Students at Regent’s University London were recently lucky enough to attend the fascinating and informative Story Seminar with world renowned screenwriter, Robert McKee.
McKee, a Fulbright Scholar, is the most sought-after screenwriting lecturer around the globe. He has dedicated the last 30 years to educating and mentoring screenwriters, novelists, playwrights, poets, documentary makers, producers, and directors internationally.
This year’s inaugural recipient of the Robert McKee International Screenwriting Scholarship at Regent’s, Luis Garcia, attended the seminar and said, "For a young screenwriter, there are few things more inspiring than sitting in an intimate classroom with Robert McKee, as he offers some of the profound insights that have made him an industry legend.
“From his encyclopaedic knowledge of the form; to his comprehensive analysis of craft, talking Story on a personal level with Robert McKee is an opportunity you'll only find at Regent's University London."
McKee discussed how dialogue is for the page, stage and screen, believing that divisions for writers between writing for the page, writing for the novel, writing for the theatre, and writing for film and television are extremely artificial. He told students these can all be used across different platforms and “there is no reason to think that any other medium of storytelling is outside of your reach,” adding that they can and should move from one to another, “as what really matters is what fascinates you as a writer”.
Still exploring the various platforms, McKee discussed how the nature of the novel is the dramatisation of inner conflict; the nature of the theatre is the dramatisation of personal conflicts, and the nature of the cinema is the dramatisation of extra-personal conflict with societies and the physical book, stating “all three mediums can do all three, but each one has a natural strength at one of those three levels”.
“A really great filmmaker, knowing that the power of the novel is the natural home for inner conflict, makes movies about inner conflict,” says McKee. “The power of the novel creates a vision of the physical and social world and everything in between. All three co-exist, but really courageous artists tend to go against the grain,” he said, telling students that “when you see the possibilities of each, you have to decide which is your natural home and write where you feel comfortable and what excites you.”
McKee’s former students include over 60 Academy Award winners, 200 Academy Award nominees, 200 Emmy Award winners, 1000 Emmy Award nominees, 100 WGA (Writers Guild of America) Award winners, 250 WGA Award nominees, 50 DGA (Directors Guild of America) Award winners and 100 DGA Award nominees.
Speaking with a third-year student who came from an acting background, McKee added that acting is possibly “the best preparation to be a writer,” advising students to take acting classes, scene study and improvisation, as “a writer is an improviser acting”. Describing Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Shakespeare as actors, McKee suggested that having acting as a preparation to write, or as an augmentation of your writing, is invaluable and if you can do it, do it, adding that it would be a “serious asset to overcoming writer’s block”.
Discussing philosophy in relation to writing, McKee told students how they needed to think, in some way, like a philosopher: “If you don’t have a sense of the truth of life that’s inherent in what you are writing, then you write things that are trivial…they won’t mean much”.
Lucia Debernardini, a student on the Film & Media Studies course added: "In the one hour we spoke with Robert McKee, I learned so much and took a lot of notes about his main ideas regarding storytelling, and being able to share our own backgrounds with him made it feel more personal".
Discussing social drama with a student, McKee declared that the notion of stories identifying a problem in society, dramatising the solution to that problem and thinking they will change the world is foolish. He professed that leading with the social premise as your storyline will make it difficult to go beyond that, as the writer will be of the opinion that simply exposing that social problem in film is worthy enough as it is.
McKee advised students that it’s important to take a subject matter that interests you but to ask yourself, if you took the problem away from the character, would it still be a wonderful story? “All stories that start with a social premise need a story so powerful that if you took that premise away it would still be a wonderful film,” he stated, and if that is the case, then you can decide whether or not you need the social premise and subsequently find the balance.
Believing dialogue should be the last step of screenwriting as it can destroy the creativity within a story, McKee suggested that you should try to write every single scene without a word of dialogue. Working from the inside out, the characters should live in the writer’s imagination and grow specific voices so that when they do speak, they don’t all sound like each other, or the writer. He added, “the danger of all of this is that if you write the dialogue first, there will be no subtext”. Recognising that everybody’s processes are different, in his opinion, McKee believes rushing to dialogue tends to be a mistake, unless you want to be a playwright.
McKee ended the seminar talking about how life has no intrinsic meaning. Every human being has to figure out what gets them up in the morning and then devote themselves to that purpose authentically. He believes that to help figure out what your purpose is, humanity invented the four wisdoms of philosophy, theology, science and art.
For years, McKee proposes, people would find a meaning to life by putting philosophy together with theology, science and art. These would merge in educated human beings giving their life a sense of purpose. Today, says McKee, “they go to the movies” for their answers.
“A story makes sense out of life,” he continued, as each story makes a point about life “either truthfully or falsely, beautifully or badly - it either adds or subtracts to civilisation”.
“What Regent’s is doing and the quality of the people I see here inspires me…and I want to encourage you all to pursue that dream.”