Interview: John Collee, screenwriter of Creation, Happy Feet and Master and Commander

Interview: John Collee, screenwriter of Creation, Happy Feet and Master and Commander. By Simon Miraudo.

You may not recognise the name, but it’s likely that you’ve seen at least one of his movies. Scottish-born screenwriter John Collee has worked on numerous screenplays, including Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Happy Feet and the new Charles Darwin biopic Creation. His latest film follows Darwin (Paul Bettany) as he struggles with the ramifications of writing his masterwork On The Origin of the Species, whilst also dealing with the death of his daughter Annie and the judgment of his wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly).

I spoke to John several weeks ago about his various projects, including the ones still in the pipeline (Dirt Music, The Drowner), and the ones that were abandoned completely. Take a gander at our chat below, in which he tells me what it was like to be fired by Zack Snyder, how he goes about adapting a book for the screen, and even receives some breaking news from yours truly.

SM: So first of all, I want to congratulate you on receiving an Australian Writers Guild nomination. Are you aware of this?

JC: I didn’t! (Laughing) No I wasn’t aware of that.

SM: I’m glad to be the one to break the news to you! It was actually just announced an hour ago, as I was on my way here. For Best Adapted Screenplay.

JC: That’s good!

SM: So, that’s a good lead in I suppose to the question ‘how did you get into screenwriting’?

JC: I did it really back-to-front in a way. I was a doctor originally and I wrote novels while I was doctoring. And one of the novels I’d written got picked up for a film so I wrote the screenplay for that. So that was called Paper Mask – 20 years ago now.

SM: And how did you get involved in Creation from that point? Obviously there is a link there…

JC: I mean, what happened was I was working as a doctor and a novelist and a journalist and sort of juggling these three careers. I went to work in the Solomon Islands – I had a job being a doctor in the Solomon Islands for a while – and my wife came with me, and we had our first child there. We wanted to go back and live in civilisation again, so we came back after many years of travelling to work in London; I discovered I’d sort of lost the plot of conventional modernments.

And by that time I was kind-of earning most of my money from writing rather than doctoring. From that point I could kind of retire by the age of 40 from medicine, and carry on writing and, you know, little bits of journalism and three novels in the end, but in the last 12 years or so entirely screenplays. When I came out to Australia with Debs – this was 12 years ago – I arrived really not knowing anyone, but my agent put me in touch with George Miller – who then proposed Happy Feet. George introduced me to Peter Weir and then, because there is such a great little group of directors in Australia, I have worked with them ever since. Phil Noyce, Scott Hicks, Gregor Jordon. So that was it. The Darwin interest came really through writing Master and Commander.

SM: It’s interesting that you’ve approached Darwin’s life through [Randal Keynes’ novel] Annie’s Box, which is this very specific period. When you were approaching the project, did you ever consider a more traditional birth-to-death biopic?

JC: Yeah, and there is so much stuff in Darwin’s life, it was kind of impossible. I think the trick with this biopic is finding the really key turning points and focusing on that. Also, because you can go anywhere with a film, someone who has travelled around the world in a period of five years and then sort-of communicated with these scientists all over the place and in another 25 years created this brilliant idea, it’s such an unruly sort of notion for a film. So what the book Annie’s Box did brilliantly was it distilled this large life into a kind of compact space which was just this house and this village in the countryside around his house. And really it focused on a couple of key periods, especially the death of the daughter and the follow-on from that. I read that and thought “yeah there is a real emotional heart to this story and it’s contained” and the only trick that I had to bring to further collapse time was to introduce the ghost of the daughter, because actually Annie died long before he came out with Origin of the Species. To put his decision to write, and his writing and her death all together, you had to put them all together…

SM: As a thread. And I think that is the failing of a lot of biopics. Especially musical ones, where they begin to look like the same movie.

JC: Yeah, exactly.

SM: But you mentioned taking this small chapter, and obviously it’s an important one, but did you ever consider discussing at all the release of the book, and the turbulent period afterwards?

JC: Yeah sure. It’s kind of another story isn’t it? It’s the fallout from the book that then continues, and that would have been interesting as well. You’ve got to find your endpoint. And given that this film was about Darwin’s struggle to kind-of find an accommodation between a scientific view of the world and a religious view of the world; and in a way that struggle ended when he wrote and delivered the book. And then more struggles began in the wider, public arena, but his personal thing ended when the book finally went off to the publisher. And in terms of the psychological story, it’s really when he finally reconciles himself to the death of his daughter. It seemed like the climax of that.

SM: Now, like you mentioned, with Master and Commander Paul Bettany plays this Darwin-esque character. And I’d even say with Happy Feet and … I believe you wrote Legend of the Guardians as well?

JC: Well, yes, although that draft of Legend of the Guardians got ditched fairly quickly by Zack Snyder.

SM: As is his way.

JC: As is his way! (Laughing) So I have no input; I have no idea what film they’ve made. And I’ve had very little to do with that.

SM: Well that’s fair enough, but I still say there’s a sort of not-so-latent animal kingdom fixation in there.

JC: It’s interesting. What do all these things have in common? I can’t really claim any credit for the story of Happy Feet, because George Miller basically dreamt the storyline of Happy Feet and I then wrote the screenplay. And then it got changed a bit; I came in at the beginning and wrote the first few drafts of that and the last draft. The choice of stories – yeah it’s weird isn’t it? I think coming from a medical background and then branching off into the creative life, you’re constantly looking for the connection between these two things, and they are ostensibly different ways of seeing the world. Ultra-logical scientific ways, and then this kind of emotional way of communicating, so I think I have always been really interested in the kind of collision of these two ways of seeing. So in Happy Feet, in between the Mexican dance party and the Scottish Calvinist religion (laughing), that’s a kind of personal story in a way, the guy who escapes this rather rigid way of seeing the world into a much more fluid way.

SM: That’s interesting. I’d like to go further into the screenwriting process and I’m wondering, with Happy Feet, George Miller comes to you with a story. With Creation you’re adapting a book. Can you tell me about these screenwriting processes?

JC: The funny thing is, I don’t see adaptation and original stories as being all that different, in that, even when you write an original story, you’ve got to mine a whole lot of primary sources. You come up with an idea for a tale, and you can usually express it – in fact you should be able to express it in a sentence – and that might be the plot of a book, or it might be another idea.

SM: Your elevator pitch.

JC: That’s right. That’s the thing. And that should contain in it some idea of the theme of this thing; what is the territory that we’re talking about here? And I do believe that films have to be about something. You might not know it at the beginning, but there has to be some real thematic point to the story. So once you have that, you start accumulating research around it. Let’s say with Master and Commander, there were 18 books by Patrick O’Brien, so we read or listened to all of them. I have talking books, of the Aubrey-Maturin canon.

SM: Reading them all would have been a hell of a task.

JC: (Laughing) Reading it would be a massive task, but it’s easily possible now to listen to talking books to get your head around quite a lot of the material. And it’s all about condensing it down, in the same way with this current one I’m writing – The Drowner – set in Western Australia, there’s the novel itself, and the lovely love story in the novel, and then there’s also all this history that you’ve got to be across as well. Unless you know the world of the story you’re not really in command of this whole universe. So you get all these facts and information, and at some point in the process you get some sort of spine for how the stories going to go, and you find out where you can unload these little bits of research into each of these sequences. And then, what I do, is I break it up into component sequences, I write about a page of prose about each of the sequences, and then I have a 30 or 40 page book which is my bible, and then I write the script off that.

SM: Right.

JC: And then you put the dialogue in right at the end!

SM: It’s the least important. Thinking about that, where you said the idea is of the pitch is key, and that would be the same for live-action or animated, do you approach animated films with a different tact knowing that you have this almost limitless budget that can feature anything you can imagine, but on the other hand has to appeal to kids?

JC: You know animated films… some of the best screenwriting of recent years has come out of Pixar. And one of the reasons for that is you get to play around with the text and the pictures at the same time. And with animated films there is this wonderful ability to test out the film before you finalise it. So with Happy Feet, there was a stage a few months before we locked off the picture where we could actually still – you know how expensive to reshoot a live action film, but with animation once all the pictures are in the computer, you can change the beats a little bit and lines, so it does give you that freedom. So it means you can carry on refining all through the process. I think that’s why George Miller likes it so much. It allows you to fine tune every bit of the process.

SM: You mentioned The Drowner, and I certainly want to get back to that and your other projects. You also mentioned the experience of seeing Happy Feet edited as you wrote. I’m interested to know how much involvement the screenwriter has in the filmmaking process.

JC: Well, it depends on your personality and your relationship with the director. In my case I’ve been lucky, they’ve all been very collaborative. With Peter and I, on Master and Commander, we met and we talked out all the different ramifications of the story in drafts, moving backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, finally when Russell came on board there was another set of changes. Then they moved out to Mexico and filmed, and I turned up for a couple of weeks there. The problem with these great big massive movies is you then have 500 people working a thing and it’s quite difficult to change anything while you’re shooting. It’s all locked in there. Creation was slightly different in that it was a smaller, more flexible shoot on the set there, and it was then possible to write alternatives and we lost a couple of shooting days and we had to cut scenes, so yeah. That happens all the time. Jon Amiel would send me every cut of the film. “What do you think? What would you change?” And there’s a bit of voiceover in Creation so you’ve got a limited number of options as a writer to influence how the film’s going to be. But, there still are options. When Scott Hicks talks about Shine, which was quite a different film on the page to what it ended up being in the editing room. So they can change.

SM: Now you mentioned The Drowner. I’d like to ask how progress is going on that.

JC: So the first draft has been written, we’ve got Michael Apted signed up to direct which is really exciting, he’s doing the Narnia films at the minute, researching how to 3D-ify the Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

SM: Are we going to see The Drowner in 3D? (Joking)

JC: (Laughing) No we won’t see The Drowner in 3D. It’s kind of like The English Patient, it’s this expansive love story, set in a time and a place that people aren’t really aware of much. Turn of the century Western Australia and the book is beautifully lyrical and imaginative.

SM: I’ll finish up by asking: what are you working on now, or conversely, what would you like to finally see out of your other projects?

JC: Well, you know Dirt Music which I was writing for Phil Noyce, I recently delivered that, and you know, Russell Crowe was ostensibly attached to that, so we’ll see. I had great fun with Russell, so he’s keen to do the music for it. That was an interesting time, spending a bit of time with Russell, hanging out listening to his band.

SM: Can you tell us about that?

JC: There’s not much to tell really. You know he’s obviously a great actor and I kind of wanted to rewrite the character, and he was offered the part – this is a love triangle you know – of this rough tough fisherman, that seemed like the obvious part, but he was more attracted to the sensitive musician type, and it was my job to rewrite a rather good existing screenplay with that different character. I don’t know where that’s at now. So Guardians of Ga’Hoole [Legend of the Guardians] is definitely coming out at the end of this year, but it won’t have my name on it.

SM: Oh right.

JC: Because you know I wrote two drafts, but Zack – actually there’s a funny story – I got flown to L.A. by the producers to meet the director so with great pomp and circumstance we arrived in L.A. and Zack had just finished Watchmen, hadn’t read my script – read it – and then said ‘this isn’t what I’m after at all’ – so we flew back home (laughing).

SM: And are you writing anything at the moment?

JC: The Drowner is why I’m here really, just a little bit more WA research. I’ve been up there. I’ve been to Leonora and Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie, and all points West, so yeah, I’ve got a lovely next draft of that, and that’s going to take me over the Summer and then we’ll see what happens.

SM: Well John I hope we can talk on The Drowner publicity tour.

JC: Definitely.

SM: Thanks for your time John.

JC: Thank you Simon, really good to meet you.

Creation hits Australian cinemas July 15th. You can read about John’s proposed take on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not here.

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  1. AFI blog - May 17, 2011

    […] interesting interview with screenwriter John Collee (Happy Feet, Master and Commander) sheds some light on Collee’s […]

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