Mountain myths from Papua New Guinea

Taking risks, trying the new & some advice about screenwriting

Wendall Thomas
Wendall Thomas - author & screenwriter


“If what you’re doing does not have the possibility of failing then by definition you’re not doing anything new…. If you know how to do what it is you’re doing, and/or have seen it done before, then you’re not doing anything new. So the only way to do anything new or interesting is to open yourself  up to that risk of failing and in that sense I try to look at failure and success both as neutral things…this will be the way it will be worth anything at all, or it definitely won’t be if I don’t do that” (Charlie Kaufman, Masterclass moderated by Marit Kapl, 2 February 2011, Goteborg International Film Festival)

BRISBANE - Against this stream of thought by American screen writer, producer and director Charlie Kaufman, I attempt to lay out a path of explanation for what I consider a milestone in how 13-year old PNG Attitude continues to evoke and develop the curiosity, imagination and writing technique of Papua New Guineans.

Throughout this year, my personal challenge to widen the reach and impact of the ‘My Walk to Equality’ project, has been to persist at taking risks; a decision to vary format and subject matter in my submissions to PNG Attitude.

The opportunities granted to me through the inaugural MWTE Writer Fellowship 2018 along with my first pilgrimage of the Kokoda Trail with trek tour operator, Adventure Kokoda.

The awarding of the fellowship by staunch supporter Paga Hill Development Company enabled a wide-ranging exposure to ideas, inspiration, discussion and debate for literary exposition.

And whilst the objective of staging a writers’ festival in Papua New Guinea stagnated, readers of PNG Attitude were invited to experience vicariously the benefits of the six-month fellowship through eight articles. In which I shared my learning, observations and personal reflections about Australian and international writers and highlighting the possibilities for PNG.

Unbeknownst to me at the beginning, the fellowship also fostered the boldest of my literary risks published by PNG Attitude.

Returning from my first pilgrimage along the Kokoda Trail, I sought to report on what I had seen, heard and discussed on-trek with tour operator Adventure Kokoda under the leadership of Charlie Lynn OAM OL.

Without a background in journalism but with exercise books filled with my hand-scrawled trek notes, fellowship learning and wise counsel, guiding framework and masterful editing by Keith Jackson AM, the seven article-series, ‘Trail of Woe’, shared insights of observed reality and what I perceived to be the disarray and mismanagement that plagues the Kokoda Trail wartime tourism industry.

In writing the thousands of words of the fellowship articles and ‘Trail of Woe’, I was conscious, sometimes paralysed, by the possibility of failure - the fear of failing in seeking to convey an idea, a message or an opinion in writing.

And yet exploring new subject matter and attempting different writing technique curbed my apprehension as I considered the exhilaration of possibilities that lay beyond my previous repertoire.

In my four years as a contributor to PNG Attitude and its online community and small band of loyal and generous sponsors, I have been given opportunities to try something new and to share my experience with PNG Attitude readers.

‘‘They’re like a lens, you’re looking through them and everything changes and nothing can be the same again’’ - a line from Tony Gilroy’s screenplay and film, ‘Michael Clayton’.

These words delivered by litigator ‘Arthur’ to plaintiff ‘Anna’ in a telephone conversation are memorable for the meaning they held in the moment I heard them.

I am not sure if Keith Jackson realised that agreeing (once again) to act as my benefactor for a recent Screen Queensland screenwriting event would translate to three consecutive days of me, sitting in a dimly lit room, munching my way through bags of M&Ms and sipping copious amounts of coffee as I watched hours and hours of film footage, including scenes from ‘Michael Clayton’.

The opportunity to spend hours of daytime in a cool dark space watching scenes from movies (with regular intervals to dissect and discuss with other humans) was truly living my ideal life.

Tony Gilroy’s resonant line emphasised not only my sense of belonging in that event but also my admiration for the lecturer’s quirky, heart-warming attachment to teaching using her well-worn VHS deck.

Having, as preparation, watched 80 full seasons of television series and countless feature films, American screenwriter, author and lecturer Wendall Thomas delivered the three-day screenwriting seminar, addressing elements for writers and film makers at all stages of the craft.

And as much as I’ve heard the brilliant Charlie Kaufman often suggest that he feels restricted by a framework, Thomas’s rationale for her teaching on writing a screenplay was invaluable for a beginner.

Snapshot of a 3-Day Screenwriting Seminar with Wendall Thomas

DAY ONE: An equation for creating great relationships on-screen: In television series, a starting point from which storyline and characters is developed are the use of tropes like siblings/family, boss/employee, partners/co-workers, human/non-human, unrequited love/former lover and friends/neighbours.

Thinking to series including The XFiles, Mork and Mindy, Kath and Kim, The Sopranos, Friends, Dawson’s Creek, and Downton Abbey, it is clear that the using a combination of tropes in a series ensures its longevity.

Like the use of tropes, a detailed formula also requires interplay of its various elements to create a lasting relationship between two characters.

Yet of all elements, I found most intriguing the importance of ‘secrets’ (and the pace at which they are revealed), the necessity of ‘outside pressures’ beyond the relationship, and encouraging the repetition of ‘location’ as a means of conveying the relationship dynamic. Especially so when considering my favourite fictional character-relationship dynamic, ‘Tony Soprano’ and his therapist ‘Dr Jennifer Melfi’ in the television series, The Sopranos.

DAY TWO: Dialogue is the said and unsaid: Vocabulary, rhythm, content and context are to be mastered by the screenwriter as dialogue is developed. Stoic, stream of consciousness, clipped, dispassionate, sing-song, confessional, anguished, bizarre, philosophical, terse, staccato were volunteered by seminar participants to describe dialogue from a broad catalogue of feature films they had viewed.

Repetition was again highlighted for its value to dialogue in creating a sense of mania, anxiety or comedy. Think of the pattern of emotions evoked through actor Cuba Gooding Jnr’s repetition of the infamous four-word line “Show me the money” in Jerry McGuire.

DAY THREE: Writing a scene: Thomas suggested that six questions should lead screenwriting and may be of particular help when re-writing. Why is the scene there? What are the physical circumstances of the scene? Are you using all the elements of the scene to your advantage? Does the scene have elements such as a ‘secret’? Why has the scene been placed in that particular spot in the screenplay? Do you have a transition?

All can be considered as a thread that weaves elements of a framework. Anchoring this concept for me is the singular scene from Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola’s, The Godfather.

In this scene, the camera pans across a decadent-sized bed, encased in in silk sheets. A man, dressed in equally luxurious silk pyjamas stirs from his sleep, responding to an eerie presence at the foot of his bed. In slow, steady pace, he peels back the sheets to reveal a thick trail of blood.

He continues to push the sheets away from him, toward the foot of the bed until coming into full view is the source of the blood. The severed head of one of his prized horses. The man lets out a harrowing scream.

The scene transitions to the bedroom balcony, then on to the outside, bringing into full view, one end of deceased horse owner’s majestic mansion. It is just on dawn with a breathtaking haze of pink and two-tone casts over the unseen horror within the grand walls.  

Well, that is an elementary offering, my humble interpretation of the masterful scene writing by Puzo and Coppola, whom for those willing to try in the face of failure and/or success, may be interested in pursuing, if open to risk and trying something new.


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Rashmii Bell

With many thanks to KJ, I will be returning to attend Part 2 of Wendall Thomas' screenwriting lecture series.

The 3 day seminar will be held next Tues 14 May - Thurs May 16. Very excited!

I look forward to sharing my learning with PNG Attitude readers.

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