Magazine article Metro Magazine

Screenwriting 101: Get a Life!: John Collee Thinks Writers Should Get out More: In Past Lives John Collee Has Been a Child Growing Up in Edinburgh and India, a Practising Doctor, an Aid Worker in Third World Nations, a Newspaper Columnist and a Successful Novelist. He Talks to Myles McMullen about His Latest Incarnation as a Screenwriter

Magazine article Metro Magazine

Screenwriting 101: Get a Life!: John Collee Thinks Writers Should Get out More: In Past Lives John Collee Has Been a Child Growing Up in Edinburgh and India, a Practising Doctor, an Aid Worker in Third World Nations, a Newspaper Columnist and a Successful Novelist. He Talks to Myles McMullen about His Latest Incarnation as a Screenwriter

Article excerpt

With joint credits on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003) and the highly anticipated animation Happy Feet (George Miller, 2006) John Collee is one of Australia's most accomplished screenwriters. In between various collaborations with the likes of Scott Hicks, Jean-Jacques Annaud and Steven Spielberg, John took the time to talk about his techniques, past work, and advice for the next crop of Australian writers.

How did you become interested in writing and when did you start?

I'd been interested in writing since childhood. In my third year of practising as a doctor I took six months out and wrote a medical thriller. This became Kingsley's Touch, which was published in 1984. From then on I was a writer who doctored, rather than the other way round. I took medical jobs here and there, did a lot of Accident and Emergency work and then tropical medicine--in Gabon, Madagascar, Sri Lanka--but I was no longer on any sort of career path.

My second novel Paper Mask (1988) got picked up for a movie [Paper Mask, Christopher Morahan, 1990] for which I wrote the screenplay and that funded my third novel The Rig (1992), which was about the oil business, set in Madagascar. Around the same time, 1990, The Observer newspaper asked to me to write a weekly column about travel and medicine, so that paid the bills for the next six years.

I met my wife Deborah Snow while I was escorting a medical aid shipment to Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union. She worked in Moscow as a TV correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I visited Moscow for the next two years writing a factual book about Soviet medicine called The Kingdom of the Blind--it was never published. Then Debs came with me to the Solomon Islands where I worked for a year as a doctor, and our first child Lauren was born. That was my last job in medicine. I'd become too much of a bush doctor to be any use in a Western urban hospital and Debs needed to be in a capital city for her journalistic work. So since then I've been a full-time screenwriter.

How do your real life experiences, including being a doctor and third world aid worker, inform your writing?

I don't write much about medicine now but I do believe this: to write you have to travel, either physically or though reading and research. You have to 'go on the journey' as Baz Luhrmann puts it, learning all there is to know about the world around your story. A lot of screenplays feel thin because they lack the details of setting and behaviour that make the fictional world specific and interesting. This is true even of domestic dramas. You can't write about life in a jail or a bank or a hospital unless you go there, find out how it works, and record all the particular oddities of the place. Even a totally invented world like Hogwarts is informed by a mountain of background reading.

How would you compare the process of writing a novel to writing a script?

Novels require a process of total immersion, which is tough if you have kids. Maybe that's why I haven't written one in years. Writing a novel is a long, lonely business. Writing a film is relatively pleasurable because it's essentially collaborative. Outside the actual typing there's a lot of reading, talking, thinking and lunching. You feel supported. People are investing money in your work. They can't afford for you to get writer's block. The big downside with film writing is that you can never be sure if the finished product will be seen by anyone. In novel writing you at least have the reassurance, after getting the first one published, that someone will publish the second and third. Film doesn't work that way because there are so many variables you can't control. Whims of the studio, accidents of timing and finance [and] whether a named director or a named actor will respond to the subject matter. It's ultimately a bit of a lottery. So you have to not be too hung up on the film getting made. …

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