John Collee’s advice to emerging screenwriters

20 March, 2019 by Don Groves

John Collee (l) with Anthony Maras.

John Collee is not only among Australia’s most successful screenwriters, his strike rate of scripts-to-screen is the envy of most of his peers.

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The co-creator of Happy Feet, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Tanna and Hotel Mumbai, Collee estimates that one in every three or four feature scripts he’s written has been produced.

He’s not boasting but his batting average compares well to that of Guillermo del Toro. The writer-director of The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Hobbit trilogy recently revealed on social media he had spent years developing 10 films which did not get made.

“Sometimes projects can be taken off you and written by someone else and your name is taken off then, but to have involvement in one of three films I’ve written is a pretty good record,” Collee tells IF.

“As I always tell screenwriters who are starting out, you have to enjoy the process of writing; you have to be able to get satisfaction from a really well turned script, even it if it doesn’t get made, because the chances are, statistically, that it won’t.”

Collee much enjoyed collaborating with Anthony Maras on Hotel Mumbai, whose first weekend in Australia was significantly impacted by the Christchurch massacre. The Icon release has grossed $1.3 million in six days on 261 screens.

“After a few decades in this business you get to be philosophical about the vagaries of fate,” he says. “There are so many films that don’t do well at the time of release but endure. I do feel Hotel Mumbai is a great piece of work and it will stand the test of time.”

The writer was a fan of Maras’ short film The Palace and the two had been looking to team up on a project. Maras was originally attached to direct The Water Diviner, on which Collee served as an executive producer, but stepped aside after Russell Crowe decided he wanted to direct as well as star.

“The majority of my films end up being collaborations with the director,” he says. “The Hotel Mumbai story was very complicated but once we had a firm grasp of the structure, we could hang these moments from real life on to it.”

Noting that the thriller will be released on 800 screens in the US by Bleecker Street on March 29, Collee adds: “Whatever its commercial success, it will obviously be a game changer for Anthony Maras who seems set to become a leading Australian film director.”

Currently he is collaborating with Phillip Noyce on Rats of Tobruk, the World War II drama inspired by the story of the director’s father and the Allied forces that held the Libyan port of Tobruk against the Afrika Corps in 1941.

Collee has finished the first draft and is about to start on the second, with development funding from Screen Australia and DEMS Entertainment chairman John De Margheriti, a video games entrepreneur who founded the Academy of Interactive Entertainment in Canberra.

“It’s a war story wrapped up in a love story because it’s about how Phillip’s father met his mother before he headed off to war and they were married the day he got back,” he says. “The emotional thread is the love story which is told in the letters they exchanged.”

(L-R) Benjamin Gilmour, John Collee and Eddie Izzard.

Several years ago he wrote Wolf Totem, an adaptation of a popular Chinese novel, for his friend Jean-Jacques Annaud, who had been persona non grata in China ever since he made Seven Years in Tibet in 1997.

Set during China’s Cultural Revolution, the saga of a young student who is sent to live with Mongolian herders, where he adopts a wolf cub, was a sizable hit in China, grossing $US110 million.

In a similar vein, Collee has been asked to write The Legend of Wolf Girl, a fantasy about a girl raised by wolves, for Sydney Films’ head of production Mark Lazarus as a Chinese-Australian co-production.

He regards Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World as both a blessing and a curse. The drama based on novels of Patrick O’Brien grossed $US212 million worldwide in 2003. The downside? “It was so good, so well made, that to do something of that scale and quality became a challenge for the rest of my career. I am immensely proud of it and we had such fun writing it”

Also on his wish list is Storm Warning, his rewrite of a script by Andy Dillon based on the true story of the disastrous Sydney-Hobart yacht race in 1998, the all-male crew of the Winston Churchill and the woman who risked her life to save them.

Collee took aim at Donald Trump in Trumped, a feature based on You’ve Been Trumped, Anthony Baxter’s documentary about the mogul’s attempts to create an exclusive golf course development on coastal farmland near Aberdeen, despite the wishes of the people who lived there. Alas, the producer Christopher Young decided the project was too fraught with legal issues.

At some stages in his career he has entertained the idea of becoming a director. He is yet to take the plunge due to the all-consuming need to be involved from script development, the filming itself, editing and then marketing.

“You have to have a bit of an obsessive streak to be a director,” he says. “Hotel Mumbai was Anthony’s sole focus for four years. I am not sure if I am that kind of person. If I do direct a film, it would be a love story set in Sydney, like Before Midnight.”

Collee will deliver his next one-day masterclass on screenwriting at AFTRS, ‘Writing for Hollywood’ on April 14.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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