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SPARK: firing on all cylinders

Brendan Phelan

Brendan Phelan is a Sydney-based writer.

In 2000, the Australian Film Commission released a study into the problems faced by Australian films during development. One weakness identified in particular was the lack of investment in this phase, and the resulting tendency for Australian films to be pushed through script development and into production before the scripts are ready.

In an effort to improve this, the AFC and the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) designed a program for script development partially modelled on the well-established formats used by Sundance in the USA, eQinoxe in France and Moonstone in the UK.

Called SPARK, the program involves a selection process (to identify 8 film projects with high probabilities of success) followed by a week-long workshop retreat for the writers, working over the stories with a team of internationally respected advisers, including producers, directors, writers and creativity coaches. Halfway through the week, the directors and producers for each project join the process. At the end of the retreat, each team is given a 4-month funded period to complete another draft, which is then looked at by members of the advisory team. In the final stage, the projects are given some assistance to develop a strategic financial plan.

The last edition of OnScreen (RT 55) carried a report from Blake Ayshford on his experiences as a participant at a similar program run by the NSW Film and Television Office. In this issue, OnScreen speaks with the writers, directors and producers for 2 of the projects selected for SPARK. The projects are: Unlocked (writer Christine Rodgers, writer/director Jo Kennedy, producer Clare Sawyer); and Untitled (writer Tania Lacey, writer/director Steve Kearney and producer John Brousek).

You must have expected some stiff competition for places in the program?

Steve Kearney Well, AFC funding is hard to get. There was an advertised workshop component too, which was extra, and therefore we might have expected more interest. I suppose that everybody submitting hoped that nobody else knew about it.

Would you say that you grew as writers in this process?

Christine Rodgers I don’t think so, but I’ve been writing for a long time. Certainly getting so many people’s input in quite a concentrated form was really helpful for a particular piece of work.

Jo Kennedy You don’t actually write while you’re there, it’s about ripping things apart and putting them back together. So in a sense it was just like what we do every week, done in a larger context and it was fantastic and invigorating because we’d been going over the material in our script for a couple of years. Just to have that input at that level, with people who’d done a lot of work, was incredibly exciting.

Christine Rodgers Our script was up to the 3rd draft, and we really needed to be kicked up the bum. Although we were really rigorous, we just needed a fresh eye, which was fantastic, because I think you can get to 3rd draft and you’ve got a lot of great ideas, but something’s still not quite working. And I think in Australia a lot of scripts are funded at that stage, where you think they’re just not quite there. We knew that about our piece and it was the perfect time to have a spotlight shone at it.

Getting someone to read your script is quite a big ask. It’s half a day to a whole day just to give proper feedback, and we’re all working trying to make a living. So that was the wonderful thing about SPARK. Those people were paid to give feedback.

Steve Kearney I worked in the US and over there I knew I could always take a script to a studio or pass it around the writing keeps you going.

Christine Rodgers It seems like over there everybody’s looking for a good idea, and I don’t get that feeling here. They say “oh no, not another script.”

Steve Kearney The whole grants industry here is geared towards independent people with money. I have to get 5 grants a year—at least-—just to pay the bills. In the US my friends spend a year doodling around with their spec script because they’ve just got $500,000 for the last one. And that’s how they can develop their scripts for so long, and so intensely.

Jo Kennedy And you need that time-—it just takes time. It needs all those periods of pain, and leaving it and agonising and going back to it. That’s all part of the process and you need to be paid to do it, otherwise you can’t do it.

As writers, how well do you feel able to remain in the driving seat while all these high-profile experts are pushing and pulling at it?

Jo Kennedy There were moments when I felt daunted, when someone would tell you that your idea won’t work. Then I thought “Bugger that, I can do this scene like this if I want.” And I found I liked being put in the position of having to defend my ideas.

Clare Sawyer It was a brilliant way of getting the ideas to incubate over a substantial and focused period. Getting that range of opinions was fantastic—there was a sense that every possible tangent could be explored.

Jo Kennedy Yeah, it wasn’t like you only had the one adviser, who might not empathise or have any affinity with your kind of work. Before we went to SPARK, Christine and I sent the script to someone in the States who said basically “what a load of crap” and told us to change the whole thing. If we hadn’t had some good feedback at that point we would have been very despondent for maybe 3 to 6 months [Laughter].

Christine Rodgers And I think we might have taken it in a [direction] that could have been really bad for the work.

How radical do you think the changes were by the end?

Jo Kennedy Ours didn’t change so much as distil. It would have taken us a year to do what we’ve done in 4 weeks. It was that valuable.

Now that you’re coming to the end of this process, and you’re about to hand in your completed drafts for final comments, do you feel that it puts a stamp on your individual projects and that it gives potential funders—beyond the AFC—a greater confidence to know that a team of heavyweights has gone over it with a bat?

Christine Rodgers We hope so.

Clare Sawyer We have had interest here and there from people who know about the project. I reckon this highlights our film; something that makes it stand out at least a bit and creates a buzz.

John Brousek In those terms, the success of this program is something none of us will really know for another couple of years at least. It’ll take that long before the current crop of films can get out there to be judged. If it works, then audiences, and funders, will take notice.

The closing date for SPARK 2004 is August 29, 2003.

Brendan Phelan is a Sydney-based writer.

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 20

© Brendan Phelan; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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