'Why Were They There?': Screenwriting Guru Robert McKee Takes on Right-Wing Attackers
Earlier this week, a contributor to the right-wing film and culture Web site Big Hollywood offered up the delightfully titled tale, "For $745 You Too Can Be Insulted By Famed Hollywood Screenwriting Teacher Robert McKee." Author Ann McElhinney proceeded to recount her time in McKee's celebrated (and, indeed, expensive) story seminar last October, time reportedly spent chafing under the instructor's prodigious use of profanity, social criticism, "Bush bashing" and other liberal bloviation. A torrent of conservative bile followed in the site's comments. Of course, anyone who's seen Adaptation, featuring Brian Cox as the legendary -- and legendarily irascible -- writing mentor, could have warned McElhinney of at least some pedagogical turbulence ahead. So Movieline asked McKee on Wednesday: What, if anything, went wrong here?
In a nutshell: Nothing.
"These kinds of people always make me nervous, because they're right on the edge of being a groupie," McKee said. "Their fascination with me, my personality, my life, my feelings, my ambitions and whatnot really is misplaced. What they really should be there for is to take notes on their own writing. And instead they do some sort of biographical study of me, and I'm wondering, 'Why were they there?' If I'm the most fascinating thing they encountered, and not the ideas in the lecture, then maybe their heart's not in the right place to begin with."
McElhinney did find plenty to note in McKee's lecture, cataloging a succession of claims like "1/3 of all women will suffer sexual abuse in their lives" ("Yeah, that's research," McKee told me. "That's a fact."), "Everybody hates everybody in the US" ("Yeah. They do"), and "Columbus killed 5 million Indians, it was genocide, chopped up Indians to feed to their dogs, we killed them because we were Christians and they were heathen." ("I didn't pull that out of the air," he elaborated. "When I say it's a fact, it's something that I've read in my research of other projects. I came across the Haitian genocide by Columbus and his crew.") McKee cited, then laughed off, his attributed "Conservatives have famously thin skins" claim from memory.
Other McElhinney observations hewed closer to basic psychoanalysis. "He is very angry and it's hard to understand why," she wrote. "He is making a fortune, is, according to himself, blissfully and happily married and when he actually breaks off from his juvenile Bush bashing, he is very good at what he does. One gets the feeling that for all the money and fame as a teacher this is not what he'd like to be famous for. Instead, he'd like to be a talented screenwriter and he is not."
As you might imagine, McKee has heard that one before.
"They often take [my tone] as angry," he said. "But it's more frustrated than angry. They presume my tone, as strong as it is, says that I'm a disappointed screenwriter, and that what I really want is success as a screenwriter, and instead I have this -- though richly rewarded -- success as a teacher, and that I live in some kind of profound disappointment, and that's because of my anger. And what they're doing, of course, is they're projecting themselves on me. They want to be screenwriters. I do not wish to be a screenwriter. I was a screenwriter. I had some success, indeed, on television 20, 30 years ago, and I gave it up willingly and happily to do what I really love, which is to lecture and write about writing. Because in that, I'm the best. I know where my talents lie, and I'm a fine teacher and writer of writing. I'm happy and thrilled to be that, rather than a struggling screenwriter. With or without success, I love what I do. But they presume that I don't, and that what I really want to do is something else."
OK -- then what is upsetting McKee? "The source of my anger," he replied, "if I'm angry, is the incredibly disappointing films and plays and novels that I read month after month, year after year, when I would hope the quality would go back to what it once was. I just want to see more good writing in the world." A little more optimistically, McKee later added that TV is the superior narrative medium of our day, claiming "many, many dozens" of his alums had fled screenwriting for work on series like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, In Treatment and Damages.
Pages: 1 2