Screenwriting guru Robert McKee has some lessons of his own to learn

Just as financiers make pilgrimages to Omaha to hear Warren Buffett and aspiring Jedi knights travel to the ends of the galaxy to hang upside down in front of Yoda, screenwriters, with dreams of summer blockbusters dancing in their heads, periodically make the voyage to the seminars of Robert McKee. He has trained scores of Oscar and Emmy winners; his how-to best-seller, Story, is an essential part of most Hollywood bookshelves; and he’s perhaps most famous for being portrayed by Brian Cox in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. So when he barks out, “You can’t work in this business without reading my book,” his audience has good reason to believe him.

This year I am among them. In the process of working on a book about the history of the modern horror film, adapted from a story I wrote for Vanity Fair last year, I’ve talked to most of the great horror directors of the 60s and 70s. That led to an interest in writing my own scary movie. So, a few weeks ago, I file into a room on the 18th floor of a hotel across the street from Madison Square Garden at around eight a.m. along with about 100 lumpy, underdressed fellow writers to participate in McKee’s one-day seminar on how to write a thriller.

I entered the course genuinely hoping to learn about screenwriting, but also, as a critic—and a specialist of horror movies—with a professional interest in McKee’s theories about genre and narrative.

By the end of the day, I had learned some valuable lessons about show business, the art of persuasion, and the tricky relationship between truth and fiction. I’d also learned that Robert McKee often has no idea what he’s talking about



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