The day I found out I’d won the Sir Peter Ustinov award, I sat out on the deck of the house I lived in at the time and had a glass of wine with a friend. I explained to him what the award meant and where it could lead. A shining, glorious career was ahead of me, my creative success practically assured. I was about to become an in-demand writer and all the failures and disappointments that characterised the first half of my twenties would fade fast in the rearview mirror.
This friend, who tends to err on the side of cynical, listened in silence, then simply and honestly said ‘wow. So you’re set, then.’
I smiled, sipped my wine and agreed. Everything seemed certain and kept seeming certain for a long time after that. Even when the meetings that followed came and went without any tangible change in my life, I still believed that I was riding the wave of success. It probably took about a year for it to become clear to me that I was a lot less ‘set’ than I’d let myself assume.
There are various reasons for why things didn’t blow up the way I thought they would, but looking back the biggest one is that I just don’t think I was ready. Outside of the award winning Windmills pilot I didn’t have much else to offer when I went into meetings with producers, and beyond that my conception of what I wanted my career to be, the sort of writer I envisioned myself as, was vague and poorly defined. What I had been working towards was less a clear goal and more a kind of blurry notion of ‘making it’ without any realistic consideration of what that actually meant.
The Ustinov and its aftermath was a long, painful lesson in making assumptions. A few months ago, when initial interest came out of LA for the film adaptation of Sunburnt Country, my agent noted that I seemed very calm about what should have been mind blowing news. In truth, I was close to squealing with excitement – I just knew not to take anything for granted, that even certainties are a lot less certain than you might think in the creative industries. In retrospect, the Ustinov experience was preparatory for what was to come, a valuable learning curve about keeping a level head even when it seems like your dreams are coming true around you.
All of which brings me to the past week. You’ll have to excuse me being a little vague about things; some conversations are in such early stages and some projects aren’t able to be spoken about just yet, so I’m going to talk around a lot of what I’ve been doing and hope I arrive at the point I’m looking for.
Last Friday morning I flew to Sydney for a writers room job. Securing it was the work of my brilliant agent and it would be the first time I worked in a room over the course of several days, shoulder to shoulder with other writers as we developed the outline for a new TV show. The room, however, didn’t kick off until Monday; I was flying up early for a series of meetings at Harper Collins about the next stage of my book’s development.
That alone was a head-spinner. Seeing the passion from the team led to a mix of excitement and gnawing anxiety over when exactly they’re all going to realise that I have no clue what I’m doing. Their faith in the book and the scale on which it’s going to be promoted is mildly terrifying and I can’t wait. Of course, everything going smoothly relies on me holding up my end of the bargain; namely finishing the edits and getting the book to the highest possible standard before it goes to print. Flying up on Friday gave me Saturday and Sunday to wander around Sydney, stopping in at occasional pubs and cafes in order to keep working on the edits. By Sunday evening the major rewrites were all wrapped, right before I dove into a week of working on a very different project.
Editing the book is only one part of the ongoing Sunburnt Country/The Hunted (different names in different territories) experience. I’m also currently working on the next draft of the screenplay, which as has now been announced, is being developed by Stampede Ventures and Vertigo Entertainment in LA under the guiding hand of some of the biggest producers in Hollywood, including Greg Silverman – the former head of Warner Brothers. The film deal technically got underway before the book was sold, but I don’t think the size of the thing hit home for me until I saw the Variety and Deadline articles come out last week. For the first time it felt real. Add to this the fact that the other night I had dinner with a Stampede Executive over from LA and was given a bit more of an idea of what they have in mind for the film, including the timeline and potential talent involved. All of which left me with a panicky feeling of holy shit I have to finish this screenplay.
My plan was to get the script done in the evenings over last week in Sydney, but writers rooms are tiring and by the time you get out at the end of every day your brain is so stretched in so many different directions that giving any thought to a different project is nearly impossible. I therefore made the decision to focus on the room, do some screenplay notes if I found the energy but otherwise relegate the script to this week’s job. As much as I wanted to get it done, I don’t benefit anyone by rushing or not giving it my full attention.
The writers room was a fascinating experience, in its intensity, frustrations, and ultimate arrival at something really cool. I was comfortably the least experienced writer working on the show, and while it was a little intimidating to be working so closely with people who have been in the industry for a long time and have massive successes to their name, I never felt like my ideas weren’t being valued. Still, I was fairly exhausted by the time we wrapped on Friday and keen to get home and get back to work on the script. But over the course of the weekend, a couple of other things happened – nothing huge, but some potential movement, in one case on a project that I’d long since suspected would stay still indefinitely. I also found out that my TV concept Endgame (the name will change, thanks Avengers) is a finalist for a major pitching competition. If we win, we’ll get some development funding and support, which is thrilling but a little daunting from a time perspective. The pitching stage alone means another trip to Sydney before the month is out.
So yeah, things are hectic in the best way possible.
With so much tangible momentum on so many different fronts, am I starting to think that this is the belated realisation of that premature prophecy of being ‘set’? To be honest, I’m not thinking about it in those terms. Because as exciting as everything is, it’s also early days. Some high profile stuff has happened and I no longer have to do freelance gigs in order to support myself financially, but that doesn’t mean my career has erupted in a way that’s necessarily viable in the long term. Obviously I hope that’s the case and I think it’s fair enough that I’m optimistic, but I’ll never forget that, as I learned after the Ustinov, nothing has happened until it has happened. I strongly believe that one of the keys to creative success is a balance of realism and almost deluded hopefulness. I really hope every exciting seed that has been planted recently grows big and strong, but at this stage who knows? For now, I’m enjoying the ride but remembering to hold on tight and keep one eye on the ground.
Writing words about writing words.