Writer/Producer Meg Shields reflects on the development of her script which recently won the Bill Warnock Feature Writers Awards in WA. Will this mean a future in which she can buy her kids birthday cakes without the guilt of not baking them?
With Australian films struggling at the box office and many great writers out of work, I have moments when I seriously contemplate whether my quest to tell stories in the visual medium is a pipe dream. The maternal guilt of juggling kids with making films, and spending time with my words rather than baking cakes and volunteering for the school canteen, can make the challenge feel overwhelming at times.
While all this was consuming me, a small ray of hope burst through and told me I’m doing what I have to do – tell stories. So maybe someday I’ll buy the cakes instead. The ray of light came in the form of a major WA writing award.
This particular script’s journey started in 2007 with a pitch to a fellow writing friend who always generously listens. This time, she was silent and wide-eyed. She urged me to get it on the page.
COOKING THE STORY
I wandered around with the story in my head for some time, dissecting the characters who had “appeared”, making notes about them as they evolved and pitching to a select few. The characters began to “speak”, and I felt it was nearly time to put pen to paper … but not just yet.
I had worked with Karel of The Story Department previously on some short film scripts and when we met up at SPAA I pitched some projects to him, my family drama feature being one of them. He immediately responded to it and encouraged me to write up a synopsis which he later reviewed.
Meanwhile, I was unexpectedly thrust into shooting a documentary in the Pilbara that took me to a small outback ghost town where I spent some of the most memorable years of my youth. My feature story happened to be set here, and the return to the desert was a catalyst for getting it onto the page. My characters came alive out there!
After returning home physically and mentally exhausted, I knew the story was “cooked” and my characters were banging on the oven door to be let out. I sat down and purged the first draft of my script in 5 days.
FIRST DRAFT FURY
When the story is ready to transgress to the page, I have to get it out quickly or I may lose it (superstition and paranoia are key to my work!). Karel reviewed the first 30 pages, and I subsequently tweaked the draft. It was vital to have his professional support to give me direction and opinion.
There are so many questions you ask yourself, and a script consultant is the sounding board that helps you answer these appropriately. It also provides you with confidence to keep going forward.
I tweaked the completed draft on my own. To say I felt locked in a cupboard is an understatement: alone, paranoid and seriously doubting whether it was all worth while. But my money box was empty, with no hope of ever being filled again.
I sent the script to an experienced working writer, a mentor who read for me. He graciously encouraged me that it was worthwhile and to keep going. I found that getting my script read by professionals was no easy task as everyone is so busy with their own projects, and I hate asking for favours. Writing the first draft seemed easy in comparison. How to move on from the page?
With the new Screen Australia guidelines requiring that less experienced writers team up with more experienced producers for script development, it is becoming the norm for writers to approach producers in the early development of their project.
Normally I wouldn’t approach a producer with an early draft, but now we have no choice. Desperate for funding, I set out to test the waters with a query letter and short synopsis, approaching those producers who I deemed would suit the type of project I had. Some politely advised their slates were full, others I never received any response from. Small bites on the line seemed hopeful then quickly dispersed.
Instead of writing I was now marketing and I realised that I had to improve my shitty pitching style immediately.
Meanwhile, I entered the script into the Bill Warnock Feature Writers Award in WA. It was shortlisted and I was announced as the winner at the WA screen awards. As a result I was gratefully armed with a precious money box, full of development dollars thanks to Screenwest.
WHERE DID THE MONEY GO?
To make the dollars go as far as I could, I decided I wanted my own “Indivision” workshop.
I approached Karel who tailored a program specifically for my project and we immersed ourselves in a 3-day script intensive.
Those three days enabled me to immerse myself completely in my story, uninterrupted by the outside world. Rather than the usual to and fro of readers’ assessments and notes, the process was now much more organic, with brainstorming allowing ideas to be generated with vigor and fluidity. Working in this hothouse environment meant that the story quickly evolved. Problems were readily identified and solutions promptly found.
My story came alive in that room and for the first time I felt that it was possible for it to actually be produced. Karel’s expertise gave me hope, and that’s an essential thing for a writer who lives in another realm most of the time.
With a deadline approaching, I’m now embarking on my next draft and will then market the script to gain the interests of an appropriate producer. With the current climate so volatile and feature film in OZ traditionally not doing that well at the box office, my family drama feature film and I have a big hill to climb.
I’m banking that the industry will find its way to sustain great Australian films … otherwise we will lose who we are, and finding the words will be the least of our worries.
Meg Shields is an AWGIE nominee and recipient of the BIll Warnock Award with several feature and documentary projects in development.