Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dexter - Season 4 Finale

Reflections on the Season 4 finale and it's "game-changing" denouement ...

Okay, so the first 48 minutes of the season finale were lethargic, out of character and almost perfunctory. Dexter finally(!) dispatches Arthur "Trinity" Mitchell (congratulations on your upcoming Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor - Drama, John Lithgow ... who knew?) which was to be expected. Debra Morgan was actually doing all the heavy lifting and Jennifer Carpenter has been superb the last two episodes (congrats in advance on your first Emmy nomination). It was flat and uninspiring.


Then the show pulls an astounding last three minutes out of the bag - Dexter returns home to find Rita murdered (yes, by Trinity) and his baby son sitting in a pool of her blood (echoing Dexter's own "birth in blood"). A truly shocking and visceral moment ... that almost makes me think they deliberately made the preceding 48 minutes so banal to rachet up the "oh my ****ing god!" factor because it was a genuine jaw dropping moment.

The internet forums subsequently melted down. It was interesting reading the reaction as Rita was not a much loved character. But there is a "gut punch" factor at work here regardless of how you felt about her.

And there was the usual nonsense:

NO, it wasn't a dream! That would be one of the biggest "F*** you!" (to the audience) decisions in television history and the writers aren't that stupid. If they played that card I would switch off quicker than an Entourage Season 6 episode.

YES, of course Trinity killed her in a John Doe "Seven" 'beyond the grave' triumph kind of way (without the box). One theory espoused that the new FBI agent did it? Hello, are you INSANE?

NO, Rita will not appear as a Harry Morgan style ghost dressed in Number 6's red dress from Battlestar Galactica.

Okay, I made that last one up.

What now for Season 5 which will be the last 12 episodes ever?

There won't be a guest star like Jimmy Smits in S3 and Lithgow in S4. There won't be a new serial killer.

Debra Morgan is the key and they have been moving the pieces slowly into place. She now knows Dexter is Brian "The Ice Truck Killer" Moser's brother. The police know someone set up Stan Beaudry as Trinity with DNA evidence (forensics background anyone?). Dexter has to explain Rita's death, Arthur Mitchell's presence at Homicide (Angel clearly saw him) and various other inconsistencies. Every season harks back in one way or another to previous events in S1 (notably Dexter's "birth" as a "monster") and he has now lost whatever moral compass he might have had with Rita gone.

Season 5 will be Dexter Morgan v Debra Morgan. How far is he prepared to go to keep his secret? How far is she prepared to go to reveal it? The stakes - Dexter either kills Debra or Debra reveals Dexter (leading to his execution). How much does he want to remain in the shadows, a monster? How much does she want to learn the truth in all its horror? Where will Harry Morgan's allegiance lie?

Usually each season starts with a time lapse from the previous season. I'd start S5 immediately from the drop-off point of S4 and watch Dexter dangle in the wind as he tries to cover tracks that tenacious and talented detective, Debra won't be able to help herself but uncover. Brother v sister, serial killer v cop, Dexter Morgan versus Debra Morgan.

Now THAT could be a sight to see, I tell you ... a sight to see ...

Avatar - I See (Through) You

I braved megaplex cinema hell on Tuesday to watch the most hyped film of the year ... and came away underwhelmed. Then I was overwhelmed (and perplexed) by the adulation for this movie by my learned film-making colleagues. Simply stated, I was bored for most of the running time of Avatar. No dramatic tension, no characters I had emotional buy-in for, no thrills or surprises. No matter how dazzling the technology, it can never replace the joy of a story well told.

My (tongue-in-cheek) review:

"Welcome to Pandora! Where exposition and bad dialogue thrive. Okay, yes, the technology was impressive though some of the creature designs were improbable at best (a beastie that evolved bullet proof armour in the shape of a hammer-head solely for the purpose of defeating: Iron Man, Imperial Walkers and souped up, 'Aliens' style power loaders = evolutionary genius!) and it was curious to see that helicopters now require two main rotors in the future while the humble wheelchair remains the pinnacle of paraplegic transportation.

The story makes no sense. The Company (obviously tired of trying to weaponise Aliens) goes to great expense to infiltrate the natives due to its fear of arrows. Giovanni Ribisi playing Paul Reiser playing Burke playing Parker wants to impregnate Sigourney Weaver with an Ali- ... oh, hang on ... no, he wants to obtain the unobtainium which is, um, unobtainable due to the dudes with arrows and big ears living in Rivendell ... I mean Treehome.

The cunning plan is to create Avatars that are identical to the natives in all respects ... except they wear pants and Marine tunics. Ken Watanabe (or was it Zoe Saldana?) then teaches Sam Worthington's avatar to be a samurai. This goes on for what seems like three hours with no stakes, no conflict and therefore little interest. Yawn.

Finally, the evil military dude sees the drawback of diplomacy (after a brief stint at Copenhagen no doubt) and decides some man-made global warming is in order.

The Ewoks are then rallied by Sam to defeat The Empire and bring peace to the Galaxy in a preposterous battle sequence that feels interminable.

I had no emotional buy-in with any character and for most of its length I was just bored. Technology cannot replace a story well told no matter how dazzling it may be."

Monday, December 28, 2009

HAF-less (but undeterred)

Not the phone call I was hoping for. Chris rang today - The Red Bride didn't make the cut for HAF. Disappointing news to be sure but not the end of the world (just the decade).

The submission was largely based on a synopsis, director's statement and various creative bios ... not the script. So maybe I suck at writing synopses (yes, negative writer self-talk ... it will pass in a day or so).

I am still very high on the script so now we work on the next draft and the strategy to get it produced. One door closes another ... yada yada yada.

Roll on 2010!

Colour Me Crazy (Priorities - 2010, Part 2)

Amidst the haze of festive celebration and work-free exuberance, I have been considering next year's writing assignments. Those few who have seen it, snicker at my excel spreadsheet that lists every single project - short, feature, tv series, play - I have tackled. Fifty-two (yes, 52) in total at last count (including 15 features and 3 short features). Some never survived past synopsis or concept stage, others have multiple drafts, a few were still born during the first draft. I keep tabs on these things as even the defunct scripts may have snippets of ideas or characters that could prove useful at some future date.

Some observations on going through the list - I am a screenwriter not a playwright. I want to write features not shorts. My natural inclination is high concept genre. I should stop running away from that. Practice makes, if not perfect, then more competent in the craft of screenwriting and visual storytelling. I think I'm ready now to write the sort of scripts that truly showcase my storytelling ability.

What does this mean for 2010? Less projects to actively work on for starters! Follow my story-telling instinct and not be boxed into thinking I have to write "Australian" films (whatever that means). Relinquish those scripts whose time has passed. Move onto new material.

This means The Tangled Web which has been optioned twice, received money from the AFC under their new screenwriters grant, at one stage had Tom Jeffrey (The Odd Angry Shot) attached as a "mentor producer", interest from Sam Worthington in the lead role, and has had 13 "official" drafts (who knows how many 'revisions'), goes in a drawer.

It means another favourite - In Total Unity - may only find renewed life as a co-production with the story reset to Hong Kong. That may depend entirely on whether I go to HAF in March.

The Red Bride remains very much active and I would expect to be doing new drafts throughout 2010.

But the new feature project will be a high concept hybrid genre piece (war meets supernatural thriller) called Trench. The concept excites me and I'm itching to begin ... but this one will be outlined and planned well in advance of script stage. In many ways, it is a logical successor to Iron Bird which also utilised both these genres.

On the television series front, I presented 6 concepts to my Forgeworks colleagues for T-Vis but tonight I decided which one I want to work on. Yes, the high concept science fiction drama that actually started life as the first script I ever wrote (just awful in terms of execution but has lots of nice ideas and is instructional as to what kind of writer I should be). Chances of being made by an Australian network? Zero. My interest level and passion? Off the charts. So stuff it, I'm going to write the daylights out of it.

Anything else - In and Under, Don't Come Monday, The Tangled Web et al - will require a producer pushing me to work on due to interest in the form of serious money to progress to production.

Finally, NO MORE FAVOURS. By this I mean writing assignments for friends or colleagues for no or minimal payment. I am starting to appreciate the value of time as a screenwriter and anything that takes me away from my main focus is detrimental.

As an aside, I sit here writing this at 4am when it is a lovely 22.4 degrees celcius. It is going to hit 40 today - hot in anyone's language. While I'm on holidays I can stay up crazy hours to write in cooler conditions and sleep during the day. What I'd give to be able to do that all the time!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


One of the skills I have yet to master in regard to screenwriting is waiting. Waiting for notes, waiting for feedback, waiting on funding panels and news of submissions. But wait we must as the HAF projects aren't announced until mid-January.

I've put the script aside and don't intend to look at it for a couple of more weeks yet. Needs fresh eyes and other readers at the moment.

In the meantime, I am finding great value in a couple of US blogs and a newly discovered podcast:

Script Shadow which reviews Hollywood spec scripts.

The Bitter Script Reader which gives an interesting insight from a US reader's perspective including do's and don't's.

The On The Page podcast which has a wide cross section of guests on a range of screenwriting subjects.

And, of course, the Creative Screenwriting Magazine podcasts.

But the waiting for Christmas is almost over, so have a good festive season and a creative 2010. I'm taking a break from the online world for a while so see you in a few weeks time for more misadventures!


Friday, December 18, 2009

Case Study - "Freeze-Frame"

Another question I usually get asked as a writer is, "what sort of things do you write about?" Well, a strong recurring theme in all my work is a blurring of fantasy and reality in many and varied ways - parallel worlds, fantasy constructs, the supernatural, the masks and disguises we wear to hide our true reality, the self-delusions we create. Not sure why or what that says about me but that's probably another discussion!

The short film Freeze-Frame, produced by Serena Ryan and directed by Iain Dawson, is a prime example of this duality. In this case, though, it was a script I never quite nailed. Too many ideas, too complicated and not clear what is real and what is imagined by the main character.

The original idea was that a jogger discovers a camera on the foreshore and accidentally takes a picture of himself which implicates him in a heinous crime. A friend read an early breakdown and offered, "what if he really did it?" That lead to the whole idea of the victim being the jogger's wife. In the story, the wife has left him for another man and he has photos from a private investigator of their illicit liaisons. The discovery of the camera leads him to fantasise about killing her (while he continues to jog) as he is unable to deal with his anger and bitterness at her betrayal. The laundry sequences, the second visit to the chemist, the detective interview, for example, are therefore all totally imagined.

The notion was that the act of unleashing his dark side is what eventually allows him to heal and achieve some form of closure. An unconventional thought but one I liked very much.

So this no-budget short is an insight into a developing story style that I continue to deploy - The Tangled Web has a heightened parallel world (cyberspace), The Red Bride plays with hallucination versus supernatural manifestation, Hotel Blue explores a fantasy construct created by self-delusion and the upcoming Trench could combine several of these facets, wrapped up in a pseudo-war genre.

Looking back at Freeze-Frame, the short is not the ideal format for this sort of layering. Immortal is also a complicated short script with a character in the grip of self-delusion. Neither script received funding support though Freeze-Frame was short-listed for FTI's Link programme a couple of years ago. THAT was an interesting panel interview!

So the lesson learnt is that features are the way to go to explore "the fantasies we create to deal with the realities of our lives".

Monday, December 14, 2009

Kanowna - from vision to page to screen

Today I had an opportunity to have a look at a fine cut of Chris Richards-Scully's short film, Kanowna. This takes me full circle from the days when we were breaking the story for The Red Bride when Chris would ask, "have I told you about Kanowna?" For a long time that's all I knew - a title!

Eventually, he pitched the story to me in typical director style - shot by shot. He could clearly see the film in his head so my response simply was, "write it down!". And to his credit he did.

I can't remember when he sent me a script but it must be well over a year ago. Very lyrical and very Chris with a focus on characters you don't normally see in Australian shorts, in this case, Japanese in the Kalgoorlie Goldfields circa 1902. I suggested stripping out some dialogue (and it was pretty sparse to begin with), tinkering with some lines and from memory, slightly re-arranging some sequences. We had a couple of meetings after which there was a pretty good draft.

Producers came and went, including a strange meeting I went to with one producer who had a different take on the story (that I didn't understand and certainly wasn't part of Chris' vision). A new draft was written. However, the lead actor - Dustin Clare - quite perceptively remarked to Chris that it seemed like the new draft was "explaining things". He was right - that draft was scrapped along with the producer.

So I had a pretty good idea of the story when I sat down to watch the fine cut. But it's always a treat to see words on a page turned into images on screen and while this hasn't been colour graded yet it looks terrific.

I knew from Chris' blog he was looking more for comments on structure and my main feedback was regarding the opening sequence. At the moment the film opens on the protagonist with some off screen dialogue that I remember from Chris' very first draft but here it jarred. It also didn't maximise the introduction of the antagonist - the beats just didn't feel right.

There is, however, a great cinematic introduction to that character in the next scene and I suggested dropping the O.S. and building to the essential conflict in the story. That's as much an intuitive story-telling thing than anything else but Chris and the editor Sarah Clarke were appreciative of the different perspective. It will be interesting to see how it plays when they take another swing at that sequence.

Ultimately, it's all about making the film as good as it can possibly be. There was probably a gap of over a year between when I was assisting with the script to the screening of the fine cut where I had no involvement at all. But being able to contribute in any way is always a privilege.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Vault - "Hotel Blue", Part 1

A glorious experiment ahead of its time in 2002 that may find new life in the next decade in more traditional form. The original idea from producer Tony Eades: an interactive television drama where the audience could choose how the story progressed.

My involvement - a writing friend had recommended me as someone who "could write fast". To this day I don't know what that meant but meet Tony I did. His pitch - an interactive story about a security guard in a five star hotel ... adventures ensue.

I suggested other writers and Michael Bond was already on board as director. The first task - to demonstrate that an interactive drama could work. Remember, this is 7 years ago and right before shows like Fat Cow Motel (ABC) and TwentyfourSeven (SBS) also dabbled with interactive elements.

But Tony envisaged something far more complicated than audience voting at the end of each episode for next week's storyline. He wanted voting within the episode!

The other writers who came on board were Anna Bennetts, Hellie Turner and Gerry Lyng taking the creative team to six. It was decided to shoot a "pilot" with a simple premise that could generate multiple story strands. Sounds easy but was incredibly complicated when voting choices happened at two separate points. Given this, the brief was for each writer to develop scenes where: it's the security guard's first day, money has been stolen from the hotel safe, he kisses "the girl".

I still remember the afternoon we read out our scenes. I went last and totally bamboozled everyone with a scene where our hero appears at one stage in pyjamas, finds syringes and other strange goings-on as is my want.

Then I uttered the fateful explanation - "because he's not really a security guard in a five star hotel, he's a drug addict in a rehab centre who thinks he's a security guard in a five star hotel". Michael did his best Marty Feldman impersonation and immediately tapped into the Lynchian possibilities. Not everyone else was as enthused though Anna liked the notion and I can't recall Tony's immediate reaction.

But to me it added depth and layers to what could have been merely an interactive version of Las Vegas. It posed a few problems - the writing of the pilot ended up being quite contentious as eventually Tony decided that only Michael and I would complete the shooting draft after some resistance to the direction the project was evolving. The second was around copyright issues given that it was the execution of two distinct ideas that contributed to a greater whole. Both those matters could have been better handled but at the time production deadlines loomed and some of the niceties were lost.

Ultimately a 50 minute pilot was shot using professional actors and Central TAFE students as crew. There is much to like about the results though it's not a true pilot, more a hybrid of what the show could be.

Hotel Blue was accepted into the inaugural X-Media Lab in Sydney, 2003 though, from memory, only Tony attended as ScreenWest did not offer funding support for this initiative ... until the next year!

But this is only the beginning of the Hotel Blue journey and befitting its identity, unexpected twists and turns lie ahead ...

To be continued

Sunday, December 6, 2009

AFI Awards - Screenwriting

It's pretty much a lay down misere that Warwick Thornton will win Best Original Screenplay at the Australian Film Institute awards next Saturday. Not my cup of tea story-telling wise but Samson and Delilah is universally acclaimed and lauded. The complete absence of dialogue between the two leads struck me as a huge contrivance but apparently that's just me.

The Adapted Screenplay category should prove far more interesting with two films of the "bleak" school (Beautiful Kate and Blessed) up against Mao's Last Dancer and Balibo. With Australian box office earnings now over $14 million dollars I am hoping Jan Sardi (MLD) wins in a cakewalk.

What do you think? Who wrote the best adapted screenplay of 2009? (vote in the poll ----->).

Do you agree S&D will romp in best original screenplay or will there be a surprise result?

If Rachel Ward wins for BK will she tell us all to take our dark, bleak, depressing medicine and learn to love it?

Will anyone mention Jim Schembri in their acceptance speech?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Script Mathematics

I have a tendency when rewriting feature scripts to start from page one at every sitting. I recall Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Insider, Munich) on one of the Creative Screenwriting Magazine podcasts saying he does something similar but how the math(s) is all screwed up. Obviously you spend more time on the first half of the script than the end.

I finished a new draft of The Red Bride last night (well, technically 6am this morning) and the first half feels really polished - of course - whereas most of the changes are happening in the 3rd act which feels a little wild and woolly.

To counteract my natural tendency (read obsession?) I am only going to print out the last forty pages to work on revisions before getting notes from my Forgeworks colleagues.

The climax has a very tricky sequence that I suspect I'll be rewriting many more times (and there have been numerous stabs at the 3rd act over several drafts) but I am happy with how far the script has progressed.

But for now page one is quarantined!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Interesting ...

... that of the five projects chosen for Screen Australia's Springboard initiative, two were sci-fi thrillers, one a sci-fi drama, the other two a supernatural thriller and a conspiracy thriller. THREE science fiction, FOUR thrillers ... perhaps the Australian film industry has begun to turn the corner and embrace genre after all. No more bleakness!

ps congratulations to WA team Zak Hilditch (writer-director) and Liz Kearney (producer) who were selected

... three hour conversation today with a gentlemen who is literally trying to change the world. He is a member of the Saturday afternoon luncheon gang that frequents the University Club and sought me out to write a pitch for a documentary based on his activities. An interesting networking connection. Alas, it means I'm a day behind delivering the next draft of The Red Bride.

... to see the turnout for last night's Script Lab where another local thriller script was read by professional actors including Tammy Clarkson (The Circuit). A work in progress, it clearly shows there's an interest in genre, this one in the vein of East West 101 meets 24 ... on the big screen!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Priorities - 2010

At the Forgeworks business meeting on Sunday, once we had dispensed with some housekeeping and other related company issues, we began to outline the plan for 2010.

I have a tendency to work on too many projects so this will prove invaluable in narrowing my writing focus for the next 12-18 months. I need to become ruthless about what I work on (no distractions, no favours, no tangents!).

The time line also includes target dates for funding rounds and markets so I know exactly when drafts and/or supporting material is required. No more mad panic all nighters to meet insanely short deadlines!

I have been listening to US-centric screenwriting podcasts and reading more Hollywood oriented blogs which is giving me a better appreciation of the standards and habits required. I don't consider myself a disciplined writer - when I'm "in the zone" I fly, when I'm not I procrastinate like crazy - but somehow I manage to have a lot of material in "various stages of disrepair" as I usually describe it. I'd even go so far as to say some of it is pretty good ... some of it needs more work ( ... some needs to be locked in a small wooden chest in a basement and never heard of again).

So the plan is one new feature script per year - as in a polished script which may mean [x] numbers of drafts. 2010 will be the year of Trench, a big budget, high concept idea that I am very excited about and follows my usual pattern of adding an idea to, in this case Chris' original premise, to create something more layered and powerful. More on that later. This one may be written purely as a potential spec sale and requires a lot of research and a full treatment before I go anywhere near script stage.

Two of my other feature scripts - The Red Bride and The Tangled Web will get rewrites dependent on market interest; and for a third project In Total Unity I will write a pitch/synopsis adapting the existing script to a Hong Kong setting for when we go to HAF in March.

Other than that, I have sent six TV series concepts to my Forgeworks colleagues to choose what may be suitable for ScreenWest's T-Vis initiative. I will also write one final short film for FTI's Link initiative that will dazzle with its simplicity and elegance.

And finally, I embrace these words - To thine own self be true. I have a certain story telling style that may not be considered "Australian" but now is the time to be true to who I am as a writer and not churn out what I think local funding bodies want to read/fund.

2010 is the year to bring the A game ...