Mar 28 2009

The McKee Story Seminar

Published by at 22:17 under News,Writing

I spent last weekend at the Robert McKee Story Seminar here in New York City. You may recall that I wanted to do this seminar in Los Angeles last September, but the offshoring bastards I worked for had other plans – in that they layed me off making the whole expense somewhat fiscally unwise, and even though I found new employment in good time, I had no paid days off to attend. An interesting note is that my original flight to L.A. was cancelled becauase of weather, which means I would have missed most of the first day of the seminar anyway.

What I present here is a report card of my experience at the seminar as compared to my experience without it. I think that – unlike most others of this genre – McKee actually has something of value to sell, and I won’t attempt to detract from his business. He deserves his success – he is teaching something of worth. There is scant information on the seminar itself – and I offer this report in hopes of giving information to those who are wondering whether the seminar is worth the three days and the cost of admission.

The first thing you should know about the seminar is that it is three twelve-hour days, broken into five two-hour sessions per day, separated by four 15-minute breaks and a one-hour lunch.  The second thing is that the seminar is actually a three-day one-man play. I say this because if you’ve read McKee’s book Story, you can follow along almost word-for-word. In fact, McKee didn’t actually write the book per se, but had his seminar recorded and transcribed, and he then edited that into the book. I’m not saying anything against McKee for this – I’m only saying that if you read the book then you have been to the seminar with just a couple of exceptions. If you couple a good reading of the Story book with the Story audio book, then you will indeed have been to most of the seminar without the $545 price tag and all the profanity. On that note, if you don’t mind a little manual labor, you can apply for a volunteer position and get the “repeater” price of $350 for the seminar, but you have to arrive early, stay a little late, and help with gofer duties – like running to the local Starbucks to get Mr. McKee his coffee – black.

The first thing you get by actually attending the seminar is McKee’s presense – which is pretentious, arrogant, opiniated – I can say in all truthfulness that he is a true bastard. His pitch is polished, practiced, and so well timed that he actually takes a sip of his coffee when he expects you to laugh. That is, he knows when you’re going to laugh because countless audiences before you did at that exact spot in the pitch. You are not allowed to ask questions or interrupt him in any way during the lecture. If your phone goes off – or any kind of an alarm – he demands a $10 fine (he did, in fact, take $10 off me as the sole violator during the entire seminar.)  You can ask him quesions during the break but they must be partaining to the lecture material. “Do not try to interview me or engage me in a conversation. Do not try to impress me.” I witnessed him dressing down people who attempted to violate these rules. In one instance, during one his frequent segues – this one about how most mass murderes in history did so becuase they felt they had a mandate from God, and was being particularly harsh on Christians in general and Catholics in particular (he is a “recovering” Catholic and an athiest) – that someone shouted out “What about Stalin!” to which he replied “I was getting to that – and if you interrupt me again I’ll throw you out. Fair enough?”

To be fair – this was not McKee’s best weekend. He had slipped a disc in his back playing golf and was in extreme pain, and treating it with Vicodin. To his credit he chose to do the seminar anyway rather than disappoint everyone. It was morbidly funny that once the drugs started to take affect, that he would slip in to a “stoned” manner – saying things like “I tell you, mannn, this really sucks!” through a big grin. He did the entire seminar sitting down which he says takes a lot of energy out of the speeches.  He ate his lunch in his chair on stage. He had to be wheeled to the bathroom in a wheelchair.  He was not comfortable, so I will give him credit for not only going through all that, but to also attribute much of his irritability to his condition. But, after talking long with the event coordinator (I was a volunteer, you see) he was telling me that he wasn’t too far off his game.

The second thing you will get in the seminar is the play-by-play of Casablanca, although I will tell you that most of it is in the book. You do get a lot of history on the film as he stops the DVD replay, and is able to point out various techniques used in the film – the inciting incidents of each of the sub-plots and main plot, the turning points of scenes, the imaging systems, the climaxes of the plots, and tons of other information that could take up a whole book by itself (The Making of Casablanca : Bogart, Bergman, and World War II for instance.) The point here is that McKee’s insight is not all that insightful, and can be had from plenty of other sources,  so if you miss out on McKee’s rendition you’re not missing much. Except the finale.

The very last thing of the seminar must be witnessed to appreciate. McKee performs a recitation of his grand speech, beginning with the iconic song As Time Goes By – which he sings – and how he is certain that the writers actually used the lyrics of the song as a subtext for the entire story, and how that reflects the history of the human condition, and how philosophers throughout human history have debated the great question of human development. McKee then gives his opinion that they’re all correct – and that Rick (Bogart) in the great delima of Casablanca where Rick musts choose between the woman he loves and fighting for a cause – he chooses both. And that he hopes all of us can choose both, and to quote McKee “blah, blah blah, blah blah.” Don’t take that to mean that it was not a good speech – it was very good – and that ended the weekend.

What you will not get at the seminar is a forceful, imposing delivery akin to Biran Cox’s performance in Adaptation – although the lines do appear in his speech.

The bottom line – McKee knows what he’s talking about with regards to story structure. He does not give a formula for success, but he does pull apart and explain why good stories work and bad stories don’t – delivered firmly with the caveat that it’s up to you. You will not learn how to “write a script that sells!” or how to play Hollywood politics or how to get published. That’s not his job. He will teach you all the components that make up a good story – and although the emphasis is on screen writing – it is directly useful for all story telling medium.

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