The second Writers Room for 2007 pulled a capacity audience with over 100 writers coming to hear iconic screenwriter Graeme Tetley (Vigil, Mr. Wrong, Ruby and Rata, Bread and Roses, Out of the Blue) speak about his career in the New Zealand film industry. Tetley shared experiences from his diverse and vast background in screenwriting, including his latest work, Out of the Blue, about the horrific Aromoana masacre of 1991. Hosted by fellow screenwriter Nick Ward (Stickmen, The Ferryman), Tetley revealed aspects of his personal writing process and how he has maintained his passion for screenwriting for over two decades.
A chance to write dialogue for Vincent Wards film Vigil gave Tetley his first break into the industry. Six feature film scripts later, he has worked on some of New Zealands most defining films and is one of the most respected screenwriters in our industry. It was this strong reputation that attracted the producers of Out of the Blue.
Tetley was drawn to the circumstances on a personal level. He saw the script as a means to describe a community that endured a tragedy and was forced, out of the blue, to come to terms with the deaths of children, friends and family. ‘I like writing about ordinary people and their heroism’.
Tetleys usual process of writing a story starts out by a series of images. One of the first things he did was visit Aramoana, gaining impressions of it as an isolated place, a dark place, and the people liking it like that; when they tried to put street lights in people shot them out. Images that stuck in his mind were of the memorial standing on a sobering plain, clearings at the beach, a big hill that loomed over the community adding to the sense of darkness when the sun went down in the west and it seemed to create a shadow over the whole of Aramoana. These images were the starting point for Tetley as he began to craft the story.
The story for Out of the Blue was developed using 158 stickies placed in lines over 3 hessian boards. Each line indicated a story strand and the boards illustrated where they intersected. Tetley believes treatments should be written after opening night and said, ‘One of the magic things with Out of the Blue was that I wasn’t asked for a treatment!’
Preliminary research was provided by Bill OBrien who authored a book on Aramoana soon after the tragedy. OBrien had met people, acquired police recordings and had very carefully researched the event. Tetley and director Robert Sarkies spent time amongst the community to discover characters. Tetley recalls staying in Mrs Dicksons crib and seeing a photo of Mrs Dickson with her arms around her son who was lost in the tragedy. Sarkies knew immediately that Mrs Dickson was to be a main character, Tetley was slower to decide, preferring to sit back and listen in the early stages, but he too soon agreed with Sarkies. ‘She was heroic, hugely heroic. Different to the square jawed, dimpled chin, big abs, big pecs, big everything hero. She was 70, had just had a hip done, had a flop of hair- and she was alive at the end of the story.’
Story strands began to build for Tetley. Along with Mrs Dickson there needed to be a police strand. Although not interested in making a SWAT story requiring lots of rigmarole Tetley appreciated the police angle. And although it was debated briefly in his mind, Tetley quickly decided David Gray himself must be a strand. Producers of the film Steve OMeagher and Tim White used the hessian boards to discuss plot with Tetley, and then decided to let him to go ahead and write the first draft, ‘and that’, said Tetley, ‘is the way you do a treatment!’
Truthful writing was important from the outset with Out of the Blue. ‘Fragment by fragment, we (Tetley and director Robert Sarkies) began building up what it was like on that night and we recreated it as truthfully as possible’, said Tetley. ‘It was felt a candid portrayal would help the audience understand the truth and reality of the event. It didn’t take us long to decide that we couldn’t rhapsodise this event – we couldn’t turn it into something that it wasn’t. It was about a sense of a place and we had to be true to that; a place that was beautiful and terrible.’
Quality research was crucial to ensure the story was told accurately. ‘Research is everything’, said Tetley, adding he would never want anyone else to research for him, because then you would miss the tiny little gems that can become scenes and then whole films.
Out of the Blue received much attention and a measure of animosity during development. ‘I’d never experienced anybody saying I don’t want to go to your film before but that happened a lot’. Tetley justified the project by noting that the Aramoana community is strong, one that banded together before the tragedy to defeat politicians and corporate business wanting to build a smelter there. ‘If they really wanted to stop us making this film they could have. Also some people gave their support, sharing their stories. It’s a question of responsibility, if someone asks you not to put their story in you don’t. A meeting was held with the residents of Aramoana and conditions were agreed upon: the name of the town wouldn’t be in the title; filming could be done somewhere else if residents decided real estate prices would be badly affected; the script could be viewed by two independent people in the community prior to shooting- and it was.’
Technically the script needs to inform a range of crew members for different purposes. Lighting and camera operators, costume designers and actors all depend on it. The script needs to include information about look and atmosphere in a concise manner, not being much more than 100 pages. The audience were treated to extracts read by Tetley to illustrate how to do this. He recalled Rob Sarkies reaction to a description of Aramoana in the early morning. How the hell do I film that?!
Though it was pulled from the shooting script the feeling of the scene permeates the whole first act of the film. Tetley added the script shouldn’t have technical references in it. To communicate without writing technically Tetley draws on two main techniques: point of view and angle on. Point of view was an important element in Out of the Blue; the whole film was based on it: the point of view of someone disappearing into insanity, the point of view of a frightened policeman, the point of view of a woman who doesnt know where her son is. By writing from their perspective an increased sense of reality could be achieved. Angle on is used to indicate when you want something close to the viewer, for example angle on the wick of a Molotov cocktail thats slowly dripping.
The role of the screenwriter has not been well celebrated in our local film industry but Tetley wouldnt want to play any other part. ‘I love writing. I love the sound, rhythm, music, visuals. I love that more and more I think a script can be beautiful in itself. It can be shaped and it can be elegant. There’s nothing else Id rather be doing.’
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