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Celebrating screenwriter Laura Jones

She’s one of the most accomplished women in film, but Laura Jones hates being the centre of attention.

Nicole Kidman starred in Portrait of a Lady

And so she says it’s a little daunting to get the AWG Lifetime Achievement Award. With credits for screenplays on films like An Angel at My Table, Portrait of a Lady and Angela’s Ashes, Laura Jones has worked with some of the world’s best producers and directors.

Born in 1946, the only child of writer Jessica Anderson and graphic artist Ross McGill, Jones grew up in Sydney and went to the National Art School before joining the ABC on a six week attachment, being thrust into writing original scripts for telemovies.

“Telly was my film school. It exposed me to every step of the process. The turnaround was fast, which was very good experience. You wrote a script, went to read-throughs, then rehearsals and the shoot and saw your work made in a very short time.”

Self-employed since those early days, Jones generally writes a first draft in around four months, working mostly in the mornings at home.

The first film Jones was offered was an adaptation of Blanche d’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach. Although she did not stay on the project (which was besieged with personnel problems) the process was a revelation.

“I loved taking apart the novel and finding the key to it, which sometimes would be buried two thirds of the way in” she says.

In the mid-seventies Jones met Pat Lovell who introduced her to Gillian Armstrong.  They worked together on an adaptation of George Johnson’s Clean Straw for Nothing starring the then unknown Judy Davis. Although the film never happened, firm collaborations had been established and Jones had continued to hone her craft.

“I learned so much on that project about structure and writing for actors.”

Together with producer Sandra Levy, Armstrong and Davis, Jones developed the original screenplay for High Tide (1987) with Davis in the lead and the unknown Claudia Karvan in her first role.

After winning the AFI award for best screenplay Jones says modestly, “The work just came to me. I was never an initiator. And a lot of things I worked on did not get made such as The Playmaker, an adaptation of Tom Keneally’s novel by Peter Weir and a project very close to my heart, my mother’s novel Tirra Lirra By the River."

Chemistry with collaborators is a mysterious thing but Jones found it with Jane Campion on An Angel at My Table and cemented it with their collaboration on Portrait of a Lady.

“Jane often brings a different perspective to a project” she says.

“I was already a big Henry James fan and also liked the fact that Jane was so interested in states of mind. She was also intrigued by the dialogue of the period.

“With all its themes of secrecy and game playing, it was like a nineteenth century House of Cards and really satisfied my interest in unsympathetic characters.”

Jones prefers not to meet with writers whose books she is adapting although some, such as Frank McCourt, insist.

“It can be confusing if they have an opinion” she says. (She avoided Janet Frame until they were on location!)

Jones sees the current appetite for adaptation as a symptom of “everyone looking for certainty. Working on an existing text may make you feel more secure but that’s an illusion: the questions you have to address are just as tough and sometimes the process of translation  can be just as difficult as with original material.”

Jones confesses she is currently writing a contemporary original screenplay for the first time in many years. “I’m testing those old muscles again.”

Laura Jones will receive the inaugural AWG Lifetime Achievement Award at the Screenwriters Conference.