" 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.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."-----------------------------------------------
Us poms might just recognise one or two of those problems occurring "up over" in our own industry. The salient points in the article make a nice little check-list to put against our ideas or scripts.