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
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
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.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own