Sunday, October 14, 2007

Writing in Sin

Losing a wonderful actor like Heath Ledger at the age of 28 is sad. But watching his last Australian movie CANDY is saddening in more than one aspect. I'm baffled that so-called established filmmakers can get it so wrong.

My fifteen students of Saturday's workshop could have told you CANDY would never be a success. Sensational performances, strong direction and technically flawless. But: the absolute essentials for a screen story are simply not there. When will we finally get it right? Do Australian screenwriters really believe theirs is the only job in the world you can just 'do' without first learning the skill? Let's not be naive.

Look at these figures: In 1983, a report on "The State of the Australian Film Industry" by Deloitte Consulting identified that only 11 films out of over 250 had made a profit during the previous 10 years. 20 years later Variety reported that the FFC invested in 169 feature films in the previous 15 years of which only 8 had turned a profit. If I can add up, that's 19 out of more than 419. In a total of twenty-five years OVER FOUR HUNDRED MOVIES HAD LOST MONEY. I bet you're surprised so many were even made.

In response to an earlier post on this blog, Jack Douglas identified the Seven Sins of Australian Cinema. I would love to share these with you:

"1. Weak or non-existent desire for a goal in the protagonist.

Few characters are memorable or to be cared about because they rarely want anything much.
Tthe national 'quiet achiever' or 'aw shucks' syndrome yields passive heroes and heroines.
Cate Blanchett's character in 'Little Fish' wanted to open a video shop - but did we really care?
The list of goalless protagonists in low concept pottering plots (a la December Boys) goes on and on.

2. Imitation of overseas styles and trends and often an inability to find original cinematic forms
mirroring rich local content (the legacy of a colonial culture).

Weir Schepisi et al have highly original cinematic visions - but not embracing local content since the 80's. Interestingly two ex-Dutchmen (Cox, de Heer) have been our most innovative directors in recent years. They are not fettered by the neocolonial cultural cringe.

But has an Australian film ever significantly influenced an overseas movie maker?
That's the real litmus test. Where are the specific locations in our feature films? The bush, generic suburbs or tourist shots abound. But few filmmakers have explored with loving detail the couleur locale of our major cities - like Scorsese explores New York, Truffaut Paris or Wilder LA. Our audiences continue to live vicariously through the cityscapes of others.

3. Original talented screenwriters who think cinematically and form a screenwriting community.

In the US of A screenwriters fall out of the trees and pump out over 60,000 spec scripts per year. Can Ozzywood transform us muffin-munching leather-jacketed scribblers into suffering and disciplined artists with 'cinematic brains'? A tall order, my friend.

4. A lack of uberpromoters like Harvey Weinstein or Jerry Bruckheimer.

Where's the cinematic counterpart of Harry Miller? Glenn Preusker ('Kenny') may be the only marketing genius we have.

5. An inability (in screenwriters, directors, producers and funders) to identify the potential movie stories with the right form for a compelling high concept cinematic narrative.

For example, the Ned Kelly story doesn't have the right structure for a movie (hence none of the Kelly films work). Other bushranger histories (e.g. Moonlight, Thunderbolt) have greater potential. Compare Cecil Holmes' 'Captain Thunderbolt' (1953) with, say, Mora's 'Mad Dog Morgan' or Jordan's 'Ned Kelly'. Which is the best movie of the three and why? Which one is closest to depicting the 'hero's journey'? Americans make movies, the British produce films, Europeans create cinema - we do features.

6. Ignorance of screenwriting structure

Some local films should not have been made at all and many could have been vastly improved with some hefty panel beating on the bodywork of the script. If Steve Kaplan had got his hands on 'Kenny' in time and manipulated its floppy narrative spine... who knows? it might have won an Oscar.

7. Our contemporary box office audiences

The average Australian movie goer is aged 40-60 and going to the pictures for a nice night's

entertainment (as Frank Cox mentioned). Our baby boomers (and their attention-deficient offspring) want entertaining genre flicks not life-challenging redemptive cinema - that's for the film festivals.

And a flick is just that - an experience you flick from your consciousness as soon as you leave the theatre."
-Jack Douglas


magicpana said...

Hi Karel n Jack Douglas

in response to your blog, This is my point of view.

1. Are we trying to turn the creative process of film making into some kind of success formula based totally calculative equation?

2. Have you ever tried to explore, the view on a film from the audience angle? Why a person goes to theatre to watch film? Is the central question, and we should answer this from all possible aspects.

3. Australian films are not doing well because (according to me!!) the whole process of film making is too synthetic/artificial, and the theory you advocating makes it more and more single track territory, where if you cant see what you want to see in film then it's no good i.e. structures, desire line, etc.

4. I would recommend you to watch some Bollywood Classics ( and HUGE Success in India and overseas), and you will realise that the story, the truth in the story and the ability of story to relate itself with audience is the prime factor in success of film making.

5. with due apologies to you and jack (who is good friend), lets not loose beauty of creativity by dissecting the story pre maturely (pre mortem) it on table, let it flow, and grow organically first, to its full foetal life, (its like child-“you don’t design babies in utero, let them born first and then teach them what you want”)

I hope I made my point clear and to summarise, lets get creative first and commercial second.

Karel said...

Hi Magicpana,

First of all: thank you so much for your comment. I wish more people would post every now and then!

But to answer your points:

1. There is a creative process indeed. Every film needs a deep personal inspiration to work. But next follows the craft of screenwriting. Much like timeless architecture is idiosyncratic or it won't survive the ages, original screenwriting is the result of a personal, inspired process. Yet much like architecture won't survive without the principles of engineering, screenplays without structure will collapse. When a film fails, we must examine what went wrong. If you acknowledge it is impossible to identify certain principles, how can you justify working in this industry? If there are no principles, how can you work to improve your skills?

2. I ONLY try to explore the view from the audience. There is no other view that matters.

3. Does the bread you eat taste synthetic? I'm sure the dough was prepared following a very strict recipe with exact measures, the result of trial and error. To communicate with each other about the stories underlying a film, we indeed use such terms as 'desire line' and there is nothing wrong with it.

4. Correct me if I'm wrong but it is my understanding that Bollywood movies are very formulaic: boy meets girl, boy loses girl etc. Or am I not getting the point? Perhaps because that sort of cinema does not appeal to most Western audiences. Cultures do indeed differ and the Western cinema culture has been conditioned by Hollywood's three-act structure and Hero's Journey. If you choose to ignore that, you will fail in reaching a Western audience.

5. I agree. First there is the creation, than that creation needs to be tweaked to fit the screen. But putting commercial criteria second is wishful thinking when the average cost of making a movie runs in the millions. I'm afraid those films that have failed often did put creativity first...

Whether you like it or not, I'm afraid audience expectation is ruled by certain principles. It seems to me that ignoring those would be highly irresponsible when you are playing with these huge amounts of money.

Oscar said...

Magicpana's first point is rendered moot by her second point. Audiences demand a coherent story, few are willing to commit to arbitrary plot developments or weak characters. Creativity is still possible in the 3 act structure, just look at "Adaptation" (as example and advocate).

Point 3 is rhetoric and besides, this comment is regarding "Candy", a film with little to distinguish it from the countless other cautionary drug films except fine acting and decent cinematography.

Karel is right about Bollywood, despite the cultural facade, they are follow the same rules as Hollywood. I don't think I've ever seen a Bollywood film that doesn't follow the 3 act structure or have a strong protagonist (e.g. good films like Langaan).

Very few creative processes occur sporadically, they require a disciplined refinement of technique. Babies are not designed in utero (yet), but nearly a billion years of evolution were first necessary. A process of trial & error not unlike the evolution of storytelling, the advent of sentient intelligence analogous to the ancient Greeks' deconstruction of story.

I agree, be creative; but anyone who knows how expensive filmmaking is doesn't need to be reminded that commercial considerations deserve equal weight.

AndyP said...

Interestingly enough I'm currently writing a screenplay about the life and death of the bushranger Captain Moonlight- but considering that he fought in three wars before he ever even made it to Australia (and all that before he was 26!) I'll disagree that his life story easily fits in with standard script structure- he'd better fit a miniseries than a single movie! Of course with these things we have to pick and choose to fit format, and try to boil a life down to its most telling moments...

-Andrew M. Potts

Anonymous said...

Regarding your question (possibly rhetorical) in point 2 about whether Australian films ever inspire overseas filmmakers, I know "Razorback" influenced Spielberg's early predilection for beams of light shining through fog. But other than the cinematography its a pretty ordinary monster film.

"Strange Bedfellows" was ripped off by Adam Sandler's "I Now Pronounce you Chuck and Larry", but that's like saying Stalin ripped off Hitler.

"Picnic at Hanging Rock" showed the world how an audience can be beguiled and baffled by bullshit. That's with reference to the lack of resolution or logic in the inciting incident, it seems to work in spite of this, although subjectively this depends on my mood. Perhaps "Picnic" was the catalyst for Australia's reluctance to employ story structure!

Karel said...

Hey anonymous,
PICNIC is still one of my favourite Australian movies. Yes, the story structure sucks. Would I have taken it on as a producer if it came to me as an original work? Not in a million years. I have the gravest doubts if this film would still work for today's audience. But I'm pleased this type of films was made - and still is on occasion, be it with less success - so that ever shrinking group of people, called the 'discerning' audience, can still enjoy them. BTW: Can I quote your last line?

Anonymous said...

Hi Karel,
My question is, "So what do we do?". Australia produce world class production and post production professionals, a majority of which we loose to the overseas market.

Commercial realities need to be taken more seriously with the film industry.

Magicpana makes some good points, but a commercially produced film needs to be financially viable (Or at least make much more serious efforts to be), ie. have a return to the investor. The investor needs to recognise that residual revenue over time and other mediums needs to be taken into account, and not put excessive pressure on initial boxoffice blockbusting.

There are a lot of room today for creativity and taking risks, and the vibrant independent and short films are the great breeding ground for this.

Anthony said...

The more I study our film industry the more I realise that HOW you raise your finance is more important than it appears. In the US theres one overiding concern; make money. In Australia there is so many agendas - tell an Australian story, use Australian crew, promote this, jump through this hoop etc. hey and if you make money thats a bonus. If we just focussed on making money we might develop an ecosystem that can sustain life. The one screenplay I am working on at the moment I know I can never get up in Australia - but it is my best story to appeal to the widest possible audience and the one I feel is most likely to be a commerical success. So thats the one I will write and if i have to fly to LA to pitch it - so be it.