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The McKee Effect

30 Sep

McKee Seminar Badge










Oh to speak ill of the elder statesman of screenwriting and feel the venomous sting of the disciples of McKee. Everyone has their influences; mine being Billy Wilder, William Goldman, Paul Schrader and the like when it comes to movie biz writers, but the devotion of admirers for the author of the bestseller Story tends to rival a cult. His legend abounds beyond the industry, notoriety due to Brian Cox’s spot on portrayal of the master in the Charlie Kaufman penned Spike Jonze film Adaptation (what cracks me up is a few attendees I spoke with that weekend believed that McKee himself actually appeared in the film). Anyone who knows me knows like Groucho Marx “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.” So on the insistence of my good friend  producer Jil Hardin I attended the last New York  seminar after she could not stop talking about the Los Angeles congress and the effect it had on her take on story. Even with tickets at a premium McKee’s intensive four-day classes quickly sell out. The idea being by everyone  assembled, absorb the teachings of the great man, garner his take on script structure, substance and style in the annals of cinematic narrative referenced, get the goods before he decides to pack it in and not leave his Connecticut estate or spend time abroad as he is apt to indulge in his leisure. The entire gathering was treated as a can’t miss event by his followers. When attending with my business partner Eternal (a McKee acolyte) back in mid April I have to admit there was a curiosity on my part to see if I’d be immune to it all or get swept up like everyone else in the live presentation.

 The Master confided to the intimate turnout of say 500 plus that plans were underway to launch a university on writing, give credence to story and impart his doctrine as an academic (basically the online courses offered to subscribers on The body of those tutorials would be given over the span of a school year; a version of what McKee does in his sold out seminars being the basis of the curriculum. The student body acquires a full understanding of a form that can be applied in every medium, from film to stage to literature and at the same time get a degree. The guru promised this “writers university” was not far off and it would revolutionize how writing is taught.

A no filter presentation by this world-weary storyteller made for some lively sessions; spouting profanity, opinions and many a politically incorrect declarations for effect as he set down his principles that had the assembly buzzing. Given his worldview and personal triumphs he imparted extensive examples from a wide array of films along with the fundamentals of screenwriting. In the stands around me performers, playwrights, actors, stand up comics, directors, aspiring wannabees completely engrossed in his talk show anecdotes and contumely manner as they blindly scribbled notes. Mac couldn’t help but go on about the quality programming on cable; shows like Mad Men, Nurse Betty, Vikings and The Sopranos to name a few that have ushered in the new golden era of television. Editorializing and coming off like a grizzled newspaper writer, praise heaped on Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan and crew lauded to the hem of the heavens deservedly by someone who has influenced the best there is working today.

I spoke to several in attendance and saw how the McKee effect washed over participants from as far as Finland and Australia and by the last day I too was awash in his McKeeness. The celebrated writing instructor paced back and forth drinking water, diet soda and some green health concoction; part evangelist other bits bigtop ringmaster up there on stage, I admired his intellect and observations with each passing day. Under the impression that like a motivational speaker he would give the secret on how to get your script past the Philistines guarding the gates to fame and success in Hollywood, to my surprise and others chagrin he focused on how to get it right and be an artist who masters story. A seminar that’s a kick in the pants to the fledgling scribes (which there were quite a few) and a wake up call to the writers with a little experience under their belt maneuvering the word biz that’s the backbone of showbiz. The fact of the matter is there are steps to this game; it’s a process that takes years to achieve. You don’t just put that one script out there and its snatched up and sold and you’re set. The best writers are in their 30s and 40s and have paid their dues and that leads to rewards.

McKee The Quest


He made sure to pound home the fact  that as a writer you should not be satisfied with a few drafts, that those are the most pat and cliché paths one can take in creating unique work, that you should explore countless options until  you have exhausted every possible idea or scenario for your can’t miss script. What rang true to me in particular was a striking account by him about an encounter with the late great Paddy Chayefsky, writer of such signature scripts as Network and The Hospital brooding over still not getting a scene right after completing forty drafts, hearing that made me seem like a lazy writer. The assumption being that there is some so-called formula when trends seem to define a particular genre before the next thing comes along, by example McKee teaches that good writing has no shelf life. I’d read Story years ago but it was like having Dickens go over Great Expectations line for line as McKee plowed through his text and embellish; that made the four-day writers boot camp worthwhile to me. The priceless insight on structure, pacing, dramatic turns, exposition and conflict resolution, Robert McKee puts in place a system, it’s all about gathering a plan of attack before even beginning your draft.

“Stop boring people with your mediocre writing!” A direct quote from Bob himself.

A serious thinker this guy –that goes without saying– a particular analysis of Chinatown had me go back and look at a film I’ve seen umpteen times for obvious reasons, after gaining new insight from McKee I plowed through Robert Towne’s seminal script to confirm these finding were in fact on the page. His sagness disjointed my thought process emphasizing the obvious, how drama can be driven and sustained without being bogged down tedious exposition.

Performing an autopsy on Casablanca on the final day and  he revealed how functional a script that time-honored film has. The execution of classic narrative tropes fit like pieces of an elaborate puzzle laid out in the talks over those few days from inciting incident to the third act as our protagonists concludes their quest. No matter what you take away from the entire proceedings or what you latch onto that will forward your writing there is no secret formula, he couldn’t stress that more. What McKee does is provide rules for the playing field you’ve stepped onto, a business that shows no mercy to newbies, industry staples or insider alike. And for whatever reason you decided to take a stab at an industry that goes through writers like a drunk doing $3 shots during happy hour and make this luck-of-the-dice game your stated vocation. At least these talks gives you the tools to get the job done. Your level of success is entirely up to you but the Story sage implored everyone in attendance to put in the work, and then some and “write the truth”.