Monday, December 10, 2012

BEWARE! Reading this may place you at risk!

These are just a few of the notes I included in my Oct application to Screen Australia – a script development application that Ruth Harley and the Screen Australia Board believe could not be assessed without placing SA staff at risk!

SHIPS IN THE NIGHT was conceived as a project that could, if need be, be made for next to no budget – with a small ensemble of actors, limited locations, hand held camera, shooting with available light in an actual taxi etc. This remains the option I can fall back on if it is not possible to raise the money needed to produce the film in accordance with standard industry practice. The budget for SHIPS will be somewhere between ‘no’ and ‘low’. Or, to put it another way, between ‘no’ and however much production investment it will be possible for me (and my eventual co-producer) to attract to the project. Regardless of budget, what is required is a first draft screenplay – the development of which is my responsibility both as screenwriter and producer.

No Budget

How much, in reality, does a No Budget film cost? How long is a piece of string?  If we use PARANORMAL ACTIVITY as a guide, the figure is in the vicinity of $15,000. Yes, SHIPS could be made for $15,000. Or for $30,000 or for $300,000. Films are made for such budgets so often these days that there can be little argument with the proposition. The ones that work (regardless of budget) usually have a fresh and original screenplay or concept. Would PARANORMAL have been a better film if its budget had been ten times $15,000? Or 100 times $15,000? I suspect not. If someone said to me, “Okay, James, we love the screenplay for SHIPS IN THE NIGHT but the only financial assistance we can give you is to pay Actors Equity minimums for a rehearsal period and three days of filming, with you as DOP,” I would say, “Okay, I can do that, though I’d like a three week rehearsal period.” Not an ideal scenario by any means but also not impossible shooting guerrilla style (totally hand held) with the latest Canon with fast lenses and minimal lighting.

Mid Range Budget 

Work with minimal crew, filming the bulk of the interior taxi scenes in a studio. With an adequate rehearsal period, all the taxi interiors can be shot quite fast. How fast? Again, how long is a piece of string? With plenty of rehearsal time, a few days. Not ideal, but could be done. The exteriors would be shot on location with minimal lighting and hand held camera. Not the juddering shaky hand-held seasickness-inducing camerawork so beloved of Lars von Trier but good steady camerawork of the kind that I am pretty good at as a result of hundreds of hours of documentary shooting.

‘Big’ Budget

Big in relative terms, that is. Matt’s taxi can be placed on a trailer, with lighting, camera on tripod/crane, gaffers, 1st AD, make-up etc shot on location – the full Monty.

If the final draft screenplay is a good one, all three options will result in a film for which there is an audience.  Ideally it should be an audience of sufficient size to return the film’s budget.

A variation on this theme, less expensive than a full Monty production, would be to film all the taxi interiors in a moving car on a race track loop with lights (car, street, shopfronts etc) in soft focus to create the illusion of moving through suburbs. Using the lenses I would want to use, with shallow depth of field, the illusion of moving through suburbs would not be hard to create.

As a producer I look at SHIPS from two different perspectives:


The brute commercial reality of filmmaking is that Australian films almost never recoup their budgets or go into profit. Aiming to recoup the budget is a worthy goal nonetheless – if only because it encourages filmmakers to make films for audiences and not merely for themselves and their friends. Presuming that the final draft screenplay for SHIPS is good the question then is: At what budget does SHIPS have a chance at recouping its budget and appealing to the audience it is aimed at? Or, to put the question in a slightly different way, what is the absolute minimum the film could be made for without compromising its bankability


Given that Australian films so rarely return even a fraction of their budgets to investors, why do we persist in acting as though commercial viability is a top priority? If we look back over the past 30 years the films that stand out are those that made a significant contribution to Australian film culture – Australian stories told by Australians for Australians. Particularly when it comes to low budget films I believe that their value to  our film culture is more important than whether or not they return their budget. So, wearing my ‘cultural producer’s’ hat I want SHIPS to make its own small contribution to Australian film culture.

No one at Screen Australia will have read these words or any of the many others I wrote about SHIPS IN THE NIGHT. The notion that reading and assessing my application would place Screen Australia staff at risk is so nonsensical that it is not worth engaging with as a serious proposition. I will leave it to others to figure out what other reason Ruth Harley might have for refusing to allow her staff to read and assess SHIPS IN THE NIGHT. And I will leave it to others to figure out why it might be that the Screen Australia Board would decide to ratify Ruth Harley’s refusal to allow her staff to read and assess SHIPS.

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