'Why Were They There?': Screenwriting Guru Robert McKee Takes on Right-Wing Attackers

cox_mckee_adaptation500.jpgEarlier 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.

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  • I know, right? We're working on the lag for awful comments; I think there's a Movable Type plug-in for it. Hang in there!

  • Chris Warner says:

    Here is the note I sent to Ms. McElhinney commenting on her blog:
    don't know you personally and have never read your stuff, but I recently saw a blog you wrote criticizing Robert McKee's story seminar because he sprinkles his teachings with profanity, insults and anti-right wing diatribes. http://bighollywood.breitbart.com/annmcelhinney/2011/01/10/for-745-you-too-can-be-insulted-by-famed-hollywood-screenwriting-teacher-robert-mckee/
    Frankly, I had to laugh out loud at how silly and overwrought your blog was. I am one of those right wing conservatives that Robert McKee insults, I served Republicans in the United States Senate and House during the Reagan Revolution, I served in Ronald Reagan's Presidential administration, and I also was awe-inspired by EVERY SINGLE MINUTE of the three day Robert McKee seminar I attended with my college son in San Francisco a year ago -- INCLUDING all the insults, profanity and political diatribes. Just as I laughed out loud at your silly critique of McKee, I also laughed out loud at each of his insults and diatribes in the seminar because he is not only the world's best writing teacher, he is also an irascible, incorrigible scoundrel who captures your attention and your heart from the very first minute of his marathon 3-days.
    I may be a right-wing conservative in my politics, but I went to school in the '60s and 70's when I had the fortune to learn writing from fabulous teachers and to listen directly to visiting artists and poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Robert Bly, Pablo Neruda and Larry Woiwode. Their liberal politics and rants were irrelevant to me; what mattered was their art and their craft and their love of beauty. Sitting through Robert McKee's 3-day seminar with my college son, a writing major at Northwestern, brought out the same intense intellectual emotions I enjoyed so much during my college years. For that and that alone, I would have paid triple the 3-day fee Mr. McKee charged us. And the fact that my son was equally inspired by Mr. McKee is priceless.
    I suspect you and I may share some of the same views in the culture wars. But layoff Robert McKee -- he is an American cultural treasure, and your confusion between art and politics is not only an insult to all of us who have been inspired by McKee, but also an insult to the distinction between art and politics that true conservatives and true liberals both revere and celebrate.
    Thanks for listening.

  • JJ says:

    Whether we like it or not, technology has given everyone, fools and thinkers alike, a platform to make their innermost thoughts public. Ms. McElhinney started an incoherent “rant” on her blog. It’s baseless, insulting, and nothing more than “noise” acting as a smoke-screen! Her diatribe is just a distraction from the truth, from the real question that’s pleading to be answered: Does Dr. Robert McKee have something to offer to the world? If her answer runs contrary to the thousands, if not more, who have benefited from Dr. McKee’s guidance and vast knowledge, then a vigorous discourse could be had.
    Dr. Robert McKee’s job is to teach, to impart his substantive knowledge to the students who that choose to learn from him. In the years I have attended his seminars (and I have attended all of them) he has always and seamlessly fulfilled this intent. If an attendee chooses to pay attention to irrelevant points such as Dr. McKee’s so-called politics, his age, choice of language used at strategic moments during the seminar, how much coffee he drinks, etc – instead – of what he is teaching, then they are focusing on the wrong thing; thus they will have missed the boat, so to speak! Ms. McElhinney has done just that! Hence, she never learnt a single thing in the seminar and has thus wasted her time and money. Whose fault is that?
    In a democratic country people are free to express themselves in the manner they choose; they are also free to think whatever they wish. But not according to Ms. McElhinney. It’s either “her way or the highway!” She wants the entire world to forego attending McKee’s seminars for two reasons: One, Dr. Robert McKee’s politics and hers aren’t aligned, and, two, according to her, he’s too expensive. This is not only anti-democratic but hypocritical.
    Ms. McElhinney and her followers are of the mindset that Dr. McKee is not allowed to dictate his rates. If someone chooses to buy a Mercedes Benz over a Mini, then so be it. It’s a democratic and an individual choice! One can charge whatever they want for their products and services. It seems to me that they want Dr. McKee to offer his products and services for free! That’s insane! Cost should not be wielded as an excuse to maintain ignorance. And it seems that Ms. McElhinney and her followers subscribe to this attitude.
    So-called critics of Dr. McKee claim that he can’t write so he teaches. Untrue! If these said individuals did a little research they would have discovered that Dr. McKee has made money in the industry and that he “chose” to become a teacher and a film scholar!
    These so-called critics are also of the belief that if you’re actively employed in the industry then it means you are qualified to teach. That’s utter rubbish; pure junk logic! Teaching is an entirely different discipline. Just because you are adept at doing something does NOT mean that you automatically have the requisite skills to impart what you know to another. Dr. McKee can do both – write as well as teach. Can these critics do the same? They are doing either doing one of the other.
    I count myself among the hundreds of thousands of students that personally benefited from Dr. Robert McKee’s knowledge in a myriad of ways. So have others too numerous to mention, but here is just a taste: John Cleese, Peter Jackson, Faye Dunaway, Julia Roberts, Drew Carey, the entire cast of Damages, the numerous production companies that have hired and continue to hire him as a consultant in the USA, Brazil, Mexico, Brazil, Israel, the UK…and the list goes on…..
    I caution those who believe everything they encounter on the internet… to be more mindful and critical of what masquerades as truth on the web before absorbing it into their consciousness.
    Leave Dr. Robert alone. He has a right to do and say what he does.

  • Johnny Conservative says:

    I'm a conservative and love McKee. How 'bout that *bleeping bleep*?

  • Stacy says:

    I don't see anywhere in the article that McKee insulted McElhinney personally. She was merely offended by his statements—which is not the same thing. Some people think everything revolves around them no matter what you bleeping do.

  • J'ai toujours suivi votre blog, j'ai appris quelques petites choses à partir de votre blog, tiens à remercier yo-vous, j'espère que vous avez un jour heureux

  • We have been waiting to hear about this, my girlfriend told me about it last week. I really wish i could be in 2 different places at at will.