Learn from a Legend of Stage and Screen

Celebrated playwright and screenwriter David Williamson AO will present a series of films and discussions across Townsville this September. IMAGE: SUPLLIED

Local playwrights and screenwriters will have the chance to pick the brain of one of Australia’s most prolific dramatists and film-writers when David Williamson AO visits Townsville this September.

David, who’s written 24 screen plays (Gallipoli, Phar Lap and Balibo) and 50 plays (The Club, Birthrights), will present his own play-turned-film The Club as part of Townsville Classic Film’s program, introduce a film of his choice – 1972’s Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli – and host a Q&A session for those wishing to draw on his experience.

We caught up with David for a quick preview of his visit:

From where do you draw inspiration?
Sometimes a story I hear or something I observe, or something that arouses my interest or emotions or intent. Sometimes it could be a character, sometimes a snatch of a story, and some of my plays have seemingly come out of nowhere. But until I sit down and start writing I sometimes don’t know where they come from. Usually it’s something I’ve heard, observed, a character that’s struck me or something like that.

How does your method differ between writing for stage and writing for screen?
I often say it’s like French and German. The stage, you have to tell your story through dialogue and body language. With film, you’ve got the image, atmosphere, mood, close-up, all those additional ways of telling story, so usually the dialogue is more sparse. I mean, it’s a cliché that film is a visual medium, but it certainly is and you’ve got to take that into account. In both forms though, the structure of the story is all important. You’ve got to be telling a story and you’ve got to be telling it so that people want to know what happens next.

Quite a few of my films started as a play and have been converted to film and mostly I’ve done the screenplays because I think I know the difference between the two. Although when people see the play and the film, they say it’s very similar; it’s not. The film typically has only 40-45 per cent of the dialogue that was there in the play, because much more of the story is told by the visuals and the atmosphere.

Do you find it difficult to cut 60 per cent of the dialogue that you’d laboured so carefully on, when adapting your plays for film?
No, no not at all. It’s a different medium. You can’t afford to overload film with too much dialogue. But the way people use language is the delight of stage. You go to see a play to see how people use or misuse language to manipulate others. The stage in a sense, although it has to be a story-telling form as well, is also a study of how we use language to get our own ends, or to deceive ourselves or to deceive others. It’s much more a study of language than film is.

You’ve selected Cabaret as the other film you’ll present in Townsville. Why?
It had a big impression on me when I first saw it. It’s the story of a young woman in Germany just as the rise of Hitler was taking place. It’s got some striking parallels with today because the city-educated people thought that Hitler was appalling … and they used to satirise him mercilessly in the cabarets because he was such a crude, horrible person and a joke that was never destined to last, according to them … But then there’s an amazing scene where they go out to the countryside, out of the sophisticated city, and they sit in a country inn and a young blonde, blue-eyed boy stands up and starts singing ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’ and everyone in the inn joins in. And Sally Bowles and her friend look at each other and think ‘oh hell this isn’t going to go away, we in the city think Hitler’s a joke, but these people out here, they don’t. We’re in trouble’. It’s a marvellous warning, a turning point. It’s happening again! I mean, the city people thought Donald Trump was a joke, but out in the Red States he was their man, he was voicing the prejudices and the hates that they’d all felt, but never been able to say. And Trump’s rallying cry’s exactly the same as Hitler’s: ‘Make America Great Again’ / ‘Make Germany Great Again’. It’s a chilling parallel and it just struck me how educated city people underestimate the prejudice, the passion and the hatred that’s out there in the Red States.

Where to find David, during his visit:
7 Sep: Introducing Cabaret at Townsville Classic Films – 7pm, That Place on Sturt
8 Sep: Q&A for playwrights and screenwriters, 10am, Hoi Polloi Café (bookings essential)
8 Sep: Screening of The Club, followed by Q&A – 4pm, Event City Cinema

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