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‘Focus on human nature, not unique cultural aspects’

World-renowned story-teller Robert McKee says appealing to human nature matters most

How to best produce hit dramas and movies based on traditional Korean culture is an important question for the government as it tries to promote the country’s heritage abroad.

Robert McKee, a world-renowned teacher of story-writing and story-telling, said a strategy that focuses on cultural uniqueness is likely to fail because it has nothing in common with people in other countries. Stories that appeal to human nature should come first, he said.

“Of course the traditions, languages, and histories of all cultures are important, but in truth culture is skin deep. Human nature, on the other hand, is bottomless,” said McKee in an email interview with The Korea Herald.
Robert McKee
Robert McKee

The story guru added that Korean films, in this context, have probably won international acclaim in recent years because of their profound insight into human nature. The ability of Korean film to relate dark and complex psychology is exceptional, he said, noting his experience of movies by Kim Ki-duk, Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook.

“Koreans filmmakers not only have profound insight into human nature, but they seem fascinated by it, passionate about it, willing to go into any of its dark corners and tell its truth,” he said.

Following is a Q&A with Robert McKee about the core elements of storytelling.

KH: It is often said here that a unique and special “story” must be provided in order to Keep the Korean Wave going. But how can Korean story developers use traditional lifestyles and culture to develop content that can be accepted around the world?

RM: Every culture feels that its particular traditions and lifestyle are so utterly unique that it has nothing in common with the rest of humanity. Therefore, it must find strategies to incorporate its unique way of life into business success in a way that is unlike anything that anyone else in the world ever faced before.

Of course the traditions, languages, and histories of all cultures are important, but in truth culture is skin deep. Human nature, on the other hand, is bottomless. Once we get past the rather superficial differences from culture to culture, we see that all human beings face the same problems― to survive, to eat, to work, to find love, to take care of family, to defend country.

A business strategy that focuses on the cultural exception or cultural uniqueness and ignores the deep human nature underneath it will always fall short. Yes, you have to pay attention to culture; you can’t do things so radically upsetting to people that your strategy fails. But you must get quickly past cultural differences and appeal to the deep needs within human beings at the receiving end of your storytelling.

KH: I heard that you have been moved and impressed by the movies by Korean directors Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook. What attracts you to them?
RM: Well, one of the most beautiful films that I have seen in the last ten years was Kim Ki-duk’s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring.” To my mind this was an ultimate motion picture ― purely visual, almost no dialogue, beautifully told in five acts as the title suggests, profoundly moving and deeply meaningful ― without lecturing on morality or spirituality.

It was superbly dramatized. I have enjoyed many other Korean films such as “Poongsan” written by Kim Ki-duk, “The Host,” and “Mother,” by Bong Joon-ho. “The Host” was one of the most delightful combinations of comedy and horror/monster movie I have seen in recent years. Of course the Vengeance trilogy by Park Chan-wook delivered a set of fantastic thrillers.

The content of Korean films is filled with forthright humanity. Koreans filmmakers not only have profound insight into human nature, but they seem fascinated by it, passionate about it, willing to go into any of its dark corners and tell its truth. And even more amazing, there seems to be no censorship from government or business interests and no shyness in the audience. I am certain that a film like “Mother,” in which a woman kills to protect her son, would not get made in Hollywood.

Psychology of this depth and darkness must be backed up by a tremendous wisdom. An artist cannot dramatize what he or she does not understand. I think, everything considered, the content of Korean films is the most honest I know in any modern film culture.

KH: What are the elements of a story that move or touch people’s hearts?

RM: I can focus on one element that is a key to touching the heart, as you put it in the question, and that is empathy. As the audience looks up at the cast of characters, they must find one character, presumably the central character or the protagonist, and experience a spontaneous moment of recognition. This happens unconsciously as the audience recognizes that the character is a human being like them. I don’t mean that the character is a human being like them in every way, of course not, but rather that some element within the character strikes them as true and profoundly human. When the audience makes that recognition, it then identifies with the character and finds itself wanting what the character wants. The logic of the audience goes like this: “If I were that character under those circumstances, I would want the same thing that the character wants for myself.” When that identification takes place, the audience is drawn emotionally and intellectually into the story.

KH: You serve as story consultant for U.S. global corporations. From your perspectives, how do you think they use stories?

RM: They use them to persuade employees, to persuade the team, the superiors, the investors, and the consumers to think the way they want them to think and therefore do what they want them to do. When we study the management techniques of the famous CEOs such as Jack Welch of General Electric or Lou Gerstner of IBM, we discover that they did not have the technical knowledge of the engineers and scientists and product development executives working under them. What they did have is the gift of story. They know how to engage the interest of people, how to make them to empathize with the hero of whatever story they are telling, and how to persuade them by virtue of that story to think the way they want them to think.

KH: Do you think Korean companies like Samsung and LG use stories will in management or global publicity?

RM: I may be wrong, but I have to say that I do not think they are. I cannot see that Samsung or LG has created the particular kind of place in my consciousness that Apple or GEICO or Mercedes or even Kia Motors have. I think that many of the great Korean corporations should ask these questions: Is the story they tell the world well told? Do they tend to make the corporation, the product or the customer the hero of their story? How could that story be better told?

KH: Tell us why storytelling is important, particularly in this digitalized era.

RM: Stories equip us for the now, help us to understand the past and prepare us for the future. Today more than ever, without story we would all be lost in chaos. Data, fragments of news, little pieces of information on tweets, flashing moments of advertisements, glimpses of images swirl past, bombarding our senses. The human mind is by its nature a storyteller. To understand its place in existence, it gathers its memories and imaginings, and shapes them into a narrative.

For the last 40 years, all forms of intellectual enterprise have been trying to answer the questions “What is consciousness? What is self-awareness? How does the mind work?” All branches of learning have discovered is the key to understanding the mind is story.

The mind takes all the stimuli of life 24 hours a day, eliminates the triviality and banality, and then focuses on the key moments to carve them into a story so that the self can make sense out of life. Have you ever noticed that when people sit around the table to eat with co-workers, family, friends or lovers they always tell stories. Storytelling is the most natural form of human communication. The ability to comprehend and create stories is the key to successful living, and in a chaotic world like ours, more important than ever.

Robert McKee

Born in 1941, Robert McKee debuted as a theater actor at the age of 9. While pursuing his theater career, he attended the University of Michigan and earned a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature. 

While in Michigan, he met Kenneth Thorpe Rowe, an influential figure in American playwriting. In the ’70s, McKee moved to Los Angeles to start a career in the film industry and began to write screenplays and work as a story analyst for TV stations. In 1983, he joined the University of Southern California, where he began his famous Story Seminar class. Since then, he has been traveling around the world holding 30-hour intensive classes on telling good stories.

Through his seminar, McKee has nurtured film directors and writers who have gone on to win Academy Awards and Golden Globes. The list includes Peter Jackson, Oscar-winning director of “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy,” Jane Campion, director of “The Piano,” Michel Hazanavicius, director of “The Artist,” and Paul Haggis, screenwriter and producer of “Million Dollar Baby,” and many others.

Robert McKee’s Story Seminar in Seoul

● McKee is holding his seminar in Seoul in this coming fall for the first time. The seminar covers all the crucial elements required to create a wonderful story, and warns about potential problems to avoid, according to All That Story, a local story and content developing firm, that is organizing the event. It is also designed to develop leadership, strategy, marketing and sales capabilities through storytelling, it added.

● The seminar takes places at El Tower, Yangjae-dong, in Seoul from Oct. 29 to Nov. 2.

● For more information, call (070) 7727-7881,7883, (02)744-6922 or visit or

By Cho Chung-un (