Monday 27 June 2022

“Story matters because story is a metaphor for life…” Part Two - Tom Ryan revives screenwriting guru Robert McKee's memories - On Acting and Story

This is the second part of an extended interview conducted by Melbourne-based film critic Tom Ryan when scriptwriting guru Robert McKee visited Australia in 2003. The first part can be found IF YOU CLICK HERE


When someone makes a biopic about Robert McKee somewhere down the track, from the history of film who would you cast in the lead? Let’s set Brian Cox aside and give someone else a go.




It can be.


Gene Hackman.


Gene Hackman, Young Frankenstein

He could do just about anything.


He can do anything. The guy’s a national treasure. And I love him. He’s done so many great films. Do you remember Mississippi Burning? He’s sitting in the bar and this red-necked arse-hole is sitting in the chair across from him, giving him some grief about black people. And Gene Hackman, under the screen, reaches across and grabs the guy by the balls. Remember? And he says something really sharp. That’s a moment we all dream of: somebody’s giving us that kind of crap and we have the guts just to reach across and squeeze, and tell this guy what for in a nice cool voice. In the hands of a lesser actor, what would that moment be like? But Hackman can do that and you absolutely believe it.

He’s a genius. And funnier’n hell. A great comic too. That scene in Young Frankenstein, where he plays the blind guy: [imitating Hackman’s delivery] “But wait, wait. I was going to make espresso.”


Growing up, going to the movies, who were your heroes?


The actors, you mean? I’ll tell you a story about me in high school. If my wife were here, she’d be hitting me over the head for telling you these things. High schools don’t have fraternities; universities and colleges do. We decided to create a fraternity at our high school. Alright? And we called it Alpha Epsilon New, which didn’t mean anything. But it stood for Alfred E. Newman. OK? Mad Magazine. Right? And the patron saint, our hero, that we used to do a ritual to, that we used to kind of pray to, was Errol Flynn. 

It was all satire. We were having fun with it. Right? It was all tongue-in-cheek for us, but we would have innocent people come over and we would do the Errol Flynn ritual, praying to him to protect us from whatever.

I thought Errol Flynn was fantastic.


Errol Flynn, The Sun Also Rises

Which Errol Flynn? Robin Hood? Captain Blood?


All the way down to The Sun Also Rises, when he plays that down-and-out alcoholic. I just loved the guy, you know. I knew he was decadent. You could see it in everything that he did. But he was decadent with style. Captain Blood, of course. And when he comes flying down out of the trees in Robin Hood and lights on the ground, you just know that in his mind he’s thinking, “This is the silliest damn thing.” But he pulls it off. 

I’m not alone in this, of course, but my hero of all heroes was Humphrey Bogart. You?


Cary Grant, North By Northwest

For me it was always Cary Grant. The epitome of style! I knew that if I could be a man walking out into the world, looking like that, with that bearing, I could conquer all.


He was like Errol Flynn without decadence. There was actually a morality in him. Yeah, we loved him too. He was such a wonderful light comic: His Girl FridayBringing Up BabyNorth by Northwest, etc. But you know, the trouble with Cary Grant for me and, I think, for others, was that he was so handsome, he was so elegant, that we had no hope of being like him. 


Tread softly, Mr. McKee. You’re treading on my dreams.


OK, Tom, but you take my point. You could dream about being Bogey. He was down on our level. There was a possibility that we could be like Bogey. We knew we could be as decadent as Errol Flynn. Bogey had a morality too, but he was approachable. Cary Grant was like a god. It was impossible to even dream of achieving that kind of grace.


Tell me, why do films matter?


Why do stories matter?


Not all films tell stories, though.


Well they all do, but not always very well.




What matters is story. My lecture isn’t just for screenwriters and television writers: 20 or 30% of the people there will be novelists and playwrights. Story matters and film is the primary art form of the 20th century for telling stories. In the 19th century, it was the novel. In the Victorian era, it was the theatre. And, I tell you, in the 21st century I think it’s going to be television. Personally, I think films are in trouble.

Story matters. And I don’t care whether it’s told on the big screen, the small screen, on the page or the stage. It doesn’t matter. What matters to me is story. And story matters because story is a metaphor for life. The great critic, Kenneth Burke – I quote him in my book – said, “Stories are equipment for living.” Stories civilize us as human beings. When they’re beautifully done, they bring us into worlds we can never know and they express to us and allow us to experience the humanities of countless characters we could never possibly meet. And we do it in an aesthetic relationship, not a personal relationship, because in life you may meet people as fascinating as Hamlet, but you would never know it. 

Story allows us to go into worlds we don’t know, which enlarges our view of life on the whole planet. And we find humanity, like our own, inside of these characters, and are allowed to live vicariously through the lives of other human beings. It enriches your understanding of what it is to be a human being. 

Without story, we would be animals. Life alone does not teach you how to live. Life alone will not make you a human being. 


But surely the lesson of a story is never as direct as that?


I don’t mean it in a didactic sense. I don’t mean it as a set of instructions of what to do or what not to do. I mean, Aristotle said that one of the great pleasures of going to the theatre is learning. But it’s not learning lessons of that kind; it’s learning what it is to be a human being. It doesn’t tell you necessarily what to do with your life. Right? It just makes you understand your own humanity and the humanity of other human beings, so as you can live in a civilized way, so as you can look at a human being other than yourself and say, “That’s a human being like me.”

Woody Allen

So the filmmakers and the writers that you admire are the humanist filmmakers for whom this is also a concern?


Yeah, but, you know, humanists like Woody Allen and the Marx brothers too. Not just serious dramatic storytellers, but the great comic minds enrich us enormously. So all great storytellers, comic or tragic, bring us into contact with all kinds of elements and qualities of life and humanity. 

This is a good question you’ve raised, because I want an Australian audience to understand that I’m not there to teach them how to make Hollywood films. I’m there to teach them how to make international films. From the Australian point of view to tell their stories, the way they see life, but to tell it in such a way that the world will flock to the film, not just the Australian audience. 

There are two keys to making international films: to give the audience this double pleasure. What an audience wants first is to enter a world that they do not know. The audience does not go to a film to see what they already know. They go with a prayer: “Please God, don’t let it be the same old thing.” Right? 

So even if you make it a film about a family living in a flat, a little suburban condominium in the suburbs of Sydney, you gotta get into that family and into that world and show us an aspect of that life that we’ve never seen before. So you want to enter this world that you don’t know. You want the anthropological pleasure of living in this world that you’ve never seen before. Then the second pleasure when you enter that world that is fascinating to your eyes and ears is that you discover yourself in that world. 

Paul Mercurio, Tara Morice, Strictly Ballroom

For example, a wonderful film like Strictly Ballroom, a big hit, gives us a world we’ve never seen before. It’s suburban Australia, but inside of that world you discover in these characters a humanity just… like… your… own. And then you identify with that character, you empathise, and you find yourself living in a world you could never possibly enter. It isn’t just a documentary. You know what I mean? You go into it. You live in it. And that discovery of the humanity at the heart of the story told about a world you don’t know, that double pleasure, discovering yourself in a world you’ve never been in before, is what an international audience wants. 

You do that and you’ll have a success. So I teach in both of those directions and I say, “Don’t give us a catalogue of cliches. Don’t imitate Hollywood and don’t imitate the French.” You know what I mean? Don’t do the art movie and don’t do Hollywood. Make a film like Shine, that is brilliant, rich in humanity, in a world we’ve never seen before. 

Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, In the Mood for Love

There are reasons why these films find a huge international success. They’re beautifully told stories in a richly-rendered world we don’t know with humanity at the heart of it. That’s what we go to the movies for. We don’t get it very often, but that’s what we keep goin’ for. You know, a wonderful film from Taiwan [sic, Hong Kong] called In the Mood for Love creates such a strange world to us and they’re so deeply concerned… I was sittin’ in front o’ that film just screaming in my head, “Will you say something to this woman. Open your mouth. You don’t even have to say it well. She’s waiting. Just say it. Whatever.” Two years ago, when I was teaching in Paris, that film was a huge hit there. And it’s from Taiwan [sic].

(To be concluded)

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