Last year we asked Robert McKee to share his thoughts on Writing for TV with the LSF community, the article being printed in the Screenwriters Festival book that was given to all delegates.
It’s so good, we thought we should share it with you here too.
LSF – Is TV the new feature film format?
McKee – TV is almost as different from film as the theater is from film, or a novel is from film. Story being told on the big screen is inside of 3 hours, and a story being told on the television screen is up to 100 hours so the two are entirely different mediums. The most critical difference between these mediums is the difference between live and recorded – theater, television, film, and prose – and length. Of all four media, television is by far the longest. A TV series like ‘Breaking Bad’ was almost 100 hours. In terms of volume, ‘Breaking Bad’ would equal almost the entire works of Charles Dickens; it is not a different format, it is a different medium.
LSF – What can television offer screenwriters that feature films cannot?
McKee – In USA, talking from an American prospective, the finest writers for film have been migrating into television because of what television can offer them, that film does not. First of all, film has become an incredibly conservative medium. This is as true in Europe as it is in Hollywood. It is very conservative in terms of politics – if you want a film that says anything serious about politics you have to watch a documentary. The political correctness of the world has been limiting film over and over again, into smaller and smaller circles of what the proper subject matter for a film is. Generalizing, films are either becoming more fantasy and special effects-driven (in the United States) or more minimalist and decorative photography driven (in Europe) and the subject matters are highly politically correct. For example, when film looks at poverty, what you get is the “picturesque poor.”
If cinema really looked at poor people the way it did in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, that would be really absurd. However, if you go over to television, that is where you get some bite. This is where politics are looked at with sharp teeth. This is where the poor are not picturesque. Just go watch any episode of ‘Justified’ and ask, “Is this a picturesque view of the poor?” It is not. What you get in television is immense freedom. In television, they really don’t care whose toes you step on. In fact, they kind of want you to step on toes because it causes a lot of controversy, whereas in film they go out of their way to avoid that controversy. In TV, you not only get freedom of subject matter – and it can very dark, very violent, and very sexual or whatever – you also get freedom of expression. In literature we have a principle called “the unreliable narrator.” When you turned to an episode of ‘The Sopranos’ you couldn’t be certain that what you were looking at was real, was a dream, was a hallucination, or was a flashback. If it were a flashback, you couldn’t be certain that it was something that actually happened. It could be a faux flashback, the storytelling freedom that you have in television far exceeds that what you have in film.
You have tremendous freedom – freedom of subject matter and freedom of expression in television because the networks only care about ratings. As long as you can draw an audience, no matter what techniques of expression or subject matter, it seems to be irrelevant. In fact, I have a friend who writes for HBO and he tells me that when he goes in there and pitches to HBO, the first note that he gets more often than not is, “Not dark enough.” Now, imagine Fox, Sony, any Hollywood studio turning to a screenwriter and saying, “Not dark enough.” That’s not going to happen.
The second thing you get in television is money. If you think that a million dollars for a screenplay is a lot of money, you have no idea what real money is. If you want to make real money, and I am talking tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, create a great video game or television series. When Larry David sold ‘Seinfeld’ into syndication, the team made $400 million dollars each, and that is not counting the money made while the show was actually first time showing. That is real money.
The third thing you get is power. In film, the directors run the show. In television, and again I am talking in the American system, the writers run the show. If you are a hell of a writer, if you are a Matthew Weiner, or a Vince Gilligan, an Ann Biderman, a David Chase, or a Terrence Winter (among many more), and create a great series, you then become a producer. In Hollywood you call this a hyphenate – it is somebody who is both – a writer/producer. When you are watching an American television series and you see all of those opening credits – Executive Producer, Co-Producer, Associate Producer – they are all writers. That is the writing staff – that is the writer’s room. They are all called producers now because they all own a piece of the show. Why? Because they have proven they can write and their agents have negotiated them up to the producers position in the series, and now they are going to make real money. They have power. They hire the directors or they direct themselves. Everybody is responsible to the show runner, to the creator. Why in the world would you write for the movies? If I were young, I wouldn’t put myself through that. I would try to create a great television series, become a show runner, author to give myself creative freedom, power and money, beyond anything that movies can offer. As I have been saying for years in my lecture, TV is the future and I think anybody who is trying to make a living as a writer today for the screen should seriously give consideration to write for TV first.
LSF – What is the most compelling TV writing in recent years and why is it so compelling to both the networks who optioned it and the viewers who loved it?
McKee – That question answers itself. Why any writing has an audience and a production is because it is compelling. It is simply good writing – great characters, great stories. Audiences and producers don’t sit there parsing anything out except by what they feel when they read it or they see it. Does it hook their interest? Does it lock them into empathy with these characters? Does it move their emotions? Does it raise their curiosity? Do they question how these characters’ lives will turn out constantly in their mind, episode-by-episode, scene-by-scene, and overall in the whole series? There is no magic formula. There is nothing one can point to that says, “If you do this and if you do that, then this is definitely going to get you into production.” There is nothing you can point to other than saying it has to be great writing, wonderful characters, and a beautifully told story. When you look at those series that are successful you see that is simply quality. Great examples are ‘Downton Abbey’, ‘The Vikings’, ‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Ray Donovan’, ‘Orange is the New Black’, ‘In Treatment’, ‘The Sopranos’, ‘Boardwalk Empire’, ‘The Good Wife’, ‘Justified’, ‘Six Feet Under’, ‘Louie’, ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘True Detective’, ‘House of Cards’, ‘The Wire’, ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, and on it goes. They are comedies and dramas, but in every way the writing is superb. All I can say is that you have to write really well.
LSF – In the UK we tend to write alone or in partnership, whereas in the US writer’s rooms are a commonplace. What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing in the UK solo or in a partnership of two?
McKee – The advantages and disadvantages depend on point of view. I can think of one advantage on wanting to write a solo series. It is not impossible to be the only writer. Michael Hirst, who is a wonderful writer, is working himself to the bone writing THE VIKINGS on his own. ‘The Vikings’ is brilliant, really brilliant in every way – it is beautifully directed, wonderfully acted, overall a great production – it is a superb television series. But poor Michael Hirst is, as far as I know, the only writer for this series. Julian Fellowes was the creator and writer of ‘Downton Abbey’ and then Shelagh Stephenson and Tina Pepler have stepped in and worked with him too, but by and large it is Julian Fellowes’ child. So what is the advantage for those guys? Gratification. The advantage for the writer is that he is very gratified, to be able to step back from all of those hours, all of those episodes and seasons and sit back and say, “I did that.” It is a massive, cathedral-sized piece of work. That is great achievement for that individual writer.
On the other hand, when it is only one writer or one pair of writers, no one or two people are going to be able to keep a series going to the volume that the world would like today. This is just a rule of thumb but the standard TV series in America now is the 100-hour series. 100 hours of quality writing is very likely to be beyond the scope of one mind. This is why in America we have writer’s rooms. You have a lot of writers making contributions. How the writer’s rooms are developed in terms of certain writers specializing in one character or another, certain writers are there only to write gag lines for example. They divide the labor into whatever works. One writer, the show runner, runs them all. It is not as if it is chaos with 12 guys sitting around arguing all the time. There is a lot of arguing going on, but sooner or later everything they have done has to go through the show runner and the creator. That creator is the quality control person to make certain that the series stays at the level they’ve established.
From the audiences’ point of view, there are no advantages but there are plenty of disadvantages. For example, I lament that there are only two seasons of ‘Fawlty Towers’. I own them and I have seen them again and again. ‘Basil Fawlty’ and the marvelous cast could have been in a hundred episodes, of a fountain of hilarity, but John Cleese insisted on writing it on his own or with one partner, and at the end of twelve episodes he was either bored or ran out of ideas and quit. Some really good comedy writers could have taken those characters and created one marvelous farce after another, that would have certainly pleased me. It is a disadvantage for the audience because one writer insists on being an auteur, the series is cut short as a result. The audience does not care who wrote it. All the audiences want is great characters and great storytelling. I think this is true in England, too, but in America the show is the thing. What is important at the end of the day is the quality of the work – the show. I worked in theater for half my life and in the theater the show is the thing. The same thing should apply in film, not the ego of the auteur director. What is important is the work and the result.
LSF – How do you sustain fascination and engagement with characters over many seasons?
McKee – The key is great character. When I do my Television Drama day, the great emphasis is on complexity of character and complexity of cast design. What keeps the audience interested over season after season is on character development, either revelation of unseen dimensions and qualities within the character or change – the character is actually growing somehow or devolving, but changing. Change and revelation fascinate the audience. When the characters are exhausted, and when there is no more change or revelation, when it becomes repetitious, that is when TV series die. For example ‘Dexter’– Dexter was fascinating for several seasons but then it ran out of development of characters and it had nowhere else to go with these characters so they began repeating themselves. So again, the key is complexity of character.
LSF – What mistakes do you see in shows that last just one season?
McKee – It is similar to what is the key to great success? Great writing. What is the key to unsuccessful series? Bad writing. What do I see in these shows? They are badly written. The dialogue is on the nose, there is no subtext but full of clichés in plotting and characters, a lot of heavy handed false mystery, all of the devices of bad writing.
LSF – What advice do you offer a new writer developing?
McKee – As I said before, the key is cast design, a cast of characters in their setting, a great network of contradiction and complexities, complex characters, and complex relationships – things you can parse out year after year to keep the audience involved. The problem in television is not the storytelling first. The storytelling will grow out of the nature of the characters and the complexity of their relationships. So, the first thing is to focus on cast design. By cast design, I mean that the most complex characters are at the center, and it radiates out to the mid players. Design a beautiful cast and then figure out what could happen to these people and begin to tell a story.
You can get more information about the seminars run by Robert here.