Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Dragging myself out of bed on Friday morning was more difficult than it had been the last time my alarm clock had gone off (I’ve had a whole week now to adjust to my new ‘writer’s lifestyle’, at the core of which is the absence of alarm clocks, and so I’m already out of practice). I had to be in the West End for 8.30am to register for the McKee Story seminar.

I first heard about Robert McKee and Story through a fine publication called (Danny Fingeroth’s) Write Now! In which comics, animation and TV writers are interviewed about their career and craft. A lot of the guys featured talked about the seminar, although not always in with praise. I decided that I should at least become familiar with it.

So I bought the book.
And was duly impressed.
A lot of what he writes in the book made perfect sense to me. Some of it knew already and had thought about over the years, although very little of it I had the vocabulary to discuss or had thought about to the depths in which he discusses it.

McKee was (seemingly) savaged in Adaptation (written by my current Hollywood hero Charlie Kaufman) and I have to admit this did put me off slightly, the weak-minded fool that I am. At the same time though it also increased my curiosity about the Story phenomenon, which I’d been completely unaware of about two months previous.
The synchronicity of the situation hadn’t escaped my attention.

So I booked myself into the London leg of his McKee’s seminar tour.
And was, again impressed.

Despite the early start, I was wide awake when I got off the tube at Oxford Street and set about trying to find Conduit Street, armed only with a hand drawn map I’d copied from streetmap.co.uk and a rough idea which way north was. I knew I’d need coffee that morning (so much so that I abstained all week in the hope that the caffeine punch might be powerful enough to see me through all twelve hours of the first day). I registered first and then went to find some overpriced, corporate coffee selling establishment.

‘I see famous people’ I thought as I left the seminar venue with my name badge (exactly as Kaufman had shown in Adaptation)… Or at least a collection of A/B list celeb faces that I recognised from the TV. Gareth from the Office was there. So was Tony Parsons. And a couple of other faces I knew from one place or another.

I returned to the seminar with plenty of time to spare before the lecturing began, wired to the moon on cappuccino which was somehow more expensive than the same volume of beer would normally be.
I twitched and fidgeted until McKee took to the stage. When he did I recognised him immediately from his caricature in Adaptation, which was uncannily accurate.

I emailed Danny Fingeroth last week, looking for advice on how to get the most out of the weekend. He, very kindly, got back to me and told me what to expect; describing McKee, his teaching methods and warning me not to make an arse of myself to the man unless I wanted to be picked on in the lecture.

McKee is (just as Mr Fingeroth described him) charismatic and funny. The audience ate out of the palm of his hand the whole weekend, laughing just when he wanted them to (except when the jokes relied on American references which escaped the mainly English crowd) and paying attention throughout. He speaks with great authority and is utterly convincing when talking about the principles story and story structure. When I realised that the lecture was going to match the content of the book very closely (all the same jokes, some of the same sentences) I wasn’t disappointed, although it did shatter the illusion that what was going on up on stage was spontaneous.

During the breaks the vast majority of networking going on seemed to involve mobile phone networks, as people queued for coffee while staring at small screens hoping for text messages or voice mail alerts.
I was just hoping that I’d have time to collect my much-needed caffeine boost and get back to the lecture theatre before the only unoccupied seat left was the one next to the odd fellow at the front who took his shoes off and rubbed his feet all day.

Twelve hours is a long time to be sitting in a room, listening to one man speak, and I wasn’t entirely surprised when reality started to shift near the end of the first day. At one point Robert McKee had morphed into Stan Lee up on stage. Face, voice and all.
That seemed to work for my and held my attention until the next break.

I say that Robert McKee was a convincing speaker, but I wonder how much of this was due to him playing the part of guru so well, how much was down to the inherently convincing nature of the material and what was owed to the fact that keeping two hundred people locked in a room with you for half a day, three days in a row is a brain washing technique often employed by multi-million pound religious cults.

The second day was easier, perhaps because I felt more at home with the format or maybe because the topics up for discussion on Day Two were shorter and so the lecture was more varied. My main mistake on Saturday actually didn’t happen until about three hours after the end of lecturing.
I went to a party.
Don’t get me wrong – the party was fun, and I got to see a lot of my friends and have a great time (including Ang who always brightens up my weekend when she’s around).
But when you have to concentrate for twelve hours straight the next day on a guy who looks and sounds a bit like Stan Lee you really need a good night’s sleep!

Day Three was the hardest.
I chewed on a dry, salty bacon sandwich and gulped down complimentary coffee (with milk in, so I could drink it NOW!) about two minutes before we were due to start. I sauntered into the lecture theatre and expertly avoided sitting next to the no-shoes guy, instead plonking myself between two delightful young actresses whose perfume alone was stimulant enough to keep me awake.

As my sinuses squirmed and whined, McKee’s handwritten overhead projection slides were copied wholesale into my notes without being processed at all by my brain (my only alterations were to change his bizarre mixture of upper and lower case letters within words to their correct state).
My seat was also the designated squeaky chair for the day and I tried desperately to stop it from sounding like I was farting whenever I moved.

The six-hour dissection of Casablanca (one of my favourite films long before I’d ever heard of Robert McKee) was taxing, but incredibly interesting. He told us many things about the making of the film, and explained the reasons for certain creative decisions – none of which I’d never heard before. My only worry is that the academic examination of the film might spoil future viewings of it. If not for me then for whomever I’m watching it with, as I’ll feel compelled to treat them to all sorts of trivia and observations.

All in all I am extremely glad that I took the Story seminar. It has reinforced all of the principles in the book and will undoubtedly be of great use in the future; it was also inspirational and above all else entertaining.

I’m just glad I didn’t ask the grumpy old bastard a question!

No comments:

THE BLOG IS DEAD (I mean the blog as a medium. This blog is merely sleeping.) I really miss writing the blog so I'm determined ...