Writing in Sin

After seeing CANDY tonight, I’m baffled that so-called established filmmakers can get it so wrong. And let me tell you, it is not THAT hard. First: a three ‘part’ structure is not a three ‘act’ structure. And a movie lacking drama will fail. Guaranteed.

My fifteen students of Saturday’s workshop could have told you CANDY would never be a success. Sensational performances, strong direction and technically flawless. But: the absolute essentials for a screen story are simply not there. When will we finally get it right? Do Australian screenwriters really believe theirs is the only job in the world you can just ‘do’ without first learning the skill? Let’s not be naive.

Look at these figures: In 1983, a report on “The State of the Australian Film Industry” by Deloitte Consulting identified that only 11 films out of over 250 had made a profit during the previous 10 years. 20 years later Variety reported that the FFC invested in 169 feature films in the previous 15 years of which only 8 had turned a profit. If I can add up, that’s 19 out of more than 419. In a total of twenty-five years OVER FOUR HUNDRED MOVIES HAD LOST MONEY. I bet you’re surprised so many were even made.

In response to an earlier post on this blog, Jack Douglas identified the Seven Sins of Australian Cinema. I would love to share these with you:

“1. Weak or non-existent desire for a goal in the protagonist.

Few characters are memorable or to be cared about because they rarely want anything much.
Tthe national ‘quiet achiever’ or ‘aw shucks’ syndrome yields passive heroes and heroines.
Cate Blanchett’s character in ‘Little Fish’ wanted to open a video shop – but did we really care?
The list of goalless protagonists in low concept pottering plots (a la December Boys) goes on and on.

2. Imitation of overseas styles and trends and often an inability to find original cinematic forms
mirroring rich local content (the legacy of a colonial culture).

Weir Schepisi et al have highly original cinematic visions – but not embracing local content since the 80’s. Interestingly two ex-Dutchmen (Cox, de Heer) have been our most innovative directors in recent years. They are not fettered by the neocolonial cultural cringe.

But has an Australian film ever significantly influenced an overseas movie maker?
That’s the real litmus test. Where are the specific locations in our feature films? The bush, generic suburbs or tourist shots abound. But few filmmakers have explored with loving detail the couleur locale of our major cities – like Scorsese explores New York, Truffaut Paris or Wilder LA. Our audiences continue to live vicariously through the cityscapes of others.

3. Original talented screenwriters who think cinematically and form a screenwriting community.

In the US of A screenwriters fall out of the trees and pump out over 60,000 spec scripts per year. Can Ozzywood transform us muffin-munching leather-jacketed scribblers into suffering and disciplined artists with ‘cinematic brains’? A tall order, my friend.

4. A lack of uberpromoters like Harvey Weinstein or Jerry Bruckheimer.

Where’s the cinematic counterpart of Harry Miller? Glenn Preusker (‘Kenny’) may be the only marketing genius we have.

5. An inability (in screenwriters, directors, producers and funders) to identify the potential movie stories with the right form for a compelling high concept cinematic narrative.

For example, the Ned Kelly story doesn’t have the right structure for a movie (hence none of the Kelly films work). Other bushranger histories (e.g. Moonlight, Thunderbolt) have greater potential. Compare Cecil Holmes’ ‘Captain Thunderbolt’ (1953) with, say, Mora’s ‘Mad Dog Morgan’ or Jordan’s ‘Ned Kelly’. Which is the best movie of the three and why? Which one is closest to depicting the ‘hero’s journey’? Americans make movies, the British produce films, Europeans create cinema – we do features.

6. Ignorance of screenwriting structure

Some local films should not have been made at all and many could have been vastly improved with some hefty panel beating on the bodywork of the script. If Steve Kaplan had got his hands on ‘Kenny’ in time and manipulated its floppy narrative spine… who knows? it might have won an Oscar.

7. Our contemporary box office audiences

The average Australian movie goer is aged 40-60 and going to the pictures for a nice night’s
entertainment (as Frank Cox mentioned). Our baby boomers (and their attention-deficient offspring) want entertaining genre flicks not life-challenging redemptive cinema – that’s for the film festivals.

And a flick is just that – an experience you flick from your consciousness as soon as you leave the theatre.”
-Jack Douglas

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