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BSS2015: pigheadedness and pliability

Recognising that the screen is primarily a visual medium, Duncan Sarkies chose to illustrate his address with a delightfully entertaining series of projected slides. Laced often with ironic as well as straight humour, they were a hit with the audience.

Early on, he described how he creates an outline of a project by writing snippets on scraps of paper and attaching them to a roll of corrugated cardboard. The advantage of this is that, unlike a whiteboard attached to a wall, the cardboard can be rolled up and taken places.

Right from the beginning of his life Sarkies has always been interested in looking for the outsider. He felt very much an outsider as a child – though he feels now he’s not as much of one as he would like to be!

He loves the huge variety in the ways that different people think; he loves going down the tangents. With the rider that he is speaking conceptually, not visually, he speaks of “trying to find the beauty in the ugliness, the ugliness in the beauty”.

Moving onto the theme of the session, “Building Collaborations That Work”, Sarkies’ first premise was that collaboration involves finding the balance between the extremes of pigheadedness and pliability.

Although his plan was to discuss three of the many collaborations throughout his working life, it was hardly surprisingly that the focus for much of the talk was on his first collaborator, his older brother by three years, director Rob Sarkies. As they were growing up, Rob was naturally the boss – and Duncan, asserting to us that because of growing up in the older’s shadow the younger always needs to do his own thing, chose to move into the world of live theatre work as Rob set off into film. One motivation for Duncan, a great reason to do theatre, was that it is an easier (and cheaper) realm in which to make things happen.

By the time Rob first suggested a collaboration as writer and director on Scarfies, Duncan was well established in his own field, and was ready. Early on in their work together, there was an episode where Duncan told Rob, “Hey, you’re talking to me like a big brother.” One of Rob’s great strengths in Duncan’s eyes was Rob’s ability to take this on board and adjust his approach to working with his younger sibling.

Duncan has always regarded himself as a boy in a man’s body – or perhaps, a man with a boy’s outlook. He had grown up in what could be described as a bogan culture, to which he felt he didn’t belong. His first novel, Two Little Boys, came out of that experience. Although the reactions to both the novel and the subsequent film have been somewhat polarized, it’s both a film and a collaboration with his brother that he is extremely proud of. Duncan enjoyed being able to be on set as the writer this time – he was not present on the Scarfies set, since at that time the less-experienced Rob did not want him there.

Duncan learned early on that when they’re on set together, Rob directs, and any suggestion Duncan might want to make, he must take through Rob. The first time it happened that after Rob had given some notes to the actors Duncan then did too, he sensed instantly that he had crossed a forbidden line.

And so to the first of Duncan’s major questions: when and how to establish the hierarchy in a collaboration, the rules of the game? It may not be easy to have the necessary conversation, but it is essential to have it at the right time – and the right time is as early as possible. In the collaboration with his brother, the situation seems to have been quite straightforward: Duncan said to Rob, “If we disagree, you have the final say. It’s your project, so I am here to help you.”

Implicit in all this is the requirement for clear communication. Duncan went on to list a number of personalities whose speech and behaviour works against cooperation, such as: the Bad Listener (“To listen is to respect”), the Emotional Bully, the Control Freak (“of whom there are many in the screen industry”), the Passive Martyr, the Persistent Pest, the Idea Saboteur, the Argument Avoider, the Bored Change-maker, the Conservative Guardian, and finally, the Hidden Ego.

The key to dealing with any of these personalities – including when one is being one of them oneself – is simply to look to be honest with oneself, to acknowledge when one is speaking or acting negatively, and for all parties involved to work hard to understand and respect each other. For Duncan it is essential to be honest without being horrible, and to always try to be constructive. Positive communication is a skill we can all learn. He quoted American sales and marketing guru Elmer Wheeler: “If we must disagree, let us disagree agreeably.”

In the short Q&A concluding the session, screenwriter Nick Ward summed up the audience’s response when he said, “I wish I had attended this seminar right at the beginning of my career – Spot on!”

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