Again my apologies that we haven’t arrived in London yet, but this last little tale about my early efforts to break into writing leads up to my departure from Australian shores. So there I was, stuck with a script called The Steel Prince and no idea what to do with it. There was certainly no way I could get Film Victoria interested in it. I had met with someone at their offices a few years earlier after I sent them the first script I had ever written: a horror story called “The Inheritance” which was a cross between Dirty Harry and The Exorcist; after reading it, the woman I met with at FilmVic told me “you certainly know how to structure a screenplay” but went on to assure me that they did not make films like that in Australia so I would be better off going to Hollywood. Hah! I was around eighteen-years-old at the time so Hollywood might as well have been Mars as far as I was concerned. The upshot was though, that if they hadn’t wanted to make a movie like The Inheritance, then they certainly weren’t going to make The Steel Prince. But I had not a clue on how I’d ever get a script to someone in Hollywood so it would be gathering some dust. Around this time (I guess it was about a year before my eventual conversation with David Tomblin and my departure for London) I was reading a book on the making of “Return of the Jedi” and found some things that the film’s director, Richard Marquand, had to say very encouraging. One thing in particular was how his agent mentioned George Lucas was looking for someone to direct Jedi and suggested they throw Marquand’s name into the mix. Marquand scoffed at the idea and thought there was no way Lucas would even consider a small-time English director who had done no big movies. His agent insisted, however, and it turned out that Lucas was a fan of one of Marquand’s earlier films “Eye of the Needle” and agreed to meet him. Long story short, he got the job and wound up directing Jedi. That story made me think he might just be able to relate to my hopelessness of ever getting a script to a Hollywood agent and therefore he might be willing to help me. Again, I turned to my letter writing skills. I found out that he was editing a movie in France and sent the letter to him there, telling him about myself and The Steel Prince. Lo and behold I got a letter back from him telling me he would be happy to read my script. I sent it to the cutting room he was working in in Paris, and over the next several months, I exchanged letters with Richard Marquand (I still have them in my files at home in Melbourne) as he helped me develop The Steel Prince through two more drafts. After that he sent it to his agent at Creative Artists Agency (who I think at the time was Rosalie Swedlin) to see if he could help me get some representation. Nothing ever materialized from that but Marquand was a true gentleman for all his help and tolerance. Next chapter: London (for real this time) and a further adventure with Richard Marquand).
Okay, I know Chapter 2 was supposed to be London, and I apologize for the fake out, but I recall some stuff that means we stay in Melbourne for a bit longer. It pertains to my attempts to become a successful writer, which (despite having embarked on a long relationship with doing odd jobs, photocopying and filing after I left home to chase my dreams) was one of the two reasons I wanted a career in the film industry to begin with (the other being to direct). As a kid growing up in Australia, I never had any interest whatsoever in seeing any Australian films. To me, they were all just boring costume dramas with pretentious aspirations to greatness. I know the Aussie film industry has turned out some gems, but they still seem to make mostly crap with pretentious aspirations to greatness. It’s sad. Australia has great actors and directors who, once the opportunity arises, get their asses to Hollywood as fast as they can so they can become superstars. But the movie business in Australia (at least for making Australian films) has no real financing to speak of and so filmmakers have to rely on organizations such as Film Victoria, who from what I’ve read lately, spend more money wining and dining their friends and fat cat politicians than they give to any filmmakers. So it’s no wonder the Aussie film biz doesn’t turn out an original Australian superhero movie or real big action/adventure. So anyway, when Mad Max came out I naturally thought oh here’s another crap Aussie movie – and with a really dumb title no less. So I didn’t see it when it first came out. I also had no interest in seeing Mad Max 2 for the same reasons, but my sisters kept telling me “no, it’s nothing like what you expect from an Aussie movie” so I relented and went to see it. And I was blown away. It was amazing and at first I couldn’t quite believe it had been made by Aussies. In fact I was so blown away that I immediately sat down and wrote a 5 page synopsis for Mad Max 3 called “The Steel Prince”. Then I researched everything there was to know about the filmmakers and after reading an interview with the film’s producer, Byron Kennedy, in which he mentioned all the reasons why he and George Miller made an Aussie movie that was, well, essentially NOT an Aussie movie in the typical sense, I thought I have to get my synopsis to Byron Kennedy. I had no idea how to do that so I started with the basics, writing him a letter introducing myself and my synopsis and telling him how awesome I thought Mad Max 2 was (I left out that part about not seeing the first one) and how badly I wanted to join his production company and be a writer. I sent it to Kennedy/Miller Productions in Sydney and thought, well; maybe I’ll get a reply. A week or so later the phone rang one evening at our house and my dad answered. I was in the living room and not paying attention, but my dad walked in and said: “Rob, there’s a feller named Byron Kennedy on the phone for you.” I thought yeah sure, it’s just one of my friends (who all knew about my synopsis and the letter I’d sent to him) playing a joke. But when I picked up the phone and said hello and heard this really deep, really serious voice on the other end, I knew right away that it was Byron Kennedy on the frikkin line! I couldn’t believe it! He told me he was intrigued by my synopsis and wanted me to flesh it out into a 60 page treatment and send it off to him. I was like sure Byron no worries I can do that and I’ll get it to you in two weeks. I had no idea what a treatment was or how I was going to flesh out my 5 page synopsis (I’d only just found out what one of those was) to sixty pages. But I’d just talked to the creator/producer of the Mad Max films and told him I’d have a treatment to him in two weeks and by God I was going to keep my word. I read some books my mom and dad had given me on screenwriting and discovered that a treatment was just a story written in present tense that basically laid out the plot structure and beats of an idea in a form similar to what you might see in a book. That was a relief. It was just writing. And I knew I could do that. I sat down and pounded out a treatment on the typewriter my parents had bought me (God bless them they completely supported my crazy aspirations of being a writer and never doubted me). I don’t remember if I got exactly sixty pages but I know it was pretty long. I don’t even remember where all the ideas came from – they just sort of started flowing when I started typing. Never mind that it was mostly crap. There was some pretty awesome stuff in “Mad Max 3: The Steel Prince” by Robert Shaw. I sent it off and got a call a couple days later from Byron’s secretary telling me he’d received my treatment and would be getting in touch with me once he got back from a trip he was on. And I thought this is it, I’m on my way to success. So I waited. And then a few weeks later one of my friends (I think it was Phill Dimitroff or his brother Martin) told me Byron Kennedy was dead. He’d been killed in a helicopter crash while away on some trip. I didn’t believe him. But why would someone joke about something that awful. It was no joke of course and I was devastated. I mean, never mind the fact that it was bloody terrible that the guy had been killed – that really was an awful tragedy – but I’d be lying if I didn’t also think well frak, what about my story treatment? (Selfish right? I know. I was young and I apologize for it). I waited a while and then called Kennedy/Miller Productions and asked what was going to happen to my treatment. The girl I spoke to didn’t know what I was talking about and of course I couldn’t get in touch with Byron’s secretary – the one who’d called to say he’d received my treatment – I didn’t remember her name and when I asked to speak to his secretary they told me she wasn’t there anymore. A few months went by and I went to Sydney to try and shed some light on the subject but was not warmly received by anyone at Kennedy/Miller so that was the end of that. I refused to see Mad Max 3 when it came out but a few of my friends that had read my treatment swore it had scenes out of my treatment in it. I had Max captured by an enemy camp and forced to fight in a pit against a huge half-man/half-machine opponent named Sordak, who was clad in metal and a mask. The pit was surrounded by cheering/jeering enemy members of the camp; Thunder Dome had the fights in the Thunder Dome cage. I had Max discover a tribe of friendly people and kids in a sort of hidden oasis base; Thunder Dome had the kids in the desert oasis. Did they rip off some ideas from my treatment and adapt them for their own use? Maybe. But it was decades ago and I’d never be able to prove it. Anyway, I decided to write a script from my treatment and just take out all the Mad Max stuff – which was easy. I ended up with a script called The Steel Prince, which was a sort of Sword & Sorcery/ground based Star Wars hybrid that I thought (at the time) really rocked. Then I read about an Aussie director named Russell Mulcahy who had just made a movie called Razorback – which turned out to be a great Aussie film and the first of its kind in Australian cinema. I read that he was editing the movie up in Sydney at the offices of McElroy & McElroy, the company that produced the movie, so I called to ask if he’d be interested in reading my script. Man, in retrospect it seemed way easy to get in touch with movie producers and directors back then because when I got put through to the cutting room Mulcahy actually took my call. After a brief discussion he agreed to meet with me and read my script if I brought it up to Sydney. So I hopped on a plane. When I got there I called him and he said to swing by his condo the next morning around 10am. Luckily I went early because when I arrived I bumped into him as he was heading out to have breakfast. He’d forgotten all about me. Anyway, I handed him the script and he said “Oh, is this it?” I guess it didn’t look too impressive. Anyway, he said he’d read it and would let me know. So I hopped a train back to Melbourne and followed up with another call about a month later. When I talked to him again he told me he wasn’t interested in doing Sword & Sorcery. I guess he was as impressed by the reading of my script as he had been by the receiving of it from me. Oh well, looking back I realize my script was crap anyway. Mulcahy’s next movie was Highlander so I guess he became interested in doing Sword & Sorcery after all. And Highlander was a way better script that mine!
Robert Shaw invites you to read his modern Gothic zombie tale The Scare, and the YA comedy/drama Girlfriend Trouble, and his upcoming third novel, the thunderously violent slightly sci-fi tale of how the Old West wasn’t, which will be available on Amazon and other outlets soon.
Boy, I hope I’m doing this right. I’m not blog savvy. Well, I tried to start a blog on eBlogger but darned if I can figure that site out so it’s gonna go here (in episodic stages kind of like the way old Charles Dickens used to publish things in Household Words way back in the late 1800s). It’s called Uselysses an OddEssay on my struggles to find success in the movie biz (ugh, what a terrible curse! why didn’t I want to do something easy like be an astronaut?). Anyway, it began in Melbourne Australia where I managed to land a job with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (the ABC, but not the U.S. version) at their Ripponlea Studios center. My job title was Location Assistant, and the duties entailed driving cast members to and from the studio to whatever location we were filming at on any given day. It was an easy gig – drive them to location, sit around and watch filming until it was time to take someone back to the studio. I got to meet some Aussie stars (but these were in the days before Nicole Kidman or Russell Crowe were stars so not them), and I worked with Kylie Minogue before she was ever heard of. She told me she had gotten the role by accident and was planning on going to college after shooting was completed. The next I heard of her was a few years later, when I was working in London. I was listening to this happy little pop song on the radio and when it ended the DJ announced it was by new Aussie singing sensation Kylie Minogue. I was like, wow, so much for college and good for Kylie. Boy, I wish I knew her nowadays.
Anyway, I had this job for about two years and worked on a couple of shows before I decided it wasn’t enough work or experience to really help me out. I interviewed on many films for a job as a runner (the bottom of the ladder in production) but couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I couldn’t land a job. I mean, being a runner? I could handle that in my sleep. To make it sound like I had more experience, I would say in interviews that in addition to driving the mini bus, I would also help out on set when able, like helping out the grips and whatnot. Now, being inexperienced as I was, I had no clue that the moment I said this whoever was interviewing me knew I was lying. Because (as I learned later while working on a show in England) it was absolutely against union rules for anyone not a grip to even touch any of the equipment or go near it. So I never got a job because no one bothered to tell me “look dude, I know you’re just trying to get a job, but when you tell me you helped out the grips I know it’s B.S. so forget it.” Why couldn’t someone just tell me that? They wouldn’t have to hire me. Just arm me with the information that could save me in my next frigging interview. Yeesh!
So I never did get a job as a runner on any Aussie movies. It was time to head for different shores. I got in touch with a very famous (in the movie biz) 1st A.D. (that’s a first assistant director) named David Tomblin who at the time did all of Steven Spielberg’s and George Lucas’ films and asked if he would help get me a job if I came to England. I’d just read an interview with him in a magazine and he sounded like a cool guy so I figured I’d send him a letter. Since he’d done a lot of work on Spielberg’s movies I figured I’d call Amblin Entertainment’s offices and see if they had an address for him. Their receptionist put me through to someone’s office and when I explained to the girl who answered that I wanted to find out where to write to David Tomblin she said – and this is no word of a lie: “well he’s standing right behind me so would you like to talk to him?” Hell, I didn’t want to talk to the guy! I wanted to figure out how to present my case and put it all in an extremely well-written letter that he wouldn’t be able to ignore. So like an idiot I said: “Sure, I’d love to talk to him.” He got on the phone and I stuttered my way through an introduction and then managed to tell him I was gonna go to England and try and get a job in the movie business. He told me I was crazy. But he said if I went to England he would meet with me and try and help me get a job (told you he was a cool guy). He did warn me that there was no guarantee (is there ever?) and that I shouldn’t go to England merely on the hopes that he could get me onto a movie crew. I told him I was getting nowhere in Australia and that I was off to England no matter what. So he gave me his number in London and said call him when I got there. So I bought a plane ticket and off I went (well, it was a little more detailed and a helluva lot harder than that makes it sound but these are the broad strokes here). Next chapter: London