Well known writer and director Michael Rymer gave an inspirational talk to the Australian Writers’ Guild.
He is one of very few Australians who have managed to build a career straddling Australia and Hollywood. His film Angel Baby (1995) won a truckload of AFI Awards, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay, and it also won a Writers Guild of America award for Best Original Screenplay.
As Michael told us, his career began by getting into the University of Southern California Film School, where he studied writing under Robert McKee, and learnt the principles of drama according to Aristotle. He then did a two year course in acting, where he learnt a lot having classic plays and films scripts read and workshopped.
He returned to Australia and sold his first script to Roadshow, Dead Sleep in 1992. However for Michael this became a learning experience in why it’s sometimes better to keep control of a film yourself. So when he wrote Angel Baby a few years later, he was determined to hold onto the directing reins.
The critical success of Angel Baby allowed Rymer to return to the US where he directed Queen of the Damned (2002), which he told us was another learning experience. Since then he has directed a number of television projects, including seven pilots of television series, three of which got picked up by a network.
Rymer became involved in Battlestar Galactica, directing numerous episodes of the sci-fi TV series, and working closely with writer-producer Ronald D. Moore as a producer on the show. He is also credited as the writer of two episodes. He said however that being a writer in series television is being at the bottom of the totum pole.
Lately he has been back in Australia making the low budget feature Face to Face, an adaptation of a play by esteemed playwright David Williamson. To Rymer, the play was brilliantly crafted and he believed it would be an excellent basis for film that was based on the text rather than on action sequences or special effects.
“I came across this play by David Williamson which I read and loved. I thought it was like Twelve Angry Men which was also based on a play, a film by Sidney Lumet. I mde a deal with David that he could co-produce, and I did a very minimal adaptation of it,” he told us. “I put in the flashbacks rather than monologues describing the flashbacks. Robert Altman had come to USC when I was studying there, and he showed a film he’d made from a play without writing a script, so I knew it was possible.”
For Michael, Face to Face is wonderfully written, a beautifully crafted piece of writing. However they got knocked back by all the funding bodies. “They said it’s a play, not a film. I said not a film like Twelve Angry Men? They said that was different, it was famous.”
Michael raised the $300,000 budget and shot it over 12 days using people new to their roles on the crew, using Canon digital SLRs. And despite the low budget nature of the project, Rymer was able to put together a stellar cast.
“I called up two weeks before and said hey, if you’re not working in the next two weeks, it’s not going to prevent you from taking that Hollywood job. Don’t try to hook your actors up too soon,” he counselled.
“They understood that we were doing it very low budget. We gave them a very generous profit share. They all said yeah right, whatever. If it had caught fire at the box office we could have got our budget back. And it’s not over. I’m hopeful of doing a television sale and I hope I’ll be able to return the investor’s money.”
They shot at the Trades Hall in Carlton and used a little bit of fill lighting but basically used available light. “We actually used a Canon 1D,” he told us. “You can shoot a film at a resolution that you can project in a cinema. We did a test screening at the Astor with their 4k projector and we were blown away by the quality.”
He mentioned that most of the budget went in post production, but there’s a way of doing that yourself using Apple’s Colour program.
Rymer explained how he edited Face To Face over a six month period, doing test screenings amongst friends and some filmmakers, using Final Cut Pro and the editor, so it didn’t cost a lot of money. The process was very valuable particularly in recutting the beginning, to work out how to begin the film. He described how it originally began with the main action sequence of the film, and then cut to the meeting room, but he found it worked better to start in the meeting room and then cut to the action.
“I just did a $9 million pilot in the States which didn’t get picked up,” he told us. “I had a four day director’s cut, which is ridiculous because editing is the cheapest part of it. It’s the tiniest bit of money, but sometimes there isn’t a filmmaker’s sensibility amongst the production executives to know that you can explore the footage and come up with the best cut if you have the time.”
He cited Orson Welles’ description of directing as ‘presiding over accidents.’ He said that he likes to leave room for changes during shooting, as he has learnt that it’s often difficult to predict in advance what material are crucial and what could have been omitted. He said that with Face To Face, he trimmed back the play a little for the screenplay, but preferred to shoot most of it and then trim the material back in the edit.
He described how filmmaking has become harder since he commenced in the industry years ago, and it was harder then than it had been twenty years earlier. “There is so much competition for people’s scant attention spans, and so your project has to really stand out from the crowd,” he said.
“We don’t have a finance deficit these days,” he said, “we have an attention deficit. It’s so much harder getting people’s attention these days. People have less time and it’s harder to get people to notice something. The pressure now on getting an idea that will grab people is so much more intense.”
“When I was breaking in as a filmmaker the worlds of the Scorseses didn’t exist any more. When I came out of film school, the studios would develop thirty scripts a year and pay lots of money for them. Now they don’t do that at all. I think we’re very lucky here that we have the funding available for development the way we do. It provides some focus for writers to get a draft done.”
Rymer said that in Australia, here writers have a little more control over their project, because in order to go to a funding body you have to have found a producer who loves their screenplay, someone who is willing to put in all the time and effort to package it and do the hard slog that will get it funded. “It is a very very hard slog to get that funding. It’s not easy for anyone. But at least here you can call that producer up from time to time and find out how it’s going. In Hollywood once you’ve sold a script, you can forget it.”
Although he acknowledged that the ultimate goal of most filmmakers was to have their film projected in a theatre in front of an audience, he pointed out that if a writer wants to develop their craft by doing lots of writing, they might be better off looking towards television. “I have been directing seven hours of television a year,” he said, “and as a feature film director I’d never be able to do that.”
Hopefully you can land in a show you’re really proud of. “We’re in a golden age of television right now. And the quality of television is very high. The difference between TV and film used to be very clear – say the difference between The Love Boat and the French Connection was quite dramatic. But now, if you are channel surfing it’s harder to see what is television and what is film.”
“In Australia we have a great reputation for creating directors, and cinematographers, and now actors – about half the working actors in Hollywood seem to be Australian right now. But for some reason that’s not the case with our writers.”
Michael talked about his experience writing Angel Baby in Australia, and how its strength as a screenplay enabled him to direct the project. “It was a really good screenplay, a really good read,” he said. “You’ve got to write something that’s a great read. It’s got to move, it’s got to be original and it’s got to surprise people because the person reading your script has just read fifty others.”
Michael added that as a person who reads a lot of screenplays, the reader is desperate for some sense of voice, point of view, something fresh, for something that they haven’t read before. “You don’t want to get the feeling that oh really, it’s going to be yet another one of those where the boy gets the girl, wins the competition. Those are the ones that are disheartening that follow the formula. You can also follow the formula and subvert it along the way but I’d much rather read something that had ambition and doesn’t work but could be fixed and made to sing, than one that is dead on arrival that has no ambitions.”
With Face To Face, one thing he discovered was that if you don’t have a distributor involved from the outset, it becomes more difficult to acquire one later, as they all have their own local fare that they’ve invested time and money in over the years. Why would they ditch one of their existing films from their schedule to screen yours?
“A lot of distributors really liked it,” he added, “but they’d already paid for a half a dozen other Australian films. They’d paid real money and got behind these other films. What are they going to do? They’ve got a jammed schedule and can only release a certain number of films a year. Are they going to dump one of their babies to pick up this film?”
He said that he’d learnt it was very important to try and lock in one of these distributors early in the process, so they would support the film and be committed to its release when it was finally made. “Get them emotionally involved, hopefully get them to put in some money. And the same with international sales agents.”
Asked about online distribution, Michael told the audience that he’d done extensive research into models of online distribution and he can say with some confidence that it’s definitely the future, but it’s not there yet.
“The film business is contracting, very much like the music business,” Rymer said. “There’s less money, audiences have shrunk and there’s pirating and so on. It’s much harder for the studio and they want to risk less as their margins are lower. They don’t have the slack to say you know what, this is going to be a tough sell but you know what we’re going to go for it. We’ve got the Net but nobody’s found a way to monetise it yet. There are specific examples where people have made money on the internet, even on YouTube, but overall it’s not yet there.”
Michael said that Face To Face was looking at the long tail economy where you get back little bits of money over a long period of time. “We’ve retained the rights in the educational markets and we’re going to have a theatrical release in Toronto, and we’re going to get the restorative justice community to put on a premiere, we’re going to access the television rights and the digital rights etc.”
He concluded that David Williamson had been happy with the Face To Face model and wants Rymer to turn another one of his plays into a film. This one will be more marketable, and with the experience of Face To Face behind them, it may be more commercially successful too. “I want to keep doing them. If we could just break even on this one that would be a win.”
First published on Screen Hub.