Storytelling lit a fire in Robert McKee that still burns 35 years later.

Excerpt from an interview originally published by Final Draft on September 25th, 2017

The venerable screenwriting instructor Robert McKee is not only a knowledgeable craftsman, but also a fan of well-spun tales, whether on stage, in books, or on screen. Creator of the three-day STORY seminar—and a celebrity among academics, thanks to Brian Cox’s portrayal in 2002’s Adaptation—McKee is blunt yet eloquent as he glides from films he adores and despises. He mentions loving 2016’s Lady Macbeth, director William Oldroyd’s 19th-century romantic thriller, in the same breath as 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie. But this summer’s Atomic Blonde? Not so much.

“It’s repetitious. It’s a female Jackie Chan without the humor,” he said in a recent phone interview, adding, “I never believed that people simply go to stories to escape. I think they go to a story to explore a world that they didn’t know. That’s why, when you see something that’s a catalogue of clichés, you don’t escape. You get pissed off.”

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GAME OF THRONES

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK TV Series Review:

Game of Thrones (2011- ) | Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

The Politics of Myth in Martin’s Modern Classic

If we were to unearth the politics buried inside every tale ever told, we could divide all stories into two grand schools of partisan thought: Tradition-bound, old rules, right-wing beliefs versus reform-minded, new rules, left-wing principles. In other words, myth versus fiction. GAME OF THRONES merges these political extremes into one ingeniously massive yarn. But first, before we look at how they do it, let’s separate these two modes of storytelling to see what they are and why.

MYTH:

Ancient cultures invented myths to explain the birth of the cosmos and the origin of human beings. These parables were chanted by shamans in religious rituals, then passed from mouth to ear for thousands of years. Paraphrased and translated from language to language, myths travel through time without loss of meaning because they’re not in fact literature. In myths, deeds and characters count, not words.

Fiction evolved when language began to matter. In the works of Homer, for example, his vivid verse is as critical to his epics as who does what to whom. The Roman origin tale of Romulus and Remus, for example, is a myth; Virgil’s Aeneid is literature.

The underlying politics of myth—every king in his palace, every peasant in his hovel—reinforce authoritarian institutions and advocate conformity. Myths not only fortify primitive traditions but the beliefs (often superstitions) that prop them up.

FICTION:

Fiction does the opposite. Writers of literature, both dramatic and comedic, tend to take a critical, often cynical, view of rulers and their hierarchies. From the very beginning, the epic poets and playwrights of Greece leaned toward the anti-conformist values of personal freedom (Aristophanes’ The Wasps), rebellion (Sophocles’ The Tragedy of Antigone), and even chaos as the cure for tyranny (Euripides’ The Bacchae).

In classical literature, dramatic characters suffer tragic events, while comic characters bounce off the walls of absurdity. In fictional works, the world is not as it should be.

In mythical works, the world is exactly as it should be—monsters and all. The belief systems that underpin mythologies put their trust in a universe of sacred god-given order that gives power to despots but denies it to servants. The rigid social structures of myth never change—the hero must. He must come of age, prove himself, and then conform to tradition, so he can take his proper place in the hierarchy. Women are there to assist.

In the 20th century three men recycled these archaic tellings to serve rather personal purposes. Carl Jung used myths to underpin his psychological theories; Mircea Eliade used them to argue for his religious theories; Joseph Campbell encapsulated them inside a monomyth to cure the sickness in the modern soul; Hollywood actioneers hammered his all-purpose myth into a cookie cutter for the mass-production of megahits. (If you’re interested in this subject, read Robert Ellwood’s The Politics of Myth.)

To generalize, myths personify polar forces of good and evil and seek the return of a long lost paradise; fiction wrestles with the complexities of reality and seeks a way to live in the here, now, and what’s to come.

(This is why, by the way, when you comb through the myriad myths our ancestors left behind, you find no comedies. Not one. You find mean-spirited trickster characters who play cheap pranks and mock people, but their one-off gags don’t add up to comedy. A true, knife-wheedling comedy spins a story’s worth of roiling jokes that laugh at an institution: government, business, royalty, religion, courtship, marriage, the military, the rich, the law, the arts, the buddy system—any tradition encrusted with greed, pretension, and genetic stupidity.)

Who benefits from fiction? Readers and audiences. How? By gaining insights into the follies and fates of human beings.

Who benefits from myths? The rich old men who commission them. How? By convincing people to believe in these yarns the powerful keep their grip on society.

GAME OF THRONES:

The brilliance of David Benioff and D. B. Weiss’s GAME OF THRONES, as adapted from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, is that the storytelling mixes the subject matter of myth with the ironies of fiction. Out of this merger the telling builds a mammoth clash of politics:

On the extreme Right, the autocratic, narcissistic Cersei of House Lannister, the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms. On the humanistic Left, the graceful, compassionate Daenerys of House Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, who also calls herself Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Lady Regnant of the Seven Kingdoms, as well as Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Breaker of Chains, the Unburnt.

Cersei embodies retrogressive, patriarchal tyranny. Temperamentally, she’s pro-feudalism and anti-change. A narcissist at heart, she feels contempt for her subjects and forces them to obey her whims without choice.

Like the royal families of ancient Egypt, she enjoys incest with her brother and gives birth to their three children. She indulges superstitions, first forcing a witch to prophesize her dark future, then doing every ruthless thing she can to hide her secrets and escape her fate.

Daenerys embodies the future-leaning, open-minded spirit of progress. Temperamentally, she’s anti-feudalism and pro-change. She feels a passionate empathy for those, like her, who are socially and politically oppressed, and offers them the free choice to follow her or not.

As she says to Jon Snow, “So many men have tried to kill me, I don’t remember all their names. I have been sold like a broodmare. I’ve been chained and betrayed, raped and defiled. Do you know what kept me standing through all those years in exile? Faith. In myself. In Daenerys Targaryen. Not in any gods, not in any myths…” Daenerys denies myth; Cersei lives myth; in Westeros, both become legends for opposite reasons: The people trust Daenerys, fear Cersei.

But then, into this bipolar world the storytellers ingeniously triangulate the third thing: The Night King and his obedient masses of White Walkers. Next season, the tension between myth and fiction, with its clash of despotism versus freedom, will fade into the background while the writers answer questions of who lives, who dies. Death has no politics.

ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Atomic Blonde (2017) | Directed by David Leitch

McKee Says: It Doesn’t Work

A Failure in Genre Execution

ATOMIC BLONDE bombs for many reasons, but the ABCs are: (A) a false financial premise, (B) a catalogue of clichés, and (C) inept execution of genre convention.

(A) This film began to fail the moment someone invested dollar one. So here’s the five-step system for raising money used all too often in today’s Hollywood:

  1. Get the rights to a cartoon character.
  2. Hire an Oscar winning actor to play this role.
  3. Hide the obvious truth that the espionage plot is trivial and the cast is a George Smiley family album of spy-types.
  4. And instead, sell your investors this idea: Over the last trending decades, films inspired by graphic novels and comic books have made a ton of money, so buy a seat on our money train.
  5. Quickly bank the checks these naïfs write before they realize they’ve been had.

(B) Today, the US/Russia standoff is hotter than ever, so why not update this Ian Fleming clone to 2017? Because to do that, the writers of both the graphic novel and screen adaptation would have to dig down into reality and unearth the trade secrets of actual spies operating in the world today. No, that would be hard work. Far easier to recycle outworn Cold War chestnuts. Here’s just a few of its spy vs. spy clichés: double agents, double crosses, double bosses, wigged disguises, escapes from submerged cars, and last second getaways just before the train door closes.

(C) Genre conventions shape an audience’s expectations. In ATOMIC BLONDE many conventions went awry, but let’s focus on just three: McGuffin, the Action Antagonist, and the Action Climax.

THE MCGUFFIN

At the core of all Action tales sits a McGuffin, defined as: The one thing everybody wants, and when you get it, it gives you power. It could be the ring in THE LORD OF THE RINGS, the bridge in THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI, the falcon in THE MALTESE FALCON, the memorandum in THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM, the file in THE IPCRESS FILE, or the enigmatic “microfilm” in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. No matter how it’s embodied, pursuit of the McGuffin focuses the story’s Spine of Action.

Unfortunately, the writers of ATOMIC BLONDE could not come up with a single, original McGuffin, so they decided to substitute quantity for quality and give us two, both clichés: a traitorous double agent and a list of every secret agent in Europe. In a well-told espionage thriller, either one of these might develop into high-tension intrigue and motivation for mayhem, but in this film, the two McGuffins simply cleave the Spine of Action, blur focus, and water down suspense until neither target seems worth the risk and effort to get it.

THE ACTION ANTAGONIST

The following principle holds true for every story ever told: The life-energy of story pours out of the negative forces that thwart the will and desires of the characters. If these forces are weak and simple, then the protagonist and her story become drab and boring. But if these forces are amazingly powerful and cunningly complex, then she will have to rise to occasion and become a fascinating character with superb physical skills, iron will power, and mental brilliance.

When applied to the Action genre, this principle calls for an antagonist with extraordinary power, pursuing an ingenious, diabolical master plan. In other words, a brilliant villain makes for a thrilling, Jason Bournean hero who performs breath-catching feats of daring-do.

In this film, the Russian spymaster just isn’t up to the task. He has no plan to get the list, and even if he did, he has no power to execute it beyond a dozen goons who can’t land a punch or hit anything they’re shooting at. Because the villain is so inept and dull, the hero never has to do or be anything extraordinary. As spies and counterspies go, the Atomic Blonde is no one we haven’t seen before.

THE CLIMAX

At climax, an Action hero can win out against the villain in only one of three ways: She overpowers him; she outsmarts him; she does both at once. The least satisfying of these three possibilities is the first, overpowering, but that was the MO for the entire film. Scene after scene was packed with repetitious fist-to-fist, gun-to-gun combat. The Action genre offers a rich variety of set pieces, but one chase aside, the writers seemed intent in making Charlize Theron a neo-Jackie Chan, but without his wit.

In fact, the only time the Atomic Blonde uses her brain is at climax when she gets the drop on the villain by hiding her gun in a bowl of ice. But then you might ask, how did she get her gun into spymaster’s quarters in the first place? Did no one think to frisk her? I guess these Russians weren’t paying attention to the story.

LADY MACBETH (2017)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Lady MacBeth (2017) | Directed by William Oldroyd

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)
LADY MACBETH (2017)
A Study in the Power of Counterpoint

From its screenplay through its casting and on out to its camera work, this bare-knuckled psycho-thriller employs compelling counterpoint techniques to sharpen both meaning and emotion.

Traditional creative technique calls for content to dictate form. We, for example, convey the intimacy of a love scene with tender words, sensitive acting, and soft light wrapped around the lovers; we express the violence in action scenes with raucous dialogue, athletic stunts, and high-speed editing.

But for this reinvention of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, screenwriter Alice Birch, cinematographer Ari Wegner, and director William Oldroyd pulled the form-follows-content principle inside out.

COUNTERPOINT CINEMATOGAPHY:

LADY MACBETH dramatizes three murders: the poisoning of an old man, smothering of a child, and smashing of a man’s skull until his brains spatter the room. The camera, however, photographs this twisted animality with precise, balanced, often dead-center symmetry, followed by long, slow static portraits of the killer staring straight ahead. Why?

Cinematographer Ari Wegner took her inspiration from the 19th century Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi, who in turn took his inspiration from the interiors of homes. Natural light fills his softly shadowed rooms. A piece of furniture on one side precisely balances a solitary figure on the other, sitting or standing with her back to us, looking out a window.

The Dane’s work might remind you of “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1” (1871), commonly known as Whistler’s Mother. Like the American master, Hammershøi’s symmetrical compositions are calm to the edge of uncanny.

In theory, symmetry, soft light, and long held static compositions should defuse energy and relax us, but when these aesthetics conceal hideous deeds, counterpoint unnerves the mind. Calculatedly framed rooms of sepulchral stillness—nothing out of place, certainly nothing human—creep us out. To bring us to the edge of terror, Wegner’s obsessively balanced monochrome compositions focus a hypnotic tension between frozen form and scalding content.

COUNTERPOINT CASTING:

LADY MACBETH arouses the high-tension question “Will Katherine get away with murder?”, then answers it in a breath-catching final sequence you will never forget.

To prepare for this turning point, director William Oldroyd made three key casting choices: Florence Pugh, a white actor, as Katherine, the master’s wife; Naomi Ackie, a black actor, as Anna, her servant; Cosmo Jarvis, an actor of mixed race, as Sebastian the stableman.

Audiences may be confused to see servants of color in Victorian England, but the British Empire covered the globe, so why not. This ingenious black/white counterpoint makes the oppression and humiliation of Katherine by powerful, privileged males all that more harrowing, but more strategically, the bold casting sets up a stunning pay-off at Story Climax. As a result, 19th century Northumberland becomes a perfect anachronism for racial and gender politics today.

COUNTERPOINT CHARACTERS:

A character dimension brackets two contradictory qualities in one soul. To create a complex role, a writer first imagines a trait—something physical or behavioral—then looks for an opposite facet to counterpoint it.

Florence Pugh first portrays Katherine as a frail porcelain beauty imprisoned in a dark world, victimized by cruel men. Her lover (Cosmo Jarvis’s dark, rugged Sebastian) enters the story as a morally vacant sex athlete.

When her father-in- law and husband discover her adultery, Katherine plans and executes their murders, making Sebastian her partner in crime and herself owner of the estate. Soon after, her dead husband’s bastard son and heir shows up, while Sebastian holds him down, she suffocates the child.

This last crime overwhelms Sebastian. Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, his conscience drives him to distraction and confession. Guilt counterpoints his criminality, dimensionalizing his character to powerful effect.

At climax, Katherine betrays Sebastian, destroys Anna for good measure, and gets away with it by manipulating race. She is, after all, a white woman. Her counterpointed dimension of victim/villain, innocent/psychopath, makes her one of the most fascinating characters in recent cinema.

Lastly, many critics have hailed LADY MACBETH as feminist in spirit, but when did feminism become an advocate of evil?

How Do I Get Over Writer’s Block?

Robert McKee discusses the dreaded phenomenon of writer’s block and suggests some strategies for overcoming it.

Steve Pressfield’s The War or Art is a necessary ally for anyone who has ever faced writer’s block. Robert McKee wrote the foreword for the book and is a long-time fan and friend of Pressfield. For members, Pressfield is featured in a lengthy Storylogue interview.

Quotes of the Week:

“To find the truth, make your own heart pound when you write.”

- Robert McKee

“Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliche, it’s the key to victory over fear and it’s cousin, depression.”

- From Robert McKee’s STORY: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting

Article of the Week:

“Why Writers Are The Worst Procrastinators”

Megan McArdle explains the psychological origins of the writer’s habit of waiting (… and waiting, and waiting) to work.

MY COUSIN RACHEL (2017)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

My Cousin Rachel (2017) | Directed by Roger Michell

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

Thinking of adapting a novel to the screen? If so, don’t miss MY COUSIN RACHEL. This suspenseful summertime treat offers an excellent case study of a brilliantly told novel skillfully escorted from page to screen by writer/director Roger Michell.

We’ll look at three of its storytelling strategies—all originating in the novel, all needing special treatment on screen, and all interrelated: (1) the open ending, (2) first person point of view, and (3) the unreliable narrator.

1. THE OPEN ENDING:

To set up her novel, Daphne du Maurier invented a backstory in which the first two husbands of a captivating woman die in uncertain circumstances. Gossips spread rumors about murder, but the medical authorities ascribe both deaths to natural causes.

From that set-up, Du Maurier could have written a novel about Phillip, the prospective third husband of the widow Rachel, a man who senses he could become her third victim. The plot could have built to an either positive or negative climax in which Phillip discovers for certain that Rachel is innocent or for certain that she’s guilty, and acts accordingly one way or the other. Either ending would give the reader closure.

Instead, the novelist opted for ambiguity and an open ending. Du Maurier’s answer to “Did she or didn’t she?” is like staring at a gestalt:

Could be either but we’ll never know which.

To create her open ending, Du Maurier took a page from the playwright Luigi Pirandello. His plays dramatize the ways subjectivity warps the truth. He asks, “How can we ever know what factually happens in life when every human being sees things from a subjective, and therefore biased, point of view?” The Pirandello premise has inspired wonderful tellings such as Kurosawa’s film RASHOMON, Ian Pear’s novel The Instance of the Fingerpost, and Sarah Treem’s television series THE AFFAIR.

Now imagine Roger Michell’s task. How to write and direct the film so that some people come out convinced she did it, and others are just as certain she didn’t, but no one leaves confused. Solution: Write every line of dialogue, and then direct every scene so each word, look, and gesture creates a perfect double entendre—two opposite meanings that force the audience to choose. Next, sit back and let personal biases sway people the way they always do.

2. FIRST PERSON POINT OF VIEW:
The natural impulse of cinema is to leap through time and space, cutting from image to image. So, how to film a novel that’s persistently located in the protagonist’s mind and strictly limited to his subjective point of view?

One choice is to rewrite it into the objective third person point of view. Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example, is narrated by a schizophrenic mental patient, Chief Bromden. As Chief tells us his tale, he hallucinates walls oozing slime and people growing and shrinking like Lewis Carroll creatures from beyond the looking glass. Instead, for the 1975 film, screenwriters Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman stripped the novel down to its essential events, put Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) at the center of the action, and re-envisioned the story through the cool eye of an omniscient, free-moving camera.

For MY COUSIN RACHEL, however, Roger Michell realized that du Maurier’s ingenious ambiguity wouldn’t work unless the camera locked into Phillip’s (Sam Claflin) POV and stayed there. So Michell’s script and editing constantly call for angles that either look at Phillip while he reacts, gaze over Phillip’s shoulder while he acts, or survey scenic landscapes while he narrates VO.

3. THE UNRELIABLE NARRATOR:

Experienced readers know that exposition told in a first person voice may or may not be factual. Of course, many first person narrators are perfectly honest and can be trusted. We, for example, take Ishmael’s descriptions of the characters and events in Moby Dick as statements of fact.

On the other hand, in works such as FIGHT CLUB and GONE GIRL the audience senses that a character’s version of events (no matter how vivid and impactful) cannot be trusted. Such characters then become the fictional device known as the unreliable narrator.

This strategy has many variations. In some tellings the narrator’s unreliability is hinted at, but not revealed until the very end when we discover the whole story was a calculated lie (THE USUAL SUSPECTS) or a massive rationalization (ATONEMENT). Other narrators may be unreliable for reasons of insanity (THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI) or post-traumatic delusions (LIFE OF PI, JACOB’S LADDER). One of the most common variants is a story told by a gullible youth or naïf (FORREST GUMP, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, HUCKLEBERRY FINN).

This last variation was Daphne du Maurier’s choice. She wrote My Cousin Rachel (1951) in the first person voice of her seriously naïve protagonist, Phillip Ashley. Letters from his guardian, Ambrose Ashley (who may be suffering from a brain tumor and therefore delusional), make him highly suspicious of Ashley’s widow. Nonetheless, he falls madly in love with her.

Throughout the novel Phillip seeks the truth by constantly studying body language and facial expressions with an eye to ulterior motives or duplicitous thoughts in the subtexts of other character’s words and gestures. His inner monologues are spotted with “maybe,” “perhaps,” “possibly,” “as if”; he wonders aloud if his imagination, his “fancy,” is deceiving him or are his suspicions true; then as he reads minds, he becomes more and more sure of his surmises.

Two examples:

While questioning Rachel’s Italian friend, Rainaldi, Phillip muses: “He took up a pen between his fingers, and tapped it on the table, as if he were playing for time or trying to distract me. Was it my fancy or did a veiled look come over his dark eyes?” In other words, was Rainaldi lying? Is he up to something? If so, what?

Later while talking to Rachel: “I knew from her voice that she was talking to convince herself, not me.” In other words, she’s lying to herself. But what lie and why?

As we read du Maurier’s first person novel, we know that the other characters could be innocent and that Phillip’s suspicions could well be a distorted male gaze, but because we’re fixed in the POV of an unreliable protagonist, we have to judge for ourselves who or what to believe.

That’s literature. Roger Michell’s problem is how to turn it into cinema, and he found the solution in his casting and directing of the actors.

As we watch Rachel Weisz’s subtle performance, we sense her flow of unspoken thoughts, but what are they? Rachel’s subtext alternates between seeming innocence and what could be either regret over not being able to save her two fatally ill husbands or guilt about poisoning them. It’s for us to decide.

The same is true for the writing that underlies Sam Claflin’s impressive performance. Phillip doesn’t know anything, so he suspects everything. His country-boy character arcs from innocent to lethal in a seamless portrayal of how naiveté leads to the paranoia that sends a woman to her death.

If you’re interested in adaptation, watch for novels coming to the screen, read the books first, sketch the way you would do it, then see the films. You’ll learn fast.

Does Acting Help Your Writing?

Robert McKee explains how acting experience is an invaluable asset when writing for the screen. As a bonus, Mckee also tackles a question about the importance of a story’s plot.