Q & A with Robert McKee
Robert McKee’s name is as synonymous with screenwriting as Tony Robbins’ name is for personal development.
Educating scores of writers, filmmakers, actors and everyone in between since 1984, Mckee cemented his legacy teaching storytelling both in person and through his tome “Story.”
In 2002, Brian Cox portrayed him in the Charlie Kaufman-scripted film Adaptation, which only increased demand to attend one of his STORY seminars.
More than 100,000 students have taken McKee’s courses, including Peter Jackson, Jane Campion, Paul Haggis, Akiva Goldsman, William Goldman, David Bowie, Kirk Douglas, and writers from Pixar.
Here, McKee answers some questions, including the ever-present “Should you write what you know?”
1) On STORY AND PHILOSOPHY
Question: Did Story begin as a counter to philosophy’s pursuit of the true and real?
McKee: Story did not begin as a response to philosophy; it began tens and tens of thousands of years before philosophy. Story began as a response to life.
Recent science has shown repeatedly that the mind thinks in terms of story—story is how the mind constructs reality in terms of befores and afters, causes and effects. Story is another way to pursue the truth. There have been four great avenues to the truth—religion, philosophy, science, and art of all kinds, not just story.
As I often say, the fascinating thing about truth is that you know it when you are in the presence of it. You know somewhere deep intuitively inside yourself whether a storyteller is expressing truth about what it is to be human or is bullshitting you. You can’t always put your finger on exactly what makes it true or false, but you feel it. In story, what is true is subjective and it is emotional more than intellectual. So there are some people who will sit in front of a film by Ingmar Bergman and feel a profound connection to the truth and other people will sit there bored to death and find the whole thing melodramatic and false.
Philosophy, too, involves the pursuit of truth but in many different ways—the meaning of language, the morality of behavior, ontological questions on the essence of reality—and through many different branches of philosophical study. There is no contradiction necessarily between philosophy and art; they are simply two different strategies human beings use to put themselves into an intense and intimate relationship with what is.
2) On WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW AND LOVE
Question: Is it better to write what you know, or what you love?
McKee: Well, you are using “know” and “love” as distinct. But I don’t really think when you say “write what you know,” you mean in a purely scientific way as if you could gather a body of knowledge, know something, and then never think about it again. Really, “write what you know” means you have to have a depth of knowledge—you have to become an author, an authority on that particular subject. And that motivation to become an author on a particular subject is that you love it. I think the love of something inspires you to want to know the thing, and the knowledge of it gives you even deeper love and caring for the subject.
So without knowledge of something, you couldn’t really love it, and without love of it, you really wouldn’t want to know much about it, would you? In that sense, they are inseparable and become the left and right hand of the artist struggling to create.
3) On MAKING A START
Question: I still get lost when I start writing my stories. Do I begin with research or finding my protagonist, and how do I find the genre I love to write?
McKee: Your questions—“Do I start with character? Do I start with genre? What do I need to inspire me to keep writing and to create and finish something of quality?”—are so specific to the individual writer that I can’t really give you a definitive answer. But try this and see whether it works:
Think about your favorite films, novels, or plays. If you had to go to a deserted island, which six stories would you take with you? Look at these stories carefully—and I mean carefully. Consider: What do you really love about each story? Is it one of the characters? A relationship between the two characters? How the events unfold? The setting? A particular sense of humor?
See whether a pattern emerges—What is core to each story that most satisfies, interests, and attracts you? Then think about how you might create such a thing in the story you are trying to write.
You have to figure out what inspires or moves you in the stories you love in order to get a sense of what will inspire you to continue and finish your own writing.
Discover how you can attend upcoming McKee seminars by going here.
Robert McKee, A Fulbright Scholar, is the most sought after screenwriting lecturer around the globe.
McKee’s former students include over 60 Academy Award Winners and 200 Academy Award Nominees.
You can find out more about his upcoming seminars at http://mckeestory.com/