Robert McKee: Australia bound with wisdom, warnings and Story

30 March, 2011 by Ruby Lennon

If you are a screenwriter the likelihood that you have not heard the name Robert McKee is roughly on par with a high school student dodging Shakespeare in other words – it’s rare.

Since first conducting his Story seminar in 1984, the writing guru has watched his alumni grow to over 50,000 and amass an impressive haul of awards: 34 Oscars, 160+ Emmys, 21 Writer’s Guild of America Awards and various literary prizes – along with thousands of nominations.


“If prizes are a measure of success, my students have been very successful,” says McKee.

Another measure might be his influence – albeit an aberrant one – on the Kaufman-brother penned and Oscar-winning Adaptation (2002), which included one of Brian Cox’s most entertaining performances as McKee himself.

For those eager to experience the man in person, he will be returning to our shores this June for a seminar tour presented by Epiphany and Screen Australia.

Last week, the author of Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting spoke to IF about his approach, aims and why he has a job.

“For some reason, there is a belief in the world that writing can not be taught. And so that’s what I teach if you wanted to be a composer you’d go to music school and you’d learn music theory, and you go to my lectures to learn story theory.”

“Nobody ever teaches writers of the last decades how to sit down and ask the key question of a story and unravel it down to the core and build it back up again – since nobody teaches that I have a living,” he explains.

So, what does Robert McKee want from the future?

“To be told a story with insight I’ve never had before, laugh at something I’ve never thought funny before, and give me a satisfying experience at the closure.

"And I really don’t care what medium does that to me,” says McKee who started on the stage as a theatre actor, and spent some time as a stand-up comic.

Although he does not hesitate to commend his favourite screenwriters, including Ingmar Bergman, McKee has watched the US trend towards writer-controlled television happily: “What’s happened in the last ten, twenty years is that the best writers in Hollywood have left the film and moved over to television and created these great series.”

Among them are The Sopranos, Nurse Jackie, Six Feet Under and Damages – a series created by three of McKee’s students.

“If the cinema doesn’t take care of its self and tell great stories, some other medium will step forward and dominate. And that’s the way it is in this world, and the way it's always been: in the Elizabethan times is was the theatre; in the 19th century it was the novel; in the 20th century it was the cinema."

Any one who has read the first chapter of his book could tell you that sympathy is optional and empathy is mandatory, but it’s a principle that McKee extends to his observations of the film industry, including his thoughts on our own.

“Every time I come there [Australia] their heads are always down and they’re always complaining there’s not enough money and how hard it all is, and I know that’s true, I mean it’s true everywhere.”

Any advice?

“If it gets tough and you fold your tent, you’re a dilettante and never should have got into the business in the first place. It's difficult I don’t mean to pretend it isn’t. But there’s nothing that stops people from creating a great film cause all you need is a blank piece of paper and an imagination.”

As always with McKee, original writing is the key, the answer and his focus.

“You can not wait for people to create great stories for you to produce or direct or whatever, you have to take the burden on: collaborate with people, do whatever you can, but what makes a cinema industry thrive is brilliant original screenplays.

“If people love the cinema they have to fight to keep it alive, but from my point of view – I teach a course called story.”

Dates for Robert McKee’s Australian Seminar Tour 2011
Sydney: Story Seminar, 17–20 June
Melbourne: Thriller Seminar, 24 June; Comedy Seminar, 25 June;
Love Story Seminar, 26 June