Andrew Knight is not a critic of Australia’s film schools but if he were invited to lecture on screenwriting he’d take a radically different approach.
The veteran writer/producer disagrees with an over- emphasis on structure, formulas and genres. “Too much of it and you start to stifle creativity, to pigeon-hole and not let it take to the open air,” Knight tells IF, elaborating on the AACTA masterclasses he delivered in Sydney and Melbourne this month.
“When you start hearing hard and fast rules like ‘there must be a crisis by page 23’ – maybe it’s time to check if you’ve paid your medical insurance.”
In January he received AACTA’s inaugural Longford Lyell Award which recognised his contributions to screen culture in a career spanning more than 30 years.
His credits as head writer or co-writer include The Water Diviner, SeaChange, The Broken Shore, Fast Forward, Full Frontal, The D-Generation, Siam Sunset and Spotswood. Now he’s tackling the fourth season of Rake and the Jack Irish series.
“The greatest single threat to cinema is predictability, as big as photography was to Art at the turn of the 20th century,” he says.
“Film schools by necessity teach the grammar of screen writing – you have to know this stuff in the way an architect has to understand building – but there is no one-size-fits-all methodology. I believe the approach to the craft is often about working within an individual’s make-up.
“I write like a lunatic, on impulse, all over the place – often starting in the middle and working out each side. It makes no sense, but it works for me and has little to do with the way our trade is normally taught.
“I hate scene breakdowns – I think they often are way too premature; you lay down the tracks before you know where your train is heading. I like to hear how a character sounds on paper before I know if they will comply with some arbitrary scene breakdown.”
His mantra is built on creative collaboration. “One of the first things I learned is that the screenwriter is just part of the process,” he says. “Good productions fly on the wings of many birds, bad ones tend to crash land on one or two dodos.
“If I were teaching writing I would spend the first three weeks having producers, composers, first ADs and others talk to the students. Screenwriters need to understand how things are put together.
“If I were teaching producers I would have them writing a script for the first three weeks so they knew how bloody hard it is.”
He acknowledges the showrunner concept has become more prevalent and successful at companies including Playmaker Media, Matchbox Pictures and Essential Media and Entertainment.
But he observes, “Many of our producers come from law or accountancy so they are good at filling in the 40,000 forms and legal documents you need – and that is one hell of a vital skill – but having taken the producer title, doesn’t immediately assume they are creative. They might be, but the title in and of itself doesn’t guarantee it. Some evidence of this is necessary before as writers you kowtow to their creative insights.
“In my experience the best producers are those who are genuinely script-literate and understand the walls we writers hit.”
In the feature area he is collaborating with actor-writer Osamah Sami on the screenplay of Ali’s Wedding, a romantic comedy for Matchbox Pictures.
He’s been working with director Mel Gibson and producer Bill Mechanic on the Randall Wallace script Hacksaw Ridge, a WW2 drama starring Andrew Garfield which will chronicle the battle for Okinawa's Maeda Escarpment and the heroism of aid-man Private First Class Desmond Doss, which will start shooting in Australia in September.
And he’s developing two other features, The Cartographer (co-written with Andrew Anastasios) for South Pacific Pictures, and King of Thieves, a co-production between Essential Media and Entertainment’s Ian Collie and UK producer David Parfitt’s Trademark Films, to be directed by Jeffrey Walker.
“There is nothing wrong with many Australian films,” he says. However, acknowledging the difficulty of securing theatrical release in Australia and in many other territories, he observes, “The problem is finding a market for them. And that more than anything requires us to rethink the whole nature of our industry.”
The full 2-hour masterclass will be available to AFI | AACTA members to review on AACTA TV next week. Public and industry can join for access to this and year-round member screenings and events. For more information, visit www.aacta.org or follow AACTA on Facebook: /AACTAawards.