Interview with Stuart Beattie, writer/director of Tomorrow, When the War Began
Sep 14, 2010
Stuart Beattie is a rare figure in the Australian film industry: an Aussie who moved to America and made a living in Hollywood as a writer for large scale films bankrolled by major production studios. His credits include the Oscar-winning Collateral (2003), Derailed (2005), 30 Days of Night (2007) and the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Beattie returned home to make his first film as director, Tomorrow, When the War Began, shooting from a screenplay he adapted from John Marsden’s widely adored novel for teens and young adults, which imagines Australia has been invaded by a foreign power and follows a group of teenagers as they fight to ta-ta-take the power back.
Marsden was reportedly tickled pink by Beattie’s adaptation, and he wasn’t the only one to give it a thumbs up. I found the film fast paced, engaging and – perhaps most pertinently, given this was my primary concern – not too heavy on cheesy adolescent drama. At the time of writing the film is cruising on an 80% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The public dig it too. Tomorrow, When the War Began had a monster opening weekend, chalking up $2.5 million, which makes it the third biggest opening of all time for an Australian film. It looks set to be remembered as an Aussie classic, just like the book.
On the promotional tour, Beattie took time out to sit down for a yak with Cinetology about some of the issues involved with bringing the film to life – including responsibly handling such a highly regarded source material and grappling with the disparaging knowledge that film adaptations are generally regarded as lesser works than their literary origins.
You’ve been either the writer or a contributing writer to a number of high profile films including Australia, Pirates of the Caribbean and Collateral. Tomorrow, When the War Began is your first feature as a director. Does that mean directing a film is an itch you’ve wanted to scratch for some time?
Absolutely. Writing for me was always a way to directing. Writing was a way for me to learn the job and develop my skills. I always thought that if I was ever going to direct I should also have written the screenplay. It was very deliberate in that sense. At least that was what I was hoping to do once I’d written enough films and felt ready to do the job. But yeah, I was always looking to direct at some point.
As you’re no doubt aware, the John Marsden books are well loved. Actually, adored is probably a better word, and I imagine this weighed heavily on your mind throughout the production process. Being a writer by trade, no doubt you would have been acutely aware of the sorts of issues involved with page to screen adaptations. What did you find most daunting about adapting the book?
I think it’s the fact that it’s so beloved. You just don’t want to mess it up. I love the books so I just kind of wrote the film that I wanted to see the most as a fan of the books, and hoped a majority of fans would agree. I kept a copy of the book with me on set everyday and thought “what would John Marsden do?” and that kind of thing. It was really just making sure I stayed true to the book as much as I could whil still trying to create a movie that could stand on its own. There are two types of people coming to see this film: those who have read the book and those who haven’t. And you have to make the film work for the people who haven’t read the book just as much as you have to make it work for the people who have read the book. Walking that tightrope is a tricky thing, and that was on my mind the whole time.
One of the challenges unique to adapting this particular book concerned the nationality of the invaders – the ethnicity of the foreign power which attacks Australia. Marsden was able to skirt this question in the book and never gave them a nationality. But you weren’t given that choice, given the need to visually depict them in the film. There is one moment when the characters discuss flags and nationalities and one of them says something like “what difference does a flag make anyway?” Was this scene your way of diffusing or trying to diffuse that notion of ethnicity and nationality?
Yes, absolutely, because I always believed this movie is not about who is invading Australians and why – it’s about these eight characters and how they respond with the fact that their country has been invaded…I wanted to keep that other stuff at bay and concentrate on the characters, the setting and the action.
One thing that surprised me about Tomorrow, When the War Began is how fast paced it is. When making a mainstream action flick you have to balance the obligatory bits of character exposition with fun stuff like all the running and explosions and gun fire and what-not. I think you got the balance right.
My favourite quote of Billy Wilder was when he said “you grab the audience in the first ten minutes and you don’t let go until the very end.” You grab them by the throat and hold on. Especially in an action movie – you have to do that. We worked on the pace a lot in our editing room with our editor Marcus D’Arcy and we really focused on making sure the film moved and kept moving. There were probably two or three scenes we had to cut out; they’ll be on the DVD. We cut them purely for reasons of pacing, because they were slowing things right down. I don’t know if you’ve read the book, but it’s a page turner so I wanted to make the equivalent of a page turning movie. I wanted the experience of watching the movie to feel like the experience of reading the book.
Teens, tweens and young adults are the film’s target demographic. However some of the story themes are quite adult and I wonder whether you were under any pressure to sanitise the film for its audience? For example, there is one shot where we see somebody at point blank range get a bullet in the head. Were you under any pressure to remove or dilute this moment or others like it?
No, in fact that actual moment isn’t in the book. It’s something we added to up the stakes in the film and show that real people can die. If anything I think it came from this idea that we were making a movie about a war. You know, it’s not Tomorrow when the Police Action Began. Or When the Riot Began. It’s war and so you’ve got to have real stakes, a real sense of jeopardy. I just felt that it was necessary to the telling of the story – a certain level of realism which includes violence. So no, I never had any pressure in that way. They (the financers) actually encouraged me to put that stuff in. It made it feel real. I was left alone to make the movie and we weren’t under pressure in any way.
That’s ideal, isn’t it?
It’s absolutely ideal, yeah, and something you practically never get. They were watching the dailies every day. They were happy with the dailies and we were on time and on budget. We really were left to make the movie we wanted to make.
When Michael Mann adapted your script for Collateral, which, I must say, I absolutely adored, he changed the location to LA. But making Tomorrow When the War Began, was it ever an option to change the setting from a small town in Australia? Did you ever entertain that thought? I’m inclined to think that would’ve been an easy way to become widely despised by the fan base, right?
That’s right. It was always a very Australian story with very Australian characters. We were always going to do it in Australia, that was never in question, and we were always going to have Australian actors.
I’m proud of this country and proud of our ancestry and I wanted it to be as Australian as possible. I think we have great crews here, great locations, great sound stages, great visual effects artists, musicians – everything you need to make great movies that appeal to a lot of people. So I was very adamant about keeping everything as Australian as possible.
In the book the protagonist, Ellie, maintains a journal and in the movie you’ve made the obvious transition to turn that element into a video diary segment. I expect that was one of the easier bits to translate. Were there other parts of books you knew weren’t going to work on the screen as easily, or at all? If so what were they?
I always suspected that the hermit part would never make it. You know that sequence? The characters find this old hut built up there in Hell. The purpose for the hermit’s hut in the story was to get Ellie to basically drop her walls with Lee and kiss Lee. Essentially she doesn’t want to end up like the hermit and so she stops thinking so much and lets her heart decide. That’s really her journey in the story; to decide that her heart will rule over her head. I wanted to keep that moment for the very end of the film. Film is obviously a much different medium than a book and I knew I could do it with her just walking past all her friends and throwing herself into Lee’s arms. I knew that would accomplish the same thing as that whole hermit hut sequence did in the book, but I did it in one moment in the film, which demonstrates the power of the medium. I always knew that one was going to go and then there were a couple of other scenes, mainly just scenes where characters were sitting around talking. Some of them I read them, wrote them, shot them and edited them, and then realised they didn’t belong.
Beyond that it was more just making things visual rather than literary – like the camcorder example. Finding ways to visually give you ideas of who these characters are and what they’re doing. Then there was the bit about the flag – I wanted to say very clearly that it’s not about who is invading and why and all that. There was a little bit I added about the Aborigines, a mural she (Ellie) sees on the wall. I thought that was important to say, you know, this was the first invasion of Australia. Not to labour it or anything but I thought that was important to put in, to make a note of it.
I wrote in my review that there was one touch in the film I thought was much more indicative of the work of a writer, rather than a director, and of course you’re now qualified as both. It’s a scene in which one of the characters is reading My Brilliant Career. Another approaches and they start talking about the film adaptation. One characters asks “what’s it like?” The character reading the book says “the book was better” and the other responds with “they usually are.” Can you tell me your motivation for putting that in there?
I just wanted the fans of the book to know that I agree with them – that books are always better and always will be. I wanted to reassure them that I wasn’t trying to replace the book. The books will be here long after the movie and I wanted to sort of say “I just hope you enjoy the movie.” But basically I agree with you. The books are always better. I thought that was something to put in to tell those people that yes, I agree with you.
Off the cuff, are there any books that you think have been turned into superior films? Films that are actually better than their source materials?
Not that I can think of. Can you?
Yeah, I reckon The Shining is a better movie and I also think The Shawshank Redemption is a better and more powerful experience than the book.
See I disagree with you on that one, The Shawshank Redemption. They (the film and the book) are both great and I was actually thinking about the film the other day. It’s such a great film. But the book ended with “I hope” and the whole thing was about hope. To see the characters on the beach at the end to me kind of killed the whole point of the film. I read the short story first, then I read the script and then I saw the movie. I think sometimes if you see the movie first then read the book it can change your opinion on things. But I still did love the movie; I think it’s a fantastic film but I prefer the book. The Shining I haven’t read.
The general assessment is that the books are always better because books require more patience, more time. You can get into hidden thoughts (and) there is just so much more you can do in a book than in a film. But the problem is that you really can’t compare books and movies because they’re so different in every way. But people invariably do and that’s part of the business.
Tell me about your interactions with John Marsden. I imagine you met him beforehand? Did you articulate your plans for the film and did he contribute any advice?
Not much. I sent him the script, I went down there, we met and hung out for the day. He talked about his class and his students. I think he got a sense of me as a person. We sat down and went through the script but not for longer than half an hour or so. He had just a couple of little notes – like this word here, that word there, a spelling mistake here and that was about it. Then he just let us go off and make the movie. He came to the set once, late, like week seven or week eight. He said he liked what he saw on set. He said he got goose bumps, seeing all these characters on the set coming to life, which I imagine must’ve been really trippy. And that was it. He just waited until we could show him the film, until it was finished. I think he’s seen it three or four times.
He was happy with it?
Yeah, he was very happy with it. He said he loved it. As a filmmaker that’s the best you’re going to hope for from an author, so I was kind of spoilt with that. He’s a smart guy. He knows how to write books and he knows enough to know he doesn’t know how to make movies. He just kind of trusted us, which was wonderful and rare and allowed us the freedom to make the film we wanted to make. I will always be grateful to him for that. I still don’t know quite why he allowed us to do it.
As you know, Marsden wrote numerous sequels to the books. So my final question to you is this. What would disappoint you more: if there was no follow-up film, or if there was and you didn’t direct it?
Oh (laughing). If there was and I didn’t direct it, yeah. This film is very close to my heart, obviously, especially given it was my first film. So that would kind of crush me if somebody else got to make the other two.
When you say the other two, does that mean you’re intending to make a trilogy?
No it’s just that, you know, the smart business sense is if you’ve created enough interest from the first film to make another one, it makes more sense to then make two films at once because you know people will come to a third one if they come to a second one. You can keep all the actors together, the actors don’t age two years in between, and there’s a whole bunch of economic and practical reasons why these days you do two and three together and you can do it for half the price, basically. And that allows you to make more movies. So if we were lucky enough to be able to make a sequel, we’d do two.