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Robert McKee and the Genre Seminar

Robert McKee, Hollywood screenwriting guru and folk legend, runs a very popular workshop that is regularly attended by all the who’s who of the Hollywood writing community called Story (which is also the title of his book). Over the years, McKee has had a prominent influence over the writing conventions in Hollywood, and the way the industry thinks about story. McKee was famously immortalized in a Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufmann film called Adaptation in 2002. In the film, McKee is portrayed as a foul-mouthed, hard nosed but genius writing wizard, played by Brian Cox. When I attended the highly entertaining and densely packed three-day seminar, I found Cox’s portrayal to be uncannily accurate, and yet the seminar was highly informative and entertaining in its own right. Drew Barrymore was just starting her directing career at the time and was in attendance, along with a good chunk of the young, up-and-coming writers on staff at Disney and Pixar.

Following the popularity of his Story Seminar, he added a three-day “Genre Seminar” as an addendum to his main workshop, exploring the genres of horror, thriller and comedy. In it, he sought to define genre, and posited that genres are essentially writing traditions that inform the “rules” or conventions of a given category or group of films (other elements such as the visuals or the pace and feel of the films apply as well). While these conventions define the genre, they are constantly changing due to what McKee calls the war against cliché. When a convention or trope is used over and over in a film, it becomes a cliché and audiences grow to expect it, and are no longer surprised by the story, causing them to disengage. The trope loses its luster, like a joke that you have heard before, and the desired effect (for instance, laughter) is gone. Genres must therefore evolve and morph into new forms as new conventions are formed.

– from the upcoming book “How to Film the Truth: The Story of Documentary Film As a Spiritual Journey” to be released in the Spring of 2018 by Wipf & Stock