From $1 Poems to Screening Blue Murder

Ian David, scriptwriter and Patron of the Arts Law Centre spoke to Alison Patchett about his work, legal issues he has had to deal with and how to have a successful career in the arts.

Since Ian started entertaining his class mates with stories in primary school around the age of 11, he knew that “he loved the internal life of being a writer,” and that he would follow the feeling that he describes as “the joy of writing.”

Ian’s first paid writing position was at the Freemantle markets where he wrote poetry for market-goers. He describes charging only $1 a poem at the beginning.  People would ask him to write a poem for someone, often a belated birthday, and he would promise to have it completed by the time they had finished their market shopping. 

Ian says his poetry at the markets became more and more popular and at one stage when he sought to leave the stall, he was convinced to stay by other people as his work had become a draw card for the markets.

People who received one of these $1 bargains must be quietly satisfied now that Ian has a number of acclaimed dramas to his name.

Ian has been a scriptwriter on productions like Joh’s Jury, Blue Murder, Police State, Police Crop, A Country Practice, The Shark Net, Australia’s Most Wanted and Bad Cop, Bad Cop.

His latest project sees him returning to his theatrical beginnings writing for a Belvoir Street Theatre production.  Prior to attending the Australian Film and Television School in Sydney, Ian spent about 4 years writing, performing and directing in theatre productions in Western Australia.

In 2003 Ian was presented with a Centennial Medal from the Commonwealth of Australia for services to Australian society and film.  In September 2003, he attended the UNESCO headquarters in Paris to represent Australian artists on cultural diversity. 

Major themes in Ian’s work are the police and the law.  Ian says that this interest developed when he worked on a docu-drama about the Fitzgerald enquiry into corruption in the Queensland police force called Police State.

To write the script for Police State he read thousands of pages of police reports and court transcripts.  “I became fascinated by the skill of advocacy and how quickly a witness sees the end coming or doesn’t see it coming.  It is very dramatic,” say Ian.

As much of Ian’s work is research based drama this brings with it a range of legal issues.  Most notably Ian had to deal with a several year delay in showing Blue Murder in NSW.  Blue Murder is a mini-series based on the stories of the criminal Neddy Smith and Michael Drury.  It could not be shown in NSW whilst Neddy Smith was awaiting trial. 

In his writing Ian has also sought advice on aspects of defamation law and the rules of evidence to ensure a courtroom scene he wrote was accurate.  His work on Police State led to Ian being required to give evidence at a hearing.

Ian acknowledges that the expense of legal action is often prohibitive for artists to enforce their rights.  One of the reasons that Ian is a Patron of Arts Law is that he views the Arts Law Centre as often providing the only avenue for creative people.  “If Arts Law was not here it would be a desert where creative people would be victims continually, says Ian.  “Even if a project ends up a train wreck – it’s at least good to get advice on what to do next time.”

On avoiding legal disputes in the film making process Ian suggests focusing on establishing and maintaining healthy relationships. “It is important to acknowledge that as a writer you are in a collaborative process and because of that relationships are everything.  Don’t rely on contracts to solve problems.  Put effort into relationships and be sensitive and mindful of how they are going,” says Ian. 

He sees the real value of written contracts as “educating co-collaborators on what they can and can’t do” and suggests “if you use contracts as a last resort, they are messy and hard to fix.”  Of Ian’s approach to contracts he says, “Look all the time for healthy relationships and do as much as you can on a contractual basis to educate the other people involved on your beliefs and work methods.”

Ian believes that the key attributes of a successful scriptwriter are to be thick-skinned and to have something important to say.  “It’s also important to be emotionally, creatively and financially driven.  Realise that you have a limit to what you can take.  Know what you want to achieve and set a defined time,” Ian says.  “You should also have reasonable expectations over a certain degree of time and walk on if these are not met.  This gives you power as a creative person.”

Ian’s advice to writers wanting to turn their script into a film is to “invest time and effort into learning as much as you can about that genre.”  He says, “You should be a professional.  This means have the attitude to educate yourself and position yourself to get the best chance.”

“Creative people – writers – think they have an idea, but they have to work it out more.  Figure out a niche, know the budget your interested in and do your homework on how you can market the film,” says Ian.  “In pitching your idea be persistent in a sensitive and caring way.  Be creative about it.  If you see a film you like – approach them and say that you would have liked to have worked on that film.”

But Ian says most of all don’t forget to “pay attention to relationships – at the base of it, that’s what it’s about, healthy relationships.”

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