Books at MIFF 2013: turning out for The Turning
by: Mark Poole

Screen Hub
Monday 29 July, 2013

Robert Connolly wil mastermind the information flow about The Turning very carefully. This stage is mostly about negotiating the rights with Tim Winton`s people so that respect and goodwill outweighed the power of cash.

Books at MIFF for 2013 kicked off with a panel discussion of the evolution of Tim Winton’s The Turning, to be premiered at the film festival. The discussion was led by roving reporter Sandy George, and the panel consisted of producer Robert Connolly, publisher from Penguin Ben Ball, and directors Rhys Graham and Jonathan auf der Heide, who each made one of the short segments that comprise the film.

Books at MIFF is co-ordiinated by Catriona Mitchell and is in its seventh year of operation. It aims to provide a bridge between book publishers and producers by hosting round table sessions and one on one opportunities, as well as a catalogue of works available for adaptation to the big or small screen. Books at MIFF is supported by Screen Australia and Film Victoria, and the catalogue contains details on works suitable for both film and television.

As Robert explained, The Turning is three hours long and contains adaptations of 17 short stories from Tim Winton’s best-selling book of the same name. Each segment was made by a different team. Robert said that initially he told the teams that he would be culling them from 17 to 12, but the standard was so high he decided to include all of them in the final cut.

Clearly, to screen a three hour feature poses a challenge for cinemas, and Robert’s release plan is to screen the film initially over a two week period in the major cities, in an evening session that will straddle two session times, with an interval halfway through the film.

As moderator Sandy George explained, the production model was an audacious way to adapt such a fabulous book, which has already sold many hundreds of thousands of copies and is one of Australia’s most successful compendiums of short stories. Robert hopes to capitalise on the book’s success.

Connolly decided to approach seventeen different directors to ask if they would like to adapt one of the short stories in `The Turning`. Early on his idea was to have all the different segments produced by the same crew, but this changed into each director working with the producer and production team of their own choosing. That simplified production, with Connolly providing an overview of the entire production.

As Jonathan and Rhys attested, while making their part of the film they had little idea what the other teams were doing. In post production Robert would come in and ask for changes if he felt they were required.

Connolly explained how he chose this particular work. “I read all of Tim Winton’s books as of all the Australian authors, Tim ‘s work was the most familiar and real to me. `The Turning` was a volume I kept returning to, keeping a copy in the office and delving into it from time to time, and I decided that it was the one I wanted to adapt.”`

Connolly went to Tim’s agent, Jenny Darling, and said that he wanted to option The Turning on the basis that he would do something experimental with it. At the time, there were a number of options over some of the stories in the book, so he had to wait until they expired.

Apparently, Tim Winton felt that there was a ‘lunacy’ to the request that surprised and intrigued him. “He couldn’t quite get his head around what we were planning to do, but the fact that it was so ‘out there’ appealed,” explained Connolly.

Asked about costs, Robert explained that he couldn’t go into details, but described his economic argument as being that Arenamedia is a small company who couldn’t pay a lot, but on the other hand he offered a strong possibility of getting it made. He pointed out that his experience with Romulus My Father was that the film generated as many sales of the book as had been sold beforehand.

Ben Ball, Publishing Director of Penguin General, Tim Winton’s publisher, explained that what has to be paid for the rights to a book depends on a lot of factors. “It’s a competitive situation,” he told the audience. “If Hollywood, the UK and Australia are all knocking on your door for the rights to a particular work, that’s one thing, but sometimes we would prefer to work with a smaller company who are going to put their hearts and souls into the project to get it done.” He agreed with Robert that at the end of the day, for the publisher the economic benefit is for the film to be actually made so that it generates more book sales.

Robert added that in selecting the 17 directors to adapt the stories in `The Turning`, his brief was that they had to make a personal response to the work instead of trying to slavishly represent it on the screen.

“Each of the stories are quite staggering on their own,” said Rhys Graham. He chose Small Mercies, which he described as ‘massively muscular’ and had so many ways of accessing it in a filmic sense. “It’s about people trying to find connections and exploring the repercussions of grief.”

Jonathan auf der Heide was inspired to hear from Robert Connolly, as he had read his white paper on the industry some years earlier, and was intrigued by the way he was approaching the adaptation of `The Turning`. For him, the landscape was an important element in the short story he chose to adapt, and it had similar theme to his feature Van Diemen’s Land. “In both, the landscape represents what’s going on with the main character.”

When Sandy suggested that Robert had told her he gave the directors complete control, Rhys joked that Connolly had been on set the entire time. Jonathan said he was largely left alone until the edit, when Robert came in and suggested he rework the cut. “So I went back, and the project is a lot better for it,” said Jonathan.

“You knew that your segment had to have some relevance to the rest of the film, and so it was vital to have Rob’s input,” added Rhys.

Asked if he felt ‘weighed down’ by the challenge of adapting Tim Winton, auf der Heide said, “The book is so beautifully written and detailed and authentic that it was an exciting opportunity. And you know that if it’s Tim Winton everyone will be watching what you do, but as a filmmaker that’s what you want – an audience waiting and ready to see it.”

Rhys admitted that he found it daunting initially, and said there was a section of prose at the beginning of his short story that he liked the most and wanted to incorporate somehow, until he realised it was impossible.

Ben Ball echoed that thought. “You have to recognise that it’s a film, which is a whole other experience. Once you form a bond of trust with the people doing the adaptation, you have to let them do it.”

Ben explained that Penguin are gearing up to publish an ebook version of `The Turning` to coincide with the film release. “We like to see the book as part of marketing for the film, so we will get it out slightly ahead of the film, but there is a cross promotion between the book and the film.”

Claire Dobbin, the Chair of MIFF, thanked the panel for an inspiring session about an amazing, landmark project which will help to launch the careers of a lot of filmmakers, thanks to Robert Connolly’s inspirational approach. “When there is a film tie-in, the book sells more copies, and when books sell more, audiences increase, and all of it benefits Australian culture, which is what Books at MIFF is all about.”
Mark Poole

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