Sunday, July 15, 2018

Construction of a Screenplay, Part 4 - Script Development, Phase One

By the middle of January 2017 we had a first draft of the Truth to Power screenplay. A good beginning six months into the process. What happens now? The answer is the first phase of an intensive period of rewrites before what would be the seventh draft was sent to Andrew Wilkie at the end of October.

The director Tim Dean and I would bat notes back and forth and have regular video conferencing sessions to discuss the state of the script. Tim is very good at giving notes (apart from the occasional ‘can we just make this better?’ which is always a fun note to get!) and they would become more specific the deeper we went into rewrites. These covered the whole gamut of elements from character, tone, structure, transitions, theme, dissection of scenes, and, eventually, decisions to kill some of my ‘babies’. Those being scenes that I would hang onto from draft to draft but ultimately didn’t fit for whatever reason. Vale a couple of favourites.

As the structure had been developed over the previous six months it was fairly robust which allowed me to try new things without too much ensuing chaos. We focussed on character work, notably for Wilkie, his wife Simone, and his colleague Kate; as well as getting the main structural beats as strong as possible – inciting incident, first act turning point, midpoint, and the ‘death point’-helping hand-turning point at the end of the second act. The opening sequence and climax were already locked in though they were tweaked as well.

The most difficult elements were getting the character of Kate Burton to a place we thought was accurate and servicing the story; and the beats at the end of the second act. This is the sequence I have easily rewritten more times than any other section of the script.

As Tim and I were on other sides of the country we used Wire which is a fully encrypted video application. Indeed, all our communications were encrypted – Signal for messaging, Proton Mail for sending drafts and notes. There was some sensitivity around the project given the subject matter and a history of interference with the real-life subjects in the past. I am breaking cover with these blog posts! Gulp.

The other strategy we employed was kicking material out to readers for feedback. This started with the Treatment and continues to this very day with drafts. My preferred option in receiving feedback from readers is in a face-to-face meeting. I find the interaction stimulates a wide-ranging discussion that allows me to question the reader; them to do the same with me; and basically explore the state of the script in greater detail. To that end I would offer to shout for food & drinks at a meeting place of the reader’s choice. I’m sure I can claim this as expenses against our ultra-low budget production… can’t I Tim? Damn.

A big thank you, therefore, to the following people I met with to discuss the Treatment and/or a Draft:

Scott McArdle, Phil Jeng Kane, Levon Polinelli, Nick Maclaine, Anna Bennetts, and Tyler Jacob Jones. Plus the people Tim sent the script to on his side of the country.

But there was one reader above all that we were keen to get feedback from. So after seven drafts Tim and I finally felt ready to send Andrew Wilkie the script. This was around the end of October 2017.

Then we waited… and waited… and waited some more…

Next in Part 5 – Script Development, Phase Two

Monday, July 9, 2018

Construction of a Screenplay, Part 3 - The First Draft

I won’t lie. I was a little nervous. The treatment for the film adaptation of Andrew Wilkie’s book Axis of Deceit had been sent to the man himself. How would he react? Would he hate it? Dismiss us as nobodies? Would the project sink before it even reached script stage? Injunctions and lawsuits at twelve paces? Okay, I’m a screenwriter so I’m prone to exaggeration for dramatic effect. But I was keen to glean Wilkie’s reaction. Were we in the ballpark? If not, how far off the mark was our approach?

Storm clouds gathered when a writer the director (Tim Dean) collaborates with offered his feedback. It was reasonably early in the morning Perth time. I was at work. Tim rang from Melbourne. The news was not good. That writer did not like the treatment. At all. Gulp.

Unexpectedly, a crisis of confidence loomed as Tim pitched a different way of tackling the material in response. I could feel my heart sinking through the floor into the basement, a fair feat from my fourth-floor seat. To me, this was a completely different story. One I wasn’t in the headspace to comprehend let alone consider.

All I heard was “disaster!”

A few hours later and the crisis was averted. Tim received a message via the publisher that Wilkie liked the treatment and wanted to make a deal. Only two days after it was sent to him.

Now my brain was ringing with relief and joy!

The validation was a real boost. Not only did Wilkie embrace the treatment but I considered it a huge plus that it took him only two days to read it and respond. I thought it might take weeks. After all he is a busy parliamentarian. It was early December 2016 so he was likely heading home to Tasmania for the Christmas break.

From that moment all thought of differing approaches to the adaptation vanished and has never been discussed since. It was an interesting experience though. If anything, it steeled me to the fact that not everybody was going to respond positively to what we were attempting. That other writer’s reaction wasn’t invalid – he simply had a different viewpoint and, as I discovered, a likely ambivalence to political stories.

With the festive season approaching I booked four weeks holidays from work (the non-creative office variety that pays the bills) with the express purpose of writing the first draft. Consulting my diary, I commenced typing on 28 December after the Christmas-Boxing Day food and cider coma. The draft was finished 17 days later on 14 January 2017. Two and a half weeks for a draft. Very fast for me. I also thought it was a decent first up effort, not a ‘vomit’ draft like some writers call their initial iteration.

I put this down to all the work honing the short form documents – the beat sheet and the treatment. Tim and I spent five months from that fateful MCG meeting breaking the story and the structure. I knew where I was going. I knew my third act climax and how I wanted to start. I knew the shape of key scenes and sequences. I had a fair idea how to do the transitions in and out of the imagined scenes that represented Wilkie’s thought process. I gained confidence and belief from Wilkie’s reaction to the treatment.

I also had images in my head of scenes right from the get-go as I mulled over the research, the book, and the proposed structure. This included the opening sequence which has remained constant throughout albeit with some tweaks; and a wordless scene around the midpoint that was visually striking if not more than a little disturbing (couldn’t shake that one out of the old grey matter). There were scenes that I relished writing such as the “what if” of Wilkie and John Howard alone in a room together before the Iraq war commenced.

Sure, there were some warts as you would expect. Scenes were overwritten. Secondary characters weren’t well-formed to where we needed them to be. The thematic strand was somewhat ham fisted in execution; and there were some overly ambitious flourishes for what was to be an ultra-low budget movie. Some scenes would eventually disappear. Characters would change in emphasis and significance.

But it was a good start.

And as any writer will tell you writing is all about rewriting. Without a foundation to build on you have nothing.

Then there’s this – for the first time there was a tangible blueprint for a movie. For me that was only six months into the process. For Tim it was after a few years of tackling the material. It was a significant step.

Next up in Part 4, digging in and developing the screenplay.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Construction of a Screenplay, Part 2 - Beat Sheet & Treatment


What do you do when you have an idea for a screenplay? Or in this instance, adapting a book? First off, there is no correct answer. Different writers will have different strategies. What I’ve learnt after endless rewrites of a third act of a script is that getting the structure in place before you go to draft stage is invaluable. There’s nothing worse than doing rewrites where you are chasing structure.

With the ‘Wilkie project’, as it was initially known, I also had to figure out how I was going to tackle the material. The original idea (pre my involvement) was a series of telephone conversations over one night in a hotel room. I understand there was even the thought that five different writers could contribute, in effect, a monologue for each of those calls. That left me cold as making a film based on a series of phone calls seemed pretty uncinematic. Ultra-low budget, sure. Dramatically interesting? I’m not so sure.

When I look back at my saved documents for the project, I found what was the pitch to my co-creative, the director Tim Dean, called ‘Wilkie Movie – Initial Thoughts’ dated 28 August 2016. This was a page and a half of how I would approach telling the story. I read that now, some two years on, and it lays out everything that has subsequently transpired. Basically, how to dramatise the decision-making process that was going on in Andrew Wilkie’s head as he locked himself away to make the most difficult decision of his life. This allowed us to foreshadow future events without recreating them and to introduce imaginary characters and/or imagined conversations with real people such as John Howard. The emotional through line is there as well as a thematic C story strand.

The only real person who isn’t mentioned would come later in a storytelling video conference with Tim. I’m being a little obtuse but there are some secrets best revealed on watching the completed film.

So the approach was agreed and I started working out how to structure it all. There’s a document called ‘Wilkie Structure’ dated 19 September 2016 and the first version of a Beat Sheet is dated a week later. Now, the Beat Sheet is an invaluable tool in the screenwriter’s arsenal. In effect it is a point by point description of the major story and character beats. It was even more important in this project as I was going to be moving from real to imagined scenes and back again. Getting the balance right and the correct transitions was going to be critical so as not to confuse the audience (and the writer when it came to draft stage!).

Reading this early draft now, so much has been retained in the screenplay even though things have moved around a little and some elements have been dropped then resurrected. The structure is largely identical in the broad phases of the storytelling. We did seven versions of the beat sheet, batting it back and forth, until we were both happy with it.

Then came the tricky part. The Treatment, written with an audience of one in mind – Andrew Wilkie himself. Not that we were asking permission per se, however, it is his story and I feel a responsibility about being truthful to that story and to him as a person. There were also some elements, no matter how much research you do, that aren’t in the book or public sphere. The Treatment itself is a prose version of the entire story. I was fleshing out the beat sheet to incorporate more detail in terms of both character and story elements.

I set to work once more; each draft going to Tim for his notes, being discussed at length, then revisions made. There’s a second draft dated 19 November 2016 with the final version, after seven drafts, stamped as complete on 5 December 2016. Four and a half months after we met at the MCG we had a Treatment we were happy to send to Wilkie via his publisher.

Tim emailed the treatment to the publisher and I tried to put it out of mind even though I was somewhat nervous about what the reaction might be. I was confident we’d done our research and were being truthful to the story but I had no idea how the man himself would respond.

We didn’t have to wait long…

Next in Part 3 – First Draft and Script Development

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Construction of a Screenplay, Part 1 - Beginnings


July 2016. I’m sitting in the top tier of the mighty Melbourne Cricket Ground watching a truly terrible game of Australian Rules Football with director Tim Dean. Also in attendance, US Vice President Joe Biden, though not with us I hasten to add. I was in Melbourne for one of my three to four day junkets but that’s not the reason I was at the G. Tim had pitched me a film project he wanted to work on a week or so before. The timing for us to meet in person was perfect.

That project was an adaptation of the Andrew Wilkie book Axis of Deceit about the misuse of intelligence in the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003. Wilke, famously, was the only Western intelligence officer to resign in protest before the war.

Tim and I had worked together on developing projects while he was in Perth. Rewrites on a thriller though had stalled as I became distracted by reviewing and adjudicating theatre. A fact I was becoming increasingly annoyed at myself over so Tim’s pitch was a perfect opportunity to get back into the screenwriting saddle.  

The reason the offer to work on the adaptation was so attractive was Tim’s conviction that this film would get made. He had been speaking with Australian producer-director Robert Connelly who told Tim to “just make the film, be bold, be creative, get noticed.” This was to be ultra-low budget; to my ears meaning it wouldn’t be a multi-year slog through funding and finance hell. It was also a great story with an intriguing lead character and was an important slice of Australian history. It was material that was dramatically rich, no doubt controversial, and piqued my fascination with those few people courageous enough to defy the powers that be. The final piece to the puzzle was that Tim, through Wilkie’s publisher, had the rights to the book and had spoken to Wilkie previously about wanting to bring his story to the big screen.

On my return to Perth I immediately curtailed my reviewing duties and indicated I would not seek to be a community theatre adjudicator the following year. I then ordered the book and plunged through all the notes that Tim had stashed away in the cloud where he’d worked with writers over the years. Those efforts had led to a pitch document and story breakdowns but not to script stage.

The gist of those notes was that the story would take place over one night in a hotel in Hanoi where Wilkie would make several phone calls as he decided whether to blow the whistle on the Howard government. The prospect of a filmed series of phone conversations (while definitely ultra-low budget) left me a little cold but the immediacy of telling the story over one night did appeal.

After reading Axis of Deceit one thing was abundantly clear – the animus Wilkie had towards Howard. He would later, unsuccessfully, run against Howard in a federal election as a Green and has publicly called for the former PM to be tried for war crimes.

IF we were going to have Wilkie engage in a series of conversations locked away in a hotel room I was adamant early on that one of those must be with Howard. But how was that possible? They never spoke in real life before the invasion in March of 2003 but the dramatic possibilities were enticing. And this is where we come to one of my favourite screenwriters – Peter Morgan.

Morgan is a master of the ‘finite period of time biopic’ (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, Rush) rather than the sprawling attempts to cover a life (the exception being The Crown where he’s working in a television medium rather than a film). He also excels at the pivotal imagined scene – an event that never happened but is thematically true and potent – think Elizabeth and the stag in The Queen; Nixon’s drunken phone call in Frost/Nixon.

That allowed me to indulge in the screenwriter’s most valuable tool – What if? “What if John Howard and Andrew Wilkie were in a room together a week before the Iraq War?” This would be a cornerstone to how I would approach the screenplay.

The first task after all the reading and further research was to come up with a Beat Sheet that would detail the major beats of the movie. For me it was important to get the structure in place before going anywhere near script stage. Plus, I had a crazy idea of how to do this differently to a set of phone conversations and needed to see if that worked…

Next in Part 2 – The Beat Sheet & Treatment

Thursday, December 28, 2017

A New Project, Part 1

Exactly one year ago to the day – 28 December 2016 - I started writing the first draft of a feature film screenplay. Eight drafts later and I am ready to embark on the next draft and hopefully be another step closer to getting the film made in 2018.

But let’s go back a few steps first.

The middle of 2016 I was becoming increasingly restless. I was halfway through what, for me, would be a record breaking year of going to and writing about theatre. Not to say I didn’t love this but that my screenwriting had withered away to an afterthought. And that was bugging me. A lot.

Salvation came in the form of a director who I was slowly, glacially, frustratingly writing another draft of a fictional thriller for. It’s a project I’ll go back to but at the time I was not writing well when indeed I did sit down to work on it.

That director pitched me an idea for a film based on a real-life person and the book he had written about a controversial period of Australian history – our involvement in the Iraq War. I had known the director had the rights to the book ever since he cold emailed me many years ago and our collaboration began. Now, however, he was motivated to pursue it further after a discussion with a well-known and respected figure in the Australian film industry.

The brief – just make the film; be bold, be creative; get noticed. The figure of $20,000 was quoted which I never took literally other than this was to be a micro-budget project. The selling point for me was the director’s absolute conviction that “this film will get made.”

I said I was interested and the deal was sealed, in all places, at the MCG during one of the worst games of AFL football I had seen in a while, in the presence of US Vice-President Joe Biden no less. The director, Tim Dean, had moved back to Melbourne and I was over there on one of my annual musical theatre jaunts. (For the record, my team beat his team unconvincingly in a woeful effort). That decided I immediately reduced my theatregoing activities though I still had to honour my adjudicating commitments for the Independent Theatre Association until the end of the year.

First task was to get a copy of the book which I ordered once I was back in Perth. Then it was a case of not only reading the book but all the notes and previous work that Tim had done with other writers as well as his own research.

Once that was all in the blender it was a case of how the hell do I do this? Ultra-low budget, be bold, be creative.

From discussions with Tim and from all the material he’d shared, the premise was that the film would take place over one night in a hotel room. The original idea was that the protagonist would make a series of phone calls that would assist with the agonising decision whether to challenge the government of the day on the question of the Iraq invasion. At one point I understand it had been proposed a different writer would pen each conversation. This struck me as very dry and, to be frank, uncinematic. How to make this dramatic and cinematic whilst keeping with the smell of an oily rag mandate?

I started thinking about who the phone calls might be to. From the book there was a clear choice based on the animus that was evident in the text. However, a conversation between those two never took place, could never have taken place, at that time. Which led me to the great screenwriting question – WHAT IF? What if these two did have a conversation, in private, before the Iraq War started? How might that play out? It was a tantalising idea and full of dramatic promise.

I am a big fan of screenwriter Peter Morgan of Frost/Nixon, The Queen, and now The Crown fame. His use of imagined scenes – the stag in The Queen; the drunken phone call in Frost/Nixon – that may never have happened but are thematically on point and truthful to the characters in question was a guiding principle. But how to manufacture such a conceit?

From there everything fell into place. This was a tale about a man who locks himself away in a hotel room to make the most difficult decision of his life. He goes through the pros and cons, the worst-case scenarios, in his head. In other words, I could have real life interactions and imagined ones. I knew exactly what happened after his decision in real life but instead of recreating those moments I could have the protagonist visualise and game play the consequences. This gave me a starting point and a way into the story.

The meeting at the MCG happened mid-July. Commencement on the screenplay, end of December. What happened in those five and a half months other than reading the book, notes, and having discussions with the director to come up with the approach?

Well, the short answer is nine drafts of a Beat Sheet to get the major storytelling points down and work on structure. Then, once we were both happy with that, nine drafts on what turned out to be a ten page Treatment, designed basically for one person only – the true life protagonist of our tale. The final version of that was sent to him via his publisher just before Christmas last year. He responded within two days that he really liked it which is what gave me the confidence and enthusiasm to launch into the first draft…

This is the first of what I hope to be a series of posts about this project. If the above is somewhat vague at the moment the reason might become apparent in later updates. For now, it’s back to the script.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Mea Culpa or What The Fuck Happened?

This is my first post to this blog in a long time. Too long.

Why?

I haven’t been writing.

I’ve been finding ways to avoid writing.

Too tired.
Too busy at work.
Too much theatre.
Uninspired.
Unmotivated.
Unhealthy.
Undead.

One of these may be an exaggeration.

Oh, I’ve been ‘writing’. Writing reviews. Writing critiques. Writing status updates. Writing tweets. Writing lists. Writing about not writi—ahem.

It’s a terrible thing to call yourself a writer and not write.

Even worse when you’re half decent at it. I mean, anyone who’s crap at writing can not write with a guilt free conscience.  

But mine has finally gotten the better of me.

(Using ‘gotten’ in a sentence for a start stings).

A quick recap.

The feature script based on a true life story set just after the Great War fell through. Couldn’t agree to terms with the businessman/producer. Great story. Hope it sees the light of day.

The first two episodes of the web series Boondock Alley have been shot. I don’t know how the shoot went or how it will turn out. I haven’t had anything to do with the project after blowing a gasket when I wasn’t invited to the table read with the full cast during pre-production. I also haven’t written any of the supporting material used on the website or on various social media platforms. Nevermind. Hope it goes well. I thought it was a pretty good idea for a series.

The feature script Turbulence. Ah, yes, Turbulence. I sat and re-read the partially rewritten seventh draft at work today during lunch.

Then I wanted to stick an ice-pick in my brain.

Why?

It’s pretty good. Leastways it’s getting there. I am mad at myself for not getting on with it. I don’t know why. It pisses me off.

So things have to change.

I’m getting frustrated and angry at myself. I have been sucked back into corporate servitude. Yes, the money is good. Who am I kidding? It’s fucking glorious! I’ll end up going to Sydney twice this year as well as my annual Melbourne musical theatre jaunt because I can afford such extravagances. And I’m good at it. Work that is. Hell, I might even occasionally admit to liking it from time to time though I have become prone to stress lately which is unlike me.

Yes, I love the theatre. If I didn’t I would be monumentally screwed. I saw 138 shows last year. 71 so far this year and checking my diary I’m currently on pace for 131 by year’s end. Total, absolute, marvellous craziness of a magnitude I couldn’t even begin to fathom a few years ago.

I will honour my commitments as an adjudicator and reviewer but my pre-eminent thought and task has to be writing again. I want to finish Turbulence. It will make a great little thriller. I want to start something new. I have no idea what that might be. I don’t care. I just need to write.

My unit has been renovated and now I have a nice space I can write in. I don’t need the excuse of cafes or distraction free zones somewhere, anywhere else. I just need some goddamn fucking discipline.

I’m getting ranty.

I’m sorry.

For not knuckling down and getting on with it. 
For procrastinating. 
For letting setbacks and disappointments cripple me.

That all changes now.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Long Overdue Update or What the Hell Have you Been Up To, Richard?

Wow. I know. It's been a while. Work has been crazy busy. Adjudicating community theatre shows as well as reviewing other theatre productions has been full on. Life, as they say, has been getting in the way. Yet writing activity has been happening behind the scenes. Perhaps spasmodically, in fits and starts, and not as frequently as I would like (yes, Sam Seaborn, three things that all mean the same thing) but happening nonetheless.

The sixth draft of the feature script Turbulence, after an inordinate amount of time, was finally completed in mid July and sent to the director who has moved back over east. I suspect the impetus for finishing the damn script was mainly because I was flying to Melbourne to do my annual musical theatre mini-junket and feared being waterboarded if I turned up in his home state without it. We had a good catch up over dinner and the early feedback was generally very positive but with work still to be done. Notably on our third major character who has never quite gelled. More of that in a later post.

The first two episodes of the web series Boondock Alley have been completely rewritten after some interesting developments along the way and are scheduled to be shot at the end of this year. Again, I'll talk about how we arrived at this happy state after a somewhat tortuous process in a later update.

Then there's the feature project based on a true life event in 1919. There is now a third draft of a detailed beat sheet and the businessman/producer and I even had a very good meeting with a development manager at Screenwest. But progress appears to have stalled over the business side of things with the terms of an agreement to write a full treatment leading into a first draft script.

But one door slowly closes and another is possibly ajar... as they generally don't say. I have been approached by a previous collaborator about discussing ideas for a potential low budget science fiction feature. The screenwriting brain is already whirring about what this might be.

And then there was the recent epiphany. I have a spreadsheet detailing every project and its status from short film scripts to features to treatments to television ideas and incomplete episodes to, you name it. They're all my babies, even the stunted, deformed ones that were possibly hit by a brick at conception. But it's time to let the vast majority of them go and start working on new projects and ideas.

Other than Turbulence and Boondock Alley everything else now disappears into that metaphorical drawer maybe one day to be unlocked, most likely not.

Time to make room for new characters and worlds and stories...