Saturday 26 May 2012

Interview with Stephanie McCarthy

Stephanie McCarthy is a screenwriter, playwright and novelist, who lives in Adelaide. She is a long-serving committee member of the Australian Writers' Guild (SA), as well as a screenplay editor, a teacher of screenwriting, and a script assessor for the South Australian Film Corporation.

When I heard that Steph would be teaching a course on writing short films at the SA Writers’ Centre, I tracked her down and asked a few questions.

* Where were you born and where did you grow up? Tell us a little about your early life and school years.

Mine was an idyllic 1950s childhood in the fishing town of Port Lincoln, home of the serious tuna fishermen and the great white shark. Life was free and full of adventure... riding brumbies through sandhills, ocean fishing from dangerous coast-lines, pulling in ink-squirting squid under the lights of the jetty at midnight then selling them to the new immigrant Greeks in the morning, forming gangs in the scrub and fighting for territory with slingshots, wandering with my pet goat through the forest and amazing her with my far-fetched tales (captive audience), sailing all kinds of boats. We had no television, and every night at the table our family of four discussed the meaning of life and what we’d got up to during the day.
   All the way through school I was pretty ordinary with maths, but got good marks for my essays even though teachers constantly reprimanded me for playing fast and loose with the titles. However, I figured that as long as the reader was intrigued, the marks would remain high, and luckily my guess was good. 
Anti-war rally in Adelaide, 1971
   I was accepted into Flinders University during the heady days of the Vietnam War, and signed up for Prof Cherry’s drama course. I realised deep down I was a mediocre actress, but learnt a lot about theatre, writing critiques, and practical skills such as putting myself into a character’s shoes. Obviously this is crucial to being able to live, eat and breathe characters in the writing arena, and when I became pregnant I made the best decision of my lifestay at home, have a crack at being a Mum, and if I couldn’t perform, do the next best thing and write for performance. 
   During this time several of my long short stories were published in series form by a nationwide truckies’ magazine, and this kept bread on the table for some years and I’m still proud of those stories. Also, I devised a set of cryptic crosswords for kids which found their way into schools, and a book of plays for schoolchildren. Stagecraft in Action was published by Rigby and because my plays were actually in print I thought they must be top notch. Within the decade the bubble burst over that delusion! While the ideas have some merit, the plays themselves are dialogue heavy and not well crafted.

* How did you first become involved in writing screenplays?

By 1979 I was back at Flinders, this time trying for a Honours degree titled Writing for Stage and Screen. I won’t go into detail about this, because it forms part of what I want to share for the Short & Shiny Workshop, but in a nutshell I learnt the hard way to ditch unnecessary verbiage and concentrate on telling the story in images. To this day I still write too prosy and long though. 
   At Flinders I met and formed a lasting friendship with producer/director Craig Lahiff who was doing an MA in film. His forte was structure, mine was character and dialogue. The eighties drifted into view with all the opportunities that 10BA private investment offeredespecially allowing us to fail at times, but always to develop and learn. Craig and I collaborated with traveling far and wide location hunting and talking endlessly about the script at hand. 
   I became his assistant and script editor for his thrillers Coda (1987), Fever (1988), and Strangers (1991), and then co-writer for The Dreaming (1988), all experiences invaluable to my knowledge of film-making. I was always welcomed onto the sets during the shoots, and made to feel part of a team. I still think that Fever is a little gem of a movie, especially in its flawless balanced structure. But these types of horror/thrillers are not essentially my cup of tea. I’m drawn to character-driven dramas and comedies, and thrillers which need to be deeply psychological before they satisfy me.     The eighties were full-on busy with creative writing of all kinds, and I can’t believe I actually directed Jack Hibberd’s A Stretch of the Imagination for Come Out. My first solo screenplay was The Honey Tree, optioned by first-time co-producers from WA who couldn’t make it fly. Then I sent it to John Honey from the Tasmanian Film Corporation. He rang to say he wanted to option it, but within the week the Liberals got into power and eliminated the Tassie Film Corp in one fell blow.
   Later in the eighties I wrote a children’s series for the ABC called Goldspinner, and that was a joyous process with some really lovely moments realised exactly as I’d envisaged. Soon afterwards Sydney ABC scooped children’s production from Adelaide, so yet again we here became the poorer cousins.
   The Australian Childrens Television Foundation funded my TV series Tomorrow’s Journey, which later became the movie screenplay Ghost Train optioned by Craig Lahiff. Because of a legal spat with the SAFC neither got legs, but I must say that was a long time ago and since that time the SAFC has supported me and my work to an amazing extent, and has employed me many times as assessor. 
   In recent years Mario Andreacchio as producer/ director got together with me to redevelop TJ as Desert Train. Mario was finally forced to relinquish it due to being overcommitted, and so DT still languishes in a drawer to this day. That hurts. Try not to think about it too much.  

* Most wannabe screenwriters live for the day when they can see their name on a movie poster. You first managed that back in 1988 with the movie The Dreaming. What are your memories of writing and making that picture

Kangaroo Island
The writing of it was fun, with John/ Josephine Emery as my co-writer. We mostly worked separately, always liaising with the producer, Craig Lahiff. Rob George also improved the script. When Craig became unwell, he hired a director to lessen his load. I went over to Kangaroo Island to watch the process, and we flew in a helicopter over the rugged coastline, the camera dangling beneath. 
   All very exhilarating, until I started watching the shoot. The words and pictures didn’t seem to resemble much what the writers had written, and my enjoyment evaporated fast, especially when I saw in the first screening that the hired director had included his name as co-writer. This happens increasingly to this day, and it’s just as wrong as it was back then. Cheeky and wrong. I’m proud of the first 20 minutes of this moviethat’s all. Josephine chose a nobler course than me, taking her name off the credits. 

* You’ve written books, radio plays, stage plays and screenplays. Which form of writing do you find most satisfying and why?

Perplexing question. This is like comparing my liking for chocolates (books) and lemons (screenplays), mangoes (plays) and crusty bread (radio dramas). 
   My books have given me the most rewards in terms of feedback from readers young and old, and in preserving what and how I wanted to say in the first place. 
   By contrast screenplay is a brutally tough process which nearly always involves a team often bristling with egos. It can make you sour and despairing, but for some reason I stubbornly persist and have nearly got to the line several times. 
Bakehouse Theatre
   Stage playsnever really made it to the big time here, although my one-actor play Frank’ll Kill Me sold out for three nights at the Bakehouse Theatree, and Bird in the Camellia Tree nearly won me a workshop in Banff. 
   Radiothis turned out to be financially rewarding on more than one occasion, and emotionally satisfying too. Unlike film, radio production happens faster, and while the writer is required to perhaps reduce length of play and tweak here and there, the finished product happens in months and usually great actors (who don’t mind a quick detour from their otherwise frenzied stage and film careers) take part. 
   My first radio play Out of Mind was produced by the ABC here in SA, and producer Keith Richards kindly accepted my input in the entire process. Out of Mind was a co-winner in the Ian Reed radio play competition, and I continued to be employed on an ad hoc basis by the ABC as ‘manual effects officer’, a job which I thoroughly enjoyed for some years. Then followed a series of competition wins with the BBC World Service, which provided instant rewards with stunning productions and a nice fee plus novelty prizes including a broadband radio.    

* You’ve been a member of the SA Committee of the Australian Writers’ Guild since 1982. What would you like to see the AWG achieve in South Australia?

For many decades we have been gratefully dependent upon the SAFC for much of our funding, and within that we ran courses for emerging writers, masterclasses, conferences etc. 
SA Film Corporation
Then we felt we were perhaps becoming too dependent upon the SAFC, and were not producing the events we as a committee felt were most beneficial to our community of writers. Lately we have become an autonomous group of volunteer committee members who integrate their skills and give their time into organising events and opportunities for writers at all levels. 
   Networking face-to-face and gaining confidence are key to providing support to the generation of film-makers to come, and in particular giving performance writers a sense of where they fit in this community and how they might slot into a creative team. 
   The newly-structured committee has been rejuvenated and has already initiated a series of high profile events and courses. I personally keep learning from the dynamic members of this ever-changing and evolving committee, and love the present freewheeling set-up with the inspiring Andrew Bovell at our helm. We’ve reclaimed our raison d’Ä—tre.

* What do you think are the AWG’s responsibilities toward unproduced screenwriters? (Should the AWG seek to assist wannabe screenwriters develop their skills, or is that an issue for the individual?)

It’s the teacher in me I guess, that I’ve always felt the urge to share with new-comer wannabe screenwriters what I’ve learned over the years, to fast-track their journeys if they’re willing to take advice. Perhaps this is the main reason why I’ve stayed doggedly in the SA Committee for so longto urge the fostering and nurturing of new (not always so young!) writers, as well as providing them with as much interaction with others in the industry as possible.

* If you could recommend just one screenwriting advice book to a newcomer in Adelaide, what would that book be?

Haven’t read a lot of books on screenwriting, but been to several courses and conferences, and found Linda Seger’s Making a Good Script Great very helpful. 
   Basically most such books teach rules of structure and plot etc, then point to those films which have successfully or unsuccessfully broken those rules. As WW2 ace Douglas Bader said, ‘Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men’.

* What are three things you wish someone had told you about screenwriting?

1. Use images to show rather than dialogue to tell.
2. Allow your characters to drive the story.
3. Make every word (especially dialogue) justify its place in the script.

* What’s next for Stephanie McCarthy?

Have just devoted three years of my life writing what I believe to be an important political biography. Meantime pretending to be patient while producer Scott McDonald and director Nick Matthews fight to get my psychological thriller Mary Mary over the line. 
   Now that I’ve finished the biography, I’ve resumed the search for the perfect producer for my family comedy A Matter of Size
   As invited guest speaker I occasionally share my experiences with groups of creative writers young and old, or I act as one-on-one script editor with someone new to the game. 
   A quirky gift book I’ve created has gone into reprint and is now selling from shops and galleries all over Australia, and so this nifty little business keeps me feeling as if I’m at last contributing a regular trickling income into the family coffers. 
   Unless I lose my marbles completely, I don’t plan to retire until I’m actually being dissected by a med student in the Uni lab. Even then I’ll probably strike up a conversation with the scalpel wielder about what good movies he or she has seen lately.

* What are your ten favourite movies of all time?
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Mystic River (2003)
The Piano (1993)
Every one of these films, including the comedies which annoyingly are rarely taken seriously, has left me pondering the human condition. The characters always learn something, the images are unforgettable, the plots full of surprises. Spellbinding and addictive, they remind me of why I keep plugging on in the film industry.

Stephanie McCarthy will lead a seminar on Writing Short Film at the  
SA Writers' Centre (2nd Floor, 187 Rundle Street) on Saturday June 16, 2012.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

Stephanie McCarthy seems to be a modest screenwriter, I didn't know they existed! Oops, sorry everyone.

She gives generous responses in an in-depth interview. Makes me want to chase up some of her radio plays.