Thursday, December 28, 2017

A New Project, Part 1

Exactly one year ago to the day – 28 December 2016 - I started writing the first draft of a feature film screenplay. Eight drafts later and I am ready to embark on the next draft and hopefully be another step closer to getting the film made in 2018.

But let’s go back a few steps first.

The middle of 2016 I was becoming increasingly restless. I was halfway through what, for me, would be a record breaking year of going to and writing about theatre. Not to say I didn’t love this but that my screenwriting had withered away to an afterthought. And that was bugging me. A lot.

Salvation came in the form of a director who I was slowly, glacially, frustratingly writing another draft of a fictional thriller for. It’s a project I’ll go back to but at the time I was not writing well when indeed I did sit down to work on it.

That director pitched me an idea for a film based on a real-life person and the book he had written about a controversial period of Australian history – our involvement in the Iraq War. I had known the director had the rights to the book ever since he cold emailed me many years ago and our collaboration began. Now, however, he was motivated to pursue it further after a discussion with a well-known and respected figure in the Australian film industry.

The brief – just make the film; be bold, be creative; get noticed. The figure of $20,000 was quoted which I never took literally other than this was to be a micro-budget project. The selling point for me was the director’s absolute conviction that “this film will get made.”

I said I was interested and the deal was sealed, in all places, at the MCG during one of the worst games of AFL football I had seen in a while, in the presence of US Vice-President Joe Biden no less. The director, Tim Dean, had moved back to Melbourne and I was over there on one of my annual musical theatre jaunts. (For the record, my team beat his team unconvincingly in a woeful effort). That decided I immediately reduced my theatregoing activities though I still had to honour my adjudicating commitments for the Independent Theatre Association until the end of the year.

First task was to get a copy of the book which I ordered once I was back in Perth. Then it was a case of not only reading the book but all the notes and previous work that Tim had done with other writers as well as his own research.

Once that was all in the blender it was a case of how the hell do I do this? Ultra-low budget, be bold, be creative.

From discussions with Tim and from all the material he’d shared, the premise was that the film would take place over one night in a hotel room. The original idea was that the protagonist would make a series of phone calls that would assist with the agonising decision whether to challenge the government of the day on the question of the Iraq invasion. At one point I understand it had been proposed a different writer would pen each conversation. This struck me as very dry and, to be frank, uncinematic. How to make this dramatic and cinematic whilst keeping with the smell of an oily rag mandate?

I started thinking about who the phone calls might be to. From the book there was a clear choice based on the animus that was evident in the text. However, a conversation between those two never took place, could never have taken place, at that time. Which led me to the great screenwriting question – WHAT IF? What if these two did have a conversation, in private, before the Iraq War started? How might that play out? It was a tantalising idea and full of dramatic promise.

I am a big fan of screenwriter Peter Morgan of Frost/Nixon, The Queen, and now The Crown fame. His use of imagined scenes – the stag in The Queen; the drunken phone call in Frost/Nixon – that may never have happened but are thematically on point and truthful to the characters in question was a guiding principle. But how to manufacture such a conceit?

From there everything fell into place. This was a tale about a man who locks himself away in a hotel room to make the most difficult decision of his life. He goes through the pros and cons, the worst-case scenarios, in his head. In other words, I could have real life interactions and imagined ones. I knew exactly what happened after his decision in real life but instead of recreating those moments I could have the protagonist visualise and game play the consequences. This gave me a starting point and a way into the story.

The meeting at the MCG happened mid-July. Commencement on the screenplay, end of December. What happened in those five and a half months other than reading the book, notes, and having discussions with the director to come up with the approach?

Well, the short answer is nine drafts of a Beat Sheet to get the major storytelling points down and work on structure. Then, once we were both happy with that, nine drafts on what turned out to be a ten page Treatment, designed basically for one person only – the true life protagonist of our tale. The final version of that was sent to him via his publisher just before Christmas last year. He responded within two days that he really liked it which is what gave me the confidence and enthusiasm to launch into the first draft…

This is the first of what I hope to be a series of posts about this project. If the above is somewhat vague at the moment the reason might become apparent in later updates. For now, it’s back to the script.

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