The 2016 AWG Prime Time competition was the elixir for every screenwriter in Australia, it was a torch shining on the kind of horizon that seems out of reach for many of us. Emerging writers throughout the land were filled with hope and aspiration for the months leading up to the deadline, and then a few months after that too. We waited for the announcement with bated breath. Then, Matt Ford won. Roughly 499 people’s hopes and dreams were crushed.
I’m a songwriter who worked in the Nashville machine until recently. Now I’m wanting to transition into screenwriting, I’m telling myself the two industries aren’t too different. Am I right? Perhaps Matt can help. Being a songwriter by trade, I’d come across Matt Ford before. We’d even crossed paths briefly at one of the Falls Festivals many years ago when he was fronting his band, Machine Gun Fellatio, as Pinky Beecroft. I also knew he had a hand in writing one of my favourite songs, ‘No Aphrodisiac’ with Tim Freedman from The Whitlams and Glen Dormand. In fact, I was way more familiar with his work as a musician than I was with his work as a screenwriter. Or so I thought. Matt has written for Wildside, Stingers, Lockie Leonard, Satisfaction, Sea Patrol and House Husbands. He’s a well-established screenwriter. I had an opportunity to speak with Matt for FilmInk, on behalf of all the writers who didn’t win. Here’s what I found out.
My first instinct was to abuse Matt over the phone for crushing my hopes and dreams, but since I’m new to screenwriting I don’t want to annoy anyone. Lucky I didn’t go in swinging, he’d have ripped me apart – he has a knack of making you feel like you just asked a really dumb question. I did that twice. Those questions and answers are not in this article, but I think it’s important you know it happened. He’s witty, smart and fearless, a really nice guy, and worse, he’s talented. So I threw ninety-five percent of my questions out the window and went to the crux of the matter. How do I do what he’s done? I figure there’s a bunch of other screenwriters who’d love to know as well. So it was up to me to get the information we all need, so in time, we can be the one crushing someone else’s hopes and dreams.
Matt can’t quite discern whether he was involved in music before TV, or vice-versa. But one has always supported the other financially, so it’s been good to have something for him to fall back on when he needed to. Like any artist in Australia, he’s had to tackle the uncompromising, unknown reality of creating things from nothing – aka being an artist. This country doesn’t support the arts like it should, so one needs to become a renegade soldier to get by – or perhaps it’s only the renegades that are left in the end…
Matt’s been backstage after gigs bashing out screenplays in the past, when there’s been a deadline imminent, he’s had to make his two lives work. But he’s been conscious of having a foot in both worlds. It would be easy to fall into the trap of not doing justice to either. Matt reminds me it’s infinitely harder to make a living in the music industry, while there are real opportunities in TV. I couldn’t be happier with this news. When I’ve told people screenwriting is my backup plan, after being stranded back in Australia after a car accident (you need to be overseas to make a living as a songwriter), they look at me like I’m completely crazy. From now on, Matt is my guide and inspiration. We all need heroes, don’t we screenwriters?
Matt’s hero and guiding light at the moment is Ann Biderman who created Ray Donovon. “She’s 65 years old”, he tells me. “She’s created one of the best male characters to date on American TV, and with so much style and panache, she’s a great writer with a great brain. And you go, ‘man she’s still pumping out great TV at 65.’ It’s reassuring to all of us that we won’t be kicked out at a certain age.” Matt feels like he’s had a blessed life being able to shuffle between the two worlds for nearly 30 years. He’s quick to mention that, “no one really cares how old you are in the TV or film world, whereas you have to be 12 years old to make it in the music industry.”
I asked Matt about which medium gratifies him the most creatively, in terms of having expressive control. He quickly points out, “Networks have the control. There’s no point in saying if that’s a good or bad thing. Networks are the ones that know their audiences the best, so on some levels they’re probably the best ones to say what they want.” Matt made his first new year’s resolution this year. “That I won’t piss anyone off, I’m going to be friendly and nice to everybody that comes my way. It’s February, and I’m struggling.”
So I ask, is the final product of writing TV more gratifying. “You can sit down and write a song whenever you want, there’s something pure about it. I’m playing in Geelong next weekend and I’m damned excited about it. I’m playing a bunch of songs I’ve written in the last year or so, and I don’t really care if there’s 5 people, or 25, or 305. I’m still going to have a good time and do the thing I love. Writing for TV is another thing, you can’t compare the two. TV’s a collaborative process, so much has to go right, the financing and all that. Collaborating is fun, there’s gratification in that too.”
I asked Matt what his process is when he’s trying to bleed out an idea. “It bleeds out on to the floor. But it depends on what stage of the process it is. If it’s the first day I’m a type-at-the-computer kind of guy, and I’m like that for a fair while. I like my pin board, I write things on cards, and I like to have it at eye height so certain things are looking directly at me when I’m sitting at my desk. Particularly if I’m trying to plot an episode. I write each individual scene on a card and stick it on the pin board. But I also tend not to plot everything in too much detail, because I hate that. Some writers it works for; they like to know every single thing that’s going to happen in the script they’re about to write. And networks like that, so they get frustrated with me when I don’t like knowing absolutely everything before I start.”
So let’s explore that some more. For me, that’s what’s so great about songwriting, it’s easier to go into a stream of consciousness, almost talking in tongues state. But it can be done in screenwriting too. Matt explains how, “When I don’t fully know the plot, it’s best for me. Because then I’m surprised. I love first drafts, I love them. I get surprised when I’m writing well, I go ‘shit, why is he doing that, he’s not supposed to be doing that.’ Some of my favourite things have come out that way. I like to write some scenes before I plot anything. To get to know the characters, what this person thinks and how they talk. Once I know that I can plot the story out better.”
So I asked how he writes dialogue. Does he walk around and perform it? “Yeah I do sometimes. Most of my dialogue gets tested on my cat. I had a cat that died last week, I had it for seventeen years. I’d test dialogue on the cat and if the cat said it was the worst piece of dialogue it’d ever heard, I’d probably start again. I’m worried about how my writing will go now my cat’s passed on.” He says he spends a lot of time re-writing his dialogue, agonising over it. Like one might do with a lyric (unless you’re writing ‘Starboy’ for The Weeknd, then, apparently, lyrics don’t matter).
Matt is a TV guy. TV makes sense to him. He’s not really interested in the feature world. He doesn’t watch a lot of films and doesn’t quite get it like he does TV. He loves TV, he’s passionate about it, he watches it a lot, watches everything he can get his hands on. He loves the whole experience of it, even before this so called golden era of television, which he’s sick of talking about. He’s always loved it and it’s always been good. He’s much happier sitting in his own house watching TV than he is going to a Cineplex with people’s children and air conditioning. So he doesn’t go if he can help it.
This is where I hoped Matt might have a crystal ball and tell me how the SVOD services are going to effect the Australian television industry. But it seems he’s looking for a crystal ball too. “I don’t know. I wish someone would tell me. I wish I knew because I’d probably make a lot of money.” He’s a fan of the transition we’re all making, and already there’s been some fantastic things that have happened. “A show like No Activity on Stan is mind bogglingly great and that wouldn’t have happened ten years ago. It got made, it’s on Stan, that’s fantastic.” He hopes they’ll put it on free to air.
I ask Matt for some pointers when pitching to networks. “If I knew, I’d be in there today pitching. I have no idea.” Then I ask what the best way is to network and meet producers and executives, because, it’s easy in the music industry, people go to shows a lot, they’re out and about showing off, where screenwriters work in a vacuum. “I don’t know. Just take what I’ve done for the past thirty years and do the exact opposite, and you’ll be fine. Don’t piss anybody off and don’t say anything to anybody. Because 25 years later, the people you know could be a network executive. Just stay in your hole and don’t give people a reason to dislike you.” I ask whether winning the AWG Prime Time competition helps at all. He said, “Yes. That’s it. Just win that.”
Ok. It’s the final act. What have I learnt? You have to be a renegade in the Australian arts world if you’re going to make it. You have to set yourself apart from the pack. You have to be willing to take chances. The best part about Matt, like all great artists, he’s one step away from being the crazy guy you see outside of inner-city supermarkets, and that’s the chance that you have to take. I ask Matt about the voices in his head, how he deals with the writing process, he tells me “I can’t help anyone with the voices in their head. See a doctor, if it’s a problem. Frankly I think if more people had more self-doubt, it would be a much better world. There are possibly too many people out there who believe in themselves.”
You can take advice from here and there, read the books, learn how to network and meet the people who you’d like to work with. But none of that matters unless you’re super good at what you’re doing. And that takes time. Matt Ford has done the hard yards, he’s got nothing to prove, he won the big Aussie comp of the year, and he’s still fighting like the rest of us. But he’s really good at doing it. So congratulations on the win Matt.
I asked Matt what the next step is for Shining Light, the TV idea he won the Prime Time award with. “No idea. Wait for Hollywood to call me. And when they do. I’ll say, I’m a new born. I’m 9 years old. Raised in the country where we didn’t have a television. And I have a great idea for an eight–parter.”