Robert McKee

I attended Robert McKee’s Story seminar quite a few years ago and wrote the following article based on my impressions a few days later. I stumbled across the article in my files recently after not reading it since first typing it out. It’s a little unrefined, but I still like the premise.

Robert McKee may be the most dangerous man in the world.

In The Republic, Plato suggests that the path to an ordered society involves eliminating artists, as their work is “thrice removed from truth” and thus misleading. You might say he was suggesting we kill all the artists because they’re the ones who give us new ideas.

Who is more powerful than the artist? Perhaps the person who teaches all the artists …

In his lectures Mr. McKee constantly reinforces his teaching with rants and diatribes about politics, religion, art and love. During the first two days and the morning of the third, he portrays himself as an anarchist and atheist. He emphasizes his opinions with a fierce sense of humour. He also delivers his opinions with the skill and passion of a master actor, director, and writer. At the close of the final day, following a 6.5 hour scene-by-scene analysis of Casablanca, one of the most emotional movies of all time, he concludes his grand manipulation. After 2 and a half days of instruction reinforced by witty but usually offensive rants, he does an about-face worthy of its own screenplay. He reveals the depth of his study of human nature in a speech on the nature of humanity. “Being” vs. “Becoming”; static vs. constant change; love vs. romance. He shows how Rick has become the most moving character in cinema because he found out how to achieve both states. He sings “As Time Goes By”, the most important song in the movie. Women cry, men shift uncomfortably in their seats. In the final moments of the seminar, McKee reveals himself to be romantic at heart, reversing the expectations developed over a weekend of cursing and crotchetiness.

Now, on the surface, this is just the mark of a master storyteller. He patiently and masterfully builds up expectation so that when he reverses them, the revelation is powerful and shocking. Other great speakers have been known to do this too. The critical difference isn’t in what he does, or how he does it; it’s both, combined with who he’s doing it to.

The seminar I attended had a total attendance of about 150 people. I would venture a guess that this is slightly smaller than average but, for the sake of calculation, let’s assume that 150 is the number. If he teaches 1 course per month, 12 months per year, 150 students per course, that comes to 1800 writers per year that he has this powerful and personal contact with. Of those 1800 writers, it is likely that only a few will become successful. Again for the sake of easy calculation, let’s assume the number is 1%. 1800 writers per year, 18 of them successful, are taught McKee’s potent and effective techniques for crafting beautiful and touching stories. As they intently focus on driving his principles into their brains, each and every one of those writers unconsciously absorbs the political, spiritual, and artistic ideals that McKee rants about.

Now hold on, you might say; can you really expect me to believe that these intelligent, thoughtful, and usually sceptical if not cynical writers will believe everything he says?

“Not remotely,” I reply, “every person in that room disagreed with some, if not most, of the ideas expressed during the lecture.”

What’s the point then?

By creating such a powerful “turning point,” to use a McKee expression, he catapults himself from disagreeable to loved in a brief and incredibly potent way. In so doing, he puts an immensely positive spin on every single word he said during the entire weekend. Each of those words is irretrievably linked with that positive image. Consciously or unconsciously, every writer in the room leaves the building with Robert McKee driven into their brains. Every single work we produce will be influenced not only by his techniques, but by his opinions.

Robert McKee is cloning himself.

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