On Robert McKee Story Seminar

I can’t believe it’s already been two full weeks since I completed the Story Seminar.  After an extra day off in L.A., and flying home, it was right back into the daily grind of work and home duties.  I knew I should have just written a post while I was still there!  Still, the time has given me time to reflect and decide which thoughts to share, from the four days.

As an amateur, I wasn’t sure I should be spending this much on a set of talks on screenwriting.  I had investigated less expensive options, through local community school and Seattle Film school offerings, and investigated other traveling pro-workshops that might be passing through the Pacific Northwest.  But then, as I was trying to at least read books I hadn’t read yet, and re-read books I knew were valuable, to focus my rewriting efforts, I found, in one book, the mention of McKee’s seminar as a must-do.  Honestly, even then, if it were anywhere but my favorite place in the world – L.A., specifically near Manhattan Beach – I might have still waited.  But I’m so glad I didn’t.

The McKee Story Seminar isn’t just a seminar on screenwriting, or even ‘just’ writing – it’s a seminar on life.  Now, one key lesson was that movies are Not life, and this fact is what brings people to see movies.  But by learning about how events change the charges of our personal values, how we make adjustments to gaps between expectations and reality, that we realize in our maturity the difference between character and characterization, and then, in the ultimate lesson, learned by analyzing Casablanca (sorry, I won’t give away that one, as the journey of learning it is more important than the final lesson), through the course of four days, it is hard to just consider the characters on your pages and in your minds. You also find yourself considering, well, yourself, in your own life movie.  One evening Mr. McKee passed me while I was eating dinner, and I wanted to stop him and ask – “Does the tuition include the cost of therapy?”

It is rare in my life that looking under the hood, or behind the curtain, of something I truly love does not ruin or degrade that love.  Such as my brief student internship at NASA in the late 80s.  I expected everything to be modern and advanced, to be space-age-like.  Instead, it seemed to be an organization stuck in the 50s, in personnel and their wardrobes, office technology and practices.  The workers that had been around seemed beaten down by bureaucracy. But, unlike that experience, learning about what makes movies work, made me love movies even more.  I will not watch another movie or television program without seeing them in a whole new way, and I am happy about that – not sad.  In fact, by the end of the third day, I no longer felt bad for liking commercial movies, and I found a new appreciation for genres that I haven’t really liked up until now.

I do not think it would be appropriate for me to summarize here all of the key lessons, as you should buy the book or attend the seminar if that’s what you want.  It’s not that I don’t have details – I took 60 single-sided pages of notes.  But, I do think I can share what I liked and didn’t care for.

The days are indeed long, with 8 hours of talks worked into a 10 hour daily schedule.  It’s a grind, for sure, but for me that was a good thing.  Total immersion was effective.  And managing a few days together was logistically easier than, say, 16 2-hour sessions over as many weeks.  Part of what made the seminar wonderful was that the full seminar – all 32 hours – is, itself, scripted.  And, after thirty years of doing this seminar, it was certainly well rehearsed.  While at times you felt like your class was unique, with McKee going off on little tangents about current events, society or a particular scene in a recent film, most of the time you could see the class progressing through the curriculum as designed, complete with deliberate mannerisms and delivery of punch lines.  On the down side, movements you thought were natural and charming day one were a bit annoyingly predictable by day four. (For me this was also true of the tangents, which students were fairly warned of in the handout at start of class, which usually consisted of extreme opinions, and often not politically correct ways.  Some I agreed with, some I did not, and some I simply wrote off to generational gap.) Ultimately, the scripted nature assured that you covered all of the material. And, with clear, if rigid, rules about participating in the seminar, you know your time and investment is respected and that b.s. on the part of your cohort won’t be tolerated.

This was true of even the final day, mostly spent bonding with 230 other people, through an analysis of Casablanca and a champagne toast in its honor.  This was a great finale – a bittersweet one.  On one hand you are done being in that classroom, on the other, you feel like you could listen four more, even eight more days, trying to sponge more knowledge from McKee. You scoop up various books  and media for sale (which I will review here in the future), hoping to take a piece of McKee home with you (I don’t, by the way, recommend the topic DVDs; was surprised at the age and brevity of the content on the one I purchased). You can see why Storylogue was created and if you didn’t think you would subscribe before class, you are probably convinced you must by class end.

In the end you leave feeling like you witnessed your own little piece of history and that you graduated into a very special part of the film industry – you are a McKee student.

– April

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