After gathering many accolades for Snowtown, writer Shaun Grant chose to next work on two comedy features – one a romantic comedy – in order to re-engage with the joy of life and prove he wasn't just a crime nut, but the darker side of humanity has drawn him back.
He's adapting the novel Berlin Syndrome, last year's debut by Melbourne author Melanie Joosten, who won the Sydney Morning Herald's award for best young novelist of 2012.
The psychological thriller focuses on what happens after an Australian photojournalist meets a local man among the tourists at Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie and feels an instant attraction. Berlin serves as a metaphor when the walls of his apartment begin closing in on her.
“There are parallels to Snowtown in that it's about who you love and the people you put your faith in,” said Grant. “Also, I went to Berlin straight after Cannes last year (Snowtown screened in Critics' Week at the Cannes Film Festival) and fell in love with the city and it was still fresh in my mind when I read the book.”
Referring to his comedy work he adds with a laugh: “And I'd had my 12 months of therapy!” Producers are always asking Grant what kinds of films he prefers to work on but for him it is all about character, not a certain style or tone or genre.
“My brother is bipolar and there are elements of that in me because I can go from happy to sad at the drop of a hat.”
Polly Staniford, Melbourne partner in Aquarius Films, approached Grant about working on Berlin Syndrome. He admired the company's short films, including David Michôd's Netherland Dwarf and the much-awarded Crossbow, and knew of the company's debut feature, Wish You Were Here, which opens in Australian cinemas on the Anzac Day public holiday next week. He liked Staniford, thought the book could make a good film and the deal was done.
“The book is great,” he said. “It's got two amazing characters that are really, really strong but it's quite a short book so, for the film, I've been trying to open it up more. It is set in one apartment and I'm showing more of Berlin and introducing more characters.”
He has not met the novelist and never likes to, at least not early in a project, because the author of the original work, can lead a scriptwriter in a direction that doesn't suit film.
Staniford was pitched Berlin Syndrome by the book's publisher Scribe at Books at MIFF, a one-day talkfest between the book publishing and filmmaking communities, held as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival. She had to compete with other producers for the rights and likes to think her vision for the film appealed but also knows that it helped that Wish You Were Here had recently opened the Sundance Film Festival.
“I've always been interested in human psychology and the complexity of sexual relationships and love,” said Staniford. “Berlin Syndrome is a very beautiful love story that quickly changes into something much darker.”
She has seen many films about obsessive love but not about the Stockholm syndrome, which is one of the film's themes. The term Stockholm syndrome entered the vernacular after a 1973 bank robbery in which the hostages felt empathy for their captors.
There is no term for how one film can dramatically breakout and accelerate the careers of those in the key creative team but that's exactly what happened for Grant and others in the case of Snowtown, even before it went into production.
Grant, who is aged 33, spent eight and a half years working as a school teacher and during that time studied creative writing part-time at Melbourne's RMIT and wrote scripts in his spare time. A miniature breakthrough occurred when he had a script chosen for the 25 x 5-minute SBS series titled Marx & Venus, which was created in 2007 with Geoffrey Atherden (Mother and Son, Grass Roots) as the driving force. Unusually, anyone could submit a script online and Grant's was chosen from more than 1,700.
But it wasn't until he attended a two-day workshop on developing concepts for comedy and thrillers that things really started to happen for him: there he impressed the mentors so much with his script for Snowtown, which he'd been writing on spec, that Warp Films Australia signed on to try and get the film made.
Also, as luck would have it, the script editor on Snowtown, Mac Gudgeon, got Grant a gig as one of the four writers on Killing Time, the 10-part series about disgraced Melbourne lawyer Andrew Fraser.
“To break down the doors you have to have something really, really good,” said Grant, who won the AACTA Award for best adapted screenplay for Snowtown, which was based on the two non-fiction books Killing for Pleasure by Debi Marshall and The Snowtown Murders by Andrew McGarry. Subsequently, Grant has worked on several episodes of the Fox8 teen drama Slide.
Many have won awards for their work on Snowtown, including director Justin Kurzel and actor Daniel Henshall, and are reaping the rewards. It helps that it is one of those films that reverberates particularly loudly in filmmaking circles.
The other half of Aquarius Films, Sydney-based Angie Fielder, produced Kieran Darcy-Smith's Wish You Were Here. In this film Joel Edgerton plays a man, on holidays in South East Asia with his wife and her sister (Felicity Price and Teresa Palmer), who gets caught up in events way beyond his control.
Darcy-Smith, who is experienced in front of the camera too, is now working on his second feature, which Fielder is currently financing and casting. Titled Memorial Day, it is a crime drama about two Hispanic brothers struggling to redress the fallout from a family tragedy in the past. One brother has just returned from a period of self-imposed exile and is trying to prevent his younger sibling from getting deeper into a world of organised crime.
Darcy-Smith has set the script in the 1980s in northern Florida. This means that, like Wish You Were Here and Berlin Syndrome, it is likely to be filmed abroad. US-based Ted Hope, whose long list of producer credits include The Ice Storm and Towelhead, is working with he and Fielder as an executive producer.