John Collee is a Scottish novelist, journalist and screenwriter whose film scripts include Master and Commander, Happy Feet, Creation, and Walking with Dinosaurs. He became a judge for the festival in December last year and kindly agreed to answer our questions and give tips for any budding filmmakers.
You started your working life as a doctor but fairly quickly turned your hand to writing, what inspired this change?
I did it really back-to-front in a way. I was a doctor originally and I wrote novels while I was doctoring. And one of the novels I’d written got picked up for a film so I wrote the screenplay for that. This was called Paper Mask.
You have travelled the world working as a Doctor and it is well documented that you take a keen interest in environmental issues. These aspects of your personality come through in the films you have written. Can you describe the effect your involvement in environmental issues has had on your film career?
When people ask me how to become a writer I ask them firstly “What have you done?” and secondly “What do you care passionately about?”
What really obsesses you? Because a writer without a cause is like a postman without any letters to deliver.
There is of course a long and honourable tradition of writers getting involved with social and political campaigning. But actually every good writer has championed some cause, personal or political, with a greater or lesser degree of subtlety.
Which brings me to my involvement with Climate Change; In 2005 I read Tim Flannery’s book “The Weather Makers” and had something of an epiphany. What he was saying then, what science has known for 30 years, and what we can now prove with increasing certainty, is that world is heading very fast towards an environmental cataclysm.
Without a radical change in attitudes towards coal, oil and consumption we’re heading for a world where in 30 years – one generation – the North pole will be ice free in summer, treasures like the great Barrier Reef and the Amazon Rain Forest will be unsalvageable, and many of our coastal cities will be threatened with flooding.
The future beyond that is appallingly bleak, with mass starvation, mass migration and mass extermination of humans plants and animals. On reading Tim’s book I immediately felt – and I know Tim feels himself – that this is the single most issue facing the world. Everything else is of secondary importance.
Without a functioning planet we have nothing. In keeping with my belief that first-hand knowledge is everything I persuaded Working Title to send me on six weeks research trip round all the top climate scientists in the United States, gathering material for a cinema documentary.
But since that time I’ve devoted much of my free time outside writing fiction to the frustrating task of trying to raise awareness about climate change, via a website we created called The Climate Hub.com and an organization I’m a member of called 350.org.
Those who oppose climate change action argue that the problem can’t be that serious because the visible effects in their own back yard are currently quite small.
Those who think, as I do, that we’re staring down the barrel of a gun find it depressing and totally disheartening that public opinion isn’t moving fast enough.
How easy was it to make the switch from writing novels to writing screenplays?
I made the switch from novel writing to film writing partly because films are structurally simpler, and I like simplicity; partly because film writing suited my lifestyle and my character.
The degree of immersion that you require to write a novel is, as any novelist will tell you – borderline pathological. The novel consumes you for weeks and months at a time and for your family it can seem that you’ve finally flipped – muttering incoherently to yourself, wandering about the garden in circles, fretting endlessly about stuff that only exists in your head.
We are all social creatures and, in my experience, the great pleasure of Screenwriting, as opposed of Novel writing is that it’s a much more social activity.
Indeed I’ve come to believe that screenplays are constructed through talking rather than through writing. It’s no accident that Hollywood movies are bought and sold on the basis of a verbal pitch rather than a written document.
Telling a story aloud is the best way of testing the narrative, of hearing their rhythms, probing for weaknesses in the plot.
Films are also very concrete: you eventually have to build the stuff and show how it works. Telling stories aloud somehow stops you from fudging practical detail.
When we tell stories we tell plot.
Films, unlike novels are very plot driven.
Film requires a story that grabs you and keeps you in its spell from the very beginning to the very end and the best way to know if that will happen in a two hour movie is to tell the story aloud – act one, act two, act three – and see if you can hold the listeners attention unbroken.
This process of talking through stories with other creative people – exploring, and testing the narrative with personal anecdotes has provided some of the most intense and satisfying experiences of my life as a writer.
Working with George Miller on the early drafts of Happy Feet we were basically both telling each other the story of running away from the constraints of professional life – packing in medicine and joining the “Creatives” as represented by pop-song-singing oversexed Mexican dancing penguins.
Can you walk us through how you write a script from the original idea through to the finished product?
My own system is just to, first of all write everything on a card, and you sort of stick up all the cards on a cork board and then tell each other the story, backwards and forwards through all these events in the story until finally we get a plot that we like. Then I’d write out more detail about each of these component sequences. I always think that films are made up of three-minute blocks that you can sort of tell as little short stories, events in the film. So from the cards I go and write out each of these sorts of blocks as a sequence.
The other thing that’s bizarre in writing is that you can spend a month or two month with a script and not make it better, and you can completely turn it around in a couple of days. So that’s a very bizarre thing, you know, you’ve got to get.
Film is a different sort of medium from novel and plays. It’s immersive not contemplative.
The job of a film writer is to spin a yarn so compelling that it hijacks the viewer’s entire consciousness. Having done that you can get into the audience’s subconscious and plant ideas there without the subject realizing
I believe that when we write films we encode in them some message which is personal to us and people who watch that film decode the message and embrace it as their own.
How important is the collaborative process with other screenwriters? For instance your work on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
The interesting thing about these collaborations is that a bit like tennis or rugby, the interaction of two different minds creates something quite unpredictable and often substantially better than anything you could have produced on your own.
With Master and Commander for example I’m sometimes asked why we don’t have a woman in the plot. And the answer is that, in the early drafts, we actually did have a woman who seemed completely central to the story, but later proved redundant
In the novel “The Far Side of the World” on which the film is loosely based there’s a woman – the Gunner’s Wife – who comes aboard with her husband and has an affair with the ill-fated lieutenant Hollom. The wife gets pregnant by the lieutenant. She asks Dr Maturin to secretly do an abortion. He refuses because he’s a Catholic. The affair is revealed, the gunner is killed and Hollom commits suicide.
We’d actually written all of this into the script, over a period of three months, when Peter (Weir) rang up one day and said he thought we should chuck the gunner’s wife overboard. My first reaction was of total horror. Without the Gunners Wife we had no second act – she was central to the whole film.
And Peter said: “well yes that’s the problem. The important relationship is Aubrey and Maturin and she’s kind of stealing the show.” After sulking for a week I concluded that of course he was right and we rewrote along those lines.
Later, stepping back from the canvas to look at the big picture I had a sudden insight: Maturin is the woman! This is a movie about family life. Jack Aubrey is the adventurous authoritarian father. Stephen Maturin is the nurturing, contemplative mother. The crew are the unruly teenagers and Blakeney the cabin boy is the kid growing up trying to be like both his mum and his dad.
That line of Blakeney’s “is there such a thing as a fighting naturalist” is the key to the movie.
I told this to Peter who rather dislikes these facile analyses, mistrusts the three act structure and the whole theoretical, structural thing.
He thinks you kill a story by over-analysing. You should just write it as you dream it.
So he laughed and said: “Yeah maybe, have another coffee. Now where were we? I know – lets put in a that bit where the sea turns purple and the crew spots a whale!
By some extraordinary stroke of luck and against all logical expectation Happy feet and master and Commander both got made and both got nominated for Oscars, which is kind of what you’re always aiming for but also not really the point, because unless you’re enjoying the process of creation which may last years , then fifteen minutes of fame on the red carpet is hardly going to compensate.
Do you have any tips for budding film writers?
They say you should write about what you know but I think the rule is more: write about what you care about. And that often flows from your occupation.
I do believe writers should have another occupation – if not a profession then motherhood, voluntary work, whatever – something to keep them connected to the real world.
There’s a notion that writers wander around reading and pondering and observing the world but if you want to understand how the world works there’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty; for getting involved in the messy imperfect business of real life
It’s become possible nowadays for a writer to do most of their research on the internet rather than actually travelling, digging for facts, meeting people. A lot of our “experiences” are now second- hand via films and documentaries.
Indeed it’s quite common for films to be a sort of collage of other films rather than reflecting real lived experience.
Inevitably, when you’re copying a copy – the quality, the accuracy deteriorates.
I’m not saying we should just write about stuff we’ve done, but unless you DO stuff, your writing will never be authentic, never convince, never really resonate.
Any final words…
I think Cinema is the dream machine and we’re the guys who operate it. But what is the function of the dream machine? I believe that part of our job as writers is moral instruction.
I believe people go to cinema the same way they used to go to church in great numbers, not just to be entertained for two hours but to hear parables.
I believe one difference between bad, inconsequential films of all genres – horror films, kids films, dramas or musicals – is that bad films merely distract us for a couple of hours and good films transform us as people.
If a film doesn’t have the potential to transform its audience then it’s probably not worth making. If films are mere distraction I’m not interested in that business, we have enough distraction already
The problems we currently face – weaning ourselves off carbon, repairing the earth’s environment, promoting tolerance between races and religions, fairly distributing wealth and education, shifting the world from its ludicrous goal of continual expansion to some kind of steady state economy…. these are problems of baffling complexity and scale.
In this way the medium in which we work has the power to do immense good.