I have protested that Australian films are often atrocious from a story point of view. And have, at times, received venomous looks for breaking ranks with the local tribal myth that these films are artistically ‘special’, or have some ‘unique voice’.
by Steven Fernandez
It’s about time we admit that local screenwriters need to lift their game. But how?
Today I will focus on one solution: Making our stories more original.
Your typical Australian feature story runs like this: A monosyllabic underachiever, with no real intention of bettering himself, stumbles through various mediocre challenges, meets, then loses, a girl (who is not much deeper than he is), muddles some more, then finally ends up either little improved, or not improved at all.
Throw in lavish amounts of “G’day mate” dialogue, and shoot some wide shots of pretty desertscapes, and you have a “film” that apparently rates government funding. Although it will be one that will never be compelling, and won’t make a profit.
It will be one that will never be compelling,
and won’t make a profit.
To make stories more original can be as simple as … Now, wait for it … Breaking just one of these conventions!
Simple example: If you really must have a monosyllabic sheep-shearer as your primary character, then at least give him one trait that breaks from the oh-so-boring bushman mould we have seen for decades. Such as? Well, maybe he paints on a canvas on occasion … In between shearing sheep and sinking schooners of beer.
give him one trait that breaks
from the oh-so-boring bushman mould
But why would such a ‘manly’ man do something so girlie? Good Question! And it is precisely in answering this question that you can begin to make your story rise above the typical level.
Pushing aside the unimaginative answer (i.e. he’s actually gay), his motive could be along the lines of painting being his personal way of connecting with a kid girl who has died years ago. A girl that could be either his sister when he was a boy, or a daughter who died more recently.
The sister or daughter, we may suppose, used to paint silly things with child-like abandon when she was alive. So he paints to try to reconnect with her joyful and effervescent nature. This solution will work particularly well if his present-day manner is laconic, stern, humourless, and so on. (It also provides a nice basis for the character’s transformational arc: Namely, his need to reconnect with his more playful side in order to start enjoying life again.)
What a difference just one break with convention makes! Suddenly we have teleported this sheep-shearer character away from hackneyed stereotype!
What a difference just one break with convention makes!
Suddenly this otherwise trite man demonstrates some level of emotional depth. And, in doing that much, we have a character that will surprise the viewers. Especially if we present the character as straight stereotype first, followed by a quick painting scene (with no explanation), followed by a slow unfolding of his reason for painting.
But even more important than his surprise factor will be the fact that, by demonstrating some emotional depth, he will be a man that the viewer can slowly grow to care about. He may well remain racist, sexist, and politically incorrect till the very end. But the fact that he still feels for his lost sister or daughter will be the all-important empathy link that will hook your viewers and entrance them to want to see him rise above his inner wounds.
By demonstrating some emotional depth,
he will be a man that the viewer
can slowly grow to care about.
While we all have seen the standard transformation of a hard-shelled man into ‘softie’, there’s something different about this painting shearer concept … Perhaps because he never was a hundred percent ‘hard’ to begin with.
Another Australian story convention we could do well to ditch is our lack of conviction in positive endings. Typically the central character either doesn’t improve, or only improves a little bit. A lost soul teenager, for example, might stop taking hard drugs at the end, but he will rarely evolve beyond a meagre or uncertain existence.
Typically the central character either doesn’t improve,
or only improves a little bit.
For those who may protest that we Australians do this because we are more gritty and realistic than Americans are, I have one thing to say: A positive ending does not mean a Disney ending!
The key thing about endings is that they must offer hope. But that is not the same thing as saying that everyone must live happily ever after. The central hero may well die, for example, as long as his death paves the way for the betterment of others (e.g. I Am Legend).
Similarly, the central character may elect to stop pursuing the one heartfelt goal that has been driving him all along in the film … And this sacrifice may hurt him deeply … So long as this choice improves the life of one he loves (e.g. The Butterfly Effect).
The key thing about endings
is that they must offer hope.
A positive ending, therefore, does not deny the possibility of heavy and serious drama. It does not even deny the possibility of a tragic ending, in fact.
For example, a terminally ill young woman may well die coughing up blood. But we can still be deeply moved by her irrepressible spirit and her valiant efforts to try to beat her condition. She may not “win” in the end, but we will not fail to admire her bravery when we walk out of the cinema.
How many Australian films truly manage that much?
In summary, Australian screenwriters can begin to lift their game by breaking at least one of several yawnsomely overdone cinema conventions.
Such convention-breaking will suddenly make Australian films much more original. And therefore more interesting.
And, in fact, more commercially viable as well.
Steven Fernandez is a writer-director of short films and theatrical shows in Sydney, Australia. He is currently writing Human Liberation – an epic novel and screenplay package set in mythic ancient Greece.