Robert McKee — the “not-so-secret force” in Hollywood — was in Hyderabad to conduct his celebrated Story Seminar. For writers, particularly screenwriters, it was a not to be missed event to hear the guru and learn from him. But calling it a seminar would not be doing justice to an event that was extraordinary in its scope and depth. It was, not unlike the films that he analysed, one heck of an entertaining experience!
One that puts together his humungous knowledge of Hollywood and world cinema, the insights of a teacher, the passion of an evangelist, the charm and wit of a standup comic, the actor’s command of timing and dialogue delivery, and the salacious tidbits of an inveterate gossip! And like any good story, you laugh and learn, cringe and cry and come away feeling inspired and motivated.
According to McKee’s official profile: “About the only Hollywood notable not to have taken the Story Seminar is Steven Spielberg.” Spielberg’s loss rather than McKee’s! As McKee gleefully points out: “Spielberg has been using the ‘deus ex machina’ ever since Jurassic Park.” And in McKee’s lexicon, deus ex machina translates as the ultimate sin that any writer can commit! Continuing in his irreverent tone he lambasts Spielberg’s much-raved-about War Horse as a piece of work that “glorifies and romanticizes war”.
Here are some nuggets of advice from Hollywood’s premier screenwriting guru:
Write The Truth: That’s McKee’s exhortation to all writers. A writer’s goal must be to create a good story and tell it well. Cinema worldwide is facing a crisis and that, he says, is a result of writers who prefer to lie or hide behind facts instead of telling the Truth. And as he explains, facts are not the truth. Truth is the writer’s interpretation of the facts, one that he/she believes in and uses form, not formula, to create moments that are unforgettable, inspiring and universal. Writers who can do that are way above and beyond the competition. “Today, it’s a tsunami of shit!”
“Inception was like a video game…creating the rules of the world late into the movie. It’s complicated but not complex.” McKee explains that while “complicated” plots are the ones with extra-personal conflict at the heart of the story whereas complex ones are at the other end of the spectrum with conflict at the extra-personal, personal and inner levels.
The Character-Driven or Plot-Driven Debate is “nonsense”! Plot and Character are two sides of the same coin. And the reason why the argument continues is that writers can’t differentiate between characterization and true character. “Characterization is the sum total of her observable traits…” Attitudes, beliefs, behaviours that make them credible and unique. Characters are a result of “choices they make under pressure…they are who they really are under their mask of characterization”. As the story progresses, the goal is to “strip away the mask of characterization (and reveal) the heart and soul of the character”. Now, that puts to rest yet another raging debate: should characters have transformational arcs? When you peel off layers of characterization to reveal the real persona underneath, ‘transformation’ becomes redundant.
“Melodrama is the outcome of a character’s under-motivation. Or, a mismatch between the motivation and its expression or action.”
Writers, Take Pride in Your Work! The Writer is the Original Artist whereas the Director is the Interpretative Artist. If writers don’t write, films don’t get made, the industry shuts down! So, take pride in your work and believe that writers are the power that fuels the industry. Even the best directors in the world couldn’t rise beyond the script/material they had. “Alfred Hitchcock made a lot of bad films.” The difference was the script. While Vertigo made compelling viewing, his Family Plot was just a “bunch of cliches”.
“There is no Avant Garde cinema anymore. All we have is Retro Garde. They are imitating the Anti-Structure auteurs of the past and recycling tired works of the past.”
McKee believes that there is no “formula” to writing, only a “form”. Thus, there can be no rules but one: DON’T BORE THE PEOPLE! A rule that he NEVER breaks in his Story Seminar!
For more on McKee’s Commandments, here is an article that I wrote for The Hindu BusinessLine: