Today’s First Person article comes from Australia via London. I chose it because it demonstrates an important point: you can’t pick the single moment at which you’ve “made it.”
Most screenwriting careers begin with fits and starts, sudden successes followed by dispiriting dry spells. It’s important to celebrate the small victories, but not overestimate their significance. They’re footholds. Use them to reach higher.
My name is John Ratchford. I’m a 27-year-old Australian writer, currently living in London. I’ve sold one script and had another optioned, but I consider myself a beginning writer. On Twitter, I’m @johnhratchford.
I grew up with three film loving older sisters and spent most of my childhood and early teens being exposed to their diverse taste in films. This wasn’t always a good thing: I’m not sure how many other Australian men can recite large chunks of dialogue from ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun.’
Late teens I got a job at a cinema, and stayed there for four years, exploiting my free movie privileges to watch everything good, bad and indifferent. Although I’d always harboured creative writing aspirations, it wasn’t until I heard Shane Black speak at a ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ screening Q&A that I seriously thought about the idea of writing for film.
I became a bit of a screenwriting nerd, reading every book I could lay my hands on and trawling through the old ‘Ask a Filmmaker’ archives on IMDb.
My first effort was a teen comedy set in my home town of Canberra, and I posted several early drafts on Triggerstreet.com. The value of scriptwriting feedback sites like Triggerstreet is sometimes questioned by more experienced writers, but for a first timer from regional Australia the experience of getting feedback from aspiring US screenwriters was brilliant.
Three Triggerstreet-driven drafts later, I submitted my script to the Australian version of Project Greenlight, primarily to garner feedback from Australian readers. I got that and more when my script beat out 700 others to qualify for the top 8.
Suddenly at the age of 23, I was thrust into a reality TV competition with older and more experienced filmmakers for the prize of a $1 million film budget.
The Australian version of Project Greenlight was structured as more of an Idol-style knockout competition rather than a documentary about the making of a film. We entered with feature scripts, and the winner would direct their feature, but in between the top eight entrants competed against each other by directing short film scripts contributed as part of a separate competition. Confused? Try competing in the thing.
I found myself in the surreal situation of now directing a short I didn’t write, juggling a cast and crew of twenty, including the late legendary Australia actor Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell, and trying to hide my complete lack of experience from the seemingly omniscient reality TV crew.
The judges in the competition loved my feature script, but my short film directing skills were perfunctory at best. I made it through to the top 4, thanks largely I think to the goodwill generated by casting Bud Tingwell. I then had to make a second short, only this time the prospect of a $1 million prize was tantalisingly close.
The pressure was immense, and I felt like a bit of a fraud trying to direct someone else’s words again. I changed the short script significantly and now I’m a little bit older I recognise I did this in a way that was disrespectful to the original writer. Perhaps in a bit of karmic justice, this second short wasn’t as well received as the first and I was knocked out of the competition in the semi finals.
I was disappointed, but ultimately relieved. I want to write, not direct, and the pressure of playing ‘young aspiring director’ on reality TV was starting to take a bit of a toll. The eventual winners were writer/director team Kenn and Simon MacRae, who went onto to make a terrific film called ‘The View from Greenhaven,’ and Kenn is currently carving out a directing career in LA.
Post-Greenlight, one of the judges got in touch and asked if she could send my script onto a studio contact. I gratefully agreed. At the same time I’d read an article announcing another major studio was opening an Australian production arm. I googled the details for their Sydney office, gave them a call, and they asked me to send my script through.
Not sure you could pull that off in LA, but in Australia one of the benefits of having a comparatively small film industry is major studios and producers aren’t necessarily out of reach to unrepped writers.
While one studio mulled it over, the other made an offer. I didn’t have an agent, but used an entertainment lawyer and the Australian Writers Guild for assistance with the script sale.
Going from the comedown of losing in Project Greenlight to one of the most famous production companies in the world buying my script was some turnaround, and I couldn’t wait to leave my day job and start a writing career.
I’d heard horror stories about the notes process, but I found the studio notes were logical, constructive and ultimately improved the script. Everything seemed to be going so smoothly, I started indulging in day dreams of attending the red carpet premiere at the cinema I was working at only two years earlier. I ignored the fact my ex-employer was a suburban mall multiplex and any red carpet would have to wind its way up the escalators and through the food court.
There was another, bigger barrier to my red carpet fantasies: the development period. Just as things seemed to be moving, there would be a delay. That would be sorted out, then something else would stall proceedings. And again, and again. A more experienced writer would have understood a film is a massive undertaking, and delays are a natural part of the development process, but I was not an experienced writer, I was an impatient first timer watching his dream being put on hold.
It was a very strange time for me. I had the elation of the script sale balanced against the fact I was still working the same day job, and outside of emails and meetings, I didn’t have anything tangible to show for my success. I’d tried contacting a few Australian agents for assistance with my script sale, but got zero interest. I’m not sure if this was due to my lack of experience, or the fact most films in Australia are developed via government funding or financed independently –- it’s quite rare to sell a spec direct to a studio in the Australian context.
I did make some great contacts as a result of the script sale, and even got to go to LA to meet one of the higher ups from the parent company, who assured me my script would make a great film. I should have listened to the second part of what he said, which was the same thing everyone was saying: “So…what else do you have?”
The problem was I didn’t have anything. I’d been working on the assumption that once my script went into production things would just kind of fall into place. So I kept waiting.
It took about 18 months of waiting before I realised I needed to move on.
Last year I swallowed a bit of pride and applied to Film School, namely the Australian Film Television and Radio School. Past graduates include Alex Proyas, Rolf de Heer and Gillian Armstrong. If you’re an Australian and want to study film, it’s a pretty good place to be.
It felt a bit strange having sold a script, then going to film school, but any reticence I had fell away after the first class. It was so enjoyable being in an environment surrounded by other aspiring writers and being taught by film professionals, including Ross Grayson Bell (producer of Fight Club). It also helped me get away from the lottery winner mentality of having sold one script and waiting for the rewards, and I began building a body of work, completing two more features and an outline for a TV series.
For our final year of study, we’re required to work on a project with an industry mentor. I’ve relocated to London, and I’m currently learning from the wonderful television writer Dominic Minghella (Doc Martin, Robin Hood). He’s challenged me to try writing something a bit outside my comfort zone, and I’ve been really enjoying the process of working with an experienced professional writer.
Why London? Through my parents I’m eligible for a UK passport, and I chose London because it’s a bigger market than Australia. Just being here also acts as motivation: I came here to develop my writing career.
I’ve recently had a second feature optioned by a great independent producer who’s looking to package it for the US market. I have high hopes and I’m giving the rewrites my all, but this time I’ve also kept on writing and pushing forward on other projects at the same time. My first script is still in active development, and I’m also hopeful it’ll eventually become a finished film.
Between my two scripts and working with Dominic I feel like I’m on the right track. But I’m still working in a non-writing day job, and finding the time to write is a real slog, especially in a city as busy as London.
I think my next step from here is to find work writing for UK television. My goals are to be able pay my bills through writing, and have a job where I can focus on telling stories and improving as a writer. TV writing ticks both those boxes.
Long term I’d love to have a crack at LA, but for now I’ll settle for trying to find my way in London. Any advice your readers have would be very much appreciated, and if I can offer any advice in return, it would be to enjoy early success, but don’t let it become your only success.