On the Edge

TAKE (Director’s Guild Magazine)  September 2008  Waka’s World

 

I’m sitting in the dark. It’s the nineteenth Wellington Fringe Film Festival and I’m here doing the mentor/wise-person thing for the fifth year (maybe sixth year) in a row. People thank me endlessly for doing this task, but really it’s totally selfish of me to ‘swan’ in after all the hard work has been done. Besides I get to see what I really should be making as a filmmaker.

It’s the end of the fourth day and I’m watching my sixty-fourth film, a New Zealand short, Big Bad Wolves, directed by Rajneel Singh and produced by Craig Parkes. I’m a little jaded but still paying attention. The film is edgy and shows a total disregard for political correctness. It is good … f**king good, in fact. Then part way through the film it hits me: ‘They’ have institutionalised me. Suddenly I feel sick because I know that if I had read the screenplay of Wolves, chances are I would have turned it down. Why? Because it is too dark and it doesn’t have a hope of funding. I realise then, and this is the bit that hurts, I’ve lost my edge, and I don’t know when it happened.

Doubt sets in quickly in this business. I go home and stare into a bottle of red wine and like any good Kiwi I immediately start looking for someone to blame. But first I have to find out who ‘They’ might be.

I begin a list. Could it have been my twelve years in the development loop with the New Zealand Film Commission writing and re-writing endless submissions? This process uses a very strange part of the brain. Or could it have been those few but memorable meetings with the various Controllers of Programming at TVNZ? Or maybe could it have been the ever increasing layers of compliance at NZ on Air. Perhaps it was those moments of ‘profound truth’ when I worked in advertising (like when the guy from the TAB explained, in exasperating detail, the benefits of gambling and how our society was all the better for it)? Or could it have been the phone conversation I had with someone at Creative NZ who explained that I had to have a track record before I could apply? Are these the proverbial ‘They’ I’m seeking to blame? Are these the organisations and the mind-numbing bureaucrats that I can finally point the finger at and say: ‘You have institutionalised me. You have taken my ‘edge?’ I’m beginning to think like them. And, an even scarier thought is, was this their intention all along?

I hear you ask, why should I care about these people? Why not just get on with it? Well, you like to think you can but in reality you still have to include them at some stage. My heart sinks when faced with this reality – a little chip gets taken away every time, especially when the concepts of any creative endeavors have to be like something else that already exists somewhere else in the world, preferably in Britain or the United States.

Thinking about who ‘They’ are leads me to contemplate the gatekeepers in this industry and the flow of the creative process. Personally, submitting ideas to the industry machine has often been a frustrating experience. Lets just say one version might go something like this…

You have an idea for a film and write it up so that it is reasonably easy to understand. You submit it to a controller of ideas who is a little evasive. You then give a bit of your idea away on the phone to get the controller to bite. The controller finally calls a meeting after you have called every day for a year. The controller talks about him/herself for most of the meeting and then suggests that ‘X’ (fill in suitable celebrity) would be great for the piece. However, the controller also suggests that s/he has heard this idea before. Quickly, you explain that yes, you told him/her about it on the phone earlier. “Oh, yes,” s/he smiles knowingly. You don’t hold out much hope. You shake hands with your business partner on the street outside and say goodbye. Three years later you see your idea on the screen but with a different title, director and producer attached – your name is somehow missing from the mix. You reach for the phone and talk to your lawyer who quotes the Wilson versus TVNZ case (an early 1980s case involving a children’s programme). You fall into deep depression and look seriously at the fridge magnet franchise advertised in the local rag.

I used to believe this was just an honest mistake until I came across others who had had the same experience. A collective stunned silence seems to be the end result. There’s usually an air of fateful defeat and the misguided sense that ‘they’ were somehow justified in stealing the idea and that the purveyors of ‘original ideas’ should know their rightful place.

A few years ago I had the unfortunate experience of having a script ‘borrowed’ by a reputable international film company and by the time I discovered this fact they were already in production with it. In fact, they were already into the second season of the series (it’s amazing what pops up on SKY TV). I then had to make the hard phone calls and confess to the other writers and development partners that the script had been ripped … I mean, ‘borrowed’. The senior head writer’s reaction was surprising but also somewhat profound. He said, “See, what did I tell you. It was good enough to steal!” The legal advice on that occasion mentioned the depth of the pockets of the international film company and the exchange rate of the New Zealand dollar to the Canadian dollar and the fact that ‘They’ will win the case anyway.

At close to thirty-five years in the biz I’m finally starting to come to the conclusion that all this conniving, thieving, dishonest backstabbing, cheating, lying, stealing, carry on will never change until … um, er, someone speaks out. Bags you go first?

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Writers Write … Don’t They?

Pitch Engine  (NZ  Writer’s Guild Magazine) Sept 2008

 

It’s happened three times this week already.

The conversation goes something like this:

“Hi what are you up to?”

“I’m writing a book,” I reply. “Well actually, I’m writing two books. One’s a textbook.” (I don’t add the other five or so things I’m doing or I’d seem a complete plonker.)

“Oh,” they say. ”I wish I had more time to write, but I just don’t seem to have enough of it these days.”

I smile weakly and nod a silent homage to the god of slightly stupid responses. I ask them what they last wrote or what they are working on now… you know, in the writing department of their lives… um, er, well, nothing, they reply – not yet. Though two of the three suggested they might do a writing course one day… when they had time.

his implies to me that these great creative lives don’t have a clue what it’s actually like to actually write and they haven’t actually done it and are still assuming that its something that they could do, and will do, in their spare time, and if they did in fact have the spare time they could (and would) write the next great New Zealand novel.

You know the attitude: “I’ve read a novel or two so what’s the issue? – writing one should be a piece of piss.”

Already I can tell they have decided that something shorter would be easier than a novel, as they begin to explain their moment of ‘something traumatic once happened to me’ and everyone should care about it.

Then finally they confess: “But really I think it might work better as a screenplay, you know, a major theatrical feature film.”

Hey, why don’t you write a hit song while you’re at it? – After all a song is only 25 lines (according to Leonard Cohen and that’s why he sometimes takes five years to complete a song).

“25 lines, really?” they say with surprise. You can see them thinking, Well in that case I’ll write three hits before lunch.

Oh yes, darling, I would be a brain surgeon, a dancer or an architect but I just don’t have the time… “Or maybe one day I might just take up serious screenplay writing… my Dad bought me that McKee book last Christmas, you know the one on ‘Story’, but mind you I haven’t had the time to read it yet but I’m thinking I might just keep this writing thing as only a hobby…”

“What?” I enquire with an eyebrow raised and an open gaze to encourage truth and honesty.

“Um, er… because I am just doing this make-up, Grip, Gaffer, Runners job (dear reader, feel free to fill in the thing that you feel you could be in your spare time when you’re not writing) before I get discovered.”

Obviously their ability to out-write and out-perform your own professional career is a given because they will be totally brilliant as ‘only a hobby writer’. They say this to somehow reassure you that they won’t be stealing from you… (even though they just have).

The frightening truth is that they actually think they are really, REALLY a Writer in Waiting just as they might be an artist, or the Prime Minister, but they simply haven’t been discovered yet… and don’t get me started about being a Director!

“…Now that’s something I could really excel at – but only total ‘wankers’ do that job – so I might just stick to this Assistant Grip thing, until, well, um, er, you know at least until I get the new set of wheels paid off…”

 

Waka Attewell is a Director/Writer/Cinematographer and over the last 35 years has also occasionally produced. He lives on the Kapiti Coast north of Wellington – when not working in the film and TV business he runs a small beef and sheep dry stock farm.

 

Twenty one years ago – Starlight Hotel

ONFILM Views September 2008

The business and administration of script development has become a valid career choice, whilst film making is relegated to an expensive hobby that few can now afford, reckons Waka Attewell.

starlight-hotel-movie-poster-1988-1020384787

The other night the Film Archive ran the New Zealand movie Starlight Hotel (dir: Sam Pillsbury, circa 1987) – it was almost 21 years to the day that we were shooting it and it’s become increasingly difficult not to compare ‘then’ with ‘now’.

Back then, when there were no video splits, quick and honest communication was the lifeline of the production, the language of ‘cinema’ if you like. At the end of each take we described what had just been achieved (or not), and we discussed problems and solutions as the story evolved. It was an accurate, vital, vibrant vocabulary and to the point of what the movie was about – a language honed for our purposes.

The director watched the performance over the shoulder of the crew. Every night a complete crew crowded into a school hall or local cinema to watch the previous day’s work. All the work was projected on the big screen. I’ve begun to refer to these times as “the National Cinema era” – admittedly we borrowed from the Europeans and Americans but this was a time of our voice and our stories. Starlight Hotel was made in a time before we did those ‘how to’ script writing courses.

 

Today I’m looking out on a place I’m only just recognising as home, while down the road Hollywood’s got its slippers under the bed; we’ve recently invited them into the parlour and they’ve already helped themselves – be careful what you wish for? We’ve even given their invasion a ‘pet’ name – Wellywood. They appear to be throwing people and money at a problem to find out if a solution is required, as somewhere a faint echo of ‘National Cinema’ is still rattling around the Wellington hills.

I’d forgotten how enriching it was when we were left to our own devices and followed our instincts. We didn’t waste our passion searching erroneously for the third act turning point, or agonising over the second act hole because someone, who didn’t know any better than us, said there was one – I have a memory of “just doing it”…

We didn’t care that the ‘moving parts’ had special names or a deeper purpose, so there was no need for endless meetings to discuss how or why. We certainly had a nose for what ‘stunk’ – we instinctively got into a scene as late as possible and out of it as soon as we could…

And 21 years on it’s still dripping from the screen: Starlight Hotel is an example of cinema, our cinema.

 

In the early 1990s, Robert (“don’t call me Bob”) McKee (and, a few months later, Linda Seeger) came along to help us do it better – script gurus from the Hollywood system; the proverbial experts from that somewhere-else-place. We’d recently got whiff of a move to “up-skill” and “manage” the business, something we thought we had well in hand. But the bureaucrats didn’t have anything much to supervise or hold a yardstick to and, well, um, “manage”, so this script thing was a good way to define the subjective and really make their presence felt – you know, take the mystery out of things; get to the bottom of it.

Overnight the drive seemed to change from ‘story’ – the stuff you tell around a camp fire – to ‘structure’ – like, “put the punch-line at the end of the joke” kind of thing, “and if they don’t get it, explain it”… lock it down, take the breath out of it, hog-tie the bastard.

It felt like the visuals were abandoned in favour of a new dictum – things like design, wardrobe, make-up, editing, cinematography became just the stuff the crew did a bit later.

‘The script’ was redefined as an all-encompassing document; a document that fitted neatly into the office environment of tasks, meetings and analysis; a document, we were led to believe, that could predetermine box office success but only if you followed this path – “if you take the oath and praise the lord of Hollywood, all will be movie genius; send money soonest”…

During the McKee sessions I remember thinking he drew a rather long bow attributing design, wardrobe, camera moves, performance, choreography, and music score (as well as everything else) to the writer – hence adding enormous credence to the role of ‘the script’. The bureaucrats nodded and accepted the ruse in its completeness.

 

What does a bureaucracy run on? Paper.

As it transpired ‘the script’ was the only thing they could get their teeth into and hang on to, but only with the mere pretence of understanding what was actually required to make a movie or what ‘the script’ actually did. A clone/copy approach was adopted: something from elsewhere but dressed up to look like ‘National Cinema’ – our unique voice was no longer required as the question became “what is it like?”, meaning “what is it the same as?”

Most of these people had never made movies, let alone understood the moving parts – but they’d watched a few in their time. The key to this corralling of the process was simply the fact that ‘the script’ happened to require paper and paper is what makes a bureaucracy bounce and, most importantly, it gave them complete control. And, of course, they held the all-important key to the safe and we, the filmmakers, needed the cash to further the creative process while travelling to the markets trying to get projects up.

It’s hard to sell a script you have ceased to believe in and, by the time the various committees and readers had dragged themselves through the ninth draft, you were usually over the whole clumsy deal. The Film Commission flourished under this regime.

 

The fact the process is flawed has never been properly debated; previously any suggestion of debate has caused the funds to disappear from those that chose to initiate the discussion – possibly this small conflict of priorities still exists? The McKee sessions, which I can only assume became embodied in the development process, were a mixture of delightful bluff and extremely entertaining theatre. I enjoyed them, but anything to do with evolving a story or starting from the blank page was somewhat missing – McKee worked his magic from the high ground of hindsight. Perfect for the bureaucrats to embrace while we supplied the hard work, leaving them to analyse, report and create ‘make work schemes’. Within a short time I was hearing stuff like “I think a re-write of the third act” and “Your turning point into the second act” and the catch-all aside “Your movie doesn’t seem to be on the page.” On the page? What?!? Well, for good reason – it’s supposed to be up on the screen!

Staying in sync with the requirements and tabling the right paper in the correct order became a total distraction to the story process. This script initiative gave the bureaucrats clearly defined parameters for the bag of rules they wrote – albeit with a stencil. I’m sure McKee mentioned at the end of his session that “this was not a template to affix to the process of movie making” but I think the bureaucrats were already talking amongst themselves and missed this important detail.

Mostly it created reams of paper, frigging mountains of it… and that was just the mountain I was creating to satisfy the beast – it seemed like the requirement was to stop writing stories and start writing proposals. Development hell followed – it then became apparent to me that ‘development’ used a different part of the brain, while those assigned to comment on the work used what they liked to see at the movies as the yardstick. But, alas, a movie watcher does not maketh a movie maker and development meetings were a waste of time, except, that is, for the person who was being paid to be a waste of time. It became about the anxiety of the ‘process’ rather than the ‘story’ – ‘development’ became a word that could send some people running for the hills.

 

I started to receive screenplays for consideration that had embraced this script management structure. The narrative flow was now in the dialogue (cringe), stage directions told the camera what to do (pointless), the story arrived like an express train in the first act and crashed predictably in the third act (per formula). They all had the same typeface, in the same computer format, and the characters followed an arc that bobbled at “the top of the second act” and then had “nemesis” imposed upon them, before it was all resolved and tidied away and the audience could thank you for not fucking up their Friday night at the “flicks” with a sad ending or one that might actually be about something.

I’m not saying the development process doesn’t have some merit (um, er) – I’m saying its clumsiness didn’t work for me and for a lot of others. I’ve watched in horror as colleagues joined the film bureaucracy (read development business) and ceased to be productive while quickly becoming defenders of the development rigor.

This is not a case of the guy standing outside the new “talkie” hoping they’ll “bring back the Nickelodeon” but a guy wondering why his career has slowly been relegated to a hobby.

‘National Cinema’ seems to be parked up in the paddock, the grass is growing up around the doors, the tyres are flat and the axle is broke, spiders have moved in. Lift the bonnet on this old wreck and you’ll bark your knuckles on every rusty bolt while you receive another invite to another commission-initiated lecture on “the inner workings of your engine” with the promise of “one spanner that fixes all” – and of course the guru is from that magical overseas place. But look for what’s really wrong and you’ll be told that the clunk you hear is a tick in the timing: “If you proceed through the next five years of our development – whilst, of course, believing – all will be resolved.”

Which brings me back to Starlight Hotel – in its review, the LA Times said it “creeps up on you” as a “movie” – “it’s one of the best” – it tells a story of the human condition.

I’m not saying “old-good” or “new-bad” but I’ve never thought a committee could write a story, just as I never thought a committee could make a movie. And there actually is no formula – never has been, never will be. Let’s get our cinema down into the mud again and start looking longingly through those misty windows at those distant hills with their brooding menace – I don’t think we’ve yet completely evolved within the strength of our isolation.

If progress is, in today’s terms, throwing people about in museum capsule rides whilst blasting them with computer-generated music in the guise of education, or learning the next new CGI technique to make it bigger and even bigger, or learning the next digital camera system (albeit the sixth in three years), or celebrating the new tax incentive to bring the ‘deal’ onshore, or watching low-resolution pictures on the internet, then so be it. Phew!

I’m having a breather and watering the horse and throwing a bit of oil on the armour whilst watching the kids galloping around the lawn on a hobby-horse made from a broomstick. And I’m thanking ‘the god of reason’ that the kids got bored with the online computerised colouring-in after a mere hour and went back to the real crayons. My heart is a wee bit glad and while that distant windmill is still holding the high ground of hubris, it still doesn’t stop some of us from having another tilt for old-time’s sake.

 

The bravery of the work in Starlight Hotel is still apparent – but if we had shot it today, in this PC world, the ‘rite of passage’ moment would have gone to the committee and we would have shot two, maybe three, versions of the end. We didn’t; in our movie he kisses her – the young girl, the young under-aged girl – on the mouth. It’s one of those moments at the end of a movie when the audience cry – they’ve been on the journey with us, with the story, with the magic… I remember filming it at 3am on a cold morning in Lyttelton 21 years ago, the last morning of the last day of the shoot. I was the only one that night who had the bliss of seeing this moment as a movie on the ground glass in the Arriflex BL IV viewfinder. I cried.

Some of us are not over this ‘National Cinema’ concept yet but we must find a way to move on from the fact that we unwittingly gifted the film industry to a bunch of bureaucrats who seem to be merely fiddling with the edges.

SPADA lost its ‘D’ for “director” and grew a ‘D’ for “development” – suddenly “the pitch” was the only way of the future – while the producers played the bureaucratic game to the best of their ability, and what did we end up with? ‘D’ for “dumb”.

What’s next?