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Podcast – Jon Bell: writing for genre

Screenwriter Jon Bell discusses co-writing on RFDS, and bringing a First Nations perspective to the horror genre with his short film The Moogai.

Splice of a still from The Moogai, Jon Bell's headshot and a still from RFDS.

The Moogai, Jon Bell, RFDS

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Jon Bell feels like making The Moogai has been a return to his roots.

The psychological horror short that Bell wrote and directed made its premiere at Melbourne International Film Festival in 2020, won an award at SXSW in March this year and is set to screen at Sydney Film Festival. It’s also in development with Causeway Films to be turned into a feature film.

“It’s like a return to the reason that I actually first got into filmmaking,” Bell says on the Screen Australia podcast.

He says he first picked up a camera because of horror and sci-fi movies, where he and an uncle tried to recreate their own versions of Star Wars and Nightmare on Elm Street. But with The Moogai, which is also a commentary on The Stolen Generation, Bell says it also carries a personal resonance.

“It’s a time too to take stock of how far I might have come as a film practitioner, because when we were making stuff when we were kids, it was just sort of like zombies or ghosts,” he says.

“Now there's just all the subtext coming back to it 30 years later wanting to say something and using the genre to be able to make a commentary and put your thoughts out to the world.

“It was a nice mix to be able to come back to something and bring something new to it.”

There’s also a challenge in bringing a First Nations perspective to a genre project though – something Bell also found working on projects such as Black Comedy and Cleverman.

“On all of the things that I've worked on, it's kind of not just trying to tell the story of that particular show, but trying to find the form of the genre – like trying to find… not just a horror movie… but trying to find something that is specifically Aboriginal horror, it's just challenged me a bit,” he says.

“There's a lot of soul searching… where you're going ‘I don't know if this feels right’, because there hasn't been a lot of trial and error before that.”

Bell’s extensive career credits include creating The Gods of Wheat Street, as well as writing on Redfern Now, Black Comedy, Ready for This, The Warriors and Cleverman. His latest work can be seen on new Channel Seven series RFDS, where he was in the writing team and co-wrote Episode Six with series co-creator Ian Meadows. Produced by Endemol Shine, the drama series is set in Broken Hill and follows the lives of the doctors, nurses, pilots and staff working for the Royal Flying Doctors Service.

Bell, who hails from Casino on NSW North Coast, is a proud Wiradjuri, Bundjalung and Yaegl man, and talks about creating a strong sense of place on projects like RFDS.

“We've seen Broken Hill and western New South Wales in Mad Max or Wake in Fright and Priscilla,” he says.

“I think the sense of place in a lot of ways really does come from the… people. Like certain climates, certain environments really do breed a certain attitude…

“The way the place gets into their blood and comes out and is sort of exemplified through character… that's how you show place: through people.”

Bell’s episode was directed by his long-time friend and collaborator Adrian Russell Wills, who helmed two episodes of the series. Throughout the podcast, Bell also talks to collaborations like these, how he gravitated to writing as a means of staying connected to the Australian screen industry when he wasn’t living in the major cities, and career learnings.

RFDS is airing on Channel Seven and streaming on 7Plus. The Moogai will play at Sydney Film Festival in late 2021.

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Audio Transcript

[00:00:05] Caris Bizzaca Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast. I'm Caris Bizzaca, a journalist with Screen Australia's online publication, Screen News. On this episode the podcast, we are joined by Jon Bell, a television writer whose credits include The Gods of Wheat Street, Redfern Now, Black Comedy, Ready for This, The Warriors and Cleverman. He also co-wrote episode six of the new Channel Seven and Endemol Shine drama series RFDS, which is set in Broken Hill and follows the lives of the doctors, nurses, pilots and staff working for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The series is currently airing on Channel Seven and is available for catch up on 7Plus. Jon, who hails from Casino on the New South Wales north coast, is a proud Wiradjuri, Bundjalung and Yaegl man. Throughout the podcast, he talks about creating a strong sense of place through characters and their choices, as well as how he gravitated to writing as a means of staying connected to the Australian screen industry when he wasn't living in the major cities. Jon also talks about his award winning psychological horror short The Moogai, which he wrote and directed and which he's developing into a feature with Causeway Films. He speaks to stepping into directing and the challenges of bringing a First Nations perspective to a genre like horror, the genre that first inspired him to pick up a camera as a kid. To get every new episode of Screen Australia's podcast. Remember, you can subscribe through places like Spotify or iTunes, where you can also leave a rating and review. If you have any questions or feedback, send an email to [email protected] and remember to subscribe to Screen Australia's e-newsletter and you'll be sent all the latest news videos, articles and funding announcements once a fortnight. Without further ado, he's writer and director Jon Bell. 

[00:01:55] Caris Bizzaca Just to start off with, can you tell me a little bit about yourself: your background in the industry and some of the projects that you've worked on? 

[00:02:04] Jon Bell I'm pretty much self-taught. I studied music. I haven't studied any writing courses or directing. Mostly I sort of came to it [through] performance - dance and then acting and then I kind of moved into writing when I couldn't sort of be in Sydney. And I probably write musically, like in terms of structure and stuff. I've read sort but I'm sort of much more, in terms of writing structure and three-act, five-act and all that sort of stuff, come to it a little bit more now. But I probably still think melodically and harmonically, the way I write. And I wanted to go to AFTRS and I hit them up, and I can't remember who I talked to, but when I hit them up about the directing course, they said that, you know, they get heaps of applications and you sort of had to be outstanding, and I felt a little bit disheartened. Like I had no film experience at all. I'd been, you know, dance, performance, or acting. So I didn't end up applying. But what did happen was there was a call out from Metroscreen to make a short film, and they gave you like I think it was maybe two grand budget and then they gave you equipment. And so I made a short film through them, which was called And Justice for One. And that was back in 2002, I think. But I'd always been sort of making, you know, fooling around with video cameras. When I was younger, me and uncle, we were sort of right into it, you know, we made sort of horror and sci fi and we were writing Star Wars and Freddy Krueger and these sorts of things. So we kind of made those type films. But after that, I made a couple of shorts with Screen Australia and I didn't get chosen for one initiative for a short film. So I thought, oh, okay, well, I'll go off and just write. That's when I wrote The Gods of Wheat Street and it was kind of like ten and a half hours and it stood me in good stead for when I started on Redfern Now I was used to like an hour length script. You know, sometimes when you're jumping up from like a ten minute short film to an hour length. It can be a big thing. But I was actually went to sort of like a ten minute to a five hour series back down to an hour, so it kind of worked better. And I think if you do anything intensely, you just sort of force yourself to either get the structure or get the feeling or get what you need to get because you've got no choice. You just working at such a big length and it kind of becomes that old joke about how do you eat an elephant, you know, one bite at a time. There's no getting around the length you've got to get to. So even I've written a couple of features now and even that length is quite manageable. Like if there's any aspiring writers, just write. Write something massive so that when you come back and you have to write something, normal, human-scale, you can do it. It's doesn't sort of knock you around. 

[00:05:09] Caris Bizzaca It's not as intimidating.

[00:05:11] Jon Bell Yeah, absolutely. Like, it's not as intimidating. Absolutely. It helps. 

[00:05:15] Caris Bizzaca And so because it looks like the two episodes that you wrote on Redfern Now and then Gods of Wheat Street obviously another ABC series, happened kind of around a similar timeframe. So how did they actually come about Gods of Wheat Street and working on Redfern Now? 

[00:05:38] Jon Bell Well Sally Riley took over the Indigenous Unit or kicked off the Indigenous Unit at ABC, and I sort of had Gods of Wheat Street kind of ready to go. And when I took it to her, I think she was sort of developing Redfern Now at that point, so she said well why don't you jump on this as well. And sort of the process with The Gods of Wheat Street because I had those ten and a half hours, I just sort of made the first and the last episode into an hour and then basically joined the rest. And then we had like a six hour series. Yeah. So it was timing, really. 

[00:06:13] Caris Bizzaca Yeah. And you said, you started out in performance and acting and obviously you've done directing since as well. But what was it about writing in particular that you felt like you were drawn to?

[00:06:25] Jon Bell I guess not as much drawn to writing as much as it became about necessity. Like I had a family, we were in Casino, we weren't in Sydney. And basically we couldn't really afford to live in Sydney at that point and I was still really passionate about film, so it was just sort of like after work, just write madly for a couple of hours or if you could. And so it wasn't writing as such. It was just filmmaking, just being involved in film-making in some way and being in a regional area, there wasn't a whole lot... you know, there were opportunities that came up from time to time, but it was just more about having a passion for cinema. 

[00:07:05] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, okay. And so one of the projects that you've worked on is currently airing at the moment. So that's RFDS. Could you tell us a little bit about RFDS and you know how you came to work on it? 

[00:07:20] Jon Bell Well (co-script producer) Ian Meadows, who's just an absolute champion. He hit me up and I always thought he was a great performer. I love The Moodys. And I'm also a fan of sort of that stuff, like just that era when the first flying doctors was out. And I'm sort of really interested in aviation as well. So as soon as he hit me up, I wanted to work with him and (co-script producer and writer) Claire [Phillips] and (producer) Imogen [Banks] they were great too. Yeah, it was a great room to be part of. They'd done a bit as well. Adrian Wills, who I'd worked with on Redfern Now and just known forever, he was a part of it as well. So great crew. And you can just go back to that well, time and time again, you know, they're doctors and then they travel to places. You've just got endless stories you can conjure up. 

[00:08:13] Caris Bizzaca And, you know, you write your episode, which I believe is episode six with, as you said, the series co-creator Ian Meadows - who actually has an acting role in that particular episode as well - but how did it work co-writing that episode with Ian. 

[00:08:31] Jon Bell I had a couple of cracks at it and then he had a couple of cracks at it. And we just sort of had a yarn about it and then it was put together like, I'm pretty easygoing and so is he. We didn't sort of like go back and forwards 'no this has got to be in!' and really fight for anything. We both just sort of did our version of it and then swapped. And because he had the whole series - he was the voice of the whole series as well - he had a better idea about what was right for the series. And as an episode writer, I just trust what he's got in his head. 

[00:09:04] Caris Bizzaca And, you know, with kind of watching the series, something that really struck me is how the level of accurate detail that's in there, you know, medical terms and jargon, like someone breaks their tib-fib or something like that, like how do you approach having that added layer of complexity in the scripts with things like that for a medical series? 

[00:09:29] Jon Bell Oh well with that stuff. Absolutely, that was the stuff that I left to him. My medical knowledge extends to sort of fixing children's wounds, you know, like- 

[00:09:42] Caris Bizzaca Getting some BandAids. 

[00:09:45] Jon Bell Yeah, yeah. I'm not medical at all. So just between what I thought I knew and what I could Google, that was my best efforts at the medical. But he was much more across that, so I just had a crack and then left it to him. 

[00:10:00] Caris Bizzaca And did you feel like you could bring much in terms of, you know, you mentioned Casino and the series is set in Broken Hill and there definitely is like a great sense of place and location with RFDS. Did you feel like that was something that you were able to bring as well to the room and to your episode? 

[00:10:21] Jon Bell Yeah, absolutely. Like Australia on screen, regional Australia on screen. We've kind of seen Broken Hill and Western New South Wales and stuff like in Mad Max or Wake in Fright, Priscilla. All of these kinds of films that have gone out, so we do have a sense of that, but I think the sense of place in a lot of ways really does come from the sense of people too. Like certain certain climates, certain environments really do breed a certain attitude in people. Still lovely people, but people who live in a desert might be more concerned about resources than people who live in a sort of Eden and the people who are more concerned. I don't know. It just shows up in just ways that they think about things. You know, the people who have plenty of stuff just might be innately more frivolous. 

[00:11:14] Caris Bizzaca Yeah. It's like you're coming to it from like a character perspective of like, how do these characters function just based on the fact that they've lived in a regional city as opposed to, you know, someone that's maybe in the heart of Sydney or something like that? 

[00:11:28] Jon Bell Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And so you can still, like we've all seen enough of Australian films to know what the place looks like, but the people themselves, the way the place gets into their blood and comes out and is sort of exemplified through character, it probably sounds like it's not an answer to the question, but that's how you show place, through people. 

[00:11:49] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, definitely. And something as well that you mentioned earlier was how in the writing room for this Adrian Russell Wills was there, who co-write on an episode and also directed two episodes, including your one. But I was kind of noticing that Adrian Russell Will's worked on a number of different series that you've written on, you know, from Gods of Wheat Street, Ready for This, The Warriors and now RFDS. Do you kind of remember when you first started working together and how that's maybe evolved over the years? 

[00:12:22] Jon Bell Well, we met I guess it's got to be close to 20 years ago now. Yeah we've known each other forever. We were doing some short film workshops with Screen Aus back in the day, and we just always shared that real just a love of movies and like not always the minded stuff either, you know, just loving some sort of trashy 80s flick or some sort of low budget thing-

[00:12:52] Caris Bizzaca Or the big blockbuster things from the 80s. 

[00:12:56] Jon Bell Yeah! Or the big blockbuster things. Or something that has no soul but you kind of appreciate it for what it is. We've just always had that connection. And so, yeah, you're right there's a whole bunch of different things that I've written on and he's directed. We just see eye to eye creatively, I think. 

[00:13:12] Caris Bizzaca Yeah. Have you been able to be on the set for a lot of those when he's been directing those eps? 

[00:13:17] Jon Bell Yeah, yeah, absolutely. With Gods because I was co-producer and creator. But even that was just sort of like just to hang. Like I'm here if you need me. But if not, I'll stay out of your way. I'm always a big believer in when you're doing things like that, that you hire people for a reason. You hire them because you like their work and you kind of give them guidance if they need it, but otherwise work with them. It's a great thing just when you get on the same page as someone and you're both sort of feeding off each other and you are making it better. You are making it more interesting. More layer. 

[00:13:52] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, yeah. You're kind of supporting each other and by doing that, it's just adding kind of a depth to it that you maybe wouldn't otherwise have. 

[00:14:00] Jon Bell Yeah and it just hypes you both up, you know if you're like 'oh yes! Great idea - let's do that!' Sometimes there's the danger that you go, hang on did we just go way off track there? But you know, if you keep to the script a bit because when the script was written you kind of had the whole picture in your head. But when you get to find stuff, I mean, that's that's the joy of creativity. That's the joy of being on set. 

[00:14:27] Caris Bizzaca Can you think like a time that might have happened off the top of your head? 

[00:14:32] Jon Bell Oh, just even with The Moogai, the short, like working with all of those guys there. Shari Sebbens and Meyne Wyatt, the two main actors in The Moogai, we didn't have a lot of prep, but we had a yarn for a couple of hours just about our experiences with the supernatural, as you know, all being blackfellas and being from different parts of the country. And just the way that, you know, we had similarities and differences in the place that we come from and the way that some of that stuff fed into the performances that they gave and the way we thought about it. And it just felt like a really fruitful experience for me. But also with the cinematographer Sean Ryan for The Moogai, we had a similar sort of relationship where I storyboarded the film, but we just got into styles and talked. And even though these are just normal creative conversations that you have with with actors or DoPs or costume designers or anything. But there's something wonderful about when you're directing that you get to have all of the conversations. You get to have all the in-depth conversations with everybody. And it was good stuff. It was good stuff on The Moogai. 

[00:15:45] Caris Bizzaca And so, yeah, The Moogai - a short film, which you wrote and directed, won the jury prize in the midnight shorts section of South by South West in March this year. Congratulations. And I also believe is in development as a feature film, is that correct? 

[00:16:04] Jon Bell Yep, yep. It's a bit tricky. I'm sort of finding it a bit... on all of the things I've worked on it's kind of being, not just trying to tell the story of that particular show, but trying to find the form of the genre, like trying to find cinematic Aboriginal horror, not just a horror movie, even though it's got to work in that sense and not just like a popcorn horror movie, even though it's got to work in that sense, but trying to find something that is specifically Aboriginal horror, it's just challenged me a bit. I also found it quite difficult when I did Black Comedy, like in the first series basically Black which was Bob Maza and all that mob, what they did in the 70s was something that had gone before. But by doing Black Comedy, you couldn't necessarily lean on a whole heap of stuff of Indigenous sketches that had gone before because it was like, you know, had to find the form. 

[00:17:07] Caris Bizzaca Well you were creating something very new that maybe audiences weren't familiar with and similarly with Cleverman with sci fi. 

[00:17:16] Jon Bell Yeah, Cleverman was the same. Yep, absolutely. Each time, because there might not be a lot of history in the genre. There is some, but there's not a lot. You can't just rock in there and then just do a complete pastiche and get away with it. You have to genuinely try to get into the nuts and bolts of the form of the genre and really try and find what works.  

[00:17:39] Caris Bizzaca And you don't necessarily have any reference points to kind of say like, 'well, it's going to be a bit like this-slash-this' because, like you said, you're creating something that's completely unique because perhaps this perspective in this certain genre hasn't been seen before. 

[00:17:57] Jon Bell Yeah, yep. That's that's exactly right. Perspective and genre. Because all the genre elements, you're familiar with and then when you put perspective in it, then, I don't know, you can have these moments where you sort of go down a rabbit hole too where you're going, 'Is that my perspective or is that the perspective that I'm putting on it because I'm thinking about something else...?' So there's a lot of soul searching or something that goes into it, where you're going 'I don't know if this feels right', because there hasn't been a lot of trial and error before that. 

[00:18:27] Caris Bizzaca And for anyone that hasn't seen The Moogai yet, which it will be playing Sydney Film Festival later this year, and it also was at MIFF last year so people might have seen it then. It won an award there. Could you give us a bit of an idea of what the story is about? 

[00:18:47] Jon Bell It's about a couple who have a baby. And, you know, when they go from being a couple to becoming a family, that's a very different dynamic. And for this Aboriginal couple, because it's a commentary on the Stolen Generations as well, it's about what that child represents to forces outside your family. So something kind of follows them home and wants to take their baby. But it's just a very, it's not sort of like a dynamic big piece. It's sort of quiet. 

[00:19:20] Caris Bizzaca Like a psychological horror.

[00:19:21] Jon Bell Psychological horror, sort of an understated film. It's not a big, jump-scare type film. 

[00:19:27] Caris Bizzaca Was it kind of nice to step into that genre? I mean, you've written across a lot of different genres from Little J & Big Cuz, Ready for This and The Warriors in that kind of teen [space], Black Comedy, Cleverman, RFDS and then this one. But with The Moogai, you were saying when you first started out, you really loved Freddy Krueger and you have a love of of that genre. Was it nice to work within that genre, even though this is quite a different take? 

[00:19:56] Jon Bell It was. It was. It was really kind of a return to my roots in that sense, like a return to the reason that I actually first sort of got into filmmaking and a time too to take stock of how far I might have come as a film practitioner. Like because when we were making stuff when we were kids, it was just sort of like zombies or ghosts or things like these. And now there's just all the subtext and stuff coming back to it, sort of 30 years later wanting to say something and using the genre, using the form to be able to make a commentary and put your thoughts out to the world. It was a nice mix to be able to come back to something and bring something new to it. 

[00:20:40] Caris Bizzaca And how are you finding the development process, you know, working with Causeway Films and developing it as a feature film, comparatively, to your experience working in Aussie TV. 

[00:20:54] Jon Bell Totally different. Completely different. Like Kristina Ceyton, Samantha Jennings, Taylor Goddard, and Mitchell Stanley produced the short. And as we've gone into the next stage, there's a lot of, I don't want to say there's more love, but it feels like you are more loved, maybe, in the feature film space. In the TV space, people can just press a button and change the channel and it's just ruthless. So you've got to keep the people there and it's just more immediate in TV. In film, it just feels like, you know, you can take a little bit longer to set things up. You can go a little bit deeper when you need to. And, you know, they're both challenging and they're both rewarding in their own ways. Like there is certainly something very rewarding about about a sort of fast-paced thing that kicks off and keeps your attention for the full hour and then finishes. But there's also something about being able to take your time and tell kind of story that you want to tell. 

[00:21:56] Caris Bizzaca And from your work in TV, you've had directors, people like Rachel Perkins and Leah Purcell, Wayne Blair, Catriona McKenzie, as you said, Adrian Russell Wills - many, many different directors work on the episodes of TV that you've written. Did you kind of take any learnings from from observing how they work as directors into directing The Moogai as a short or even, you know, developing it as a feature? 

[00:22:26] Jon Bell Not as such, like I didn't spend a lot of time on set with everybody. Probably not in terms of writing, but in terms of just seeing how they operated on set and how they're negotiated everybody's perspectives and still managed to come away with with one perspective, like it still needs to be how the director sees it, that stuff was really interesting. I also did a week as an attachment on Thor 4 with Taika Waititi and it was really interesting watching him how to navigate the big machine as well, sort of the massive Hollywood apparatus behind that. There's just a lot to take in, but then still keep finding the way forward. That was probably what I got the most from watching people direct. How their own personal style, their own personalities, even came into play. 

[00:23:14] Caris Bizzaca And I was also just wondering, whether it's for like episodic TV or whether it's for your short or your feature. Do you have a particular writing process that you follow, whether it's a certain time of day or a certain number of hours, or is it kind of looser or more methodical? But what's your approach? 

[00:23:33] Jon Bell It used to be just go at everything, hell-for-leather- 

[00:23:37] Caris Bizzaca Whenever you could. 

[00:23:38] Jon Bell Yeah, yeah. Whenever I could. But I think I probably also had more time. But as my family's grown I've probably got less time and it's more now about specific times. Sort of like from ten to two, especially when everyone's at school, they're the real 'go at it' hours. But I used to sort of try to do like a good five pages a day. But, you might write 15, but you know that only five of them are good.. But now I'm sort of probably more critical. I'm sort of editing a bit more as I go, which I think the process was better before where you just do a brain dump and get everything out and then come back through it. That was how I used to do it. So I try to come back to that, go-at-it-hell-for-leather style because it worked. With Jimmy McGovern on Redfern Now, you'd put something like 58 pages or something and then 30 come back or 28 come back, but they're like the pretty solid 28 and then maybe you send it back 58 and then 34 come back and you just keep building it up and you end up with this really dense story that absolutely has forward momentum and absolutely has sort of one character perspective and absolutely kind of is the style of the kitchen sink drama that Jimmy McGovern does. And I have found the stuff that I learnt from him like that, I have found that really useful. But as much as I can, I try to just get that ten (am) to two (pm) in every day if I can. 

[00:25:06] Caris Bizzaca Yeah, yeah. So your style you're saying is is perhaps more like just get it down, get as much as you can down and then you can pare it back from there. But it's about kind of getting it down, so like you said, if it's like 30 pages and then you find that the heart of it is in that 20 pages and you can work on it from there.  

[00:25:26] Jon Bell Yeah because there will definitely be a lot of bad stuff in there. They will definitely be a lot of stuff where you just went, 'I don't know I'm just trying to make my pages'. If you're really going to do it, you just have to dive in and go as hard as you can. And then when you're spent, you have to be honest enough with yourself to say 'I've barely scratched the surface' and then dive back in again. And it's only through that that you really come away with something really, really satisfying. 

[00:25:51] Caris Bizzaca Oh, fantastic. Well, we'll leave it there. But thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today and talking to us all about your various projects. 

[00:26:00] Jon Bell Thank you for the opportunity. 

[00:26:04] Caris Bizzaca That was writer and director Jon Bell and a reminder that our RFDS is airing on Channel Seven now, while The Moogai will be screening as part of Sydney Film Festival later this year. The Gods of Wheat Street, Redfern Now, Black Comedy, Ready for This and The Warriors are all available on ABC iview. To catch every new episode of the Screen Australia podcast, subscribe through iTunes or Spotify, and remember to subscribe to the fortnightly Screen Australia newsletter for all the latest updates from the local industry. Thanks for listening.