How to be an overnight success

How to be an overnight success – My Side Of The Picture

Amanda Brotchie


When I was six-years-old I wrote a story, which won acclaim throughout my Grade One class. Not wanting to humiliate me in front of my fellow pupils, my teacher later took me aside and asked me where I’d ‘copied’ the story from. I can’t remember the genesis of the story, nor even the story itself–though I vaguely recall it involving a dwarf–but I have to agree that it’s unlikely that the story would have been original.

I’ve noticed that about myself. I see a film about a guy who is punished for a crime he didn’t commit, and I’m immediately inspired to do a film about wrongful imprisonment. I see ‘the Exorcist’, and get a great idea to do a film about fearlessness in the face of evil. I become so engaged by the themes of a story that I want to personally shout them to the world. I embrace other people’s ideas and stories as if they were my own. This peculiar form of plagiarism I have come to believe is part of being a director.


Of course a natural aptitude for taking possession of other people’s ideas is not the only thing that makes a director. There is also a need to manipulate people–their senses, thoughts, emotions and, for the truly ambitious, their souls. By way of illustration, when I was nine I built a ‘Ghost Train’ in the spare room. I decorated it with ‘cobwebs’, rigged a few special effects such as remote-controlled curtain rustling, recorded a variety of spooky noises–then I’d make my friends sit in a box which was dragged around in there on a pulley. After they came out I interrogated them about how they felt:

Were you scared when you heard the ghost noises? No, I knew they were a tape. How about the footsteps?

Yep, they were scary.

Using their feedback as a guide, I refined the Ghost Train, added increasingly elaborate sound effects and devices and put the special effects in order, so that the occupants’ fear and suspense had time to mount before letting loose with the piece de resistance–a slamming door to the attic room. The result, I’m happy to report, is that there was not an 8-10-year-old that went into that room who did not run out screaming. I would be beside myself with delight while my friends recovered in the hallway. Why? t The excitement of using artificial and repeatable means to cause another human being to have an experience.


I was nearly thirty before I made any real attempt to seek a career in film. I can’t explain what happened in that intervening period, but I think it was the 1980s. Not the ‘let’s get physical’ 1980s with the corporate high flyers, the leg-warmers and the puffy-shirted new romantics. No, I mean the OTHER 1980s: the ‘sex, drugs & rock n’ roll’ 1980s, the black-dresses-and-safety-pins 1980s, the pale, skinny 1980s of frenetic partying and waking up in the afternoon with half of Fitzroy on your lounge room floor. After all the focused, creative hyperactivity during the pre-adolescent years, it’s possible that I may have got all tuckered out.


Arriving home one day in 1994 I found that I had a message on my answering machine from someone called ‘Michael Rymer’. He was making Angel Baby and wondered if I’d be available to sing on the sound track. He had heard my vocal on a ‘Not Drowning, Waving’ record and looked me up in the phone book. So I did some singing for the Angel Baby soundtrack and got to know Michael. It was a glimpse of a world where people were gainfully employed in an area that for me had always been a hobby and a dream. It was a revelation.

Having spent so many years in a vocational wasteland, I now had an urgent need for instant professional gratification. I wanted to be an overnight success. I wanted to direct feature films. I had demonstrated a natural talent (to wit: the dwarf story and the Ghost Train) and I had paid my dues–sure, not through working in menial positions until I had the experience and insight to take on more responsibility, but through having survived for ten long years after leaving school in a tedious succession of unskilled or unusual jobs for which I was underpaid and ill- or over-qualified.

But instant gratification was a long time coming. Meanwhile I honed my skills and crewed on films and, after applying for the second time, I was accepted into the post-graduate film stream at the VCA. My graduation film was going to be about a Hasidic Jewish boy who did something that wasn’t approved of … then suffered some kind of punishment, which he bore with a quiet dignity far beyond his years. The idea was kind of vague and furthermore I would probably have had to research Hasidic Jewish culture to have made a half decent film.

Fortunately fate stepped in and provided me with a more appropriate story. A friend told me about a large, quiet guy who lived in the flat below him who saw a girl mugged outside his window. Shy and normally retiring, this man ran out to help the woman. He put the wiry little mugger in a headlock and held him there until the police came. Meanwhile, a crowd of colourful locals gathered around to watch, comment and interact as the mood took them. The woman counted her money to make sure it was all there and hurled abuse at the mugger while he was restrained in the headlock. It seemed to me that it was the perfect scenario for a short film.


Headlock did well, playing at local and international festivals, including Edinburgh, and won several prizes. Meanwhile, I started working at a meditation centre, which I hoped might fast track my evolution, but in fact the world still did not come to me. I left my meditation centre job for a hideous time crewing on a short film, followed by a less hideous time crewing on another one. I had no project of my own in development and nearly a year had gone by since I finished film school. In the words of my Lancashire grandmother: I was going nowhere fast.

I flooded the industry with application letters and phone calls, which eventually paid off in the form of a director’s attachment on SeaChange with Michael Carson. The six weeks on the show opened my eyes to the craft of economical storytelling. I directed some scenes and was hoping to follow-up with an episode. I had some reason for hope: the scenes I had directed had gone well, and the producer had congratulated Michael on a particular sequence, which she described as a ‘stroke of genius’, and which Michael explained was actually mine. The wind was quickly taken out of my sails however, when a senior production person genially patted me on the head one day and said, ‘Listen to the little director!’ I had no luck getting work on SeaChange and television in general proved to be an impenetrable medium. With all that precious money spent each minute in TV, who wants to gamble on a new director? So I decided to make another short film.


It seemed to me at the time that every writer wanted to direct their own screen play, so with a shortage of available scripts I would have to write my own film. I struggled ineptly with that for a while until Trudy Hellier thankfully came to me with an idea for a short film called ‘Nightmoves’, which we later retitled Break n’ Enter. We made the film, with Melanie Coombs as producer, thanks to Cinemedia and XYZ Entertainment, who co-funded it. Break n’ Enter won several awards, including two AFIs for Best Short Film and Best Short Screenplay and received a theatrical release. I thought my career would now finally take off.

A year-and-a-half and many more courses and applications later I was grateful to be given an episode of Neighbours to direct, which proved interesting, as in the Chinese saying: ‘May you have an interesting life’. Then I arrived home to find another message from Michael Rymer. He had just arrived in Melbourne to direct Queen of the Damned, and did I want to talk to him about being his assistant? I sure did.

The Queen of the Damned experience afforded me a rare insight into high concept Hollywood film production. I sat in on all the meetings, watched the show come together from script to fine cut and also shot several hours of behind-the-scenes footage throughout the ten or so weeks of production. After that experience I was eager to make something again myself. With no film projects on the immediate horizon I decided to turn Headlock into a play, which I directed, along with The Unicorn, by Beth Buchanan, for La Mama Theatre.

I am now attached to several feature and short feature projects. Among them is Hell’s Gate by Stephen Joyce, an epic tale of six convicts who break out of Sarah Island prison and try to make it across the Tasmanian wilderness to freedom; and Drawing Shadows by Andrew Pritchard, a rites-of-passage story about an artistic teenage boy growing up in the western suburbs. Both these projects have emerging producer Clare Sawyer on board.

It’s gratifying to be among a group of peers who are beginning to penetrate the Film and Television industry on a larger scale. We’ve come through our various pathways and have converged on this threshold. Our days are filled with writing, script-editing, teaching, sitting on panels, meetings, crewing on each other’s short films, preparing applications for funding and moving into production with longer projects. And I’ve come to embrace the meaning of my Year 12 essay written so earnestly all those years ago …

It’s all about the journey.

Amanda Brotchie trained as a singer, actor and linguist, and her varied career includes performing with Melbourne band Not Drowning Waving and teaching linguistics at the University of Melbourne. She has been working as a freelance writer and director in film and multimedia since graduating from film school in 1996 and currently has several projects in various stages of developments.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Australian Teachers of Media

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