Monday, July 30, 2012

The “rules” of developing story

Since Line by Line began, I think what I have found most refreshing are our speakers’ consistent approach to story: there is no right way to do it. But (and isn’t there always a “but”?) just because there are not rule does not mean that are no principles that could be applied.

This was one of the many tips shared generously with Line by Line by Charlie Carman, Manager of Script Development at Film Victoria.

The fact that this was the best attended Line by Line session we’ve ever had stands testament to the desire of emerging Aussie screenwriters to know exactly how Film Victoria fits into the development and production of their screenplays.

What do funding bodies in Australia do?

For our overseas readers, Film Victoria is the government agency that distributes government funding to local films, TV and digital media in Victoria. Each Australian State has its own funding body in addition to the Federal Government film funding agency.

Australian films rarely make money. I am not going to use this blog to air my feelings as to why this may be the case, but it is a fact. In stark contrast to the US or Indian film industries, we generally do not have the population or the box office returns that encourages private investment in films. Therefore, the generation of Australian film and television content is often the result of government support.

A challenge of the Australian government funding system is - due to  dealing with taxpayer money – access to these funds is restricted through strict eligibility criteria. Sadly, there is a difference between how public money can be administered (here and in other countries with public funding like the UK and Canada) and private investment, which can afford to have no rules and regulations attached to it.

One distinction Charlie made clear had never occurred to me before. She said that Film Victoria’s primary mandate is to distribute funds to support Victoria’s existing, established film industry. Not to train aspiring or emerging filmmakers. That role is funded by the government through educational institutions, such as AFTRS and locally Open Channel, and by supporting bigger film production companies who can then provide internships and other training opportunities.

As an aspiring screenwriter myself, I had felt for a long time that Australian funding agencies were not providing people in my position (namely, uncredited) with many opportunities. I now understand that their core role is support the already existing industry, and the best way to do that is to distribute funds to people for whom this is their career and have a proven track record.

While this was a slightly bitter pill to swallow, Charlie did note that Film Victoria have been able to support the New Feature Writer’s program again (and the workshop designed to assist emerging screenwriters), but are sadly now the only agency in the country to do so.

What should we be writing?

But all is not lost! Charlie gave plenty of great advice to both “established” and “non-established” writers, particularly from a developer’s perspective.

One bright side to having a government-funded model is that all types of films can get funding, as making money is not necessarily the primary objective. Apparently, Americans find it hilarious that we can simply fill out a whole lot of forms and be given money for a movie (although you and I both know there is a lot more to those forms than just the filling-out). Charlie stated clearly that Film Victoria do not have genre quotas to fill (although comedy is the most successful genre in Australia), and that Film Victoria is happy to support a good arthouse festival-friendly film as much as what you can find in the local multiplex.

What she was looking for (and what we need to write) are scripts that are good at what they do, and preferably excellent. A great idea, well executed. It doesn’t matter what genre it is, as long as it understands the audience’s expectations for horror/rom com/drama/whatever might be and delivers on those whilst also bringing something original to the mix. Sounds easy maybe, but very hard in practice.

Charlie also recommended looking at your script as an actor would. Having actors attached is so important to attracting investors (both public and private), and actors look at screenplays in a similar way to the way screenwriters do. Where is the conflict? What are the motivations? What are the self-realisations of the character? Does your script have 3 great scenes for a character and (just as importantly) no bad ones?

In light of a post-GFC era and shrinking funding for development, she did recommend the micro-budget, DIY approach as a practical way for writers to help the chances of their script actually being made and breaking into the industry. Either that or…

Writing for TV

In contrast to the Australian film industry, our local TV content is not only increasing but it is also starting to take risks. Development and production turnaround for TV is dramatically less than for film.

During Charlie’s time at Film Victoria, they approached the Australian broadcasters (as the gatekeepers to television funding – you need a broadcaster on board to get made) and asked them what they wanted from writers. The feedback was that they were being approached with ideas that were too developed. They were too set in stone, too far down the development track. There was not enough room for the broadcasters to have their input, to create a team, to massage an idea into a demographic or programming slot.

The moral of the story being: if you have a TV pitch, get it to the broadcasters sooner rather than later!

Writing in general: feedback and development

Given her background in publishing, Charlie happily accepted that screenwriting is almost unique in the amount of re-writing and collaboration that is required to reach a finished product. Part of that process is development.

Charlie was happy to report that the face of the Australian development industry is changing. Previously, writers, directors and producers would put a developer hats on. This did not always lead to strong outcomes as developers need their own set of skills to lead a writer to the best possible result.

In terms of feedback (an essential element of development) Charlie personally favoured a more interrogative approach rather than a prescriptive one. Ask the right questions, so as to lead the writer to where they need to get (rather than tell them what you believe to be the right approach).  For example, where you believe there is a passive protagonist you can ask “Can you think of three scenes where the protagonist drives the story?” rather than simply blurt out “You have a passive protagonist”.

But she clearly did not discount the prescriptive approach entirely. If you only ever ask questions without challenging, people can avoid getting pinned down or put on the spot that they need to address.

Developers are blessed with objectivity which the writer can never have. Charlie found it reassuring that writer/developers cannot apply their development skills to their own work. Most scripts require development and require feedback to achieve their potential. Commissioning readers reports are a cheap and invaluable way of obtaining that objective viewpoint, as is collaborating in communities such as Line by Line.

A last word

Finally, Charlie left me with the simple truth that screenwriting is a craft. It needs to be practised. Write a short story every day for a month. Get off the internet. Don’t hide in research. 


Chas Fisher 
The Line by Line Team:
Matt Downey
Khrob Edmonds
Chas Fisher
Fiona Leally
Marie Maroun

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The King and I

We've had the luxury of quite a few guest speakers who have worked in TV present to Line by Line. Last year, Gareth Calverley spoke about the relationship the producer has with the writer, Kelly Lefever spoke about TV roles and how to break in, and Spencer McLaren shed light on the value of performers to the writing process. All of them spoke about the passion and dedication required for this industry and that TV genuinely offers an ongoing source of income for those employed in its quarters.

I wasn't sure it was possible to get any more inspiration from a guest speaker about writing for TV. That was until the King entered court!

These are some of Joss King’s words that struck a chord with me so I’ll elaborate on these first, naturally imbibing them with my own thoughts:
1. Believe in yourself
2. Use life for inspiration
3. Be adaptable to any type of show but with integrity

Actually, apart from stating this in his list of top tips, Joss didn't offer any more about this specifically as he began talking about writing in general. I'm not having a go at him for not expanding on this statement because it's self explanatory, and certainly something we've all heard before. So simple: Believe in yourself. Can you teach someone how to do that? Oprah probably thinks you can. But it is somewhat vague a concept. How was Joss trying to teach us about this? 

Every time he talked about a knock back I thought of this statement...believe in yourself. What if the statement were "Believe in yourself even when you wrote 75 episodes in 18 months for a TV series and it never got up”? That's what happened to Joss. So now are you getting a clearer picture of what it means to believe yourself? It's probably not just sticking post-it notes to the mirror so you can chant your mantra about self-love. It means believe in yourself despite all else. And the 'all else' is really code for rejection. If you believe in yourself (and let's face it, self-belief also has to be backed up by some level of skill, you can't just be wishful) then what seems like rejection is instead a learning experience and offers an opportunity to get better at what you do. And sometimes rejection is also a result of chance and personal preferences.  

If we flip it around the other way, we can say the same thing about acceptance, can't we? A chance to learn and get better at what you do by extending on what you are good at. And, like rejection, there is also the element of chance and other people's preferences. 

If rejection and acceptance are so similar then why feel the terrible hurt inside when something doesn't go your way? Joss dealt with that too. In TV land, you face rejection at every turn and soon enough it stops being your enemy. When you present your ideas at the writers table people are constantly editing you (your thoughts, your ideas) discarding what is not useful and keeping what is. Joss sees story-lining (coming up with episode stories and the threads that link episodes) as 'practice pitching' and in TV you do it constantly. Joss says you can figure out the idea from the feedback you get and you must shrug off the hurt and slight.

When TV executives choose not to proceed with a project you've been working on for months, even years, it doesn’t mean it’s personal. There's the audience to consider and the show that's the best fit for the network. These are market decisions. So there’s no reason to stop believing in yourself.

'Water off a duck's back' is one of my favorite expressions. Joss is testament to this ability to take knock backs because he's still here, creating work that goes to air, not hiding under a rock in the wilderness sobbing 'Why me?' while someone else slips in to take his gig. The industry is competitive and Joss reports it’s going through tough financial times, which draws writers to the safety net of in-house employment on stable programs. Knock-backs are more likely than ever so the ability to believe in yourself – armed with skill - applies to all aspiring writers.

Writers can tread a fine line in reference to this piece of advice. Self-indulgent fodder for an audience of one is not what Joss is talking about here. Even so, writing can be therapeutic, says Joss. If your writing connects with people there’s every reason to look internally for inspiration. Opportunities to draw on your life experience can come up when you least expect. 

After years working on a popular soap, Joss went looking to expand his horizons. And expand them he did, across the horizon and into the longitude and latitude of a little place called Hungary. Here was an audience on the other side of the world who he could still entertain just by tapping into his long-time talent of connecting with people on an emotional level.

You never know when your own life experience might provide insight for the show you are working on but when the time comes use it! Believe that other people sitting at the writers table are doing the same thing – an inevitable melting pot of experience from all walks of life.

Joss says you need to be very open and adaptable to any type of show. By that I think he means you can bring your writing skills to a project even if you may not necessarily know that much about the topic.  His great example of this was ‘H2O’ a show for kids about mermaids. Of course his resume did not show twenty years experience writing in the mermaid subgenre. But he found a role for himself within the vision. He had to think about what the show was really about – for its intended audience – and bring it to life. He realised he knew quite a lot indeed that would help him tell the stories for that subject.

But adaptability comes with a warning from Joss. With lots of different projects on offer you still need skill and appreciation for the subject matter. Don't bullsh#t. If you can't find a way to believe in that project and do it with integrity, don't take on the job. Writing is a way to discover and convey truths and sometimes that subject is not yours. You need to have the spark to get you through.

It’s hard to work on something when you’re half-hearted. It’s not always obvious to a producer that this just might not be a project to your liking so it pays to be open about that.

Joss’ advice is not limited to those three pearls of wisdom. He drew from his broad experience to paint an even bigger picture.

Joss’ first long term job was writing for New Zealand’s popular TV soap opera ‘Shortland Street’. He hadn’t studied screenwriting in a formal way so he learnt all his tricks on the job.

When he became Story Editor it was his job to manage the table of writers and train the up-and-coming writers in a constant cycle. Joss emphasises that soap writing helps you form good habits – writing for an audience, deadlines, getting along with people – and the work is always there because soap is part of the network stable.

I was interested to note Joss’ comment that to him writing for soap is like enjoying pop art. The more you do it, the more you learn about the specific art and craft, the more you can appreciate it.

And it’s satisfying because there’s a public passion for the shows in the way they talk about the characters.

When Joss left soap it was to discover what he called a more ‘slow burn approach to drama’. The challenge of finding freelance work and making ends meet forced him to be more mercenary. It appears he found his way through by recognising his talent was playing with people’s emotions with his writing. Listening to the audience is key to doing that successfully.

The upside of freelancing was doing all kinds of projects in varied timeslots for varied audiences. But he also mentioned a downside can be working with people at times who are so set in their ways and prepared to protect their own permanent positions they’ll quash creativity.

Joss recommended writing for kids TV specifically. Kids TV, like soap, is often over-looked by writers. But he says the rewards are strong audiences, believability is less of an issue, it allows you to use more of your imagination and the productions are more flexible which he pinpointed to the personality-type of people running those kinds of shows.

Joss joked about the invention of ‘Small Time Gangsters’, which developed out of a short conversation in the pub with Boilermaker’s Gareth Calverley, whose company about to pitch its slate interstate. The only project not written up was the one that caught the attention of the network, so it pays to pitch whatever you have! They were challenged to submit an episode within 24 hours which they managed to do and went on to create the series.

I was interested to hear Joss’ thoughts on the film industry. He conceded that none of us can completely guess how the industry will come out of the technology wash, especially after spending its spin dry cycle in the GFC. However, he was able to distinguish two distinct types of film being made. There’s the massive blockbusters made by the industry elite that none of us get a look into. And there’s the low budget films. Middle budget films aren’t getting made as they can’t recoup their money so there is a lot of pressure and competition at this lower budget end now.

Changes in television are pretty obvious too. Pay TV is a little up-in-the-air with Foxtel yet to make announcements about its future. There are still lots of soaps – there always will be  - and across all timeslots, playing the heartstrings of the middle market. And we know that people are watching a lot made-for-television content via DVD box sets.

Joss tells us that in TV, small ideas grow through the process, make adjustments as you go and have empathy for the audience. The ideas don’t need to be over-worked to appeal. Basic stories are told with heart so don’t try to conquer the world.

When you’ve reigned, that’s easy for the King to say…


Fiona Leally

Saturday, April 21, 2012


When I think about actors I think about the similarities to film-makers. Both groups are hard-working, often without consistent financial reward, giving all of themselves. They are creative, collaborative but most of all they express their voice in an effort to seek truth. In the quest for truth I would argue no one puts it all on the line in the face of the public more than an actor does.

So it comes as no surprise that Spencer McLaren recounts with candour his experiences as an actor and producer for the benefit of the Line by Line audience.

There are blatant truths to face in this industry. We may not like all of them but they exist. For instance, the one about writers writing for themselves. Spencer says no to that. You are writing for an audience and, no matter how much you will it, if your screenplay is for no specific group then your script is for no one but you. If the script and therefore the subsequent film does not have an audience, you will not get a distributor to touch it. 

So now is the time, as writers, to think about why you are making that film, and if that story is one that must be told, then who are these people who will listen? You cannot say everyone is my audience. There are very few films that connect with everybody. If you say your film is for everyone you are asking your distributor to place an ad in every possible media outlet without discretion because as Spencer said if it's for everyone how do you decide between an ad in Cleo and an ad in Fishing Weekly? Decide now. While you are writing your idea concisely. Before you take it to first draft, know who will watch your film. 

Spencer uses his experience making Surviving Georgia as an example. The film sits in unexplored territory between two genres (commercial romantic comedy and art house drama.) They took a risk and found out too late that it would not appeal broadly, from the perspective of distributors who did not pick up the film. The question remains, can it be pitched properly to the audience of either genre? If it can't be sold to the ticket buyers, you won't fill enough seats at the cinema to ensure a decent run. Surviving Georgia secured 15 screens Australia-wide, some for a couple of days. If there is an audience for this film it may not have reached them yet. The names of Holly Valance, Shane Jacobson, Pia Miranda and Caroline O'Connor were not enough. Spencer warns you can't rely on the actor's following to reach the market. A television screening may prove there's an untapped audience for this film. Or not. The film is in the hands of a sales agent in the UK and has sold into a number of territories.

Attracting Australian audiences to Australian films has been a constant debate in the media. Whether you blame the film-makers or the audiences for low box office sales (an argument I won't engage in here) as a writer you must not put your head in the sand and pretend this is not an issue for your film. Making your screenplay and film better than good enough and knowing your audience are ways to minimise the risk.

As a producer, Spencer is surprised how many unready (and unreadable) scripts land on his desk. Don't submit your script before it is ready. From my point of view this does not mean sit alone in a darkened room for seven years until it's right. It does not mean don't collaborate or don't test your idea with producers. Spencer says look for truthful people who can be constructive. You don't need readers who beat you to a pulp with their criticisms nor yes men who find every word agreeable. An inner circle that ensures the script does not get out in the open too soon. At Line by Line we hope the intensive lab meets this requirement for all 8 participants.  The open stream of Line by Line provides an opportunity to make such connections with your peers.

Spencer recommends reading "Save the Cat" to learn to get your one liner down.  A great story with a nominated audience to be delivered in a single line pitch. You have just four seconds to captivate. Spencer relates a situation at home when you're chatting over what film to watch. You're keen on one and the other person says 'What's it about?' If you can't get their interest then, they're gone, moved onto the next thing. 'What else is on?' they'll say. These days I'd argue they might be lost to their iPhone twitter page before you get a chance to browse the TV guide for the next option. You missed your opportunity to sell them that idea and it wasn't even your film you were pitching! (Maybe we should all be practicing our pitching skills with loved ones. Convince them to watch what you want to watch on TV. If you pick crap films it will last until they stop trusting your judgement. It's too late for me. In my household I lost all credibility when I pitched three minimalist French films in one week).

Make sure when you write that script it is ready to be written, whether it takes a month or years of work to draft it to production-ready stage,  just don't submit an unready script. When you print, bind and title your work with the satisfaction of a first-drafter, you are telling your reader that this script is ready. If it's not ready it'll fly itself into the rubbish bin faster than you can say please recycle. That script must go through development before it can be taken seriously. So use the development process however you can. It's not about how fast or long it takes to write, it doesn't have to be laborious, but it's about the quality and readiness of the work submitted.

Of course when a room full of writers hears that 80 scripts in every 100 will be binned they want to know why! Two of the standout complaints from Spencer are dialogue and plot.

Firstly, let's deal with plot. Far too many screenplays have a strong visual style as depicted in the big print (the descriptive text around dialogue) demonstrating directorial flair but virtually no consideration to structure and plot. Scenes exist without a core to the content. Who wants film-goers saying that the movie was awful but looked beautiful?! This could be in part a consequence of a writer-director culture here but whatever the reason your film needs to work as a story with all the structure and plot elements that make it a good read.

Secondly, as an actor, Spencer knows when dialogue rings true. A cringe factor for him is when the writer's voice is the only one cutting through. Characters say things that are far too sophisticated and they all sound the same. Dialogue is not well observed or well written. This is absolutely a skill Spencer brings to producing. He can read the script and know that the writer's voice is in every character. 

Spencer possesses this skill as a result of years of acting experience, best applied during the inclusive writing process followed by the creators of Secret Life of Us. Each episode involved a sit down read-through with all stakeholders present. The writers and actors in the same room talking about what will happen in the series. And he tells us why this is so important. Actors are the custodians of the character's history. Writers change from episode to episode and even if the same writer returns how can one person be completely in every character's head? It's just not possible. Writers rely on the actors' knowledge of character history and believability - what rings true - and if they aren't using the actors they should be. 

Transferring that idea to feature films, can we not as writers try to find more ways to include actors in the development process? The actor is a tool you can use as a writer. Your script can be spoken out loud and with the actor's help you can delve deeper into the character's perspective. Yet another way we Line by Liners can be collaborative!

Spencer learnt big lessons as a first time producer. And I loved his reality check for writers. Next time a writer is floundering - not delivering what is expected - he'll get another writer to finish it. Writers in Australia have to learn to be less precious.  By all means if you want to tell your story, go ahead and make your film, especially if you can raise the money required. There's nothing stopping you in this free country from doing so. Just don't expect anyone to see it.  (There are just 7 arthouse cinemas in Australia and competition is fierce.) The producer is one of the risk-takers in the film-making process. If he or she has tested it and it's not making traction with distributors and the writer can't get it to work, then it's time for fresh eyes. And if that means a new writer then so be it. 

Spencer managed to get Surviving Georgia shot without funding agency involvement. Budget can have a big impact on writing. Is the explosion/snow fall necessary or is the core story still there without it?  They lost an investor just four weeks before filming, dropping their budget significantly, forcing late script changes.

Glitches appeared during post (part government funded). Changes in the script before filming left holes that could not be filled by later additions. The script is the foundation. His plea to make sure the script is ready before filming comes from this personal experience. Spencer went into production with the attitude "If I don't shoot something I'll shoot myself."  I might add to that, jumping the gun means if you don't kill yourself your critics will open-fire on you later. Despite problems in post they got a film they were happy with from the material they had. 

Spencer opened his presentation commending Duncan Jones and other speakers for their supportive comments, fostering creativity. He was concerned that his marketplace reality check might come across too harsh but he told us the truth anyway. It's what we need to hear. In retrospect I thought that all our speakers had done a great job covering the positive and negative aspects of the industry which makes me think maybe I have my "be positive" filter on when I'm blogging. Nothing Spencer said hurt or sickened or crushed anyone to my knowledge so if he wants to be harsh he might have to try harder next time! I like to think early career writers accept that failure happens much more often in this industry than success. You can see failure as the rope with which to hang yourself or the rope that you can climb, calluses and all, to the next stage of learning and opportunity for a fresh attempt. I have every faith that Spencer's next rope climb is to even bigger and better things.

For more information about Spencer (like the time he went from chorus boy to lead in under a week!) visit his website

If you have Screen Hub membership you can read more details about his experiences as a producer on Surviving Georgia at

Let's get the conversation started with actors. They will help us use our writing voices to best advantage and get to the truth of who these characters are. As a writer, the quest for truth shall set you free!


Fiona Leally

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Where to now? Season 2!

I am writing this while somewhere over the Atlantic between Argentina and Spain and, if I were honest, I am writing it as a form of procrastination.

I decided that even while on holidays I should be able to find an hour everyday to write two pages of my second feature and so far I have written 22 pages in 14 days. A bit behind but not bad considering the amount of eating, drinking and dancing that took place in Buenos Aires. A hangover is not conducive to writing!

And yet, instead of crunching some more pages I and drafting this blog. Sometimes even writing can be a good escape from writing!

The truth is that during our inaugural season of Line by Line, I was far more productive than I have ever been during my life before. We provided inspiration through the most amazing and generous professionals. We provided feedback through reading and writing each other's work. And, almost most importantly, we created a network of Melbourne-based screenwriters committed to achieving their goals and dreams together.

After listening to John August's and Craig Mazin's awesome podcast Scriptnotes and the Q&A podcast on Sundance darling Martha Marcy May Marlene (both podcasts free on iTunes), I began to see the value of the "horizontal network" we were unintentionally creating. Craig Mazin regularly refers to the all female screenwriting group the Femmepire and how, if one writer makes it, she can drag the rest along for the ride.

And so we are determined that there be a season 2 of Line by Line. The pressing question however is: Where do you go to from there?

Fiona, Marie and myself got together shortly before I left Australia to discuss just that. Unfortunately, our fourth team member Khrob decided to be extremely successful and move to San Francisco to work for Apple and was unable to attend.

For me, what was missing from our first season was a bit of stick. We were all carrot. Deliberately so. We had no idea of what we were doing and decided that we could not really force people to write, only lead them to do so. Thus we decided to have no accountability measures.

And this was how we ended up with 30 very inspired screenwriters and only 4 1/2 feature scripts after 4 months. When we started out, Fiona, Marie, Khrob and myself had wanted more. We wanted to provide an alternative for new writers. To break that development cycle that takes years upon years, draft after draft, working mostly in isolation with little promise of a funding light at the end of the tunnel. Provide inspiration, structure, accountability and development. To help people who would have taken years to get to a first draft to get there in 4 months. Why not? Writing is free, right?

We are by no means the only group offering such a collaborative environment but we also give established professionals the opportunity to share lessons they have learnt with the emerging writers.

So, during our sunny spring afternoon coffee, the Line by Line team laid out a blueprint for Season 2:
  • 4 months;
  • 5 sessions open to all Line by Line members to come and listen to professional speakers for development and inspiration, trying to help members get from concept to first draft; and
  • 16 weekly sessions (held either online or in person at the trusty Long Play Bar - sorry south of the river people) where a small group pre-selected group of writers meet to work on each other's material to help people get from first draft to either second or third.
The decision to make the weekly group both small and needing to already have written a first draft was tough to make, but one we felt was neccessary to really make sure that Line by Line begins to produce tangible results and was not just a film school substitute or a fun night out.

So what do you think? Have we made the right decision? Would you want to come along and have a team of 5 - 10 writers supporting you in making your work the best it can be?

Come along to the Line by Line Season 2 Launch Party on Friday 3 February 2012 ( ) and let us know!

And keep writing!


P.S. After drafting this blog I went back to my script and did another 2 pages. So 24 pages in 14 days of holiday!

The Line by Line Team
Chas Fisher
Fiona Leally
Marie Maroun
Matt Downey