The following piece was inspired by a few off-the-cuff comments I made when receiving a Life Membership at the recent ADG Awards.
Almost all TV trained writers when writing feature film script assessments - to use that very Australian- Stalinist phrase, rather than the international term, script coverage - insist content and form (style, if you like) are separate not just for the purposes of discussion and debate but are, from their very aesthetic credo (and training), indeed irrefutably separate.
How many times have writers, producers and directors been shown script coverage commissioned by a Government Film Body (GFB) along the following lines (see Act 3): the characters are not fully delineated, they lack empathy, there are not proper dramatic turning points in a three-act journey, the characters don’t learn something about themselves and change by the end of the story; their actions are unmotivated and they don’t have a defined psychological profile. These same writers of coverage insist that scene transitions be dramatic rather than cinematic and dialogue be pared to the bone and be naturalistic.
There is a cinematic life beyond the fake naturalistic reductionist world of Packed to the Rafters and Neighbours. A narrative can be non-realistic, surreal even. Characters can be archetypes (not to be confused with stereotypes). An archetype is where most audiences can recognise who and what the character is without social and psychological build up or narrative explanation.
In the world of iconic, archetypical cinema irony, sarcasm and wit is not only permissible, it’s almost mandatory.
Dialogue doesn’t have to be naturalistic or even, for that matter, realistic. It can have long exclamatory sequences, be bombastic, playful, rhetorical and even poetic.
There is a different kind of cinema to the average free-to-air TV interpretative drama.
This kind or type of cinema is where the actor’s skill set involves his or her own iconic, phantasmagorical and aural attributes as well as craft skills.
The 3-act photoplay is where the actor (or actress) brings a skill set from their training (combined with
their raw talent) to portray a character totally defined dramatically, comedically, and physiologically by the script. Put another way this type of script is a total blue print for a shoot-as-written exercise. Nothing wrong with that; it is just myopically limiting, especially for a cinema or internet long form project.
This is not to remonstrate that there should be only one kind of cinema, far from it – in fact it is a plea for pluralism and that script coverage should acknowledge this point. By virtually only using only TV trained scriptwriters the GFB are limiting the types of feature films that are getting publicly financed under the current pre-election regime.
Their argument that there are not enough people with cinema experience who are willing to
write script coverage doesn’t wash: life is not meant to easy for full-time or long-term contracted bureaucrats, they have to think outside the square and solve the problem. That’s what they are paid generously (compared with most of the film & TV making community) to do.
Thirty-five years ago I made a modest small movie, entitled The F.J.Holden.
In Australia the film was neither a commercial or critical hit although it did garner some good reviews and did some business. It received no AFI nominations. Outside of Australia it sold in northern Europe and was well received by the Edinburgh Film Festival in, I think, 1978.
Early this year the Film Society of the Lincoln Centre in New York City invited the movie to a retrospective of 1970’s Australian cinema. At a modestly attended respectful Q&A session the film was well received. Older people were intrigued, although one middle-aged woman on the way out said the film was ‘a lot about nothing.’ I concur. What the film had to say about the human condition was entirely in the subtext. It wasn’t in the surface narrative.
The film and media students were effusive in their praise. Most of all they loved the artless art of the piece. They, to a person, recognised the atmospherics were driving the film; and they were especially enchanted by the seamless cinematic transitions.
When the project was in development I received two ‘assessments’ from then Australian Film Commission. One was from Peter Weir who, while being enthusiastic and complimentary, warned that we (the filmmakers) should not allow characterisations to interfere with the atmospherics. It was advice I followed to the letter. The other was from a TV script writer whose name I have long suppressed. What he wrote was identical to what I wrote in Act 1, paragraph 1.
Here is a short version of a Hollywood legend, circa late 1930’s - early 1940’s: a tyro screenwriter sneaks into Howard Hawks’s office - without an appointment or studio pass - with a freshly minted script. He sits in the outer office all day while Hawks avoids him. At the close of business Hawks lets him make his pitch and tells him he will read the script overnight and he’ll see him tomorrow for a legitimate meeting (complete with studio pass).
Next morning the tyro writer, bright as a button, awaits the master who invites him into his inner office and tells him to sit down. The tyro asks the master what he thought of the script and Hawks says he thought the script was brilliant: the narrative was effective, strong and clean, the characters were well drawn and fully developed, conflict and the comedy traits were superb and the dialogue sparked.
‘So you’re going to make the film Mr. Hawks?’ ‘Oh no kid, everything’s there in the script – no need to make the film; just have the script published.’