Screenwriting guru Robert McKee to teach screenwriting seminars in Tel Aviv

Rober McKee, screenwriting guru, is coming to Tel Aviv for the first time in 16 years to teach a screenwriting seminar for the last time.

 ROBERT McKEE: It’s categorically unfair to compare works of art, whether it be a screenplay or a novel or a play (photo credit: Wang Xu Hua)
ROBERT McKEE: It’s categorically unfair to compare works of art, whether it be a screenplay or a novel or a play
(photo credit: Wang Xu Hua)

Robert McKee teaches storytelling. 

The New York Times calls him “The Ultimate Master” and The Washington Post calls him “Legendary.”

He’s so famous in screenwriting circles that he was a “character” in the film Adaptation, played by Brian Cox (Succession). He also appeared in animated form (with his own voice) in an episode of The Simpsons.

Now he’s coming to Tel Aviv for the first time in 16 years to teach his famous screenwriting seminars for the last time. He’s finally retiring at the age of 81.

McKee has taught more than 100,000 students worldwide

 Tel Aviv University Campus (credit: COURTESY TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY) Tel Aviv University Campus (credit: COURTESY TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)

More than 100,000 students around the world have taken McKee’s courses since he began teaching in 1983. He’s also the author of several books including Story, Dialogue and Character.

In Israel, McKee’s students have included Hagai Levy (Scenes from a Marriage), Avi Nir (CEO of Keshet), author/screenwriter Etgar Keret, and even Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

“And facts are not the truth. Facts are what happens. Truth is why and how what happens, happens. Truth is causality. So the truth of things depends on how you see the forces in life that brought about that fact."

Robert McKee

McKee is famously irascible and has strong opinions on the process of writing and the state of the film and television industry.

His motto is “Write the Truth,” which he inscribes in books he’s given to autograph. But what does “write the truth” mean when you’re dealing with fictional characters and narratives?

“People often mistake fact for the truth,” McKee says. “And facts are not the truth. Facts are what happens. Truth is why and how what happens, happens. Truth is causality. So the truth of things depends on how you see the forces in life that brought about that fact. 

“What I ask writers to do,” he says, “is to dig into their sense of things and express their visions of causalities and write why they deeply believe things happen. If enough fine, talented writers tell stories expressing their versions of the truth from across the spectrum, then human beings will recognize what is valid and will get a deeper view of reality and will make the right choices as to what to believe or not.”

He chuckles. “Some people might be skeptical of that idea.”

McKee refuses to say what he considers the “best” scripts and screenwriters. “It’s categorically unfair to compare works of art, whether it be a screenplay or a novel or a play. It’s impossible. We can’t make those judgments.”

McKee denies that he teaches screenwriting “rules.” “I teach principles of an art form,” he says. “I show how stories work. A rule is something you have to follow or break. Those are absurd notions in the world of art. Artists don’t follow or break rules. They express themselves using a form in whatever way works best for them.”

“There are conventions,” he admits. “Audiences and readers have expectations. There’s a form that’s been passed down for thousands of years. They know that form very well if they’re literate. When an expectation of a certain convention is not fulfilled, and it distracts them, it’s wrong. When it’s not fulfilled and it fascinates them, it’s right.

“The only criteria you ever apply from an audience’s point of view or a reader’s point of view is ‘does it work or not?’ Hook their interest, hold their interest, and satisfy them intellectually and emotionally… or not.”  

HOW HAS screenwriting changed in the many years he has been teaching?

Long-form television, he says, is trending toward darkness, with very complex, emotionally and morally conflicted characters and an examination of the dark, destructive impulses and drives in human beings. He cites the Peaky Blinders and Ozark series as examples. 

He doesn’t think much of the current state of traditional cinema. 

“It’s clear that the cinema is in a bad way. The quality of the work, the storytelling, the characters, the insight, the vision, the writing and filmmaking is rapidly diminishing and becoming more superficial, more and more oriented toward decorative photography, special effects, etc. – spectacle.

“When Aristotle ranked the elements of the story from one to six, the spectacle was sixth,” he says.

“On the other hand,” he adds, “streaming has become just absolutely brilliant. The best of it – there’s a lot of crap, too – is the best storytelling in my lifetime. The complexity of characters and the brilliant sustaining and holding of suspense, episode by episode, season by season, in the finest of these long-form works are spectacular.”

He’s optimistic that in the rest of this century stories are going to get longer and richer, creating “cathedral-sized works.” 

“Writers are becoming more and more honest, more and more willing to look at the real composition of human nature.”

McKee has consulted on storytelling for businesses like Microsoft, Nike, Hewlett-Packard, Time Warner, and Siemens, urging them to “story-fy” their marketing. In 2018, he co-wrote a book called Storynomics: Story-Driven Marketing in the Post-Advertising World.

“Story,” he says, “is the most effective form of communication. List-making, bragging, promising – ‘we’re the best,’ ‘we’re the biggest’ – anybody can do that. PowerPoint presentations in business tend to be junior high school essays with special effects.”

He points to Apple’s use of story in its commercials with one character playing an Apple computer and another playing a PC.

“Marketing by telling stories is very powerful, very persuasive. The problem with it is it takes talent. It doesn’t take any particular talent to create a PowerPoint presentation and argue inductively or deductively, point by point, ‘therefore, buy our product.’

“It takes talent to tell a story that moves and persuades a consumer or a client,” he says. “People with that kind of creative talent rarely go into business in the first place.”

MCKEE’S THREE-day “Story” seminar will be held from November 23-25 from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and his one-day “Writing for TV” seminar will be held November 26. (Special arrangements will be made for Shabbat observers.)

McKee is coming to Tel Aviv as an initiative of the Israeli producer-director Ari Davidovich and his company HyperMedia. They also produced also McKee seminars in Israel on 2005 and 2006. 

Tickets are NIS 3,475 for the three-day seminar. Classes will be held at the 1,200-seat Smolarz Auditorium at Tel Aviv University, which is almost sold out.

The seminar will be taught in English and students can rent headphones for simultaneous translation into Hebrew. For information and registration, see storyseminar.co.il