Last week A Younger Theatre introduced young playwright Joanna Erskine, with the showing of her short film Boot. This week we’re interviewing Erskine, who tells us about her love of writing, her inspiration for Boot and her experience of adapting her monologue into a film.
How did you first become involved in writing?
Throughout school I was always writing. I loved it and wrote whenever I had the chance. I remember in Year 8 writing a short story about an artist and my English teacher asking if he could take it home to show his wife. That was the first time anyone told me I was actually good at writing. That same English teacher told me about Sydney Theatre Company’s Young Playwrights Award and suggested that I send it in. I did and forgot about it until during my exams when I was called to say that I had won. I spent a weekend staging a reading of my play with director Geordie Brookman, dramaturge Melita Rowston and some incredible actors including Geoff Morrell. That was the first time I saw how theatre worked and what the role of the writer was, and I was hooked.
After leaving school I spent four years at university where I was heavily involved with the drama society. I would write and direct my own plays each year, eventually applying for the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) Playwrights Studio. It was a one-year course for six writers and I was so excited to be accepted. But it was only at the end of that course when they told us what we had to do to make it in the industry as a writer, that I started pursuing it as a career.
How did you get involved with Fresh Ink?
After finishing NIDA I was always trying to connect with other writers and although I was part of several writer groups, I was looking for another intensive programme for me to work on my craft. Fresh Ink provided a great opportunity to connect with other writers at the same stage in their careers, meet regularly to develop our writing, be mentored by industry professionals and be part of the ATYP family for a year. I was mentored by Kate Gaul, and we were led by Lachlan Philpott. We worked on some really interesting projects, and at the end of the year took part in the National Studio where one day I wrote Boot. And now here we are!
How did Boot come about?
The story was actually inspired by a real life incident. It happened many years ago when I was only a year or two older than the people involved. I remember at the time it really sticking with me – the tragedy of what had happened. I couldn’t shake thoughts of what might have happened that night leading up to the accident. Years later it was raised in conversation among my friends and it came to the forefront of my mind after being lodged away for so long.
At the National Studio we did a writing activity where each of us was given a stimulus object and I was given a key ring (which did actually say ‘Air France’ on it). I remember finding a spot to write, sitting down with my notebook and just looking at this key ring. Suddenly the voice of Dana came to me and she was in that car on that night and she had a lot to say so my pencil started writing it all down and it became Boot.
How did the storyline and characters develop?
I actually wrote most of the monologue in that first sitting. Sometimes writers are lucky and the piece will kind of birth itself quite quickly. It had been on my mind for a long time, kind of ‘brewing’ I guess. Of course I drafted it several times, but the essential story was clear from the first draft and what was most exciting is that Dana’s voice was so strong. I knew what kind of character she was from her tone – she was from a privileged background and had real attitude, brains and guts, but she was forever telling the story with reference to Julia, her best friend. That told me that there was an interesting female relationship there, a power struggle that she kept giving in to. Julia had the power, so I explored what might happen if Julia makes a decision that Dana feels powerless about, even if she knows it’s wrong.
I loved writing these girls, getting in their heads and writing with their own language, in the heat of the moment of that fateful night. With the original monologue the other characters were like the collateral damage in the story. I purposefully didn’t flesh them out. I wanted snippets of them to add fuel to the fire of the craziness of that night.
What was it like seeing Dana on stage?
It’s always exciting seeing your characters come to life. Laura Hopkinson, who played the original Dana, was incredible. She was so full of life and really plunged into the present of that night which you have to do when Dana starts rambling. What I loved most about her performance was that she was funny, which I’d always intended. When I was sitting in on opening night and she had the audience laughing, I knew the monologue was going to have a powerful effect because I knew what was coming. Sitting amongst an audience who has never heard your work is equal parts nerve-wracking and exhilarating.
And how did Boot become a film?
I was approached by Dan Prichard, the Fresh Ink manager from ATYP about the idea of filming the monologue, and then, when Damien Power came on board the project, Damien selected Boot and Jess Bellamy’s Little Love to develop into short films.
How do you feel about your characters? What is the essence of the story about?
I have a real affinity with my characters and I feel very strongly about them, especially Dana. The way that I feel about her is that there are elements of young Jo in her (though I only realise this now, not when I was writing it!). Especially being that crucial age and trying to find your feet in world; working out who you are as opposed to who you think you should be at that age. Being beholden to someone else for reasons of popularity in the eyes of your peers – things that mean everything when you are that age, but looking back you wish you could tell your young-self that it won’t mean a thing one day.
At that age you are desperate to be taken seriously, to be treated as an adult, but you are still existing within certain boundaries – the family unit, the school system, the friendship group – and in this world there are always consequences, always a figure you are going to have to report to and punishment will be dealt. But in saying this, it’s still within the safe haven of school. You can get away with things that you wouldn’t get away with if you were classed as an adult in the ‘real world’. Dana’s bound by what she thinks she should do and who she thinks she should be, rather than breaking free and being her true self. I feel sad for her that this is the moment she is truly breaking and it’s just way too late to have any effect. The damage has been done – on her, on the story, the events, on Julia.
I guess for me I wanted to make sure that they are real teenagers that you and I can see anywhere, walking down the road in their school uniforms – it could happen to anyone. And that’s what I think makes the story that much more tragic.
How does writing a monologue differ to writing a screenplay?
Writing a monologue is extremely different from writing for film. What I was used to in writing for theatre is being very sparse with stage directions because directors in theatre don’t like stage directions. However in film I found the opposite. I sent Damien (Power) a draft which was very sparse and didn’t really have any directions in it, just dialogue, and he emailed me back and said: “You know, Jo, you can direct what you want the audience to see. I want you to do that. You can say: ‘Close up of the keys in her hand’ or anything like that.” And I thought: “Really? I can do that?” so I had to learn, relearn how to do that. It was quite liberating actually.
The other great thing about adapting the monologue for film was the fact that I had to explore who the characters were that Dana talks about in the monologue. She namedrops a LOT of people: Dave, Gavin, Darren, Katie, Zoe and really, though there’s essences of what those characters might have been like in the monologue, there’s not that much detail about them. So one of the questions that Damien wanted me to ask of the play and of the characters was to actually build a character profile for each of them so I understood them, their backstory, what was leading up to this moment. That was great because I got to explore the subtleties and nuances; in the monologue we only get Dana’s perspective, but in the film we get to see what’s happening offstage, with say, two other characters who might have their own story.
What did you find challenging?
One of the challenges of adapting the monologue into film was working out what the story was about, so Damien and I had plenty of discussions about that. ‘What’s it actually about?’ is often a tough question for a writer to answer. It’s easy to say ‘Well this happens and this happens…’ but that’s not what it’s about. As a writer you have to take a step back and think about distilling the entire story down to one essential idea: what is the one most important thing?
After a long hard think I got back to Damien with my answer – this story is about the breakdown of a friendship. This really helped us frame the adaptation. At each step of the way we had to return to the essential idea and make sure we weren’t getting off track. Dana and Julia’s friendship had to be the backbone of the story.
There were also crazy challenges in the actual filming of the piece, which were new challenges to me, having only worked in theatre. The production team were incredible in dealing with everything. The film was originally set in a house and there were long tracking shots and that kind of thing, but locations were lost for various reasons so we moved to a park, and the script had to change very quickly to adapt to the new location. Then on the night of the filming we were met with torrential rain and thunder and lightning, so we all waited inside for hours wondering if we’d have to cancel the shoot. The decision was made quickly once the rain eased to go forward but we were now hours late in the schedule. So we moved the action again and to underneath some shelters with more script changes. I was there purely as observer on the night, so things were changing right in front of me, including the script, and decisions were being made by Damien and the team. What I learned was that that was the beauty of film – everyone has to be adaptable and flexible. It was amazing for me to watch how the crew could just adapt, to changes, and also the actors. They did such a great job.
Can you describe the process of working with Damien?
Damien was fantastic to work with. I’d never written a film before so he guided me through the whole thing, and over the course of the process the film script became a true collaboration, with his ideas and writing as well as my own. As a writer, you often have blinkers on when thinking about your story. Sometimes people will say “What about if this happens?” and you think “That would NEVER happen!” because you just can’t imagine it or won’t allow yourself to. But eventually we will be able to think about the ‘what ifs’ and sometimes they are spot on.
Being so close to my original monologue, Damien was able to get me to step away from it, ask questions and really expand my view. One of the major things that he did was say: “Why don’t we shift the focus of what actually happens on that night and instead of being in the car and hearing about what’s happening through Dana, let’s go into The Boot with the boys and find out what’s going on with them.” I loved this because the boys are so funny and real and that really affects you, because what happens to them is so sad. In doing this though, we had to make sure that Dana and Julia’s story was still the focus, and I think we’ve achieved that.
Can you tell us about the filming? How did that feel for you?
It was amazing being on set – I was pretty overwhelmed! I’d never been on a film set before let alone a film set for a film I had written. It was a really, really crazy night because we were all hanging around waiting for the storm to pass. By the time we got going, everybody just snapped into gear. I kind of just stood back and was a sponge, soaking it all in. There was this complete other language that I was fascinated by – the ‘comms’ and the ‘cans’ and the ‘split.’ I was given a headset so I was able to listen to the conversations that were happening, hearing the actors, and I made a game of trying to work out whose voices belonged to who. It was quite funny because some of the people on set would look at me strangely like, “Who are you?” and I’d have to introduce myself as the writer.
I was talking with Sarah (Woods), who was the acting coach on set and when I saw all the kids I said to her: “Which one’s Dana? Which one’s Julia? Is that Mike?” And she was pointing them all out – it was so exciting and I said to her: “They’ve all come to life, they’re all real people!” I was also trying to work out what role each person played on this set. Some were obvious (they had sound equipment or were following the script or were adjusting lights) but some were a little harder to work out. Those people jumped into action once the shots were taken – adjusting makeup, costumes, refilling the alcopop bottles with soft drink to just the right level, and more. I just kept thinking back to when I first sat down and scribbled out this monologue and that from writing some words down on a page, here I was and all these people were here working because I wrote some words on a page. I keep pinching myself that it’s all happened.
What advice would you give to other young writers?
Writing monologues is great fun, but there are some things you need to think about before you launch into writing. First of all I would suggest really thinking through who your character is, what their story is, who they are talking to and why they are telling this story now, right this instant. You have to have a strong reason for them to speak, you have to know why they are talking to us, even if they don’t know themselves.
Secondly I’d say make sure it’s present. By that I mean we need to be in the moment with the character, as they live through the story or if they remember a story it should be like seeing them experience it all over again. I’ve made the mistake before of having a character narrate a story that happened in the past – what I’d written wasn’t a monologue at all, it was a short story. I rewrote it making it present, and the piece really took off. I think it allows the audience to sit right alongside the character and live the story, unsure of what’s about to happen next. Scary and exciting.
My final piece of advice would be to write about something that you really connect with, not what you think people would like. It might be inspired by a real memory of yours or something you experienced, but it doesn’t have to be. Something that excites you, challenges you, or something that you want to know more about – your enthusiasm will show through your writing. I knew I was onto something exciting when I literally heard Dana’s voice rattling through the story. I didn’t know where she was headed but I was in for the ride.
Next week: Blog by playwright Joanna Erskine
Image 1: Laura Hopkinson, who played the original Dana
Image 2 & 3: Meegan Warner and Lucy Coleman as Dana and Julia
Interview originally published here.