Neil Coppen flies into London to attend a screenwriting Seminar by one the world’s most revered and feared mentor’s -Robert MacKee.
In a lecture hall in down town London, I take my seat in room full of fidgeting writers. Together we wait for ‘the man’ to step forth and expound his infinite wisdoms. At 9 am, the man, in question, takes his place centre stage. He sips nonchalantly from a steaming cuppa coffee, his trademark caterpillar eye brows scowling into the stage lights. Standing before us, looking suitably unimpressed is the godfather of screenwriting. A formidable and imposing legend, who, in his sardonic New York drawl, kicks off his three day Seminar by proclaiming ‘Writing a screenplay is not brain surgery or rocket science, its harder! Writing is the hardest and loneliest profession you will ever know.’
The man, Robert MacKee, seems to know what he’s talking about. To date MacKee’s former students have won 17 Oscars, 20 golden globes, 11 writers guild of America Awards and 91 Emmies. With sell out tours across the globe: Hollywood, New York, London and Rome and a bestselling screenwriting bible ‘Story’ under his belt. Robert MacKee is the guru most turn to in their time of creative need.
It’s a well known fact that when MacKee talks, Hollywood listens. Just glance across his book sleeve, peppered with luminous quotes from past students: Akiva Goldsmith (A beautiful mind), Peter Jackson, John Cleese and Jane Campion to name but a few (In fact it is said that the only notable person in Hollywood to have not yet attended the seminar is a certain Mr Spielberg)
MacKee however remains aware that ninety percent of his audience are not necessarily writers by profession, nor will they ever be. Rather dabblers, aspirants, avid cinema goers like myself, mobilized into writing by their frequent and mostly unfulfilling outings to the cinema. People who believe themselves to be in the rare possession of an idea that might transform the face of film making. How difficult could it be? Everyone has a story worth telling. Right? Wrong!
Cut to: a few years later. Close up: on desk of overflowing ashtrays, empty bottles. The disheveled writer slumped over a hundred unsalvageable drafts, each as unsuccessful and incoherent as the last. The indifferent blink of a lap top cursor failing to collaborate, let alone assist in unearthing the writer’s alleged genius.
At this point many might do as Nicholas Cage’s struggling writer character did in Charlie Kaufman’s film ‘Adaptation’- cough up the hefty sum (360 pounds in this case), to attend a screenwriting boot camp by the revered- Mr MacKee.
In Kaufman’s film, MacKee was portrayed by a suitably gruff and tyrannical Bryan Cox but after attending the three day seminar it would be fair to say the man is more deserving of a one man epic then a mere cameo. A masterful and compelling story teller in his own right, MacKee not only offers valuable insight into the elusive art of screenwriting but somehow manages to include an enlightening and comprehensive post mortem on pretty much everything that’s wrong with humanity and the world today.
So engrossing are his methods, so imposing his stature and delivery, that it’s no wonder the man has gone on to become the most celebrated and feared Screenwriting lecturer working in the world today . From his opening spiel, where he lays down the MacKee law, its clear how things are going to proceed: ‘There will be three fifteen minute breaks and a one hour lunch break over the course of each daily session. During the course of each day I ask that you don’t correct me, don’t correct my pronunciation and don’t interrupt me. If a cell phone goes off or a lap top pings it’s a ten dollar fine. If you happen to have a problem with my profanity, then there’s the fucking door.’
The room hangs on his every world. We sit scribbling in note pads , nodding like an obsequious bunch of school kids in the presence of their most feared Principal. Over the next three days, from 9 am to 8:30pm there will much scribbling and nodding, perched on the edge of our seats as the bullish Guru paces the stage, only ever pausing to refuel his bottomless mug. As with an immaculately structured screenplay, MacKee uses every minute of his Seminar to enthrall, provoke, impress and depress the audience of sometime and would be writers. Never once stooping to nurture the room’s collective insecurities, the writer’s famed and fragile ego. ‘I will not Patronize you,’ he reiterates ‘I can’t turn you into a writer, and while I may be a script doctor I can’t resurrect the dead’.
He’s brutally frank in pointing out, that out of the two hundred or so writers attending the seminar, it’s unlikely any will ever see their scripts enter the green lit phase. ‘Everyone thinks they can write,’ he cautions “that they have a story worth telling, that’s why there’s no smog in L.A, only the stench of rotting screenplays.’
The first day of the course proceeds with little interruption until an audience member, seduced by her teacher’s conversational charm, attempts to hijack one of his punch lines. This proves to be a fatal error. A silence ensues as he eye balls the culprit, a single accusatory brow arched. ‘Listen lady’ MacKee barks ‘This is my show, best leave the schtick to me’ He lets the silence linger, fixes his gaze on her for what feels like minutes. The audience fidgets nervously while the offender shrinks into the upholstery.
MacKee is no stranger to conflict in fact he embraces it as one of the Screen Writer’s most valuable tools. “If all human beings got everything out of life,’ he explains ‘then we would be no more interesting then a shrub. It’s the negative forces that allow people to prosper. ‘Conflict’ is to story what sound is to music. The conflict quantity in life is constant, it’s the quality that changes. The only way to live…. is in perpetual conflict.’
Wielding a barbarous and unpredictable wit, Mackee is able to transform his audiences’ giggles just as easily to horrified gasps. ‘You British I love you.’ he says in a rare moment of endearment ‘You fucked up this planet but I love you. You ripped the skins off every black, yellow and brown race that walked the face of this earth, but I love you…. you do great parades.”
It is with this type of irreverence, that he veers off on seemingly unrelated tangents. Debating the lack of meaning in modern life, satirizing everything from the Bush administration to the British empire. This is how a conversation on arch plot, mini plot and anti plot evolves into a pro abortion rant, and an analysis on story substance, structure and style merges into a bleakly funny investigation on deviant sexuality. ‘Ya know’ he smirks ’seventy percent of people who work in morgues in the USA have some sort of affiliation with necrophilia. It’s enough to make you not want to die. It’s enough to make you want to cremate your arse before any one decides to use it.’
It’s this ‘dark side’,MacKee deems crucial to the art of writing and something he elaborates further in his book. ‘A good writer has to have a love of humanity, a willingness to empathize with suffering souls, to crawl inside their skins, see the world through their eyes. Writers need to deal with their own inner lunatic.’ he says, in-between recalling a failed suicide attempt, his various brushes with insanity. ‘It’s a miracle I never hurt anybody, I was certifiable.’
Understandably MacKee is less than enthused by the current state of story telling, labeling it ‘a worldwide cross-media crises.’ Much of his seminar is devoted to raging against the film making sausage factory. Hollywood, while certainly a culprit is not solely to blame. “In France the smaller their audience is,’ he huffs ‘the better the film …If the film is empty and even the projectionist has walked out, then it’s declared a masterpiece.’
He goes on to dismiss the Indie movement as a “A load of Sundance wank’ and rolls his eyes at the current spate of story telling ‘gimmicks’ and ‘mind fuck’ endings creeping into the craft -M .Night Shyamalan of ‘The Sixth Sense’ fame would you please stand up.
When requiring film fodder to illustrate his theory on story been sacrificed at the expense of spectacle, MacKee turns his scalpel to ‘The English Patient’ and ‘Titanic’ ,dismissing them both as suck awful films. ‘If I had to watch another bi plane fly over a dessert in ‘The English Patient’, I would have set myself on fire’. As for Titanic, ‘Titanic,’ he groans ‘they should have just hung signs round the actors’ necks’ , saying ‘poor rich girl’, ‘abusive fiancé’, ‘oppressive mother’.”
As if attacking two of the world’s most beloved modern classics wasn’t enough, he proceeds to take liberal swipes at the two bastions of American cinema. Here Martin Scorsese is referred to as a sloppy and self indulgent story teller while Orson Welles masterpiece ‘Citizen Cane’ is shrugged off as an over produced, over bloated, hollow at the heart, empty exercise in film making. Refreshingly, there are no sacred cows in MacKee land. Popular opinion, or more often then not mediocrity, is clearly a tide worth scrutinizing. This is not to say he expects his audience to agree with his every contention, but so impassioned are his rants, that it’s impossible not to find certain irrevocable truths worth applauding.
‘With writing comes responsibility.’ he reiterates ‘Writers express meaning in an emotional way .It’s why Plato threw out the poets from Athens. Political powers are not troubled by ideas, it’s emotions that are dangerous. The one responsibility of the writer is to tell the truth, at the end he must be able to look down and ask: do I believe that? In a world populated with lies, we don’t need further writers adding to them.’
The final day of the Seminar concludes with an in depth analysis of the classic ‘Casablanca’. A story MacKee believes to be about faith in human beings. Structurally, he deems it to be one of the finest examples of cinematic story telling. ‘There are few films that have the ability to transcend time. Why is it then that nearly seventy years down the line, ‘Casablanca’ still rings true?’
It would be tough to find a writer that leaves the Story Seminar’s without a restored faith and reinvigorated pen. McKee’s overriding sentiment: ‘That good story telling is worth agonizing over, that story can make difference, resonate in the hearts and souls of human beings’ is a deeply affecting one. Thankfully the cinema canon is not entirely devoid of such examples. “Good writing makes an audience sympathize with someone as diabolical and Hannibal Lector in ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ beams MacKee ‘or Jack Nicholson’s character in ‘As Good As It Gets’, I mean how does a man throw a cute little dog down a chute and still manage to retain our sympathy, now that’s good writing!’
For more information of the Seminars visit www.mckeestory.com