Saturday, July 17, 2010

Day 100: Use your illusion

In August of 1999, I spent two months taking part in a screenwriting hothouse within the precincts of Fox Studios here in Sydney, the now-defunct Tropnest.

Originally run under the stewardship of David Healy (writer & script editor), then Nick Marchand (ex-Artistic Director, Stables Theatre), Tropnest was an extension of the Tropfest (short film festival) empire. I’d applied to do the two-month instensive before, but hadn’t made it through, this was my second try and I was interviewed by the two industry professionals who were to be the mentors on this round, producer Rosemary Blight and director James Bogle; they’d just finished collaborating on the cinema adaptation of the Tim Winton novel, In The Winter Dark.

The deal with Tropnest was that you were to submit an idea for a screenplay you’d like to work on in your time there, under their aegis, and I’d put forward a piece called Sweet Child Of Mine.

Sweet Child Of Mine was the tough, true-life story of a disenfranchised young woman, who had been totally abandoned and let down by the Department of Community Services (DOC’s) the New South Wales Health Department and just about every hospital, medical practitioner, psychologist and psychiatrist that she had come into contact with, right up until her premature death at the age of 27. I’d read about the young woman’s story in the Sydney Morning Herald and made preliminary investigations as to whether it might be possible to tell this devastating story as a feature film.

By the time I arrived for my short-list interview at Tropnest, with Rose & James, I’d decided that I wasn’t ready to embark on the long journey of a feature film with this particular story. I had all sorts of reasons as to why I didn’t want to write and interrogate the idea for two months, but my main concern was the nature of the subject matter; it was just too confronting and I wasn’t up for it at that point in my life. In hindsight, I’m not sure if that was the right or wrong decision? Preparing this piece, I’ve just been reading over the material and various synopses that I still have on this laptop, and as is the case when I go over most of my old material, something sparks up in me again about the idea that I’m revisiting.

The title - Sweet Child Of Mine - came from the fact that at the heart of the potential film’s story was the tough love relationship between the protagonist and her foster mother, who became her lifelong carer. I met this dauntless woman and spent a morning with her, some years after her daughter’s passing; hers was not a grief that would ease or pass quickly and she was rightly concerned that the telling of the story (on film) might inflame and aggravate the healing process, not necessarily for her, but for her son and husband.

The title was also a nod to the fact that the protagonist’s dream was to go to a Guns n’ Roses concert with her boyfriend, a young man who she’d met in one of her residential-stay psychiatric hospitals. On the odd occasion that I hear Gunners’ evocative and powerful ‘Sweet Child ‘O Mine’ on the radio today, feelings of regret, tinged with some shame, rise in me. I should have told her story.

At the interview with Rose & James, I talked myself out of one of the four berths at Tropnest on offer and apologised for wasting their time by putting Sweet Child Of Mine forward, explaining, honestly, my reservations, professional and personal. By the time I had walked home, back across Centennial Park, believing that I’d screwed up a golden opportunity, I got a call from Rose telling me that they liked me, were interested in me and were sure that I had a drawer full of ideas that I could bring into Tropnest; why didn’t I fax two or three over and tell them the one I’d like to work on?

I spent a great two months with Rose and James at Tropnest, working on my first feature film screenplay, The Comedians, a script which was then and still is now, a labour of love, waiting for me to solve the conundrum that it’s become. It was also whilst at Tropnest that I first heard mention of a sage who had wandered out of the Hollywood Hills, Robert McKee....that’s when my screenwriting my life really changed,

Day #100 Tip: Buy ‘Story’.....NOW!!
Just a month or two after completing my first pass at The Comedians and completing my first, of two, stints at Tropnest (this first time as an “emerging writer”) I heard that “Hollywood Bob” was in town and doing his three-day, stand-up version of ‘Story’ at the Enmore Theatre; this was 1999. I and a film-loving friend of mine, stumped up the few hundred bucks required for our tickets and took our seats along with the other three, four of five hundred punters.

Without going into the long and winding road of that three days, I will say this: towards the end of the third day on the Sunday afternoon, Robert McKee talked through a writing process that most screenwriters, in their apprenticehip, use. As he talked and talked about this self-deafeating process, my head sank down into my hands; this was exactly what I had done with the first draft of The Comedians.....I was stuffed (I actually already knew that).

Then he talked of a writing process (outlined in the book) that he suggests as way that, if employed, just might work. My head was still in my hands, here’s why: Robert McKee had spoken two truths (to me) that I could not deny, no matter how hard I tried to wriggle out of them. The first was that I had used a method to write a film that had failed me, I knew that. The second was that he offered a way that made total sense to me, but I could see the work involved and the work that lay in front of me, and it was a lot.

I bang on about Mckee all the time on these pages, the method or process of Index Cards through Treatment to Screenplay that I’ve been working with and sharing here, is his from his book ‘Story’. What I try to share here, is my experience with that process. McKee’s ‘Story” may not be for you, so mote it be. It works for me. It is now time to embark on the second stage in the process and spend two months, transforming the Story Outline into a Treatment.

I wonder if, one day, I should transform the story outline of Sweet Child of Mine into a screenplay?

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