By Adam Coleman
Most people would be familiar with John Doyle as his alter ego Rampaging Roy Slaven – one half of iconic Australian duo, Roy and H.G.
He is less known for his highly successful stage and screen writing career – he is the scribe behind the AFI award-winning script for the mini-series Changi.
Like his alter ego, Doyle pulls no punches when describing the almost insurmountable odds screenwriters face in having their script realised on screen.
“From the off, you must be realistic [about] the way television finance is arranged, financed and organised. Well, it is arcane, almost impenetrable. If you dive into it, it can become a very dark pond indeed,” he told an audience at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) in Sydney last night for the 2009 Foxtel Screenwriter’s Address.
Filmmaking is a gamble from the outset he said and akin to “a lot of brave shoulders to a flawed and awkwardly misshapen wheel”.
“At every level it is a very expensive business. The truth is no one can predict what might become a hit. Even if you have a hit you still might not make any money out of it as [actor, writer and co-producer of Kenny] Shane Jacobson has pointed out.”
That said, he describes writing as “the well spring” of film and television that is for him, above all things, a labour of love.
“I arrived in the business later in life and with no training. From the beginning you have to make the almost arrogant assumption that you have a story worth telling and the equally arrogant assumption that you are the best person to tell it.” He says if the measure of self-belief isn’t monumental, “walk away”.
Doyle suggests it was only “doggedness, belligerence and serendipity” that saw Changi given the green light – fortunately for him, two new senior appointments at the ABC had relatives who had been POWs in Changi.
“The truth is that in [that] instance, getting the green light was harder and more stressful than the actual writing of the script itself.”
Over the years, Australia has tended to favour the auteur school of filmmaking Doyle said, where the director writes his or her film.
“To my mind this has produced many flawed and sadly bereft films. Australia has many fine writers. I would like to see writers write and directors direct.”
The television factory Doyle keeps his eye on most is America’s HBO.
“They set the bar really for the world at the moment. I thought for a time [the series] Deadwood was the finest writing for the television screen I had ever seen – Shakespearean in its approach to language. But then along came The Wire, which consciously or unconsciously dips its lid to Dickens. Student of screenwriting should study Dickens.”