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Inside Story: McKee’s Masterclass by Niamh O’Connor

Writing.ie | Magazine | Stage & Screen
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By Niamh O'Connor

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Robert McKee is every bit as ferocious as he must have been in his prime when he managed to instill the dramatic principles of ancient Greece into hardened Hollywood execs. I mean he’s 74 with hunched shoulders, fierce eyebrows and arthritic hands. But oh God he bristles like a young Charlton Heston in a toga whipping racing stallions into shape, the dumb beasts being European screenwriters in general, in this instance…

‘In Hollywood, you open a movie with a cloud scene, you better expect a jumbo to crash,’ he says.

In Ireland to deliver his Story seminar for the first time this November for The Learning Resort, he lectured at the INEC, Killarney from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. for four days – on foot for almost the entire duration.

So where is the stamina coming from at this stage of his life?

He recalls a student protest at the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) campus when he worked as a screenwriting lecturer (he left the safe haven of academia because, ‘I couldn’t stick the meetings.’)

‘Those spoiled brat students were protesting over the hours the Koreans were studying. They wanted to stop them. Man, I was so embarrassed.’

He gives the lust for learning another nod when recalling how the legendary actor, Kirk Douglas, took his course on one occasion. The mega star was in his eighties at the time and had suffered a stroke. ‘I went down to him in the break and asked why he was there. And he said he wanted to write. You see Kirk Douglas’s father used to collect and sell rags.’

Even as a young man, McKee was a worker – multi-jobbing in a deli in New York on shifts of more than 12 hours with no breaks, while also acting, directing, and trying to write a breakthrough script in his spare time. The legendary playwright, screenwriter, novelist and winner of three Academy Awards, Paddy Chayefsky was a customer whose table he waited. ‘So I asked Paddy if I could come up and see his office,’ McKee said. He said, ‘Kid, it’s just an office.’ But I kept at him and eventually he let me come up.’

The views from the skyscraper office took in Central Park … the Statue of Liberty: ‘it was the most amazing view in the world,’ McKee remembers. So it was a surprise to find Chayefsky’s desk was turned away from the view, facing a grey wall, without even a painting. ‘The wall had a piece of paper with a line of writing stuck to it. I asked Paddy what the note was for. He said, ‘to keep reminding me what my story’s about.’

Even when McKee had worked his way to the top and perfected his own craft and was selling scripts he’d penned in Hollywood, he was still a “working writer”.

‘You know how many scripts get bought? One in a hundred, if you’re lucky. You know how many out of that get made…?’

The incredible anomaly of his life as a writer and scholar is that while Hollywood paid homage to him in the Oscar winning movie, ‘Adaptation’, it was for his role as a teacher, helping other writers, and not his writing.

mckee oconnor 1
Niamh O’Connor with Robert McKee

We meet for the Writing.ie interview in a hotel suite where the one question the Fulbright Scholar (the breeding ground of Nobel and Pulitzer prizewinners) hates most (he tells this to delegates later) is the first question asked.

‘What’s your favourite movie?’

‘Oh I don’t do that sort of thing,’ he says.

The subtext is clearly ‘because it’s a crap question’, but fortunately McKee is big on keeping subtext in the shadows.

The next question put to him concerns Irish actors … and, ahem, who he thinks is the best. Fortunately, this time round he takes pity – lets put that down to one of the reversals – he’s big on them too.

‘Liam Neeson is an movie star in the old fashioned sense; Daniel Day Lewis the biggest ham in Hollywood.’

‘Err, favourite Irish movie…?’

‘The Crying Game was a great movie,’ he answers graciously. ‘I did not see that twist coming.’

So does it bother him that he’s had more success as a script doctor than writer?

‘I don’t think like that. In Hollywood, it’s the director who’s the star. Not the writer. Do you have any idea how many people it takes to make a movie?’

Apart from his work ethic, his other big personality trait is being incapable of bullshit. He makes it clear he’s not a fan of Steven Spielberg (one of the few big Hollywood names not to have taken his course). ‘You want to know who wrote Big – a movie about a little boy who needs to grow up? Steven Spielberg’s sister. You think that was just a coincidence?’

Of Jurassic World, he says *spoiler alert*: ‘The T-Rex just happened to kill the raptors and save the day? Come on! He (Spielberg) couldn’t come up with an ending that didn’t involve a huge coincidence? How hard would it have been?’

McKee proceeds to give an alternative ending to Jurassic World. It’s better, without question.

He recalls the reason, when he worked as a story analyst for United Artists and NBC in the eighties, he passed on most scripts. ‘It could have been written in crayon on toilet paper, but if the story was good we bought it.

‘The quality of the writing didn’t matter. That could be fixed. But a great story …’

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Robert McKee is played by Brian Cox (right) and in the movie Adaptation counsels the writer, Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicholas Cage) on writer’s block.

Not that McKee espouses writing in crayon on toilet paper. ‘A great concept is like humming on the steps of Carnegie Hall. It’s not enough. You can’t just stand there wondering why nobody recognises your talent.’

His bugbear at the moment is the direction European cinema has taken (we’ve lost the art of story) but he’s also critical of Hollywood for it’s willingness to prioritize spectacle over story. ‘The really exciting storytelling is happening on TV,  in long form drama in series like Breaking Bad and The Good Wife,’ he says.

The challenge for the next generation of screenwriters will be to rescue the movie.

Only at the end of his four days in Killarney does he finally admit that there is one movie with a special place in his heart: Casablana. And when he winds up singing ‘Play it Again Sam’, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

(c) Niamh O’Connor

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