Moviegoers who saw the twisty, Charlie Kaufman-penned meta-film "Adaptation" will recall that a hammy, tough-talking screenwriting guru named Robert McKee guided one of the characters to writing a cliche-ridden script that sold for an exorbitant amount of money.
In real life, McKee, an actual screenwriting teacher who has lectured some 100,000 writers at multi-day seminars over the past three decades, has also had his share of successful pupils (though he advises them against cliches).
Among this year's crop of Academy Award-nominated films, 11 were worked on in some capacity by McKee seminar alumni, including Billy Ray, who wrote "Captain Phillips"; Terence Winter, who wrote "The Wolf of Wall Street"; Julie Delpy, who co-wrote and starred in "Before Midnight"; and Carl Joos, who wrote "The Broken Circle Breakdown." (Other films weren't written by McKee students but were worked on by them in various other capacities.)
In a phone interview from his home in Connecticut, McKee, who has sold a number of screenplays in the past but has never seen one made for the big screen, talked about his approach to storytelling and dissected some of this year's top Oscar contenders.
The 73-year-old "swami of scripts" said that when it comes to writing, he has read "everything from Aristotle to Jacques Derrida, and I mean everything in between."
Sounding every bit the sage that many students consider him to be, he said, "Story is a metaphor for life, and it's through the telling of stories that we come to get, as the great critic Kenneth Burke used to say, equipment for living."
McKee, who will lecture in Los Angeles March 6-9, added, "What I try to do is liberate writers to understand that there are principles [to storytelling]. They're not rules. There's nothing you have to do, except you have to get [the audience's] interest, hold their interest and satisfy their interest."
Asked to examine the storytelling methods of this year's front-runners for the Oscar for best picture — "Gravity," "12 Years a Slave" and "American Hustle" — McKee said each one exemplifies a different, equally valid approach.
"Gravity," McKee said, is "a marvelous piece of action writing" and an example of a classical approach. "There's an inciting incident, things go wrong, it's woman against nature and woman against herself to find the courage to survive. It is a piece of absolute classic storytelling."
"12 Years a Slave," on the other hand, "takes advantage of the fact that this is a biography and, therefore, is able to be a little more minimalist in the storytelling, a little more repetitious," McKee said, adding a bit of jargon: "In genre it's sometimes called a pathetic plot or a plot of suffering, and what's at stake is the character's willpower. … Because [the film] is based upon a biography, the audience's attitude is, 'I don't need a classical story. I need to know in depth what was it really like.'"
As for "American Hustle," it takes more of an anti-structural approach. "The impulse of 'American Hustle' is comedy," McKee said. "It's a funny movie. It's crazy. It too is biographical, but it takes a lot of license, and we know that."
He continued: "Because it's comedy by nature, it's satirizing a certain kind of American values, American character. It allows for more randomness, more coincidence, more sudden reversals of motivation, where characters suddenly declare they're in love or they're in hate. People do extreme things with very little preparation in terms of motivation, but because of the expectation that is created from the first moments, you have a license to go nuts."
In addition to those three movies, McKee also praised "The Wolf of Wall Street," which he called "the most wonderful film Martin Scorsese has ever made." But if McKee were in the academy, he'd vote for "Nebraska."
"The dark side of American life that's in 'Wolf of Wall Street' and 'American Hustle' is a very theatrical brand of darkness," McKee said. "The dark side of American life that is the most frightening to me is in 'Nebraska': people sitting in their living rooms staring at NFL games, all of them obese, all of them mindless. … That made my blood run cold."
As for movies that disappointed him this year, McKee said, "I'm not going to name those because it just embarrasses those people." He paused, then added, "They know who they are."