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 http://www.mclarenhouse.com/Spencer_McLaren.html
If you have Screen Hub membership you can read more details about his experiences as a producer on Surviving Georgia at http://www.screenhub.com.au/news/shownewsarticle3.php?newsID=40083
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!
LINE BY LINE