In Spike Jonze's brilliantly original and self-reflexive 2002 feature Adaptation, the character of scriptwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) is in his agent's office talking about the impossibility of transforming Susan Orlean's novel, The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. In an act of pure desperation he attends Robert McKee's Story Seminar where he tells the master (played by Brian Cox) that nothing much happens in his story, it's “more like the real world.” Genre is a dirty word for Kaufman but McKee's response ironically gets through to him. “First of all if you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis you'll bore your audience to tears. Secondly, nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind?”
In real life, McKee tells the story of the Adaptation script with the conviction of a man whose former students have won 27 Academy Awards and 141 Emmy Awards with many more nominations.
“I read the screenplay and I saw that it was wonderful – it had third act problems but I saw what he needed. He needed someone to push up against. He needed my character to represent everything that he was against in terms of wanting to be an artist in the commercial world of Hollywood. I said, I know I'm a controversial figure. Fine, we'll play with that. We'll get some laughs. I'll do anything for a laugh but I said I want my redeeming scene. I want a say in the casting and I want us to fix Act 3 because I can't be a character in a bad movie.”
Born in 1941, McKee maps his own career back to age nine, when he played the title role in a community play. He later earned a BA (English Literature) from the University of Michigan where he continued acting and directing theatre. After graduation, McKee toured with the APA (Association of Producing Artists) Repertory Company, appearing on Broadway before he returned to Michigan on scholarship to earn his Master's degree (Theatre Arts). In 1983 he started teaching his Story seminar at the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California. A year later he made it public and in June he'll bring it to Melbourne and Sydney for what his people are saying will be the last time.
I for one am excited by the prospect of hearing McKee berate – which I must tell you is the exact opposite response I had when I was originally given the book by a high school friend. At the time the idea of 'principles, not rules' and 'eternal, universal forms, not formulas' made me bristle but I've since found my inner Donald. I'll let you know how I go.