“I think I’ve just always been a studier of people, always observing and thinking about why they might say what they just said or did what they just did and I think all people who write are like that. They’re studiers and observers, little spies,” Bell laughs. “I think you’ve just got it or you don’t, that ability to listen. It’s mostly about listening, because then the dialogue is truthful.”
Reading through Alice Bell’s bio is a guide to some of the best television series Australia has produced. She has been a screenwriter on Puberty Blues, Spirited, Rush, as well as her multi-award winning film, Suburban Mayhem, which was set in Newcastle and invited to Cannes. What intrigued me especially was that Bell was a writer for The Slap – the acclaimed ABC adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ novel – and wrote the ‘Connie’ episode, one of the most affecting in the series.
Her work has centered especially on young female characters – Suburban Mayhem, Puberty Blues, The Slap – and Bell and I are laughing about one of the subjects that has become an area of expertise throughout her career. “Now I’ve done so many virginity episodes, just so many teen sex episodes of television, that’s sort of become my niche!”
Bell’s writing in ‘Connie’ brought out an aspect of the story and of the young protagonist at once darker and more sympathetic than the chapter in the book. “I wanted the episode to stand out from the others,” Bell tells me, “because she is, I guess, the voice of the youth in that series and I really tried hard to keep the voice real. I think often on television when older people try to write younger people’s stories I just don’t believe it. I think ‘Really? That’s not how I remember it’ just the awkwardness and thinking you’re old enough to make adult decisions. But on some level you’re still not really capable of certain things, whereas on other levels you are very capable.”
“I think that’s what’s so interesting about being a teenager, it’s probably why my work surrounds teenagers. I just find it a fascinating age. So it’s a mix of me doing it, but it’s a mix of people coming to me because I’ve already done it I guess. I keep joking that I don’t know when that’s going to run out and people are going to realise I’m old!” she laughs. “I’ve got two kids and I’m in my 30s!”
Screenwriting is a mode of writing that fascinates me, and strikes me as uniquely difficult as there’s so much out of the writer’s control. Like an act of translation – a script seems to be written for so many others to interpret before the audience can. I ask Bell about how she negotiates this idea of scriptwriting for other people.
“Yeah, the problem is, you are writing for someone else, but the minute you start writing for someone else, you write bad stuff, so you actually have to write for you and know there are people like you who like the things you like. If you start second guessing yourself – as with anything I imagine – then you start making decisions that aren’t real. I think in screenwriting especially, when it’s good it’s because it’s really truthful and really real, and that’s the part you’re looking for. But that’s what I like about it too, that you’re always searching for ways to relate to people.”
“It is writing for other people, but it’s writing not what you think they want you to write but writing what you think will affect them and they can relate to. It sounds like a minute difference but it’s a pretty big difference.”
Bell is appearing at several events at NYWF this year, one – Tony Soprano Is Dead – on emotional attachments to fictional tv characters, or hatred of them to the point of disgust. I ask Bell what makes an effective character? “I know that when an audience is watching a character – whether they’re likeable or not – they do need to understand why a character is doing what they’re doing.”
“One thing we learnt on Suburban Mayhem is – it doesn’t matter what a character does and how bad they are, in their mind they have to believe that what they’re doing is right. Because otherwise all you have is a psychopath, they’re acting without consequence. But to find motivation in people who are doing sometimes the worst things, is really fun and interesting and you should walk out of that experience thinking ‘Yeah I know why she did that’ and be able to explain to an actor why they are doing those things. You can’t just send them to set and say, ‘Act angry.’ They need to know the motivation for being angry, so it is all about finding empathy and you have to find it sometimes in the most horrible of characters, but you do need to understand.”
For all her many successes, when I ask Bell if she’s been criticised on any of her projects, and how she dealt with that, she recites immediately and word-perfectly a line from a review she received for Suburban Mayhem, “I read this review online that said ‘there’s nothing that Paul Goldwin [the Director] could’ve done to polish Alice Bell’s turd,’” she laughs. The film, her first ever, won multiple awards and was invited to Cannes, but it says much about how writers remember their critics.
“Of course it stays with you, because I remember it word for word,” Bells says, “but you can’t please everyone, that’s why it’s important to be writing for yourself in a way, because I know there are people who respond to what I write, and there are people who won’t. It’s just part of the job I guess, you have to get a pretty thick skin.”
We discuss terrible jobs she had when younger and trying to get into the field, including a stint as a dental nurse, which Bell says meant she wasn’t able to go to the dentist for ten years afterwards as she’d “seen way too much,” as well as time at an electroplating factory: “after three months they offered to give me the role of manager, which made me think ‘Oh god, if I can get to the top of this in three months I really need to be going into an area I like.’ So instead of taking the job, I quit on the spot!”
I ask Bell whether there are many opportunities for screenwriters working in Australia, and whether it’s difficult to resist the lure of America or the UK, but Bell is emphatic that there is. “I also think what is great about being a screenwriter is you can self-generate your work, so if you’re quiet, you really should be writing something that you can then go on and make into something with somebody. There’s sort of no excuse for not working, in a way. But I think there’s a lot of work here and I think television is doing really well in Australia, but it is what you make it. If you’re prepared to work hard, it’s there.”
“I think you’ve just got to keep on writing, you got to have stuff to show.” Bell tells me when I wonder if she has any advice for young writers wanting to get into screenwriting. “Don’t be precious, don’t sit back and hold your papers like someone’s going to steal your idea. That always fascinates me when people go ‘How do you stop people stealing your ideas?’ and I think, you’ll never write anything like I’ll write it. We could write something on the same topic and have the exact same material and come up with something completely different.”
“So I would just say – keep writing. It’s a craft and you’ve got to practice it. I feel like I’m still learning and I’ve been doing it for a long time now. Keep writing and sharing and trying to make stuff however you can with your peers.”
– This interview is cross-posted from the National Young Writers’ Festival.
— Alice Bell is appearing at the Nation Young Writers’ Festival in two events: Scripts, Scenes and Sluglines(Saturday October 5, 11.30am-12.30pm) and Tony Soprano is Dead (Sunday October 6, 11.30am-12.45pm).