Thursday, 5 June 2014

Interview with Simon Butters

Simon Butters is an Australian screenwriter, script editor and script consultant, based in Adelaide. He has had extensive experience in children’s television, with credits which include: H20 Just Add Water, The Elephant Princess, Wicked Science, Scooter: Secret Agent, Pirate Islands: The Lost Treasure of Fiji. He is currently in development with a slate of feature film and television projects with Beyond Screen Productions.
    I met Simon through his involvement with the SA Committee of the Australian Writers' Guild and grabbed the opportunity to ask him a few questions.
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Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in Adelaide. My early years were spent in the northern suburbs. My family moved out to the Gawler area, which gave me a lot of freedom to explore the countryside. I still think that's important, to have clean air and be in touch with the natural environment.

When did you first take an interest in writing?

Very early on I wrote pieces in primary school. Later on I took drama through high school where I wrote pieces for year 12 major exam. I wrote short one act plays at University (Educational Theatre), and continued this after graduation.

Where did you go to school?

Gawler High School. Adelaide University.

Who was the teacher who had the biggest influence on you?

Virginia Hyam
Dave Brown
A couple, really. I had Virginia Hyam in high school drama who took us to Fringe shows, which blew my mind. I was in a production with Dave Brown (youth theatre) who was great at directing kids. Later on Frank Ford at Adelaide University taught me a lot about the history of avant-garde theatre. All these people still work in the theatre scene (although I have moved on since). But they were all instrumental in building up my knowledge base in the arts. Many thanks!

What was your first paying job (in any field)?

Potato packer during my school holidays in year 11. I hated it, lifting 50kg bags of spuds in 45 degree heat in the height of summer in a tin shed—madness! I lasted two weeks, got paid and never went back.

What was your first paying job as a writer?

Semi pro—one act plays I wrote in the mid 90s, in student theatre circles. We did Fringe shows—got good reviews—and made enough on the door to split up amongst myself and the cast. First real writing gig was for Urban Myth—wrote a short play for

young actors. First television gig was after working my way up in a script department —from photocopying scripts, to taking notes, to editing scripts, then to writing. Now work freelance.

You are a member of the SA Committee of the Australian Writers’ Guild. Why did you get involved with the organisation?

I have been a member of the Guild since before I even wrote professionally. I began as an actor and knew that having an organisation to back you up in negotiations was highly important. Many times I have referred contracts to the Guild and checked rates for various projects.
    It's also a great way to stay connected (especially now since I'm back in Adelaide, it's so easy to drop off the map here).
    Last year after I heard about the changes going on at the South Australian Film Corporation with the new funding arrangements (Seed funding) I wrote a personal letter to SAFC outlining my concerns on the changes from a writer's perspective. This letter found its way somehow to the SA Guild committee who invited me to join in the negotiations with SAFC. 


    I worked with the committee to push for some better outcomes for SA writers, and in the overall picture of what could have happened, I think we came out with some very good wins for local talent. Changes to the initial format of Seed funding occurred, and there are now pathways for local writers to match up with Seed funded producers—such as the Seed Funding New Project grant which basically means a Seed company will look to engage with local creatives on new work, outside of their current slate of projects. We also managed to maintain a direct stream of development funds for local writers under the SA writers' development grant, which looks to fund projects from creatives outside the Seed program.

Did you have a mentor to guide you along the tricky path of TV writing?

Not really. I've written in script departments and made some good friends, who taught me a lot—yet in the end, it's up to you to write a good script.
     Some producers I've worked with are often better at mentoring than other writers—they come to it from a bigger perspective.


What are three things you wish someone had told you about screenwriting when you were starting out?
  • It's all about relationships with producers—find who you want to work with, try to get on a show in any job, talk about what you like to write, then something else may come of it. Get yourself on a production somehow—you will learn from it.
  • Write from the heart—forget the technical side of it, formatting, who you know, etc, etc—and pick a story that really makes you cry, or laugh, or gets you motivated.
  • Get it done—don't put it off, don't strive for perfection, don't think it's not ready—just get it done and get it to someone to read. Chances are they won't want it, but who cares, you've shown them what you can do, again, something else may come of it.

If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book to a newbie writer in Adelaide, which one would it be?

The screenwriting books are all valuable, but don't get too focused on following them religiously. Treat them as starting points. A good argument against them is that if everyone wrote to them, we'd all end up with similar, predictable films—sound familiar? But you should know them, understand them, and be able to fall back on them when
you need it. A lot of people in the industry can quote from these things (and from the endless seminars) and tell you why your script is faulty. Always good to know what they are talking about so you can argue against it if you need to.
    I like Story by Robert McKee for deeper technical advice, and the much lighter read, Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder—but again, they're good for starting points, and also for editing the script, when you feel something isn't working but can't put your finger on it.


What are your ten favourite (favourite, not ‘best’) movies of all time?

Hard question, but I think this means which films can you watch over and over again, without ever getting tired of itor in some way are instrumental...
Blade Runner (1982)
Groundhog Day (1993)
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
The Exorcist (1973)
Blue Velvet (1986)
Chinatown (1974)
Star Wars (1977)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Sideways (2004)
No Country for Old Men (2007)

I think I have a lot of other films I appreciate more (sorry no Australian films there), but these are ones I can happily go back to.

What’s next for Simon Butters?

I enjoy writing for children's TV, but am still trying to get an adult feature film going. I have two at a good stage of development with good teams of producers and directors attached. I have to finish the latest drafts for each, then... who knows? Hopefully one sticks. Also, the Seed funding initiative may provide some interesting pathways locally. My hope is that a long form drama comes out of one of these companies that can provide local writing talent with a clear pathway for developmentin that way, we can build a solid base of credited writers here.

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1 comment:

Kathy Smart said...

Wow, Simon Butters sounds like an activist for South Australian screenwriters. Good on you, Simon!