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BSS 2013: why I write

I haven’t heard such sustained and enthusiastic applause for a speaker at a conference like this in a very long time. But there is no doubt that for Australian theatre and screen writer Andrew Bovell it was well-deserved.

I don’t mind admitting that my heart sank a little at the beginning of this lecture, when it was clear that our guest was going to read the whole thing from his notes, word for word. But fortunately for all present Bovell reads, or rather performs, his script as well as any actor.

Rather than focus on his considerable successes, Bovell chose to give us a series of lessons illustrated by his less pleasant experiences as a screenwriter. He focused first on the disaster that was the Hollywood feature film remake of the seminal 1980s television series Edge of Darkness, then on the adaptation of one of his plays into a film script in Australia.

Along the way he was not afraid to tell us of the both professional and personal ramifications of the stress involved in his career, often created by his own perfectionism. His hair went grey in his 20s, he told us, and he initially tried blaming this on his kids – but no: “Do I worry because I write? Or do I write because I worry?”

Infused throughout were the notions of writing as an art, the problem of balancing the art with commercial demands, and of the writer as a political animal, a social commentator – one who is occasionally driven to the brink of mental collapse by the aforementioned perfectionism. But this was all punctuated with amusing anecdotes, the whole lecture constructed like a great script.

Could anything be worse for a writer than to receive a phone call from his agent in Hollywood at 6:30 in the morning telling him that another writer has been brought on board to “just do a dialogue polish – nothing to worry about”? Particularly when the new writer in question is an Oscar winner? Since when would an Oscar winner stoop to doing a simple dialogue polish, and even if that was all they did (which it would never be, obviously), not take the major credit for the writing?

His further lessons from his Hollywood experience:

  • Trust no one. Not even the receptionist at the classy hotel in which the production company has put you up. (Bovell was scammed for cash he placed in safety deposit at reception!)
  • Too many drafts can kill a script. Bovell seems to regard his perfectionism as one of his greatest flaws.
  • In Hollywood, even the most faithful and long-lasting of friendships will not save you when the proverbial hits the fan. The film will always come first.

But there was one positive that Bovell brought back from Hollywood. In both Australia and New Zealand, when the writer submits his first draft of a script, there is the tendency to wait for the producer (and others) to give feedback, to wait to be told what to do in the next draft. In the USA, Bovell learnt that the best tactic was to present the draft, and along with it, considerable notes as to how any present problems would be addressed in the next pass – in other words, get in first with the solutions before anybody else has a chance to muck it up. Not only that; they are paying you to do the job, and in Hollywood that’s what they expect you to do. So don’t leave a void, or producers will fill it – with rubbish.

The end result of his devastating experience was that Bovell didn’t feel the need to blame anyone – but he did question why he was putting himself through this kind of hell – and indeed, in the process, “Who am I?”

He described the resulting depression, how he found himself with writer’s block. “Those who have experienced it know how debilitating it can be.” You end up writing the same 30 pages over and over and over and over… He described how his youngest child kissed and hugged him out of depression.

But he also found his salvation in a return to theatre work – doing a theatre script workshop was a creative blood transfusion.

Bovell contrasted what was for him a disastrous experience with an adaptation of a theatre script into a film production with his experience on Lantana. He noted how the spirit of the production was perhaps best encapsulated by the director Ray Lawrence wearing a T-shirt that had the name of the film on the front, and on the back the phrase “A film by…” followed by a list of the whole cast and crew in alphabetical order.

On that film, director Ray Lawrence and producer Jan Chapman did three things:

  • They staged a read-through of the script with the whole cast and crew before shooting started,
  • They invited Bovell to be on set as much as possible during the shoot,
  • They welcomed the scriptwriter into the edit suite, to contribute.

Sadly, Bovell appears to regard this experience as the exception rather than the rule, in as far as future filmmaking is concerned. For him, live theatre and television seem to sustain collective working, collaboration – but in his view, this is not a regular occurrence in the future film world. Why is it, he asks, that a play brings people together whereas a film seems to drive people apart? Why is the collective vision that drives a theatre group lost when a feature film is being put together? He wants to challenge the idea that cinema is a director’s medium, where the director’s vision predominates, while television remains collaborative.

”Film is not writer friendly – theatre is. Theatre nurtures me.” In working towards his conclusion, he gave a heartfelt plea to the filmmaking community: “We are not the enemy – please don’t treat us as such!”

He advised Australian and Kiwi filmmakers not to try to emulate Hollywood. When we imitate our work is second rate. When we make distinctive films, make art out of our own culture, it is then that the world wants to see what we make.

Bovell’s final thoughts:
The script is not just a blueprint – it contains a vision. The best dialogue allows space for the camera to reveal the spaces between the words. The best dialogue is not what is said by the characters, but rather what the character struggles to say.

In line with his roots in left-wing political theatre in Melbourne, Bovell cited Harold Pinter as a major influence, both in his use of silence, and the rhythm in the words; but more particularly, he was keen to quote the famous speech Pinter made not long before he died in which he said that as writers, we have a duty to expose the truth.

For Bovell, ultimately there are three things that matter: collaboration; what the works says; and “the just cause”. And for his listeners, dare I say, it was his passion for his art and these ideals that most inspired the extraordinary applause.

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