Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Development of Script Development in Australia

After the release of three Australian feature films on the same day last week (surely an issue in itself) and their poor box office performance, the post mortem has been swift and brutal. One article that caught my eye was by Jim Schembri (here) with currently over 100 comments.

There are many aspects to the debate about why these films failed, marketing high amongst them, but one clear strand was about script development (and lack of third acts in Australian films). I would like to explore this as, being an aspiring feature film writer who happens to be Australian, it is a subject close to my creative heart...

"Writing is hard." So says veteran American film and television writer and film school professor Paul Chitlik who is in Perth conducting two intensive 5 day workshops on how to craft a treatment up to Hollywood industry standards.

Now, before we go any further, I'm not one of those Australian writers who equates the word "Hollywood" to something negative or downright embarrassing as some in the local industry seem to do. What "Hollywood" means to me is classic three act story-telling and yes, damn it, most likely with a "happy ending". Do they make bad films? Sure. Do they make enduring classics that are seen around the world by an astonishing number of people? Better than anyone else.

Sixteen projects will go through this workshop. Having been in the first group of eight I can unequivocally say every project has improved exponentially. The focus is on structure and character and how the two interact, particularly in regard to the protagonist's flaw. Is it formula? Maybe. Does it work? Absolutely. Does it mean we have to write $50 million plus Hollywood style blockbusters? Of course not. Good film structure doesn't cost a fortune.

This workshop comes hot on the heels of a 2 day seminar on The Hero's Journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell and popularised in Hollywood by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer's Journey. Conducted by Karel Segers, it gave local writers and animators another model on how to structure a classically told story, in this case, literally from the classics!

In just over a fortnight's time I will embark on a rewrite of my other feature project with a high profile American script guru (conducted over Skype). I find this both exciting and intimidating as it feels like I'm "playing with the big boys." Being outside my comfort zone and stretched as a writer is essential. It's the only way to make me and the script better.

Last year that script went through ScreenWest's Feature Navigator program where consultants were flown in for a week to give expert feedback and, in my case, a few whacks behind the ear. It is an initiative committed to improving the quality of local feature scripts. Those consultants ranged from a working producer to an Australian writer-director now developing projects in LA to two script gurus from the UK. Not only was the script dissected in great detail but also the marketing aspects ("who is the audience?") and strength of the creative team.

The Development Manager at ScreenWest, a former WAAPA graduate, worked in Hollywood for 5 years as a producer. Most conversations I have with her are more writer-producer than writer-funding bureaucrat as we discuss the marketing aspect of my projects as much as the story details.

The WA Branch of the Australian Writers' Guild does an excellent job in bringing out people to Perth to hold talks and seminars on screenwriting including such Aussie luminaries as Linda Aronson and Duncan Thompson.

In fact there is enormous focus in trying to improve the quality of scripts and screenwriters certainly on this side of the country (and I am sure over east). The thing is this:

It doesn't get handed to you.

You have to put yourself out there and mix it up. Some of these seminars/workshops are by competitive application. A lot of them are free or subsidised if you are a member of an industry body such as the Writers' Guild.

Make sure you apply! Make sure you attend!

"Getting in the room" is a term I use all the time. These people and programs are a boon for craft skills and storytelling knowledge. A lot of the time I see the same familiar faces - they are the ones serious about the craft of screenwriting. But there are many people I know working on feature projects who are never seen at even the free seminars. Writing is hard... and doing it by yourself well nigh impossible!

Finally, a quick comment on Third Acts. They are excruciatingly, mind-bogglingly, insanely difficult to pull off and I suspect that's why many Australian films struggle with them. I only recently cracked the third act of The Red Bride after many false starts. Indeed, in the last draft - a page one rewrite - I wrote the third act first because I knew if I didn't nail it we still didn't have a movie.

So while it may be valid to criticise the quality of many Australian scripts please Please PLEASE don't think it's because of a lack of effort or application of talent. There are people out there serious about their craft who are trying to do exactly what is being demanded - write entertaining film scripts that have mass audience appeal.

It just takes time and is damn hard work!


  1. Comment from Tim D:

    Only problem is the distributors control what we see. I lay the blame squarely at their feet. They are, unfortunately, the gatekeepers and with regards to Aussie films they are failing miserably!

  2. Nice post! I attended & enjoyed the HJ workshop, very illuminating! I'm not even interested in animation, but of course, it applies everywhere.

    I've just moved back to Canberra, so I missed Paul Chitlik. I'll have to console myself by reading his book on rewriting.

    Lastly, I, too, enjoy Hollywood films, or at least many of them. 3 Acts seems to be how our brains are organised, as far as I can tell :)

  3. Thank you, Ed. March has been a big month for taking in screenwriting lore! Paul's book is excellent and his workshop a revelation.

  4. Good post. Unfortunately for many screenwriters, their (necessary) day-job often restricts participation.

  5. I hope that I'm not out of place with this comment as I am neither a screenwriter or from Australia. I wondered what your thoughts are about the movie "Australia". Would you consider that screenplay as having the components of the hero's journey and being constructed on that general framework? I have enjoyed your posts and look forward to more of them.

  6. Not out of place at all and thank you for your question. I only saw 'Australia' once and would have to go back and look at it again with specific reference to the Hero's Journey.

    What I do remember is that it felt like two movies - the cattle drive to Darwin and then, once there, a separate movie broke out which was the Darwin bombing. So the movie felt 45 minutes too long for me.

    I had huge questions about tone - Baz Luhrmann's theatrical flourishes and whimsy clashed with the realism of a small but notable historical event, namely the bombing. The indigenous characters were also poorly served.

    Nicole Kidman's performance seemed more a hangover from Moulin Rouge - a hyper-kinetic, fantastical film - and therefore grated terribly within a supposedly more realistic, historical context. I suspect this is entirely Baz's fault yet Kidman was slammed for it.

    Baz also has a fair dose of hubris to call the film 'Australia'. Again, his signature over-the-top style which works wonderfully well in his "red curtain trilogy" but was hopelessly out of place here.

    I didn't like the film (you might have guessed!) but it did exceptional box office here though Australians seemed faintly embarrassed by it - an interesting contradiction.

    What did you think?