Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Isolation in Writing

Welcome to Perth, the capital of sunny Western Australia. We're brought up with the knowledge that ours is the most isolated capital city in the world. It's cheaper and easier to get to Bali, Indonesia than it is to travel to Sydney.

But that's not the kind of isolation I'm talking about.

Nor is the isolation all writers are familiar with - the solitary duty in their Goldman-esque pit creating magic for the screen, big or small.

No, this is more a sense of belonging that I'm yearning for ... and the realisation that maybe I'm never going to find it in our sleepy little part of the film-making world. Perth is perhaps best known for documentaries and children's television with the occasional low budget feature. And by low budget I mean 1-2 million dollars. There also appears to be a noisy and thriving no-budget scene happening ... and maybe that's my problem. Everything feels so ... small ... and slapdash ... and sometimes downright amateurish.

I guess I applaud the effort, it just feels somehow so ... ill-directed. And the thing that seems to suffer most in this rush to get anything "in the can" is the script. Lots of "director-writers" where the second part of the hyphenate is a dubious assertion at best. Of course, there are exceptions but they are rare.

There is also an angry, restless energy to these generally younger film-makers that I find quite negative and often naive. Many a strident argument has recently broken out in various social media formats about the industry and that hoary old chestnut of art versus business. In response, I have started to withdraw from the local 'scene' and eliminate those voices that distract and detract from what I want to focus on. That's where the isolation comes in.

I'm looking for people who can help me be a better screenwriter. The reality is, there are precious few people in my hometown who can do that. My writing sensibility is not an Australian archetype but far more geared towards the classic Hollywood storytelling model. Hence my increasing interest in US blogs/podcasts and excitement at the upcoming course with Paul Chitlik (whose book I will read over the Easter break). Added to this is the presence of a couple of 'newcomers' to the Perth scene with US experience who I "get" when we talk about film and screenwriting.

The question ultimately will be, can I survive and thrive in this sort of isolation or will I need to find a better writing environment? I enjoy the collaborative side of brainstorming and story sessions but there's really only a few people here who understand (and appreciate?) me as a writer. Will that be enough? I have resisted joining the populist network that's been set up for all local film-makers as it appears more social than professional but a strong support network is important for any writer.

Perhaps I need to delve back into my pit and not worry about such things ... maybe I need to cherish and be thankful for the small band of people whose opinions and talent I respect without craving more. Perhaps being an 'outsider' is not such a bad thing. I guess only time will tell ...

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A surprising development

Today there was an informal breakfast meeting of the Forgeworks cohort. I'm sure there's a witty anecdote about the way people order theirs eggs being an insight into their ... something or other ... but we'll leave that for future discussion. A debrief on the development workshop was handled with aplomb, discussions on the script with Worcestershire sauce ... and the eggs weren't runny at all. So all was good.

Then we discussed 'what's next' while The Red Bride script goes through its development track ... and it appears the 'next' is a low budget horror film! As in $1 million budget, straight genre and, as everyone seems to be reminding me lately, SIMPLE. Not only that, we went back to the director, Chris', original idea for Trench before I turned it into a "hundred million dollar studio film". Only a couple of zeros lopped off the budget, no problem!

A little spitballin' over bacon and coffee later and the period elements had vanished leaving a contemporary setting for a straight genre monster film. Now that's NOT what I expected to come out of today's meeting ... but could be fun.

With the advice that you can only have TWO of the following three elements being complicated in your script - character, story, plot - I shall turn off my memorial Ronald D. Moore complication antenna and get to thinking about a clever (but not TOO clever) Australian monster movie idea (... that isn't Razorback ... or involve Barry Humphries in drag ... or killer kangaroos in the outback ... or ...)

See you in the trenches!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Writer as acting coach

I had an interesting catch up with an actor friend today. Said actor sprung a 3 page scene from an original play (oddly it was in script not play format) for an audition she has later in the week. I didn't think it was particularly well written and I couldn't get a sense of tone - the dialogue was arch and melodramatic so I thought maybe it was meant to be satirical. But I was assured it was a drama and the page count was in the 50s ... so well into the story.

My friend then asked me how I thought she might play the scene. There was no clear action change for her character and the obvious choice was to veer towards melodrama. But that seemed easy and kind of boring. So we went through and manufactured where an action change might be, how lines might be delivered and where the balance of power shifts in the scene.

I think in terms of screen not stage so my choices were based more on a visual sense but we muddled through a passable take on the scene with strong choices that would hopefully differentiate my friend in the casting process. Funnily enough, I'd never really been asked to do that before for something I hadn't written. It was enjoyable but now I fear my advice may hinder not enhance my friend's prospects!

I do admire actors though - to have to make the most of a scene out of context with no real idea of tone especially in a piece that isn't well written must be so nerve wracking. Nearly as nerve wracking as a writer being asked advice on acting!

The TV Writer and Australian Feature Films

This is an excellent post from Karel Segers on his website The Story Department. In it, he discusses the negative impact of TV writers and the aversion to classic 3 act structure in Australian feature scripts:

"In Australia, however, we continue to be different. And teachers at most major schools make sure students are groomed to dislike what they call ‘Hollywood story structure’. I find it baffling that I get alumni from those rather expensive schools in my one-day courses who admit they were never properly taught the basics."

Karel's conclusion - "The Australian Film Industry has been completely f***ed over by people who have been conditioned by the rules of 0ld school television drama: Teachers, Government Agents and Script Editors."

I have taken courses by people who are predominantly television writers. In fact, I'm sure I know who he talks about in reference to the AFTRS online feature film writing course. I did a weekend workshop with that person a couple of years ago - we argued. But then I've never understood the aversion to the "Hollywood 3 act structure". In fact, I delighted in Simon van der Borgh and Jonathon Rawlinson's exploration of classic storytelling structure in a recent development workshop (more please!).

Karel is seeking comments and proposed solutions so check out the blog post and add your thoughts. Do you agree that a preponderance of television writers have negatively impacted the feature film industry? Have you had an experience with a script editor who took your project down the wrong path? What is the solution ...?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I will not write your fucking script for free!

I don't know how actors stand it in this town. Pretty much every casting call I see on a proliferation of social media sites is for unpaid acting roles. Apparently, if you get the role you get the roll ... chicken & salad that is - lovingly made by the director's mother ... oh, and something to add to your show reel. Bonus!

There are professional casting agencies in Perth who supplement work in TVC's with paid acting roles in productions such as Cloud Street, Lockie Leonard and low budget features. But the number of unpaid gigs outside of this is quite staggering. Unfortunately, there will always be someone who takes the role for free but when is enough enough? How much "free catering" can one bear when you've undoubtedly spent time, energy and money honing your craft? What about those actors who actually value their talent and lose roles to lesser actors because they dare think they deserve to be remunerated properly? How does the local film industry elevate itself from the cottage variety to a serious ongoing concern when this activity constantly undercuts that ambition?

It's the same in the world of screenwriting.

I went to a screening of short films last year where I was introduced to a "producer". This person pitched me a feature film project where there would be a committee of writers, "US style", who would rewrite each others work. Supposedly this script would be for 4 actors from a well known HBO series who would come to Australia for the shoot (to be directed by a local with no feature film experience). With their New York accents and style of speech.

Putting aside the sheer implausibility of this actually happening, when I inquired as to the fee for my participation I was told there was no money. When I mentioned the potential problem of Australians writing authentic dialogue for New York actors, I was reassured there was none. When I asked about how this committee of writers would work and the thorny notion of credits etc this wasn't even a consideration.

He then had the gall to ask me for a writing sample! Now, I'm generally a pretty level-headed guy and, for reasons past understanding, gave him my business card and wandered off saying I'd think about it (I subsequently emailed him the next day to pass). What I should have said is, "are you fucking insane?"

I used to get a lot of requests from actors asking for scenes/monologues or directors looking for short film scripts. Some people are now starting to offer money for these services and if I like the person, have the time, and/or respond to the suggested project I will get involved. The fact that they offer to pay for my skills, even if it may not be at a proper commercial rate, is appreciated and respected. They treat me like a professional not just some schmuck they can get a script for free from so they can cast a whole lot of free actors, not pay a crew and call on mum's catering skills.

But when I now mention this whole 'being paid thing' it's amazing how many people you never hear from again. I mean, seriously, do you think I will stop working on my feature projects so that I can do something for you for nothing? People also seem to think a good script is dashed off in a couple of hours. Time is an absolute invaluable resource for a writer. I have even turned down these sorts of paid gigs because either I don't have the time to do it justice or I don't think my style suits the brief.

So please do take offence when I say I won't write your fucking script for free. This isn't a hobby, it's not some sheltered workshop. Films cost money to make and part of that is paying actors and writers and treating them as professionals. If you want to make something for YouTube then knock yourself out with your mates. If you want to make a film then come at me with more than fantasy casting or "this director will get to see your work" or appeals to my altruistic nature. In this matter I have none!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What a disaster!

A genre that seems to have made a strong comeback - almost single-handedly on the back of Roland Emmerich - is the disaster film. Lately, it's taken an environmental tinge with films like Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow and a certain delight in the coming apocalypse with his Mayan inspired 2012.

It was a genre that was all the rage in the early to mid 1970s, films such as Airport and The Poseidon Adventure doing big business. Then they disappeared, certainly from my perspective, until probably the crop of "asteroid coming to destroy the world" flicks at the end of the 90s.
Interestingly, Wikipedia lists well over a hundred disaster flicks though some of the categories feel a little 'small' ie 'cars and trucks'.

So what is it about disaster films that we like - blowing stuff up? ordinary people put into extraordinary circumstances? Bruce Willis nobly sacrificing himself (and the laws of physics) to save mankind? Is the resurgence of the genre a reflection of our concerns about terrorism, global warming and how tenuous the planet is ... or an excuse for a big budget spectacle low on character and high on special effects?

Do you have a favourite disaster film? If so, what is it and why?

Could Australia make a notable contribution to the genre or is budget a limitation? I vaguely recall the tv mini-series Scorched that explored perhaps every Australians' greatest fear - an out-of-control bushfire in the height of summer. What about a big screen variation?

Your views are most welcome ...

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hi Concept!

Spent an enjoyable afternoon catching up with my director to do a debrief on his trip to LA, progress of the short film Kanowna, outcomes of the development workshop and next steps with my feature script. Most enjoyable of all was pitching back and forth some high concept ideas to explore for new feature projects.

Agreed to devote a day to pursue this properly - audience, genre and concept firmly in mind. We might even get around to characters!

Seriously, the knock on me is that I tend to over-complicate things in my writing and stripping back to high concept without the layering would be more advantageous. Kind of like Forrest Gump ... without the chocolates ... *sound of crickets and tumbleweed*

Okay, I need to work on this :-)

Saturday, March 13, 2010


There is definitely a different vibe in the air at the moment. No, not because this is the driest start to a year since records began in 1876 for my hometown of Perth. Something far more subtle on the film industry front.

Genre film-making doesn't appear to be such a dirty concept anymore with Screen Australia backing 5 projects in their Springboard initiative that were either science fiction or thrillers. Personnel changes at the local funding body mean I no longer feel like an outsider. Various seminars and talks reinforce I'm on the right track with my writing and I've emerged from my Goldmanesque pit to launch a script into the world. Currently looking at novels to option for film adaptations and even being pitched film ideas from unexpected sources.

Perception, however, is a funny thing. On two separate occasions this week - one from an English perspective, the other an American view - it was mentioned that Australian film-makers are perhaps the best supported in the world in terms of access to funding. Yet, if you asked Australian film-makers I'm sure they'd tell you the opposite ... or lament the 'inequities' of the system.

There also seemed to be a lot of hand-wringing over the local film awards held last weekend. Not to mention general grief over the state of the industry in the classic Australian past-time of arguing business versus art. I'd add that there appears to be a strain of professional versus amateur in that debate with many ill conceived projects being rushed into production with no identified audience and insufficient care over script. It's also interesting to see who participates in workshops and attends seminars and who doesn't.

The development workshop offered another interesting observation in how to see the film world. If the triangle of film-making is Characters, Audience & the Film-maker then the English and Australian instinct (as demonstrated beautifully by our answers) is to focus on character nearly at the expense of audience with a self-deprecating nod to the role of the film-maker. The American paradigm is to head straight for audience, trumpet the film-maker with character seemingly an afterthought. Possibly harsh but no doubt with grains of truth.

So there's currently a flurry of activity - I will rewrite the opening of my script based on the principles discussed at the workshop. I'm also doing a course with Paul Chitlik starting in April that will prove invaluable in getting to the next draft.

My director, recently returned from LA, is lamenting the difference in professionalism (here) and both my producers rolled up their sleeves and participated in writing exercises with Simon and Jonathon (Jocelyn's thoughts here). The next step is to match all the activity on the script with movement on the financing front. And for my thoughts to wander to what my next project will be ...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Feature Script Development Workshop

A quick shout out to Simon van der Borgh & Jonathan Rawlinson whose 3 day development workshop I've been attending this week along with other Perth writers, writer-directors and producers.

Informative, entertaining and interactive, this has been an excellent look at character, story and structure by analysing films such as Little Miss Sunshine, Transamerica, Muriel's Wedding and Remains of the Day. Also through exercises like today's The "Most" Character where we had 90 minutes to write roughly a one page outline identifying character wants/needs and hitting key story points for a (new) feature idea. Not easy!

Reading out and analysing these in a supportive environment was most instructive. Not only from a craft perspective but listening to other people's storytelling styles and ideas is always inspiring. Discussion has been effusive and good-natured. The talent around the table is inspiring (if not a little intimidating) and the level of passion for the craft of storytelling a joy.

This isn't just theory but a practical way at looking how to develop projects. I have already started to re-assess my work through, particularly, today's discussions.

Looking forward to the final day tomorrow - more analysis, more exercises then a drink or three with colleagues to wind up an excellent three days.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The V Sweepstakes

Tonight witnessed one of those rare occurrences on prime time Australian television - the airing of a science fiction show! In this case, the remake of V. It was an okay pilot - very clunky in places but did an adequate job of setting the series up (given everybody knows what the big reveal is from the original anyway).

But here's the question: how long will it take Channel 9 to yank it from the Sunday 8.30pm timeslot and dump it in the 10.30pm slot (or later) where all science fiction goes to die in this country? (What did happen to Stargate: Universe after a midweek premiere last year?)

Nine have advertised it for 8.30pm next week so they will likely honour that unless ratings were catastrophic. My tip is episode 3 will mysteriously disappear into the late night ether. Looking at the following episode ratings are not that high. This might be a show that takes time to build a following or simply doesn't deliver on the promise of the original which I certainly remember watching as a kid.

What's your tip? Did you enjoy the pilot? Will you keep watching?

And the Oscar goes to ...

I admit it, I love the Oscars. I simply don't understand people who say they hate it. Sure, it's overlong, cheesy, often makes egregious errors (I'm looking at you Roberto Benigni!), can be misappropriated for tedious political statements and has more waterworks than Adventure World when Best Actress rolls around. But it's a celebration of film and film-makers that really can't be topped.

There's a little extra spice this year with the Bigelow v Cameron showdown. To corrupt a Sorkin couplet, I'm hoping it goes something like this:

Josh: “Toby, come quick. James Cameron's getting his ass kicked by a girl.”
Toby: “Ginger, get the popcorn.”

I made no secret of my dislike for Avatar and it's been interesting watching opinion sway in the lead up to tonight's awards. When Cameron's film passed the $2 billion mark for worldwide receipts there seemed to be a sense of fait accompli about him winning Best Picture and Best Director. Now the tide has definitely turned with The Hurt Locker assuming favouritism and Bigelow odds on to take out Best Director for an historic win. You can bet every camera in the western world will be trained on Cameron when those two gongs are announced.

Other sub-plots - can this really be a world where Sandra Bullock wins an acting award, any acting award, let alone an Oscar? Will the Academy really give Tarantino an Oscar for his bloated basterdisation? How many ways will Sheldon Turner find to make subtle digs at Jason Reitman while seemingly praising him when they win Best Adapted Screenplay? Will everyone get bored halfway through tributes to the ten Best Film nominees and decide half of them are only in there as a practical joke?

Speaking of which, the decision to go to ten nominees seems bizarre. Okay, so The Dark Knight wasn't nominated last year - get over it. Do we have to suffer The Blind Side and District 9 et al as penance?

They would be better to split the category - not like the Golden Globes where it's Best Drama and Best "the other stuff we didn't think was a drama but we're not really sure what to call it" - but maybe based on production budget AND marketing. Say a category for films under $50 million and a gong for those behemoths over $50 million. Again, for combined production and marketing budgets. Just a thought.

Anyway, looking forward to the tears, the controversy, the lame jokes and musical numbers, the post midnight finish and the obligatory cut to Jack in shades while the Hollywood elite indulge in mass back slapping and knifings. Now THAT is drama!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Lap of the Gods

The script is locked, registered and submitted. There is an Australian version and a US version (American spelling with some terms changed ie mobile phone to cell phone, university to college etc).

I have registered it with the Writers Guild of America (West), sent a hard copy to Sydney for the Australian Writers Guild Monte Miller Award and submitted electronically for the Scriptapalooza and Big Break screenwriting competitions. Now all that's left to do is catch up on sleep and wait.

Something I've never been good at (waiting that is, sleeping I'm an expert at!) but it's all out of my hands now ...

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wood for the Trees

A good rule of thumb for me that it's time to put a script down during an intensive rewrite is when you can't see the wood for the trees. In other words, those other words could be other words and you wouldn't even know it!

After doing a new draft for various submissions I literally can't "see" the script anymore. I've been over it so many times - tweaked and changed and refined and polished - that I need to step back and let it sink in. It's simply time to stop. Which is why having other projects to work on is invaluable so there's no downtime when you're burnt out on one script.

The draft is pretty much locked unless there are any last minute 'saves' spotted by my creative colleagues. Then it's off to submission land which leads to waiting interminably for news land which is kind of like sitting at a bus stop at 3am - one's gotta be coming soon or later ...

While that's trundling along the freeway, I'll resurrect an old script and give it a spit and polish. Not to mention the development workshop next week which requires some pre-work, namely watching Remains of the Day and Little Miss Sunshine, two movies I haven't seen.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Faith & Persistence

The second in my special series of "ampersand posts" (sic) ...

Confidence is a fragile thing. Most, if not all, writers are familiar with the cold tentacles of rejection. I found out today, unexpectedly, that I didn't win a local writing award. The surprise was they held no interviews this time around. I thought the call was to advise me of a meeting time, not a "I'm sorry to inform you ..." conversation. This is the second year in a row I have been shortlisted for this award with two different feature scripts. So I must be doing something right ... just not enough to get over the hump.

I was actually at the local state library rewriting the script for various submissions. So I had to compartmentalise my disappointment and focus on what I was doing. After a while I became lost in my characters and problem solving again - a good sign.

What to do when setbacks rear their ugly head? Faith and persistence. Faith in your ability. The persistence to keep going. There's nothing else you can do. The script is good and I'm looking forward to what reaction in might get in the Scriptapalooza and Final Draft's Big Break screenwriting competitions.

One outcome from today's "rejection" is that the local funding body will facilitate my participation in a UCLA extension course. Anything that helps me become a better writer is most welcome.

Another positive is I won't have to buy a new frock for Saturday night's award ceremonies :-)