Friday 27 April 2012

Interview with Billy Marshall Stoneking

Billy Marshall Stoneking is an Australian screenwriter, poet and teacher who, though now based in Sydney, was born in the USA. He migrated to Australia in 1972, where he wrote the TV series Stringer and an episode of the show Mission: Impossible
   Billy will be teaching a one-day seminar in Adelaide on May 20, followed by a four-day seminar. I met him online and took the opportunity of asking some questions.

You didn’t go to film school, though you taught at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) for a number of years. How would you respond to David Mamet’s suspicion that film schools are useless”?
I did attend the film schoolAFTRS1983 graduate, and I agree with David Mamet. Most film schools I know of, and I have been associated with a few of the ones in Sydney, are run by people who don’t really understand story or drama and have, overall, very little talent in the art of teaching. Schools tend to place more importance on buildings and equipment and technique than they do on discovery, risk and inspiration. 
   I am reminded of Whitehead’s comment: “The secondhandness of the learned world is the secret of its mediocrity." 
   Film schools simply don’t give their students enough opportunities to enter the drama. Drama is a language for presenting emotional energy and if you’re to become fluent in the language you have to use it, all the time. If a scene is the equivalent of a sentence and the language is drama, how can you possibly learn it making only ten or fifteen or thirty scenes a year. If you compared that to learning Spanish you’d have a very hard time getting yourself around Mexico Citylet alone a compelling screenplay. Film schools, at best, teach little more than “tourist drama”.

*  What are three things you wish someone had told you about screenwriting when you were starting out?
It’s what I wish they hadn’t told me, but I’ll take a stab at it:
1) "No" always means "maybe"; 
2) Knowledge has nothing to do with it; and 
3) Never go to bed with anyone that has more problems than you do.

*  You famously wrote an episode of the TV series Mission: Impossible. How did that come about?
Impeccable connectionsplus the producer wanted to option my best-selling book, Lasseter: In Quest of Gold.

*  That episode of Mission: Impossible was directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, one of the most influential of all Australian directors. Did you work closely with him, and if so, what did you learn from the experience?
I know Brian from the old days, but I didn’t confer with him about his job. The script was fairly self-explanatoryas most of them were.

Tutama Tjapangarti
*  Who was the person who has had the biggest influence on you as a screenwriter? 
Tutama Tjapangarti would be up there with the best of them, though he never wrote a screenplay, or anything else for that matterbut wowwhat a storyteller! 
   Others would have to include John Cassavetes, Ingmar Bergman, James Agee, and Woody Allen.

*  You are a script consultant with Script Central, which has been in business since 2003.  Can you give us one example of a script which passed through that agency and eventually become a decent Australian movie? 
Not offhand.

Maya Newell
*  Who would you consider the most interesting filmmaker currently working in Australia, and why? 
Maya Newellshe’s fresh, she’s smart, and she’s a very close friend.

*  How would you respond to the proposition that, these days, it is easier to make money teaching screenwriting than it is practicing screenwriting? 
Anyone who thinks teaching is easy has taken leave of their senses.

*  What has been the most memorable moment in your career to date? 
Every moment. I don’t think of it as a career.

*  What one book would you recommend to a young wannabe screenwriter in Adelaide
Audition by Michael Shurleff—don’t touch any of the others.

*  What are your ten favourite movies of all time
[ Billy provided a list of almost 200 movies. I really did want just ten, so have selected a representative sample from the longer list; which will probably offend him, but I'm sure we'll get over that. Life's too short, etc. You can see his full and evolving list here. ]
Network (1976)
Seven Samurai (1954)
*  You’re teaching a one-day seminar in Adelaide on 20 May 2012 called ‘Secrets, Lies and Filmmaking,’ followed by a four-day seminar called ‘The Drama of Screenwriting.’ What would you say to a young wannabe screenwriter to convince them to take time off work, and part with a handful of cash, in order to attend either of these events? 
They wont be taking time off work, they’ll be taking time off their jobthere’s a difference. What they’ll do in the four-day workshop is work creatively in ways that they have never before experienced. It’s very much a learner-centred workshop no sage on the stageand its very collaborative. 
   What participant/writers go away with is an entirely new and useable way of looking at themselves and their characters and the stories they want to tell. Ditto for the one-day, but because it is only one day it is even more intense!


Kathy said...

I am always concerned when a course is announced like this one: "What participant/writers go away with is an entirely new and useable way of looking at themselves and their characters and the stories they want to tell." The trainer is saying what they have to offer is unique and never seen nor experienced before.

It is true that every trainer has something to offer and is different from others' offerings. It is great that a trainer has such belief in their course that they consider it special. They have the energy and authority of the discoverer.

The problem is that such trainers can give but they can't receive. In their zeal to impart their hard-won discoveries, they show no interest in what their trainees already have learned for themselves. They seem to believe only they have the key, the secret, the understanding.

In a few years time after a lot of hard work, these trainers will come up with a new discovery and market that with equal zeal. Onlookers will be able to identify influences but the trainers will believe their new theory is entirely self-derived.

I think a course by Mr Stoneking would be inspiring and very worthwhile. I would refrain, however, from becoming an acolyte.

Where's the Drama? said...

It seems to me that your comments are predicated upon a number of assumptions that would tend to suggest that YOU are the one who can't receive. My approach is not about closing down one's options or pushing a particular viewpoint. The workshops I do are completely learner-centered and the discoveries that are made are made by the participants, and in watching (and learning from) them, I find that I learn. The art of writing effective characters is really a facility for working as a MEDIUM, which means getting out of the way ... I have never promoted or encouraged the creation of acolytes - not for myself at any rate. If one must be an acolyte be one for the characters and their story. Nuff said. BMS