It’s is probably one of the most famous screenwriting classes of all time. On the spectrum of experience, it falls somewhere between international flight, marathon, therapy session, and college class. Were the 33 hours of lecture informative? Was it worth the money? Are the disciples of McKee studying the secret of good writing? Here’s my review of Robert Mckee’s Story Seminar.
I don’t know exactly why I got nervous. Maybe it was because I had received no less than five emails reminding be to be on time. Or maybe it was the schedule, 9am to 8pm, which is an awfully long time to be working on anything. Or maybe it was the reminder to eat breakfast to keep my blood sugar up, or to wear layers, or to bring extra pens and paper because you can’t expect your fellow writer’s to help you out.
Whatever the case, the message was clear: Don’t fuck around.
Of course, I got a whopping case of pneumonia the week before and I was hacking up a lung every ten minutes. I stopped by the local Patient First and asked for a cough suppressant. “So people don’t think you have the plague?” asked my doctor. Exactly. And really, a bad cough would have taken me out of the conference. We sat in a plush auditorium in midtown, elbow to elbow, front rows filled (per the email), and nobody made so much as a sniffle all three days. In fact, on day 2, McKee asked if we would stop crinkling our water bottles and snacks for the benefit of the Italian film crew documenting the lecture. The crew never asked for this. It was all McKee.
So yeah, a cough would have sunk me. As would looking at my phone or texting or talking…
I had the the president of Icelandic Film and Television Academy in my class a few years ago and I warned him to stop looking at his phone. But he kept looking. So I warned him a second time. But he still kept looking. So what did I do? I kicked his ass out of the seminar. And you know what I saw on the faces of the people who worked for him who were also in attendance? I saw smiles. Because they knew him to be the asshole that he was and finally he was getting what he fucking deserved.
Like it or not, this is clearly the Robert McKee show. No comments from the audience. No sensitivity given to the diverse learner. Trigger warnings? He laughed at the notion. At the seminar, McKee’s opinions are facts. And those opinions, we were warned, would span many topics including religion, sex, politics, or basically anything that would get you fired if you were teaching at a modern institution of higher learning.
But all of this–including the cursing–was part of the program to encourage the artists to “write the truth.”
Euphemisms hide the truth. Your job is to look at your subject matter for what it is…Everything is fiction. Biography is fiction. Autobiography is fantasy. Your job is to figure out what is the value being expressed in your story and what is the cause of the value being expressed. If, after all your work, you don’t believe the truth of what you are saying THROW THE FUCKING STORY IN THE GARBAGE BECAUSE WE DO NOT NEED ANYMORE BULLSHIT STORIES IN THIS WORLD.
On this point, any writer would blush at the deep respect he offers the craft.
In the life cycle of the film, the screenwriter makes all other aspects of the industry possible. But on a larger scale–for his lectures are addressed to novelists and playwrights as well–the role of the writer in society, as McKee seems to communicate, is something on the order of priesthood. Story is the founding structure of his religion. All ideas of the world are the product of story. Therefore, the story teller is the originating artist, the author, the authority.
I took my dying mother to an eye doctor so that he could do experimental surgery to keep her from going blind. There are three kinds of eye doctors, by the way. Front of the eye doctors, middle of the eye doctors, and back of the eye doctors. This guy was a back of the eye doctor. And for a few hours, he took a laser and one by one removed the blisters from my mother’s eyes. And this man was able to preserve my mother’s vision right up to her death… But it ain’t writing.
I don’t mind telling you, such talk made me feel like a million bucks.
The central antagonists in a writer’s life are in order 1) laziness 2) laziness 3) the whole rest of the world you blame for your laziness. Sometimes what one needs is for a seventy year old man to yell at such a pitch as to clear away the cobwebs of creativity.
You know how you can tell an amateur writer? Amateurs love what they write. Whereas professionals know that 90 percent of what they write is shit. An amateur’s instinct is to get an idea and then run off to the computer to write dialogue. A professional knows that a feature film has 40-60 scenes and therefore goes about inventing ten times as many just so they can find a handful of original ideas.
Naturally such motivational talk attracts desperate writers. And from the look of consternation on many of the attendee’s faces, I would say most were desperate. That’s not to say it was a collection of wannabes. Quite the opposite, what struck me was the variety of persons in attendance. There were people from all over the world, of all age groups, genders, and races. John Cleese famously attended the lecture four times. Kirk Douglas as well. Pixar supposedly sends five people each year. Recently, a video of Russel Brand popped up in which he gave a rather passionate summary of the lecture, displaying that surprising intelligence behind his usual wispy goofiness.
There were USB sticks with Brand’s image for sale at the seminar.
What surprised me was how many people I met who had attended his lectures before and yet never read his book. Or, had tried, but felt that it was too much information and preferred to hear it from the man himself. For those willing to drop a grand on the lecture, the return price for alums is half. Those who have made more than one go-around told me he repeats many of the stories and elements of his lectures, including one of the most intense aspects of the lecture, the last day, which is devoted to conducting an “autopsy” on Casablanca. It takes six hours to watch the film this way. He stops at every scene and conducts a number of exercises as you watch the film. One cannot overestimate how useful this exercise is. How useful would it be to do it twice? I do not know.
But just so you know, the lecture is exactly like the book,
I’ll leave the meat of the McKee’s method out of this review because I couldn’t do it justice. In general, he begins with the principles of story, through structure, genre, audience, and the writer’s methods.
As for the seminar itself, having McKee go through each of the principles and then amplify the main points with relevant examples, anecdotes, and diatribes is a powerful experience. He is funny. He is passionate. He burns for eleven hours a day and is chock full of information. Seeing the old man is just one of those things in life you should do. He won’t be around forever.
Additionally, during the breaks, he invites anyone to ask him questions about the material presented. Though he warns you against talking about your project or asking him personal questions. Still, long lines materialized at each of the twenty minute breaks.
I asked him a question about adapting the material for the teaching of short films, part of the reason why I was sent there by the best school in America. He gave me good advice, much of it from his time teaching as USC, and made me promise that I would not let the students get away with “bullshit leaf kicking films” in which beautiful images were used to compensate for the lack of story.
After three days, the lessons and his mannerism really sunk in. (I still can’t stop cursing) We had a champagne toast to Casablanca and the spirit of collaboration. I got on the train home ready to rip through a few projects I’ve been working on.
McKee’s method is not for everyone. There is no doubt that many writers find their own way to the top of the mountain. There is ample evidence that McKee’s enterprise is lucrative schtick. But if he is capitalizing on the promise of epiphany, he offers a damn good product in return. McKee promises nothing except a deeper appreciation of the work.
So if you find yourself mucking around in pages and pages of words unsure why your writing seems thin or incongruous, McKee’s lecture may be just the thing to tame the mad brain of a writer’s mind.
Tagsadvice aesthetics Art Books education Facebook Fear Fiction Film Fitzgerald food Hemingway Investing John Berger Johns Hopkins Literacy literary Literature non-ficiton Northrop Frye Personal Philip Roth Philosophy Poetics Poetry point of view Politics Publishing Reading Reddit Robert Frost Saul Zaentz Screenwriting Story Tarkovsky Teaching techniques The Great Gatsby The New Yorker Theory unwritten Virtual reality W.G. Sebald Writers writing