A day at the festival

Each May, the Sydney Writers’ Festival rolls around and I look at the program of events, highlight a few that interest me and then… do nothing about it. I realized the other day that the last time I went to the Writers’ Festival was in 2004 with school, (I’ve still got the ticket stub for it somewhere).
But this year, seeing how writing is what I want to do and what I love doing, what I’m passionate about, I thought that it would be beneficial – productive – if I went to something. So I consulted the program and chose three events that sounded interesting (there were others, but other factors had to be taken into consideration) and, as luck would have it, they were all on the same afternoon. I’m not going to go into the nitty-gritty details of each of the three events because it won’t mean anything, but I do want to make a few observations.
First: I remember a few years ago someone saying ‘never meet your heroes, they’ll only disappoint you,’ and I remembered thinking that you should never see photos of your favourite authors because the mental image you will’ve created of them is going to be the complete opposite of what they’re really like. But I also want to add another line to the old adage: just because someone can write effortlessly, faultlessly, beautifully, eloquently, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be good speakers. Sometimes I wonder if it’s just nerves or they’re unprepared for speaking in front of large numbers of people, but othertimes it’s just simply embarrassing, to listen for an hour to someone garble their way through the language they write with so hypnotically.

Second thing regards researching, and it’s something I’m only alltoofamiliar with at the moment. “Starting to dig is a fatal mistake,” Eileen Chanin said. “Once you start, you cannot stop; the more you dig, the more questions you have than answers.” And it’s true: you can never do too much research or run out of things to research: like a web, one thing will lead to another to another, tangent after tangent, and you have to keep reigning the scope in in in, bringing the focus back onto what you’re researching. Delia Falconer, whose book Sydney became my creative touchstone in the latter half of 2010, called research a mania, and I think that’s rather a succinct description. It possesses you, overpowers you, and you just cannot stop, the thirst for knowledge and new morsels of intrigue becomes overwhelming.

Third: when adapting literature (in any form) into a cinematic form, you should always consider the balance between faithfully adhering to the originating work and creating an engaging and invigorating piece of cinema. In what was an insightful and lively hour-long discussion, the three panelists talked about their experiences and the process of adapting work for the screen in general, and the tribulations and rewards of doing so. Also, the minute you start to read a book or a work to begin adapting it, you’re immediately looking to see what you can and can’t keep, what is crucial and or superfluous to the story, what needs to be seen and or spoken and what can be implied, what the central story in the original work actually is. I think it was Craig Pearce (co-writer of Strictly Ballroom, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!, and the forthcoming The Great Gatsby) who said that one of the best ways to learn about structure and dramatic storytelling is to read the many play texts that are considered classics (like Shakespeare, Chekhov, Moliere, Ibsen); they teach you the architecture of drama. It was also Pearce who said that one of the ways of learning the fundamentals of screenwriting, of beats and actions and throughlines and subtext, is to be familiar with Stanislavsky’s method. Besides bringing back many frustrating year eleven drama lessons, it also made a lot of sense: Stanislavsky was all about finding the truth of the action, breaking scenes into beats with objectives and outcomes, playing the objective to get what you want before moving onto the next beat, creating scenes from beats and actions; creating performances from a succession of beats and motives, from a strong decisive throughline. Perhaps one of the best questions I’ve heard in a while was at the end of this session: a fellow audience member asked if perhaps Baz Luhrmann’s Australia was a film that was looking for a good book. And as crazy as it sounds, I actually think Luhrmann’s Australia would make a rather decent book; not so much a novelisation, but an adaptation, whereby the screenplay is opened out into something like Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia – a story which, like the film, plays out on an epic scale across the continent and through many years.

The highlight of the day for me was walking between venues, seeing the crowds milling around under the grey bleak skies, rugged up in coats and scarves and parkas and raincoats, the kids running around hugging their favourite books to their chests, waiting with barely contained excitement to see Andy Griffiths, the number of authors and ‘famous’ people you see casually strolling around, the conversations you have with your fellow audience members. And at the end of it all, a gorgeous sunset over the harbour, the deepening inky blue-black sky of night dotted with the golden lights of the city, and the rain-slicked streets glistening and gleaming, like mirrors.

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