by Angela Bourassa
I walk into the conference hall at about 8:50 – the first lecture is supposed to start at 9:00 – and almost every seat is already taken. Two hundred or so attendants chatter in subdued voices, set up their laptops, get out their notepads, and cradle their Starbucks in their chilly hands. McKee likes the room brisk.
Then, a few minutes before nine, Robert McKee walks onto the stage, and a hush falls over the room. It’s clear that everyone here knows exactly who this man is. Some are curious to see what he will have to teach them. Others already revere him and will regardless of how the weekend progresses.
McKee’s first act is to insist that everyone show up promptly each morning and not dally during the breaks. He emphasizes this (and many other rules) numerous times over the weekend. On the second day, he berates two people who walk in at 9:05, asking his staff to close the doors and not let anyone else disturb his concentration by coming in late.
These harsh admonishments are balanced by a surprising amount of humor. As McKee shares his well-known principles of story, he mixes in a number of humorous anecdotes, some classic screenwriter jokes, and no shortage of personal observations about gender, sex, race, politics, religion, and virtually every other subject that’s considered impolite in mixed company.
Over the course of the weekend, I find most of his musings harmless, a few right on the mark, and a few others patently wrong. But I have to give him credit for knowing that no one in this room is going to walk out on him and using that fact to his full advantage.
McKee begins his long series of lectures – five two-hour sessions each day for three days – by explaining that he will share with us the principles of storytelling. “There are no rules, there are principles,” he roars, and he remains true to this statement throughout the seminar. The weekend is devoted to explaining the principles of story, why they work, sharing examples, and then – almost like clockwork – giving an example of a film that did the exact opposite.
He doesn’t do this to undercut the importance of the principles but rather to make clear in each of our minds that story has no formula, only form.
(Note: If you plan to attend the seminar, be sure to watch and/or read Kramer vs. Kramer and Tender Mercies. These are the two films he references the most by a wide margin.)
As he goes through each of the pieces of story, from beat to scene to sequence to act, he gives no advice on how to actually apply the principles to our own story development process – that’s our job, and it can’t be taught.
He explains it this way: western music takes the form of twelve notes on a scale. A musician can – and should – study those notes, how they work together and form chords, but ultimately it’s up to the musician to write their own song.
Actually, McKee does give us one piece of advice on how to tell the best stories possible: don’t be f*cking lazy.
(He may not have put it exactly that way, though it is very possible. Many, many f-bombs were dropped over the course of the weekend.)
As writers it is our responsibility, McKee intones, to never be satisfied with the first idea that pops into our head. We must always be looking beyond our initial instincts (which are inevitably clichéd) to find new methods of sharing information, new traits that can make a character more human, new ways of giving the audience exactly what they want in a way they would never expect.
Looking around the room, it seems that the gender breakdown is about 60% male / 40% female. About half of the people seem to be in their late 20s or in their 30s. The rest are in their 40s, 50s, or 60s. A few might even be in their 70s. One or two people appear to be college age, but they might just have young faces. Clearly the $865 registration fee makes this event less accessible to younger writers.
So who does attend?
I met an older man who had written his first TV pilot. He informed me that the script is now being sent around, and he decided to attend on the recommendation of a working writer friend as a way to bolster his experience.
One woman told me that she is starting a production company in Mexico and came to improve her story skills from the production side. Evidently quite a few executives from studios and production companies attend to learn how to give better notes. I believe I spotted a posse from Blumhouse Productions, but I can’t be sure.
Another woman who works on a current network show told me that she attended precisely because she reports to execs who give story notes using McKee’s principles and lingo. She wanted to better understand the feedback they give her and have the tools to respond appropriately.
There were a number of novelists in attendance who – despite the fact that the lectures focus specifically on screenwriting – felt strongly that the lessons applied to their craft, as well. At least one career salesperson in the crowd felt the same way.
Many of the people in attendance were certainly Robert McKee zealots, eating up everything he said and laughing uproariously at all his jokes, both the excellent and the mediocre ones.
As for myself, I was certainly impressed with McKee’s stamina and his teaching ability. The man knows how to captivate an audience and how to get his theories across quickly and clearly.
That said, the vast majority of what was covered in the lectures is also covered in McKee’s book, STORY. The lectures were an excellent refresher, and I walked away with new ideas and enthusiasm for my own writing projects.
$865 worth of ideas and enthusiasm? Maybe, maybe not. How can a writer quantify just how valuable a given lecture or set of feedback or writing retreat is to their career? Only hindsight can tell.
But consider this: Pixar, the most consistently brilliant storytellers on the planet today, bring Robert McKee in-house to give his STORY seminar to their writers and directors.
In other words, McKee knows his shit.
From my perspective, if you have the money and time and dedication to move your career as a writer forward, buy Robert McKee’s book. Read it, study it, then read lots of other books. And scripts. And write A LOT.
If you’ve already done all of that and feel your sense of story is still lacking, or you simply want to invest seriously in your craft, Robert McKee’s STORY Seminar may just be the jolt you need.
Just don’t show up late. And for God’s sake remember to silence your phone.
Robert McKee has two upcoming STORY Seminars in New York and Killarney. Click here to learn more, and remember to use code LASCREEN50 for $50 off the New York registration fee.
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.