From medical doctor to screenwriter, John Collee shares his secrets to Hollywood success at an exclusive AFTRS course.
Heading to a Masterclass with one of Australia’s most successful screenwriters, John Collee (Creation, Happy Feet, Master and Commander) at 9:30am on a Sunday, I’m relieved to discover an open coffee shop at EQ Moore Park. Once caffeinated I enter the ultra-modern Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), take a seat in the plush main theatre and notice Collee is already up the front casually shuffling papers.
Without any introduction he walks to the centre of the stage, “Thanks for giving up your Sunday to come and hear me talk. Before I begin with what I’ve planned, I’d like to know what you want to get out of today.” A vastly different opening to Robert McKee’s infamous “Story” seminar, which begins with “Get out right now if you’re doing this for the money” and “If your mobile phone rings you have to give me 20 bucks” (which he actually enforces).
What does everyone want to know? How to break into Hollywood.
He’ll get to that – the first thing Collee wants us to know, is that life experience is essential for any good writer. Since he gave years to the study of medicine and even more to its practice, he originally felt obligated to stick with it. But instead he transformed his life experience into a novel, Paper Mask, adapted it to a screenplay, and saw it produced into film in 1990.
Although he admits he learned his craft from McKee, he says he found all the structure overwhelming. His goal today is to distil the essence of Story principles, such as, “What am I going to contribute to society? What am I adding that’s different? What is the truth I’m arriving at?”
As the morning progresses I realise how innovative his approach to teaching is. He doesn’t focus on how to write a story, rather how it will be watched. Like when he teaches characterisation, he doesn’t talk inciting incidents, gaps and arcs; he describes the journey an audience makes from meeting your character, connecting to and merging with their desires.
Peppering his principles with real-life examples, none of Collee’s stories feel like name-dropping. He explains how he wrote Master and Commander in Peter Weir’s backyard tree house, with Weir insisting they ignore classic three-act structure. But when the script was completed, they found it actually conformed to the three-act standard. Proving his point that the best films start with a strong theme, and if you’re already a great storyteller (which he generously attributes to Weir), structure will instinctively follow.
In the afternoon break I had a chance for a quick chat. Even though we were seated on a floodlit stage amidst a shuffling auditorium, he was so friendly I felt like we were having a cuppa in his kitchen.
Have you ever taught before?
“No, I was nervous never having done it. At first I thought, ‘How am I going to fill six hours with the contents of my own head?’ Especially since the audience is full of writers.”
Why did you want to teach?
“I wanted to convey the simple principles of storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, I loved McKee, but after it seemed so difficult. I wanted to demystify screenwriting. I’m really only plugging three principles: 1) Use your own experiences authentically 2) Give it structure – a beginning, middle and end and 3) Make sure it has some enduring theme.”
I suggest that his films carry a dominant theme – someone who overcomes what is expected of them to live their burning desire – whether an animated penguin that shouldn’t be dancing or Charles Darwin trying not to write his revolutionary idea.
He chuckles, “There is a theory that you write the same story over and over.”
How have you found teaching?
“Very good. Energising. You learn as much as you teach. By trying to articulate the principles, it refreshes them for yourself – I get as much out of it as the audience.”
After the break, he’s joined on stage with Martin Brown, one of the country’s most successful producers (Strictly Ballroom, Romeo+Juliet, Moulin Rouge) and Head of The AFTRS National Open program. Brown reveals no one reads scripts anymore – he’s read his fair share of crap and everyone else in Hollywood feels the same. All you need is a good story and a great pitch. Collee provides an example based on a true story he read in the paper: “A guy is fed up with his surfer bum life and decides to eBay it – everything from his apartment to dead-end job. Surprisingly someone buys it. A stranger arrives in town and before long he’s better at living this guy’s life then he was, now the other guy wants his life back.” Collee says that will probably get you $40k to write a one-pager and if that’s good, then you start talking scripts. Where else could you get this kind of information unless your new neighbour invited you to a dinner party and you were lucky enough to be seated between these two guys?
Not many people with a passion for film can throw in their day jobs and enrol in full-time film school. According to Collee, you don’t need to. Collee takes his final question from the audience – would he approach his career differently with hindsight?
“You mean would I still study medicine? Yes, the most important factor for any writer is experience. Go and do something and write about it.” Perhaps the difference between Collee and McKee is Collee has written many successful Hollywood screenplays and you get the feeling he genuinely wants you to as well.
John Collee’s new project is the 3-D animated version of Walking With Dinosaurs currently in production at Animal Logic. He is also overseeing various projects in development at Hopscotch.
AFTRS Open delivers a range of courses in all areas of Film, Television and Radio in Sydney and in partnership with local organisations and cultural partners across the country. A selection of courses are now available on-line. Find out more here.