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21 August 2019
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IndiVision Project Lab 05: Sandra Sciberras on the making of Caterpillar Wish

Director/writer Sandra Sciberras and producer Kate Whitbread attended the first IndiVision Project Lab in February with their feature project Caterpillar Wish.

After the lab, the project was successful in completing its financing, and it starts shooting in June in South Australia, starring Susie Porter, Victoria Thaine, Wendy Hughes and Phillip Quast.

Four weeks out from filming, Sandra talks about how her experience at the lab affected the script, their budget, and their approach to filming.

What was the atmosphere at the lab like?

SS: In all honesty I had no idea what to expect. On paper it sounded like quite an adventure: international guests, respected directors and producers, a bunch of very different filmmakers with extremely different projects and a hell of a schedule for the week. We were to attend all sessions starting with early morning breakfast and ending with a low-budget movie to dissect over a late dinner.

The atmosphere couldn't have been better. Everyone was here for a reason, to listen, to learn, to encourage and to be encouraged. It was an environment that was based on honesty and respect. I felt that the teams of writers, directors and producers were open to criticism and therefore had everything to gain.

I was so impressed and almost proud of how so many different people from very shy, to extremely sensitive to downright cocky, all gathered together and supported each other.

Can you describe the process your project went through at the lab? What kind of sessions did you attend?

Our project was at a third-draft stage when we went to the lab and in the process of raising finance, so compared to most of the other projects we were a fair way down the track and therefore comfortable with the screenplay. From what I understood we were to attend a variety of different sessions in order to help improve the script further and to get the project ready for production.

At this stage of a project any help is great, so I attended enthusiastically to everything. There were a variety of different sessions, some with the group and some tailored to each individual project: one with an actor to talk about performance, character development and rehearsal strategies; one with an international low-budget producer to talk about the script and how to make sure it was do-able; a script editor to tear it to bits; and lots of other sessions that involved listening to filmmakers talk about making films, marketing and distribution.

Some parts of the day the teams were together in the same session, and at other times I was in a session for directors looking at visual storytelling or directing performance, while Kate was at a session for producers on budgeting or production strategies.

We worked with actors, we shot scenes, we met with the FFC, and heard from sales agents and distributors. We looked at the project from every aspect.

In terms of specifics, the screenplay underwent very heavy analysis from three different people. In each case, there were different opinions that you could go either way with.

With one adviser we discussed character development, their journeys, character class/backgrounds. What were they and did they ring true? Once we went through the script with a fine-toothed comb it became fairly obvious where it wasn't right.

With another advisor we talked through the script from a low-budget point of view. How do we make this already fairly tight script more economical? An example was a long scene that we cut a page from, by really looking at what was said in that page, and basically, if you ended earlier how much did you lose?

That type of scrutiny was applied throughout the script and several pages were finally removed. This would have saved the production thousands.

Another was looking at night shoots and whether they could move to afternoon. This was a very productive way of keeping the story so tight that nothing was wasted.

The last advisor talked about themes. He was not an advocate of the screenplay and had to justify what it was specifically that he didn't like. In this case we had a story that led to a climax and in this climax something was revealed that was the opposite to what the protagonist had thought, which motivated all these events. The problem was that he felt like a 'rug had been pulled from under him'. So for the next couple of script sessions we worked hard in trying to determine how to change this.

The key was to shift the focus subtly from what we had, so that throughout the whole script the truth was questioned rather than assumed, so that when you got to this climax the twist was no longer so important because the focus was elsewhere.

This meant the script had to undergo some very dramatic changes.

Can you talk more about the effect of these sessions, and how they changed the project?

SS: I think the best way to describe the effects is to remember that I originally walked into the lab with what I thought was a nearly finished screenplay. By the third day I was questioning whether I even had a script to shoot.

Between the various script advisers I got a real sense that this project was split down the middle. The classic some people hate it, some people love it. What was I to do?

I became determined and almost obsessive in trying to understand why a respectable script editor and writer disliked it so much. He was so adamant and certain that the film would not work unless you did this and this and this. He could not be dismissed because he made sense and I couldn't kill him because that wouldn't solve anything, so I had to understand in order to improve this damn screenplay. I mean I was going to shoot this thing in a few months.

So, as you can see, I get pretty emotional even thinking about the whole lab and how much I was thrown into turmoil by the fourth day. I became uninterested in any good things anybody had to say about the script because it was more important to me to change the mind of those that had problems.

So what I truly learnt was the difference between some people not liking this script because it is not their type of film and never will be, and the other people who didn't like it but because they believed it was 'scripturally' flawed.

How do you determine the difference when all parties are so convincing in their opinion? By the sixth day, I believed I'd worked out the difference.

Over the next two months we worked hard on incorporating what we wanted from the feedback and what we felt was right for the movie. So ultimately the project went through some serious thinking time, after the previous year of serious thinking time, and following the year before that when I wrote three drafts to get to the first draft.

I left the lab exhausted but determined. I mean you have to. You don't go to something like IndiVision to get pats on the back. What would be the use of that?

We re-wrote a complete new draft, coming up with some excellent other ideas along the way and then re-wrote again.

The things I got from the lab are things any writer/director will learn with experience I suppose. But because it is so intense that week it seems to implant all this constructive 'stuff' in your head. I'm constantly still looking for character detail, economical scenes as I work on amendments now.

You completed the financing of the film soon after the lab, and will be shooting soon. As you look ahead to the shoot, in what other ways do you think the lab has contributed to the project?

As well as strengthening the story, the lab has contributed to the project in making it work within a tight, tight budget. I remember walking away from the lab with a lot of aspirations because you are so inspired by the guests and speakers, but then you're faced with the reality of our industry. An industry that runs very differently to our international guests' industry.

There is a certain way you make low-budget films and there is a difference between low-budget and independent; a big difference. IndiVision is about trying to combine the two.

How you do this while still being an AFC-funded film is interesting. By the very nature of government funding and the rules that come with it, from development through to production, this is a challenge. But I believe achievable. It has to be. IndiVision inspires you to aim high but sensible. Realistic but ambitious.

I'll simply put it this way. I left the lab determined to shoot on 35mm because Rolf [de Heer] does, determined to work with only a dozen crew because the independent American producer did, and insistent in wanting artistic independence because the Danish let their filmmakers do what the hell they want.

These are the things I wanted and my producer wanted the exact same things; you couldn't ask for more.

The reality: it is now only several weeks away from production and I only just scraped through not shooting on video, have much more than a dozen crew and most definitely can't do whatever the hell we want.

But we have kept the things that were really important to us. We're shooting on location, on film, with a large-ish cast. We are making the film within the budget, and the lab has made this possible.

What's the best aspect of the lab?

SS: There are so many great aspects. The very smart choices of who were the guests. These were very important people to listen to. Not particularly popular or famous but sensible, creative, filmmakers that understood storytelling and how to achieve this cheaply. I couldn't believe how smart it was to have these people around a large table.

The other great thing about the lab is that it doesn't separate the creative and logistic aspects of the project. It emphasises the link between them, and how they should be developed together.

Would you recommend the lab to other filmmakers?

I would recommend it to everyone at any stage of his or her project. It is an amazing week filled with the talk of movies. Movies and good food and very good friends. My producer and I have spent years working together on getting projects up; it was so nice meeting other teams who work like this. You no longer feel isolated in your poverty and artistic endeavours.

In fact, IndiVision reminded me that there was no other way. And one day, several low-budget films later, there might be a chance if you're lucky and don't get discouraged, that you might get to pay off a little bit of principal off your over-inflated mortgage.

Applications for the next IndiVision Project Lab close on 2 September 2005. The lab will be held in Sydney in Jan-Feb 2006.

Caterpillar Wish
Actor Susie Porter during rehearsals