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Advice for the aspiring: 'Write the truth'

A dramatic weekend with screenwriting instructor Robert McKee

By Todd Leopold

Robert McKee
When Robert McKee really liked a film, he would mention it was "worth a rent." So here's a partial list of Robert McKee-recommended movies:

  • "Chinatown" (1974)
  • "Diabolique" (1955)
  • "A Fish Called Wanda" (1988)
  • "In the Realm of the Senses" (1976)
  • "Love Serenade" (1996)
  • "Leaving Las Vegas" (1995)
  • "Mrs. Soffel" (1984)
  • "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring" (2003)
  • "Tender Mercies" (1983)
  • "Young Frankenstein" (1974)
    Robert McKee
    Humphrey Bogart
    Ingrid Bergman

    ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Robert McKee paced. Robert McKee cajoled. Robert McKee dismissed. Robert McKee joked. Robert McKee harangued. Robert McKee pontificated. Robert McKee philosophized.

    Robert McKee would make a dandy character in a movie.

    Of course, Robert McKee has already been a character in a movie -- "Adaptation," in which Brian Cox portrayed the screenwriting coach.

    But "Adaptation" featured a "McKee" -- a sharp-tongued, gruff adversary to the Charlie Kaufman character -- who represented only a fragment of the real thing. The living, breathing McKee can be sharp-tongued and gruff, but he's also thoughtful and funny as he guides students through his Robert McKee Story Seminar.

    The seminar was in Atlanta last weekend, and about 150 would-be, sometime or professional writers gathered in a large hotel auditorium for the three-day class. Many had traveled from all over the Southeast. It was a relatively young crowd -- most people seemed under 40 -- and men outnumbered women by about 2-to-1.

    We would sit there for almost 12 hours each day, from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and listen to a man Vanity Fair recently called "Hollywood's most sought-after screenwriting instructor."

    'I will not patronize you'

    McKee walked in unobtrusively, just past 9 a.m. Friday.

    The instructor -- who looks more like "Barney Miller's" James Gregory or "The West Wing's" John Spencer than Cox -- laid down the law immediately: The schedule would be "arduous," he said, with three 15-minute breaks and a one-hour lunch break over the course of each daily session. No questions from the audience during class, only at breaks. A cell phone ring or computer ding would be a $10 fine from the offending party, payable immediately.

    "I will not be interrupted," he said. As if on cue, a cell phone went off. McKee was not happy.

    He was also not happy with the state of screenwriting -- or fiction writing in general. "It's a worldwide, cross-media crisis," he said. He went off on politically correct language, sloppy structure, shallow characters and lazy work habits (and, over the course of the weekend, President Bush, the British Empire, the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, "American self-deception," car pools, Wonder bread and the lack of meaning in modern life).

    "I will not patronize you by telling you that writing isn't the hardest godd--n thing on Earth," he said. "You're in over your heads."

    He was intimidating, infuriating and impatient, particularly when his probing style elicited dull stares. (He referred to one of those occasions as a "Socratic nightmare.")

    But he also had a tremendous sense of timing -- riffing with George Carlin-esque ease -- and a golden sense of humor. He sat, paced, walked on his stage, occasionally sketching his point on an overhead-projector transparency (an overhead projector!) and exhorted us to dig deep within ourselves and the characters and stories we would create, to find the truth of our tales and our people.

    I loved it.

    A fight for love and glory

  • "Authors are people who know things."
  • "We are losing the war on cliches."
  • "There is no necessary contradiction between commercial success and art."
  • "Stories say how and why life changes for better or for worse."
  • "Human beings are capable of anything."
  • "[A writer has] one responsibility: Tell the truth."
  • Because at the heart of McKee's writing philosophy -- what I gathered, anyway -- is humanity. That's refreshing in a world of video-game movies and paint-by-numbers spectacle.

    McKee's lectures combined dramaturgy, philosophy, emphasis on classical roots and writing nuts and bolts, some of which is (I hope) likely familiar to any college sophomore. He offered step-by-step advice about constructing a script from the inside out and the outside in, advice that's rigorous and helpful, but not necessarily -- and he'd likely be the first to admit it -- groundbreaking: Do research. Plan your story and characters in detail. Write dialogue last. Rewrite and rewrite again.

    But what made it fresh -- what made it inspiring -- was the way it was woven together, a Robert McKee Theory of Story.

    McKee was half Howard Beale, profanely railing against the decline of civilization, but he was also half cockeyed optimist, convinced that a good story can make a difference and resonate in the hearts and souls of human beings.

    The class concluded with a six-hour analysis of "Casablanca." Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine, McKee pointed out, begins the movie at a low ebb, long since abandoned by Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa Lund, grimly adrift in the chaotic North African seaport. By the film's end, he's rediscovered "love and glory" (as mentioned in "As Time Goes By") and is re-energized.

    "Casablanca," a beloved film for more than 60 years, still rings true. It's a story about faith in human beings, and McKee knows its power.

    Throughout the weekend, the instructor signed copies of his book, "Story." "Write the truth," McKee inscribed, over and over.

    May it be so for all of us.

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