Being Robert McKee, both on screen and off
In “Adaptation,” the hall of mirrors movie that plays with the angst of its screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, screenwriting guru Robert McKee appears as a pivotal character. Brash and bushy-browed, McKee (played by Brian Cox) embodies Hollywood’s crass commercialism, stomping on creative efforts in favor of tried-and-true paths to commercial success.
Kaufman is unconventional enough to have written himself into the story, and his character Charlie (played by Nicolas Cage) sneers at McKee’s “10 commandments of screenwriting,” calling his method “dangerous to writers who want to try something new.” He compares students in McKee’s seminars to members of a cult. And he is determined not to ruin his script with the formulaic car chases, guns, gratuitous sex or neat Hollywood epiphanies that he believes a McKee-style film would have.
That caricature of his work doesn’t bother him in the slightest, McKee said. “When they came to me with this draft, I realized of course what Charlie was doing,” McKee said. “The story needed an antagonist. And I said, ‘I’m happy to play your antagonist.’ ” What’s more, he said, he didn’t feel singled out. Kaufman lacerated his own character, calling himself “fat, bald and repulsive.”
The $19-million Sony production will debut Dec. 6 and marks the second collaboration of Kaufman and Spike Jonze, who created “Being John Malkovich” (1999), the story of unhappy people who escape into the mind of the actor. “Adaptation” carries on where “Malkovich” left off, McKee said, delving this time into the psyche of the self-obsessed screenwriter as he writes the movie we’re watching.
Charlie is struggling to adapt a book by Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), who tells the story of Florida orchid thief John Laroche (Chris Cooper), a man of many short-lived passions. As she spends time with him, she aches to know why she can’t feel the same sort of passion. Charlie uses her self-inquisition as a jumping-off point for asking why he can’t find a girl, deal with his addictions, do something meaningful with his life, or just write the adaptation.
Meanwhile, his twin, Donald (also Cage), learns scriptwriting from McKee, impresses Charlie’s agent and skips merrily to the bank with a girlfriend.
“The whole film takes place in the mind of Charlie Kaufman,” McKee said. “The first clue is that he splits himself into Charlie and Donald.” “Donald” does not exist but is credited as a co-writer.
Even as Charlie’s imagination and confidence falter on one track of the movie, fantasies multiply as the film invents story lines about people who do exist, making the difficult real-life task of adapting nonfiction to the screen even trickier. Orlean’s and Laroche’s characters, for instance, spin out into wild scenes of sex, violence and drugs. Everyone depicted gave his or her permission to be freely imagined, McKee said, and so far no one has complained.
“To my knowledge, everybody took the same attitude I did, the common sense attitude. They’re having fun in order to get at something else,” he said.
“One of the themes in Charlie’s work, of course, is the struggle to express himself in an art form that is full of convention,” McKee said. “Hence, my character is there saying, ‘Look, you’ve got to tell a story.’ ”
At home in Beverly Hills, McKee had a two-day break between tours teaching the seminars based on his book “Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting,” which has sold 100,000 copies and is taught in dozens of universities. In sweater, jeans and slippers, he sat on the veranda pouring tea and laughing about the film version of himself.
“I know what I teach is a very open, flexible form of thinking about story,” he said. “It’s certainly not the rigid three-act structure he wants to impute to me. That’s OK.”
No seminar for Kaufman
Whether Kaufman ever attended one of McKee’s seminars in real life is an open question, McKee said. “Charlie says no, and I take him at his word,” he said. (Kaufman was unavailable for comment.)
The two had conversations about the film, but Kaufman never asked him for advice, McKee said. Still, Kaufman was able to capture his voice and appearance realistically, particularly in a scene in which McKee tells Charlie, who in desperation has signed up for his seminar, that he’s wasting his time.
“Charlie’s capable of putting himself in my point of view and looking at the whiny, wimpy writer and realizing what the whiny, wimpy writer needs to hear. He can see it from all sides,” McKee said.
Ultimately, he said, Kaufman was “more than fair” to him. “He gave me this big redeeming scene where Charlie’s character throws his arms around me and says, ‘Thank you, Mr. McKee.’ ”
And there was another perk. In exchange for letting filmmakers use copyrighted material, McKee said he was allowed to help cast the actor to play him. He wanted Cox, he said, because unlike the others under consideration -- Albert Finney, Christopher Plummer, Terence Stamp and Michael Caine -- McKee felt the Scottish-born actor (“Manhunter”) never has a “love me” subtext to his work.
“Adaptation,” like “Malkovich,” may have limited commercial appeal. But “Malkovich” reached beyond the art-house audience to gross a respectable $22.9 million domestically. And “Adaptation” has a built-in audience in young cineastes and “Malkovich” fans who have been following the progress of the movie over the Internet for the past two years, McKee said.
Like many of them, McKee has found layers of meaning underneath the humor and the parlor game aspect of sorting fact from fiction in the film. Screenwriting is used only as a metaphor for the suffering Americans feel when they come face to face with their fruitless pursuit of happiness, he said.
“I think Charlie is an antenna for all this suffering and angst and frustration that floats around in the air here while we all go about getting to and from work on the freeway. I think Charlie really feels it ... but it’s a truth for all of us. What is the point of all this? How can I get out of the rut and do something meaningful with myself?”
Certainly some will interpret the film as overly self-involved, McKee said, but they’ve been beaten to that conclusion by Charlie, who, in the midst of his self-loathing, calls himself not just self-indulgent but also narcissistic, insane, solipsistic and pathetic. “That’s how he gets away with it,” McKee said. “He admits it. How else are you going to get away with it?”
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