04 January, 2008

Scripts fail to tell the whole story

The Australian:

" 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."

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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.

10 comments:

Belzecue said...

Robin, this report on the state of Australian screenwriting is spot on.

Let me add another anecdote to the woefully large pile...

ScreenWest, the Western Australian govt film development body, every year offer a competition for new screenwriters to win a development package to get their screenplay polished and marketed.

Many years ago I entered my screenplay. It wasn't a good screenplay, but it was professionally written and had a story at its heart that could be developed into something worthwhile.

I discovered I did not win, was not particularly disappointed, but what incensed me was what I discovered after seeking the details of the winning screenplay... There was NO winner. Despite receiving many screenplay entries, ScreenWest had decided not to award the development package that year, due to no promising screenplays.

I could not believe it. ScreenWest had just stated, albeit between the lines, that Western Australia had NO promising screenwriters that year, sorry, try again next year. So instead of spending the allotted money on the most worthy screenplay/screenwriter in the submitted batch, they spent the money elsewhere... maybe treated themselves to a lavish Xmas party or something.

Let me run that by you again: ScreenWest -- the govt body in charge of developing screen talent in Western Australia -- decided that NO screenwriters in Western Australia were worthy of development that year. How do you even begin to process that logic? It's like a mother saying to her five-year-old kid, "Oh dear. I'm looking to develop someone into an adult, and you're not even a teenager yet so... ummm, sorry, it's just not going to work out..."

I'm going to stop there because it's making my blood boil, even after all this time. But it does further illustrate the endemic problems in Australian film production.

potdoll said...

Ah bugger, I have a puddle as my protagonist in my latest script!

G'day.

Phill Barron said...

I love the puddle idea.

Anyone who can successfully write a script based on a puddle can rule the world.

Belzecue said...

"... a feature script, which had already attracted $20,000 in public development money, had as its protagonist a puddle."

Prequel or sequel to this?

Robin Kelly said...

Potsy - You don't think the main character is a bit too wet?

Phill - In the old days I would take that as a challenge but I must resist

Belz - I think screenwriting initiatives are often tokenistic and agencies would rather fund directors who write their own scripts - no matter how shit their scripts are.

And that puddle film would have to be a sequel:

"I Can Jump Puddles 2: Puddle's Revenge"

Puddle: "No mofo jumps me and gets away it!"

Belzecue said...

>> Puddle: "No mofo jumps me and gets away it!"

Bruce Willis as the puddle? LOL.

"I Can Jump Puddles 2: Puddle's Revenge" as directed by:

Michael Bay: the puddle explodes!

Hitchcock: the puddle has an identical twin.

Spielberg: a fin slices through the puddle.

M Night Shyamalan: the puddle was the bad guy the whole time. And it was an alien. A dead alien.

Wachowskis: There is no puddle.

...

potdoll said...

Squeal!

Belzecue said...

Here's the author Lynden Barber's blog, giving more info and discussion about his article.

"I've just written a piece on the enduring problems surrounding Australian screenwriting, which The Australian published yesterday on its arts page and on-line (Scripts Fail to Tell the Whole Story - click here for the full version).

I'm hoping this will help to reignite the debate about where we're going wrong and how we can drastically improve."

Michelle Goode said...

I agree. The state of TV drama here in Australia (I'm visiting at the moment) is also a bit dire. I was watching an afternoon serial today, and it was all very mundane and, to be honest, boring. I couldn't grasp what the plot was, and was compelled to switch channels after the first few minutes. You are right, the characters speak too much about what they are doing, and their feelings, as opposed to actually doing things. I think the Uk, and of course, America, certainly have a better grasp of successful screenwriting. I can't believe that, Belzecue, about ScreenWest not awarding anyone! That's awful!

Robin Kelly said...

Mich, while you're over there try and catch City Homicide, Mondays on 7. That is good.