Sunday, June 24, 2018

Construction of a Screenplay, Part 1 - Beginnings

July 2016. I’m sitting in the top tier of the mighty Melbourne Cricket Ground watching a truly terrible game of Australian Rules Football with director Tim Dean. Also in attendance, US Vice President Joe Biden, though not with us I hasten to add. I was in Melbourne for one of my three to four day junkets but that’s not the reason I was at the G. Tim had pitched me a film project he wanted to work on a week or so before. The timing for us to meet in person was perfect.

That project was an adaptation of the Andrew Wilkie book Axis of Deceit about the misuse of intelligence in the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003. Wilke, famously, was the only Western intelligence officer to resign in protest before the war.

Tim and I had worked together on developing projects while he was in Perth. Rewrites on a thriller though had stalled as I became distracted by reviewing and adjudicating theatre. A fact I was becoming increasingly annoyed at myself over so Tim’s pitch was a perfect opportunity to get back into the screenwriting saddle.  

The reason the offer to work on the adaptation was so attractive was Tim’s conviction that this film would get made. He had been speaking with Australian producer-director Robert Connelly who told Tim to “just make the film, be bold, be creative, get noticed.” This was to be ultra-low budget; to my ears meaning it wouldn’t be a multi-year slog through funding and finance hell. It was also a great story with an intriguing lead character and was an important slice of Australian history. It was material that was dramatically rich, no doubt controversial, and piqued my fascination with those few people courageous enough to defy the powers that be. The final piece to the puzzle was that Tim, through Wilkie’s publisher, had the rights to the book and had spoken to Wilkie previously about wanting to bring his story to the big screen.

On my return to Perth I immediately curtailed my reviewing duties and indicated I would not seek to be a community theatre adjudicator the following year. I then ordered the book and plunged through all the notes that Tim had stashed away in the cloud where he’d worked with writers over the years. Those efforts had led to a pitch document and story breakdowns but not to script stage.

The gist of those notes was that the story would take place over one night in a hotel in Hanoi where Wilkie would make several phone calls as he decided whether to blow the whistle on the Howard government. The prospect of a filmed series of phone conversations (while definitely ultra-low budget) left me a little cold but the immediacy of telling the story over one night did appeal.

After reading Axis of Deceit one thing was abundantly clear – the animus Wilkie had towards Howard. He would later, unsuccessfully, run against Howard in a federal election as a Green and has publicly called for the former PM to be tried for war crimes.

IF we were going to have Wilkie engage in a series of conversations locked away in a hotel room I was adamant early on that one of those must be with Howard. But how was that possible? They never spoke in real life before the invasion in March of 2003 but the dramatic possibilities were enticing. And this is where we come to one of my favourite screenwriters – Peter Morgan.

Morgan is a master of the ‘finite period of time biopic’ (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, Rush) rather than the sprawling attempts to cover a life (the exception being The Crown where he’s working in a television medium rather than a film). He also excels at the pivotal imagined scene – an event that never happened but is thematically true and potent – think Elizabeth and the stag in The Queen; Nixon’s drunken phone call in Frost/Nixon.

That allowed me to indulge in the screenwriter’s most valuable tool – What if? “What if John Howard and Andrew Wilkie were in a room together a week before the Iraq War?” This would be a cornerstone to how I would approach the screenplay.

The first task after all the reading and further research was to come up with a Beat Sheet that would detail the major beats of the movie. For me it was important to get the structure in place before going anywhere near script stage. Plus, I had a crazy idea of how to do this differently to a set of phone conversations and needed to see if that worked…

Next in Part 2 – The Beat Sheet & Treatment

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