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Writing this journal is a bad idea.
I mean, it has to be, right? It’s supposed to be a blow by blow account of what happened when I made my first feature film, from green light all the way to the premiere.
But what it’s probably going to end up being is premature; a classic example of tempting fate. To start a journal about making a movie before I know that the movie is going to be made is no better then leaning back after welding the last rivet onto the Titanic and declaring her unsinkable.
But, hey. What if the worst doesn’t happen, and instead the best does? What if the start of my filmmaking career has no iceberg to crash into? What if I am metaphorically standing at the single biggest cross road that I have been aware of in my life, and I’m about to go down the road less travelled?
If that were so, I think it would be cool to read an account of it that was recorded for posterity pretty much as it happened. Well, on the same day that it happened. I think there would be aspiring filmmakers out there, just like me, that would value that kind of a resource very highly indeed. I know I would.
So, to hell with it. I’m going to do it. Come along for the ride, if you want, because a thought just occurred to me: if you’re reading this, it means that the film did get made, and that enough people saw it to at least interest you in finding out how that happened. This thought gives me a delicious feeling. To think that I’m reaching out to you, Dear Reader, from my nervous and unsure place of not knowing to a place in the future where you are; a place where our film is being made and people are wanting to see it and then find this journal and read it. Well, that delicious feeling makes me feel calm and assured that the future is bright. It’s a feeling that I want to roll around in and get intimate with. So let’s go.
I think the best way to do this is to start by introducing myself and my partner in crime, Ryan Coonan. Then I figure I better cover the projects that are in contention, and then talk about the program that we have been in that has gotten us to this point. After that, it will be high time to go to the day by day account of what is happening as we head toward the premiere.
OK! Here’s my story, but I’ll be brief. So brief, in fact, that I’m going to attempt an autobiography that lasts as long as a few paragraphs. I want you to care about me, as I want you to care about the story protagonists we create, but I don’t want you to be bored. We need to get to the inciting incident at the fifteen minute mark of this movie at the latest, so then we can get on with the good stuff. The fun and games. So. Here’s why you might like me, for reasons that are movie related.
I remember when there were no cinemas in suburban Australia. Not a reason in itself, but I’m also old enough to remember that when you came into the city to see a movie, you wore a collar. That’s what I did when my parents took my sister and me into Melbourne to see a blockbuster. And when I say blockbusters, I mean it. I remember seeing Return of the Jedi. I remember seeing Ghostbusters. I remember seeing Back to the Future. I also remember that our parents would always, always take us to the Pancake Parlour afterwards for treats. So why would you care? When I was a kid, this was the only reason I would come to the city, and it has done two things: created a love in me for Melbourne that will never die, and an absolutely unshakable conviction that movies matter. Movies can help shape and even define how you feel about your life, and they can change the world for the better. It is for these reasons that the moment before a film starts, when the lights go down in the theatre, is always exciting for me. For these reasons, the smell of popcorn and the sight of illuminated posters in glass cabinets gives me a sense of optimistic hope that something great is about to happen.
My Dad in particular influenced me in two major ways. When he was younger, he was an excellent hobby photographer. He had fantastic SLRs, and amazing looking equipment for printing his own photos. He would let me come into the walk-in robe off my parent’s master bedroom that he had turned into a temporary darkroom. I still remember the smell of chemicals and the sense of awe as I saw a picture slowly appear on the photographic paper by the light of a red coloured bulb. It was dark in there, but it was safe, and it was magical. I get that same feeling anytime I look at filmmaking gear. Camera lenses. Lighting. The darkness of a mixing booth.
The other gift my Dad gave me; a love of the English language. He had a huge science fiction novel collection, but only the good stuff. As a kid, I was attracted by the paintings of starships and space stations on the covers. I didn’t care that the stories I read behind those covers were written by people like E.E “Doc” Smith, Isaac Asimov or James Herbert. But they were, and my love and appreciation for the written word was also born. So when I was in the lucrative but soul crushing job of being a finance broker in my late teens and early twenties, the idea of changing direction before I no longer had the option to was, in hindsight, inevitably going to lead to writing for the screen. But it took my Mum and Dad to suggest it. So I somehow got into the Professional Writing and Screenwriting Advanced Diploma at RMIT, and finished studying in 1999. It wasn’t long after that, a few months at most, that I met Mr Ryan T Coonan. A good friend of mine was acting as a teacher’s assistant at the Melbourne Filmmaker’s Summer School, and Ryan was attending. Ryan was shouting my friend a beer when I came to pick him up, and we soon became friends. I didn’t know it at the time, but Ryan was going to become the most important friend I could have when it came to my filmmaking journey, because he would become my filmmaking partner.
1999. My God. That’s how long it has taken me to get to this opportunity, and I don’t even know if I’m going to get it, yet. Wait, wait, you’re reading this so it’s all good, we got there – I gotta remember that – but man, oh man that’s a long time. During that unthinkable stretch of years trying to become a filmmaker, I met the love of my life, The Missus, and we have beautiful children together. They’re young right now; seven and under. They are my reason for being. Everything I do, I do for them. I’m hoping that this new vocation on which I’m embarking inspires them in some way, much like my Dad did with me with the things he loved doing. They don’t have to become filmmakers; that’s not the point. The point is inspiration. They inspire me, so I hope I can return the favour.
So, Ryan. What can I say about him? He’s a really nice person. Wait. You might think that sounds bland, but the thing of it is – I’m just telling the truth. The guy is nice. Like, to people. In fact, his day job is in social welfare. He genuinely likes to get to know the ins and outs of people he meets, and naturally empathises with their experience on this planet.
He has a stunning and equally nice wife, and two endearing and wickedly smart kids. They live an idyllic life of mutual respect and support. They strive for greatness but are content with their lot. They want their friends and loved ones to succeed and rejoice when they do. The whole thing makes my skin crawl and I don’t really understand it.
Which is probably why we’re a good team. We are yin and yang in so many ways except for a few crucial areas. We both share a passion for story, and a joy in writing. We consider ourselves perpetual students of structure, get inspired by high concept ideas that allow for exploration of character relationships and theme, and we trust each other. Our relationship has been tested over the years. Sometimes from internal forces, most of the time external. We’ve come through them all with the knowledge that we have each other’s back, no matter what. I doubt very much that I’d still be on the journey of becoming a full-time filmmaker if he wasn’t in my life.
So he owes me big-time.
Now. The projects. Here’s the thing. I don’t know which film I’m talking about just yet. I know that something is being made (because you’re reading this) but as I mentioned earlier, we submitted two screenplays. I won’t bore you with a description of what they are about, because if you’re reading this but don’t know already – you’re doing it wrong. Because I don’t know which one was selected, or (yay) if both of them were, I will also not regale you with how those stories came about. Suffice to say that Waterborne was a journey of about five years, possibly more, and Contained was a flash of inspiration from Ryan during the revolutionary filmmaking program I mentioned earlier. What you can do is check out the Projects section of our website for more information about them, if you like.
Which leads me to the revolutionary filmmaking program that is shaping up to be the best chance I have had to really break through into the industry in fifteen years. I need to speak about this, of course. I need to give credit where credit is due. If you’re not from Australia, you probably don’t know that our film industry is microscopic. There are a handful of people that eek out a living. The rest are part-timers, working a second job to pay the bills. This industry is almost completely supported by development programs and grants provided by state government bodies, and the federal institution of Screen Australia. Of all of the state government bodies, I believe that Screen ACT is the smallest. The Director, Monica Penders, manages a yearly budget of about $250,000, I’m told. Yearly. In my day job, I manage a contact centre and two information kiosks with a budget of about $1mil a month. I think I’m doing a good job, but I’m not changing the industry that job is in. Monica, on the other hand, is changing hers. I absolutely believe that. I also absolutely believe that this wouldn’t have happened without a gentleman by the name of Andy Marriott, chairman of Silver Sun Pictures, coming up with a novel idea and pitching her on it. Here’s his novel idea: go to the market and find out what buyers want to, well, buy. Then, limit the budgets of the films you make in accordance with that information to $1.5 mil a piece to ensure the best chance of breaking even with international pre-sales alone, so anything that you take at the box, over the counter or on VOD is gravy. They in turn pitched Michael Favelle, CEO of Odin’s Eye, the single biggest Sales Agency in Australia, to come on board and sell the projects at market. He’s one of the smartest people in the film industry I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, so it is not surprising that he jumped on board, too.
Crazy, right? It seems like someone should have thought of this before. But again, if you’re thinking that, you no doubt know little about the Australian film industry. In spite of having a national population that is rivalled by major cities in other countries, in spite of having a domestic audience whose tastes are very much genre defined, the government bodies have been supporting expensive, multi-million dollar dramas and period pieces that had little hope of ever making their money back. And to get access to that ‘dead money’ funding, you need to know people. You need to jump through hoops. You need to have friends of friends. And then you need to fill in forms and apply, answering questions about yourself and your project as if none of those things I just mentioned have an influence over the final decision. It’s galling, it’s time consuming, and it’s not profitable.
Now imagine a program that Monica and Andy devise. They call it Pod, and it pretty much works like this: pay a fee, get accepted. In this program, they tell you what kinds of films they are looking for, from a genre perspective. Then, in a series of monthly workshops, they teach you, via the awe-inspiring Karel Segers (more on him later), how to come up with ideas, how to develop them, and then how to pitch them. Why? Because at the end of that program, they have slots for four fully funded films. That’s right, boys and girls, you heard me correctly. You pay a fee, and then one of the finest story consultants and script editors in the world today teaches you how to compete for four potential productions. Get selected, and you’re in the Accelerator program.
Insane. I mean, I went through it, and I still have trouble believing it. One thing is for sure; once word of this gets out to the greater filmmaking community, no doubt off the back of the four films that have been or are being made, they will need to beat applicants for future programs away with a stick. For fifteen years I have toiled away, learning my trade, getting paid occasionally, getting told “no” mostly, and never coming this close to an actual production of my very own.
Yesterday, I emailed through our completed screenplays for consideration. When the program started, there were forty two of us. After three months, we were whittled down to nine. Although we are a writing team, Ryan and I submitted projects separately with the full disclosure that we would be writing them together. I represented Waterborne, and he Contained. Improbably, we were both included in that final group. Nine applicants for four spots, and we have double the chance to be selected, now that we both got through.
Over the years of toiling to break into the industry proper, Ryan and I have agreed on three ultimate, pie in the sky, goals. The first is that we get representation and commissioned work in Hollywood as writers. The second is that if given the chance, he will direct our screenplays and I will produce. The third is that we create our own production company so we can continue to be proactive with our careers, generate work for others in the local industry and make the kind of films we want to make. Screen ACT, Silver Sun Pictures and Odin’s Eye have made all of this possible. Making it a reality is up to us. Can anyone ask for anything more?
So, to summarise, yesterday I emailed through the files I made available above, beating the 31st December deadline by two whole days. If Waterborne was the film that got greenlit, you might be interested to know that it started as a short film. It’s available at all good YouTube and Vimeo screens, everywhere – and it’s embedded in our website, of course. Also, we wrote two legit drafts of Waterborne, plus the draft for Contained in three months while holding down full time jobs. There might be people out there who could do that in their sleep. Not us. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done writing-wise in my life. Every spare moment I had out of work, for three months, was devoted to those screenplays. I mainly blame John August and Craig Mazin. In one of their ‘Scriptnotes’ podcasts, they answered a listener question. The listener asked what they should do if they have received a note to change the screenplay in a way that they didn’t agree with. Do both versions, is my summary of their answer. And so we did.
It was much easier, in comparison to Waterborne, to complete Contained. This is for the simple reason that we really believed we had cracked the plot. After applying the learnings we gained from Karel’s workshops to Waterborne (that’s right Dear Reader, 15 years and we’re still learning stuff like we’re newborns and don’t ever expect that to stop), we were primed to nut out the plot for Contained. We found issues after our first crack at it, sure, but that’s the process. For the most part, it just flowed. I think it’s because the restrictions of the concept made it easier, and also because early on we came up with a thematic premise that fit seamlessly with the A plot. I’m consciousness of not boring people with story-geekiness, so apologies if that doesn’t make sense without more detail. Suffice to say, we felt that we hit the plot right outta the park, so there was nothing more to do except attach the draft to the email and hit send.
I will say one extra thing for all you writers out there. I want to point out that these documents were not the only things we wrote while developing these projects. Ryan and I created a template tool for creating plots (it’s like a flow diagram that you enter text into), a four page synopsis plan, a four page synopsis and step outlines. It’s a process that we refined under Karel’s guidance, and we were so happy with the experience that we will pretty much be following this process – as well as all the development work we did on loglines and pitch documents with the rest of the original group of forty two applicants in Pod – for every project we work on in the future.
I honestly think that the whole experience of going through the program from day one to now is worth a book on its own. Ryan said a few times that if it was covered as a reality show, like Project Greenlight or something, that it would make great TV. I think he’s right. It was transformative for most of us. It was hilarious at times, tragic at others. There were ‘good’ people, and ‘bad’ people, amazing moments, and terrible ones. Friendships were made, forged in the heat of competition with one another, but there was always a sense of camaraderie and support as well. This weird dichotomy was possible thanks to the professionalism and empathy of Monica, Karel, Andy and Michael. If nothing had come of my own involvement in the program, I still would’ve considered it completely worthwhile simply because I had the pleasure of knowing these most excellent people.
And here we are. Nine projects remain. Four spots are available. We’ve been told that by January 15th, 2016 we will hear which of the nine projects will be picked as the first ever film to be greenlit in the Screen ACT Accelerator Program. In March, we will hear which projects were selected for the remaining spots.
So. We wait.