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OnScreen: Writestuff

Seeing the light

Blake Ayshford

Blake Ayshford is a Sydney writer for film and TV. His feature film script Cut Snake won the 2003 Adelaide International Film Festival Scriptwriting Award, and had a staged reading at the Nova Cinema on March 5 directed by Tony Ayres and starring Aden Young and Rhys Muldoon.

Duncan Thompson, Blake Ayshford, Christina Andreef, Sofya Gollan, Raymond Devitt Duncan Thompson, Blake Ayshford, Christina Andreef, Sofya Gollan, Raymond Devitt
Aurora’s artistic director, Duncan Thompson, opens the door of the slow combustion fire and suggests we throw our scripts in to burn. With scriptwriters Christina Andreef, Ray Devitt and Sofya Gollan, I’ve been selected for the New South Wales Film and Television Office’s Aurora Scriptwriting Workshop. It’s our first day at a remote campsite near Jervis Bay and we’re gathered in the camp’s central meeting area when Duncan makes his suggestion. That, he says, is what the coming week is all about.

Aurora involves flying in international writers and directors, and local industry figures, to work with 4 creative teams for a week of intensive script development. This year’s industry advisers are producer Jan Chapman (The Piano, Lantana), screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), screenwriter and director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero) and screenwriter and director Chris Noonan (Babe, The Riddle of the Stinson). The teams are: Cut Snake, writer Blake Ayshford, producer/director Nicholas Parsons; Shiver, writer/director Christina Andreef, producer Helen Bowden; Ice, writer/director Sofya Gollan, producer Matt Carroll; and Highway Toll, writer Raymond Devitt, producer John Cruthers, director Marcus Gale.

Christina Andreef remembers Duncan’s script-burning suggestion as “one of those moments where your breath stuck at the back of your throat—half angry at the arrogance of it, and [yet] three-quarters flying, and open to making the most of what such fine filmmakers might offer.”

I felt disbelief, and fear. I knew I had work to do, but expected it would revolve around the 108 pages of my existing script, which I’d been writing for 3 years. Wrong. Over the next week my script would be taken apart, debated, expanded, deepened, cut to pieces till I was left with an exhilarating glimpse of the film it could become. And all without ever having taken the script from my bag. Aurora is about the ideas behind the script, not the words on the page.

Now in its second year, Aurora was established by the New South Wales Government through the FTO to solve the problems of existing script development models where many Australian projects are under-funded and pushed to seek production finance before they are ready. Aurora is intended to substantially reduce development time as well as provide intensive script focus for the selected projects.

Although based on the successful models used at Sundance (USA), Moonstone (UK) and eQuinoxe (France), the Aurora Workshop differs in that it involves the collaborative team—writer, director and producer—rather than solely the writer. Aurora also provides significant funds for the teams to produce another draft, followed by a formal feedback process. One of the scripts from Aurora 2002, More Than Scarlett, is already in production while another 2—Axe Fall and Little Fish—are both very close to being financed.

The workshop takes place at the remote Paperbark Camp where each writer stays in a luxury tent. The proximity of bush and wildlife and abscence of distractions creates a camaraderie amongst the writers and advisers and seems to help trigger creative script solutions. While we are there our 4 scripts seem to be the only films in the world and the possibilities for them appear endless.

My first session was with Bill Forsyth, described as the director “who gave hope to a generation of British filmmakers.” Bill’s approach was gentle, low-key. My film, Cut Snake, is a love story between crims, loosely based on the burning of Brisbane’s Whisky Au Go Go nightclub in 1973, which killed 15 people. It’s an Aussie crime drama about men who find violence easier than love. So it was a revelation to hear Bill explain that the script’s theme was the main character’s search for family. As he explained it I saw how this theme was present in every scene of the writing though I’d never consciously set out to put it there. But after he’d said it, I’d never see the film the same way again—he’d given me a tool for writing the script, and he hadn’t changed a word.

Jan Chapman was perceptive and penetrating, zeroing in on parts of the script I felt least happy with, but hadn’t been able to find solutions for. I soon discovered I couldn’t bluff my way out. That wasn’t the point.

Simon Beaufoy’s mission was to put the ‘sex’ into my film. He was energetic and generous with ideas and excited by the territory the script explored. With Chris Noonan we looked for striking images and tried new techniques to dramatise those moments in the script I wished to change.

Because in my case the advisers agreed on the direction the script required, the process was like a rolling conversation, one taking up where the other had left off. I found them rigorous, generous, and respectful of writers and our scripts. Sofya said she loved the freedom of the discussions—any story direction felt possible, and “right.” For Christina, “the most refreshing surprise was that not one of the 4 advisers mentioned a “3-act structure in the entire week, nor a Hero’s Journey, or Arc.”

In between sessions we dined, wined and jokingly plotted the world’s worst film, in which we cast the world’s worst actors, titled Bad People. In Huskisson we saw films Road to Nhill and This is Not a Love Song and afterward had a Q&A with the films’ writers Alison Tilson and Simon Beaufoy. Halfway through the week the other members of our creative teams arrived and after ‘debriefing’, the script meetings were repeated. Luckily my director, Nick Parsons, agreed on the areas I proposed and so we spent the rest of the week refining our ideas with the advisers.

Each writer now has 4 months to produce a new draft for the 4 advisers who will provide written feedback, and for 3 new consultants, chosen for their knowledge of the international and local feature film marketplace and their creative abilities with script. Also scheduled is a reading of the scripts with experienced actors. Sofya says the workshop “...will be a highlight of my writing career, in that I will always wish for this level of involvement with future scripts when they’re ready for feedback.” And I agree. As Christina says we’ve been given “myriad fantastic ideas” as well as “an enormous amount of work...sorting and trying them out.” And as well as friendships, and confidence, most importantly the process has given me a belief in my abilities and courage as writer.

Aurora Scriptwriting Workshop, NSW Film and Television Office, Paperbark Camp, Jervis Bay, April 5-12

See also SPARK - the AFC's script development program.

Blake Ayshford is a Sydney writer for film and TV. His feature film script Cut Snake won the 2003 Adelaide International Film Festival Scriptwriting Award, and had a staged reading at the Nova Cinema on March 5 directed by Tony Ayres and starring Aden Young and Rhys Muldoon.

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 16

© Blake Ayshford; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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