Robert McKee - A day with Mr Movie

His screenwriting seminars are legendary, but Christina Patterson finds that this 'guru of gurus' gives advice that goes way beyond how to write a hit film

He's the "guru of gurus". He's a "master of the form and a servant of the craft". He's "legendary", according to the Washington Post, and "brilliant", according to Newsday, and "empowering", according to Movieline. He is, in fact, Hollywood's "most wanted screenwriting teacher", and has been for 30 years. "Everything I know about story structure," says Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning writer and director of Crash and Million Dollar Baby, "I learned from Robert McKee."

Some creative writing teachers can name a handful of successes. With Robert McKee, the list goes on and on. There's Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) and Ed Saxon (The Silence of the Lambs) and John Lasseter (Wall-E) and Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) and Jane Campion (The Piano) and Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings). And then there are the writers for TV. The writers, that is, for The Sopranos, and Sex and the City, and Ugly Betty, and Six Feet Under and Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones. These are just some of the 55,000 people, who include Joan Rivers, John Cleese, Russell Brand and David Bowie, who have done a "Story Seminar" with Robert McKee.

The seminar used to take three days, and now takes four. It covers, if his book Story is anything to go by, the elements of story, like structure, setting, genre and character, and the "principles of story design", like crisis, and climax and resolution. If this makes it sound like a formula, it isn't. "Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules," says McKee in his introduction to the book. "Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form."

Four days (and £545 plus VAT) isn't much to invest if you're planning your career as an Oscar-winning writer and director, but it's quite a lot if you're a journalist who's heard a lot about the guy and just wants to see what he's like. Luckily for me, and about 100 writers, or budding writers, at the Barbican the other day, Robert McKee also sometimes gives talks. This one was part of the London Screenwriters' Festival's monthly "London Breakfast Club". There was coffee. There were croissants. There were a lot of hopes and dreams.

Robert McKee, it was clear from the big photo projected on the stage, and also from the figure who walked up to the lectern, has very bushy eyebrows. For a moment, I couldn't think of anything else. But when he started speaking, I forgot about his eyebrows, and the second croissant I'd meant to grab but hadn't, and thought only about the words. "Story began," he said, "the moment Mother Nature and human nature went their separate ways. The first human thought was something like 'I am', and the second thought was 'some day, I shall not be'. As we became aware of the passage of time, and the brevity of it, and the end of it, we quickly became aware that just living does not teach you how to live."

There is, as Dr Johnson knew, nothing like death to concentrate the mind, but I hadn't expected a talk on screenwriting to start with death. From death, it went on to survival, and how the human mind can "rationalise any evil act". There is, said McKee, "no structural difference between cutting someone up in traffic and cutting off their head". All of us, he said, are struggling to answer Aristotle's question about how a human being should "live their life". Living, he said, "is chaotic and painful", so human beings began to create stories. Culture, he said, "is our great nest".

Any of us who read or write know that stories are what we create to make order out of chaos, but I'm not sure I've ever heard the idea presented with such urgency, or power. The challenge, said McKee, was to "create an emotional truth of what it is to be a human being". There is, he said, a "notion" he finds "repulsive" that stories, or films, are "just entertainment". Entertainment, he said, was "going into the ritual of story so that time vanishes". When a society has weak storytelling, he said, "life rots". We need storytelling to "shine a bright light into the corners of society and express the truth of what it is to be a human being".

I wish I could tell you everything he said. I wrote down nearly every word. This, it turned out, was about as far from 'how to get on in Hollywood' as you could get. This, it turned out, was about how to ditch the careerism, and the cynicism, and the formulas, and write with integrity, and truth. "Are you," he said, "in love with yourself in the art, or with the art in yourself?"

It was, I told him when we met for a cup of coffee afterwards, like a religious experience. McKee laughed. "It is kind of like my religion," he said. "I think these people need to be reminded of why they do what they do". I had thought, I told him, that it might get boring saying the same things all the time, but I could now see how it wouldn't. McKee nodded. He keeps changing things, he said, and developing new resources, like an online "enterprise" called Storylogue, which gives new lessons on a different aspect of writing every week. "I do not teach people how to do anything," he said. "I simply teach what is."

And did he think, I asked, trying to put it as tactfully as I could, that he'd had as much satisfaction teaching people how to write stories as he'd have had if he'd produced the film equivalent of War and Peace? McKee didn't hesitate. "Yes. There is an understandable point of view about what I do, that I'd rather be a writer, and nobody believes that I'd rather not. I was a successful writer. I made a living. I bought a home in Santa Monica and put a swimming pool in it with the money I made. I saw enough of my work on screen to realise that my talent was clear, but modest, and I would never be Ingmar Bergman. I just came to realise that this was the natural thing to do."

There seemed, I told him, to be quite a strong moral component to what he does. It seemed, in fact, to be like a vocation. Was it? "Yes. The only meaningful thing," he said, "is that human beings suffer and anything a human being can do to alleviate the suffering of others is meaningful. Art," he said, speaking for all true artists, and for everyone who benefits from art, which is pretty much all of us, "softens the sharp edges of life, and helps us get through our lives."

Robert McKee's next Story seminar is taking place in London this weekend. mckeestory.com Details of the London Screenwriters' Festival's London Breakfast club can be found at: londonbreakfastclub.com

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine