Australian Film Commission
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25 November 2017
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The lowdown on SP*RK 2006


AFC Project Manager and SP*RK director JACKIE MCKIMMIE reports on the 2006 SP*RK script workshop, held in Byron Bay, 22-29 October.

This year we were privileged to have a diverse and extremely talented group of advisors for SP*RK - Robert Towne, Don Macpherson, Fred Schepisi, Jan Sardi, Ana Kokkinos, Geoffrey Wright, Sue Murray and Joan Sauers, who were all extremely generous with their time and constructive in their discussions. Robert Towne is a four-time Academy Award nominee best known for his Oscar-winning classic Chinatown. Don Macpherson is a screenwriter based in London who is currently working on projects for Martin Scorsese and John Woo.

Eight Australian writers and their projects were selected for SP*RK this year. Each day the writers met the advisors in one-on-one sessions to discuss their scripts. Their producers and directors came later in the week for follow-up meetings.

The week was intense and fuelled by high energy, but we also had lots of laughs and relaxed with cocktails and dinner on Belongil beach the night the producers and directors arrived. The 'Your Creative Best' sessions ran by Helen Carmichael proved extremely popular with the writers and their teams. The one-to-one sessions are about practical ways to achieve an artist's creative best, be it in writing, creative collaboration with others or defining and maintaining optimum career direction. The screenings of films written and directed by the advisors were also a great part of the program. But undoubtedly the highlights of the week were the after-dinner talks by Fred Schepisi and Robert Towne (as UK advisor Don Macpherson described them "an unlikely double act").

Fred Schepisi spoke about the making of Last Orders (2001). He was able to attract actors of the calibre of Helen Mirren, Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine to the (relatively low-budget) film because of the chance for them to play themselves and what they knew. He said as soon as he gathered all of the cast he did a script reading. The rehearsals were mostly discussions "until the hair on the back of my neck would stand up and then I'd stop them because you can over rehearse". He advises directors to keep writers hanging around on set "because if you're working with really good writers they've got a voice. We used Graham Swift that way in Last Orders". He also advised directors to go to every costume fitting. "Half the [development of] character of an actor goes on in that room. You will learn something about the character by what the wardrobe person is discussing about the character. The same goes for the make-up and hairdressing rooms."

Robert Towne spoke of his collaborations with movie greats like Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Roman Polanski during Hollywood's golden age of the 70s, and the creative freedom afforded writers and directors. "Once Roman was on board [for Chinatown (1974)] it was Roman and me and nobody else," he said. "The same for Shampoo. There was absolutely no interference. The wonderful thing about the studios in the 70s was that none of them gave you any advice. They just read [the script] and said yes or no."

Towne was less glowing about the state of the industry today. "Moviemaking - you know where it's going and it's not a good place." His tips to writers ranged from "clarity is a virtue", "get to the surface of things" and "when you get to a fork in the road take it" to the admirably concise and to the point, "stay away from your f***ing themes", and my favourite, when asked what he did facing writer's block: "I go and take a piss."

Both Fred Schepisi and Robert Towne were enthusiastic about Sp*rk - Towne because it gave writers the chance to get feedback on their scripts from other writers, which he himself would appreciate, and Fred because "I like this whole concept where people are helping each other ... there should be more of it".

Guest advisors Robert Towne and Fred Schepisi swap stories on the veranda at SP*RK 2006


Writers Kate Dennis and Jim Howes took their film projects to SP*RK 2006


Advisor Jan Sardi with producer Julie Marlow at SP*RK 2006


Writer Ian Watson (back) and UK guest advisor Don Macpherson at SP*RK 2006


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