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Robert McKee, in Australia with his internationally respected Story Seminar for screenwriters, tells Andrew L. Urban how Brian Cox ‘nailed him’ when playing McKee in the movie, Adaptation – and why Cox was cast.

Screen writing expert Robert McKee had the rare opportunity to see how he is seen by others when he attended the premiere of the much acclaimed comedy about writer’s block by Charlie Kaufman, Adaptation, in which he is played by Brian Cox. He turned to his son for a reaction, who said, “Dad, he nailed you!”

McKee, in Melbourne this week for his famous Story Seminar, to be followed next week by Sydney dates (see below) said he was happy with Brian Cox playing McKee. “I should be: I cast him!” Concerned at what would be the filmmakers’ philosophy about casting his character, Cox had some control and was impressed when given the shopping list to glance at. 

“It could have been a Dan Aykroyd, Danny de Vito kind of philosophy, which I would not have approved. So they gave me this list – it was the 10 greatest middle aged British actors alive….like Christopher Plummer, Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Albert Finney, so on. I said they’re all wonderful, I wouldn’t exclude anyone . . . but I want Brian Cox.”

"ruthlessly honest"

For a start, Cox looks very much like McKee’s brother. But “the deep, real reason” why McKee wanted Cox – with whose work on stage and screen McKee is very familiar – is that “most actors have a natural desire to draw approval from the audience, a pull toward your heart even when playing bad guys, a need for sympathy. They don’t do it on purpose, it’s this natural need to gain raw approval or whatever. Brian doesn’t do that. He’s so ruthlessly honest and I felt I wanted that actor because I felt he won’t sentimentalise me.”

And McKee was dead right about that. So much so, he was somewhat taken aback when people like his family told him that the ferocity with which Brian Cox portrays him is spot on. “When he lays into Nicolas Cage’s Charlie Kaufman character [a writer taking McKee’s Story Seminar course] and, as we say in America, rips him a new one, it even hit me in the chest. I turned to my wife and asked, is that what it’s like being on the receiving end of me? She said ‘YES!’ Well, I thought, I’d never want to be on the receiving end of me.”

The scene has resonances with McKee’s philosophies about writing. “Character is revealed in the choices a human being makes – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation,” writes McKee in his book, Story. “In that situation, I had a choice,” he said. “I could be patronising, and say, yes, well there are times when conflict is not necessary etc…or, I could rip him a new one. I made the choice that I made certain that he understands that if he’s going to make a film sans conflict, he’s going to bore the hell out of us.”

Melbourne Story Seminar:
February 21 – 23, Cinema Nova, Lygon St, Carlton

Sydney Story Seminar:
February 28 – March 2, Cinema Paris, Fox Studios
Sydney The Art Film Analysis:
February 26, Valhalla Cinema, Glebe

Bookings: Epiphany Artists: 03 9419 9969 / 0422 977 692 a/h.

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Robert McKee

Nicolas Cage and Brian Cox in Adaptation

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