Scripts fail to tell the whole story
Lynden Barber January 02, 2008
Thanks to the introduction of a 40 per cent tax offset to producers, many players are confident that production levels will pick up and the industry can dig itself out of the slough of despond with a few overdue international hits.
Actor Hugh Jackman, who is producing Australian films through his company, Seed Productions, summarised the cautiously buoyant mood when he told The Australian: "I would have thought for the next two or three years it's an optimistic time for the industry. Let's pray it's going to be good."
Prayer will not be enough, however. The most common complaint about Australian films is that their scripts are undercooked and need more development money
Talk to some of the top screenwriting experts and it becomes obvious that the problem goes deeper than a mere lack of money for writers to polish their work. In their view the industry suffers from deep-rooted cultural problems that consistently militate against the possibility of compelling scripts emerging at regular intervals.
And they warn that if these problems aren't seriously addressed, then Australia's poor standard of screenwriting is unlikely to improve, no matter how much money is thrown at it, and the audience share for our films will remain frustratingly low.
These critics are not casual bystanders. They're screenwriting professionals who have worked at the highest levels in filmmaking and education. They are exasperated at the amateurism that engulfs so much local screenwriting: not just from would-be filmmakers but frequently from writers whose films go into production and are commercially released.
Joan Sauers has been an adviser at all four SPARK screenwriting workshops held annually by the Australian Film Commission, and taken part in six European workshops. In the late 1970s and early '80s she worked as a reader and script editor for leading US filmmakers Barry Levinson and Francis Ford Coppola. She is about to join the AFC as a project officer.
Former script editor and teacher Duncan Thompson is the artistic director of Aurora (the annual screenwriting workshops held by the NSW Film and Television Office) and is head of the International Film School Sydney, where he is also head of screenwriting.
Billy Marshall Stoneking is a veteran teacher, script editor and story consultant who has held or is planning screenwriting workshops for institutions including the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, IFSS and Sydney Film School. While all three script experts have some differences in emphasis, they display a remarkable unanimity on the seriousness of the creative challenges facing the Australian film industry. The chief problems are:
* A cultural blind spot regarding drama, because the Australian way is to avoid conflict.
* An alarming lack of knowledge about the craft of screenwriting but no willingness to admit this and to learn.
* Widespread ignorance of screen classics, and no understanding of the ways in which these great films work.
* Training is inadequate or, as Thompson puts it, "absolutely crap, atrocious".
In addition, there's a kneejerk anti-Hollywood attitude, in which basic notions of film structure are viewed as a form of US cultural imperialism, leading to the baby (a strong sense of dramatic structure) being thrown out with the bathwater. According to Sauers, "there's sort of this idea that 'it's either Hollywood, or it's what we do' -- and what we do isn't strong enough".
Most Australian professional screenwriters have spent time writing for television soaps Neighbours and Home and Away, where they've learned bad habits. For example: their characters talk about how they're feeling or what they're doing instead of just getting on with it. "I've seen this all the time in Australian cinema, where characters discuss the scene they're in," says Thompson. "I think it's the major flaw in Australian writing."
The myth of originality holds undue sway. The story doesn't have to be original; more crucial is the way the story is told. Stoneking recalls his incredulity at taking part in a workshop in which a feature script, which had already attracted $20,000 in public development money, had as its protagonist a puddle.
"It didn't speak, it didn't have a face, it didn't have any interior monologue or thought process, no arms or legs, and it moved around the floor and it was thoroughly undramatic," he says. "And when I queried the project officer ... the reply was, 'We'd never had one of those before'. It went completely against the idea of what character-based storytelling is about and it had absolutely no dramatic grammar whatsoever."
Characterisation tends to be lacking. The screenwriters don't get deep inside their characters in the way necessary to bring them alive and make them interesting and unpredictable. Lead characters in Australian films, especially the males, tend to be passive. And by the end of the film there's been little character transformation.
Whether in drama or comedy, the action suffers from a lack of motivation. Things happen at the whim of the writer, without showing the relationship between cause and effect. Effective screenplays create problems for characters, that they must strive to overcome.
There's also too little dramatic incident, and the crucial point from which the story takes off, called the inciting incident, often happens so late that viewers are already checking their watches.
Sauers says there's nothing wrong with presenting depressing subject matter if it's presented in an engaging way, citing the Danish film Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself. But Australian films too often make downbeat subject matter depressing to watch. Many Australian films, she adds, suffer from emotional and dramatic monotony that makes them seem like short films stretched thin over 90 minutes.
So who are some of the more recent offenders? Sauers and Stoneking are both critical of Romulus, My Father, adapted by Nick Drake from Raimond Gaita's memoir. Directed by Richard Roxburgh, it won best film at the Australian Film Institute Awards last month.
"It's not a dramatic film," says Stoneking. "There's so much about it that you want to like but it just never quite gets itself started, the energy doesn't really build." Sauers says Matthew Saville's Noise had script problems, and Stoneking calls Lucky Miles "a terrible film" because "it plays up to a lot of the baser instincts of the Australian mentality: that foreigners are buffoons at best".
Sauers approvingly cites a 2004 paper by producer Peter Sainsbury, in which he excoriates the standard of Australian screenwriting and names Japanese Story and Walking on Water as examples of films whose scripts should have been stronger. "They're interesting films, based on interesting premises," she says, "but essentially the characters are reacting to situations that have been thrust upon them."
So are there any local examples to learn from? Thompson says The Black Balloon (to be released in March from first-time writers Elissa Down and Jimmy Jack) is "brilliant". Stoneking says Ten Canoes is "one of the great world movies" and he admires Kenny ("there is a great transformative journey for a character").
Sauers nominates The Jammed, Saw (a US film but written and directed by Australians), Wolf Creek and Muriel's Wedding as films constructed around strong dramatic storytelling principles, including putting their protagonists through hell. It can hardly be coincidence that the above were all popular with audiences and most with critics too.
So what of the future? Mentoring initiatives such as Aurora and SPARK can help. Sauers says we need to spend more time educating producers and more closely mentoring writers throughout the creative process. For Stoneking the hope lies in building creative links with the corporate sector, which is becoming interested in storytelling workshops. But all agree the problem will not be solved by throwing more public money at extra script drafts when the blueprints are dramatically unsound to begin with.
From The Australian: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,22995224-16955,00.html