Crossing the Line

“To Produce or not to Produce, that is the question”. 

For somebody who has experienced some award success thus far, passionately and strategically building himself up from a young film enthusiast to a career-oriented film director and producer before his eighteenth birthday, and having already established an appreciable directory of professional contacts, I find it frustrating that there is such a low volume of archetypal writing to explore and advance with in my home country. And, if there is any out there, where do the opportunities exist to pair auspicious talent with this new and absorbing material? 

A friend of mine has written a feature screenplay that he wants me to direct. Upon completing the script and performing one customary edit, he sent it to me. Before I even had the script in my hands, let alone disclose to him my thoughts on the work, he was drafting pitch documents and funding proposals. He was mailing letters of intent to talent. He was broaching me on shooting gauges, and the best high-end cameras we could cut deals for, pondering which model would achieve the aesthetic he envisaged for the story. Although I myself am eagerly waiting to make a feature film, I had to muster the courage to tell him, “Come on, get real! Please, THINK about WHAT you are making, not HOW to make it…at this stage”.

“That’s the greatest sin a director can commit; to make a film simply because he wants to make a film.” (~ Krzysztof Kieslowski).    

I’ve been in this industry for five minutes but, already, I’ve come to a general supposition that our creative determination has been abducted by the question ‘HOW do we get a film made?’, instead of ‘WHAT film deserves to be made?’. So understandably, there is a lot of flawed material circulating out there - both on screen and indeed on paper. I think it’s very fair to say that produced or even unproduced screenplays out there don’t work simply because they haven’t been nurtured extensively.

Just liking the idea of making a film, and the resulting product that one can hold to their name seems to be an indelible attraction of many movie-making aspirants. Hey, that was the bait that hooked me nine years ago. But of those who have pressed forth and reached a level where they hold the power not to succumb to urges over reason, many will have arrived at the road works in the journey. Where-is-the writing? Where-is-that core foundational-brilliance upon which to build? Having this in play will absolutely provide 51% assurance that Australia’s wonderfully strong network of monetary, educative and resourceful supports will be carrying a worthy production through to existence. From that point, it will have some true chance to profit before the eyes of the public. Here, new filmmakers can steer toward prominence. Here, those young visionaries can fortify themselves as prospects of our industry. We know where these fruits stem from, but those roots are nowhere to be seen. 

The responsibility of the writer is to nurture their story to a point, good enough to attract a director or a producer. Now that statement is loaded with an arrow pointing to both sides of the problem, plaguing both the maturation of people such as myself and in turn the future of our nation’s motion picture industry as a whole. It’s one, challenging thing to be sufficiently skilled or have the means to nurture stories to the extent that they become great (not only ‘good’), but it’s another to connect that work with a proficient and passionate Producer and/or Director. We have contributors in complimenting creative fields who share the intentions of doing marvellous things, just waiting to collaborate. But is it the case that our best writing is going straight to the big boys?

I’ve seen and heard efficacious as well as less-accomplished though strong screenwriters quoting that they’re either ‘terrified of’ or ‘unskilled for’ directing their own work. If many of our better writers share these same convictions, where are they hiding? Is our “top-heavy school-prefect-like system of government subsidisation” (to quote a well-establish Australian writer) perpetually sweeping our good writers overseas, leaving us for dead? David Malouf’s recent cite that, the dwindling awarding of writer’s advances has slain the potential for the publication - let alone actual writing of - pioneering new novels, is disheartening. Or is it the case that our institutional state of affairs dissuades producers of any risk mitigation (a good thing) concerned with identifying and working with developing directors - and other talent of course - for productions that do “get up”?

On the flip side, the key responsibility of a Director is to inject their own thoughts along the way of a production, to help grow ideas and designs through various manifestations. And yes, that responsibility is vital to be applied right back at the writing and development phase too, even for the most proficient directors. Mr. Hitchcock for example, read The Birds by Daphne du Maurier, and, intrigued by the bare concept, had screenwriter Evan Hunter adapt it. Throughout the process, he guided Evan on making changes to suit his filmmaking style and flavour. But this “kindling” starts only after favourable identification of a strong and already well matured narrative plot or concept.

An accomplished AWG virtuoso recently referred to the time one of Australia’s absolute top director’s was rising to prominence, stating that he had said he “had to drive several carloads filled to the brim with thousands of unsolicited screenplays to the dump”. In addition to illustrating the high potency of underdeveloped screenplays in circulation, this instance of material influx highlights the other obstacle standing before directors who sit below that figurative line of repute and accomplishment. People under that line don’t have hundreds of works flying in every which way to choose from. Nor do we have the capabilities of commissioning a premier screenwriter at will, as did Alfie. And having a producer associate, who constantly filters and scours for significant prose, is realistically possible only for directors operating ‘above the line’. (I know that that top director of ours soon had a producer doing the driving to the dump for him).

The Blacklist (American centred) is a salient example of a brilliant, warmly-welcomed system, posing potential opportunities and benefits our up and comers so duly need. However, whilst being a highly reputed summation of the most promising unproduced screenplays currently in circulation, The Blacklist management, in one breath talks about nurturing new talent but in the very same breath, design such silly rules restricting access to the ones they deem ‘best of the best’, thus ostracising genuine up and coming talent. The closest ‘service’ to this available in Australia that I can identity would be the Pathways program heralded by the Australian Writer’s Guild. They deserve a pat on the back for providing an unrestricted, ‘filtered’ version of The Blacklist, whereas the US system is a closed shop. 

So who’s complaining about direct, unregulated opportunity for writers and producers to find each other? I can conclude two parts to the enduring problem. Unless Directors and Producers alike don’t realize that this provision of material ‘consider[ed] to have high potential for production’ exists (unlikely), then they must not think this sample contains any narratives worthy to be made into film. But if something HAS been identified as a work of significant quality and eventually brought to fruition in recent times, why isn’t our industry more prolific? Where are these exceptional films? 

It would be naïve to expect top-quality screenwriting to be made publicly available online, when the chances of good ideas being stolen is very well rife. Could a well-advertised Australian-only system, with screening and security closer to the surety of The Blacklist, where writers are inclined to distribute their work with a strong degree of accountability and security, be our best option of pairing talented writers with equally capable filmmakers who sit ‘below the line’? Then again, kindling a film through online means seems sullied and crass. What happened to making things possible through traditional channels toward productions pre-internet?

Thirty years ago, film technology was limiting, but the stories to be told were bountiful. Today, anyone can make a movie by simply holding up a smartphone, but they’ll find it challenging to construct something that’s original and innovative. And by having to mature professionally in an age where filmgoers have seen everything done before, yet they have very high expectations when they pay to be told a story in a cinema - and they do need to have their intellect respected - the crucial resilience of a film’s script is only heightened for emergent makers like myself. 

I’m not an ardent writer myself, nor do I really want to be. But am I going to have to be? A good portion of my best and most recent work was penned by other writers and, not dismissing the many marvellous writer-directors out there, there is something so tempting and inspiring about picking up an excellent piece of writing with objective eyes and then blending a unique visual essence with the written designs of somebody else. I know first-hand the eternal struggles encountered by writing a screen story of any length. Further, just how effective writing in groups is in accelerating a piece of writing towards brilliance and viability (a luxury our television industry unfortunately can’t afford). But as a film director finding himself now having to write his own original material, I can speak for our developing writer’s out there when I say that having even one extra working mind intercept a screenwriter at work to permeate ideas and concepts with objectivity can be of grave benefit.  

We need something that conduces the development and refinement of screenwriting at the same time as marrying that evolving material (and its creator) with equally zealous filmmakers. Perhaps the Pathways collection of narratives - and others in general - require some sort of mentorship to help refine the works to a higher level of sophistication - a state of greater appeal…to cross the line towards excellence. Only then can it find a producer or a producer find it.

If a screenplay genuinely grips you from the opening word and only returns you to reality at the roll of the credits, and afterwards you realize that you’ve actually learned something, that is superlative writing. Showing the audience something, with them not realizing that you’re actually showing them something more submersive, is momentous movie-making. We have many writers and filmmakers that understand this importance of story – that is why we’re in this business in the first place. These are people who respect the reason over urge to filmmaking. Finally, these visionaries – and I call them this since up and comers usually are dreamers and futurists - are set to accomplish remarkable inventive things, but inventing ways to build that solid groundwork to a movie needs many heads thinking in the same direction in our country. It’s all about proficient cultivation of new screenplays and interlacing the right hopeful producers with the right aspirant writers. After all, it is a collaborative art form through and through. 

I perceive the process of a classic, extraordinary film evolving, as being a fragile succession of gears needing precise meshing. Operating now within a large but occasionally misfiring engine, I see challenges on the horizon of engaging that very first gear, which is actively defying the way I, indeed many like me, go about crossing the line.