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Rolf De Heer on a changing industry

Writer/director/producer Rolf de Heer on the evolution of the Australian screen industry, his advice for aspiring filmmakers and his unique writing process.

Filmmaker Rolf de Heer’s extensive, acclaimed career has spanned decades, genres, languages and cultures: from the jazz-infused Dingo starring Miles Davis, to the love story in Dance Me to My Song, the ancient Indigenous storytelling in Twelve Canoes, and working with David Gulpilil to bring Charlie’s Country to life.

The journey of each film – from concept to script, shoot and the final edit – has varied throughout de Heer’s three-decade plus career; a knowledge that he’s passing on to the next crop of filmmakers breaking into film.

“In situations where aspiring filmmakers are hungry for inspiration and knowledge, I’m usually prepared to help,” de Heer, who’s based in Tasmania, said.

In 2016, de Heer was asked by Screen Tasmania to be a special guest consultant for their Pitch, Plot and Produce initiative with Screen Australia.

The low-budget feature film initiative helped three teams develop their concept over eight months to a point where they could take it to the market and attract finance. The teams included:

  • Motel from director/co-producer Briony Kidd and co-producer Catherine Pettman
  • Once Upon a Porno by director Bec Thompson, producer Elise Taylor and writer Carrie McLean
  • The Vanity Unit by writers/producers Franz Docherty and Belinda Bradley, and director/producer Clayton Jacobson.

Filmmakers Sophie Hyde, Zak Hilditch, and Jonathan auf der Heide were the three main mentors, however de Heer came on board to give his perspective during several workshops.

One of his key messages for aspiring filmmakers is that scripts take time.

“It’s actually much better to take more time because 50% of your entire project is what your script is, so don’t underestimate it. And don’t think that by suddenly having an initiative you can churn out a quick script.”

He is speaking from experience. De Heer spent more than a decade writing Bad Boy Bubby. “And I obviously didn’t work on it the whole time, but I worked on it consistently over a period of 11 years and I think it was able to be the sort of film it was because of that.”

Does an idea change over the course of 11 years?

“Well it developed rather than changed. But it didn’t diverge from the original intent,” he says.

Although he is quick to note that not every project will benefit from a decade in the writers room.

“It doesn’t always take that long and depending on what it is, it doesn’t always need to take that long.

“Really what one of the messages is, is you have to go further and to greater lengths than anybody else is going to, if you’re going to have half a chance. This is not easy. You can’t just put down on paper what is in your head. It’s hard work. It’s discipline. It’s all those things and unless you’re prepared to apply those things, you’re very lucky to get anywhere.”

For those that have the stamina and passion to see it through, de Heer says: “Don’t put all your eggs into the shoot.”

“People who haven’t made films think that it’s all about the shoot. Well it’s not. The shoot is perhaps 15 or 20% of the process,” he says.

“If there are problems, you’re not going to fix it there.”

de Heer says the shoot is generally his least favourite part of filmmaking.

“When you’re writing you’re completely uncompromised. You can do anything you like and it can all be perfect. Then pre-production is this time of organisational hope where you’re trying to put it together in such a way that you maximise your chances of not much compromise on the shoot. And then you shoot and you compromise,” he says.

“And everybody has to compromise, it’s not just the director.

“The DoP would like more time to set the lights beautifully or to wait for the light to be perfect, but there isn’t more time.

“The actors often feel they sit around waiting (as everything is set up), and then suddenly they’re on set and it’s all over in five minutes, because there is no time.

“(Or) it’s a period piece and aeroplanes keep going overhead and the sound recordist keeps going mad, because he can’t get good sound.

“It’s tough. Almost anything you do is a compromise for the idealised aim that you have and that’s the way it is, particularly in Australia where the budgets are limited and you can’t just keep shooting until the cows come home, but even in Hollywood, where they spend the $50 million or the $100 million and they do keep shooting until the cows come home, even then, (there is).”

de Heer has written or co-written more than a dozen of his films. When he’s speaking to The Screen Blog, it’s at the end of an intense writing period of quite a few months. So what does a day of writing for de Heer look like?

He explains he’s up at 6am and by 6:10am is working, with a cup of tea in hand, where he stays until around 1pm. While there’s no strict rule about it, he tries not to work on the script in the afternoon.

I’m very regular in my writing and very focused. I work without any computer programs. No Final Draft.”

Instead he handwrites scenes (complete with dialogue) on cards, which are stuck up on the wall.

“I work with cards on the wall for the first 90-95% of the process, so the entire script gets put up on the wall in the end.”

For complex projects like the one he is working on, the cards are colour coded – and sometimes have different coloured pins, or even coloured stickers on them.

“It’s just a terrific visual way to deal with things.”

He doesn’t plot. And he doesn’t write in a linear way, from beginning to end.

“Sitting behind a typewriter and trying to figure out what happens next is horrible. It’s horrible.”

Instead he sees it like a mosaic.

“I could start with a scene at the end and work backwards. I could start in the middle and work either way.”

From one scene, questions are raised that lead to writing more scenes around it.

“Say you’ve got half a sentence up on a card and you think ‘I’ll just see what happens if I just fiddle with it and make it a proper scene’. You work on that for a bit and you put it back up (on the wall) and think ‘well that’s given me half a thought about what I might need in this other scene over here’ … and it just sort of grows.”

Once all the cards are up on the board, de Heer then starts typing it up as the script.

“I learned very early that a good screenplay has got very little inspiration but a great deal of perspiration. It’s just hard work. There are days where I do more than other days, but it doesn’t bother me. Because I’m still thinking about it and still processing stuff and you just work away at it.”

de Heer is also very conscious of how rapidly the industry is changing with technology – and has changed – since he started out.

“Who would have thought there would have been YouTube stars five years ago,” he says.

Rolf de Heer

Does he think the pathway to becoming a filmmaker was clearer before?

“Oh absolutely. Much clearer. You felt there was a pathway – that there was a stability to things.

“To become a professional filmmaker now, it’s much more difficult, because there are many more people wanting to do it and the pathways are less certain. And how do you make money out of making material for the internet? It’s very difficult.”

On the other hand there are more opportunities, like easy access to equipment and software.

“Whereas when I started you could really only shoot on film. And shooting on 35mm film, the cost and the team that you would require… you could do Super 8 I guess and some people did but they had a hard time getting attention.

You can make something of extremely high quality for next to nothing now, so in that sense it’s easier, but it’s much harder in many other respects.”