The Story Department

Given that I posted on Robert McKee recently, when I found out he was lecturing in my hometown I had to attend his seminar and see the original Story Analyst in action. For any writer, and for writer, read freelancer, £678 inc VAT is not a small sum, especially when compounded by the opportunity cost of lost work.  So to the key question: was it worth it? My answer is a resounding YES.

The title ‘Story Department’ relates to a sign on the door in the old Warners lot, not script dept, but story dept. Mr McKee tells us he is here to inform us what that means. And this is not a seminar it’s a lecture: we are receiving, he is imparting, and woe betide anyone who interrupts proceedings. I liked this. He regaled us with a tale of how he once dealt with someone talking in a cinema, (my own personal bugbear:  I pay £12 because I want the cinematic experience, not to hear about neighbour’s day as a recent neighbour in the Brixton Ritzy found out). In that vein McKee quickly dealt with latecomers, mobile phone users and any distracting behaviour including take out coffee. He himself runs on a heavy caffeine diet and for three days he was on his feet, except an hour for lunch, from Nine AM to Eight PM. Even that didn’t seem enough for what he had to say.

He very much followed his book ‘Story’, and while my well thumbed copy has at times in the past seemed indecipherable, with McKee on stage the curtain is lifted. I began to suspect that his analysis, and it is analysis, not doctrine or template (McKee ‘there are no rules only principles’) is best applied if you are already actively working on a script at the time of attending the lecture. I am, and it worked. Two hours into day one he told us to stop taking notes, ‘it’s in the book’, and write only where what he was saying applied to our own work. This worked for me and on our breaks, dashing out for sunlight and caffeine, my fellow students felt the same. The screenwriters and novelists (and there were a surprising number of those, ‘Story’ seems applicable to the novel too) working on something felt we were ‘getting it’, those not working on a project, did not.

And the audience demographic? Mostly writers, I didn’t meet any producers or directors; cosmopolitan; as many women as men; hugely international; many from Scandinavia – perhaps not surprising as the ‘Berserker’ writers of Scandi-Noir have laid waste to the British Thriller Genre (do they know something we Brits don’t?) – the lesson for their UK counterparts could be attend the Story Seminar. And the various screenwriting factions were represented: for the creationists of screenwriting, the Monomyths (disciples of Joseph Campbell et al) McKee made short work of their religion: ‘Why one story when there are hundreds of stories?’ I did not meet any of the screenwriting fundamentalists, the Cat Savers (disciples of Blake Snyder) though in this environment the idea that any event should occur on a specific page would have been heresy to McKee and his fast-growing group of converts. Perhaps they kept quiet.

McKee critiqued the current crisis of story, which concurs with my own feelings. In summary: from 1945 to 1965 European Cinema dominated the world. Peaking in the mid 1960s, the arrival of the French New Wave ‘Auteur’ concept destroyed modern European cinema and then Hollywood. I always thought this ironic since the French for director, ‘réalisateur’, seems to brilliantly define the role of the director. But as directors became the authors of their films, the writers’ role diminished to the point where we are today: ‘Star Wars’ 1-7, ‘Fast and Furious’ 1 – 8 and a film planned for every Marvel comic ever published.

McKee also tackled cliché: an idea that although good when initially used, when repeated, quickly becomes cliché. And this explained for me why I know longer feel the force. As a child I saw Star Wars 3 (now 6), and it was and continues to be the single most disappointing cinematic moment of my life. I left the cinema broken, thinking something in cosmos had gone badly wrong.  1 (now 3) wow!, then 2 (now 4), (SPOILER) Darth is Luke’s father and look what they did to Harrison Ford! 3. The teddy bears it turns out were a worrying foreshadowing of Jar Jar Binks but the Death Star? Again?!  Now I realise why, thanks to Robert McKee. It’s a cliché: First Death Star = great, the second Death Star = Cliché, the third Death Star! (yes it happened again in number 7) Yes it’s a Cliché, but it is more worrying than that. It means the writer on the film has no power. Whatsoever. All hail the auteur, and now I’m not even sure we are talking about the director here.

For McKee there is hope, as writers are stubborn and creative in equal parts. They didn’t die with western cinema they went long form. Personally I realised this in the first series of ‘The Wire’. After that, talking to some of my crew who had worked on the first ‘Game of Thrones’ they introduced me to the concept of the ‘Show Runner’. Now a glance over the credits of any box set will show that writers on these shows are also the producers on the show, producers run the show, hence the name. So the creator, author or auteur of long form TV drama is the writer / producer. They head the writing room, physical or metaphorical, a team of writers many of whom are also producers on the show, while the director is a hired gun shooting a couple of episodes. And I suspect the reason the writers rotate the directors so frequently is so the director never gets any ‘auteur’ ideas. New Wave now is not so much a wave as a ripple in stagnant pond. Though here I don’t completely agree with McKee, I think it’s a pendulum, writers will go back to film, not stay in TV, for the reason illustrated on the Sky TV Ad below that I saw in the tube recently. It is not sustainable for an audience to consume this volume of material, especially if, when it is weak, it relies on a single plot twist at the end of each episode. Here we are returning to another the cinematic stalwart, the short form cliffhanger, and that died a death many years ago :

In his final analysis McKee covered ‘Casablanca’. As we peered into the black and white trying to make out the subtext, McKee had converted me. Like all good gurus he is part-showman (it turns out he was an actor), part-raconteur, part-comedian, but above all it was the sheer encyclopaedic knowledge, the key quality for any guru, that won me over. Turns out the ‘Casablanca’ myth, that it was shot with no script, is not the whole truth: Jack Warner would not have done that. He upgraded his B movie, replacing Ronald Reagan with Humphrey Bogart because of the three hundred page treatment written by the Epstein twins. A script is easy, even one written on set, if you have that level of detail argues McKee, and his method encourages this. Three hundred pages, with no dialogue, to reduce to one hundred with dialogue? Sounds like an idea worth trying. 

So as Rik (SPOILER) put Isla and Laszlo on the plane and we felt the warmth of a beautiful friendship we became disciples of McKee, who with Casablanca summed up ‘Story’: give the audience what they want, but not the way they want it. 

I would like to watch better films, so I’m just putting this out there: McKee happens to be back in London in November. 

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