Category Archives: Screenwriting

Guesswork TV urges more industry support for writers

The screen industry needs to stop cutting writers’ fees and to do a lot better in providing career paths for writers, according to Guesswork Television MD Kevin Whyte.

Chiming with the concerns of the Australian Writers’ Guild and CJZ executives Nick Murray and Matt Campbell, Whyte tells IF: “Working out how we can make Australia an attractive and lucrative place to be a television writer, which means we put stories and ideas first and foremost, is critically important.

“The struggling artist cliché is wearing a bit thin. The industry should focus on creating career paths, not just so people stay but to entice people in into the industry.

“I am not saying there is an easy solution but as our budgets come under more and more pressure it’s often the creatives whose fees are cut. Often they put their hands up to take $10,000 out of their pay packet if it gets their project over the line. We need to not let them; that should be out of bounds. If we continue to save money on writers that is at our peril.”

The company had such a hectic production schedule when Todd Abbott joined last March as director of programs and development he could not devote as much time as he wanted to his primary goal: driving development.

Home to Hannah Gadsby’s NanetteGet Krack!n’, Hard Quiz, Corey White’s Roadmap to Paradise, The Edge of the Bush and The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, Guesswork was named 2018 Production Business of the Year at the Screen Producers Australia Awards; it also picked up the Comedy Series Production of the Year gong for Rosehaven, a co-production with What Horse?

So from the start of this year Abbott has been nurturing a stack of projects, some in the early workshop stage, others at or near script delivery. “Depending on how budgets pan out with networks over the next few months, hopefully that means we have a big second half of the year in terms of production,” says Abbott.

Guesswork is in the fortunate position of being able to draw on a sizable pool of talent whose careers are managed by the parent company, the Token group.

“The discussions we are having with the networks are that they are incredibly keen to develop local content, in particular comedy,” says Abbott. “Apart from the ABC, which is flying the flag with comedy, the other broadcasters are very conscious that they could be spending more time on comedy.”

The Guesswork financing model typically involves teaming up with an international partner such as SundanceTV on Rosehaven and the now defunct Pivot network on Please Like Me.

‘Get Krack!n’

Whyte is looking for a new home in the US for Get Krack!n following the closure of NBCUniversal’s Seeso network. He was especially gratified by the positive feedback to the third episode of the current series which dealt with disability.

“We are constantly talking to the international players,” says Abbott. “We have to be creative in looking for ways to fund shows.”

Whyte observes there are fewer prime-time slots available on the commercial free-to-air broadcasters given the preponderance of stripped light entertainment shows.

The Guesswork execs are delighted with Frayed, the six-part comedy-drama commissioned by the ABC and Sky UK, a co-production with Sharon Horgan and Clelia Mountford’s company Merman Television which is now in post.

Australian comedian Sarah Kendall (a Token client) created the 1989-set show in which she plays Simone Burbeck, who appears to have the perfect life with a mansion in London, husband and children. After her husband has a fatal heart attack during an encounter with a prostitute, the true state of their finances is revealed. Simone is broke, homeless and a social outcast.

With no other options and two children to care for, she is forced to return to her family home in Newcastle. It turns out Simone’s past isn’t quite the story that she told everyone in London.

The cast includes Matt Passmore, Kerry Armstrong, Diane Morgan, Ben Mingay and Robert Webb. Kendall wrote the series produced by Nicole O’Donohue and directed by Jennifer Leacey (Reckoning, Rake, Bite Club) and Shaun Wilson (Rosehaven, The Ex-PM).

Abbott says: “Nothing else like it has been on Australian television for a long time. There was a conscious decision by Sarah and Merman to make sure that for a show set in the late 1980s there was no parody of the fashions or the clichés of that era. We brought over from LA a bunch of Panavision lenses from the 1980s that had been reconfigured so they are compatible with Red digital cameras. It looks gorgeous.”


Season four of Hard Quiz is in production for the ABC and the company’s sales arm Guesswork Distribution is looking to sell the format internationally. Shooting will soon get underway on the fifth series of The Weekly with Charlie Pickering.

In its third series, Rosehaven continues to rank among the most popular ABC shows, which Whyte sees primarily as a tribute to the superb scripts by Luke McGregor and Celia Pacquola. Already the co-creators have started to think about storylines for series four.

Whyte is an executive producer on Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, a 10-part comedy created, written by and starring Josh Thomas. Commissioned by Disney’s young-adult US cable network Freeform and currently scripting, the show will follow Thomas as Nicholas, a neurotic 25-year-old Aussie who lives at home with his single dad and two teenage half-sisters, one of whom has autism.

When their dad becomes terminally ill, he realises the responsibility of keeping the family together falls on him. “It’s wonderful to see Josh build on Please Like Me by taking his unique vision into a new market,” Whyte says.

IF Magazine. 11 March, 2019 by Don Groves

The conundrum facing TV writers: How to carve out a career

CJZ MD Nick Murray and CEO Matt Campbell’s observations on the shortage of top-class TV writers in light of the continuing talent drain overseas have triggered a lively industry debate.

There is general agreement that it is tough for emerging writers to get enough screen credits to establish themselves. While the ABC and some production companies are mentoring writers there are no ready solutions.

Some creatives say there are plenty of skilled writers but networks and producers are often reluctant to back new talent.

“TV in particular rests on the credits of established writers,” contends Ben C Lucas, who co-directed Fighting Season after helming the features Wasted on the Young and Otherlife.

“It’s not that there is a shortage of writers, it’s that there’s a shortage of writers established enough to bankroll a series. What few there are already have their own show so when it comes to financing, yes, there’s a shortage.

“The risk adverse nature of the business is such that newer writers are themselves looking for established writers to back them and their own ideas. I don’t see that there’s a way to break this cycle, short of commissioners taking the occasional punt on someone new – itself the exception, not the rule.”

To be fair, the heads of Matchbox Pictures and Easy Tiger Productions in recent interviews with IF stressed they are developing a raft of projects with emerging writers and producers.

Noting that writers such as Tony McNamara, Andrew Knight and Kris Mrksa are working on international projects, Easy Tiger founder Ian Collie said: “Our big focus is working with tomorrow’s talent, the wonderful emerging writers and creators who hopefully will be the next generation.”

Matchbox Pictures MD Alastair McKinnon noted: “Talent development has always been a priority for Matchbox.”

‘The Heights’ (Photo credit: Ben King).

The Heights, the 30-episode serial produced by Matchbox Pictures and Peta Astbury’s For Pete’s Sake Productions for the ABC, is a template for giving opportunities to new talent: actors, writers and directors.

The ABC is encouraging all producers to bring new people, particularly from diverse backgrounds, into their story rooms, according to Sally Riley, ABC head of drama, comedy and Indigenous content.

“The majority of the shows that we do have new or emerging writers in their story rooms, who sometimes start off as note takers or observers and then progress to writers,” Riley says.

“It’s a long process to become a writer and it works best when you have new writers working alongside experienced people. You have got to be prepared to nurture and mentor people, let them make mistakes and let them grow.

“We have done that on The Heights, Mystery Road and on [Roadshow Rough Diamond’s] Les Norton. One of the main reasons for doing The Heights was to develop new talent, on and off camera.

“We are also doing initiatives with grassroots organisations such as CuriousWorks and I.C.E., in Western Sydney, and they have unearthed some talented writers. You also need to watch who is coming out of film school or short films, and to theatre and playwrights in terms of tapping new talent, such as Nakkiah Lui.

“While we are losing some of our experienced writers to the UK and LA, we are also finding new writers, but it takes a long time for people to develop their skills and craft.”

Chris Squadrito, who was a script editor on Tidelands (he also co-wrote one episode) and on Fighting Season, agrees with Lucas, observing: “The issue at heart is there are precious few opportunities to train and develop newer writers to such an extent that they rack up the credits and become established enough to mount a series.

“There does seem to be more awareness now among prodcos that the fostering of new talent – partnering them up with more established practitioners, as is done often in the US – is required to keep the industry alive beyond the boomer generation. But talking about wanting to foster new writers is not the same as actually doing it. Like most aspects of this industry there is a lot of complacency, inertia and hot air floating around.”

The Nine Network’s co-head of drama Andy Ryan acknowledges that while it has always been tough for writers to get their first credit the rise of short-run drama series has made it harder to consolidate that initial success.

“The problem is not unique to writers. Directors and editors, for example, face similar hurdles,” Ryan tells IF. “One of the major challenges facing the industry is to help emerging writers build viable careers and gain a breadth of experience here in Australia.

“Producers and broadcasters are acutely aware of the problem. There’s no quick fix but I think we’re seeing a renewed focus on mentoring and supporting emerging talent, both from within production companies and from external groups such as Scripted Ink.”

Actor Jonny Pasvolsky, who has devised a bunch of original concepts which he is yet to pitch to producers, says: “So many passionate, brilliant people I know who just want those in ‘power’ to know they exist. Maybe the methods they are using to seek out writers and concepts needs to change. Getting an audience with these types of people is one of the biggest challenges.”

Film director-writer-producer Heath Davis believes there is only a handful of writers and directors in Australia that the networks consider worthy. “That is why our commercial TV is so stale and way behind the UK and US and why people watch Netflix and streaming sites for drama,” he says.

Nonetheless Davis is keen to try his hand at TV drama after being bowled over by Mr Inbetween, the Scott Ryan- Nash Edgerton series commissioned by the FX network.

Squadrito is grateful for the opportunities he’s had, including spending three and a half years with Collie and Rachael Turk at Essential Media, where he worked on such shows as Doctor Doctor and The Principal.

But many of his contemporaries have not been as fortunate. Like Ryan, he points to smaller episode orders combined with higher costs per episode which, he thinks, has meant few new writers are being hired.

“I’ve also been told by producers that networks just won’t approve new talent, and conversely, I’ve been told by network folks that production companies aren’t presenting them with new talent,” he says.

“I’m sure the reality is somewhere in the middle. Everybody talks a big game about fostering new writers but the proof really needs to be in the pudding. Ultimately I feel it comes down to series producers and script producers being willing to back newer writers – of which there are plenty – even if it may mean more work for them through the development process.

“I acknowledge that’s a big ask, but it’s really only with that backing that network approval can hopefully occur.”

IF Magazine . 05 March, 2019 by Don Groves

Has Australian TV found an answer to Scandi noir?

Victoria Madden was eight years old when she created her first distinctly Tasmanian story. It was the 1970s and researchers had come to the rural station in the state’s rugged north-east where her mother was the cook, hoping to confirm sightings of the extinct Tasmanian tiger. Possessed of a fierce imagination, Madden told them she had seen one at a nearby dam and led the way there. She got hours of companionship and conversation before they twigged.

Nowadays Madden’s reach is far wider – and the narratives hold together far more convincingly. As the co-creator of 2016’s The Kettering Incident and now the driving force behind The Gloaming, which premieres on Stan on January 1, Madden is presenting a vision of Tasmania to the world via brooding police procedurals, supernatural-tinged history and foreboding landscapes. On her shows, the island state looks like nowhere else on Earth.

“I always say Tasmania is a revelation,” Madden says. “I’m trying to think like an artist or a graphic novelist to make the landscape a character that’s slightly antagonistic. If you get it right, with the right directors, it does a lot of the work for you. I tell everyone that I want a sense of the unsettled, that you can’t quite feel comfortable.”

The Gloaming, which stars Emma Booth and Ewen Leslie as police detectives whose murder investigation draws them into a past crime they’re connected to, may well be the tipping point for Tassie noir. The show was commissioned by Stan and will be sold around the world by ABC Studios. It presents Hobart as a cosmopolitan city while the surrounding landscape – snow-covered peaks, dead trees twisted like gnarled bones, and thick forests that grasp the dark – possesses an unsettling grip.

Greg McLean, who directed The Gloaming alongside Michael Rymer and Sian Davies, says Tasmania was a unique place to shoot in. “It doesn’t look like Australia, he says. “The imagery we put out around the world has this red outback, but Tasmania has a different quality because of the nature of the weather system there, the different forests, and the different plants. It feels ancient and has a strange vibe to it.”

Having directed various iterations of Wolf Creek in the outback, and the feature film Jungle in the far edges of Colombia, McLean was used to intriguing locales, but as a newcomer to Tasmania he was fascinated by the way Victoria Madden’s story intertwined with the landscape. In her first visual briefing with the directors and director of photography Marden Dean, Victoria Madden referenced both the menacing topography and the often bloody colonial history.

“It was my first time in Tasmania, so I looked at it with very fresh eyes and got very excited about the architecture of Hobart and the light and the landscape,” McLean says. “We wanted to be as cinematic as possible, and Tasmania has this quite hard, clear light. It’s very beautiful, but also very sharp. Everyone we wanted to capture was uniquely Tasmanian looking in terms of the design, and the feel, and the atmosphere.”

The Gloaming represents the crest of a wave of productions that feature Tasmania as a locale. It began with the feature film The Hunter in 2011 (where the plot also involved the Tasmanian Tiger), and gathered energy with The Kettering Incident, the ABC comedy Rosehaven (where the crimes are very different), the feature film Lion and parts of Foxtel’s Lambs of God.

Alex Sangston, the Executive Manager of Screen Tasmania, which invested in The Gloaming, says the each of the last three years has come close to a record year for the volume of screen stories produced in the state.

“The pitch that I usually give when I’m talking to filmmakers, producers or financiers is that we’ve got locations you haven’t seen, talent that hasn’t been tapped, and a wonderful lifestyle to base yourself in while doing the work,” Sangston says.

Victoria Madden is central to this, but she had to leave Tasmania to define her vision. As a child she was obsessed with the countryside, which sometimes felt threatening. She remembers trips when her single mother, an English immigrant, would seek work only to miss out, so they would sleep that night in the family car.

“Tasmania’s ruggedness and harshness and the Gothic quality I see it in began with that insecurity as a child, when it felt like we were at the mercy of the landscape,” Madden says.

She moved to the mainland at age 17 and gained her initial writing credits on shows including Heartbreak High and Water Rats. She began to think more about Tasmania during long stints in London, where she was a story producer on The Bill, and then Ireland, which had a connection to Tasmania through the state’s history as a British penal colony. She was also watching Scandi noir television series such as The Killing and The Bridge, and visited Scandinavia before returning to Tasmania and settling in Launceston.

In The Kettering Incident the troubled lead character, Elizabeth Debicki’s Anna Macy, also returns to Tasmania from London, but by comparison Madden has prospered. She’d just begun to outline The Gloaming when she met Keli Lee from ABC Studios at a conference in Melbourne. The American executive, who’d helped assemble the likes of Modern Family and Scandal, was a fan of Kettering and wanted to work with Madden.

ABC Studios did not want a homogenous setting – they wanted a backdrop global audiences hadn’t seen before. Lee came to Hobart to spend the day with Madden: the sky was blue, but the mist hung low. There was snow on the nearby mountains and air was cold and crisp. Madden drove Lee up to Knocklofty Reserve, to look down on West Hobart – there is a similar shot in The Gloaming. They went to the MONA art gallery and had lunch on the water at the Glass House restaurant. Lee was excited. “We’re going to do this,” she told Madden.

Madden had given Lee more of The Gloaming, in which the crimes invoke Tasmania’s colonial history, and Lee wanted the grimness – “There’s a lot of murder,” she told Madden, who replied, ‘Yes, I guess there is” – to be counterpointed by the beauty of Hobart. It was exactly what the showrunner wanted to hear.

“That’s why I wanted to set it in Hobart, because it’s ridiculously beautiful, with a darkness underneath,” Madden says. “I’ve always been drawn to dark subjects. Unsolved mysteries, missing people, have always intrigued me. But being away from Tasmania, I saw the beauty as an adult I didn’t appreciate when I was younger. It’s an awe-inspiring place.”

The Gloaming – Streaming on Stan from Wednesday, January 1.

By Craig Mathieson SMH December 11, 2019

Samantha Lang joins Garth Davis/See-Saw Films joint venture

Lion and Mary Magdalene director Garth Davis and See-Saw Films have launched a production co-venture with Samantha Lang as head of development.

Entitled I Am That, the partnership will develop feature film and TV projects for Davis to direct and produce alongside See-Saw founders Iain Canning and Emile Sherman.

The president of the Australian Directors Guild, Lang has started work already, based at See-Saw Films’ Sydney office. “This is a really great fit,” Sam tells IF. “I really admire Garth and Emile and we look forward to creating beyond beautiful, large scale international film and TV projects together.”

Davis said: “I Am That stems from my long-standing relationship with both Iain Canning and Emile Sherman, who have been incredibly supportive of me in my filmmaking journey and are wonderful partners.

“I also feel very lucky to have the talented Samantha Lang by our side in this new chapter, helping us unearth compelling stories for film and television. Bec Smith and Keya Khayatian of UTA continue to be an indispensable part of my team.”

In a statement Canning and Sherman added, “Garth is that rare director who has an auteur’s eye, can build complete worlds and is at home in the intimate creation of character and performance.

“We are also so pleased to have found Samantha Lang to drive the creative acquisition and development of projects across film and television. Her creative talents and intelligence are second to none and our tastes are all deeply aligned.”

As IF reported last year Lang has been developing several projects including Kill the Messenger, a romantic tragi-comedy adapted from Nakkiah Lui’s play about the couple at the centre of a post-colonial interracial love story; and Lucy and Linh, scripted by Michelle Law and based on the young adult novel by Alice Pung about the daughter of a Chinese migrant family who goes to an exclusive girls’ school dominated by a cabal of white girls known as the Cabinet.

See-Saw recently produced 10-part drama The End for Foxtel and the Emmy Award-winning State of the Union.

Its upcoming slate includes Jane Campion’s feature The Power of the Dog for Netflix, Francis Lee’s period romance Ammonite starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, Andrew Haigh’s BBC miniseries The North Water with Jack O’Connell and Colin Farrell and John Madden’s World War 2 drama Operation Mincemeat with Colin Firth.

05 November, 2019 by Don Groves IF Magazine

Writer Matt Cameron kicking goals

It is so great to read how screenwriter Matt Cameron is gaining power and influence in the Australian industry.

Along with a select band of writers such as Belinda Chayko, Jacqueline Perske, Shelley Birse, Victoria Madden, Blake Ayshford and Andrew Knight, Cameron is one of the ‘go-to’ writers when producers need a top creative for a new TV series.

This IF article describes how in the recent past, Cameron had zero involvement in the production of a show. But now he is a presence in ongoing meetings about the creative realisation of the original concept.

Cameron’s recent credits include Bloom, Secret City and Jack Irish, but he is hardly an overnight success, with his first drama credit coming in 2000 with SeaChange.

Matt suggests that this shift to including writers in production reflects the international trend to have writers as showrunners, a model still not completely embraced in Australia.

He says that we still face problems in Australia created by low budgets for our drama shows compared to overseas series. But it is heartening to see great work being made despite those issues.

The full article is here:

Writer Matt Cameron makes the leap to a bigger canvas


Essential Media returns to drama space with Essential Scripted

Essential Media Group (EMG) has re-activated its drama arm with the mandate to produce premium international TV dramas and theatrical features via the newly-
unveiled Essential Scripted.

Michelle Hardy, who produced the International Emmy® Award-winning multi-
platform ABC2 comedy #7DaysLater, has joined as vice president of scripted,

Australia, while Simonne Overend continues as VP of scripted, US.
Essential Media has also signed a first-look deal with Hardy White Pictures, a joint
venture between Hardy and director Erin White (Sando, Little Lunch).

The move marks a return to the scripted sphere since founding partner Ian
Collie departed last September and Essential sold its drama slate and catalogue to
Easy Tiger Productions, launched by Collie and FremantleMedia.

It follows the acquisition of EMG (formed by the merger of Essential and Quail
Entertainment) by Canada’s Kew Media Group for $32.8 million, a deal which is
expected to close next week.

EMG CEO Chris Hilton said: “We’re relishing the prospect of our return to drama
production in Australia and the US at a time when the opportunities have never been
greater. We have an exciting new slate and with the support of our new partners at
Kew we’re looking forward to bringing more premium scripted content to audiences
around the world.”

Hilton recalled that he and Collie started from scratch in drama in the early years at Essential Media and Entertainment, producing a raft of shows including Rake, Jack Irish and The Principal and the Disney movie Saving Mr Banks on the back of the company’s factual slate.

Essential Scripted is working with new and emerging writers including Yolanda
Ramke (Cargo) and Chris Squadrito (who worked on Hoodlum Entertainment/
Netflix’s Tidelands) on a slate which includes six TV dramas and as many features.

Hardy has been working unannounced for Essential for some months so some
projects are in advanced development or are close to the pilot stage. The projects are
being developed in partnership with networks and distributors.

“Australian broadcasters are aspiring to produce dramas that are comparable to
those screening on Netflix,” Hilton tells IF. “That means you need sufficient quality
to attract pre-finance from European or US broadcasters or a deep-pocketed

Hilton has identified the need to develop the next generation of writers partly
because creatives such as Andrew Knight, Sarah Lambert and Kris Mrksa are tied up
with their own projects. His plan is to put emerging writers together with
experienced writers and showrunners.

Overend is working with Ramke as she develops a TV series based on a crime novel
and a feature screenplay. Hardy’s credits include Skit Box’s Wham Bam Thank You
Ma’amand Back Seat Drivers, a comedy entertainment series for ABC2.

She worked with Greg Quail, who is now EMG’s chief content officer, on several
projects including Timothy, a half hour narrative comedy that was part of Mental As,
ABC’s Mental Health Week.

Last year she produced a low budget feature film in Los Angeles for Essential,
working title Wild Woman. The survival saga set in the desert from writer-director
Nick King is yet to be released.

Hilton is discussing several feature films and feature docs with Kew Media’s
international theatrical sales company, observing, “Being part of a large group means
we can leverage their resources.”

06 July, 2018 by Don Groves INSIDEFILM

2020 Vision Feature Film Forum by Film Victoria

Last week Film Victoria hosted an all-day 2020 Vision Feature Film Forum. It was well attended by local writers, directors and producers.

The event provided Film Vic’s take on the current state of the local feature film industry. It was an attempt to encourage filmmakers to ‘go the extra mile’ on script development, as outgoing CEO Jenni Tosi suggested that often scripts go into production before they are ready.

As others have noted such as producer Sue Maslin, this is in part because producers need cashflow to survive. It is difficult for producers to draw cash from government funding agencies during the development phase, which often takes years.

The task for writers in the audience was to take on board the sobering figures dished out over the day and yet remain positive and optimistic enough to put in the necessary work to refine a screenplay to the point where it is as good as it gets.

Over the day, a number of interesting points were made. Kristian Connelly, Manager of the Nova in Carlton, expressed surprise that despite the success of Animal Kingdom (2010), no similar works have emerged. Connelly also thought that New Zealanders have a much more worked-out sense of their national identity than Australians, who struggle with the notion of what it is to be Australian.

The point was also raised that today’s female-dominated cinema audiences are provided with few titles that star a strong female character who drives the action. Of course this is as true of the world as it is of Australia.

My final takeaway was a personal one; coming from Singapore, where the focus is so international, I was surprised to hear only about Australia, with a bit of Hollywood tantalisingly added but seeming somehow far away. The words China and India featured on a single slide, a reference to the number of films from these two countries being released on Australian screens.

No mention of 2017’s gamechanger and my personal fave, Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) directed by and starring Jing Wu, which managed to gross nearly US$900 million at the Chinese box office earlier this year. The film is set in Africa and 20% is in English as it was hoped to do well internationally. However its triumph with its domestic audience more than made up for its lack of international reach (it took only $2 million in the US).

I asked several of my producer films at the session whether they were thinking of approaching the expanding markets of China and India, but they felt that was too much of a stretch. And yes, despite our multiculturalism we are still a predominantly white Australian (and male) industry. But there is also an increasing number of Chinese and Indians who have settled in Australia, and hundreds of thousands more who come here to study. Can’t we access their contacts?

IF’s Don Goves has posted these two articles on the day:

Filmmakers challenged to aim high and know their audience

PG-rated films are increasingly popular in Oz while frequent moviegoers are going less often


Luc Besson on the Risks of ‘Valerian’ and That Time James Cameron “Took Me for a Moron”

As the EuropaCorp mogul — and THR’s International Producer of the Year — prepares to release the most expensive film of his career, he opens up about his arm’s-length relationship with Hollywood (“I do ‘Leon,’ they send me four ‘Leons'”) and his lifelong obsession with an “impossible”-to-film French comic book.

Luc Besson was 8 years old when he fell in love with the French graphic novel Valerian and Laureline, about two young adventurers who travel through space and time. Now, half a century later, the 58-year-old French producer-director is bringing his childhood infatuation to the screen. At $180 million, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is by far the most expensive picture he has ever made, with double the budget of his last sci-fi feature, 1997’s The Fifth Element. The STX release (which

opens July 21) is the biggest bet yet from a man who has made a career of them — from directing 1985’s Subway to 1990’s La Femme Nikita (one of the first action flicks centered on a woman) to 1994’s Leon: The Professional and 2014’s Lucy, not to mention producing franchises like Taxi and Taken.

But no matter how much Besson has riding on his new picture, he gives no sign of being perturbed when THR sits down with him in mid-May in the rather impersonal, two-room suite he maintains several floors above his high-tech studio just north of Paris, La Cite du Cinema. (It has an accompanying film school, L’Ecole de la Cite.) This is where Besson spends most of his time when he’s not at home in Beverly Hills, where he has lived for the past three years with his producer-wife, Virginie Besson- Silla, and their three children, ages 11 to 16.

Relaxed in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, music wafting from his iPad, the filmmaker is expansive when talking about his family and personal life, but more reticent when it comes to addressing the business aspects of his career and company, EuropaCorp, in which he’s the largest shareholder. Perhaps that’s because, after years of success, EuropaCorp will post a loss of $136 million in 2016, just a few weeks after our meeting, the result of such misfires as Nine Lives, Shut In and Miss Sloane. Besson leaves talk of business to his company’s CEO, Marc Shmuger.

“EuropaCorp experienced significant losses this past year,” acknowledges Shmuger. “Over the course of the past year, we took necessary measures to strengthen the company’s treasury position. These measures include restructuring our first and second lien debt, a new capital raise from [Chinese production and distribution firm] Fundamental and sales of noncore assets [among them, theaters in Paris].”

They also include bringing in outside financiers to defray some of the cost of Valerian, whose downside already has been covered, he says, thanks to $30 million in French subsidies, outside equity and presales, reducing EuropaCorp’s investment to about 10 percent of the total budget.

The company signed a three-year exclusive (in the U.S.) distribution and marketing services pact with STX in early 2017 after extricating itself from a problematic joint venture with Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media. In leaving Relativity, it tightened its focus, going from an original plan to have up to 12 domestic releases per year to about four — all at much lower budgets than that of Valerian.

Those projects include another Taxi sequel, a follow-up to Lucy (possibly starring Scarlett Johansson again) and such European productions as Kursk (with Matthias Schoenaerts, Colin Firth and Lea Seydoux) and the horror film Underground (with Ben Kingsley and Peter Franzen).

It is for this prodigious output — and for his willingness to risk so much — that THR has named Besson its International Producer of the Year.

When did you start working on Valerian?

When I did The Fifth Element 20 years ago, the designer Jean-Claude Mezieres was saying, “Why are you not doing Valerian? Why are you doing this stupid Fifth

Element thing?” I said, “Because [Valerian] is impossible.” But then, little by little, the technique went up. I started to write, and I wrote for a couple of years just to see: Was it good enough? Was it worthwhile enough? And then it came to maturation.

How much of your own money is in the film?

My entire salary. [The budget is] not my money, but at the last minute, the financing fell short, so they asked me, “Can you put your entire salary in?” And I said yes.

When you saw Avatar, you threw away the Valerian script. Why?

Because it wasn’t good enough. Avatar was on such a [high] level that [I thought], “You’re not qualified. Go back to training,” like with the Olympic Games. You can’t go and ask for $180 million [without being ready].

Did you discuss Valerian with James Cameron?

He invited me on the set of Avatar in L.A. because I said, “I’m writing something sci- fi,” and he said, “Come and see how it’s working.” Being there, in the middle of the factory with nothing, and seeing the world on the screen — he took me for a moron at the beginning, because it was kind of complicated for me to understand. He looked at me like, “This moron doesn’t understand anything.” I don’t have a computer. I have this, an iPad, with music. Then we went for lunch, and I asked him a lot of questions, and he gave me some tips. He was such a gentleman, so secure. You know, the people who are secure are generous.

Are you secure?

Yes. Now. A little bit. But the first few years, you’re like, “Grrrrr.” You’re going to bite anyone who comes close to you.

When did you first realize you wanted to make films?

My parents worked [as SCUBA teachers] at Club Med, so I was watching shows every night. I started to write at 13, to take pictures at 14. It just came to me, like some people love baseball — me, it was photography and writing. I built my skills without noticing. Later, I said: “Hmm, movies, that’s probably a good way of expressing for me because I’m not good at anything [else].”

Was there a particular film that influenced you?

I never fell in love with films because I was not watching films at all. [After his parents split up] I had a stepfather who didn’t want TV and music at home; he didn’t want any way of expressing art in the house. He was working on Formula One, so it was all about cars. I was kind of frustrated.

Did you ever want to be anything other than a filmmaker?

When I was 16, I wanted to study dolphins, because I was in love with dolphins. And I got in a diving accident and the doctor told me, “You will never dive again.” This

guy broke me in two. He didn’t even realize what he had done because that was my life, diving, dolphins. And the day he said “forget about it” [was as if] basically you want to be a dancer and then you have no feet. I was very desperate. It was my worst moment. You’re 16, you’re in boarding school, and you’re broken by this doctor. I was really, really down. I remember asking myself, “What are you going to do with your life?” I took a piece of paper and I put a line down the middle, and on the left I said what I loved and on the right what I hated.

What did you love and what did you hate?

I can’t remember exactly. But when I read the left column, I realized almost everything was artistic. And it was the first time I said, “Wow, maybe cinema could be good.” And then a friend of a friend was shooting a short film in Paris, and I took the train and went there. And I arrived on the set and fell in love. I stayed two days, I slept on the set to keep an eye on the material, and I went back home to see my mom. I said, “I know what I’m going to do.” And the day after, I came down to breakfast with my suitcase and I said, “I’m leaving.”

Leaving home?

Yeah. Home and school. I came back from the set on a Sunday night, and on the Monday morning I went back to Paris. A friend [put me up] for a few nights. Then I was going from apartment to apartment, living on the couch, eating what was in the fridge — and usually on set they’d always have food. You eat twice a day and then you sleep. I really loved it. But the more you see on a set, the more you see other layers. You think it’s just a door, but no, after the door there are two other doors. I was so naive, I had no [frame of] reference, but I was not blocked by anything. I was like a kid who is not afraid of dogs and puts his hand in their mouths, you know? And I did my first short film 12 months later. I started my first long feature film at 19 [The Last Battle, about humans in a postapocalyptic world]. I turned 20 years old during the shooting. Sometimes we were shooting on the weekend — because when [the studios] have a big film shooting, they don’t shoot on the weekend, so you take the [equipment] and put it back on Sunday night. We did films with nothing, nothing. I was asking my mom to prep food for the team, because I couldn’t pay for the lunch. She’s a very good cook, so they were happy.

Did you ever study film?

No. But when I arrived in Paris at 17, I didn’t have a lot of money, and there was a [bookstore] just for films, near the Champs-Elysees [with anything that] you wanted to find on movies or how to make a script. And I stayed for hours and bought [a film industry version of the Yellow Pages], which was the most practical thing to get. Then I still had 20 francs in my hand, and I said to the girl, “For four bucks, do you have a little something I can buy?” She said, “In this big basket, there are used books.” I took a very small book, a treatise on directing [Notes of a Film Director]. I studied it, and it was quite complicated. I liked the book very much. What I didn’t know was that the writer was [Russian master Sergei] Eisenstein. And the treatise was very pragmatic and simple and clear, which is exactly what I needed at the time. So my basis is Eisenstein.

Do you watch films a lot now?

No. Cooking and eating are not the same job. My job is cooking.

Are there any filmmakers you particularly admire?

Actually, almost all of them, because it’s a hard job. Every time you feel the heart of the guy, I like it. What I don’t like is when you feel the studio too much and you don’t feel the guy. There are a couple of Marvels where I don’t feel the guy. The films are pretty good, but I don’t know who cooked them.

Are you friends with other filmmakers?

I am very friendly with them. I say “friendly” because I don’t see them enough. There’s a couple that I see: Ridley Scott sometimes, Darren Aronofsky. But I can’t say I am friends with them. What’s interesting is, I’ve never felt a [sense of] competition with any director. Never. The directors’ family is very, very friendly. I have a funny story: I had a film, I don’t remember [which one] but I was in New York, and I saw the poster [outside] the theater. There were two screens, and my film was playing [in the theater next to] a Pedro Almodovar film. I went in, just to smell the ambience, just for curiosity. And I opened the door and Pedro Almodovar bursts in. I said, “Oh, my God, Pedro, what are you doing here?” He was doing the same thing as me. We were laughing so much.

You’ve avoided working in the Hollywood studio system. Do they come after you?

I’ve received a script per week for 20 years. I’ve never stayed away from Hollywood. I always answer very politely, and I’m very honored. But no one comes with an Amadeus or something that I would love to do. When I do La Femme Nikita, they send me all the Nikitas — three, four, five. When I do Leon, they send me four Leons. When I do The Fifth Element, they send me all the sci-fi. That’s not interesting to me. I mean, if someone gave me Raging Bull, I would be thrilled.

The Fifth Element seems more of a success today than when it came out. Why?

Maybe the film at the time was too weird. Twenty years ago, there was no internet. And the film was wild. It was not conventional. The hero who saved the world [was] a girl with orange hair who doesn’t speak English. A classical singer extraterrestrial in space. It’s like, what the f— is this thing?

What do you do outside filmmaking?

The biggest thing is writing, in the morning. I love that. If I don’t write for a few days, I feel bad. I’m nervous and I’m not agreeable with people. It’s my gym.

Do you read a lot as well as write?

No, I don’t. Except scripts. I can’t concentrate on a book. You start the book and the guy is talking about a garden — and after two pages, I’m in the garden of my grandmother, and I think about my grandmother and that’s it, I’m out. For me, a book is a house without walls. I get in, and I can’t get out. And that’s what I love about film: You have to follow the thing; you can’t go backward or forward.

Do you enjoy producing as much as directing?

It’s not the same job. Producing is being on the bench and screaming to the players on the field, “Faster!” (Laughs.) Being a director is painful. It’s the hardest job, because you’re responsible for everything, you have people asking you questions every three seconds. You have to manage the emotional DNA of everyone on the set, especially the actors. You have to be the general of an army. And then you’re in the editing room. And you see an image of your film that is not your film, and when you’ve finished, you push the film out to the press, who most of the time kill you. It’s a hell of a job.

What makes a good producer?

I don’t know if I’m a good producer. Because a good director makes a good film, even with a bad producer. A producer is really at the service of the director, understands the qualities of the director and maybe the bad parts, and can tell him, “No, you are lying to yourself here.”

What’s the worst part of being a director?

You need to have an extra sensitivity, permanently, from the morning to the end of the day. It’s almost like you take your skin out and people are touching you all day. I remember going back to the hotel at 10 p.m. and watching TV, and they were talking about the opening of a salon of flowers, and you see some old people going there — and I’m crying. It’s terrible. And it’s terrible because you take the skin out and then every morning you put on armor, because you need both. You need to be absolutely nonsensitive. You need to be a general of an army and at the same time, if a flower [touches] your arm, you scream. It’s painful. And honestly, every time you start to film, you remember that. You say, “All right, OK, I’m going to make the film,” and you take the decision, you accept the pain. You never go, “Oh, my God, it’s going to be great! We’re going to do a film!” You know it’s going to be painful.

by Stephen Galloway THR July 17, 2017

Anatomy of a hit: IF speaks to the brains behind ‘Lion’

Oscar heavyweight Lion has earned more at the Aussie box office than all of last year’s local films combined – not bad for a filmmaker making his feature debut.

Garth Davis was approached about the project by See-Saw Films’ Iain Canning and Emile Sherman at the Sundance Film Festival, where the trio were premiering the first season of Top of the Lake.

Davis heard the story and raced off to his lodge to read up on the extraordinary case of Saroo Brierley, a small boy adopted by an Australian couple after falling asleep on a train and waking up on the other side of India, unable to find his way home.

Angie Fielder, Luke Davies, star Dev Patel, Garth Davis and DP Greig Fraser.

To map out Brierley’s story, the producers turned to screenwriter Luke Davies, an old collaborator.

Davies had worked on Candy, based on his own autobiographical novel, with Sherman producing, while Canning was the film’s European sales agent and an executive producer. Canning and Sherman became friends, formed See-Saw and went on to make The King’s Speech.

On Lion, the producers turned to Aquarius Films’ Angie Fielder to lead the production process and work closely with Davis. Fielder jumped on-board in late 2013, before there was a script.

Davies’ work on the film began with what he describes now as “a really intense research trip.”

Over two and a half weeks, the writer travelled to India to with Saroo to visit key locations, then on to Tasmania to meet Saroo’s family and friends with Davis.

“About two weeks after that Garth came to LA and he and I sat down with a whiteboard for about a week or ten days,” recalls Davies. “Very casual, cups of tea all day long, filling up his whiteboard, throwing ideas around.”

Davis remembers “lots of conversations about what we liked about the story, [and] the rhythms of it. There’s a lot of emotional engineering going on. Obviously the more practical question was: what’s the structure of the film?”

After that initial session, story meetings continued via conference call, with Davies back and forth between Sydney and LA, Davis in Melbourne, Fielder and Sherman in Sydney and Canning in London.

“There were a lot of calls at odd hours of the day and night,” says Fielder. “We started out with a beat sheet and then moved to a treatment and then moved to draft.

The film’s chronological structure was decided upon early.

“It would have been much more conventional and probably much safer to start the film with Saroo as an older man,” says Fielder. “So you start the movie with Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman and flash back to what happened to him in India.”

“But Luke was very committed to the idea of trying to tell it in a linear way. We really wanted to put people in Saroo’s head, and when you tell the story to other people, you don’t start with: ‘there’s this guy living in Tasmania and then one day he decided to look for home’. You tell the story from the beginning – there’s a little boy from a small village in India and he gets stuck on a train and gets lost.”

“We knew it was a risk, because we were essentially making a film in which the first fifty minutes were in India with very little dialogue and what dialogue there was was in Hindi or Bengali. But we were very lucky in that we found Sunny Pawar, who plays little Saroo, and his performance is so compelling that I think the audience doesn’t actually realise that they’re in a non-English language film.”

Davies wrote the first draft in less than twelve weeks, then another after notes, in what he describes as “a really rapid, compressed, six month period. Six months, two drafts,with gaps in between.”

That draft was shopped at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2014, where The Weinstein Company snapped up international rights, completing a financing pie that included Screen Australia, location attraction money from Film Victoria and a distribution advance from Transmission.

The filmmakers spent 2014 scouting India, did a large-scale tech recce in September and began official pre in November.

“We wanted to get into production as soon as we could,” says Fielder. “We were a little bit limited by the weather in India and not wanting to shoot in monsoon season.”

For Davis, the realisation that a five-year old had to hold the first half of the movie was “a pretty sobering concept.”

Finding the right child to play Saroo took around five months, with casting director Kirsty McGregor enlisting a local casting agent, Tess Joseph, who suggested the team focus on three cities.

“We went to schools over four months,” recalls Davis. “We couldn’t go to the streets because the kid we cast had to go to Australia, so we had to get them a visa and they had to have some sort of paperwork. So our net was a lot smaller, and we needed a kid that was quite streetwise – that was tricky.”

Visiting schools, Joseph would film 30-second scene with kids who would come in, do a scene, take a photo, then move off.

“Hundreds of children would arrive in my Dropbox every week, and I’d go through and put little coloured dots on good/bad/fair whatever, and over the months we developed a shortlist of a few hundred children,” says Davis.

Davis and McGregor later flew to India with Miranda Harcourt, an acting coach from New Zealand.

“We met up with Tess and her team and we workshopped the children for about two weeks in three cities,” says Davis.

“And if we found someone we liked, we’d bring them back every day for three days to see if they would return; whether the parents would cope with it, kind of testing their filmmaking stamina. Because so much rested on this performance.”

The Lion team tapped production services company India Take One Productions, an old hand at servicing foreign productions such as Slumdog Millionaire, Eat Pray Love and Zero Dark Thirty, to help them navigate the bureaucracy and work through the preparation time.

“They provided us with all the crew and helped us cast the whole thing,” says Fielder. “They were invaluable.”

When it came to crewing up, Fielder adopted the “mirror system”.

“This is something I’ve done on all the foreign shoots we’ve done at Aquarius: Wish You Were Here was Cambodia, Berlin Syndrome was Berlin. You bring your own HODs, your own first AD, your own cinematographer, your own production designer, costume designer. And then you also have a local working in a similar capacity but reporting to your head of department. Because they come with their own team, they’ve got their own networks and contacts.”

The one exception was the camera department, which was brought over wholesale from Oz, right down to the data wranglers.

“That’s a department you don’t really want to hand over to anybody else,” says Fielder.

Lion began shooting at the beginning of 2015, with six weeks scheduled in India and four in Oz.

Fielder describes shooting in India as “Great. Not without its challenges.”

“You’re dealing with language barriers, cultural barriers, a really harsh local environment, and a system that is heavily bureaucratic. It means you need a lot of lead-time in your preparation, which is why we spent the whole of 2014 going back and forth to India setting everything up.”

While editing the director was also on the hunt for a composer, listening to music endlessly.

“I landed on Hauschka [Volker Bertelmann] and Dustin O’Halloran. Both beautiful musicians but different. Hauschka had this childlike, raw quality, and I thought he really suited India. And then Dustin had that emotional quality.”

“I love movies like The Mission and The Piano where the music is very front and centre, which has been lost a little bit in cinema. Everyone’s very anti-music. I wanted to bring back that emotional music, and I thought Dustin did great melodies.”

Bertelmann happened to be playing at the Melbourne Recital Centre while Davis was in post, and the director went along.

“I was sitting there and he goes, ‘this piece of music is like being in a train with the window open and the landscape flashing by’. I thought: that’s so weird.”

After the show Davis caught up with Bertelmann and asked about collaborating with O’Halloran on a film score, only to learn that O’Halloran had been the best man at his fellow muso’s wedding. A deal was struck.

The film has racked up award nominations – and big box office – ever since TIFF, even though “a lot of the reviews weren’t great, actually, after that [Toronto premiere],” Davis

“That’s a wake-up call, as a filmmaker. But I do know we have the audience.”

As for Davies, who’s now working on projects with several Aussie filmmakers, including David Michôd and Kim Farrant, he cries every time he sees it.

“I shouldn’t, because I wrote it, so I know everything that happens, but I do and I think it is because Garth’s a magician. He made me an observer again.”

By Harry Windsor – INSIDEFILM – [Fri 31/03/2017]

What networks and production companies should learn from House of Hancock

In the wake of Channel Nine and CJZ’s apology to Gina Rinehart, production companies should be wary of the issues that landed these companies in hot water with the mining magnate. In this post, media lawyer Stephen Digby explains the strategies required to avoid the same fate as TV series House of Hancock.

Stephen Digby is the principal and co-founder of Digby von Muenster Law – mumbrella

– March 7, 2017

After Rinehart’s successful legal action in the Supreme Court of NSW in 2015, which gave her access to part two of House of Hancock ahead of its screening on Nine, it appeared that the parties had come to a settlement that, whilst confidential, seemed to allow broadcast of part two of the docudrama under certain conditions.

Some of these conditions included specific disclaimers in the opening and closing credits the show was a “drama, not a documentary”, and that Rinehart was not interviewed by the producers. Several minutes of footage were also cut from the broadcast.

However, this did not seem to placate Rinehart, as she took Nine and CJZ back to court claiming defamation and malicious falsehood, as well as misleading and deceptive form that excused almost everything, including any “breaches of alleged moral behaviour”. These releases were repeatedly tested in US courts by, amongst many others, unwitting college guys, politicians and etiquette tutors.

The lesson from Borat is that with release forms – provided that they are true and accurate in their disclosures and well packed with the required indemnity and warranty protections – you can significantly limit your exposure to liability from any loss, or damage that may result from the broadcast.

So, whilst Borat offended almost all of its participants, it still lives on in cinema, and House of Hancock which offended one person, is seemingly off the air forever.

3. Use settlement as a bar to future proceedings

Despite an iron-clad release, as outlined above (and as Borat showed), court proceedings can still be unavoidable. If that does happen, then it is almost always more sensible to seek some form of out-of-court settlement that all parties can live with, or, is the best “worst-case”. This appeared to have been the case with House of Hancock, but, unlike that situation, the settlement did not prevent Rinehart from bringing further proceedings.

With this in mind, any production company (or broadcaster) should be very careful to make sure if it does reach settlement outside court, that a key part of this agreement is a widely-drafted and extensive release clause which acts to bar the party who brought or threatened the action from re-visiting the matter in any future legal proceedings in relation to it. Without knowing the full details of the Nine/CJZ/Rinehart confidential settlement, we won’t speculate why this don’t happen on this occasion, but, ideally, these types of clauses as part of a settlement are designed to put an end to all legal proceedings, once and for all, now and in the future.

4. Preparing for the worst

As an essential pre-requisite to a broadcast commission, production companies are required to take out errors and omissions insurance. Whilst these policies can often be difficult to navigate, the House of Hancock experience will force production companies to look more deeply into what these policies do and don’t cover.

Whilst premiums can be expensive, broadening the insurance to specially cover the company from the costs of litigation against all types of allegations could well be worthwhile. Given the breadth of the allegations made by Rinehart, these claims may go beyond simply unauthorised use of titles, copyright infringement and breach of privacy, to defamation, idea and story theft, and injurious falsehood, as well as misleading and deceptive conduct. A full and frank conversation with your insurers at the time the policy is being put in place, and close attention as to what it includes, and, more importantly, excludes, could give producers a great deal more comfort when faced with these types of proceedings.

Is it worth it?

Like all businesses, production companies need to do a cost/benefit analysis of the risks and rewards of doing these sorts of shows, but, with luck, these types of measures might help reduce that risk. However, as House of Hancock proves, this type of issue is not always possible to avoid.