Every Friday at 5pm, students of the Australian Film and Television and Radio School – Australia’s national screen arts and broadcast School, along with film buffs and interested members of the general public, take their seats in the AFTRS theatre for a free talk and occasional screening with the best practitioners from the Australian world of screen arts and broadcasting. In Part 1 of this feature, producer Jan Chapman talked about her early career. In this part, Australian screenwriters talk about the challenges of moving from home to work in Hollywood and discuss the commerciality of Australian cinema.
John Collee has also experienced the joys and challenges of spending part of his career in Hollywood. He wrote scripts for Master and Commander (2003) and Creation (2009), co-wrote Happy Feet (2006), was script editor for Candy (2006, starring Heath Ledger) and the Man who sued God (2001), and currently works as a script developer for Australia’s Hopscotch Films.
‘It’s normal in the US for other writers to come in, say after you’ve done three drafts, and for good reason,’ he says. ‘You’ve probably given it your best shot and its time to move on. We’re relatively inexperienced in Australia in the writing business so we’re very precious about other people re-writing our work.
When I was first pitching projects in Hollywood, it struck me as significant that when you tell the story on your first studio visit it sounds absolutely terrible and then you tell it again and again and somehow you take a story from being fairly worthless to something that is absolutely concrete.
I have a theory that what we’re involved in here is not the business of entertainment. The films we remember as our top ten films are actually films that had a transformative effect on us. You go and see a film and it moves you and affects you and it changes you on a purely personal level. The best films do that at an intimate level to an awful lot of people.
(Australian director) George Miller (Mad Max, Babe) dreamt the story of Happy Feet pretty much intact. It’s about finding the thing that is peculiar in yourself and that seems at odds with the rest of the world is probably your strongest asset. That’s a very powerful message. It’s a weird plot, a quest movie in which the quest is really only the middle 10 to 15 minutes. But strangely it worked.’
Collee emphasises that an animated film like Happy Feet has to follow the same basic requirements as a live action drama. ‘You have to answer the same questions – what’s the story, what are the sequences, what’s the underlying theme. Increasingly there’s a tendency to make films out of purely visual source material such as comic scripts but it’s interesting that all these films have to go through a scripting process. A storyboard in itself is quite a dead thing. It’s only when you turn it into words that you start to breathe life into it. I said scripting breathes life but actually stories to me are essentially not even a written medium, they’re a spoken medium and that’s why the whole thing of pitching and telling your stories to each other is what really brings them alive.’
Another Australian scriptwriter enjoying international success is Stuart Beattie. Beattie was born and educated in Australia but he took the risk to go to the US and bus tables while studying night classes at UCLA. The risk paid off; his script for Collateral (2004) was made into a major feature film starring Tom Cruise. Since then he has done scripts for GI Joe (2009) and the Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-2011) franchise. Beattie was also hired as one of four writers working on Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008), starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.
‘In all but name, that was a Hollywood experience,’ he says. ‘It was basically a big Fox (Studios) movie, big budget. I was the first writer on that, I did several full drafts and worked on it for about a year. Then they brought on a succession of three other guys, that’s usually how it works on those bigger films. One of the reasons that I wanted to become a director was from my experiences as a writer, where you get so invested in these things and things get taken away from you. You have so little control as a writer.’
Beattie recently made his directorial debut with an adaptation of Australian author John Marsden’s young adult book Tomorrow When the War Began (2010).
‘Tomorrow is designed to be a very commercial film and it’s aimed at teenagers who have read and love the books,’ Beattie says. ‘I hope the film can compete against Hollywood fare because of the universal nature of the story and the themes. We don’t get many Australian films released in America, simply because they’re not commercial. Then when they’re commercial, they’re usually too culturally specific, especially comedies. I’ve sat in theatres in America showing brilliant (Australian) comedies like The Castle and Kenny and The Dish and laughed my arse off and been the only one laughing in the theatre. Comedy is very specific to culture. Whereas things like action and adventure I think are more universal.’
Beattie explained to the Friday on my Mind audience that it was coming off the back of working on the big budget 80 day shoot of GI Joe that gave him the confidence to step into the directorial chair. ‘Then it was just a matter of the right project coming along. I was looking for something Australian with a great story and great characters and commercial. I think it’s the universal nature of the story and the themes, the idea that it’s just these eight teenagers that just want to get away from their parents. That’s a thing that teenagers all over the world can understand; then beyond that, its survival. Survival is a universal theme. So I think they’re the two things that make it commercial and make it work overseas.’
Questions of commerciality come up regularly in the Friday on my Mind talks. Michael Petroni is an Australian writer/director who graduated at the American Film Institute. He wrote When Human Voices Wake Us (2002) and Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) and is back in Australia to direct and write projects for See Pictures where he is head of development. He comments, ‘There’s not enough focus in Australia in scripts having some kind of international appeal. That’s what our agenda is at See Pictures, creating opportunities for writers. Hollywood is always looking for a unique voice.’
Petroni is cynical about the mini studio system, for example, Paramount in Australia. ‘Ultimately it’s just the studios trying to service themselves in a cheaper territory and I don’t think it encourages real original stories. I think the better way to go is with Australian producers trying to be their own production companies here. That’s how we’re going to get original stories happening again in Australia.’
On the theme of original Australian stories, Warwick Thornton, writer and director of Samson and Delilah (2009) spoke at Friday on my Mind having just heard that his film about teenage indigenous Australians was selected at Cannes for Un Certain Regard.
‘With every story I ask myself, ‘have you got something to say?’ At the same time I am Aboriginal and I’ve grown up in Alice Springs and I see stuff that the world hasn’t seen about my culture so I’m looking for that unique story as well. The story can’t be so unique that no-one understands what the bloody hell they’re about so you’re always trying to connect them to the audience that doesn’t know about them.
It’s taken 20 years of mistakes and working out what does and doesn’t work, and watching and studying other peoples’ films. You have to live a life and be a human being to be able to be a writer and director. Samson and Delilah, whether you like the film or not, is that combination of experience.
I wanted to make a teenage love story but when I originally pitched it, I said, ‘It’s a petrol sniffing love story.’ You’re not going to get rose tinted glasses when you watch this film and that’s important to me. The reason for making it is to show a world that’s really bloody hard and dark. The Hannah Montana concept of teenage love is just so foreign to me.
We shot in the desert and the film is quite low budget, $1.6 million. We shot it on Panavision 35, with the incredible latitude in the desert so we didn’t need much in the way of lighting. We didn’t have grips and gaffers. I had a couple of mirrors, did a little fill here and there, really simple stuff. We just timed everything for the beautiful light. Twelve people were the biggest crew we had.’
Australia isn’t all outback and it’s a story in an urban setting that frames David Michod’s Oscar nominated Animal Kingdom (2010). Starring Joel Edgerton and Guy Pearce the film is a psychological drama of 17 year old Josh as he negotiates a criminal Melbourne family.
‘I grew up in Sydney but moved to Melbourne when I was 18 and lived there for 10 years,’ says Michod. ‘I stumbled across Tom Noble’s books. Tom used to be the chief police reporter at The Age newspaper in the 1980s. They were particularly rich and vivid stories about what the Melbourne criminal world was like, especially in the 1980s and early 1990s.’
Michod talks about casting Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn and the versatile Pearce. ‘I thought Guy would be really great playing the Leckie character. The expedient part of it is we needed a name in the movie. In order to get the money to make a movie you’ve got to demonstrate that it has at least a possibility of playing overseas because everyone knows you’re not going to make your money back from the Australian box office alone.’
All quotes are extracts from transcripts published in Lumina : Australian Journal of Screen Arts and Business, published by AFTRS, 2008-2010