What do you do when you have an idea for a screenplay? Or in this instance, adapting a book? First off, there is no correct answer. Different writers will have different strategies. What I’ve learnt after endless rewrites of a third act of a script is that getting the structure in place before you go to draft stage is invaluable. There’s nothing worse than doing rewrites where you are chasing structure.
With the ‘Wilkie project’, as it was initially known, I also had to figure out how I was going to tackle the material. The original idea (pre my involvement) was a series of telephone conversations over one night in a hotel room. I understand there was even the thought that five different writers could contribute, in effect, a monologue for each of those calls. That left me cold as making a film based on a series of phone calls seemed pretty uncinematic. Ultra-low budget, sure. Dramatically interesting? I’m not so sure.
When I look back at my saved documents for the project, I found what was the pitch to my co-creative, the director Tim Dean, called ‘Wilkie Movie – Initial Thoughts’ dated 28 August 2016. This was a page and a half of how I would approach telling the story. I read that now, some two years on, and it lays out everything that has subsequently transpired. Basically, how to dramatise the decision-making process that was going on in Andrew Wilkie’s head as he locked himself away to make the most difficult decision of his life. This allowed us to foreshadow future events without recreating them and to introduce imaginary characters and/or imagined conversations with real people such as John Howard. The emotional through line is there as well as a thematic C story strand.
The only real person who isn’t mentioned would come later in a storytelling video conference with Tim. I’m being a little obtuse but there are some secrets best revealed on watching the completed film.
So the approach was agreed and I started working out how to structure it all. There’s a document called ‘Wilkie Structure’ dated 19 September 2016 and the first version of a Beat Sheet is dated a week later. Now, the Beat Sheet is an invaluable tool in the screenwriter’s arsenal. In effect it is a point by point description of the major story and character beats. It was even more important in this project as I was going to be moving from real to imagined scenes and back again. Getting the balance right and the correct transitions was going to be critical so as not to confuse the audience (and the writer when it came to draft stage!).
Reading this early draft now, so much has been retained in the screenplay even though things have moved around a little and some elements have been dropped then resurrected. The structure is largely identical in the broad phases of the storytelling. We did seven versions of the beat sheet, batting it back and forth, until we were both happy with it.
Then came the tricky part. The Treatment, written with an audience of one in mind – Andrew Wilkie himself. Not that we were asking permission per se, however, it is his story and I feel a responsibility about being truthful to that story and to him as a person. There were also some elements, no matter how much research you do, that aren’t in the book or public sphere. The Treatment itself is a prose version of the entire story. I was fleshing out the beat sheet to incorporate more detail in terms of both character and story elements.
I set to work once more; each draft going to Tim for his notes, being discussed at length, then revisions made. There’s a second draft dated 19 November 2016 with the final version, after seven drafts, stamped as complete on 5 December 2016. Four and a half months after we met at the MCG we had a Treatment we were happy to send to Wilkie via his publisher.
Tim emailed the treatment to the publisher and I tried to put it out of mind even though I was somewhat nervous about what the reaction might be. I was confident we’d done our research and were being truthful to the story but I had no idea how the man himself would respond.
We didn’t have to wait long…
Next in Part 3 – First Draft and Script Development