View Full Version : Robert McKee: why a writing guru if done so little?

06-20-2004, 06:43 PM
Rboert McKee has written a best-selling book on screenwriting ('Story'), tours the world lecturing on the subject and gets rave reviews from people like John Cleese among others.

Yet according to the Imdb he's hardly written anything:


Some episodes of 'Columbo' and a few other TV bits and pieces... and that's all.

So, if anyone can shed some light, I have two questions which are sort of two sides of the same coin.

Q1. How did he get himself established as some sort of screenwriting expert when he's hardly done anything?

Q2. If he is so damn good, why doesn't he put his talents to use more often by actually writing screenplays?

06-20-2004, 08:43 PM
When I met McKee in London earlier this year, the day before a “Story” seminar, he told me, “What I teach is the truth: you’re in over your head, this is not a hobby, this is an art form and a profession, and your chances of success are very, very slim. And if you’ve got only one story, get the fuck out of here. Writers are people with stories to tell. I think I do a great service, by sending the dilettantes out of the door. The amazing thing is that, no matter how hard I try to drive them out of the art, the reputation I’ve gained by being honest brings them to the course. They know I’m not a phony, I’m not selling them a dream.”


This profile from the Oct. 20, '03 New Yorker goes a long way towards explaining McKee's appeal. In fact, McKee has sold several screenplays, but his work has rarely been produced - a fate not uncommon in Hollywood. There are many screenwriters who make an excellent living writing and selling scripts that for one reason or another never get produced.

McKee himself leads a life mostly unaffected by screenwriting success. He has written and sold many screenplays, but, if one excludes “Abraham,” commissioned by Turner Network Television in 1994, none of them have been made into a movie. McKee has houses in Bel Air and Arizona, and a handsome black Jaguar, and membership in a country club just north of the Getty Museum, but these are mostly the benefits of a rather uncinematic life of repetition: McKee has given the same screenplay course for twenty years—the same three-day, thirty-hour performance during which he assumes, variously, the roles of after-dinner raconteur, gloomy controversialist, and freewheeling, cross-disciplinary university lecturer.

McKee, like so many politicians, evangelists, and self-help gurus, really knows how to work an audience. He believes passionately in the power of storytelling and he charges up his audiences with the same passion. He's also perfectly happy telling his audiences that most of them suck as writers and will never do much worthwile. Only a select few, in his view, will have the talent and discipline and passion to write good scripts.

In McKee's world, good scripts always sell. The good - that is, hardworking, gifted, committed to the craft - will be rewarded, and the undeserving wil fall by the wayside. I suspect that this is the most appealing part of McKee's message - the idea that the business of screenwriting is not a lottery, that talent and effort count more than luck or connections. As a practical matter, this probably isn't true, but it's a message that people in the business need to hear. At the very least it helps people to maintain hope in this cruel and arbitrary business.

06-20-2004, 11:06 PM
"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." is one of my most hated expressions. (Guess what I used to do.) In order to teach something, you have to see it at an entirely different level. So a lot of great teachers weren't expert performers in the subject.

It's a lot like managing a baseball team. Many MLB managers had quite insignificant baseball careers. Very few top-of-the-line many-years-all-star players have what it takes to manage. (And now with salary craziness, who'd want to take the pay cut? E.g., some think Gregg Maddux would make a good pitching coach, like his brother. But not a chance.)

So don't worry about it. Even preachers commit sins.

"... And those that can't teach, teach gym." Hey! What's this doing here?

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