The Big Picture: Vision and reality at the Big Screen Symposium 2013

Features, FILM
Ample inspiration, burning questions, and a few stark reminders at the second annual Big Screen Symposium for New Zealand filmmakers.

Local film professionals and enthusiasts gathered for the Big Screen Symposium in Auckland earlier this month. The theme for this year’s event was “Reel Vision in a Digital World” and it hosted a selection of workshops, panels, and interviews with notable national and international filmmakers, including Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and Korean director Park Chan-wook. Participants chose between several overlapping sessions on directing, writing, acting, composing, publishing, distribution, producing and sound design, all with the general theme of filmmaking in a changing industry. Here are some of the plums of caution and inspiration I gathered about writing, composition, and the film industry at large.

The opening panel scrutinised the tedious but topical question: who gives a damn about New Zealand films? Producer Quinton Hita, New Zealand Film Commission CEO Graham Mason, director Gaylene Preston, and distributor Kelly Rogers led the debate and, as often happens, the argument circled back to the woes of small markets and scant resources. Preston coined the phrase ‘Kiwi Cultural Cringe’ to express the larger public’s apathy with local filmmaking, a hurdle that New Zealand music has somehow managed to bypass. There were no real solutions. Someone made a half-hearted suggestion of touring schools to raise cultural awareness amongst younger audiences, but it’s difficult to determine how much influence filmmakers have beyond doing what they do—that is, making films.

That prompts a question in itself. How does one make films when we’re all scrapping for a foothold on the first rung of the funding ladder? While a healthy portion of the New Zealand Film Commission’s resources is set aside for low-budget shorts, it’s a considerably larger step from there to the feature tier. Whether it’s cultural, systemic, or a by-product of dwindling audiences seems a moot point. The bottom line is we all want financial stability, and as Preston aptly subscribed, the term ‘industry’ implies work, which implies wages. “When those footsies hit the ground every morning you want them to be funded,” she said. Greater distribution of New Zealand films on the international stage would of course help, but that’s riding on the false assumption that business is booming beyond our shores. Unlikely, considering that, as I learned over the weekend, cinemagoers worldwide consume less than one percent of what is available.

So with our financial stability in disarray, we may as well take the noble route of writing like Guillermo Arriaga. The Mexican author and screenwriter specialises in multi-narrative films (Amores Perros, Babel, 21 Grams) that are often politically geared and laden with moral dilemmas. He’s steadfast in his writing philosophies, and with good reason: his self-imposed doctrines have earned him esteem as one the most novel screenwriters in the world today.

Arriaga’s session started with textbook advice for any aspiring writer: use exterior circumstances to guide characters to junctions that will provoke weighted decisions; mount each junction with increasing tension; scrutinise every circumstance; take no prisoners when it comes to dialogue; and always remember your dramatic question. Then he moved into his own territory. He argued that multi-narrative storylines emulate the stories we tell in real life. In our candid attempts to keep our listeners’ attention and cover all the bases, we scramble events and jump erratically around the timeline. In fact, he said, the less logical the story, the more it appeals to our instinct and emotions over our brains. He told us to trust that our audience can decode the plot and the structure, no matter how convoluted they may be. Finally, he offered a grab-bag of helpful guidelines: avoid profundity at all costs; always conciliate, never concede; collaborate with directors who have the same taste; maintain the integrity of the story at all costs, because it’s ultimately under your name; and write for your own species, no matter how small the tribe.

He summed up his approach with the term ‘floating’. Basically, forget three act structures, forget rules, just do what you need to do to tell the story in its most intimate form. Maybe it’s not the most groundbreaking advice, but it was affirming to hear from someone with the track record to back it all up. And it helped that he had an engaging presence, along with enough squeamish jokes to prevent us from taking him, or ourselves, too seriously.

Robyn Malcolm in conversation with David Wenham.

Australian playwright and screenwriter Andrew Bovell (Strictly Ballroom, Head On, Blessed, Lantana, A Most Wanted Man, Chaos) took a different approach from Arriaga, opting for a purely anecdotal account of his career. He spoke of a taxing six-year journey with Hollywood sharks that led to the incessant re-writes of Martin Campbell’s adaptation of Edge of Darkness. The endless adjustments, intended to craft a plot more appealing for an American audience, drove him close to insanity. In the end his efforts were fruitless. They shuffled the job over to Academy Award-winning screenwriter, William Monahan, and he never heard from director or producer again. His bittersweet tale serves to question Aguirra’s insistence of never conceding the integrity of the story. For Bovell, as with others, ownership was stripped with the acceptance of a pay cheque. Fortunately, he had the humility to treat it as a lesson learnt and hasn’t yet given up on writing for the screen. Although he admitted a preference for theatre because he believes it allows more freedom for writers.

A theme was beginning to show between artistic freedom and financial security, a balancing-act that musicians like Cezary Skubiszewski know only too well. Skubiszewski, a Polish composer living in Australia, lent his thick accent and experiences to the language of music in cinema. He opened with a climactic orchestral track, taken from the Australian documentary Night, which accompanies an electrical storm flaring up in the outback. Throughout his session he played a spectrum of melodious thrills, from morose and chilling to nostalgic, ethnic, and farcical. To then see how he weaved the scores together on paper was genius to my relatively untrained eyes, and hearing him recount each particular intention and decision made along the way is testament to the nuances in the final narratives. It certainly puts to shame the ubiquitous ‘emotional feel’ that’s commonly tagged onto the descriptions of royalty-free production music tracks.

I found in Skubiszewski a middle ground between Arriaga’s idealistic autonomy and Bovell’s reality-based learning curve. Composition is so specialised and technical that it’s a difficult comparison to make, but the soft-spoken Skubiszewski seems to have found a middle ground between practicing artistic license and appeasing his collaborators. On a purely practical level he reminded us that a client’s feedback is relative to their mental state, thus a director with a hangover never bodes well for a favourable impression. He also spoke about receiving edits that are cut to existing film soundtracks, “just to get an idea of the mood,” the director will say. The problem is these temporary tracks belong to a small pool of popular movies (the theme for American Beauty has appeared on hundreds since 1999) and are composed by especially talented individuals. His advice to any budding composer is to copy only the tempo, rather than attempt to appropriate the original.

I couldn’t say Skubiszewski demystified the craft, nor would I suggest that was his intention, but he certainly piqued my curiosity. In fact, I’m indulging in Ennio Morricone at this very moment and wondering how many times his Spaghetti Western themes have found their way onto temp tracks for naff scenes with duels, Sheriffs, and shifty close-ups, “just to get an idea of the mood.”

The Big Screen Symposium more than satisfied my craving for an inspiration fix, at least temporarily. There was one point in Arriaga’s session when he told us to look at our hands before proclaiming, “one day these hands will form part of a corpse.” There’s nothing like a good metaphysical head spin to jolt you into action. And when you’re sitting amongst a swarm of collectively passionate filmmakers, all you want to do is get on with it. But more importantly the symposium was a stark reminder that this industry thrives and survives on a network of roles, ambitions, and resources. Filmmaking has its limitations, and whether they are financial, creative, or ego-based, a tension has always and will always exist, into the digital age and beyond. But that doesn’t mean it’s above reproach. In fact, I think the industry in New Zealand and abroad is desperately in need of a makeover from some deep-rooted practices and hierarchies[1]; an issue that organisers might like to explore more in the years to come.

© Allan Johnston 2013, for the Big Screen Symposium.

The Big Screen Symposium is an annual Auckland event. It ran from August 10-11. Speakers included Park Chan-wook, Guillermo Arriaga, David Wenham, Rolf de Heer, and other international and local filmmaking guests.

[1] An example of one can be found here.