February Writer’s Room Summary – 2008
February Writer’s Room Summary – 2008
to make a living … but possible to make a
Stories of struggle, perseverance and success, offered up with generous amounts of advice delivered an evening of ‘perspiration and inspiration’ as guests Anthony McCarten (Ladies’ Night, Via Satellite) and Stephen Sinclair (Ladies’ Night, Braindead, Meet the Feebles, LotR-The Two Towers) joined guest MC Te Radar in the first Writer’s Room for 2008 to talk about the ultimate dream - earning a living as a writer.
The award winning play Ladies’ Night provided the breakthrough writers Anthony and Stephen had been looking for. Both are known as novelists, playwritings and screenwriters in their own right but it was the collaboration on Ladies’ Night that brought them international recognition and success. 1987 – early career days for both writers. Ladies’ Night lacked sophistication, but both felt the core idea of the story was so good that it didn’t really matter if the writing wasn’t. “It’s a shocking, appalling piece of art,” Anthony said, “but its a million dollar idea. It was written quickly, without any serious intentions and we definitely didn’t think the idea had longevity nor international appeal.”
Financial success had some downsides. A surprising lack of local support for a film version of Ladies’ Night meant the UK version, The Full Monty, negated any potential NZ prospect. Escaping the Ladies’ Night label was hard too. Anthony said there was the expectation of a sequel and he placed this weight upon himself too. “Although you have other ideas, you say ‘I’ll do that next week.’ In the meantime, you take the elements of what was successful and try to reproduce them, but it doesn’t work. You have to create something completely new.”
The ‘New Zealand’ Voice
Anthony and Stephen hold differing views on the New Zealand voice. Anthony said. “I’ve always wanted an idea that will play outside our shores. Writing for your own culture seems far too restrictive; energies put into your work are detrimental if they aren’t going somewhere. I try to choose ideas that aren’t too culturally specific.” Stephen’s interest and passion for NZ stories, politics and culture generates culturally specific stories. “I had success in NZ with my play The Bach that I didn’t have overseas because it was so culturally specific,” he said, “but that didn’t matter to me because I enjoyed writing it so much - that’s how I wanted it.” Stephen believes writing for an international audience poses a slight contradiction. “To write about something, you have to be passionate about it. I am about NZ. I have to write about what I know, not second guess what others want overseas.”
Anthony proposed that culturally specific writing can mask a story that is weak in appeal to basic humanity. “We are all writing about humans,” he said, “and humans aren’t defined by countries. Some NZ work relies too much on local references; take away those ‘in’ jokes and these films don’t play outside our country. This suggests that they don’t work on that human level. The best works are universal, with recognizable human themes. Most of my writing is set here, but to gain purchase overseas, work needs universal themes.” Anthony encouraged writers to dig deeper into the psychology of their characters.
Radar asked if funding in NZ is too provincial and parochial, not challenging writers enough and Stephen said, “The list of ‘tick boxes’ funding bodies create is frustrating because sometimes a very good idea will be rejected because it is not ‘NZ enough’ while a mediocre idea may get approval simply because it ticks all the boxes.” Anthony suggested that the proven success of NZ art house films abroad created a dilemma for commercially minded film-makers in this country which has never been entirely resolved. Do you aim for the global art house circuit or for the local box office?
Writing across mediums
Stephen said he prefers writing for stage and screen to novels because it is easier. “A film story structure comes more naturally to me and a lot of my ideas are suited to theatre, whereas a novel feels like a marathon. I spent seven years on my last novel which involved periods of loathing!” Anthony’s perfect scenario would be to use all three mediums for the same idea. “When a play works with a live audience you get a feeling that is unique - it’s an amazing sensation, whereas writing a novel is insular and working on a film is dynamic and social. They’re all different, all fantastic and the best thing is to squeeze them all out of one idea.”
However this ‘perfect scenario’ requires different approaches. Anthony described theatre as, “… a broad brush and for film you have to ‘unlearn’ what you learn in the theatre to a certain degree. Theatre is large, full of over expression and florid language. You can stretch characters to get a poetic effect, naturalism is left far behind. Cinema is more naturalistic, terse and succinct; soliloquies have no place, so you have to find new brevity.” Anthony does instill a theatrical quality in his film writing and the audience viewed a scene from his upcoming feature ‘Show of Hands’ to illustrate his style.
Neither Stephen nor Anthony has written for NZ television. Stephen has always felt cynical about writing for TV, presuming a submitted idea would either be rejected or altered so much that the story would no longer be the same. He admitted surprise that Outrageous Fortune made it onto screens and is delighted that a project possessing such strong performances and scripts has made it through the network machine unscathed. Anthony praised Outrageous Fortune for taking risks, adding it was more akin to the extreme and brave nature of British and American drama. He said the first television project he worked on was based around a family of seven kids. Subsequent drafts saw seven become two, killing his core idea and discouraging him from working in the medium.
Anthony enjoys being both writer and director and the two take equal billing on set. “I’m changing dialogue all the time,” he said. “It irritates the actors but the writer in me thinks, ‘this will be a better scene!’ In retrospect, each change I’ve made at the ‘last chance’ stage has been for the better, and you don’t have to wait for a response from someone who’s across town. I can resize a line and create a better joke without having to ask permission.”
Advice to up and coming writers
“Don’t be discouraged by a first draft that’s shit,” Anthony said and Stephen agreed that perseverance is the key. “Most projects go through a period when they’re just appalling so hang on in there.”
Current digital exploration means anyone can ‘be a writer’ and Radar asked if this might discourage up and comers. Anthony said the reduced cost of filmmaking and better access for selling work will promote storytelling. 2000 films were submitted at Sundance last year and this year that number will be exponential. Anthony felt that writing may experience an exaggerated over-expression but the best stories will still shine through. The advent of cheap filmmaking methods will not solve the issues of effective distribution, and their low production values may make audiences hard to find. Anthony said he would not choose to make a film on a shoestring and would exhaust all funding options first.
Sitting alone for hours to write poses no problems for Anthony because he is often totally engrossed in his work. “If you love the work and what you’re doing then it’s not lonely. It’s the greatest privilege of all to work in a private world, to defeat the clock, be completely unaware of time. You start whenever, don’t lift your head and 8 hours have gone by. That’s not loneliness. That’s total absorption.” Tough moments do arise and Anthony has learned to walk away and return with a fresh eye. “It’s amazing what 24 hours can do.”
‘Fake it till you make it’ – Finding
It can take some time for a writer to find their true voice. Anthony’s early years were influenced by the voices of writers he loves. “I spent a lot of time being Ernest Hemingway,” he said. “I tried out some other voices and took quite a lot from many, finally settling into a hybrid. I may be presumptuous but I think most writers learn by imitating, and so I encourage new writers to saturate themselves with those they hold on high.” Stephen agreed saying, “Finding your voice is a slow natural process. I’m not aware what voice I’m using at the moment and I just try to tell a story in the best way possible.” He advised writers not to second guess what funding bodies might want to see, nor to write for others but rather write about an idea they feel is a good one.
Radar asked if the financial success of Ladies’ Night had allowed the two writers the freedom to write whatever they wanted without the pressure of waiting for grants and funding. Although both appreciated the success of Ladies’ Night, Stephen felt it wasn’t their only reason for writing. “If you’re a determined writer, you’ll always write, no matter if that means squeezing it in late at night or early in the morning, you’ll always find time to write.”