Report by Jonathan Magoon:
On Wednesday night, several students from Paula Morris’s screenwriting class, myself included, had dinner at Antoine’s with writer / director Jonathan King. King, known best for his first feature
Black Sheep (2006), a sheep zombie (that’s right, sheep zombie) horror film, was passing through after screening his latest film, Under the Mountain, at the Toronto film festival. Paula Morris was able to lure King to New Orleans, en route to another festival in Austin, as she knows King’s sister. Apparently, everyone in New Zealand knows one another. [PM note #1: Rachael King is a well-known New Zealand novelist. Also: both Rachael and Jonathan have numerous connections with Bret and Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords.]
Jonathan King has a great deal of experience with both writing and directing, and he was able to share some helpful insight with us. He talked about his experience directing music videos, television commercials, and short films, all of which helped lead him to his first feature film. He has written numerous scripts, with many never ending up as films. With his writing partner, Matt Grainger, he wrote the screenplay for The Tattooist (2007). This film was originally set in Samoa and New Zealand, but when the producer found Singaporean investors, the screenplay had to be rewritten so part of the film was set in Singapore.
We also talked about the craft of story itself, and the motivating idea that provides a ground for the writer to work in. In Black Sheep, Jonathan found a broad, interesting story which he was able to develop without having to add on anything artificial, and Jonathan talked about this as the most important part of writing for film. The film needs to flow naturally, within itself (within its larger story form), rather than moving from small idea to small idea. We also talked about the challenges of writing an original story compared with adapting a novel, as Jonathan has done with Under the Mountain. [PM note #2: this is a classic New Zealand children’s book, written by the great Maurice Gee.]
The evening ended with a discussion about the current state of the film industry. Jonathan talked about how few distributors are buying much at festivals right now, and how traditional modes of distribution and acquisition of independent films or scripts have changed dramatically since the 1990s. Hollywood, also feeling the recession, is focused on remakes, sequels, and comic book adaptations, because no one wants to take risks on unproven material. As we ate an enormous baked Alaska and felt depressed, Jonathan suggested that this is the perfect time to improve or reinvent old Hollywood (or independent) methods, and that we are in the unique position to create this ourselves.
[PM note #3: this dinner was funded by my Duren Professorship. Many thanks to Newcomb-Tulane College for making this possible.]