Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Chinese Opera Principle

Before you all mutter, "I thought you weren't going to espouse screenwriting theory in your blog, Richard" (as discussed here), let me preface my remarks.

One of my favourite movies is Amadeus. Wonderful performances, great story and the glorious music of a bona fide genius. Plus those [insert gushing adjective here] set piece scenes from Mozart's operas - the ballet from The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute - all used as integral parts of the story - respectively, the politics between the Italians, Mozart and the Emperor; the catalyst for Salieri's terrible plan when he sees Mozart haunted from the grave by his father; Mozart's descent into madness and ill health.

The Red Bride incorporates Chinese culture and mythology ... sooooooo ... why not sneak in a funky east meets west homage to one of my favourite movies by including a little Chinese opera? There's even a lovely visual - the first few rows are left vacant during the Hungry Ghost Festival so that the spirits can enjoy the show. Add some texture by staging an opera sequence that reflects the narrative and you have a nice filmic moment that adds colour and spice, right?
Yes! ... except the director, Chris, HATES the idea.

Now, one of the things I love about writing is the collaborative stuff - story meetings, brainstorming, long creative sessions with whiteboards and coffee. But at the end of the day there needs to be a consensus.

Of course, this didn't stop me from dropping in "the Chinese Opera sequence" in every draft, moving it around, typically in the second act and hoping it would "get past the keeper" (to use an Australian expression).

But Chris would hone in on it every time like a cruise missile in a target rich environment. We'd "debate", I'd lose, on to the next pass. I'd sneak it back in, he'd brandish the metaphorical red pen, on to the next clandestine attempt and so on ...

It has now dropped out of the script but it is a long-standing joke between us (I'm sure, to the producers' bemusement). This has all been done in an amiable way. Why? It does not impact the narrative spine. Some of you will ask, why bother? To me it's a moment to let the film breathe in a way that is visually interesting and culturally relevant. Chris is strict about not wanting to, as he terms it, "exotic-ise" the cultural aspects.

So The Chinese Opera Principle is my code for the necessary compromises you make as part of a collaborative medium. I'm lucky in many ways, as I have Chris, Jocelyn and David to bounce off and incorporate their views during the drafting process. However, if it had been an issue that I thought damaged the narrative spine then I would "go into bat" (another Aussie phrase). But as most screenwriters know - you need to pick your battles carefully ...

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tales from the Script

A couple of YouTube excerpts from what looks like a must-see film for screenwriters ...

Screenwriting Competitions

One of the topics in yesterday’s wide ranging discussion was screenwriting competitions. The two specifically mentioned were Scriptapalooza and the Nicholl Fellowship. While both are no doubt ultra-competitive, the benefits of being read by industry professionals and that level of exposure for the script and writer is compelling.

Has anyone submitted scripts to these or any other high profile competition and, if so, what was the experience like? Did you register your script with the WGA first? Get requests for the script or contacts from production companies after the competition? Did it further your writing career?

All feedback greatly appreciated!


Thursday, January 28, 2010

Into the Fray once more ...

In the immortal words of Jed Bartlet, "Break's over!" Yes, it's time to dive headlong back into the fray.
While waiting on notes from my Forgeworks colleagues, I've sent The Red Bride script to a select group of readers and have a meeting with the local funding agency tomorrow. Basically I'm seeking fresh eyes and constructive feedback before tackling the next draft.

But it's also the start of submission season. First up, the Warnock Award for unproduced feature scripts. I was shortlisted last year for The Tangled Web but didn't make it out of the interview. I'll roll the dice with TRB and see what happens. If anything, it's another set of readers and scrutiny by a panel of industry professionals.

The winner receives a small grant to hire a script editor and I have a left of field idea about who I'd approach for that role ... if the planets align and I was fortunate enough to win. The subsequent draft is then sent to a script assessment service in London.

So the level of rigour around the script is quite high. Exactly what I'm looking for - to be challenged to make it (and myself) better ... with the ultimate goal to get the script in good enough shape to attract serious production funding/finance. Might even consider a script reading at PAC later in the year.

In the meantime, I wait for notes. I'm actually quite relaxed which is a good sign. Usually I'm a nervous wreck. I take this as progress ...

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Bottom Drawer

In these environmentally conscious times it's important to recycle, right? And for screenwriters that means delving into the bottom drawer. The place where expired and unfinished scripts lurk. Where half baked ideas and unformed characters await the spark of renewed inspiration.

Every writer should have one – a metaphorical bottom drawer that is. It should be viewed as a positive thing ... and an opportunity. Sometimes a script isn’t ready to be told. Sometimes the writer isn’t ready to tell it. It’s amazing what a fresh set of eyes and the passing of time can do.

One of my feature scripts has recently been deposited in the bottom drawer. Its window has expired and my enthusiasm for it has waned. But it’s a good script and, with an overhaul of the technology underpinning the story, it could be resurrected. After enough time has passed for me to look at it with fresh eyes and renewed passion.

The flipside is the unexpected discovery at the bottom of the pile. The very first script I ever wrote – a science fiction epic – when I had no idea what I was doing, has been dusted off and given an outing. I’ve always like the world, the premise and the characters but never quite nailed the story. I recently wrote a two page outline of the concept and sent it to Chris (director) who is also a science fiction fan. And he loved the idea.

The question now – is it a feature of a television series? It also fits thematically with a science fiction idea he has been toying with. So we have agreed that, while not a priority project for 2010, we will develop it during any ‘downtime’.

I also sent a low budget feature script to an upcoming producer with a view to a staged development path targeted for a specific funding initiative. I haven’t worked on it for 3-4 years and it’s essentially a first draft but he likes it as well. I need the impetus from another party to get me back into the Goldmanesque pit on that one. Basically three characters, one location, dialogue heavy and an exploration of what happens when you put people under stress in a constricted space.

I am ready to move onto a new feature project so my mindset is one of ‘clearing house’. What product of decent quality is in the bottom drawer and who might be interested in optioning or developing it. Because, let’s face it, completed scripts are a product with an inherent value and before I lock that drawer I want to test ‘the market’.

My priority remains The Red Bride for Forgeworks and this new script (which I’ll talk about in coming posts) but let the fire sale begin on older scripts that are currently unencumbered.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Running times

Invictus opens in Australia today and I was all geared up to go see it until I saw the running time, listed variously at between 133 to 144 minutes. Stopped me cold.

Why? Over 2 hours to tell a story about a Rugby World Cup even with the presence of Nelson Mandela and the impact on South Africa seems excessive. I know it will be 30 minutes too long and I'll be struggling. And there is nothing worse than being held captive in a dark, cavernous place surrounded by strangers with no prospect of early release. You have to sit the damn thing out.

That's why movie running times are important to me. I will not see a comedy that is over 1 hour 40 minutes. Simply won't do it. These 2 hour plus comedies are bloated beyond belief and there's no comedic premise that needs that amount of time ie it is bad storytelling.

For dramas, two hours is about right unless it is an epic. As in, there better damn well be trolls and wizards or a thousand extras having at it like the dogs of war if it's way over the 2 hour mark. Not a cute mouse. Yes, I'm talking to you Mister Darabont.

The trend, the last few years, seems to be that movies are getting longer. But my body clock (or is it my storytelling clock?) tells me they are, on average, twenty minutes over long. Maybe I have a shorter than usual attention span, but why are film-makers consistently dragging things out?

On the flip side, a lot of Australian movies seem to struggle to make even 90 minutes. Anything under that makes me equally nervous. Usually concerns about the absence of a third act.

What are your thoughts on running times? Do you factor it in when choosing what movie to go see?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Spitballing & Shooting the Breeze

Two acts, to use the American vernacular, invaluable to a screenwriter.

Yesterday I was shooting the breeze with writer-director Michael Bond (Passengers, Bad Credit and Aliens) in a restaurant bar in Northbridge for a couple of hours. Engaging tales of his experiences in Hollywood, the upcoming series for SyFy channel, new methods of distribution for independent films and an update on the progress of Hotel Blue. Very entertaining indeed. Even the pizza was good.

Today was a marathon session with director Chris Richards-Scully where we spitballed ideas on brand marketing using social media, the feature version (that Chris is writing) of his short film Kanowna, next steps for The Red Bride and business strategies for 2010. In this case the strawberry smoothie at the local cafe was most refreshing.

(Yes, it is mandatory for these two activities to be accompanied by food and beverages).

Not a bad way to pass the time on the hottest two days in Perth (42 degrees Celsius) since Hades opened a separate annex for followers of Twilight, zombie films and Sarah Palin ...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The PAC Experience

Next week is the annual PAC (Perth Actors Collective) party where, amongst other things, the best actor, director and writer of 2009's screen workshops is recognised.

I haven't been for a couple of years. Ever since my no-show in 2007 where one of my writing colleagues believed that, due to my AWG membership, I wouldn't attend "award ceremonies" in support of my striking American brethren! He went on to win Best Writer while I picketed at home :-)

But it's made me think about my "PAC experience", somewhat of an institution in the Perth film community. I did some 8 workshops between 2005-2007. Before then I stoically ignored the constant stream of flyers that were mailed to me (mistakenly) thinking the workshops were more for actors and directors.

The catalyst for my change of heart? One of my feature screenplays made the Top 50 of the inaugural Project Greenlight Australia in 2005. If it went any further there was the distinct possibility I would be asked to direct things including, if I won, my script. Having never been to film school or used a video camera before this was a pretty scary proposition. So PAC to the rescue.

In hindsight, it was crazy to think I'd become a director overnight but the experience was beneficial in many other ways. The script - a first draft - was read at PAC Script Lab which was exciting and terrifying but it didn't progress any further in PGLA.

During PAC1 I shot two scenes - my first and only directorial pieces. At that time all the assigned scenes were either existing Hollywood (Witches of Eastwick seemed to be a big favourite) or Australian television scripts. I was given a Blue Heelers scene. It was terrible so I rewrote it, borrowed a friend's camera then muddled through shooting a two-hander. The only thing I remember from the review night was the comment about the low socio-economic location. It was shot at my block of units!

I enjoyed the experience but it reinforced that I am definitely a writer with no great passion to direct. It helped that we had a great PAC1 group - Henry went on to win 2 "Stani's" for overall excellence, I won 2 for writing, James another for writing and is nominated again in '09. As well as a small group of talented actors.

Onto PAC2 and I figured the only way to earn my keep was to write original scenes which I proceeded to do through the next seven workshops. By my last workshop in 2007 all the scenes submitted were original pieces as a talented crop of writer-directors and writers saw the value of honing their own narrative storytelling craft. Sure, there were some misfires but it was a chance to experiment and learn in a predominantly 'safe' environment.

PAC is also an excellent networking opportunity (no doubt helped by the proximity of The Belgian Beer Cafe to the King Street location and then Paddy Maguires when Annie moved to the Subiaco Arts Centre). Apart from friendships made, there are directors and actors I've worked with outside of PAC and who I keep in mind when writing, either for roles or as part of the creative team for funding submissions.

I can't stress this enough. Some people occasionally think it's "only PAC" but people are watching - to see who is talented, who is serious about their craft, how people work in a team or under stress. They also notice the tantrums, the no-shows, whether people are reliable. If you can't commit in the workshop why would someone take a risk on you in a paid gig?

I "resigned" at the end of 2007 because, in my mind, it was time to "graduate". Since then I've been developing feature film projects largely under the Forgeworks banner.

I miss the camaraderie of PAC, the challenge of writing original pieces in a short period of time, and that sense of community I imagine is similar to film school. One of the highlights was the night Charles "Bud" Tingwell spoke to us for about 90 minutes on everything from Richard Burton to The Castle. Fascinating and unfortunately all too brief.

I remain an avid supporter of the PAC Script Labs and who knows, one day I might sign up for a PAC2 workshop and have another swing at a few original pieces ...

Until then, I have checked with the WGA and I'm allowed to attend award ceremonies again, so come up and say hello on Thursday.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What happened to Science Fiction in Oz?

When I was growing up in idyllic Cottesloe (beachside suburb of Perth), I fondly remember watching science fiction shows in prime-time like the original Battlestar Galactica, Space 1999, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and my favourite, U.F.O.

Since those halcyon days, science fiction on free-to-air television has been banished to the graveyard shift and is largely an afterthought. Recently, the SyFy channel on Foxtel has sought to redress the balance but every time I check it out I invariably get one of two franchises - Star Trek or Stargate - with all their various off-shoots.

And after the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica I have trouble with what I jokingly call "Prosthetics City" type shows. Let's play spot the actor that just spent 4 -6 hours in a make-up chair to put a coloured ridge on his forehead. Yes, Ronald D Moore has ruined science fiction for me by making it gritty and real. All for the better in my opinion.

I was vaguely aware of shows like Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9 but pilots would get a prime-time airing like Star Trek Voyager then disappear, quite literally into the Delta Quadrant of television programming, never to be seen again.

So if it can't get programmed here in a decent time slot what of locally made Australian science fiction television? Well, apart from Farscape which was shot in Sydney, I can't think of a single show!

I find this puzzling for two reasons:

1) Good science fiction always shines a light on current issues and society in a way no other genre can. BSG was quite brilliant in its examination of a raft of issues from terrorism to insurgencies to genocide which would not have been possible in anything other than science fiction.

Has the audience been so dumbed down by years of reality television that they reject science fiction shows as worthy of prime-time viewing?

2) Of the top hundred worldwide box office champs (admittedly unadjusted for inflation), 23 are science fiction films. Audiences flock to see even bad science fiction (Star Wars prequels anyone?) at the megaplexes. Yet on the box it is ratings poison in Australia.

It's a conundrum I don't understand. Sure, those shows back in 70s could be quite lightweight but they certainly transported me to other worlds and into a rich realm of imagination.

Chris and I half-jokingly talk about our ideal television project being a re-imagining of Gerry Anderson's U.F.O., the live action stablemate to the better known Thunderbirds. That show was about aliens coming to Earth to harvest human body parts and the secret organisation, SHADO, that was tasked to stop them.

Aliens, borders, homeland security, illegal immigrants, civil liberties, Patriot and similar acts around the world. Secret organisations. Any resonance with present day issues? Would make a hell of a show.

Putting the rights issue aside (many have tried with Space 1999 being the offspring of one of those attempts), could I ever envisage an Australian network that would back it? Maybe one day ... in the distant future. When Borg technology has salvaged all those lost shows drifting aimlessly in the Delta Quadrant of FTA television ...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Beneath Hill 60

This is an upcoming Australian film set in the underground tunnels of World War I where miners from both sides attempt to dig under No-man's land and (literally) undermine the enemy.

"... after two years of claustrophobia and bloodshed, of triumph and heartbreak, it all comes down to a single moment. As infantrymen quietly fix bayonets in the darkness, Oliver Woodward crouches in a muddy bunker preparing to press a detonator that could change the course of the war ..."

There is an excellent website with details of the production, historical information and photos, as well as a blog that tracks progress "... from the development stages and pre-production to the shoot and post-production."

I have often lamented the absence of movies based on Australian historical events so I'm really looking forward to seeing this.

What other events from our history (other than Ned Kelly!) would you like to see on screen? Are you working on an historical piece right now?

Next PAC Script Lab

6pm Wednesday 27th January at the Subiaco Arts Centre.

Clyde & Bonnie by Adrian McFarlane.

More details here.

Have you been to a script reading? What did you think?
Have you had a script read? Was it a useful exercise?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Screenwriting Theory ... in practice

It appears to me that the internet, through blogs, podcasts and other web 2.0 tools, has been the catalyst for an explosion in tips, theories, laws, rules, guidelines, encyclicals and arcane pagan rituals about the craft of writing for the big screen.

Type "screenwriting" into Google and you get 1,880,000 results! There's a bewildering array of information. That's before you even get to the books, manuals and lecture circuit (the most famous of which is Robert McKee's, pictured above).

Now, at the risk of being called a heretic, most of it seems to have very little to do with the actual art of writing. The more I read about what I'm supposed to be doing (according to the learned scribes) the less capable I am of doing it.

*diagram by Charles Deemer chosen at random from a google search of "screenwriting diagrams" and in no way meant to imply the information is incorrect but used as an example only.

I call it the Tin Cup principle. In that movie, Kevin Costner becomes totally bamboozled when he uses a 'training aid' to correct his golf swing to calamitous results. The more he thought about the mechanics of what he was doing, the worse he became.

Is screenwriting like the perfect golf swing? In many ways, I think it is. Sure, I need to know the fundamentals of my craft (ie storytelling) but when I sit down to write I want to be creative NOT analytical.

As I mentioned previously in this blog, I attempted to use Vogler's Hero's Journey once and by the end of it I wanted to sieze the damn sword and bash the threshold guardian to the innermost cave of my creativity over the head with it.

For me, writing is organic, not a series of steps or benchmarks to hit. I find most screenwriting books incredibly dry and, as a consequence, have read very few. I DO, however, like going to seminars and workshops which can be much more hands on, entertaining and interactive. Linda Aronson, for example, when she was in Perth a few years ago or Duncan Thompson. Perhaps just the way I learn and take things in.

Where I think judicious use of theory can be useful is in the rewriting process and when discussing notes. This IS the analytical side of writing but until you have a draft to dissect then getting bogged down in all the competing voices of what "you must do" is self-defeating in my opinion.

I raise this as I will soon turn my attention to a new feature script. I intend to start with a beat sheet and then a scene breakdown so I know what my story is before I get anywhere near script stage. I have a rough idea of what the "turning points" are and the "inciting incident" and what the "climax" should be. But I'm not fussed about that too much yet - I want the story and characters to organically grow and leave lots of room for spontaneity and surprise. Not worry that "this" has to happen by "that" page number and blah blah blah.

So by all means, read all the maxims and "rules" that are out there. But my advice would be to forget them when you sit down to write that very first draft when creativity is paramount. Then resurrect the ones that make sense (to you) when you come to the task of rewriting.

Do you agree or am I way off the mark? Would be interested in other writer's thoughts.

Speaking of McKee, I leave you with this scene from Adaptation.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Vault - "The Funding Application"

Noodling around my various folders looking for late night inspiration I discovered this sketch I wrote back in 2005 for a proposed Channel 31 comedy show called "Piss Take". I'm still in therapy over that little saga but here is "The Funding Application" with a pinch of sarcasm, dollop of scepticism and a healthy dash of Python:

A desk is located in the middle of a suburban oval. An officious looking BUREAUCRAT (B) makes sure everything is perfectly aligned. A FILM-MAKER (F) with folder walks towards the desk.

B: Yes, may I help you?
F: Is this the local film funding office?
B: It certainly is!
F: Great, I have an idea for a film!
B: Oh, you want the carpark down the road then.
F: Excuse me?
B: If you turn left at the roundabout then take the second right, drive a mile or so, take another right, it’s the little layoff at the end of the cul-de-sac past the gravel road near the largest pothole.
F: Aren’t you the local funding body?
B: Yes, how may I help you?
F: I have a film proposal!
B: Sorry, we don’t fund proposals.

The film-maker opens his folder.

F: I have a script!
B: No, don’t fund them either.
F: Treatments, storyboards, three page synopsis …
B: Sorry?
F: It’s a gripping story about the human spirit triumphing against all odds in a world full of greed and self-interest. A sweeping science fiction romance set in the near future that has pulsating action and intense drama with a powerful statement about the human condition.
B: Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear but we only fund films here.
F: If you’d just read the script.
B: Why on earth would I want to do that?
F: What?
B: Look, I’m sure it’s very good, just not for us I’m afraid.
F: You haven’t even looked at it yet?
B: Oh, you have here with you? Excellent!

The bureaucrat pulls a projector out from under the desk, starts to set it up.

F: What are you doing?
B: Still waiting for the DVD player I’m afraid. I’m told next financial year, fingers crossed.
F: I haven’t made it yet.
B: Sorry, can’t help you then.
F: But that’s the whole point!
B: I don’t follow.
F: You give me money to make my film.
B: Don’t be absurd. That’s positively the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.
F: It’s all right here, on paper.
B: We don’t fund words … we fund films, moving pictures, the cinema, celluloid, the occasional digital image … if times are tough. This is merely … literature.
F: I want to talk to your supervisor.
B: Very well then.

The bureaucrat puts on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.

B: Yes Sir, how can I be of assistance?
F: Yes, I’d like to … hang on a minute, what are you doing? Oh, this is stupid!
B: If you can’t be civil, I shall have to ask you to leave.
F: This is absurd, I have this perfectly decent idea for a film and all I want is to submit a funding application.
B: As my subordinate no doubt told you Sir, we are not in the business of funding words.
F: Ah, you’re not fooling me - you are one and the same, identical, indeed the very selfsame person.
B: Some people have commented on a certain resemblance, that’s true.
F: Resemblance – all you did was put on a pair of glasses and a posh voice.
B: There’s no need to criticise how some people talk Sir.
F: I don’t want to make any trouble, just read the bloody script, okay?
B: I can’t.
F: What do you mean you can’t?
B: It’s against the rules.
F: What rules?
B: Oh, alright, I can’t read. Are you happy now?
F: You’re in charge of funding and you can’t read?
B: Never seemed necessary really. I’ve got a damn good eye though – do you have any sweeping vistas, any glowing outback scenery? Every Australian movie needs a good outback sunset or two … maybe over a sheep station?
F: I don’t believe this. Is there a manager I can talk to?
B: One moment please.

The film-maker turns his back in disgust, scans the oval. The bureaucrat puts on a hat and a fake moustache.

B: Is this the trouble maker Thompson?
F: (turning around) Yes, look, there’s been some sort of misunderstanding …
B: I’ll say. I’ve reviewed your material and you’ve completely misread the guidelines. There’s not a single outback sunset, no gratuitous shots of the Sydney Opera House or any other famous landmarks for that matter … and worst of all there’s this nonsense about exploring the human condition and hints of what might actually be a storyline. We do not fund this sort of shoddy work.
F: But surely it deserves a chance.
B: Have you seen any Australian movies recently?
F: (chastened) Can you give me any tips to improve it?
B: Set it on a sheep station, make all the main characters gay or retarded and have them sit around all day moaning about relationship issues in thick ocker slang – throw in a bit of stereotypical Aussie humour and I guarantee you’ll get a two, maybe three day run at the local RSL hall.
F: Oh, that’s wonderful, more than I could have dreamed of.
B: Here’s a Visa application form – max out all your credit cards to make it and you’ll be on your way to an AFI Award in no time.
F: Oh thank you Sir, thank you so much!

The film-maker shakes the bureaucrat’s hand enthusiastically before trekking across the oval to his car.

Of course, I wouldn't dream of writing a sketch like that NOW, would I? *wink*

Postscript (aka The Universe works in mysterious ways)

Today my 20+ year old television stopped working. Within 12 hours of me deciding to go cold turkey on the whole Facebook addiction debacle.

I know this because I can hear my cable tv channels, can't see 'em anymore. Looks like DVDs are out too.

I don't watch much free-to-air television (except when the AFL season is on) and most of what's on cable is recycled pap. Will miss my NBA, EPL and History Channel though.

But clearly the universe has decided to meet me half way and say, "enough with the piss-farting around, get on with it!"

No television. What a concept. Not sure I can afford a new one right now after recently buying a car on finance. Might save some money by cancelling the Foxtel subscription though.

More reading. More writing. More going to the movies.

Funny how the universe works ...

The Fine Art of Procrastination

I have never considered myself a disciplined writer. When I'm on, I "fly", when I'm not, I procrastinate. Technology has been a significant enabler to my exquisitely honed skills in this regard.

I discovered the internet when I was still in Sydney circa 1997-98 and soon thereafter the joy of chat rooms. The feature script The Tangled Web was born from many personal experiences, suitably exaggerated for dramatic effect. Just when I thought I had escaped the tedium of chat, along comes MySpace followed a little while later by the ultimate procrastination device, Facebook. Thankfully, I regard Twitter as the first sign of the Apocalypse and have resisted its facile brevity.

But there's just no getting around it - I have an addiction. And like any addiction it, at times, cripples my productivity and creativity. I suspect it is because all of the above are writers' mediums. Online, the power of language and the written word allows me to be an extrovert whereas in real life I am anything but.

I have struggled with this over the years much to my friends' amusement and my dismay. Internet addiction is a growing phenomena but not as well understood as more traditional forms. Tonight I deactivated my Facebook account (not the first time, perhaps for the last) as I've not been focussing on my writing projects while I'm on holidays. And that makes me angry and stressed.

Part of me laments all the talented and interesting friends I've "abandoned" but that's mostly the addiction speaking. I need to do this for me to get back on track with the things I am most passionate about - namely my writing.

Someone suggested I only log in for an hour a day as a "treat". That reminded me of the great scene from The West Wing below where Leo McGarry explains what it means to be an alcoholic. John Spencer won an Emmy, in large part for his performance in this episode. I know exactly what Leo means ...

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Vault - "Hotel Blue", Part 2

At the end of Part 1 we had a 50 minute, interactive "pilot" where each story strand was about 13 minutes long with elements of the supernatural, hallucination and self-delusion. Our hero, on the surface, was a security guard in a 5-star hotel but there was a hell of a lot more going on as the pilot hinted at.

The producer, Tony Eades, then went to Sydney, MIPTV and London where there was interest but no development money as a firm commitment to the concept. Tony was pushing the interactive elements but in 2003 this was still ahead of its time, particularly the way we had structured it.

So Hotel Blue ended up in a drawer. Michael Bond went to Los Angeles, Tony established his printing business and I drifted onto other scripts.

Until an unexpected opportunity arose to revitalise the project. As I recounted in The Red Bride development notes, there was a "script dating" night in 2005 between local writers and producers. My final meeting of the evening was with Sue Taylor from Taylor Media. Sue was in the middle of producing Last Train to Freo, was tired and opened with a volley about how she was over having to beg, borrow, (not quite) steal for a low budget feature!

Okay, so I wasn't going to pitch my low budget feature and you don't pitch shorts to someone like Sue. Impulsively, I pitched Hotel Blue ... and Sue was interested. Interested enough for Tony and I to have at least one meeting and possibly two (my memory is hazy about the details back then).

Out of this I suggested to Tony that we re-engage Michael in LA which was to prove a fateful decision. Why? Because the Americans loved the concept (minus the interactive element)! By this stage Michael had a manager and was doing the hard yards to establish himself in the movie capital of the world. He also had a connection with another ex-pat Australian screenwriter, Michael Petroni who had his own high-powered manager.

To cut to the chase, Michael asked us if it was alright to approach Petroni as our chances of getting a series up in the US would be increased by his involvement. We said yes, but as we did so I also pretty much knew we'd lost control of the project. Phone conferences were held and we workshopped what the series would be about, keeping the key element of the duality of the main character and the world he was in/had created. There is even an outline for a 'proper' pilot that I had written.

During this, a decision was made (that I was never comfortable with) to not advise or include the other three writers of the (Central TAFE) "pilot". This was most problematic for me as I was friends with the other three and most likely to have ongoing interactions. Having to stonewall or lie was not something I appreciated. But it was agreed that Tony, Michael and myself were the key creatives even though there was no formal agreement (not through lack of trying).

Michael always returns to Perth for Christmas and at the start of 2006 things had progressed to the extent that his manager was pushing for an agreement that authorised Michael to act on behalf of the three of us "in the room". The intent was for Michael and Petroni to pitch to (at one stage) HBO and Showtime.

An agreement was finally drafted and signed at Perth Airport as Michael was literally departing for LA. I won't go into the terms of that agreement but suffice to say I probably wouldn't sign it today. It gives Tony and I some coverage but the upshot is that Michael and Petroni have been developing the concept and Tony and I have had no further creative input.

My frustration has been further exacerbated by, from my perception, a general lack of information on progress. I know they were taking meetings and at one stage James Mangold (Walk the Line) was being talked about as director of any pilot with John Cusack in the lead. But nothing came of this with Michael only saying that they were sticking to the original concept and resisting attempts to 'develop' it into something else.

Michael and Petroni are now writing a series for the SyFy channel with Brian Singer as executive producer which will give them much more leverage with the Hotel Blue concept. It's fair to say my relationship with Michael has been strained by all this but I can only hope he does the right thing by Tony and myself if the show ever gets up.

He is an excellent writer and I admire his gumption to up stumps and go to LA ... but a more inclusive approach was certainly warranted. A hard lesson about the nature of the industry.

I don't know what Hotel Blue looks like now (and doubt that would be its title anymore) but, in its original form, it is an archetypal story type for me where reality and fantasy collide. Something that I will reprise in my next project, Trench ...

Monday, January 4, 2010

Development Notes - The Red Bride

The feature script The Red Bride originally started life as a short feature called Shar Chi written by Coral Drouyn based on an idea by Chris Richards-Scully. They shared joint copyright and the script was, as I understand it, submitted to ScreenWest's Family Matters initiative around 2002.

The story tells of a traumatised Chinese-Australian girl who is haunted during Seventh Moon by a demon created by her estranged Chinese grandfather's past misdeeds.

The source of the trauma? Her mother's suicide. Manifested by self mutilation, drug taking and casual sex (the first and third now absent, the drug taking still present in a different context).

The mythology? The Hungry Ghost Festival where the gates of Hell are opened and demons walk the earth during the seventh lunar month.

The grandfather's guilt? An act from his past in China circa 1949.

The tag line? You can't run from the demons of your past.

The girl must confront and uncover her grandfather's secret to defeat the demon. Which in this version ended in a CGI style supernatural confrontation.

My involvement started in 2005 when I met one of the producers, Jocelyn Quioc, at a Writers' Guild-SPAA "script dating" night. Ten producers. Ten writers. Six minutes each. I recall talking about a short script I'd written for a local actor that had similar themes and Jocelyn asked if I was interested in working on the project which, by this time, was called Seventh Moon.

I met with Chris, watched his short films and was particularly impressed with Icarus, a science fiction short he made while at AFTRS. All his films have a strong cultural thematic of identity and belonging which suited Seventh Moon perfectly as the Eurasian grand-daughter struggles to comprehend what culture and traditions she should follow.

My first task was to present my thoughts on the original script (and a later hybrid feature script/outline by another writer) and my ideas for the direction of a new draft.

One of my biggest problems? This was, as I would jokingly say, the slowest revenge story in history - it took the demon some 5-6 decades to exact its vengeance! The other problem was the grandfather - I knew where he was in 1949 and what he was in the present but there was no sense of who he was. So I created a complete back story for the intervening years and how he came to be in Australia as well as a separate mythology for the demon (in the form of a curse).

A 34 page treatment followed in early 2006 of which there were a few drafts from memory. The first draft of the script was dated 28 March 2006.

Chris, Jocelyn and the second producer, David Revill were frantically working on finalising Iron Bird for its premiere in July (a great success). This was a 30 minute war film with a strong supernatural component. The first meeting post the Iron Bird screening, Chris announced he was over doing the supernatural and wanted Seventh Moon to be a Hong Kong gangster film. Say what?! I was, to say the least, a little surprised.

So started the second iteration of the script and the beauty of rewriting. Suddenly, our heroine's brother, a secondary character at best, became the lead. Eventually the entire second act would take place in Hong Kong. And a new mythology involving, believe it or not, Genghis Khan was incorporated!

For a year Chris and myself would meet to discuss this new version which spiralled out of control as our imaginations took hold. A draft was written that is absolutely awful but had some nuggets that will go in a drawer to be resurrected at some future date.

Then, for reasons I can't remember, there was a third iteration where we took the Chinese mythology literally and the Hong Kong MTR became a representation of the 9 levels of Hell. At this point I was writing a synopsis I did not understand or even believe in. I was trying to use Chris Vogler's The Writer's Journey which only befuddled me more as I was trying to hit pre-determined marks instead of organically telling a story.

Finally, I said to Chris that this was nuts and that we should go back to the original version of the story which was more self-contained, intimate and, more importantly, I knew how to write. Thankfully, he agreed.

A year wasted? Yes and no. During this time Chris and I worked out our storytelling styles and how our creative collaboration would gel on this and other projects. There are also those nuggets for future development. And it reinforced what our story should be by exploring what it definitely was not.

But there was a problem - whose story was it? Jocelyn had been struggling with the same question on Two Fists One Heart in her capacity as associate producer (for mine, the father in that movie is far more interesting than the presumptive lead). Second problem - the grandfather in our script is at least 75 years old and Chinese. Hard to cast. Hard to market.

So the next draft was a little experimental (yes, I cheated) - it had two first acts (from each main character's POV), a truncated second act then the climax. Which, by the way, we always wanted to move away from a CGI spectacle.

It was submitted to ScreenWest for a development round but as it wasn't a shooting script it wasn't funded (don't get me started on the definition of "development"). ScreenWest then sent the script, without our prior knowledge or approval to a script assessment service in England. I was beyond furious as the script doesn't belong to them and was not in a state for that level of exposure. Sure, they paid but that wasn't the point.

I refused to read the resultant report for weeks ... but when I did it was a very good 8 pages of concise and constructive commentary. Nothing that surprised me as I knew it was one of those drafts where you try something different.

Since then, the new draft has been ruthless in making our heroine the absolute centre of the story with a traditional three act structure and clear third act (the problem with a lot of Australian scripts that simply don't have one).

How different is it from Coral's original draft? Chalk and cheese. New characters have been created - notably Van (Timmy Vanstone), Johnny Chung, Chen amongst others. The mythology has been enriched and heightened. Our heroine and antagonist - grand-daughter (Jade) and grandfather (Huang) - have been completely reworked along with the Caucasian father playing a much larger role. The nature of the demon is totally revised. The brother has gone from secondary character to lead to afterthought to Jade's female friend! The third act is light years from anything in preceding versions. As is the essential conflict between Jade and Huang.

And the copyright issue has been resolved once I learnt that the producers didn't own the rights. With advice from the Writers' Guild, we negotiated a fee for Coral's "half" of the copyright which Chris then assigned to Forgeworks. Lastly, the name was changed to The Red Bride after we discovered that a film called Seventh Moon had been shot in Hong Kong also using the Hungry Ghost festival as a pretext.

The story is now a "multi-generational family drama with a demon kicking around" as I lightheartedly put it. More work still needs to be done but my confidence level with the material is at an all-time high. Next step will be notes from my Forgeworks colleagues and readers then onto the next draft. After that we should have a script that Jocelyn and David can take to market.

From there ... stay tuned!