Australian Film: Substance, Please.

Today I will suggest how our feature film stories could – at last! – start having substance as well.

In my last essay I explained how Australian feature film stories could be made more original.

by Steven Fernandez

Lack of substance in our stories is something I have protested about for years.  But how can we break this dog trend?

Snap out of it – Write with conviction!

I would start by demanding that all you screenwriters out there snap out of the grovelsome mentality of being afraid to assert any strong point of view.  Trust me:  If you write a story that has no strong message driving it then your screenplay will be boring, mediocre, and pointless drivel.  A propaganda film from North Korea will provide more compelling viewing than yet another Australian pseudo-story about spineless nobodies who blunder through and barely transform to anything better.  Why?  Because the Korean film will at least have conviction behind it!

A propaganda film from North Korea will
provide more compelling viewing

Don't believe anyone including me

For those who want to argue that our apologetic and self-effacing nature is what makes us Australians charmingly distinct in the world, I say:  Save your cultural conformity for bars and barbeques.  For those who want to rationalise that our lack of artistic self-confidence has to be excused because of our ‘convict past’, I say two things:  Firstly, that the vast majority of our current-day population are descendents of twentieth century immigration.  Not of the convicts.  And, secondly, I question what kind of so-called writer are you that you do not have the imagination to think outside of the limitations of the mob.

what kind of so-called writer are you
that you do not have the imagination

For those who may defend convictionless storytelling under the excuse of being intellectually ‘sophisticated’ (for example, as a follower of the fad of post-modernism), I say:  Save your relativism for university classes and inner city cafes.  It’s useless for writing compelling screenplays.

No more excuses:  You must write with conviction.  Period.

Make a stand

The American Christian film, Fireproof (2008), for example, is far better written than any Australian film I have seen.  Don’t scoff!  The script’s quality stands well above Australian norms despite the fact that it smears Christian dogma all over your face.  It does not apologise for being what it is.  And, more importantly than that, it presents three-dimensional characters that struggle through human challenges.  Characters that are not clear-cutly good or bad in themselves, yet who all must confront the fact that they are each partially responsible for the ruts they find themselves in.  The story also includes unexpected plot twists.  And, unlike in Australian films, these twists are neither arbitrary nor boring.

Fireproof shows that even unfashionable or ‘corny’ convictions can deliver the presentation of substantive drama.  In other words, it is far better to advance quaint convictions than no convictions at all.  Compelling storytelling comes from making a stand.

unfashionable or ‘corny’ convictions can deliver
the presentation of substantive drama.

A Soap Box.

This does not mean that you can not write a complex story that portrays morally grey characters.  But what it does mean is that the story’s ending must make an unequivocal statement.  You can not hedge.

For example, you can certainly write a realistic story about the war in Afghanistan.  A story that shows, for example, that neither the Western invaders, nor the local bandit-rebels, are a hundred percent pure and blameless.  You can include morally grey characters such as a brutish, but honourable, sergeant.  As well as a tribal freedom fighter who is both caring towards his children, yet utterly ruthless towards Westerners.  You can portray corrupt politicians on both sides.  But what you must not do is go all relativist at the end.  You can’t close the story with the sense that everyone’s actions are all equally valid and that justice and human decency don’t count.  Again:  Compelling stories are ones that make a stand.

Ditch the drive through the desert

Over and above making a stand, our stories could start having substance by breaking away from story motifs we have already seen time and time again.

For example:  Take the motif of old father and disaffected adult son having to come back together despite their decades of differences.  After you throw in the yawnsomely conventional long drive through the desert, you have the basis of several local films that have been made before.  We all know how this one is going to end … The two emotionally-stilted men are going to reconcile after some cathartic confessions or conflict … Oh how predictable, boring, and over-done.  Time to break from the mould!

valley road

But suppose we really want to preserve the basic scenario of old father and disaffected son.  (It is a common father-son experience, after all.)  How, then, can we keep this initial set-up without the film falling into a stale repetition of others before it?

Actually, there are several simple ‘breaks’ you can do here.

For one thing, you can ditch the drive through the desert completely.  If you really must have the two characters thrusted alone in a wilderness, you can easily arrange that to happen in a bushy national park.  Or, more dramatically, on a snow-covered mountain.

Crocodile Dunthat

Another break you could consider is to make at least one of these male characters a lot more emotionally integrated than the Crocodile Dundee stereotype.  For instance, perhaps the father has already accepted – within himself – that he was partially at fault in the past.  And it is in fact the forty-year-old son who is too proud, rigid, and stubborn to see what has changed.  (In other words, a complete inversion of the “old codger” stereotype.)

make at least one of these male characters
a lot more emotionally integrated

More radically, you can break with the usual father-son motif by having the two men not actually reconciling at the end! … Mind you, this ending will only be satisfying if one of these men turns out to be irredeemable.  Otherwise their continued schism will jar with your viewers.  For example, perhaps beneath the veneer of middle class respectability the son is unmitigatingly materialistic.  And so we can side with the father (who should be the protagonist in this case) when he refuses to make any more excuses for his son.  In this way viewers will accept the father’s radical decision to break away.  For they will see him as making a stand for integrity and humanity.

In summary, then, Australian feature stories could start to have substance by being prepared to make a firm statement without flinching.  Even if that statement happens to be unfashionable.  Also important is having the imagination to make even small breaks from over-done story motifs.

-Steven Fernandez

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.

Acknowledgement: I wish to thank Ben Sitzer for fact-checking.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Wolfgang Staudt
Creative Commons License photo credit: MonsieurLui

Creative Commons License photo credit: Jonas B

4 thoughts on “Australian Film: Substance, Please.”

  1. Interesting and thought-provoking stuff from Steven, as always. But I suspect there’s a more fundamental problem. Most Australian films fail to find an audience because they bear no resemblance to the films that people actually go to see.

    Imagine if the Australian film industry made cars instead of films. In the rest of the world, they’d be making big cars, little cars, expensive and cheap ones, sophisticated ones and rubbish ones.

    But they’d all have four wheels.

    In Australia, meanwhile, we’d be making cars with three wheels.

    Some of these three wheelers would get good reviews for being unusual and challenging. Out of curiousity or loyalty, some Australians would buy these cars. One car might even win an award at the Cleveland three-wheeled car festival.

    But the rest of the world, and most of Australia, would still stubbornly persist in their attachment to cars with four wheels.

    Once in a while, largely by accident, we’d make a car with four wheels, and people would buy it. But mostly, we’d spend our time arguing about what sort of three-wheelers we should be making

  2. We have great script writers and film makers in this country. I have met many with amazing and commercially viable projects ready to shoot.

    Unfortunately the problem lies in a funding body rife with nepotism, and an aversion from private investors to invest in commercially viable films due to the poor track record of previously released films that have been created as a result of the aforementioned nepotism.

    Cynical? No.

    It’s a fact.

  3. Great stuff Steven.

    I think we need more films just exactly like the type/style you suggest…!

    An interesting thought: the `national myths’ in Australia often do tend to revolve around `David and Goliath’ type stories, but: Goliath always wins. (eg Gallipoli, Breaker Morant, Picnic, Ned Kelly, etc…)

    Also, we use the trope of `the Pyrrhic Victory’ a lot (the heroes may win – but at too great a cost…) Be nice to see a change.

    Side note – I enjoyed `NOISE’ as it `started with a bang’ (a great `hook’) and the Tone was unusual/fresh (for an Aussie film).

    In my opinion – Australia needs to look at making more $1m – $1.9m films max, if the film is going to be a `distinctly Australian story’ (portraying our own stories). – Given our population, a film with a budget over $2m has a really hard time making an ROI. Also – Aussie films I’ve personally loved include `Chopper’ (brilliant), `Noise’, `The Castle’ and `Crocodile Dundee’… `The Square’ was also terrific.

    Alternately, tell more universal, `internationally-friendly’ stories. ie – Do both. (They’re not mutually-exclusive…) – Some filmmakers can/should tell the less-expensive `Australian’ stories (as their passion dictates), and also others, the `more deliberately-international’. Sounds like the 2nd group are `sell-outs’, but I don’t see it that way; the profits from the latter group (assuming they work) can be re-invested in the former…

    ie As an interesting exercise:

    What If – for a few years, there was a limit of $1.1m budget (so they can claim the rebate, ie – only just >$1m) on `Australian’ stories (ie forcing film stories to be set in more limited locations, eg Imagine maybe `Reservoir Dogs’ as an Australian film… as a starting point. I am not saying Reservoir Dogs is the greatest film ever, just clever, `restricted-cost’ storytelling…) and – impose a $2m limit for more `international stories’ that happen to be made in Oz (but – may also use international acting talent/characters/situations).

    Just a thought…

    Anyway great post. A nice `call-to-action’, as commented below.
    (also – very funny pics, ie `SOAP’ + box…) :)


    JT Velikovsky
    High ROI Film/Story/Screenplay Consultant


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