Andrew Bovell on his path to becoming a screenwriter
Andrew Bovell is an Australian playwright and screenwriter, known for plays ‘The Secret River’ and ‘When The Rain Stops Falling’ and films ‘Lantana’ and ‘A Most Wanted Man’.
The following is an extract from his new Platform Paper ‘Putting words in their mouths: The playwright and screenwriter at work’, published by Currency House and available at https://www.currencyhouse.org.au.
Most of my work in the theatre has come out of various collaborative processes. Writing for film has proved to be, by and large, a more solitary engagement.
The international premiere of Lantana took place at the Toronto Film Festival on 11 September 2001. That morning terrorists had flown two planes into the World Trade Centre in New York and the world changed. The audience, understandably, were somewhat distracted. Nevertheless, the film subsequently captured a significant audience in the USA and Europe; suddenly another metaphorical fish fell at my feet and I found myself in demand as an international screenwriter. How quickly, that door opened that had always seemed shut tight. I stepped through it having little idea what I would find.
My career as a screenwriter had begun in 1990 when Baz Luhrmann invited me to work with him on Strictly Ballroom. This turned out to be a steep learning curve in the craft of screenwriting. The lesson was not to over-complicate things. Baz and Catherine Martin, his creative partner, had a clear and original vision, which was so evident in the eventual film. Fresh from the school of MWT [Melbourne Workers’ Theatre], I attempted to locate the story in the working class politics of a Wollongong steel mill—the nominal setting of the film. It proved to be a distraction from a simple and charming plot. Baz was encouraging as I wrestled with the screenplay but it eventually became clear that he needed to move in another direction. He went on to work with Craig Pearce, who had a better understanding of what was required and became Baz’s longstanding collaborator. The film’s success is now legendary but it was not one in which I shared. I left the film grateful for the experience and full of respect for what they achieved.
In 1991 I was awarded a Literature Board attachment to the Australian Film, TV and Radio school, in Sydney. Here I had access to the school’s extensive film library. The work of John Cassavetes was particularly influential: A Woman under the Influence, Shadows, Opening Night, Faces. Whilst Cassavetes’ work is undeniably cinematic, it is the human figure in crisis that remains the focus. I also discovered Robert Altman’s Nashville, which opened up the possibility of alternative story structures as well as many other masterpieces of the cinema.
A series of television plays followed in the early 1990s. Piccolo Mondo (SBS, 1991), Lust in the Seven Deadly Sins series (ABC, 1994) and perhaps the most successful of them, the semi-autobiographical The Fisherman’s Wake, from the Naked series (ABC, 1996), directed by Neil Armfield. This began my fortunate collaboration with the producer, Jan Chapman. All three TV plays were contained within their dramatic situation: a lunch between three female friends, a dinner party that goes wrong, the gathering of a family after the death of a father. They could just as easily have been works for the theatre. I hadn’t yet begun to think and write cinematically.
Jan commissioned me to adapt Tim Winton’s novel The Riders for the director, Ray Lawrence. When Fred Scully’s wife Jennifer fails to show up at the airport in Dublin, he begins a tense odyssey through Europe in search of her, dragging their daughter Billie with him. He never finds Jennifer or discovers the reason why she left him. Instead, he comes face to face with his limitations as a husband and father, and as a man. Perhaps the answer to the mystery lies there. To research the film I followed Scully’s footsteps through Ireland, Greece, Paris and Amsterdam. The material demanded that I come to terms with a more visual way of storytelling. I had to learn to write in images.
We worked on the project for three years but in the end we were unable to make the film. It was difficult to raise the finance and the rights were sold to another party. This was a bitter lesson to learn: that just because you write a film, it doesn’t mean that it will be made.
Jan Chapman and Ray Lawrence were at the opening night of Speaking in Tongues at the Griffin in Sydney in 1996. Still nursing our wounds from having lost The Riders, we discussed the possibility of basing a film on this play. I had previously written a treatment based on a version of the story, so I already had the film in my head. I could see it. But it took a lot more work to get it onto the page. Adapting my own work was challenging but I felt a certain freedom to reinvent the material as required. There was no author looking over my shoulder.
Writing a screenplay is similar to writing a poem. The aim is to express as much meaning as possible by using as few words as possible. It is a distilled form of storytelling, which is achieved through writing a series of drafts, which hone and refine the material. Like a poem, there is a form and a set of rules to which one usually adheres. Take for, example, a sonnet. It consists of 14 lines. The first 12 include three quatrains of four lines each. Each quatrain establishes a theme or problem, which is then resolved in the final couplet. There is something exquisite in the formality of this pattern. The rules of writing a screenplay aren’t quite so rigid, and yet if you understand them and are comfortable to work within them, they can be liberating. Creating a story, in film or theatre, is about making a series of choices. Those choices are easier to make if you are working within a pre-determined frame.
The place of the writer in the process of filmmaking is very different from their place in the theatre. In theatre the playwright is central to realising the vision, if it is based on a written text, and particularly in the case of a new play. In this case, the writer belongs in the rehearsal room and I have never worked with a director who didn’t want me to be there. The task is to be a strong and curious, presence whilst ensuring that you give the director and cast the room to discover the play. I go into a rehearsal room ready to discover it with them, and not as the one who already knows the answers.
The relationship between the screenwriter and the film is different, according to whether it is an original story or an adaptation. In the case of the former, I would expect to remain with the film through its shooting and its editing process. This was the case in Lantana. Ray, Jan and I remained in close conversation throughout making the film and crucially in the editing process, where significant shifts to the structure of the story were made. For example, in the script the disappearance of Valerie Summers took place toward the end of the second act. It is, in fact the moment that turns us toward the crisis and climax of the film. In the editing process we observed that the film was lacking energy and drive through some of the second act. Our solution was to move Valerie’s disappearance forward, which raised the dramatic stakes earlier and gave the rest of the act greater momentum. This was only possible because Ray, the director, was confident enough in his own vision to invite me into his process, just as I had invited him into the writing process. Let me be clear: just as it was important that Ray allowed me a degree of autonomy to write the screenplay, it was essential that I allowed him the room to find the film through the editing process. I was not in the edit room every day. I watched the evolving cut once a week and responded accordingly.
Not all my experiences working on Australian films have been so successful and rewarding. Other directors have not been so welcoming; and the filmmaking process itself has excluded me as soon as my job was perceived to be completed. This has been the experience of many screenwriters. They find themselves left behind by a process in which until then they have been intimately embedded. The joke is that the only person without a job on the film set is the screenwriter. We end up feeling redundant because essentially our job is done. In the case of an adaptation, I accept this. But if the work is my own, either an original story or based on a play I have written, then I cannot accept those terms. That’s not the way I want to work. In the end it’s about the quality of our relationships; the mutual respect that is held among the film’s key creative personnel. If the respect and trust between the director and the screenwriter breaks down, invariably the film will not meet its expectations.
In the case of an international adaptation, the distance between the screenwriter and the final result is usually greater. Often, I am not around when the film is being made. I am working on a different project by then. Film remains primarily a director’s medium and the film will ultimately represent his or her vision. This is not to undervalue the role of the screenwriter. On the contrary, I see my role as one of the team of skilled creators and technicians required to make the film, similar to the editor and the cinematographer. Each has their role to play in a highly calibrated process and the end result reflects everybody’s contribution.
Most of the international films I have worked on are adaptations of other writers’ novels. So it is not a question of bringing my own voice to bear on the work but channeling that of the author. It always remains their story. My task is to tell it in a different medium from the one for which it was originally created. The challenge in adaptation is to create for the audience a similar emotional experience to the one they would have by reading the book. To do so, some adaptations require significant changes in plot, simply because there is less time for the story to unfold and less access to the interior world of the characters. Story must be largely conveyed through what is said and done, rather than by description of interior thoughts and motives. The important thing is to maintain the tone and feel of the book.
I am currently working on the adaptation of the novel Stoner by American writer John Williams. Published in 1965, it tells the story of William Stoner, the son of impoverished mid-western farmers, from 1910 to his death as a respected academic in the late 1950s. It is the story of a life and a young man’s discovery of language. It is a beautifully spare novel. Not much actually happens in terms of plot and yet so much happens. In adapting the book I have sought to maintain the novelist’s style, creating visual moments of silence and stillness in which the camera can linger upon the character’s face and body in the mid-western landscape. This is the kind of film where meaning relies not so much on what is said but on what is not said. Often, the dialogue is used to frame the moment. It is in the moments between speaking that the interior world of the character can be revealed.
Following the success of Lantana, I accepted a number of offers to work on high-profile adaptations. I was flattered. I was excited. I was terrified. I took on too many projects and spread myself too thinly across a difficult slate of work. It was stressful keeping several projects in the air and meeting the demands of American and British producers whilst working from Australia. I worked like this for a number of years. I wrote myself into a premature middle age. Most of those projects weren’t made and the one that was, Edge of Darkness, based on the seminal 1980s BBC TV series written by Troy Kennedy Martin and starring Mel Gibson, was taken away from me at the very end. As can happen in Hollywood. As a result of these stalled projects I lost some of what should have been the most productive years of my writing life and found myself in the midst of a debilitating bout of writer’s block. Another word for it is depression. I had been distracted from my own journey as a writer and had lost some of my confidence and spirit. I had no one to blame but myself.
It is difficult as a freelance screenwriter, still building a career, not to accept offers of work when they come. There is the very real need to earn a living in what is a precarious profession. The fact is that I saw good reason to undertake every project I accepted. They were interesting books, often with talented directors and experienced producers attached, and they allowed me to work in the American and European film industries. Screenplays are incredibly difficult documents to get right. They need to be both a practical and artistic document, serving the purpose of an architectural blueprint, a selling document and a point of inspiration to all who will come to work on it. Whether a film is made or not lies largely beyond the screenwriter’s control, no matter how well written the screenplay might be.
Many writers can testify to how terrifying and debilitating writer’s block can be. I have learned to accept it as an inevitable part of the process. It is a forced time to reflect on my approach to my work. And in the end there is only one solution—to keep writing.
Jan Chapman will officially launch Bovell’s paper August 10 at Sydney Theatre Company, at an event hosted by STC artistic director Kip Williams.