John Collee: Top Tips for Screenwriters

John Collee John Collee

The screenwriter behind ‘Happy Feet’ and ‘Master and Commander’ shares his wisdom around.

Tip #1

Make connections. Seek out mentors and like-minded people. Join a creative team. Absolutely no-one gets ahead alone in this business.


Tip #2

If you want to work in Hollywood then get an agent and go to Hollywood, bearing in mind that it’s no longer necessarily the epicentre of the film industry. There¹s a market for good scripts in Australia, and Europe and China. Output from rest of the world is starting to eclipse the American film business.


Tip #3

You don¹t have to write what you know but you do have to write about themes you care about.


Tip #4

The world is full of undiscovered subject matter - old radio plays, undiscovered biographies, out of print novels. Re-use and recycle. Most new stuff is old stuff with a different hat on.


Tip #5

You’ll never write anything sitting in front of a screen, so go out and gather information, get to know the place and the people you’re writing out. Travel there. Live there. Writers block means you haven’t done enough researching.


Tip #6

Know how much it costs to make the film you’re proposing. The cheapest version of your story is the one that’s most likely to get made and may well be the best version.


Tip #7

Tell it aloud to everyone. No one’s going to steal it and it’s only by talking it and getting feedback that you¹ll find out where the weak spots are.


Tip #8

No one reads character summaries, but everyone will listen to a great narrative. If you don¹t have a gripping story that takes half an hour to pitch then you don¹t have a movie. Don’t start writing until you know the story in all its detail, then write as fast as you can. Only describe what the viewer would need to see, and describe it as concisely as possible.


Tip #9

If the first draft is flawed, that’s normal. If you get ten pages of general comments framed as questions - ignore them, they’re written by a novice. Good notes are very brief, prescriptive and specific. When you get the notes, don’t waste time trying to rewrite 100 pages, you’ll just get lost or reproduce all the same mistakes. Rewrite the synopsis, refine it. Then rewrite the next draft from the new synopsis.


Tip #10

Don¹t get discouraged - there’s always six other projects out there which sound similar to and better than yours. And don’t try and sell a dead parrot because everyone will recognise it as such. If you know it has died then admit it, stop writing it and write something alive, which you enjoy.


If you want to hear more from John Collee check out his masterclass, John Collee: Writing for Hollywood


The Australian Film Television and Radio School would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners, the Bidjigal people and Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, on whose land we meet, work, study and teach. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and extend our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from all nations of this land.