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BSS 2012: Keith Thompson

Facilitator Christina Milligan introduced Keith Thompson as “an extraordinary writer, script editor, teacher and mentor”, a winner of 10 Awgies in Australia as well as 3 top Writers’ Guild awards. He’s edited over 35 feature scripts, including Japanese Story and Samson & Delilah, and has recently co-written with the original playwright, Tony Briggs, the adapted screenplay for The Sapphires, winner of a standing ovation at Cannes this year. Briggs is the son of one of the four Aboriginal female singers whose story makes up the film.

Milligan first asked how Thompson had arrived at his current philosophy.

“If I have one…” It seems it grew somewhat accidentally out of lots of writing – over 100 hours of Aussie TV – and then specifically from being Head of Writing at the AFTRS. Graduating students asked his advice and so it went. He’s tended thus to focus on newer writers. He finds that script editing has proven to be “a lovely complement” to his writing work, especially when compared with writing for TV.

Milligan asked him to expand on his statement that “Script editing is as much editing the writer as it is editing the script”. Thompson’s own process that emerged views it all as a kind of counseling process – script editing and psychoanalysis are not so far apart in methodology, it would appear.

Almost dismissing tools like Robert McKee’s analysis as only useful after one has written the script, Thompson referred to the basic story structure necessary in a film, as embodied in the “Hero’s Journey”, though he didn’t mention Christopher Vogler or Joseph Conrad.

He starts by encouraging a writer to first create a treatment of up to 50 pages – an aspirational document, a kind of original letter, a conversation with oneself. In it one should discuss the tone of the piece, include some dialogue if it occurs; one should try to give it some shape, some form – but the most important thing is to answer the questions: “What is this about? Why am I writing it?”

The first step in editing is not line-by-line script analysis or rewriting at all – it’s turning that treatment document into three or four long conversations. This is where the counseling process kicks in. Thompson asserts that every writer is trying to answer some question in their own personality or in their own personal life. Although not taking it as far as the Americans, who, he claims, believes we write “an expression of our psychoanalytical or psychosomatic pain”, he does see some merit in the notion. Thus it’s important to find out why a given writer is drawn to a particular story.

In the first sessions there is no writing – “Talk is cheap!” The second stage involves shaping the story – but here Thompson diverged little to comment on our origins and the way these affect our stories – and in particular the myths regarding our history. In the USA, the journey is through a huge landscape, and is usually victorious in its end. By contrast, in Britain, where Thompson grew up, go 80 miles from anywhere and you’ll end up falling into the sea. Later, in question time, Thompson compared the Aussie and American perspectives – in Australia the journey-makers into the Outback usually die! The typical Australian anti-hero is so recessive! His British perspective Thompson credits for his preference to focus on character rather than story as such – it’s the character’s emotional rather than physical journey that shapes the story.

Thompson says he writes not because he loves words – although he does like them – but because through them he can create feelings, situations on screen, that give the audience a sense of what a situation, an experience, actually feels like in life. He quoted Mike Nicholls: “This is what it’s really like; the truth of the situation.” The journey becomes taking a character through a set of feelings – and every character must have such a journey. Thus in his script editing process, Thompson likes to explore eight to ten states of mind within the form of the story.

But drama is conflict, as the proverb would have it? Before conflict, says Thompson, there is fear. The question becomes: What is the fear that generates the conflict? It’s critical in a script to establish the character’s greatest fear, and the consequent contradiction within the character, within the first ten pages – and through this, one is fashioning the conversation between the characters and the audience.

Exposing the character means also exposing oneself as a writer, in order to achieve truthfulness in a script. This led Milligan to ask now much writing is a craft, or simply the ability to be honest with oneself? For Thompson, self-exposure in a script is essential, in order to create a catharsis desired, however unconsciously, by the audience.

Consequently, Thompson advises writing sex scenes in a very detailed and clear form!

But in the same breath, he asserts that it’s important in script editing to make the writer let go of what they’re trying to make the character do, and let the character find their own path through the story. “We want the voices of the characters, not of the writer!”

Milligan wanted to know how Thompson became involved with indigenous writers. This too was basically accidental. “I’m from Dover, and Tony (The Sapphires) is from the Murray River – we’re from worlds apart – but the process is still the same.”

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