Linda J. Cowgill, The Art of Plotting: Add Emotion, Suspense, and Depth to your Screenplay (Lone Eagle 2007)
It’s been quite a while since I’ve blogged about my reading, and this book is a partial explanation. (The rest of the explanation lies in small matters like a nephew’s wedding, paid work, dense bedside reading, too much television.)
The person sometimes known in the blog as the Film Director has been at me to write a feature film script to build on our modest success with Ngurrumbang (which incidentally just screened at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival in Melbourne and is scheduled for the St Kilda Film Festival on Saturday week). I don’t share his confidence in my ability but I’m up for the challenge, so I’ve just done an online course in Screenwriting for Film through AFTRS, and am well on the way to the beginnings of a first draft – though not the one the FD wants. The course was brilliant. Anne Brooksbank, the teacher, led 15 or so of us in two chat sessions a week for 10 weeks and commented on weekly assignments, managing to be both encouraging and challenging, collegial and inspirational. She made us watch some awful films as well as some brilliant ones, and we learned from both kinds.
One of the lesser things I learned was how to read a book like this one. You have to ignore the occasional motivational-speaker language (too many sentences starting ‘Great screen writers …’), and not get too snooty about the movies used as examples (I didn’t care much for American Beauty, and hadn’t seen Se7en – which I have now watched because of this book, and on the whole wish I could unwatch). You have to realise that the way things like structure, character or theme used to be discussed in Eng Lit courses (and probably still are, only more so) may be more fun, but is very different from the way you talk about building them. This isn’t a manual, but it’s immensely practical. It assumes knowledge of the established wisdom about structure – assumes the equivalent of the course I’ve just done. I don’t know how it stacks up against the myriad similar books out there, but I found it clear and helpful. I imagine it works best if, like me, you have a project more or less under way, so when Linda Cowgill talks about, say, having a logical progression from one scene to the next, or informing the audience about a character not by telling, or by showing, but by dramatising, you have examples of your own work fresh in your mind and can immediately see how the advice can be applied.
On Friday at Luna Park, AFTRS had its first whole-school graduation ceremony. As you’d expect, there was plenty of multimedia, and also as you’d expect it was beset by technical SNAFUs – but came through in the end. It was a nice touch to have a new cohort of media professionals being released on the world in a large room with the Harbour resplendent outside one set of windows and fairground machinery spinning outside the other. Peter Garrett gave a ministerial speech and left. Sandra Levy gave a CEO speech and shook the hand or kissed the cheek of every graduate, except one or two who accepted their testamurs and walked past her, oblivious.
Then yesterday we spent the afternoon at the Entertainment Quarter watching the fabulous AFTRS graduate screenings: five hours, 17 directors, 17 short movies. We would have stayed on for the Graduate documentaries (1 hour, 24 even shorter films) but we hadn’t checked out the program thoroughly enough in advance and had made other plans. What we did get was terrific. Here are some of my favourites, so when they turn up at a festival near you you’ll be able to say you read about them somewhere ages ago.
- Craig Boreham, Ostia – La Notte Finale: the death of Pasolini, in subtitled Italian neo-realism, presumably shot around Sydney
- Lucy Gaffy, The Lovesong of Iskra Prufrock: a radiographer dares to love in spite of the shadow
- Martha Goddard, The Bridge: extraordinarily economic (and funny and suspenseful) evocation of a young woman’s complex life as artist, cynical media employee, family member, tenant, receiver of kindness.
- C J Johnson, The Bris: a comedy involving old age, death, genital mutilation, religious inflexibility, and finally tender celebration, from a short story by Eileen Pollack.
- Maziar Lahooti, Loveless: of the many offerings about young people dealing with love, sexism, drugs, despair, etc., I liked this best, perhaps because it incorporated elements of the heist genre.
- Tresa Ponnor, Sosefina: I wouldn’t be surprised to see this turn up on ABC3 – a Pacific Islander schoolgirl in a colour saturated world tries to join the’popular’ group, but finds home is best.
- Alex Ryan, Valhalla: I’m the director’s father and make a brief appearance in the background of one shot, so feel free to discount my opinion, but I loved this grainy glimpse of a dystopian future, playing an elusive adventure story off against the tentative beginnings of a relationship.
Added later: Alex told me that some of his fellow graduates already have established bodies of work. I’ve added links.
I’m getting up scarily early tomorrow to catch a plane, but I couldn’t go to bed without a quick note about this evening. Penny and I and quite a few other people were extras in the film Alex is making as part of his year-long director’s course at AFTRS. That’s the Australian Film Television and Radio School. We spent hours standing around being bored, and minutes sitting in front of the camera – at least I was sitting, pretending to eat disgusting noodles, while Penny had a more upright role, wearing an anti-infection mask. I loved seeing – and being a small part of – the well-oiled machinery of a film shoot in action, and I especially loved seeing the way the two actors, in the midst of so much noise and busyness, managed to make something happen between them. All this happened beneath the roar of the Expressway in Pyrmont, close to the city. I took a number of blurry photos with my phone camera. No time for more – here is Alex with actor Richard Green (of Boxing Day fame), a masked Penny, Alex in a variety of directorial moments (including one with Anna Lise Phillips with an umbrella – did I mention it rained a fair bit? Anna Lise lent me her hoodie), and the disgusting noodles.