Of Wild Westerns, Caninne Reincarnation and All Things in Between…
The 2009 Writer’s Room series began in style with an evening of whimsical conversation seasoned with practical advice when international screenwriter Alan Sharp took to the stage with MC producer Philippa Campbell (Rubbings from a Live Man, Black Sheep, No. 2, Rain) to talk about his latest film Dean Spanley, the screenwriting life and to tell the occasional shaggy dog story.
Scottish novelist/screenwriter Sharp divides his time between New Zealand and Scotland and is best known for his screenplays of such American classics as The Hired Hand, Ulzana’s Raid and Night Moves.
The evening began with the showing of the trailer for Dean Spanley (directed by Toa Fraser and starring Peter O’Toole, Sam Neill and Jeremy Northam), a film which showcases Alan Sharp’s humour and talent.
Sharp is a natural storyteller, evidenced clearly as he regaled the audience with the story behind the making of Dean Spanley. Based upon a 1930’s novella by Irish occult writer Lord Dunsany, the film began its journey as a 50 page script Sharp wrote originally for television. ‘It’s an enchanting tale,’ said Sharp, ‘about the Dean of a college who was a dog in a previous incarnation.’
The tale’s whimsical nature had caught Sharp’s interest, even though this represented a departure from the more dramatic material he had worked with previously. The 50 page script sat around for a while until he re-wrote it to 70 pages. He enhanced the original story by adding plot and a new character, the elderly widower Horatio Fisk (played by O’Toole), thus melding the comedy with drama.
Sharp paid tribute to the film’s producers who supported the script and worked through all the obstacles and teething problems to secure director Toa Fraser and an excellent cast to create ‘a really lovely little flick.’ Sharp was intrigued by how well the processes of writing, directing and acting came together with Dean Spanley. ‘It’s beautifully integrated,’ he said, ‘and it’s not just a shaggy dog story. I can’t emphasize how much the acting caused a quantum shift. Actors are the most courageous people – I’m on the desperate edge of embarrassment for them. I’m quite happy in my little slot.’
Sharp had written novels and some television scripts before turning his hand to screenplays. Philippa asked if he ever imagined there would be so much ‘palaver’ when writing for the screen and he replied, ‘I just thought, ‘I can do this’ so I wrote three westerns and a couple of gangster movies and they got made. But if you’re a writer, you’re not really in it [the movie business palaver] – you’re on the outside.’
Sharp was very clear about his role as a writer. ‘I’ve no desire to be a producer,’ he said, ‘I have no skill in raising bucks’ and when asked whether he would change anything about his career so far he replied no, not a thing. ‘For writers just starting out, I would ask, ‘Do you like writing?’ If the answer is yes, I then say ‘just write, as much as you can’. It’s an excellent notion to get some wheels on your chariot. If there’s a story you like, just write it up and see how it feels. It’s not illegal until you do something with it.’
Sharp said he can write screenplays with relative speed, as compared to a novel, adding that there are not that many people writing totally original material. ‘You may as well copy,’ he said. He enjoys writing but admitted there are times when the writing process can be a real grind and offered a word of advice – ‘persevere’.
When it comes to agents, Sharp declared them a necessity. He has had three in his career and advises writers to secure their services because it is important to have someone negotiate on your behalf. ‘Agents are not interested in your creative process,’ he said. ‘If you have decent material, you’ll get an agent.’
Philippa opened up the floor for questions and Sharp was asked to name his favourite westerns. The Searchers, a 1956 western epic (recently named by the American Film Institute as the Greatest Western of All Time) directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, was top of his list.
When asked if a writer can create novels and films as well, Sharp replied that to date he has not been able to afford the time to return to writing a novel. ‘A novel requires you to take full responsibility for everything on the page. With a screenplay, there’s no point spending time describing the characters because you’ll have an actor – don’t describe their thoughts as you would in a novel. There’s also no point in describing landscapes and places. Screenwriters who think they are authors are mistaken – they should be directors. Personal and beautiful scripts are being written but I’m not comparing those with prose. A screenplay is a blue print. They only thing it really has in common with a novel are words.’
Sharp is well known for his adaptations. When asked if there are certain types of stories that work better as screenplays, he replied, ‘The better the novel, the harder it is to get a good screenplay out of it. A serious novel is very hard to bring to the screen. The writer has done a lot of work that belongs to the novel – for example, mood and tone – and it’s really not possible to repeat this in a screenplay unless the director can produce it visually. A second rate novel with a decent plot line and a couple of good characters is easier – then you have the chance to improve on it when you make a film. You can also make changes or invent things – for example, in Revolutionary Road, the character Leonardo (Di Caprio) plays is sitting on a park bench watching his kids at the end – in the book, he leaves them.’ Sharp added that historical characters often provide better material than present day because they ‘lived and died, create a strong narrative and are not dealt with so religiously that you can’t invent things.’
When asked to outline his work process, Sharp began by saying he does a lot of adaptations. His work is genre-based and usually adapted from books but some version of ‘existential melodrama’ is his preferred form. Sharp believes whatever you’re writing re-writing is crucial as is getting it finished. ‘I’m a great believer in the rewriting process and I’m all for getting into it and getting through to the end. Even if the ending is crap, that’s a vast improvement over not finishing.’ He does not work with story cards nor does he approve of the television process where a writer is asked to provide an outline and four drafts. ‘The storyline is almost like a promissory note and I don’t like that. My storylines are long, almost in prose and if they like it, then we almost have a first draft so I don’t see the point to outlines.’
Sharp thinks very little about his work being made into movies. ‘I want to work on something that interests me and then I step away. Waiting for things to get made, or hoping they do, is anticipation and anxiety, two very bad things for me. A few times I’ve taken on jobs and then I haven’t been able to do them – they think that with ruthless flattery you’ll get better but not so! I don’t get writer’s block. I get writer’s diarrhoea.’
His current project is a four hour miniseries revival of the classic Ben Hur. Now on his fifth draft, the aim is to begin shooting in August. He is enjoying the work. ‘I am not a visual writer – I write dialogue and don’t spend much time envisaging how things should look so I’m very sparing with camera instructions. I do try to write scripts that are very readable because a movie starts with the reader who will then visualise the picture. The less you know, the more you can imagine.’
Written by Jane Bissell for Script to Screen
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