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The write stuff: Robert McKee

10 Nov


Robert McKee is often accused of ruining cinema. That’s because, more than anyone, he popularised the notion of three-act structures, turning points, inciting incidents and all the beats in between that rake in so many £250 cheques at screenwriting courses on both sides of the Atlantic.

Here’s what McKee had to say about that at the Barbican today. “You’ve heard people talk of the ‘tyranny of the three-act structure’. What the f*** is that? Was Tennessee Williams a tyrant? These things are said by people with their heads so far up their asses they need endos in their stomachs to see where they’re going.

“Yes, there is a crisis [in film]. But it’s not a crisis of form. We know how to tell stories, we’re getting really good at it; right now I see a resurrection in the skill and craft of storytelling. This is a crisis of content. Films are being made by people who have nothing to f***ing say! They think it’s all a game, a technique, just marketing.”

Over a tour-de-force two hours, McKee took the audience of 250 right back to first principles. This was not the “how” of story-telling. This was the “why”.

He went back to the Greek philosophers, and their key question: why and how should we live our life? And he examined, one by one, where in the 21st century you might find the answer:

* Philosophy: “Yeah, but who today reads Kant or Spinoza?”

* Science: “In the 19th century, people thought science was the answer, it would cure everything. We realise now that science has utterly failed us. Cellphones are toxic, the internet and Tweeting have almost eliminated human relations, emails are a Tower of Babel.”

* Religion: “For many of us it’s an evangelical joke. The worst things humans do are in the name of God.”

* Art: “So where the hell do people go to answer Aristotle’s great question about how to lead your life? They go to the movies! The most civilising of all arts is story. Music, art, dance create feeling, but story is, as Kenneth Burke said, ‘equipment for living’. Stories are metaphors for life. Each and every one of you [who writes scripts] is a life poet. You create a metaphor that express a meaningful, emotional truth about what it is to be a human being.”

I’ve been to a lot of scriptwriting courses and seminars, but this was the most inspiring. Simply put: find your voice; write what matters.

Amen to that.