Keith Cunningham - Film Maker / Screenwriter / Consultant

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WHY SHOULD YOU LISTEN TO HIM…?  Because his seminars offer both experienced writers and newcomers, producers, directors, and other media professionals in-depth insight into screenwriting and story development.



Filmmaker, screenwriter, and consultant based in Chicago, Illinois USA, and Munich, Germany. He celebrates 35 years as a filmmaker, 25 years of leading screenwriting and creativity workshops, and 20 years working in Europe.

Born and raised in the Unites States, Keith Cunningham graduated in Film from Northwestern University in 1974.  His hour long student film, A May Carol, was picked for several festivals.  Over the next 6 years, he cultivated a free-lance film career as a professional cameraman and gaffer, as well as developing his own films projects and writing short stories and poetry. During this time, Mr. Cunningham encountered some decisively influential teachers and leaders, including theater director Peter Sellars, mythologist Joseph Campbell, psychologist Jean Houston, philosopher Alan Watts, and writer Anaïs Nin.

He gradually developed an ambition to bring his creative work together with the psychology of creativity, and earned a Master’s Degree in Psychology in 1981, also at Northwestern University.  His thesis research was on patterns of creativity and the dynamics of creative breakthrough.  Out of this training began Mr. Cunningham’s first seminars on enhancing creativity, managing creative relationships, and lifelong creativity. He consulted for individual clients and creative groups such as theater and dance companies.

A fortuitous meeting with Los Angeles screenwriter Thomas Schlesinger in 1980 led to a new synthesis of creativity and filmmaking. In 1982, Keith Cunningham took a full-time teaching position as Columbia College Professor of Film and Video in Chicago.  He remained with the department for 9 years.  Among his students were two time Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (SCHINDLER'S LIST, etc), cinematographer Mauro Fiore (AVATAR), and producer Diane Weyermann (AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH). During this period he directed and produced several independent films.

Concurrently, in 1984, Mr. Cunningham began leading screenwriting and story development seminars worldwide with colleague Tom Schlesinger. Keith’s presentation of Joseph Campbell’s mythic perspective and its relevance for screenwriting at the American Film Institute, New York, in 1984, may be the first public joining together of mythmaking, depth psychology, and screenwriting. Subsequent seminars for the AFI–Los Angeles, the Director’s Guild and Writer’s Guild of America (L.A.) led to the systematic elaboration of a new approach to screenwriting.  Other leaders in the screenwriting field, such as Linda Seger and Chris Vogler, attended their seminars during those years.

It is Keith’s unique strength to bring together creativity research, depth psychology, the mythic perspective, and a deep sensitivity to drama—and to forge them into a new synthesis.  The fruit of these long years of work is a new book on writing and creativity, THE SOUL OF SCREENWRITING.  Keith’s breakthrough book for writers based on his seminars was published in 2008. His essays on myth, cinema, and creativity have appeared in numerous journals and books.

Mr. Cunningham’s renowned screenwriting seminars with his business partner expanded to Europe in 1989, then to Morocco, the Middle East, and beyond. Clients and sponsors have included the Bavaria Studios Munich, RAI Television Rome, and ARD/ZDF national television in Germany, among many others.

Along the way, he has developed TV series, and his own scripts for TV episodes and films that have been produced by RTL-TV and PRO-7 television in Germany.  Currently, he is co-creator, co-producer, and head writer of a TV series shot in Morocco L’Etranger, which will be premiered in 2010. He is at work on two screenplay projects in Germany that he is slated to direct, and another he is co-writing in Istanbul. Typically he has a half-dozen scripts in consultation at a given time.  Keith is still much sought after to run screenplay development programs in many lands, such as at the Royal Film Commission in Amman, Jordan, and the Fondation Cinema Liban in Beirut.


Q: What was your favourite film as a kid?
A: When I was a child, most of the films I saw were not for children. The market—and the society—were not so segmented yet. So the most important films for me, the ones that hat the most impact, impressed me much more deeply than films for children. Among them I could name MOBY DICK, VERTIGO, THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI, THE SEARCHERS, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, GIGI, and the occasional returns of FANTASIA.  On one level they were way over my head, but on another level these fine films made me aware of something more sublime in storytelling.  Our family got or first TV specifically in order to see a broadcast of ROMEO AND JULIET.  That, and CYRANO DE BERGERAC, impressed me very much. It was crystal clear to me as a 4 year old that there was no comparison between the level of those dramas and Bugs Bunny.  I regret that much of what is addressed to children today is so dumbed-down and patronizing.

Q: Who inspired you when you were starting out?

A: I was originally inspired by novelists.  As an adolescent, it was foreign movies that made me appreciate that a film could have its own vision, because they looked different and spoke a different visual language.  It made me more aware of the cinematic art. 2001 and SATYRICON especially come to mind.  Then, when I was in my freshman year at university I had a chance to see a retrospective of all of Bergman’s films, something like 20 films in a week.  That was the stimulus that pushed me toward making films.

Q: What was your big break?

A: I find that the decision to concentrate on working in Europe was significant for me, because of the kinds of stories I am interested to tell, and the idioms of storytelling I find congenial to my way of expressing.  In the US, I was too late for the Cassavetes generation and did not find myself gravitating toward the studio system. International cinema always interested me more.

Q: What was the best day in your career?

A: A best period, really.  For me, the intensive months in 2007 of creating the TV series, L'ETRANGER, in Morocco was the greatest, and most exhausting, creative high that I have ever experienced. The three of us, my close colleague Tom Schlesinger, the director Layla Triqui, and myself worked with the sort of intuitive togetherness of a great jazz trio.  It was an enormous undertaking in a short time (32 40-minute episodes in season 1), and we were fortunate to have the full support of the TV network.  In fact, there wasn’t much time to sit around and argue.  It had to flow, and it really did flow.  The series has its premiere on October 4, 2010.

Q: What has been your most important lesson?

A: The most important lesson that I have learned, and the most important to pass on, is that screenwriting is not primarily technical. Technical proficiency is assumed in a professional setting, just as you expect musicians to be proficient with their instruments.  That is not the level of art.  The two important lessons consequent to this are: First, that writing is a process of discovery: the real story is the story that emerges in the act of writing the story.  And second: that a writer’s fundamental honesty with themselves and willingness to both examine and go beyond their own attitudes are essential to high level creative writing.

Q: If a niece or nephew wanted to be in the business, what would you advise them?

A: The “why” is very important.  Many people are attracted to this business in an infatuated way, the way one might become infatuated with a pretty face or a sexy body in a club.  But when the real difficulties of writing start to appear, then people either must discover that they truly love what they are doing, love facing and overcoming the problems—or they try to cheat.  It is a relationship, and as in any relationship, it only gets real when the infatuation phase is over.

Q: What is the hardest part of your job and how do you overcome it?

A: I find the hardest part of the job to be the compromises that one sometimes has to make with TV commissioning editors. Sometimes the editorial input is valuable and sensible, both dramaturgically and in terms of market placement and audience. At other times, such input is illogical, dramaturgically unsound, and coming from a place of fear of the market.  In other words, some people are more interested in “not losing” than in creating something interesting.  I find these people the most difficult to deal with.  At this stage, the process is already very complex.  Script drafts have already been written.  I find the best defence is preventative: make an astute assessment of the personality and character of the people you think to work with before signing contracts.

Q: What do you feel is a writers’ or filmmakers' key responsibility?

A: This is a very complex question, because it begs the further question: responsibility to whom?  For some people, it is very clear: I have responsibility for advancing my career, period.  But I believe that if we are honest with ourselves, then we’d have to admit that the mass media play a key role in creating the global mess we are currently in.  This is an issue in which I am very actively involved.  I could make suggestions, but perhaps the writer’s first and fundamental responsibility is to recover a viable moral center within themselves out of which they can speak to others as an “agent of coherence.”  Drama is a method and a process for examining the nature of human conflict.  As we enter the epoch of diminishing resources and rising social and political strife, we shall need people who know how to use drama as an agency of coherence rather than of escape or propaganda.  One may choose to contemplate this level of responsibility, or not.

Q: What mistakes do you see writers or film makers making over and over?

A: Of course, there are many people who think they have an important story to tell, and who have a lot of willpower, but who have no real competence in the art and craft of writing.  It took most professional colleagues that I know 3 or 4 screenplays to develop that competence.  Many people are not patient enough to put in that effort.  But beyond this, the number one, most common fault that I find when consulting is not a technical problem but a personal blind spot.  When a writer is over-identified with their main character, that invariably generates both script problems and writer’s blocks.  And, one could add, neurotic people tend to create neurotic stories.

Q: What advice would you offer a writer?

A: I could naturally advise them to pick up a copy of my book, THE SOUL OF SCREENWRITING.  But just in a nutshell, I’d suggest cultivating an approach that appreciates that there are three levels of conflict in a drama.  These three levels of conflict are intertwined in a complex pattern, continually influencing each other through actions that have consequences.  If one allows this dramatic potential to unfold out of itself, it is very possible to create compelling drama even out of seemingly small subjects, without resorting to adding “artificial ingredients” like they do in breakfast cereals.  Very good examples of this authenticity are Mike Leigh’s SECRETS AND LIES and the Dardenne brothers’ ROSETTA AND THE CHILD.