Robert McKee is one of the best-known screenwriter lecturers in the world. He began teaching screenwriting in 1983, at the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California, with an approach that was original and out-of-the-box. So out-of-the-box, in fact, that a year later he abandoned the school setting and took his seminar on the road, offering a three-day intensive course to anyone interested in learning to write a good story.
Rather than concentrating on the plot or dialogues as the basis of the script, McKee explains the nature of the narration itself – in other words, he teaches how to tell a story. His long resume shows he is up to the task too. If we were to judge the teacher by the achievements of his students, McKee is a real force to be reckoned with – his students have won 49 Oscars, 168 Emmy Awards, 21 prizes from the Writers Guild of America, and 17 prizes from the Directors Guild of America.
The Nuts and Bolts
Robert McKee started acting in the theatre as a child, later moving on to earn a bachelor’s degree in English literature and a master’s in theatre arts. During his studies, Robert acted in and produced theatre productions in Broadway and London.
In the late 70s, he switched his focus to movies and there he finally found his calling – bringing out the natural storyteller in his students. The fact that McKee has not had a single script of his own made into a film does not embarrass the master of story-telling. He says he does what he loves and the numerous prestigious awards won by his students prove he made the right choice.
Here in Kyiv next week, the guru’s Story Seminar is quite expensive to attend – an entrance ticket costs 7,000hrv for the four-day intensive course. But if you’re planning a hit career in blockbuster screenwriting, it’s a bargain… Or, you could just read What’s On’s exclusive interview with the master storyteller, for a quick overview of his extremely successful process.
Mr McKee, first let me say it is a great honour for me to be able to do this interview. You are a spectacular writing mentor and your seminars are such that they keep everyone in the audience fully entertained. Can you share your secret – what is it that makes such a good story?
The secret of a good script is simple – at the heart of the story there should be humanity, because then each member of the audience will be able to relate what he sees on the screen with his own life and briefly live a different reality. It’s necessary to expand viewers’ consciousness, immerse them in another world, and make them feel humanity in thousands of different dimensions.
I see, you mean a good story is one in which the viewer watches the movie and thinks, “That could be about me!”? Here’s a challenge: can you give us an example of a good story in three sentences?
The most famous good story I know in three sentences is: boy meets girl, boy loses girls, boy gets girl. But, to bring that up to date, we could do: girl meets girl, girl loses girl, girl gets girl. Or, boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy. Or, boys meet girl, boys lose girl, boys fight to death over girl. This little three-step formula has been around since Romeo and Juliet.
So, really nothing has changed since Shakespeare’s time then. Some things do stand the test of time. Perhaps included in that are your seminars, which have been successful for more than 25 years, even in the face of an ever-changing media and writing world. What conclusions can you make about the evolution of writing – are authors becoming better, more interesting, or just more curious?
If we’re talking specifically about text, we’ve made a big step forward and the successes are evident. Skills in keeping viewers’ attention are honed almost to perfection, and this is one of the most important aspects of screenwriting. In terms of technology, modern writers have evolved better techniques than their predecessors. But if we talk about the content of the story, my assessment is not so positive. Stories in general are more superficial now. They do not compare to the stories that forged the "Golden Age" of Hollywood. The era of post-modernism comes with certain superficiality. Form is now more important than content.
How do you think social networks like Twitter and Facebook influence people who are writing prose or scripts?
Of course, Twitter and Facebook and other Internet modern things influence modern society. First of all, the text changes – writing becomes shorter and more succinct. I think the future of TV lies in series that can last for years and that bear plot similarities to the stories of Dickens. This will require specific skills from the writers, namely the ability to create such fun characters that they’re interesting to watch for a long time. I also think that all movies will go straight to the Internet someday, and that cinemas will disappear. The audience will enjoy a movie sitting in front of a big screen at home.
I can’t skirt the problems with Ukrainian cinematography, and the paradox that exists here: namely, Ukraine has a lot of talented prose writers who can’t break through to the big screens. Have you got any advice for writers on how to succeed in screenwriting?
Very few excellent fiction writers become screenwriters, truth be told. The most famous example of a great novelist trying and failing to become a screenwriter is, of course, F Scott Fitzgerald. He was a disaster as a screenwriter but he was a masterful fiction writer.
A novel is principally about inner conflict. It is about what is circulating in the thoughts and feelings of a character, told either in the third or first person. So, what interests the novelist most is the inner life of characters. Whereas the most powerful level of conflict in film is not inner conflict, but physical and social conflict because this is what the cinema does best.
If I were to give advice to a prose writer who wants to become a screenwriter, I’d tell them to stop the stream of words and language that pours through their head in imitation of human thought and feeling. Step outside and take a Godlike point of view. Try to look at characters as pieces of furniture in the physical world.
Can a story be perfectly written? And, have you ever read one?
I think that Michael Curtiz’s, Casablanca, is the best movie in the history of cinema in terms of the script. In my master-class, I dedicate at least six hours to a detailed analysis of this film – every scene, every dialogue. But there’s no formula, things like the perfect story can’t be derived by mathematical calculation. But you know a funny thing? The American Writers Guild also calls the scenarios in Casablanca the best in the history of cinema. There was a very serious vote that lasted several years, where other classics like The Godfather and Citizen Kane were left behind.
Where did you come up with the idea of visiting Ukraine?
I teach my courses in many countries, regardless of what level or scale the television industry has reached in a specific place. Most of the examples that I use in my seminars are from popular movies because I think that film is the best way to tell man’s story. I try to lead my seminars in that way, to help people who have never written before create a decent script.
One of my main reasons for coming to Ukraine is to revive the approach to art from the ground up, and to teach the creation of interesting stories and complex characters. I’m certainly not here to teach how to make Hollywood movies – I don’t know how to do that!
More than 50,000 people have taken Robert McKee’s Story Seminar, some of whom include highly notable actors and writers:
Seminar with Robert McKee
11 – 14 October
Tickets are 7,000hrv
Ukraina Movie Theatre (Horodetskoho 5)