AWG Screenwriters Conference – Part Three


I made a film with ping pong balls flying out of an Asian stripper which was a huge success, then one with a dude fisting a sheep which was a complete disaster – no one knows nothing!
Stephan Elliot, 2013
Writer/Director, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

In Conversation with Tom Schulman

Day 3 kicked off with another “In Conversation With” session with one of the international guests, a man that I’d already heard talk a number of times over the conference, Tom Schulman. What I loved about listening to Tom Schulman and Paul Abbott (the two international guests) were that they weren’t afraid to be completely open and honest with their failures as well as their success. Tom spoke at great length about the difficulty of being a writer in Hollywood and his love affair with movies.

Early on in his life, Tom had been a philosophy major which he said he found to be rather uninspiring. What set him on his path to Hollywood was a task that was set for one of his philosophy classes in which he had the choice to either write a term paper or make a short film about the subject matter. As most students would’ve done, he decided to shoot a film.

This little experience got him hooked on telling stories through the medium of film and soon after completing the short he began to borrow the college’s old Arriflex camera so he could shoot his own little shorts. He even got a job at a small film studio and instead of getting paid a wage he would get stock and the guy who ran the studio to shoot his films for him. At this point he never saw himself as a writer and ended up going to USC film school where he wanted to direct rather than write. That want to direct is what got his writing started as he felt (like many of us) that to be able to direct, he needed to be able to write.


After graduating from USC he started writing as a way of getting by and his first ‘Hollywood’ experience was having one of his treatments bought by ABC, only to be entirely re-written by another writer. He was told constantly that his writing didn’t have any humanity and shopped Dead Poets Society around for years with no luck. In talking about Dead Poets Society he said:

  • It took him two to three years to figure out if he wanted to write it or not
  • He wrote a one hundred and seventy five page outline before even beginning the script
  • Was told by a studio that no one gave a shit about poetry and to rewrite it as a dance movie
  • Another studio offered to make it as a TV movie, Tom’s response – “Go Fuck Yourself!”
  • Alec Baldwin & Liam Neeson were originally courted to play the Robin Williams role, at the time they were complete unknowns
  • The film went through two directors before finally getting underway with Australian Peter Weir at the helm


He also chatted about his successful comedy feature Honey, I Shrunk the Kids which was a rewrite on an original drama concept that Disney had called Rounded. When Schulman was first contacted they told him that he had seven days to turn the film into a comedy as they started shooting in ten days. The entire project hinged on Schulman’s rewrite as Rick Moranis was threatening to walk off the film.

He finished with this quote which I found rather cool:

“Writing is a wonderful exercise into the imagination. You get to play God.”


Recipe for Success: The Ingredients of a Smash Hit Comedy Feature

The last official session for the conference for me was about writing comedy features, something that I was a little bit dubious about going in (due to the lack of these in Australia for some time) but I felt instantly better when I discovered the panel consisted of Tom Schulman (you know the drill), Stephan Elliot (writer, Priscilla) and David Parker (writer, Malcolm).

This session was basically a case study where each writer spoke about their projects and how and why they succeeded in the marketplace. Of Malcolm, David Parker told the audience that distributers didn’t want to touch it in Australia but as soon as he took it abroad and sold it in the States they were automatically interested. He also mentioned that rather than shoot the script that had been rewritten for funding approval, they took the money and shot their original script – ballsy, and something I doubt you’d get away with these days!

Stephan Elliot spoke extensively about the timing of movies. He said that Priscilla came at a time when HIV/AIDS was a topic that had been flogged to death and that people were getting tired of the dreariness of how it was being dealt with in the media. Priscilla showed an uplifting spin on the topic which is why Stephan feels it found an audience. This was a point that Tony Briggs also touched on when talking about The Sapphires and how the Stolen Generation had been previously represented before they made the film.

Tom Schulman pretty much touched on everything he’d spoken about in the other 500 sessions that I’d seen him in so not much to report on there.

What ended this session though, was a discussion that arose from an audience member asking why Australian comedy or even film in general didn’t “travel” well overseas. What made this discussion interesting was an American woman (who had been a staff writer in at Disney for twenty years before marrying an Australian and moving here ten years ago) had to say. She said that American’s make movies for an audience whereas Australian’s make movies to please the funding bodies and the industry as a whole.

This is something that, to be honest, I kind of agree with. I think due to the lack of a studio system here, it means that we are limited in terms of where we can go to get money and the biggest source comes from film funding bodies like Screen Australia and the state funding bodies. Unfortunately for us these funding bodies are government run and therefore have to adhere to certain guidelines when it comes to financing film, which is understandable.

Red Hill

I think this is starting to shift with some bolder, more independent projects, starting to come to the fore in the last few years thanks to private investment and crowd funding (Red Hill, Undead, The Tunnel, Crawlspace, etc) however it’s an interesting thing to think about. What makes our industry tick? Do we make films for the market place like Seph, Emile, Penny, Tom and others had mentioned continually during the three days of the conference?

Maybe it’s time we had a good hard look at the kind of films we make and possibly make some bold steps to change it for the better. And perhaps this is already happening with films like The Rover, Son of a Gun and Predestination all currently in production. I’m not saying there isn’t room for our art house dramas like Snowtown, Wish You Were Here and Animal Kingdom – they are all amazing films in their own right. However we need to start looking at a balance between our art house cinema and our slightly more popcorn cinema so we can start to be more sustainable as an industry.


That’s it from the AWG conference. Hope my ramblings have been useful/done the conference justice.

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