Ross Grayson Bell, creative producer of ‘Fight Club’ and new Head of Screenwriting at AFTRS spoke to a packed room of industry professionals and industry hopefuls about screenwriting, Hollywood, and a few tidbits about ‘Fight Club’.
Ross believes that it’s an exciting time in Australian cinema, and that the change is coming from screenwriters. Although it will be about five years until this transfers to the screen, “I think there’s a quantum shift happening now.” He cited Saw, Mao’s Last Dancer and Tomorrow When The War Began as examples of the optimism returning.
The average domestic box office for Australian films over the past ten years has been just 4.7%. Ross asserts that something’s gone wrong and that something should be done about it. “We make a lot of kitchen sink dramas, social realism, incest, suicide, drug addiction movies. Which is fine, those films. I’m not here to put them down. But that’s all we make… we’re not making all these other films. Action films, comedies, underdog stories, where’s Australia’s Full Monty? We’re not making anything of this spectrum.”
Instead, we should be looking at films like The Sixth Sense, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Inception, Jaws, The Hangover, Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. None of these concepts have national or cultural boundaries, but do have strong concepts.
He also encourages filmmakers towards book adaptations as they make three to four times the box office of original concepts. AFTRS have sponsored a study into the phenomenon.
By comparing the trailers for Date Night and I Love You Too, he was able to demonstrate the power of an extremely clear, concise concept.
Although he admits that not all movies need that kind of concept, he believes that they do have to hook an audience in seconds. He compared selling movies to selling apples. At
the markets, “films have to be moved like every other commodity… That’s not to say you shouldn’t be artists…They won’t keep giving us money if we keep making movies that lose money.”
AFTRS have worked to discover the four ways to engage an audience – concept, premise, character, structure.
The concept “usually has irony, a clash of cultures or a clash of worlds, the potential for danger and drama… You can do an incest movie, but why do the obvious version of it? You could reinvent it and put it in space. I’m not advocating that necessarily. There are all these ways that we can think bigger.”
The premise should pose an argument, for or against. In Fight Club for example, the premise is that you have to break yourself apart to create something new. It could have been done in any genre. “The concept that makes it unique is that they’re the same person.”
When Australia gets concept right, it’s phenomenal – Crocodile Dundee was a romcom that became the 15th most successful film of all time. Priscilla, Strictly Ballroom, Mad Max and Babe provide further examples.
Character was too broad a topic to be fully discussed in the forum, but film was compared to a rollercoaster, “kept in the air by structure”. Hollywood is obsessed with structure, as the audience must be confident of “being taken on an emotional journey and being delivered to the other end.”
Ross had returned to Australia ten years ago and tried to gain funding for a project. His experience led him to believe that the system was “closed, parochial and provincial.” Now, “they’re talking the same talk” as him, “keen to create a commercially viable film business.”
He believes that “Saw has changed everything,” and he doesn’t believe that they’d miss it today. It no longer has to be My Brilliant Career to get funded. Mao’s Last Dancer for example, has nothing to do with being Australian. “In the US, they don’t talk about American films. They talk about films…We’ve moved on from Australian stories.” It makes increasing sense for Australian writers to collaborate with colleagues from other cultures.
With the success of films like District 9, he doesn’t believe that Australian accents are a concern anymore. If they love it in the US, “they’ll buy the remake rights.” Besides, we have many successful film stars who are capable of getting films financed.
Most importantly, Ross asked that people remember that nobody knows anything. Nobody wanted Fight Club. Nobody wanted The Hangover.
His advice to writers is to become “entrepreneurial artists,” to be self-supporting and consider their trade in new ways – by creating webisodes for example. Writers need to build their own brand. Author Matthew Reilly self-published his first book, and when a publisher read it and called the number in the book, he found Matthew’s mother on the line instead of an agent. Scriptwriters have to learn to stand out, a trait which Australians culturally shy away from.
He also encouraged writers groups. “It’s a business based on relationships and contacts and who you know.” Martin Scorsese has worked with the same editor since film school. “The person you’re sitting next to could be the next great director.”
People should also learn more about films and filmmakers and see the steps they took in their careers.
To get your script read? Have a great logline. People don’t have time to read scripts, so
he suggested recording it on tape or staging readings and sending out invitations. Something could also be created for it on the internet. “Create a buzz. Take away the risk.”
John Collee says that if you can’t say it in three sentences, you haven’t got your story. Test your story out on people and see when their eyes glaze over. Your job is to engage the audience.
Also, you should partner with someone more famous than you are. You can get to anyone on the planet if you’re committed enough. If Toni Collette joins a breast cancer foundation, then become a part of that foundation. It’s a little self serving, but if you believe it…” You should also “pay attention to the people around you. The assistants, the gatekeepers, are your friends. Become their allies.”
He also suggested attending courses, workshops and reading scriptwriting books.
“Hollywood is about wish fulfillment. It’s a dream factory…audiences want to get out of their lives and go to a special place on a Friday night.” Australia is very much realism in comparison. “We’re not covering the market… We haven’t had a good comedy for a long while…Think about what could be the exact opposite of [what you’re creating]. Could that give you the freedom to create something bigger, a little more unique?…There’s more than one way to tell a story.”
Ross’s personal big break came when he arrived in LA in 1989 for a holiday, with work as an assistant director on two Australian films under his belt. He began interning for Roger Corman. With nowhere to stay, he took to sleeping in the office. One morning, he overslept and was discovered there by Corman. Ross explained his situation and was told to “‘Get up, go wash your face. Come and see me.’ So I thought I was busted.”
He was asked to write a scene by scene breakdown of Lethal Weapon. He’d read maybe four scripts at that time and didn’t know what he was doing, but by doing the breakdown, he began to learn about structure.
On delivery, Corman told him he wanted him to write a treatment for buddy movie in a similar vein. When Corman read it, he called RCA Colombia and they said they’d buy it. “He turned to me and said, here’s $3,000, write me a screenplay. Within 4 months, I was a produced screenwriter in the US…I never wanted to leave Australia and make Hollywood films but there was an opportunity there.”
When it came to Fight Club, nobody wanted it, which led Ross to conclude that “the only thing that gets your film made…is commitment. Talent is subjective. Who knows really what is talent?…It’s the ability to keep going.”
When reading the book, the middle section was very bleak and the characters were burning themselves with cigarettes and so forth, but as he kept reading and reached the reveal, it was “like going along the surface and then the trapdoor opened.” It gave more significance to everything when the reader realized in was all in the character’s imagination.
Despite all the no’s, Ross retained his burning desire to make the film. He got a group of actors together for a read through which took five hours, and then for weeks, they would rearrange, remove, and make internal monologue external. “Anyone could have optioned it over that 2 months,” but they eventually got the story down to 50 minutes, at which point he rented sound recording equipment and made a tape. Although it didn’t sound professional, he sent it to Laura Ziskin. She played the tape in the car on her way to her holiday home. When she arrived, she called and told him he had a producing deal. By taking this path, Ross believes that he “took away risk by showing what the movie could be.”
The next step was getting a director. Their short list consisted of Bryan Singer, Danny Boyle, David Fincher and Peter Jackson. He called Jackson in Wellington and said that he was coming to New Zealand. Could they meet? Ross booked a ticket and appeared at the office where he was told that Jackson was busy. When he explained the situation, he got a call five minutes later to say that Jackson would meet with him. Sadly however, he never ended up reading the script. Later, when Fincher appeared in Variety as being the director, Jackson sent Ross a letter in which he said he wished he’d read it sooner.
With Fincher locked in, and Ross thoroughly familiar now with the material, a draft script was delivered. The ending didn’t feel right. Ross had studied Economics at Sydney University, including the Marxist perspective of capitalism and the restructuring that capitalism goes through. He particularly studied what would happen if all of the debtor nations got together and decided not to pay. The result would be the collapse of Western civilization. Using this philosophical underpinning, Ross suggested that at the end of the film, they blow up the credit card companies. Chuck Palahnuik liked the change so much that he wanted to change the ending of his book.
When casting, Brad Pitt wanted to play Ed Norton char. “You want to play the everyman? Ok Brad, who are you going to fantasize about being? Tom Cruise?”
From book to finished film took just two and a half years, with the shoot taking place over 130 days. They used the traditional three act structure. Ross noted that “Christopher Vogler was the reader who said don’t make Fight Club but now lists it among the films he’s worked on.
The film cost $75m and made $38m at the box office. With half of the profit going to the studio, and $35m as an advertising loan (on 24% interest), Ross had been advised that the film will never be in profit.
– Anne Richey