it works. But I would guess only half the audience got it.

Rumpus: But is it a great metaphor? If the substance of story is metaphor, is it great?

McKee: Yes, because it’s absurd. The joke is that, you know, how the hell do you get out of these situations in life? You cheat! And it’s okay!

Rumpus: I wonder if you, personally, take any pleasure in reading books that are non-linear – in writing that does not represent classical structure?

McKee: Yeah, Nicholson Baker – he’s great. But I read him in small increments, because it is so dense and intense and detailed. It’s not exactly what we call a page-turner. But the trouble with so many of these works is you can see the wheels turning.

Rumpus: What do you mean, the wheels turning?

McKee: I see the guy deliberately going against the grain, and that conscious deliberateness of it often makes me feel that he’s really not expressing himself with a fullness of his creative energies, but he’s looking over his shoulder all the time to make certain that all of his choices are anti-choices. When you see the wheels turning, when you see the technique, when it becomes self-conscious — I mean, you can give it a fancy name and call it self-deconstruction or whatever, but nonetheless, when you see the artifice, it can spoil your pleasure. Not always. When somebody does that magnificently – like Samuel Beckett – I don’t see the wheels. I just get sucked up into it. And I want that.

Rumpus: So what do you feel is the obligation of the artist?

McKee: I think an artist has an obligation to create a satisfying, fulfilling experience, no matter how bitter and dark it may be. The great avant-garde of the 60s – Buñuel and Godard and others – they were great. You came out of their films saying, Oh man, people are just like that. It was rich and complete. It did not require café criticism. But there are some people who go to a movie to gather ammunition for the post-movie ritual of café criticism. There are people who read books in order to talk about books with their friends. You have to go out and have long discussions with your friends, because the work of art itself is not satisfying. And they will try to make a virtue out of the incompleteness, arguing, well, life is incomplete. But it’s my feeling that a work of art brings silence to the mind. It does not amplify the chatter. If a work of art is really satisfying, there is no need to discuss it with anyone. It is a personal and deeply felt experience, and you just go home or go to bed and close the book to savour what you’ve experienced, but you do not need to go out and talk about it. I tend to think that the deliberate incompleteness that triggers conversation makes the work less than art.

Rumpus: Do you feel there’s any threat to literature from – not only from film, but TV, video games – all these other ways of telling stories?

McKee: Well, the literate minority has always been a minority. How many people are actually seeking deep experiences of a profound literary kind? Not many. But those people are consistent. They will always be there. Those are the ones for whom we write. And I swear to God, if that’s 2% of the population, we’d be lucky.

Rumpus: You’ve said that the result in a culture without story is decadence, and I understand what that word means, but specifically what do you mean when you visualise a decadent culture that doesn’t have grounding stories that speaks about values?

McKee: If honest storytelling is not available to the world, if the stories they tell are empty and false and banal, it allows for people to live even more profoundly in a state of self-deception; it allows for societies to tell itself lies as well.

Rumpus: But isn’t that what so many people and societies want?

McKee: Of course. Freud said that denial makes the world go round – that reality is so bitter and so awful, that if you forced yourself to live in it exclusively, one hundred percent, for one hour, your mind would shatter, okay? So you have to deny. But there are degrees of this. So when a society, for example, gets righteous and says it’s right for me to kill but wrong for others – or when a society gets relativistic and says none of these values matter, it’s all local, it’s all made up, and nothing is more true than anything else – which is the post-modernist’s view of life – when you get to either extreme where there is nothing but rules and regulations and extreme righteous morality — which is too inflexible – or where there is nothing but flexibility and relativity and there are no principles, then the society is deluded and the result is decadence, whether that decadence be the cruelty of the totalitarian society or the decadence of families falling apart because nobody cares – because nobody has any love or commitment to anyone because none of these things matter, and they go in and out of relationships, destroying their children along the way. I mean, there’s got to be some balance, some golden mean between the extremes of righteous rigidity and hyper-morality and laissez-faire relativism, and a civilized human being has a sense of that balance. A civilized society has both laws and mercy, and the world needs quality storytelling in order to shine a light into those truths so human beings can lead a more reasonable and balanced life somehow.


Sheila Heti lives in Toronto, where she often collaborates with her friends. She is the author of two books: Ticknor (FSG) and The Middle Stories (McSweeney's Books). Her lecture series, Trampoline Hall, has been running monthly since December 2001, and her latest web project were the blogs I Dream of Hillary and I Dream of Barack. She often conducts interviews for The Believer. Her website is www.sheilaheti.net More from this author →