From the L.A. Screenwriter collection.
In the second installment of this two-part interview, I continue my discussion on story’s past, present, and future with the man who literally wrote the book on the subject–Robert McKee. If you missed Part I of this interview, go back and read it here.
John Bucher (JB): Hamlet, Tony Soprano, Walter White … all these guys in a sense are anti-heroes. Is it possible to develop a multi-dimensional character with a traditional hero or does the anti-hero just lend itself more to multidimensionality?
Robert McKee (RM): The answer is probably not. A hero is a character. I mean, if we take the strict definition … because people use the word “hero” for anything. Most leading characters or core characters are not heroic. They’re just struggling to get through their day with the best life has given them. A hero literally means somebody who willingly risks or even sacrifices their life for the lives of others. That’s a hero.
If we go by that definition, Tom Cruise in an action film, he’s a hero. He will risk his life for other people, sacrifice it if necessary for them. That drive for justice, to save society, and risk or sacrifice your own life, doesn’t leave much room for complication. So, the action hero is by definition pretty slender in terms of their dimensionality.
The anti-hero that you’re talking about has a clear dynamic between good and evil. They are good evil people, evil good people. They go back and forth between the positive and the negative in terms of morality. And these characters, they’re mainly not anti-heroes in the traditional sense of “anti-hero.” The anti-hero is somebody Humphrey Bogart used to play. He had a private and personal code. The character of Mike, in Breaking Bad and now in Better Call Saul, is an anti-hero, because he has a personal code. He’s a criminal. He’ll kill people if necessary. But he keeps his gangster code that he’s loyal to.
It’s like in The Godfather. They were loyal to the Godfather’s family, and outside the family everything goes. Those are anti-heroes. Walter White is not such a character. Don Draper is not such a character. Walter finally does, in the long run, take care of his family and leave them some money. In the climax of Mad Men, when his ex-wife gets lung cancer and he’s got two young sons, at one point, he says, “I’ll come back and I’ll take care of my sons,” and the ex-wife says, “No, I’m going to give them to my brother and his wife because they need a normal life, and you don’t offer a normal life.” He says, “Okay.” And he doesn’t go back. An anti-hero would have been loyal to his family. He would have gone back. So, Don Draper’s not an anti-hero. He is an extremely complex, multi-dimensional, difficult human being, struggling somehow to find himself in the task of his life. There’s nothing about him heroic.
Perhaps, the only thing about him that’s heroic is his persistence. He’ll go down to hell if he has to. He persists in trying to get an answer to what it means to live. He’s trying to answer the question, “Who am I?”
It’s a great inspiration to realize the audience is with you in these difficult questions. If you write well, and you go into little chambers of hell that nobody has ever dared before, they’ll go in there with you.
JB: What are the scripts that every screenwriter should read?
RM: There is no good answer to that question. Suppose you’re a comedy writer, and I say one of the greatest scripts ever written is Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly. Why in the world would a comedy writer read that? If I say that The Lady Eve is a masterpiece of comedy writing, and you’re trying to be the next Ingmar Bergman, why in the world would you read that?
So there is no such thing as a set of screenplays that every writer should read. Every writer should read and study those films and TV series that really resonate with them as a human being. Everybody can create and should create their own list of what to read and study. Then, try to answer the questions, “How did this writer do that?” How did they get that character to that point? How did they put that question in my mind? How did they make me feel what I’m feeling now? Why do I care? How did they make me care?”
In addition you really should study bad screenplays and bad films. They are often more instructive than good scripts, because when you study bad screenplays and bad movies, you ask yourself, “How did they screw up?” Why is this so bad? What have they done that’s turned me off? Why don’t I care? Why am I not interested? Why do I feel I’ve seen all this a thousand times? How could I have fixed that? What would I do with this bad movie to turn it into a better film?
Force yourself to re-write bad movies because when you’re writing, your first draft will be a bad movie. You can count on it. The first draft will be terrible. The first thing you write is the worst thing you will ever write, and you have to fix it. If you fix other people’s bad movies in your head, when you are guilty of the same mistakes and the same failings, having done that with other people, you can now look at your own work and say, “My god, I did the same damn dumb thing that I’ve seen in six films.” But now you have some idea what to do about it.
I’m always very suspicious and skeptical about people who want models of greatness. I mean I think you should look at these and answer those questions, “How did this writer make this so wonderful?” And that’s certainly a learning experience, fine. But only as a model of a standard against which you will judge your own writing, not to copy. All I want people to do is write something that’s wonderful.
And they should follow their own sense of things, their own judgment and values and perceptions and create something that will entertain, grab my interest, hold me, and satisfy me. If you want a really wonderful piece of writing recently, look at The Lego Movie. It’s superb. But if you want to copy The Lego Movie, you’re in deep shit. Because that was such a marvelous flight of imagination, to put the audience in the mind of the little boy and hide that from us. To have us not realize for the longest time that we were living, we were watching the active imagination of a child, concocting these wonderful worlds … It’s really good. But now go do your own thing.
*Featured Photo: The Lego Movie / Warner Bros (2014)