Screenwriter Andrew Knight is the recipient of the 2017 Australian Writers’ Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. It’s one of the country’s most prestigious honours and is in recognition of Andrew’s contribution to the Australian film industry over more than 30 years. Previous recipients of the Award include Laura Jones and Craig Pearce.
If you’re not entirely sure who he is, Google him, or here’s a quick rundown: The D Generation, Fast Forward, Full Frontal, SeaChange, Rake, Jack Irish, The Water Diviner, Hacksaw Ridge, recent Sydney Film Festival favourite, Ali’s Wedding and Spotswood.
Oscar winning screenwriter, Jan Sardi, said “it is impossible to overstate the impact and influence Knight has had on the Australian film and television industries and on our screen culture. Not only is Andrew prolific, award-winning and one of the most successful screenwriters this country has ever produced, he is also in possession of a uniquely Australian voice and outlook. You only need to have seen an episode of Rake or SeaChange to see that Andrew is very much the voice of Australia on our screens.”
I couldn’t agree more with Jan Sardi, which is why I was so nervous about speaking to him. I’ve seen Knight at a few lectures and at the Melbourne premiere of Ali’s Wedding, only a few days ago, but I’ve always been too chicken to walk up and talk to him. So, you could imagine my surprise when I was offered this interview. For a newbie screenwriter such as myself, having an hour with Andrew Knight is a rare opportunity. I was especially inspired by the latter part of the interview when I asked him, “How do you make sure your screenplay is what ends up on screen?” Wow, did I learn something. It was clearly a question screenwriters had asked him before and he was eager to school me on how to approach that question with smarts. But, I’ll get to that later…
So, like a screenwriter often does, when opening my conversation with Knight I started at the end. His latest film is the crowd pleasing Ali’s Wedding. It’s an extremely interesting project about an equally interesting person, Osamah Sami. The film is based on a true story about Osamah, a young Muslim man, who wants out of an arranged marriage after falling in love with an Australian-Lebanese girl.
I wanted to know more about how the film came to be. “Tony Ayres (Matchbox Pictures) and I had wanted to do a film for ages, and Tony knew I wanted to do something on refugees, but nothing political, I don’t like being political in films.” He knew the idea was coming from a first time writer, which wasn’t overly appealing to him, plus he was way too busy with other projects to take on anything new. So, Andrew was fully prepared to politely reject the idea – he even told his wife he was heading up to Tony’s place to do just that. But at Tony’s, he found Osamah Sami and his story so ridiculous and appealing that he came home that afternoon to tell his wife, “I’m doing the film.”
Ali’s Wedding doesn’t get political, it simply shows the Muslim community for how it is, human, and for me, that makes a bigger statement than trying to be overtly political. Andrew goes on to explain why being political in films doesn’t really work, “They only ever preach to the converted and you never end up changing anybody’s mind. When doing SeaChange with Deb Cox, we started out wanting to do a show about rampant capitalism, so philosophically we decided to do a story about under achievement and the merits in having a quiet life, but in the end it ended up turning into a real estate nightmare down the coast.”
If you don’t know, SeaChange was a smash hit – it’s a brilliant TV show. Andrew Knight has been able to tap into the zeitgeist on more than one occasion. It’s something most writers aspire to do, so I asked him what his secret was. Does he sit in a room plotting his next move with crystal balls and sociological graphs? He says, jokingly, “Yes, I have it all carbon dated and figured out.” He then retracts that and tells me all he really does is keep his ears open, and he tries to get a grip on what people are talking about around him. He has a huge interest in people and can talk to strangers for hours. He’s always drawing on real people for inspiration, when it comes to developing stories and characters. Knight recalls words of wisdom from his great friend, John Clarke, who once told him “If you want to work creatively and make money out of it, try to be three years ahead, because it takes three years to get something made.”
Working creatively and making money. That’s an idea! There are books on that kind of thing. So, I asked Andrew about screenwriting books and he passionately denounced them. “Everybody’s process is different, so a screenwriting book can’t tell you what will work best for you. You need to find out for yourself.” He’s especially frustrated with the books that tell screenwriters what page turning points need to happen on. “The only books I would recommend are from William Goldman, because Goldman is an actual tried and tested screenwriter, an amazing screenwriter, who knows what he’s talking about.” Andrew finds the biggest problem with cinema and TV at the moment is predictability, and screenwriting books are part of that problem. “Predictability is as big a threat to the medium as the camera was to art at the turn of the 1900s. The hero’s journey being replicated every day is boring, and the trick is to locate humanity and trigger something that’s interesting to people outside of: He’s a busted hero who’s trying to save himself from CGI”. He reminds me to be careful of who I get notes off, and to focus mainly on other writers’ notes. “I don’t like the notion that art is democratic, and everyone’s opinion is valid. It’s not. The Sistine Chapel wasn’t painted by putting it out for tender and getting notes on it – they got the guy who does ceilings.”
Knight confirms that he has been offered a bunch of CGI blockbusters, but hasn’t taken the bait yet. Ideas that turn him on are ideas like Hacksaw Ridge, a film about a pacifist in a war – it felt like new terrain to him. He then uses a turn of phrase that really grabs me, “I find myself constantly looking for narrative space, for something that people haven’t mined before. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel but you need to find a new design for the way it works.” A brilliant example he offers is when John Clarke called to tell him about a new idea he had, “Clarky rang me up saying he realised he’d found a way to make a living for a few years. I said, ‘Yeah, what is it?’ He said, ‘I’m gonna do interviews.’ I thought, well that’s the least interesting idea I’ve ever heard, John. He said, ‘In my first interview I’m going to be Meryl Streep. But I will not be wearing a wig, I will not be wearing a dress, I will just speak as myself. And I laughed, thinking that was so clever.”
Knight likes to know why he’s doing a project before he’s doing it – it’s hard to be inspired otherwise. He’ll work out his philosophical underpinnings and figure out what he’s trying to say about the world around him before he sits down to write. Plots and scenes will then pop up for him after he’s spent a lot of time deliberating with himself. He’ll often write scenes in the middle, or the last half, the first half – whatever comes to him. And there might be dialogue bits or scenarios that grab his attention, “I’ve never written a story from start to finish in my life.” For some ideas he needs to go to the edge of madness, and some come quite easily. He stresses, “You never want to be writing a script while sorting it out in your head. The purpose of the script is that you’ve already sorted it out.”
I asked Knight if he has a checklist when creating a character, he replies with “I have tests that I apply. One is, if I swap these two characters around, or change their names, would it be the same person talking?” Another thing he likes to do is, “If your protagonist is the main focus of the scene, what happens when you write it from the point of view of someone who’s just there to service plot? Sometimes the scene can get a little more interesting with some other stuff running. It’s all kind of osmotic. Most of the time we’re working in a primordial slime of our own creation.”
One of the many things I like about Andrew Knight as a screenwriter is he’s not afraid to be a populist. He wants to entertain an audience and feels a responsibility to do so. That doesn’t mean he panders to trends and cheap thrills, it means he consciously delivers something fresh while aiming to please. “The right to make a movie isn’t a birth right. You’ve got to go in with the sense that, ‘I think this will appeal to an audience’. And you’ve got to ask around a bit, hear some opinions when you’re finished. You can use small festivals to defend your art, but if no-one’s seen it, it’s been a waste of time. And for me, that means you need to do films that are different, brave and bold. The people who have mastered their art, make films that people watch and they still manage to break ground.” He cites Steven Spielberg as someone who’s been able to master that – he also mentions François Truffaut and his favourite filmmaker, Billy Wilder.
I wanted to know how Knight pitches an idea to producers or production companies. “I like the pitch to reflect the attitude rather than the plot. Plot pitches are riddled in too much detail. I try to entertain in my pitch, it needs to reflect the film. I don’t care for a 25-word pitch, that’s a whole other skill that isn’t screenwriting.” He goes on to say there are no rules, if there’s a bit of dialogue he thinks gets his message across, he’ll put that in the pitch. If there’s a scene or sequence that might help, he’ll put that in too. One might imagine that Andrew Knight doesn’t need to write up pitches anymore – I would have thought he’d just turn up and knock on Jocelyn Moorhouse’s door and say, “Hey, I’ve got an idea”. But that’s not the case, Andrew goes through the grueling process of writing up a pitch document like the rest of us.
This is when I asked him, “How do you make sure your screenplay is what ends up on screen?” It’s a question I’ve heard other writers talk about and I’ll admit to being hopeful about my own vision one day being on screen exactly how I imagined it. But all that has changed now. Knight very politely points out that he started working as a production manager, and in marketing at Film Victoria, so he gave himself a grounding in how filmmaking worked before he became a writer. “Some screenwriters can think their screenplay needs to be 100% on screen, but if they understood the filmmaking process better, and the problems everybody’s working with, professionally and in their personal lives, screenwriters would be better collaborators.” At this stage of his career, he likes a director to do a cut, then he likes to be in on a cut – it makes him a more collaborative writer. “If you want to be a great screenwriter, learn how to work with everybody in the room and allow everyone to have their space. Everything a screenwriter has in their head doesn’t exist in reality, so things won’t look like how you want them to look, and won’t always work how you want them to work.”
Knight also stresses the benefits of allowing yourself to learn from great filmmakers. Most recently, Mel Gibson was a huge influence on him, and on Ali’s Wedding he worked with legendary cinematographer Donald McAlpine (Moulin Rouge, Predator, Patriot Games, The Dressmaker, to name a few). “He wanted to build the romance up more in the film, with every frame, to make the film more than just a knockabout comedy – Jeffrey Walker, the director, was the same – and what you learn from that is, he’s got better ideas than you have. The problem we screenwriters face, is we’re told we’re the whole car but in reality we’re the wheels, the chassis, the engine, the gearbox – many of the things that make it work – but that’s not the entire reason most people buy cars. My wife buys a car based on the amount of coffee holders it has.” And here’s his key point which I find very poignant, “The reason we develop this syndrome is because we’re kept too far from the process in Australia. When you understand wardrobe, lighting, production design – when you understand what these people bring into a room, and how much they care and how passionate they are, you realise where you stand in the food chain, and you then try and work as well as possible with those people.
“The best thing a screenwriter can do is to articulate as clearly as possible what your intention is. Then when talented people are working with your script, they will show you things can be done in a million ways, your way isn’t always the best. But nonetheless, the screenwriter does need to make their intention clear, then let go if someone down the line can make it more interesting.”
Knight’s career has been spent in good company. When I asked who his favourite collaborators are, he doesn’t hesitate, “John Clarke. John and I were very similar – except that he was brilliant. We used to write together on impulse and we’d go away and sweep it up.” He’s also enjoyed working with Deb Cox for a long time, with Peter Duncan, Matt Cameron and Andrew Anastasios to name a few. “I like to work with good, nice people – with friends I get along with who are great at what they do.”
Andrew Knight is one of Australia’s most notorious screenwriters, and he’s been a mentor to way too many people to mention here. I can see why. Knight is a skilled conversationalist who’s a born teacher – he’s able to articulate complex feelings in digestible language. To echo Jan Sardi’s comment earlier, Andrew is the voice of Australian screenwriting and there’s something very Australian about him as a person too. He’s not too posh, not too ocker, he’s sincere, humble, willing to be self-effacing and the joke always wins.
Andrew Knight’s name was thrown around when I was a teen and adults would rave on about SeaChange. I remember hearing my parents and their friends reliving the episode of the week and they all had a favourite character (which was often Diver Dan). Of late, the same goes for Rake, and I’m positive there’ll be more brilliance to come. I’m personally looking forward to a film Andrew’s presently working on, a WWII story with Jocelyn Moorhouse called The Wedding Officer, adapted from a novel by Anthony Capella.
Upon being bestowed the AWG Lifetime Achievement Award, Knight said he was honoured and tremendously flattered: “As a writer you constantly feel like a canary in a mineshaft; unnoticed, ignored and unloved – so it is a great surprise to realise none of this is true.”