All filmmakers know his name. It's virtually impossible to have written a screenplay in this country (or any other, for that matter) without having come across the name Robert McKee because it is McKee who towers over all of us, or the idea of McKee, an omniscient master analyst of any story told on screen. As we write our screenplays, it's almost impossible to ignore the nagging fear whispering from within. The fear that when the film is finally made and screened and (God willing!) released in movie theatres, McKee might see it and emerge from the darkened theatre shaking his head in disbelief at the multitude of glaring failures of storytelling on display.
As I was making ALL THE RAGE, which I adapted from my stage play A BETTER BOY, I wondered what McKee might make of my radical reworking of the story's structure, specifically, the last 15-20 min. of screen time, which departed radically from the play's resolution. I uprooted what had been the the last 25% of my protagonist's journey to construct an end that really landed 180-degrees from where the play had arrived. What's amazing to me, looking back on it, is that somehow without ever having read McKee's books or taken his world-famous workshops, I'd managed to absorb one major point he's been making about storytelling for the last thirty years: the relationship between the audience and a story's protagonist is essential to a story's power to move us and engineering that relationship is delicate surgical work that demands our undivided attention. Turn away from that question for even one moment during the crafting of a screenplay and... well, good luck selling more than a dozen tickets.
Of course it's an indication of just how major a figure he is that I feared his disapproving gaze without actually having been exposed to any of his writing on the subject. There is no analogous figure in the world of playwriting. Nor in the realm of fiction, as far as I am aware. In music, among composers working in the last half of the 20th Century, there was one towering teacher who every great composer seemed to have crossed paths with at one time or another. That was Nadja Boulanger. Composers from all over the world were encouraged to make the pilgrimage to Paris where, for a year or two, they would study music composition with a diminutive white-haired lady who looked more like a piano teacher than a composer and actually taught composition without ever having been a composer herself.
Most playwrights I know who've heard of McKee or have read any of his work regard him with suspicion, a kind of suspicion bordering on condescension. Should his name come up in conversation among a group of playwrights, it might be met with a snort or an eye-roll. Translation:
That narrow-minded prescriptive and pompous little guru may be good enough for screenwriters. After all, don't they spend their entire careers chasing after the ambitions and fancies of their producers? Screenwriters aren't the authentic artists we playwrights are, we who write from the gut and would never dream of letting some guy with a microphone in a crowded auditorium preach to us about our craft. After all, we understand the truth about the theatre. Playwrights must re-invent the form with each new play. [sic]
I have to admit, for years I carried around a trunkful of unhealthy skepticism around McKee's theories because I assumed he was prescriptive, engaged in a lifelong promotion of a kind of paint-by-numbers manual for screenwriting. Being my father's son, however, I am attracted to the notion that things are rarely as clearcut and simple as we might imagine them to be. So, in honor of my somewhat recent rededication to teaching writers, I decided to save up all my pennies and take McKee's 3-day Story Seminar, to once and for all see what all the fuss was about.
Wow. Robert McKee is surprisingly not prescriptive at all. He's analytical--deeply so--about the mechanics of story, of what drives it for an audience. And I have to say, after sitting and listening to him for 30 hours, I find his theories quite persuasive.
There was another aspect of McKee that I was not expecting but which made me instantly like him and that is his rage. And his absolute unwillingness to repeat some commonly-held belief just 'cause it's been widely absorbed by the culture makes him an outsider, through and through. Whenever McKee veers into territory that's politically charged it's clear he knows that what's coming out of his mouth is likely offending at least a third of his audience but his firm conviction that that offense is not come by honestly pushes him forward defiantly. At times his eyes seem to twinkle as he says something especially politically incorrect, almost daring any of us in his audience to stand up and take issue with him. He knows they'd never win the argument, not when he has logic and reason on his side.
The observations about story McKee shared over the course of those three days will stay with me for long long time. What most surprised me about the course was that McKee recognizes (and in fact celebrates!) the uniqueness of each story. He is absolutely not telling writers to manufacture their scripts to conform with a set of rigid rules. He is, however, providing writers with a set of excruciatingly detailed rules of story, by which story can be revised. In fact, I was especially excited when I heard him echo something I've been saying for years. To paraphrase:
You can't know what your story is about until you've written your way to the end. It's by writing the end that the writer discovers his or her operating principal. Then with that new understanding of one's own work, and only then, the rewriting can begin.
It's perhaps inevitable that a theorist as famous and successful as McKee would inspire a lot of ill-will because, think about it. When your work is that widely read and quoted, many talentless hacks are going to try to dress themselves in the surface bullet-points of the argument in order to justify their lifeless mediocrities. This happens in Hollywood all the time. There may be no place on the planet more prone to superficial appropriation of deep ideas for purposes of marketing than Los Angeles. As a result, much of what we hear about McKee is noise and has little to do with his actual theory.
I'm so glad I finally gave him a chance. Now, I'll be curious to see how the experience effects my next work.