An Interview with Robert McKee, the God of Story
Robert McKee has lectured on storytelling for three decades, and his book <i>Story</i> is the bible for screenwriters. Alec Sokolow and Tony Camin are a screenwriting team in Los Angeles. They recently called McKee to talk shop and discuss <i>What the...
Photo by Roos Trommelen, illustration by Dylan Redford
Robert McKee has lectured on storytelling for three decades, and his book Story is the bible for screenwriters. It’s also become the bible for TV writers, and entertainment executives, and their secretaries. McKee’s former students include 63 Academy Award winners, 164 Emmy Award winners, 30 Writers Guild of America Award winners, and 26 Directors Guild of America Award winners. Alec Sokolow and Tony Camin are a screenwriting team in Los Angeles. They recently called McKee to talk shop and discuss What the Duck, their newest project. Camin was kind enough to allow us to publish his notes on Sokolow’s treatment.
Robert McKee: Alec—were you with the original Pixar group that came to my lecture?
Alec Sokolow: Yes and no. I had done your lecture in ’89 or ’90. I don’t know when they went. When I started working with them, they hadn’t done it, but in the course of our tenure together, they did.
I remember there were three or four guys. They said, “We are just tech nerds who love animation, and we don’t know anything about story.”
I said, “Have you made anything?” And they said, “We have this little short.” They showed me the short of the animated lamp. I looked at them and said, “Just sit down and take notes. You guys are going to be fine.”
One of the things that doesn’t get broadcast with Pixar is, by and large, they bring on an outside screenwriter to do the first draft and then work off of that. That has happened with about 75 percent of their movies.
Yes. I know that, when they took the class, their great concern was how to make toys into characters. But they’d made a lamp into a character! The rest is history.
Tony Camin: When you saw the lamp, what did you see in it that made you think they’d be fine? The detail?
The subtext! I knew what the lamp was thinking and feeling. Anytime an animator can take an object and give it consciousness so that it actually has subtext and you’re reading their minds and feelings—that is the genius. Telling a great story all begins with that.
I was told—I think this is true—that they won’t OK a script for production until they can answer the question “What’s the negation of the negation?”
Sokolow: I have a question about that phrase. I googled it, to learn where it came from. It was from Hegel.
I stole it from Hegel.
Camin: This is being printed, Mr. McKee! Watch it!
He’s one of the major philosophers of humankind. You’re allowed to steal from those guys. If you can understand it, it’s yours.
Sokolow: The way I remember you defining it, it’s about—especially in your third act—going to where the logic of your evil becomes even more evil.
I don’t know when you took my lecture, but when you did, I suspect that I didn’t actually explain how you get to the negation of the negation. I’ll do that now.
You take what is negative—like hate. Then you do one of two things: Either you disguise it with a lie, so it becomes hatred masquerading as love—like in great films such as Ordinary People. Or you take what is normally directed at the world and turn it inward on the character, so hatred becomes self-hate.
Those are the two techniques to take what is common, everyday antagonism and conflict and push it one step further, to the limit of things.
Camin: Like a volcano exploding or something.
Well, no, it’s not. It isn’t just quantitative. You don’t just take hate and magnify it so there’s a lot of it—a volcano of it. It changes its quality. It becomes hatred masquerading as love. It becomes self-hate.
It does magnify the power of it, but not by being more and more of it—by changing the quality. You said you took it in the late 80s or early 90s, Alec? I know that, in those years, I did not explain how you reach the negation of the negation.
Sokolow: One of the things I’m curious about is how the course has evolved over time.
Camin: Well, now he tells you how to get to the negation of the negation!
What’s happened is that people have asked questions over the years. When I hear the same question enough times, I realize that there’s a hole in the lecture. Then I build a section into the lecture around the question to preempt it.
The lecture was 24 hours originally, and I showed both Casablanca and Chinatown. I eliminated Chinatown to gain four hours, and the original 24 hours has built up to 32 hours over four days.
Sokolow: I think that Jack Nicholson would have liked to eliminate The Two Jakes.
The Two Jakes was like that film out on the ocean…
Yeah. After all the bad-mouthing of Waterworld, and a few other films I could think of, I’m sitting in a hotel room in the middle of the night, suffering jet lag, and there’s Waterworld. And it’s not that bad! Waterworld was actually pretty good.
Camin: Is it true that Roger Rabbit was supposed to be the third movie in the Chinatown trilogy?
I don’t know, but they’re all about the red cars.
Sokolow: I have another question. You talk about the students asking you questions—what are the weirdest questions you’ve heard?
Camin: Something about Porky’s II or something.
The weird questions come from people who are a little weird to begin with. They often come from another discipline, like science or physics or chemistry or astrology.
Between the scientists and the spiritualists, the weirdest questions are them trying to fit their particular obsession into their story. You get really bizarre questions about trying to draw analogies between some transcendent experience or quantum physics and story. Those are really off the wall.
Sokolow: Have you read Ernest Becker? Going back to the idea of evil and hatred. His whole thesis is that, since we’re all in denial of death, we create heroes as these people who defy death. The need for a hero creates a need for a villain, so it becomes a repeated, esoteric, internal conversation that we all have.
Quality writing is very specific in the way in which actions and reactions are acted out by very unique characters in very unique ways, moment by moment. You take those generalized forces, translate them into characters and story, and what’s going to bring it to life is that it’s one of a kind. An indelible, memorable, unique example of that eternal struggle.
Good writing concentrates on taking these generalities and making them as specific and unique as possible.
In my experience, you can’t teach someone to write. Some people are touched by brilliance—you can read their writing and the way the words flow is perfect. Other people are workman-like. After pursuing it for decades, I am aware of that pixie-dust aspect to it.
There’s a name for that pixie dust. It’s called talent.
Camin: I thought you were going to say it was called one of your courses.
Sokolow: Why has Hollywood storytelling contracted? Why is it so formulaic now?
Money. They can’t take a risk. Every time they do—a film like The Prisoners—every time they take a risk and lose money, they say, “Look. No more risks.” It’s money.
I’ve been in a number of meetings where creative executives quote your course—it’s almost a shorthand. I don’t know if it makes the movies better or worse, but it’s very prevalent.
It sounds like you think that it makes it worse.
Camin: I get the same thing.
And you don’t have an opinion? You know. You think it’s worse, right?
Sokolow: I think the storytelling is worse, and I don’t know if there’s a correlation in the last 30 years between your course and greater storytelling, or if it is because of bigger forces.
When the budgets go from $8 million and $15 million to $100 million, all of a sudden everybody’s sphincter tightens up. You can’t take stories where they might have gone.
What can I say? That’s movies. I don’t see a great future for movies.
Can we talk about that a little bit?
It’s true on both sides of the Atlantic. I’m here in London, and I’m going to be teaching next week in Amsterdam. I’ve just seen three award-winning Dutch films. Two of them were fine. One of them was a very pretentious art movie, echoing films I saw in the 60s and 70s. Fifty years later, they’re still recycling that. None of it was exceptional. But it was good. The acting was good, the directing was very competent, and the writing was fine.
Camin: What’s the last great movie you saw?
Blue Jasmine was great. I thought the Lego film was delightful. They had a deep subtext that created a brilliant climax when you had a marvelous turning point where suddenly everything is retrospectively obvious, and there’s a massive reconfiguring of reality. Suddenly all those father characters you saw from world to world to world are all aspects of the kid’s father. It was superbly written!
Let me get back to what we were talking about—the impact of my lectures and my book. I would point out that the best writing in America today, and for the past decade or two, has not been in films but in television. Back even before The Sopranos. The quality of writing on television has just soared, far surpassing anything in film.
I would point out that the vast majority—if not all—of the writers creating the great series like Breaking Bad and Mad Men and True Detective and Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones are all my students.
They’re all your students, but you weren’t lecturing them on television. You were lecturing them on the cinematic structure.
Guys. Story structure is story structure whether it’s 100 hours long or two hours long.
I now do a full-day lecture on television. The key to long form is dimensionality of character. When the audience stops watching a long-form series is when the writers can no longer reveal or change the protagonist.
Are you familiar with the show Twin Peaks?
That’s David Lynch. I am familiar with it, but it was long ago.
It was sort of like Lost, where the more that was revealed, the less interesting—
That’s what happened with Dexter. Dexter became exhausted. In my mind, the best television series to date is Breaking Bad. When I analyzed Tony Soprano, I found him to be a 12-dimensional character. Walter White has almost 16 or 18 dimensions. He is maybe the most complex character ever written by anyone, for any medium. He generated five or six seasons.
By the time that last episode was executed, we absolutely knew everything about Walter White and his Heisenberg doppelgänger. He was ready to die because he was completely expressed, up to the last scene.
Sokolow: I don’t know who said this, but it always stays in my mind: Movies are statements, and television is conversation.
That’s nonsense. I don’t know what the fuck that means.
Camin: I made that statement!
Television is just one huge, complex statement.
Sokolow: Maybe I’m thinking more about the half-hour form, where characters never change.
Whatever! I don’t mean to be so aggressive, but I’ve been doing this all my life. When I hear statements like that, I go, Why don’t they just sit down and think?
Camin: Walter White went through so much over the course of that. He sunk into psychosis.
Walter changed every week. We never knew where the hell Walter was. Every time he did things one way, and we would feel that that was who he was, he would just reverse himself and do things in an opposite way.
And he would still do it in a believable character way.
That’s what a dimension is. A dimension is a consistent contradiction in the nature of the character. Walter was capable of being very gentle, and he was for five seasons with certain characters—and violent and brutal with others! The dimensionality fascinates the audience.
I am now teaching people that the standard for the 21st century will be the 100-hour story. They better start thinking in those terms and begin to become masters of human psychology. In order to sustain 100 hours you need a character who is so complex and multidimensional—20 dimensions seems like it will become a norm. Are those writers really up to that?
The cathedrals of storytelling in this coming century will be long-form masterworks of very complex characters, many subplots, unreliable realities, all interwoven.
Sokolow: Have you ever added up how many people have taken your course?
I give minimally 12 lectures a year, with 250 people at each one. Let’s say minimally 3,000 a year for 30 years. That is around 100,000 people.
I lecture everywhere, from China to Tel Aviv to Oslo. I’ve had influence on storytelling in all of those places. It’s exactly the same lecture everywhere I go.
Camin: It’s not like, Swedes don’t like reluctant heroes.
No. Culture is a quarter inch thick. Human nature is bottomless.
Sokolow: It upsets me when I find that it’s harder to find good movies.
My love is not limited to movies. I just love great stories. I really don’t give a damn what medium I experience the story in. I would be very happy if there never was another film and if all there was was theater. When we come here to London, we always come with an extra week or two weeks, simply to gorge on the theater.
I am going to give you a little preview of something. I’ve decided that, within the next three years, I’m going to stop lecturing. Instead, I’ve begun to build a school for writers in Manhattan. In the future, if people want to hear me lecture, they’re going to have to come to New York.
The school is going to be called the International Writers Institute, and it’s going to be only for writers of the performance stories. It’s going to be for playwrights, film, and television writers. Not for novelists. Novel writing is too complex, and I don’t want any novelist telling me that I don’t understand their writing.
We’re going to build a school for writers, and a third of it at least will be devoted to playwrights. I want to make sure that the theater never dies. But whether film survives or not? I really don’t care.
Camin: What about opera? You have to count that as stage.
Right, that’s the same as ballet and mime and the other live performances.
Camin: Ballet’s a little gay for me, but whatever.
Sokolow: I’m a huge theater geek also. Have you seen anything on this trip to London that you would recommend?
Yeah. We saw a Noël Coward play called Relative Values. I must say, we came out of that and I sat there thinking, Thank God for Noël Coward. The one thing about the theater is that it’s a museum. They don’t need contemporary writers to keep it alive—there’s a treasure chest of great plays that goes back 2,500 years. Writers like Noël Coward were so prolific. He must have written 50, 60, 70 plays.
We went to see a very nice Alan Ayckbourn play called A Small Family Business. Alan Ayckbourn must also have written 50 or 60 plays. There’s been a Terence Rattigan revival in London for the last few years.
If they want, they can go back beyond Shakespeare. These works are universal and masterfully written. The theater will always survive because it can constantly revive itself.
There’s the Donmar Warehouse, the Almeida… What we call Off-Broadway they call Fringe. We always stay in Chelsea, and the Royal Court Theatre is just three blocks away, in Sloane Square. There’s always a tremendous effort and success in England in supporting young writers.
Sokolow: Do you think that has to do with economics? That they can put up these plays easier because there’s more state support?
Camin: They don’t have television, so they’re limited over there.
They get everything that we get.
Sokolow: I’m developing a project with Quincy Jones. He loves you! Almost every meeting we have, he’ll refer to how you blew his mind.
Quincy had a deal with the Russians when Gorbachev was prime minister to do a US-Russian co-production based on the life of Pushkin.
I started doing some research and work on that with Quincy until Gorbachev was pulled down and Yeltsin was put in his place. So that deal was canceled. But I always thought that was a worthy project. It would be a great piece of very dramatic history.
Camin: Like a Nixon in China thing.
Sokolow: One of the things I always found handy was Billy Wilder’s Ten Rules. In your mind, do you like that thing? I love Billy Wilder.
I do too. He’s probably the most neglected auteur ever. You know why they neglect him? He wrote too many comedies. Film critics don’t take comedy seriously.
Camin: Even to this day?
To this day.
I hope not. I just bought something from Alec. What do you think of talking animals? Would you say it is worth $50,000 to buy a treatment from a guy like Alec?
You know how it is. If, when they start reading, they get involved with your talking animals, and it pays off in the end—it’s absolutely worth it. Make it $500,000.
Sokolow: My whole take on talking-animal movies is—this might not make sense—but I love Groucho Marx. With a talking animal, you have a character that can talk to the audience while still talking in the scene. It’s a convention that allows a comic voice to emerge.
Camin: Do all animals have direct address to the screen?
No, I wouldn’t think you would do that. You would have one that was a pal to the audience, and asides.
Sokolow: Did you know that in the first draft of Toy Story—Jeff Katzenberg was a real hero at the moment that Toy Story was coming into its genesis—he really wanted it to have an edge. One of the things he kept saying to me and my writing partner, Joel Cohen (the other Joel Cohen), was that he wanted us to write an R-rated script.
He wanted us to break all the rules, break the fourth wall, and he’d pull us back. That was something lost in the narrative from Pixar about Toy Story. That first draft had characters breaking the fourth wall, cursing, and trying to kill themselves. It was a very dark script.
We had Buzz, when he realized he was a toy, stick his hand in a light socket.
Camin: That might have been fun for a toy.
But you see, then, if that got to the screen, every parent organization would be outraged because you’re telling kids to stick their hands in sockets.
Sokolow: I’m excited that you’re doing this Institute.
I am too! It’s the biggest project I’ve ever done in my life. It’s going to be a tremendous amount of work.
Camin: I’ve got contracting friends in Brooklyn if you need help building the thing.
I’ve created the curriculum, and everybody who’s read it says, “I want to go to your school!” Next we’re doing the business plan. The next big step, after that’s done, is finding the location. I want it to be in Manhattan. I’m going to need 20 full-time mentors for the faculty.
I’ve designed classes like psychology for writers, sociology for writers, poli-sci for writers, aesthetics for writers, and courses in all the elements of writing—description, dialogue, character dimension, etc.
I’m going to need a lot of smart people to teach who can teach across those disciplines. I’ll go to the Writers Guild East, I’ll go to the Dramatists Guild, and try to find some good, experienced pros who can not only write but teach it. That’s hard to find.
Sokolow: Sign me up! I’m ready.
Camin: He doesn’t even have a location yet. Mr. McKee? I would recommend Burbank, California. Cheaper real estate.
For lots of cultural reasons, this has to begin in Manhattan.
Sokolow: When the New School started, it had that same energy.
Camin: Yours should be called the New New School.
The Neighborhood Playhouse, the Actors Studio… they all began in Manhattan and franchised. That’s my plan.
Sokolow: This is a potentially morbid question, but how would you like to be remembered? You’ve sent huge ripples through the conversation of storytelling. It is this singular thing. Do you see this institution as where you want your legacy to live?
I’ve been lecturing for 30 years. I believe that, like an actor’s method, there’s a writer’s method—it’s very flexible. Like Stanislavski, the work has to be inside out.
All writing courses that I know of are outside in. You go into a class and the professor says, “Write something.” And you write and bring it in, and what you get is criticism. They either attack you or patronize you, but it’s criticism from the outside. No one teaches you to think in terms of character desire, the inner life of a scene, of forces in antagonism, of developing the craft to be able to write.
There’s going to be a class in writing description. The exercises will be like, Look out the window and describe what you see in five different ways. What happens with young writers is that they get inspired, they start to write, and immediately they hit a wall because they can’t even describe a room. They can’t describe an action. They have no descriptive skill. They write these boring, single-spaced, endless paragraphs that nobody reads.
Nobody taught them how to write dialogue, either. You have repetitive beats where they say the same thing in different words, six beats in a row. Then they wonder why nobody reacts positively to their writing. The story may be of merit, but they can’t describe, and they bore you, and they can’t write dialogue. The scenes fall flat. What might be a good idea for a character fails, because they have no writing skill.
When I was 23 or so, I had a chance to pick Neil Simon’s brain one afternoon. He gave me two pieces of advice: One was to write what you know, and the other was that the worst thing that could happen to a young writer is to have success.
The second one was harder for me to swallow because I wanted success, but in the time since, those were both simple but ultimately true. If you have success too early, you never go through the process of learning what it is that you’re doing.
I’ve met those people repeatedly over the years, and it’s really sad. Someone will come up to me in the lecture and say, “I had something made.” Something from 25 years ago. And you think, Jesus, to live with that must be terrible. Once, you got it right. Which means you didn’t know what you were doing. It was an accident. You don’t know the craft.
In my school, the process will be reversed. They’re going to learn a craft first. Then, at the end of the semester, they’ll produce a piece of fiction—rather than the other way around. Every class that they take will either give them form or content that they can then work with to see how it applies to their story. But I won’t look at their story until the end of the year.
Camin: You’re going to teach aspects instead of the whole burrito, and at the end they can sew it all together. Speaking of which, I bought Alec’s treatment. Maybe you can help us out. It’s called What the Duck.
[Laughs] I like it.
Camin: I just hope it’s worth $50,000.
Sokolow: It’s the story of an out-of-work duck in Hollywood. It’s The Player for animated movies.
This is great. This is great!
Camin: Can we use that as a pull quote?
You can certainly say, “This is a great title.” Is it a duck-trying-to-survive-in-Hollywood story? Like Sunset Boulevard?
Sokolow: Hopefully he won’t end up facedown in a swimming pool.
Seriously, you’ve got me curious now. Will this be cartoon characters and human beings interacting, like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Camin: We don’t know yet, just because of the process and the money, and all that stuff. I love Roger Rabbit, but I also know that it’s easier on some level to keep things animated.
Sokolow: You’re going to like this—one of the things I did was, he’s an out-of-work duck, but he did have this incredible ascension at one point. He wanted to be taken seriously as a duck actor, so I had him do a movie called Hitler’s Dog.
He wanted to show that he wasn’t just a talking duck, so he put on the prosthetics and played Blondie, Hitler’s German shepherd.
Camin: That’s one of the things I’m not so crazy about.
At dinner the other night, we were talking about what a great performance Ralph Fiennes gave in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. He was nominated for an Oscar, but he didn’t win. Everybody agreed, of course he should have won, but you’re not going to win an Oscar playing a Nazi.
Tell that duck that!
You tell that duck to fire his agent for letting him do that.
Sokolow: Unless you can make it a Springtime for Hitler’s Dog kind of thing.
Ralph Fiennes’s career went through the roof, so there’s hope for that duck—despite playing Blondie.
Camin: I’ve sunk every penny into this duck, so I hope it works. Thanks for your advice.
It sounds terrific. The premise is great. I hope it fulfills itself.
I mortgaged my house on this thing.
If all you can get out of your house is $50,000…
I just want my money back!
Alec Sokolow was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Toy Story. Tony Camin is an LA-based comedian and writer.