Playwright Stephen Sewell started writing novels primarily because he was tired of trying for years to raise the money from government agencies to help turn his scripts into films.
So there's an undoubted irony in the fact that Sewell is getting ready to direct his first movie, Babylon, based on his maiden novel, later this year.
Sewell is working with a producer, whom he declines to name pending an imminent official announcement of the project, who's confident of raising the funds without going through Screen Australia. Casting is underway, Sewell is figuring out the CGI component of the budget and it'll probably shoot in either Western Australia or South Australia.
Published in 2011 and set in a world on the brink of environmental collapse, the novel follows two young Australians struggling to survive in a society depicted as almost totally corrupt and drowning in cynical indifference.
Mick is a backpacker, the son of a dead soldier, who attempts to escape the suffocating atmosphere of council flats and economic gloom. He meets Eva, a law student looking for adventure, who finds more than she bargained for.
On his desire to take on the director's role, Sewell told SBS Film, “I've been working for so long in different ways in trying to get my head around how the film industry works. In the end I thought why am I going to hand my movie over to a 25-year-old advertising executive so they can fuck it up?”
Sewell, who wrote the screenplay of Rowan Woods' gritty 1998 drama The Boys and Martin Murphy's micro-budgeted 2003 horror movie Lost Things, has long been an outspoken critic of government funding agencies.
“It's difficult to get films done through the subsidised system,” he said. “I have had a very public antagonism towards Screen Australia for some time.
“The reason that I wrote the novel was that I was so sick of wasting years of my life trying to get movies made. The door was slammed in my face again two years ago and I thought that's the very last time I'm going to take [rejection].
“I've sat in offices at Screen Australia with very senior people in the Australian film industry and been treated like we were absolutely inept. People would honestly say to me 'you know nothing about screenwriting.'”
If the Babylon movie is successful, it could mark the beginning of a franchise as Sewell has just finished a sequel to that novel, The Captive.
Separately Sewell is also working on a film entitled Lisbon SOS which examines the plight of homeless children in Portugal's capital, victims of the economic crisis in that country.
Earlier this year he spent seven weeks in Lisbon researching and writing the screenplay which focuses on an Englishman and an American woman, both advisers to the European Central Bank. Neither has children and they decide to save a kid who's living on the streets by forcibly abducting him. He wrote it with the lead actors in mind, one of whom is an Aussie, but prefers not to disclose their names now.
The director is Keith Hack, whom Sewell met years ago when Hack directed his play Dreams in an Empty City in London. Last year Hack told the playwright he was living in France, intended to make a movie about the Global Financial Crisis and asked if Sewell was interested in writing it. Sewell went to Lisbon, where there are 20,000 homeless children, and thus the project germinated.
The American producers are confident of raising the money and moving into production this year, as Sewell observes, “It's a very topical piece and it can't be on the shelf long before it becomes stale.”