wha’appen – a partial account

Some years ago now – it was Easter, 2002 – I woke up one morning with the idea for a film in my head. It concerned two very different people, one of whom I had known, the other someone I read about in the newspaper. He was a convicted murderer, at whose trial it was mentioned that, while planning his crime, he had begun to sponsor a child. The other was a student of mine when I was an English language teacher in the mid-1980s, a young Vietnamese woman who was horribly killed, along with four members of her extended family, by her estranged husband. The idea for the film did not concern the circumstances of her death: I simply thought of putting a young woman with her character in the frame as the sponsored child, now grown up, of the jailed murderer. She comes to Australia to meet her benefactor, unaware of his situation; the film plays out between them as she tries to come to terms with his convict status, and he with her seemingly angelic but nevertheless unwelcome materialisation in his posthumous existence.

So far so good. I wrote a treatment and submitted it to a funding body, who advanced a sum of money with which to write a first draft; as I duly did. When it was complete I showed it to a friend, a director, not because I wanted him to work on it, just for an opinion of its merits. He misunderstood and enlisted himself, enthusiastically, as the putative director of the film; and at the same time found us a producer for it. While this did not allay my misgivings about his fit with the script, it did persuade me to keep them to myself; and, with the new producer, we sailed happily off in search of more development money. The person in the funding body who initially supported the project had left her position, her replacement did not like my draft, so we applied to the other funding body (there were and are only two choices in NSW). They came back with an offer that was (secretly) conditional upon my friend the director’s severance from the project; and we, that is the producer and I, not without some angst, agreed. I gave my friend a sum of money in compensation and our relationship survived the mishap. It was the first of a series of betrayals.

More seriously, perhaps, the funding body, aided and abetted by the producer, had reservations about the character of the murderer; as did the script editor my producer brought on board, a friend from Film School days, and an aspiring director herself. All three – funding body, producer, script editor – wanted some amelioration of the crime. They said that a man who had, in cold blood, planned and executed a murder, then stolen his victim’s identity, was beyond redemption and therefore beyond the sympathies of any audience we could hope to command. To me this confrontation between the irredeemable and the hyper-innocent was the point of the drama but in the end I gave way, not least because the script had by this time been chosen by the funding body for intensive workshopping, with international guests, at a week-long conference in Sydney, followed by a marketing seminar a couple of months later. I allowed the psychopathic killer to become a man mistakenly accused of manslaughter and in that transformation gave away my main impetus for writing the screenplay.

Over the next couple of years the script editor re-positioned herself as the new director of the film. This meant, on the one hand, actively conspiring against her friend the producer, who also wanted to direct the film; and on the other collaborating closely with me in the (re)writing of the screenplay. Meanwhile the producer accepted a job with a state funding body and, while continuing to allege she wanted both to produce and co-direct, had in fact no time to give the project. I won’t go into the detail of the negotiations for her departure; suffice to say, she did go, leaving me and the new director alone with an increasingly ramshackle script. We were full-on co-writers by now and I noticed that she was becoming increasingly nervous that her contribution to the screenplay would go uncredited unless something went down on paper. I offered to draw up an agreement between us honouring her input, did so, and we both signed it.

There was no longer any money for development and I had mostly lost my enthusiasm for the idea, so I was quite happy for her to shoulder the burden, which she willingly did. However, her writing skills were somewhat less than adequate to the task; as were, it must be admitted, my own. I am not primarily a dramatic writer, being of a more contemplative cast of mind; while she had stronger dramatic instincts but lacked competence in crucial areas. Her dialogue, for instance, was atrocious. We could perhaps have been a good team, each making up for the others’ deficits. Instead, she became the senior writer and I limited myself to cleaning up, insofar as I could, after her. She is an extremely good business woman, with extensive overseas contacts, and a ferocious ambition. Even though (in my view) the script was decaying from the ramshackle to the derisory, she found new producers in Australia and veritable investors overseas. And, improbable as it seemed, the picture began to look likely to proceed.

By this time our relationship had passed the first flush of excitement, gone through a period of hard, serious and amicable work, to arrive at a species of disenchantment that was probably mutual. I found some of her innovations persuasive – she recast the sponsored child as an earlier incarnation of herself – but others, which tended to be those she was most proud of, bathetic, even embarrassing; while she couldn’t understand my waning interest and lack of commitment. When she began agitating for a more formal rendering of our agreement about the screenplay – fifty/fifty ownership of the copyright – I saw no reason to disagree. She had a new piece of paper drawn up by her lawyers and we made a date to attend their offices to sign it. I was there at the appointed time but she did not show; later she told me it was because (uncharacteristically) she had got the day wrong. I did not think any more about it until some months later when we were due to sign fresh contracts with the new producers – at which point I discovered that, rather than signing an agreement with respect to our mutual ownership of the property, I had in fact given it over in its entirety to her company. In other words I had lost the option on my own screenplay. This meant that I was, like the first director and the first producer, effectively severed from the project.

I had been naive, even stupid; on the other hand, I do not believe for a moment that she did not know what she was doing. Her absence from the signing was, I am sure, strategic. Perhaps from one point of view she was right to remove me, surgically, like a diseased appendix, from the screenplay; from another it was an unconscionable act of self-interest. Whatever, the deed was done. It was up to me how I handled it. I said nothing to her, and nothing to the producers, with whom I managed to negotiate a much reduced fee for the creative concept or some such. I declined all their further offers to work on the screenplay, including the offer to write the final, shooting draft. I would not have been paid for this work but that was not why I did not do it; it was because I would have had to have resumed collaboration with the director and that I could not see how to do. Someone else was hired for the final rewrite; the producers, acting impeccably, sent me an interim draft of his work but I was unable to summon the curiosity to read it. That film, an international co-production with a budget of $3.2 million, is being shot as I write; among the cast is a world renowned Australian actor. I have been paid for my ‘creative concept’ and will, if the picture makes money, receive a share of the producer’s net profit – 1.5% I believe.

So . . . what? So what. I must have, over the eight years, spent hundreds of hours on this project, which went through 11 or 12 drafts, each of which included four or five interim versions. I must have attended dozens of meetings, made or taken innumerable phone calls, written and received uncountable emails, talked it up and talked it down with all sorts of people, most of whom I have not seen again. My payment for all of this amounts to something in the region of $40,000, mostly received in the early stages. The creative (bad word) satisfaction is nugatory since screenplay writing for me has been an arena where I have failed and failed and failed again. The sole positive outcome has always been the making of a good film. And perhaps one will be eventuate – who knows? I certainly don’t. At some point I will get a call from the producers inviting me to a screening, probably of a rough assembly, perhaps a finer cut. I will go along and if the picture is okay, allow it to be released with my name in the credits. If not, not. I can’t say I’m hopeful; but I could be wrong. One thing I am sure of: I will not put myself through a process like this again.

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1 Comment

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One response to “wha’appen – a partial account

  1. PC

    Oh dear. In my experience “Producer’s net profit” is merely a cruel fiction, but I guess you knew that…

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