Screenwriting guru Robert McKee brings his famed Story Seminar to Hyderabad and decodes what will work, and what won't, for the storyteller attempting onscreen magic.

He is to the world's tribe of storytellers what Chanakya was to the Mauryan empire. And his book, Story, is to thousands of writers what the Arthshastra was to Indian rulers, circa 350 BC. Meet Robert McKee, who has for over 25 years taught the principles of story telling through his Story Seminar to more than 50,000 screenwriters, novelists, playwrights, TV writers, actors and filmmakers. He was in Hyderabad to conduct his first-ever seminar on Indian soil. McKee's intense four-day seminar is not unlike taking a whirlwind tour of world cinema. The 71-year-old actor-turned-teacher combines his humungous knowledge of cinema, the insights of a teacher, the passion of an evangelist, the charm and wit of a standup comic, the actor's love of drama, and the salacious tid-bits of an inveterate gossip!

Here are some key commandments of Hollywood's Prophet of Screenwriting:

Story is a metaphor for life: The reason why many films don't work, according to McKee, is that often writers don't believe in what they are writing. “There is no Avant-Garde any more. There is only Retro Garde. Filmmakers are imitating the auteurs of the past and recycling tired works of the past. I am sick and tired of movies about movies. What we want to see is movies about life… about characters that express the nuances of life.”

Write the truth: “As story tellers we are in the epiphany business.” For a story to have an impact it has to go beyond the idea, and into the realm of emotions. Drawing a line at using cinema for “social change”, McKee exhorts writers: “Don't be didactic — don't write about poverty. Write about poor people. When you dramatise their lives and let life and characters be your inspiration, you will express the ‘idea' dynamically and without preaching.” Writers, he says, have no responsibility to cheer people up or uplift them. “They have only one responsibility — to tell the truth.” Truth, as distinguished from mere facts. Writers who don't believe in what they write are just propagating lies, half-truths and distortions that destroy society. “Story is not a dramatised lecture but a meaningful insight into life.”

Spectacle as substitute to story doesn't work: Worldwide, the emphasis on spectacle is a result of a de-emphasis on story. And this, as McKee points out, is not a new phenomenon. “Aristotle sounds like a Hollywood producer when he said ‘spectacle is the least important'.” And the current trends towards use of 3D technology, innumerable explosions, and elaborate song and dance numbers (in Indian movies) are all outcomes of an overemphasis on spectacle.

Talent without craft is energy wasted: Contrary to what Bollywood producers would like to think, McKee maintains that Bollywood films are not unique but are essentially musicals combined with other genres. He pooh-poohs the argument that there is a cultural divide in storytelling. Referring to Indian films he says, “If your story telling is as good as your song and dance, you would capture the international market. And the way to do it is to master the craft. Talent without craft is energy wasted.” Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy and Jalsaghar (The Music Room) are examples of storytelling at its universal best, says McKee. Among the recent crop of Indian films that boast good storytelling, McKee cites the examples of Rajkumar Hirani's Munnabhai MBBS and Lage Raho Munnabhai, Dibakar Banerjee's Love, Sex aur Dhoka and writer-director Neeraj Pandey's A Wednesday.

Style vs. substance: “When people talk about ‘auteurs', you know they are talking s**t.” Elaborating on the perception — in McKee's view, that would be mis-perception — that directors are the true artists, he says: “The difference between a good film and a great one is the Director. But the difference between good film and no film is the Writer.” Pointing out that Alfred Hitchcock “made a lot of bad films”, he says, “While Vertigo made compelling viewing, Hitchcock's Family Plot was just a bunch of clichés.”

Using coincidence or ‘deus ex machina' is the Ultimate Sin! “About the only Hollywood notable not to have taken the Story Seminar is Steven Spielberg,” reads McKee's official profile. Spielberg's loss rather than McKee's! He gleefully points out: “Spielberg has been using the ‘deus ex machina' ever since Jurassic Park.” And in McKee's lexicon, resolving story issues by throwing in coincidence translates as the ultimate sin that any writer can commit! Sparing neither the celebrated author of War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells, nor the two great filmmakers — Orson Welles and Steven Spielberg — who adapted it, McKee says: “War of the Worlds was a dumb story when H.G. Wells wrote it, when Orson Welles made it and Spielberg rehashed it.”

No rules to story telling except one: There is no “formula” to writing, only a “form”. Thus, there can be no rules but one: Don't bore the people!

A rule that McKee never breaks in his Story Seminar.

(This article was published on February 23, 2012)
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