Learning Curves


The conceit of adaptation is that the hard work of a story can be avoided by optioning a literary work and simply shifting it into a screenplay. That is almost never the case. —Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

In one of the year’s funniest plot twists, Adaptation‘s severely blocked Charlie Kaufman heeds the advice of idiot brother Donald and signs up for the legendary seminar of screenwriting sage Robert McKee (played to irascible, blustery perfection by Brian Cox). The real-life guru, whose TV writing credits include Quincy M.D. and Columbo (several of his feature screenplays have been optioned but none filmed), has been giving three-day courses on story structure since 1984, and the $495 McKee seminar boasts more celebrity partisans than even the hottest of diet trends (“students” range from Julia Roberts to John Cleese to this year’s Oscar winner for A Beautiful Mind, Akiva Goldsman). On the phone from Paris, where he had just wrapped up another lecture, McKee analyzed Adaptation‘s screenplay and discussed his role within it.

Does Adaptation adhere to the McKee commandments? I think it’s pretty classically structured. It has the inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, resolution.

Would you say the film falls into a genre? It’s autobiography. Have you read my book? In the chapter on genres, I talk about the education story—the character comes into it with a negative attitude toward life and himself. Over the course of the story, he ends up with a positive attitude toward life and himself. That’s the Charlie Kaufman story. It’s what we call an education story. Now, the counterpoint is what’s called the disillusionment story, which starts with a character who has a positive attitude toward life and himself and by the end is in disillusionment, with a negative attitude. That’s the Susan Orlean story. What Charlie has done is he’s crisscrossed an education plot with a disillusionment plot, but in the broad category of autobiography.

How does the film’s extreme self-consciousness and its use of postmodern devices fit into your principles of story design? My take on Charlie is that he’s not a postmodernist. He’s an old-fashioned modernist because he owes a lot to Beckett and Strindberg and Brecht. The modernist writing, in which they felt that the experience of life was absurd and that the struggle was to try to make meaning out of absurdity. Postmodernism says, no, there is no meaning. Charlie’s not into that. What he does is, he uses modernist devices, and some deconstructive postmodernist devices—but to make meaning.

How would you have advised a student if they’d told you they wanted to adapt “The Orchid Thief?” I would have told them that it’s unadaptable. It is genuine literature, which means that the heart and soul of that book are in the mind of Susan Orlean. Susan Orlean’s book was a self-inquisition, asking herself, “Why is it I have no passion?” What Charlie did was layer his self-inquisition on her self-inquisition. It was a smart move because her self-inquisition would not make a film. You cannot drive a camera lens through an actor’s forehead and photograph thought.

Are you happy with how you’re portrayed in the film? Oh, very much so. I cast Brian Cox [as myself]. They brought me a list of 10 of the greatest English actors alive today: Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Christopher Plummer, on and on. They were all wonderful actors. Any one of them could have been fine. But I said, I see what you want to do, but there’s one name that’s not on this list, and that’s Brian Cox. Brian had been a student of mine when I lectured in Scotland. And I had seen Brian many times, because I lived in England for 10 years, and I’d seen him onstage and admired him so much. The best thing, you see, about Brian, is that other actors, there’s a certain subtext to their acting which says, no matter what they’re doing, “Love me.” Brian Cox does not do that.

I take it you don’t either when you lecture. I want my students to understand the material, take this understanding, and be artists. I don’t want them clinging to me. They have to leave me and go work. I don’t want to be a guru surrounded by devotees who can’t breathe without me telling them it’s OK. I don’t want to build up that kind of following of dependent, needy people. I make certain they understand that in the nicest way I know—but I don’t need to be loved.

I took my son Paul to a screening. For me to see myself performed was great fun. But I’ve seen myself on-screen—I played myself in a film called 20 Dates—and I’ve seen myself lecturing many times. But imagine what it would be like for a son to see his father portrayed by a movie star. As we walked out, Paul said, “Dad, he nailed you!” He told me it was like seeing his dad reincarnated. I mean, Brian really nailed me. I told Brian, “You son of a bitch.” I said, “People will come to the lecture expecting Brian Cox. I’m going to spend the rest of my life doing Brian Cox doing me.”

The film suggests that there’s an aspect of your workshops that goes beyond technique, that it’s almost therapeutic. It’s not therapeutic.

But the Kaufman character comes away from the seminar saying he sees the error of his life choices, not just his screenwriting choices. One of the essential principles of my class is for writers to understand that stories are metaphors for life—that life is the source of what we do. We put life into a beautifully poetic form. To express what it is to be a human being—comic or tragic, grotesque, whatever. But it’s a metaphor for life. Therefore, you cannot teach about story without referencing life. And what happens is the people in the class not only gain insight into the art of story, but through that glass, they see life. And they see it in a fresh way, and they get insights into their own lives. The lecture wakes people up to remember that we’re not making movies about movies. We’re making movies about life, and you better understand life if you want to write. The lectures are very moving for a lot of people, emotionally, because they have these epiphanies, where they go, “Oh my God!” And they suddenly understand something in a new way.

Your character cautions Charlie against using a deus ex machina in his screenplay, but in a way the film positions you as the deus ex machina—your appearance triggers the crazy “resolutions” of the third act. Did you appreciate the irony? I’m not the deus ex machina. The only deus ex machina is the alligator that comes out of the swamp.

What function do you play in the film then? In the education plot, there’s a convention. There will be a teacher character. In American Beauty, there’s an education plot for the Kevin Spacey character, and the teacher character is Teenage Drug Dealer. In The Accidental Tourist, Geena Davis is a teacher character for William Hurt. In Tender Mercies, there’s the woman that owns the motel. In Harold and Maude, it’s Maude. In the education story, there will be this teacher character who gives guidance somehow to get the negative-minded protagonist looking positive. That’s the role that I play. Literally, I’m a teacher character, in an education story.

Read more meta-coverage

J. Hoberman’s review of Adaptation

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