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21 August 2019
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Andrew Bovell on the sculpting of stories

One of Australia's finest writers for stage and screen, Andrew Bovell, was a guest advisor at the IndiVision Project Lab 2007. Among his many credits is the acclaimed Lantana (d: Ray Lawrence, 2001), which received more than 10 major awards including Best Screenplay at the 2003 London Critics' Circle Film Awards. Andrew has also co-written two films with Ana Kokkinos: The Book of Revelation and Head On. In this edited transcript of Andrew's address to the teams at the Lab, he talks about the sculpting of story and characters.

I'm very much a writer. I see myself very much as a person who creates pictures through words - that's my passion. When I was 20 I thought would write 50, 60 or 70 plays or films, and by the time I was 30 I thought, well I'll write maybe 20 or 30, and when I turned 40 I thought maybe there's only going to be 10 if I'm lucky. The lesson I learnt was that each one had to matter, each one had to count for something. And I've made mistakes, got attached to projects that I thought were terrific but in fact they weren't, and they were unable to sustain my interest and passion through the long process. If you don't truly connect to [the material] your audience isn't going to and you're in the process of creating a very mediocre film.

Screenwriting as sculpture
I use the analogy of sculpture for screenwriting: you start with a lump of wood or a lump of granite, you envisage the shape and the form within that, and you aim to realise that form. But in the process of working the material you discover things about it. In sculpture, it's the grain of the wood, it's the inherent properties of the stone that you're working with. But if you stick rigidly to what you saw at the beginning and don't work with the materials that you discover along the way, you're not going to get the best out of your work. It's a very organic process, you learn as you go as opposed to knowing it all at the beginning.

That's a really important thing to keep reminding myself: when I'm working with a character, they start to teach me something about the world of the film. I need to take that back into the experience of writing it. I'm going to ask you to identify your main character, which for some films is really easy, really obvious, or it may be an ensemble film, in which case we'll [identify] each of those characters. We're going to look at the first thing that character says and the first thing that character does, and then we're going to go to the end of the film and look at the last thing they do and the last thing they say. Then we'll ask, what's changed? If nothing's changed that could be really interesting and it could be intentional, but quite often it's an indication that the screenplay has failed in some way. Story is about change, about learning, and it's about transformation. So I'm really interested to see if that process of transformation is clear in your screenplays.

The key image
I'm also going to try and find what I call a key image. This key image illuminates something about the world of the film for me that I didn't necessarily begin with. In Lantana, as we're writing we're constantly asking ourselves, what is the film about? What is the character's objective? I over intellectualise everything and talk about things thematically or politically. Then sometimes it's good to step back and bring it back to a much more basic level. Lantana opens on a woman's body. It then goes to a man making love with a woman in a motel room, and then it goes to the same man arriving at a dance class where he joins his wife, who is a different woman to the one he was making love with. So it's about a man who is having an affair, and then he has a dance lesson. He can't dance with his wife. The final image of the film is that man and woman, that husband and wife, dancing together in a very intimate and connected way. Something has changed. It would have been in the second draft that I came to this: oh, this is a story about a man who can't dance with his wife, that's all it is. But that gives me a lateral understanding of that character. I can express that in a whole lot of different ways, but once I can reduce it to something as simple as that I start to get energised by that character again. What does it mean not to be able to dance with your wife, metaphorically? And that's the point where I can launch into a new exploration of that character. Now I didn't consciously think: there will be a scene where he can't dance with his wife and the film will end where he can dance with his wife. That is discovered in the process of writing.

Now this process of sculpting - I reckon I'm not a three-month writer, I'm a three-year writer. It takes me a long time, and there's an inherent tension between the relationship of the writer and the producer or the director. I'm trying to keep the thing for as long as I possibly can because I never think it's right. For the producer and the director, it's their job to move the project forward. That tension is really interesting. My first audience is my director and my producers, the actors and the creatives who are going to realise this film, and the people who are going to put money into it. First of all I have to capture them, it has to be a wonderful read that is going to capture their imagination and bring them on board. And there's another point in the process where you've got to put your sculpture tools down and it starts to be more like writing a poem, it's a process of distillation. For me a screenplay is like a poem; what's on the surface is only the tip of the iceberg, and there is a huge body below the surface that needs to be there. If everything is on the surface, if everything is said, your screenplay may lack depth or subtext; again that's a recipe for a mediocre film. There's an enormous amount below the surface for your audience, actors and director to access.

I create spaces for other people to fill. For instance in dialogue if it's all said there's nowhere for an actor to go. An actor's skill is to fill those wonderful gaps between what is said and conveying meaning through that. So I'm going to challenge you to strip back. Where you've got a line of dialogue that's expressed in three sentences, what if you express it in one? People don't always tell the truth, they don't always reveal everything they're thinking, and there is quite often a contradiction between what is said and what is thought. If you can start expressing that in dialogue you get a tension that give your dialogue an energy.

Shape is really important to me. I need to know what I need to fill and I'm uncomfortable if there's no shape. So I do have a sense of a classic three-act structure, but within that what seems to have emerged is a structure that is essentially 3-4-2, three sequences in the first act, four in the second and two in the last. Now that's not a hard and fast rule because most people go 2-4-2 or 2-5-2, or whatever, but that's my starting point. When you find the natural shape of things you might only need two in the first act. By structure I get a sense of: how is that act going to end, how am I going to turn the story at that point? What is the event? Same with the second act and the climax. Mid point is really important to me. What is the centre axis of the film? I do charts, and then when I feel like I've got some foundations I build into those. Quite often they're the wrong foundations and they need to change. It's like the sculpture image - you need to let go and discover new things. I'm constantly redefining my structure, but I work with sequences and each sequence is sort of upping the anti until we reach that high point of climax.

Andrew Bovell was a guest advisor on script at the 2007 IndiVision Lab. Photo: Simon Cardwell.

Producers Jeff Purser and Ranko Markovic brought their project Refuge to the 07 Lab. Photo: Simon Cardwell.