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!

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