Briefly: Author of The Rosie Project. Former IT consultant. Filmmaker and screenwriter.
Hometown: Melbourne, Australia
How did you get your start in writing and filmmaking?
I read Joe Queenan’s book The Unkindest Cut about his experiences making a low-budget feature film, and decided to emulate him. I adapted an unpublished novel my partner had written, cast friends and family, and shot it on domestic video equipment. Thanks largely to the involvement of a professional cinematographer, it didn’t look as bad as it might have, and a professional producer who saw it commented favorably on the screenplay. A seed was planted… I sold my IT consulting business and enrolled in a screenwriting program at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia.
Which is the more strenuous process, novelizing a screenplay or adapting a novel for the screen?
It depends. Broadly speaking, screenplays – or at least mainstream screenplays – follow quite a tight, even formulaic, structure. Novels are more variable, so in adapting a novel, you may need to do a lot of thinking about how to re-shape it. In novelizing a screenplay, there are critical choices to be made about point of view and then the challenge is to add more of the character(s)’ inner worlds. There’s also room to add more story – in adapting The Rosie Project from a screenplay, I added another strand to the “who done it?” subplot and introduced more of DonTillman’s backstory.
What advice would you give to someone who’s looking to master both forms?
The same as I’d give to someone trying to master either form: mastery of any profession takes time! The world is full of aspiring writers treating it as a hobby – often because of the necessity of fitting it around a day job and family. But the number of people who get to the level where they can get films made or novels published is small; I’d guess there is a greater number of rocket scientists than successful screenwriters! I’d also advise people to get help, through mentorship, joining a writers’ group, and…or enrolling in a course.
That said, if you want to master both disciplines, my observation would be that they have a great deal in common: many of the story construction skills in particular are transferable. I started with screenwriting, and I’d suggest – particularly if you’re interested in writing popular fiction – that’s a good move, because screenwriting has a strong emphasis on story. Writing a novel is much easier if you’re working within the framework of a well-structured story. Conversely, great prose skills are of only limited value to the screenwriting process.
Some novels start off with a bang, while others take their sweet time to captivate the reader. What should someone who is adapting a wordy, prose-rich novel keep in mind when it comes to adapting it to the screen?
It’s a tough question, particularly when the wordy prose-rich novel is a classic. Screenwriters may want to capture (or not lose) the flavor of beloved prose: Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby is a recent example, with its typewritten excerpts on the screen.
My own philosophy is that they are two different media, and the best way of telling a story on the screen may differ substantially from that in a novel. In The Rosie Project, much of the humor comes from Don’s observations, many unspoken, but in his distinctive voice. In the screenplay, I’ve relied more on dialog and performance for the comedic aspect.
Let’s say that Graeme Simsion wakes up one day with a terrific idea. How do you determine which form it will best translate to?
By default, I’d write it as prose! That way I have full control and I’m likely to get published. A movie is a long risky process, with few guarantees. At the end you may have something truly wonderful, reflecting the contributions of a range of talented people, and I wouldn’t want to go through life without contributing to a few. But a novel is (almost) “all my own work”.
I think most stories that are suitable for—mainstream—filming are workable as prose. Not so much the other way around. The rules of novels are less restrictive, and, on the page, anything is possible.
It’s interesting that you play the harmonica. I don’t really know much about that instrument except that the player has to constantly use their fingers…how is playing the harmonica like writing?
Watch Bob Dylan playing the harmonica in a rack. His fingers are fully occupied playing the guitar. So, no fingers. I’m a lousy player but it’s largely about mouth / tongue / throat. I guess the way that playing music is like writing is that it’s a combination of technical skill, knowing what you’re trying to play, and the magic that comes from improvisation on the fly. I’m a planner when I write, but as I do the actual writing, I improvise. And, as with music, that’s a very satisfying feeling.
What’s by far the most helpful screenwriting books that you’ve ever read?
I’ve read literally dozens of books on the topic but Screenplay by the late Syd Field – perhaps partly because it was the first book I read on the subject – remains my first choice. Many later books owe a lot to Screenplay. It helped me write my first screenplay, and what I’ve learned from books since then has been incremental. Story by Robert McKee is deservedly seen as a classic in the field and I’d recommend that two.
What was the writing process like for The Rosie Project?
I wrote it first as a screenplay, over five years, as I learned the craft. The story changed massively – not least from drama to comedy. The only recognizable remains of the first draft are the personality of Don Tillman – his profession changed from physicist to geneticist – and one sequence: The Jacket Incident.
I always worked with a scene breakdown – more or less a beat sheet – as an outline, and when I did major revisions, I revised that breakdown as part of the process.
When I decided to re-tell the story as a novel, I used the scene breakdown as a starting point. I had to revise it first, because I was telling the story in first person – hence I couldn’t have scenes that didn’t include the narrator. Then I wrote the novel scene by scene. That gave me something a bit shorter than what I wanted, so I went back to the breakdown, introduced another strand and some backstory, then updated the manuscript.
Since a screenplay, a feature-length screenplay, is limited to 120 pages, whereas a novel can be up to, like, 1200 pages, do you feel less restrained when writing a book?
Not too many novels are that long, Proust excepted. And there are some very long art films! Realistically, most mainstream novels are within a reasonably restricted range. To be honest I don’t feel consciously restrained when writing in either form: you accept the limitations of that form and automatically work within them. There’s an implication that the stories told in films are shorter, but remember that a lot more can happen in parallel in a film: dialog, performance, setting, music are all communicating at the same time. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what value a moving picture, an subtle expression, evocative music, rain…
Do you think screenwriting courses and seminars and conferences, and contests are good investments for the novice?
None of these things will by itself make you a successful writer, but they will help by giving you theory, discipline, feedback and encouragement. Without my screenwriting course, The Rosie Project – and my career as a writer – would never have happened.
Walk to the Stars and The Candle are your next two projects. What else is next for you?
Currently I’m working on a sequel to The Rosie Project – we’re just about to start the editing process. I’ll have revision work to do on the screenplay for The Rosie Project and the usual bookshop events, interviews, and responses to bloggers! Maybe a sequel to Walk to the Stars – but that’s three years away!
Author Photo Credit: James Pendilis