Write what you know about the world emotionally. Just because you’re a canteen lady doesn’t mean you need to write about canteen ladies. Unless they’re fucking serial killers – be imaginative.
Paul Abbott, 2013.
On the drive up to the Mornington Peninsula to my first ever National Screenwriters Conference, I thought about what I wanted to get out of the next three days. Somebody had asked me previously why I was going and I couldn’t clearly express exactly why. Sometimes I think about exactly what the hell I’m doing in Film & Television, especially when people ask who I am, what I do and what my profession is. Am I an actor, a writer, a producer, a director, a filmmaker? Is it too bold and egotistical to say all of the above, am I under selling if I only say one? Believe me when I say, it’s a constant confusion.
I think what I enjoy about coming to these conferences (this is my third after attending the Screen Producers Conference last year and also SPAA Fringe in Sydney) is that it gives you a perspective from every corner of the industry. What are writers currently doing, how do they feel about the content that is being produced, what are their frustrations, their hopes, their dreams for the future of Australian Film & Television. I also do have aspirations of being a writer. At the moment I enjoy working with writers in a collaborative sense as I think it’s an incredibly efficient and enjoyable way of working. What I came to discover over the next few days was that word collaboration was an extremely important one, and one that I think quite often as young, curious filmmakers we forget about…
Paul Abbott in Conversation
Paul Abbott is a UK writer who has had a ridiculously successful career in film & television, with his original series Shameless running for ten years in the UK before being bought up and produced in the states by Showtime. He has also written the film State of Play with Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, the critically acclaimed UK show Hit & Miss starring Chloe Sevigny, has been nominated for a shitload of BAFTA’s and won a Prime Time Emmy. Not bad if you ask me.
The thing I loved about his talk with Max Gudgeon, is that Paul spoke a lot about being daring in your writing and keeping an open mind to any and all possibilities. I felt like he empowered many people in the room to not be scared and to always be bold when sitting down to work on a new project. Some things that he said that stuck in my mind were:
- When writing State of Play he didn’t know shit about politics or journalism and he refused to research claiming that “research gets in the way of a good story. Write the story first and then research the technicalities later.”
- When asked how he writes female characters so well he responded with “If a writer can’t write a woman with the same flair that they can write a man, dog or any other living being, then they’re not a writer”
- When talking about keeping an open mind and embracing your mistakes he spoke about writing a character once and misspelling her dialogue. After reading over it a couple of times he discovered “Fuck. She does talk like that.”
- Again on the subject of creativity, originality and open mindedness he said “go left or right without making a judgment on which one is right, writers should close their eyes more”
He also sighted specific examples from his own work. About Hit & Miss he said that originally the idea was that it was to be a show about a transexual that becomes a mother of five. He didn’t feel like it was a high enough concept, so he decided to make her a hitman cause he knew that was an idea that would (and this is a quote) “blow they’re (audience) tit’s off.” You can now begin to understand where UK and US television has well and truly started to head thanks to networks like HBO and writers like Paul, basically they take a run of the mill idea, and fuck with it – high concept film and television.
Paul was a pleasure to listen to and I really think captured the imagination of the room, speaking openly and confidently about his triumphs, his failures and his way of working with intellect and good humour. The session concluded with Max Gudgeon asking what he felt made a good writer and Paul responded with:
“Fireworks and discipline. Be messy, be violent, be surprising but be a disciplined practitioner”
Sapphires: A Case Study
Next up was a case study on the enormously successful Australian film from 2012, The Sapphires, written by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs and based on the stage play also written by Briggs.
The session started with Tony and Keith talking about how they fell into writing, which is something I always find fascinating to listen to. Tony chatted about his love of story telling from an early age (making a few embarrassed references to Phil Collins being his inspiration) and in particular his love of cinema. His family would put up a bed sheet when he was young and project as yet unreleased movies that his dad brought home from overseas (his dad was in the airforce). Keith was much the same, with film being part of his life really early on in the UK, which was where he was brought up. He was obsessed with movies, going to the cinema once or twice a week to catch the latest Roger Corman flick. He spoke of the magic of cinema and how it completely grabbed enthralled him as a youngster. Certainly sounds familiar!
The rest of the conversation was all about the development of The Sapphires and how it came to being on stage, and then the big screen. Basically Tony was doing a play called Stolen for Playbox about the stolen generation and felt he wanted to do something that showed the aboriginal people and their stories in a different light. Something that would make him laugh. One thing led to another and before he knew it he was asked to workshop the play with the MTC in Melbourne and got a brilliant response.
Once the play got up, Keith (who had a pre existing relationship with Tony) told producer Kylie Du Fresne from Goalpost Pictures to go and check it out (he had been working with her on Clubland at the time). From that point on, Goalpost jumped on board and allowed Keith and Tony to develop the script over the next 6 years.
What was most interesting about hearing these too writers talk was listening to their different backgrounds and approaches to writing, and how they coped with collaboration. Tony, an actor as well as a writer, would love to jump up and put the text on it’s feet, giving it an excitable, nervous energy. Keith would then grab his paper and pen and start furiously writing as Tony would be up on his feet, making sure they didn’t miss anything.
The other thing that came up was how Keith handled the fact that this was Tony’s story as it was about his family. Keith said he got Tony to just write EVERYTHING down that he could think of in terms of story and then it was his job to whittle it down and help craft the script, sighting specific examples of scenes from the film that were either different or completely not in the stage play.
As the talk neared the end, one thing that did come up was Chris O’Dowd’s involvement in the project. When he was sent the script, he was the last character (and piece of the puzzle as financing was also already in place) to be cast, so the script was more or less locked into a shooting draft. What they got back from O’Dowd was a series of notes pertaining to the Dave character along with the sentence “I’m an amiable man and this is an amiable character, he needs a bit more edge.” So the writers worked furiously to give the Dave character more light and shade based on O’Dowd’s notes and their own thoughts and what came from it was a more in depth character which helped take the movie in a completely different direction. The writers even admitted themselves that before the last rewrite, the Dave character had a “pretty flimsy backstory.”
A very smart actor (and writers) if you ask me.
So that was it for Day 1. Short and sharp with only the two sessions as I had to head back to Melbourne for the evening. Had a great half day though and saw lots of people who I know and love so was excited about the next two days ahead.