How Freelancers Can Succeed: Ande Schurr talks to playwright and co-writer for The Lord of the Rings:The Two Towers movie, Stephen Sinclair, about his methods for success.
Stephen explains the problem of over-calculating your career path, the true time and effort needed to get published, and ends with a practical exercise for writers of all genres in both film and theatre.
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Writer Stephen Sinclair started 'on the floor'. Through hard work, tenacity and the right collaborations, he has made it into the international script-writing elite for film and theatre.
Stephen is a co-writer for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers screenplay, co-writer of the international theatrical phenomenon 'Ladies Night' and a published poet for his work The Dwarf and the Stripper among other celebrated literary achievements.
Stephen's friendship and professional collaboration with Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson gives him a special insight into what it takes to achieve at a level very few reach. You may read about this association and think that his fortunes were more schmooze than talent. However, his accomplishments outside of that relationship alone should put to rest any such thoughts. The bottom line is that this interview can benefit all writers and freelancers who wish to get their head out of popular culture, 'the way things are done around here', and in so doing, find a refreshing point of view that will stimulate their own originality.
You've been the co-writer with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh on the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, you continue to have worldwide success with your theatrical play 'Ladies Night', your poetry has been published and your first feature film as writer/director, 'Russian Snark', is about to be released. How did you rack up so many achievements?
I'm obsessive about writing and I always have been since I was 15-16 years old. Obsessive about turning ideas and experiences into dramatic forms. I've just found various ways to express that along the line. I guess if I’m more than just a one hit wonder it’s because I'm constantly looking at ways of furthering what I do. I'm 53, I've been doing it for a long time. So it's nice to have a few successes along the way.
You've had the chance to write with the top guys in film. How did you develop your abilities to work at this level?
Fran and Peter and I all started on the ground floor. I mean, we met over twenty years ago and we were just all starting out. When I met Peter he was just working on Bad Taste, it was a work in progress, and Fran and I got involved with that particular project, so we were just all embarking on our careers at that stage. It wasn't as if I was coming to someone who had already had a stellar career.
In your 2nd December 2001 interview with Metro Magazine's Garth Cartwright, you mention that when Peter asked you to collaborate on the Lord of the Rings script he told you "three brains are better than two". Has this been your own philosophy too since you teamed with another writer, Anthony McCarten for Ladies Night?
I still enjoy collaboration. It's great to work with someone on a project that you're both enthusiastic about. More of my projects these days I work on by myself, but having said that, I'm currently developing a couple of projects in collaboration. It's fantastic to have the balance of personal material on the one hand and working in the more social environment of collaboration on the other.
Ladies Night came about, according to the Metro Magazine interview, due to your attitudes that "New Zealand theatre needed a kick up the arse". Is this central to all your work; finding the 'bee in the bonnet' of the NZ psyche, so to speak?
Perhaps, although I’m not sure Ladies Night is the best example. I've written other scripts that were much more pointedly satiric than Ladies Night. Having said that, the very first article to come out on Ladies Night called it 'Iconoclastic, because it was so different from the 'heart on the sleeve' social realism that dominated NZ theatre at the time. Ladies Night dared to be a bit irreverent, to present situations without having to milk all the socio-political ramifications of every little encounter.
Do you mean the play 'woke up' the public?
Most of the public didn't give a shit about the all the issues that the liberal left, the arts and intelligentsia were obsessed about. They wanted a good night out, and we certainly delivered that.
You mentioned that the good run from Ladies Night has helped you support a family. Has money been an important part of the journey of success for you?
Various commentators along the way have referred to Ladies Night was a piece of calculated commercialism, but that wasn’t at all my motivation in writing Ladies Night. At the time I’d been writing seriously for over a decade and still had received no professional production. My burning desire was to get something on stage. It had never really occurred to me that you could actually support yourself full time as a writer, and it was big and very pleasant surprise when the cheques started turning up in the letter box.. Of course, now that I’m complacent middle aged family man, money is an important factor. But bizarrely, it’s that very first play, written with all the naivety of youth which still pays the bills.
You say that your burning desire was to get something on the stage yet at the start of your career was it just getting published as a poet?
Yes, poetry was my first love, as it is for many writers. And I persevered with it for a very long time. 'The Dwarf and the Stripper' was well received and sold over 100 copies! I think 100 is the kind of bench mark to becoming a successful addition of NZ poetry. It sounds a bit sad put like that doesn't it!
So was this the motivation to start writing for theatre, because so few people read and appreciated your writing?
No, I've had a natural tendency towards drama when I started. It's just a natural progression to go into more sustained forms of drama. I wrote a few short stories, then a play. There was no intention of reaching a wider audience, that I can remember. At the start it was just about experimenting with different forms, trying things out.
It seems your pathway from poetry to prose and theatre to film is not uncommon among writers, yet you have amassed achievements that others have not.. What makes you different?
Tenacity. Working away at it day after day, enjoying it and believing that it was what you are here to do, without wanting to sound quasi religious. I was thinking about your series of interviews and the whole notion of career. Perhaps it's a sign of the times that writers and directors feel they have to be so protective about their careers, to carefully steer around all potential obstacles to achieve any kind of success. That’s not how I went about it. I just wrote what most excited me, believing that was how I could achieve the best results.
Before Ladies Night I worked as a postie for years and did a whole lot of different jobs. I just assumed that if you embarked on a career as a writer, it would never pay its own way and I would always need a ‘day job’ to support myself. I'm talking about the early 80s, when there were almost no full-time writers, other than maybe a few working for TVNZ. The whole landscape is quite different now, with all the opportunities to write for film and television.
Was your career made up more of calculated moves or lucky breaks?
In the case of Ladies Night I had some very good breaks. At the time my brother Harry was in the core cast at Auckland's Mercury Theatre. I gave him the play to have a read, and he gave it to Michael Hurst, who carried real weight at the theatre, and saw the potential of the play. And it so happened that there was a gap in the programming for that year. These sort of breaks are invaluable really.
But I never really thought about my career trajectory, where I planned to be in five years time and all that positive imaging stuff. It's only in more recent times I've started thinking "Ok, this is how you’re supposed to manage your career, maybe I should start getting into some forward planning!” But I can’t see myself sticking to any predetermined strategy. If I resolved, for example, to restrict myself to writing comedies as the surest guarantee of international success, the next day I’d probably start writing a dark and humourless thriller!
I think it’s a real danger for writers to second guess what producers and businessmen and arts bureaucrats want in a script. A kind of creative debt can start to build, if year after year you work on stuff you’re not passionate about but you believe will help your career. It can be a slow descent into hack-dom. You've prevented yourself from growing creatively because you only ever wrote for the market. But of course the flipside to that could be years of writing material you love but that no-one ever picks up. It's a difficult call.
What part has 'Russian Snark', your first feature film as writer/director, played in resolving this creative debt?
With Russian Snark I was in the extraordinary position of being able to please myself. That is quite rare in the world of film-making. Of course the money was very tight, my producer Liz DiFiore, who has extensive experience as a Line Producer, and knows every crewy and actor in the industry, was very effective in putting what money there was up on the screen.
Again we come back to partnerships. You have this ability to find the right people for the job. Would you recommend this for all artists?
Sure, if you could find kindred spirits to work with, the results can be spectacular. And if they have a little traction in the industry, so much the better. It’s actually almost impossible to get there all by yourself. Even with a perfect script, everyone needs a leg up, everyone needs a break.
That doesn't mean you have to become a professional networker and schmoozer, but if you can find the right person and excite them in what you’re doing, your odds of getting your project off the ground are going to be higher.
So how have you managed the balance of schmooze vs. genuine interest in people?
[laughing] well, I'm socially kind of... well I was going to say 'inadequate', but I shouldn't be so self-deprecating! I think writers are in an almost unique position that as long as you deliver the goods you aren't required to do so much of that side of one's career. As far as film production houses or theatres go, if you can deliver a great script that is all they want. You don't have to have the right haircut. In fact it's a kind of cliché that writers are in fact kind of stuffy and inarticulate socially and that suits me down to the ground.
Can you credit anyone as being a mentor in your career?
Peter and Fran were definitely a help in terms of a leg-up. Even with Russian Snark, helping out by offering me their post production facility Park Road Post has made an enormous difference. So they are the two people I'd credit.
What can you say about the effort that Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh put into their writing?
They are driven and work incredibly hard. I'm not sure if people realise just how hard committed and how driven you have to be to get to the place they've got to. They just keep on working the script endlessly until it's right. The people who are the most successful are the most driven and that is also the work ethic of my co-writer on Ladies Night, Anthony McCarten. He is very driven, very committed and that's what it takes with writing especially - sometimes it take 30 drafts to get something right and the bottom line is most people are not prepared for that level of frustration and aggravation but it's usually what is required.
Has having a family helped you as a person?
In quite a profound way I think. What family gives me is a bit of balance in my life. I was in my early 40s when I met Alex and I was finding I was sort of disappearing into a creative Cul-de-sac.
I think family gives you balance and perspective on what you're doing and I'm grateful for that. My natural tendency is to obsess about work the whole time but family drags me into the real world and the work benefits from that.
That is great encouragement for those of us who don't really want to have kids now but maybe when we're older...
Well my brother Harry just had kids at 50 so you have plenty of time bro! It's a shame that people are so focused on career, they don't even consider family. Because when you're old you may find that career isn't the be-and-end-all you thought it was when you were in your 30s. It might be nice to have some grown up kids floating around that can keep you company and help you relocate your zimmer frame ...
Your Metro interview says you are interested in extreme situations. Where does this come from?
I had a nervous breakdown when I was 19. So I had a fairly extreme start to adulthood, and that has informed my work - more the work I do myself than in collaboration. Russian Snark is an example of that. Although even with the most extreme stuff I try to include humour. As a Kiwi, it's hard to take that sort of European view – that life is so awful it would be wrong to laugh about it – and I try to ameliorate the intensity with comedy. Of course comedy feeds off fear and extreme situations anyway – farce is a prime example. It’s regarded as the lightest form of comedy, but it’s comedy that comes of fear and extreme emotion.
This is the first I've heard of your breakdown, may I ask if that was to do with your work?
[laughing] It's the first I've heard of it too! Now it’s out there! I had a fraught relationship with my father and I was a very introverted obsessive teenager and that was the outcome. It was basically agoraphobia - a fear of open spaces, or to quote Mike Chunn, who runs APRA, "a fear of not being able to get back home", a disassociation. So anyway, emotional extremes are not foreign to me.
Tell me more about effort and time needed to achieve success as a writer
As a writer it's a mistake to look at it in terms of 'if I put this much time and effort in, this will be the result'. Writing is so hard, it takes so long and so much effort to actually become good at it, you have to make it a way of life. There has to be some bottom line belief in yourself, everyone needs that, but forget about a result within a certain time frame. Virginia Wolf said "write like mad right through your twenties, throw it all away and then start". It just requires that amount of commitment. So you might make it but only if you work at it and keep on working at it. Don't give up.
Kiwi's in general were more complacent when I was first starting out in the early 80s. The kids now are more aware just how much work is involved and there are so many other contenders. To cut it requires that extra amount of work.
Do you have any practical exercises for the writers reading this?
Try different forms. If you're a poet, try writing prose. The prose will benefit your poetry. The same with writing theatre and film. Your objective might be to write for film but try writing a play because developing a facility for sustained dialogue might benefit your work for the screen. If you stick to one discipline you can get too entrenched and set in your ways.
What final words to you have?
To aspiring writers and film directors, think outside the square. The accepted way of doing things may not be the best way for you. It's fantastic that more people are directing their own features off their own back. Similarly, with writing prose, just because you get ejected by a publishing house, it doesn't always mean the writing is no good. You just have to persevere. And you may find a better path for your career than just going down the accepted route.