Thursday 31 January 2013

Interview with Linda Aronson

Linda Aronson is an English-born, Australian playwright, scriptwriter, comic novelist and screenwriting theorist. She worked for some years on a D.Phil in late nineteenth century fiction at Oxford university but later abandoned it to become a full time writer. Her book, The 21st Century Screenplay, is the leading text on how to write non-linear films. She teaches screenwriting to professionals everywhere, and has just returned from a six-month speaking tour of Europe, which culminated in an appearance at the London Screenwriting Festival.
    She's a tough lady to pin down. I've been chatting with her about doing an interview for the last twelve months. When we finally synchronised our schedules, Linda proved to be warm, generous and articulate. Here is the substance of our discussion.

•  Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I'm a seventh generation Londoner, born within the sound of Bow Bells, so I'm officially a Cockney, though my father was Scottish. When I was very young, there was a whooping cough epidemic. My older brother and sister became ill and our parents decided they needed to get us out of London. So I grew up in an outer suburb, in Essex.
    I went to Grammar School in Essex. Then, in 1968, when I was 18, I went off to Northern Ireland to study at the University of Ulster

•  Why Ulster?

I wanted to get out of London. I found growing up in the suburbs of London very claustrophobic and I wanted to taste the world.
   The establishment of the University of Ulster in 1968 was one of the triggers for the start of The Troubles in Ireland. I was there two weeks when the Civil Rights marches started, and I got involved in all of that. It was quite dramatic, living in a war zone for some years.

   My goal at the time was to develop an academic career that would fund me to write novels and poetry. I first published my poems at age 20. I have published four novels, but I'm a natural dramatist. 

•  What kind of a family did you grow up with?

I had a brother and sister, quite a bit older than me. Within the sweep of the British class system of the day, we were lower middle class, though that's a distinction which was already losing its meaning, as it became more possible for people from my kind of background to go to university. It was very very difficult to get into university, not automatic if you’d passed your matriculation, as it was for my Oz husband growing up at the same time in Australia. I was the first person in my family to do so, though my father was a brilliant man. He left school at fourteen, as they all did in those days. He became an electronics expert in the Navy and ended up running his own electronics business. It's a shame he died before the advent of the digital age, because he would have been in his element today. 

•  What was your first paying job?

It was sorting out files in the basement of my Dad's office, at fourteen. I did a lot of waitressing jobs, from the age of sixteen onwards, during my summer holidays. With my first waitressing job I was also a chamber maid, because I was working in a hotel on the Isle of Wight. And I learned how to do silver service,  which was fun.

•  When did you first take an interest in films/stories?

I was always passionate about literature and writing. I won my first writing competition when I was five. The prize was six month's free supply of Cadbury's chocolate. It was a famous competition, held annually. They would get a bunch of children around the UK to give them feedback on their new products. You had to write a little essay on Why I Love Cadbury Chocolate Fingers. My mother was very strict about what we ate and it was rare we had anything like that, so I lied through my teeth about my imaginary addiction to Cadbury's Chocolate Fingers, and it obviously did the trick.

•  You moved out here when you were 23. What was your biggest surprise on arriving in Australia?

It was not as English as I thought it would be. I lived in Ireland for three years before I went to Oxford. When I got to Australia, I found it to be very Irish. There were words I already knew from Ireland that people thought were Australian, like "stonkered" and that sort of thing; and there was an approach to life which I thought was Irish. I was also struck by the size of everything, traveling around; the country is huge.

•  What was your first writing job?

I guess this should really be how did I get started as a writer, since I wrote and got produced on spec a lot at first. I soon gave up poetry and got into playwriting as an undergraduate. Apparently my first play was toured in Berlin and other places in Europe by the Drama Society of my university with great success in 1971, when I was twenty-one, but I didn’t know anything about this until last year when one of my friends who’d performed in that tour told me! She thought I knew! 

   I really started focussing on plays when I got to Australia. There used to be a wonderful institution called the Australian National Playwrights Conference (1972-2006), which is where I first met Ken Ross, Debra Oswald, and many other writers who are now active in TV, film and stage. 
   The ANPC had a competition every year in Canberra. Top directors, actors, critics and dramaturgs came from all over Australia to work on the plays. In 1973, my first proper stage play, Closing Down, was one of those read. My first paying job as a writer was to adapt Closing Down into a radio play for the ABC, but I wrote that on spec rather than being commissioned.
   In 1975 I had an amateur production of a play called Cafe in a Side Street, which I also adapted for ABC radio. In 1976, my third play, The Fall Guy, was read at the ANPC Conference. As a result, it was picked up by Melbourne Theatre Company, and also performed in Adelaide by The Stage Company and later in Milwaukee, USA. It was nominated for an AWGIE award. As a result of the success of The Fall Guy I was asked to write a film, Kostas, which was nominated for AWGIE Best Stage Play and AFI Best Film, and then I got into television.

•  How did you come to write your screenwriting books?

I ran a course at AFTRS (Australian Film Television and Radio School) in Sydney, for which I invented what became the twenty-five Development Strategies found in Part 2 of The 21st Century Screenplay. They were deemed to be very useful and have been embraced all around the world.
   AFTRS encouraged me to write a book.
   I wrote what I knew about linear three act structure, from my point of view as a working writer. I summarised the views of other writers I admired (always, of course, acknowledging them). That done, I thought I’d like to say something about flashbacks and reunion films and group films, but I couldn’t find anything in writing on the subject, or really, get any information at all. I asked a visiting expert about the structure of an ensemble film like The Big Chill, but got no answers. 

   In the absence of any answers, I decided to have a crack at the job myself. I watched ensemble, time jump, and flashback films again and again and again to see how they worked. To my surprise I  observed patterns and those patterns occurred consistently in films from around the world.
   That was exciting enough, but one day, when I was banging on about my discoveries over the dinner table, my daughter, who’s a classicist, said, “Mum, you do realise that The Odyssey has a flashback in the middle.” I had no idea. When I read it, I realised Homer three thousand years ago was using flashback in the way writers like Guillermo Arriga, writer of 21 Grams and Babel, use it— stealing jeopardy from the end of the story to speed up a slow, episodic start.
  I completed Screenwriting Updated and presented it to Meredith Quinn, the publisher at AFTRS. She sent it to an American publisher, Silman James in Los Angeles, publisher of quality screen craft books, who immediately picked it up for publication before it had even been published in Australia. Since then, sales have gone through the roof. Ten years later, I extensively revised and extended the book, adding a massive amount of new material—so much that the publisher felt it was a new book. This was published as The 21st Century Screenplay.

•  Why are you so focused on teaching, rather than getting on with your own writing?

Bizarrely, despite the proliferation of mainstream films and TV that use ensemble casts and flashbacks, I am the only screenwriting theorist offering practical guidelines for writing in those forms. I feel it’s important there is a voice out there saying, “No, you do not have to conform to the linear three act model. You have at least six other structures. Start to think in terms of allowing your content to dictate the structure.”
   The problem is that screenwriting theory has now become big business. In a high-cost high-risk industry like film, the pressure to offer easy quick-fix, one-size-fits-all answers is enormous. The result is that those wonderfully useful structural tools for handling one-hero linear stories have become simplified in transmission and are now assumed and asserted by many people (thankfully not all) as the one way to write a film, with the one-hero story the only type of story that is suitable for a film.
   This is very dangerous, indeed actively destructive. While mainstream film and TV routinely use flashbacks and ensemble structures, young writers who try to use these forms often get knocked back. On the other hand, scripts are being irreparably damaged because writers are forcing their flashback or group-story material into a one-hero-on-a-single-linear-chronological-journey model when it just doesn’t fit. It’s common to hear experts saying that anyone who uses flashback is a bad writer. It’s heartbreaking.
  And the strangest things about all of this is that the facts fly in the face of the theory. Theory is getting increasingly detached from the reality of the industry. As I’ve suggested, it’s now impossible to watch an evening’s TV without seeing flashbacks or multiple protagonist structures, often both, and such structures are out there all the time in mainstream film. Yet many screenwriting theorists are still insisting that these models constitute bad writing (that is, if they consider these forms at all).
   My work routinely puts me in contact with very senior writers and executives from US and UK TV who cannot believe that new writers are being told not to use flashback or group stories. They look at me and keep questioning me as if I’m making it up.
   Frankly, I don’t think people will have a career as writers in five years time if they don’t have a working knowledge of these parallel narrative structures. Producers are wonderful people, but often they don’t understand just how writers think, how difficult it is to write and to keep objective about your own work. I predict that within a few years, producers will be asking writers to apply, say, a Memento-like structure to a story. That is incredibly difficult to do, if you’re trying to find a theory to support your work as you go along. You certainly can’t do it at speed
   An experienced writer can indeed do a lot of this stuff intuitively and at speed; but if you’re a new writer, you really need guidelines. Most of the people who could provide guidelines are too busy writing, so I’m afraid it’s down to me.
   And I don’t resent it because the reception I get from writers, script theorists and script executives is so positive. There is huge frustration out there about the pressure to conformity. I get standing ovations.
  I think my theories are useful but I’m not precious about them. I’m looking forward to seeing people pushing the envelope. I would love to have someone prove me wrong.

•  Any chance you’ll be teaching in Adelaide in the foreseeable future

I’ve been invited in the past, but the timing hasn’t worked out. I’m supposed to do a lecture tour in Australia later this year, but it hasn’t been finalised as yet. If someone invites me, I’ll come.

What projects do you have underway at present

I’ve been getting back into writing, combining these theories with my own story-telling. I’ve written a cutting-edge experiment in immersive virtual reality. It is an installation project.
   The first production of the first of these pieces is in development in the United States at present, which is very exciting. Technicians are struggling to work out whether it is technically and financially possible. The plan is for it to be staged in the US or Europe later this year. You will walk into a room and the drama will occur all around you, and involve your touch, hearing and vision. Four non-linear story-lines unfold, stories that you’ll only be able to put together at the end. It’s like a living story; the drama happens 360 degrees around you.

•  What was the best advice you were given at the start of your career?

A very kind British writer—I can't remember his name—heard a reading, at the Australian National Playwrights Conference, of my first play Closing Down, written when I was a very young, insecure writer, aged 23. He said to me: "Linda, you must keep writing. You're talented." 
   That sustained me for a long while.
   The best piece of writing advice came to me from Carl Sautter, who sadly passed away last year, in the early 1980s. He said that everything one writes must be real, but unusual.

•  What one screenwriting advice book (not your own) would you recommend to a young wannabe screenwriter in Adelaide?
Making a Good Script Great, by Linda Seger.
The Writers Journey, by Christopher Vogler.
•  What are your ten favourite movies of all time?
21 Grams (2003) - Fractured Tandem
Aladdin (1992) - Animation
Atonement (2007) - Consecutive Stories
Citizen Kane (1941) - Double Narrative Flashback Case History
City of God (2002) - Gangster
Lives of Others (2006) - Double Journey
Mephisto (1981) - Faustian Bargain
Some Like it Hot (1959) - Classic Comedy
The Crucible (1996) - Adaptation
Thelma and Louise (1991) - Buddy Movie

Here's a short video of Linda Aronson at a workshop for film workers in Sweden in November 2011, where she talks about the rise of parallel narratives.

    IMDb    LinkedIn    London Screenwriters' Festival    Twitter    Website   


Ed Love said...

Great stuff, thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

"Theory is getting increasingly detached from the reality of the industry." It's great having an authoritative voice defying mainstream convention. I wish Linda Aronson every success.