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Robert McKee: the new Aristotle?

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William Crawley | 10:38 UK time, Tuesday, 21 April 2009

BobMcKee2.jpgIt's a big claim, I know. And, to be clear, I'm not the one making it. That's how a Guardian profile describes Robert McKee: 'the most influential storytelling theorist since Aristotle'. Having just spent an extended weekend taking McKee's legendary Story Seminar, I can say a few things about the experience and about McKee.


1. He can teach. Actually, that's a serious understatement. I've had a very privileged education, with some great teachers on both sides of the Atlantic, in some great schools, and McKee is a brilliant teacher. The Story Seminar, which he runs a few times a year in various countries, is thirty hours of teaching over three days. He sometimes uses an overhead projector (remember them?) -- though, even then, you're talking about no more than ten projection sheets across the entire weekend -- but mostly he just talks. No educator today would even attempt to sustain the attention of 250 people for 30 hours with so few visual aids. The class would get bored, they'd lose attention, they'd lose interest, they'd leave. Right? Wrong. They gave him a standing ovation at the end of the course. If Robert McKee went to grad school to become a teacher, he would fail a teaching certificate practical assessment, because he probably breaks every rule set down by orthodox teaching systems. But he's one of the best teachers you'll ever meet (though 'watch' is more accurate), because he knows that teaching is a performance, and in that realm, he's a natural.

2. He can talk. He can teach because he can talk. McKee trained as a stage actor and has directed more than sixty plays. He know about audiences. He knows how to move, stand, change position, inflect his speech, dramatize a sentence, build interest, gather pace, hit the breaks, plant surprises, do set-ups and pay-offs ... this is professional talking. Part lecture, part stand-up, part conversation, part confession, part workshop, part therapy, part memoir, part ... That change of subject, style and pace is very compelling. What governs it all, from the beginning, is this: it is all storytelling. In a seminary about how story works, the teacher approaches every subject like a story.

3. He can cuss. He uses the F-word more than any public speaker I've ever heard (and that includes Billy Connolly). The McKee teaching persona is cranky, sometimes beligerent, sometimes sentimental, sometimes philosophical. He has the voice of a character. It doesn't feel writerly; he may actually be like this when he's not standing behind a podium. In class, he says, 'Oh, by the way, I tend to use a lot of profanities. I do that for a reason: I like it.' That's provocative, inciting: he wants reactions, he enjoys the knife-edge atmosphere of conflict when he teaches.

4. He doesn't like questions. Don't interrupt McKee while he's teaching. Ever. He warns the class at the outset that he doesn't like interruptions of any kind during the class. Much like an actor who wouldn't appreciate a member of the audience interrupting the play to ask, 'What did you mean by that last reply?' Write you questions down and come to him during one of the 20-minute breaks between each two-hour session. In the first session of my course, someone got so excited by one of McKee's comment's that they shouted out, 'That's right!' McKee paused and thanked them for their enthusiasm, then made it very clear that if they, or anyone else, interrupted his class, they'd be asked to leave. If you're caught texting, he says he'll fine you £10 on the spot. If you're a repeat offender, he'll show you to the door. He has war stories: the time he evicted the CEO of a TV company who thought the rules didn't apply to him -- they did, and he was gone. And when you do write down the question that's in your mind, make sure it's a proper question before you walk up to McKee's chair during the break. He doesn't take compliments disguised as questions ('I just don't have time ...'), he doesn't answer questions about what he thinks of this or that film or this or that director or this or that writer ('I just don't have time ...'), and he doesn't deal with questions that soon dissolve into chit-chat ('I just don't have time ...'). The only questions you should take to him during the breaks are questions seeking clarification about something he said during the lecture. Period.

5. He has a theory. And he is happy to explain it to you, as many times as you like. He says his theory of story -- what makes a story work, and why some don't work -- is as old as Aristotle. He says he's just teaching what people used to know. Stories are about protagonists whose lives are thrown into crisis by an event -- the story event, the inciting incident, the hook -- and who begin a quest to put their lives back together again, in the face of antagonism and conflict. Since stories have a text and a subtext (what's going on and what's really going on beneath the surface), stories are metaphors for life, equipment for living. That quest for re-balance is the spine of every story because the quest for meaning is the spine of every human life. If that sounds a little homiletic, it's because it is. McKee preaches, he evangelises for Story (yes, with caps). Mention a film and he's seen it, and he can deconstruct it to show you the inciting incident, the quest, the object of desire, the forces of antagonism and conflict, the moment when the protagonist comes face to face with those forces, and he can draw the full story arc from beginning to crisis to resolution.From Aristotle's Poetics to Joseph Campbell's A Hero With a Thousand Faces, this is how story has always worked, because it taps into something profoundly, and primitively, human. He doesn't give the example of Augustine, but he could. St Augustine described classical Christian theology with this same story arc: creation-fall-redemption. That doesn't mean every story is a three-act drama. Shakespeare was fond of five acts, Casablanca is in four acts, some plays are one-act dramas. But each act is defined by that arc system. McKee says, show me a film that doesn't follow those primitive 'rules' that government the life of a story, and I'll show you a film that doesn't work as a story. It may 'work' as a philosophical essay, or an art installation, or a compelling montage of imagery, but it isn't a story. And story is where it's at. Story is what makes the audience ask, 'How's this going to work out?, 'Now what?' That's the major dramatic question a successful story must prompt in the mind of the audience: you must implicate the audience in the story, you must make them care, you must make them want to give up the rest of their day (if it's a novel) or the next two hours (if it's a movie) to find out what happens next.

6. He has followers and anti-followers. McKee's seminar is mostly populated by people who've encountered the legend of Robert McKee and want to find out what all the talk's about. It also has people who have taken the course already and have come back for one of many reasons: they are in the middle of a writing project and want a three-day working sabbatical to test their story against his ideas, or they are blocked and want to find a way back to writing, or they had such a good learning experience the last time, they want to write over in pen what they've already written down in pencil. There's a course text: it's called Story, and it's by Robert McKee. If you read the text, you get the story, you get the theory, you even get some of Robert McKee. If you come to the course, you get all that, and a lot of Robert McKee. People sometimes say, 'He has memorised the book.' Wrong. These classes began in 1982 when McKee was teaching at a film school. The book came much later. The seminar itself is a three-dimensional version of the book, not a two-dimensional recitation. You get the voice of Robert McKee -- the unexpurgated voice -- with movement, dramatic speech, vivid stories, telling anecdotes and very funny asides. He's naturally funny, and he enjoys making an audience laugh. Some are at the class because they read the book or own the book or borrowed the book and always meant to read it. Before taking the seminar, I was warned by a friend, 'Be careful of the McKee ditto-heads.' It's true that every sacred theory has its acolytes, and McKee is a guru to some people. I met some of those people, of course: they hang on his every utterance, canonise his insights, and prepare to do battle in defence of The Theory. But there were few of them. I also met people who were struggling intellectually with what he said, not because they couldn't follow his ideas, but because they wanted to interrogate them. McKee likes to toy with French new wave theorists, he likes to mock anti-narrative approaches to film, he is suspicious of non-classical approaches. He says there's a reason why Hollywood films became so culturally dominant internationally: they are classical-style stories. That said, he now believes Asia (and particularly Korea) is making the best films today. But that's not surprising: those cultures have understood the power of myth and story for centuries.

7. He loves Casablanca. 'Loves' is not too strong a word. He ends every seminar weekend with a six-hour annotated reading of Casablanca. We have the script in front of us and he walks us through the film, page by page, scene by scene, act and act, and sometimes line by line and beat by beat. I feel like I know Casablanca at this point. He begins with the production back story: starts with a play, becomes a film, gets a re-write, Jack Warner pushes it and brings in a refugee director, Michael Curtiz to make it; they have problems with the script; there's a lengthy 'treatment' but only a few pages of a shooting script, so they begin production with the actors finding out what happens next on a need-to-know basis. No film could be made this way to day -- sequentially from the first scene to the last. Production costs determine the order of filming in all contemporary films; but here was a film that photographed in the order of the scenes (with the exception of post-production additional scenes). Bogart was involved in the script -- his first romantic lead role -- and some of the most memorable lines in this, the most quoted film in the history of cinema, are partly his. 'Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.' Great line, but Bogart changed 'cafes' in the original version to 'gin joints' in the shooting script. McKee could give you six hours on the backstory alone, but he just doesn't have time. So he takes you into the movie and shows you why it works, what it's really about (the perennial philosophical problem of being-versus-becoming, as it turns out), and makes an argument for and about the film as a storytelling classic and a screenwriting masterclass. At the end, when the lights go back on, you're left looking at McKee, standing at the front of the room, with the closing titles frozen in time behind him, and he says, 'This film is about the difference between love and romance. It's about the possibility -- the possibility -- that we can be ourselves and change at the same time. It's a meditation on time itself and what time means. Aristotle said time is a measure of change, and this movie is about changing in time, through time, while remaining the same person. That's a philosophical paradox and a moral dilemma. But Casablanca says it's possible. You can have both. That's what it means. And that's my wish for you: that you would have both.' With that, the seminar is over. McKee steps back a little, while the audience realises it's over. Then the applause begins. A standing ovation. And 250 people leave the lecture hall, each wondering, 'Now what?"

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