Discovery-driven Process in Screenwriting – Interview with director Margot Nash

Shortly before the interview, I found out that Margot Nash and I had attended the same Screenwriting Research Network Conference in 2011 in Brussels. I was a Screenwriting student at the Université Libre. She took the plane from Sydney for four intense days of research [editor’s note: Margot Nash is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Sydney]. I’m more than honoured to present to you her views on screenwriting. The Silences holds a very special place amongst her films.

The Silences is a cinematic essay on a very personal subject: Feminist director Margot Nash investigates her family’s past and tells us about the secrets from her childhood. No one told her that her father was mentally ill. Another secret unfolds as the story goes on and her narration takes us through time. Based on beautiful pictures from the 1950s, intermingled with extracts of her own films and  video clips, illustrated by a delicate piano score, Margot Nash’s film is a poetical gem of images and sounds.

When Sally Met Welly (W.S.M.W): You’re a Professor in Screenwriting. Could you tell me how you approached writing the screenplay of this particular film?

Margot Nash: When I went to Brussels, I presented a paper at the Screenwriting Research Network Conference called “Unknown Spaces and Uncertainty in Film Development”. I was critical of the market-driven way screenwriters are forced into having a script of the finished film before receiving money to make the film as so many things change during the process. I was interested in the way artists work, that is, much more in the discovery-driven process. You step into an unknown space, you explore it and you find out new things. I believe a level of uncertainty is part of the creative process.

So, I wanted to put this theory into practice. I had a 14-week paid filmmaker residency at Zürich University of the Arts in 2012. I only had to do a couple of master classes, and the rest of the time was for me. I thought: I want to engage a discovery driven process.

I began without a script, but I taught myself Final Cut Editing – I had been a film editor before but then I became a filmmaker and other people edited, so I needed to learn this again. I took all of the material with me: still photographs of the family that I had scanned, some rushes that I had shot with my sister in New Zealand some time before, and my cinema, the films that I’ve made over a long period and in which I had recreated images from my family history. I made experimental films in the 1980s, which were full of dreams and memories that I had drawn from my childhood and I made a feature film in 1994 in which I based the character of the father on my own father.

W.S.M.W: Did you recreate the scenes from you childhood consciously at that time?

M.N.: Yes, I knew it at the time. It helped me to develop other stories. I’d also made a documentary about young girls in care and at risk, in which I interviewed them on voice but I didn’t put them on the screen because I wanted to protect them. I developed little visual vignettes to illustrate their stories and a lot of their stories drew a parallel with mine. I realised I could use those images too.

So, I took everything I could and I jumped into that unknown space, like you would if you were writing a screenplay. I started writing with the pictures and I began to write the narration. The film is driven by the voice.

“I didn’t have a solid script before I started.”

W.S.M.W: But did you have a beginning and an end?

M.N.: I had a beginning and I sort of had an end, and I knew the story I wanted to tell but I didn’t know how I was going to tell it. So I just intuitively explored different ways of telling the story. I came back from Zürich with a rough cut of the film and I screened it to a few colleagues and friends. There were problems with it, of course, and I had to go back and cut things out, restructure it, then show it to other people and go through the process again.. Like with any script, I needed to bring craftsmanship to its construction and change things.

W.S.M.W: You’re used to telling new stories drawn from your own memories. Why did you choose to make a documentary and not a feature film this time?

M.N.: I had script development money to write a feature drama. I wrote one. It told the same story in a very different way. But this was a ten million dollar movie: a period film, set in the 1970s. By that stage, I was working full-time at the university and it would have been very hard to raise such money. I thought: “Maybe I could make a documentary”. When I realised that I could use my own films, I thought I might just have a film.

The Zürich Residency created  a space to see if I had a film or not. When I came back, I knew I had a film but I still needed to find a structure. It’s not chronological, because if it were, it would have killed the story. It would have no drama anymore.

W.S.M.W: So, how did you finally find a structure in this discovery-driven process?

M.N.: I was way into the editing before I got the structure. When I went to Wisconsin to the Screenwriting Research Network Conference, a screenwriter called Larry Gross gave a keynote called “The Watergate Theory of Screenwriting”. Watergate was a huge scandal with United States President Richard Nixon and the big question at the time was: “What did the President know and when did he know it? Gross asks, “In screenwriting: What does the audience know and when do they know it? What do the characters know and when do they know it?” He showed us clips from a beautiful film by Kurosawa called Ikuru where Mr Ikuru is dying of cancer. The film opens with an X Ray and we see his cancer. He doesn’t know it, but we know. We are in suspense: When is he going to find out?

I found that was really interesting. So, instead of telling the story chronologically so the audience would find out about my father mental illness when I did, I thought: “Why don’t I tell the audience, first?” So now you step into my film knowing that my father was mentally ill, as I tell this in the opening sequence.

This was a terrific help to me in structuring the film. The second secret again works on this Watergate Theory of Screenwriting. I wanted the audience to find out the second secret when I did. It’s a surprise, then we have to find out more about it. Like Hitchcock always said: suspense and surprise.

It was a difficult structure to discover. But it works! I think it works.

The Silences_Sisters -Margot and Diana Nash_1955

W.S.M.W: If your students want to start out in the film industry, they need to stick to the market-driven way of considering screenwriting. How do you teach them this discovery-driven process?

M.N.: I teach them both. The Silences is a particular kind of film. This is a festival film. It was never meant to go to the multiplex cinemas. For the first time as a filmmaker, I didn’t go to the funding bodies because I wanted to take time to discover how to tell a story without the pressure of pleasing others. When I teach screenwriting, I try to make my students understand that, the discovery-driven process needs to happen in the very early stage of creative development and then in the very last stages too. You’ve got to work intuitively in the beginning, and not just stick to a formula. Of course, I teach the basic three act structure. But if anybody is going to do anything in the film industry, their voice has to be unusual and distinctive. If you just make something like everybody else has done before and work the same way, no one is going to be very interested.

Jean-Claude Carrière, who wrote a wonderful book called The Secret Language of Film. He really talked about working intuitively, and he worked with Buñuel and the masters!

W.S.M.W: Yes, but it was a different time…

M.N.: It’s true, and now, it’s a very tricky time. Lot of films out there, lots of young people with great ideas… it’s very hard, but if you just mirror what has been done before, you won’t get anywhere.

You need a balance of the known and the unknown, of certainty and uncertainty. The creative process is that balance. You need to jump in and explore and let go, but then come back and put the templates across to see how it looks. If you study the rules, you can let go of them to some extent, and then come back and shape it.

That’s what I did, I shaped it later. But one of my breakthroughs was when I discovered the Watergate Theory of Screenwriting! Letting people know about that illness early was such a relief. I knew the audience knew. They had this information running as a subtext. It’s the subtext that keeps people activated as audiences. The audience has their own narrative that happens in that space where subtext lives.

W.S.M.W: Obviously, you grew up with this movie. What did you learn?

M.N.: I learnt emotional things and technical things too. I found new information through research. I could rewrite the narrative I had as a child with different information, and find another voice. I learnt new things and I came out with a lot more compassion for my mother than I ever had before. But what I rediscovered the most was how much I love making films, how much I love putting sounds and images together and how much I love having my hands on it and editing it. You know, creating transitions and rhythm, putting the breath in it… I had sort of forgotten how much I loved doing it.

I’ll go back to teaching with new knowledge of film process. You know, I’ve been the producer, the director and the runner and the editor, now…

W.S.M.W: Yes, you did close to everything! Which job do you prefer?

M.N.: I love the editing, which is like writing. Like writing with the images. It’s like when you get lost in space. It can change all the time. Then you can share it with other people and look for what they’ll say. People will always give you feedback with the intention to improve the project. Even if you don’t agree with their solutions, they probably put their fingers on a problem that you need to solve. This step in the process is very interesting and at that time, it becomes collaborative.

W.S.M.W: A last question with a broader perspective, I’ve read that you say that these silences are the symbols of a generation, what do you mean by that?

M.N.: One of the things that I’ve learnt coming and showing the film in New Zealand is that this is a film that speaks to my generation, the baby boomer generation. Our parents were very conservative and they didn’t speak about the war and their suffering easily. I call it the “amnesia of the 50s”. They wanted to put the past behind them. We were loud, and a lot of us were very radical in the 1960s. We wanted to speak and break those silences. Mental illness was a huge stigma and I think it still is. There is a lot more discussion about it now. There are also a lot better treatments. But while some things have changed but many things are still the same.

Interview by Sally Welly


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