Richard Green as ‘Chris’ in Boxing Day. Image: Sydney Film Festival

The idea was to make a film in real time – a suburban siege drama that would be told in one single, continuous shot. That was the basic kernel of the idea […] the festival kindly gave us $100,000 to go out and make the film. I remember thinking: “Am I crazy making a feature film for only 100K, or am I crazy not to?” I decided I was crazy not to.

– Kriv Stenders in IndiVision News, 2007 (1)

Kriv Stenders’ Boxing Day premiered at the 2007 Adelaide Film Festival (AFF), in February. This “micro-budget digital feature” emerged from discussions between Sydney filmmaker Kriv Stenders and Katrina Sedgwick (AFF Director) about “the creative opportunities that digital technology provides” (2). Boxing Day was funded solely by the Adelaide Film Festival Investment Fund (AFFIF) to an initial budget of $100,000. An additional $75,000 was invested for post-production, completed at Rising Sun Pictures, and marketing costs.

Boxing Day also screened at the Sydney Film Festival in June, as part of the ‘Provocateur’ series: “cinematic stylists that challenge, agitate and demand your attention” (3). I interviewed Kriv Stenders about Boxing Day just prior to its Sydney screening – excerpts from this interview are interspersed in this article. A strong focus here is on the screenwriting process for Boxing Day, as a case study of an Australian micro-budget digital feature. What are the screenwriting challenges for this emerging mode of digital cinema? What kinds of scripts (if any) work best? These questions sit within a broader context of the impact of ‘the digital’ on film practice and æsthetics in domain.

The article is presented in two parts: Part I reviews Kriv Stenders’ idiosyncratic body of Australian screen work: as a writer, director and cinematographer. Part II examines the story design, writing process and script for Boxing Day: co-written by Kriv Stenders and Richard Green, the lead actor in the film.

Digital Features

Screenwriting theorist Ken Dancyger proposes three categories of ‘digital features’:

1. ‘High-end’ fantasy features
2. ‘Mainstream’ features that utilise standardised digital technology to mimic celluloid production and æsthetics, and
3. ‘Independent’ features made with digital video. (4)

Dancyger divides his third category into

those that might have been shot on film, but for financial reasons are not, and those that are conceived from the ground up as digital features, and whose writing and design are constructed around the particular æsthetic of digital video. (5)

For Dancyger and Jeff Rush, this brand of ‘Independent’ digital features can be demarcated as a distinct mode of cinema, one ‘designed’ from the ‘ground up’ – specifically for the digital medium. This notion is articulated by Lynden Barber, in a recent article on the emerging wave of ‘DIY Digital’ Australian cinema (including Boxing Day). He says: “Critical to any discussion of the DIY movement is the understanding that, at their best, these films are not simply a cheaper version of higher-budgeted features but a different beast altogether” (6).

* * *

Part I: The Work of Kriv Stenders

Kriv Stenders on the set of Boxing Day. Image: Smoking Gun Productions

Kriv Stenders has produced an eclectic body of work, over the past fifteen years, across the Australian screen industry. He has worked in short film, music video, television commercials and both documentary and drama features, at mid-range and micro-low budgets. Stenders graduated from the Australian Film Radio & Television School (AFTRS) in cinematography in 1989. His identity today is primarily as a director, but one who writes, shoots and edits aspects of his projects. The first part of this article functions as a synopsis of his screen work to date. The intention is not to provide a detailed analysis of each work, rather to provide a foundation for the in-depth case study of Boxing Day, which follows.

1989: Music Videos & Television Commercials

Between 1989 and 1994, Kriv Stenders created music videos for key Australian artists including The Go-Betweens, Mental As Anything, Noiseworks, John Farnham, Single Gun Theory, Choirboys, Ratcat, 1927 and Angry Anderson. His work with the short-form, today, is predominantly for television commercials (TVCs) at his production company, Pod Film. One recent trend in TVC production has been towards a cross-fertilisation of the TVC and the short film – as an extension of the traditional 30-second form. This is evident from the series of ‘ad-films’ created by high-profile filmmakers, such as Baz Luhrmann (Chanel), Ridley Scott (Prada) and David Lynch (Gucci). At Pod Film, Stenders has also worked with this form: in 2000, his ‘Sight Unseen’ TVC (Levi’s) was executed as a series of two-minute short films.

Kriv Stenders for Pod Film (Levi’s). Image: Pod Film

Another factor here is the recent shift in TVC production from 35mm production to High Definition (HD) digital video. Stenders’ profile on the Pod Film website markets his proficiency with ‘Digital HD’ as a bridge between the worlds of advertising and film:

His constant pursuit of inventive directorial technique has recently led Kriv to embrace Digital HD technology in the creation of his latest feature Blacktown. His experience as a Director of Photography coupled with his passion for pushing the proverbial envelope means that Kriv is able to make full use of all that Digital HD technology has to offer. (7)

In the world of advertising, it is the Treatment that is the critical document – which functions to present a visual (micro) narrative in a clear, punchy and concise fashion. For Stenders, experience with this form would also expect to have an impact on his feature screenwriting.

1994: Motherland (16mm, 51 mins, black and white)

Selection of stills from Motherland. Images: Motherland (VHS)

In 1994, Stenders wrote and directed the documentary short-feature Motherland. This film explores his Latvian-Australian heritage through the lives of his two grandmothers. Stenders (also as cinematographer) shot the film in black and white on 16mm celluloid. Australian writer-director Maree Delofski interviewed him (in 1994) about his approach to writing Motherland. She makes the connection between Stenders’ documentary mode of writing and his experience in music video production:

In researching, writing and shooting the film, Stenders developed a methodology which was similar to the process he had developed earlier in his career while creating music videos. This involved collecting visual ideas intuitively without necessarily organising them thematically or structurally from the beginning in script form. (8)

Delofski describes an “evolutionary relationship” and “dialogue” between the representational modes of writing and filming. (9) In this process, the role of images is central:

I wrote down these ideas, images, a crude set of notes eg just a word or an idea, like the words “two grandmothers” or a line of dialogue or a memory of something I heard my grandmothers say about a particular memory. It was also a shot list of images: eg slow-motion shots of my grandmother staring into the camera blinking or jumping on the trampoline in the back yard […] just images. (10)

Motherland conforms to Dancyger’s notion of “Personal Scriptwriting” described as those films which “open up story structures to provide opportunities to explore moments of visualisation and rhythm that can be prepared for through writing, but cannot be directly expressed through writing alone” (11). This definition works for Stenders’ approach to ‘writing’ – as a hybrid process that uses image and text, and is distributed across phases of film production.

1998: Two/Out (35mm, 14 mins, colour)

Richard Green as ‘Jack’ in Two/Out. Image: Short Site: 246

In 1998, Stenders completed the AFC-funded short drama Two/Out. The short is an adaptation of the play, Jack (by Jim McNeil), with Stenders as director and co-writer (with Troy Davies). The two lead roles in this short were given to two non-actors who possessed real life prison experience: Richard Green (Jack) and Tony Ryan (Tom). The casting process for Two/Out had a decisive impact on Stenders:

The casting was the single most critical point in the development of Two/Out […] One fateful day, Troy brought along a non-actor friend who had just come out of prison. He was very raw, had no respect for the script, and began to wildly ad-lib using the script as a vague guide. It was revelation. He was applying his own prison experience to the character and the material suddenly came to life in an incredible way. I realised this was the only way to cast and make the film. (12)

In Two/Out, the fictional framework (of the play) gained a documentary-like texture from the casting. The strong vernacular of the dialogue is described by Australian author Christos Tsiolkas as “tough, uncompromising and attune to the chop and rhythm of the Australian prole tongue” (13). This is evident from the opening scene:

Two/Out: Eighth Draft, Stenders and Davies, 1996. Image: Short Site: 252

Stenders notes that the play Jack “originated from real experience” – a flavour he was keen to enhance in his adaptation. (14) He describes the rehearsal period for the short as an “intense” process, where “slowly, Tony and Richard began to inhabit the characters and added details from their own experiences that gave the material a wonderful sense of uniqueness” (15). This ‘open’ approach to the script is similar to the process used by Richard Linklater for his Indie hit Slacker (1991). Screenwriting theorist J. J. Murphy describes Linklater’s process as one of “structured improvisation” that involves “loosely improvised situations involving non-traditional performers who essentially would be playing themselves” (16). Stenders uses the term of ‘screen geography’ to describe the improvisation for Two/Out: “We always knew what the geography of a scene was – where it started, where it ended, what needed to be said, and what needed to be felt.” (17)

In this analysis, it is Two/Out that presents the strongest precedent for Stenders’ recent micro-budget digital efforts, Blacktown and Boxing Day. In 2003, Stenders foreshadowed his ambitions for digital cinema:

I feel that with the advent of digital video technology, it has become easier to work like you do in the theatre, where you can operate in a far more fluid, immediate, interactive and flexible manner. (18)

2005: The Illustrated Family Doctor (35mm, 92 mins, colour)

Samuel Johnson as ‘Gary’ in The Illustrated Family Doctor. Image: The Illustrated Family Doctor DVD

In 2005, Kriv Stenders co-wrote and directed his first drama feature, The Illustrated Family Doctor, a ‘mid-range’ budget, AFC-funded film. The film is an adaptation from the novel by David Snell (co-writer of the screenplay). The film was developed at Pod Film. Doctor exhibits meticulous (Stanley Kubrick-inspired) cinematography and stylised art direction and design, that exploit the rich 35mm format. However, for Stenders, his début feature proved somewhat of a bitter-sweet experience:

I’ve made a (relatively) large budget film about two years ago, called The Illustrated Family Doctor. That was released and financed through a much more traditional model […] making a film in a traditional kind of way – was a fantastic creative experience – and ultimately the fruition of a dream […] But the film kind of didn’t really work. It didn’t find an audience. And that was a bit frustrating. (19)

As a screen adaptation (and collaboration with another writer), Doctor represents a logical step after Two/Out. However, a far more conservative approach was taken to the script:

We worked with the novel’s author, David Snell along with two script editors. It was very much a standard, traditional script development process in that we worked on drafts based directly on the novel. There were no Treatments. (20)

In contrast to the image-based writing for Motherland or the ‘structured improvisation’ for Two/Out – the scripting of the Doctor seems understated. A case could be made here that Stenders’ transition to the feature form (in the mid-budget range) put certain pressures on the innovations in screenwriting undertaken in previous work. In a recent article on “Cinematic Scriptwriting”, Australian writer-director Kathryn Millard is one filmmaker who calls for a more open and flexible approach to include alternative screenplay materials:

The Australian film industry – like its counterpart in the United States – has adopted a series of fairly rigid conventions about how dramatic screenplays should be written and presented, sometimes even down to the use of specific fonts. […] It is difficult to understand why a range of script materials could not be considered; from collections of images and texts, poetic narratives, film-works in progress – the possibilities are many. (21)

Furthermore, in a recent article by Lynden Barber on Boxing Day, in The Australian, Stenders describes the script requirements demanded by film funding agencies as an “archaic format” (22).

Opening credit sequence in Blacktown. Image: Pod Film

2005: Blacktown (DV, 92 mins, colour)

In 2005, Stenders completed another feature, Blacktown, his first foray into micro-budget digital. The film screened at the Sydney Film Festival.

I had my digital awakening. I realised you could make a film on digital and it didn’t matter that it wasn’t on film. You didn’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. You could just spend a few tens of thousands. (23)

Trying to finance a $4 Million dollar film can take you seven years. In this way, I wasn’t going to wait another 7 years to make another film. It is more pragmatic, a way to keep active and to keep making films. (24)

Blacktown is set in and around the Sydney western suburb of its title. The film was self-financed to a budget of around $50,000. In the micro-budget digital arena, Stenders was forced to inhabit multiple roles of writer, producer, director, cinematographer as well as actor (in a minor role). For Blacktown, Stenders looked back to Two/Out and his lead actor Tony Ryan for inspiration. The film is built around Ryan and reworks certain aspects of his real life and milieu.

Tony Ryan as ‘Tony’ in Blacktown. Image: Pod Film

Two/Out opened up my eyes up to working with non-actors, working away from a script, not from a script. That kind of way of working in a much more improvisational way, with written material, rather than slavishly duplicating the written material on screen. (25)

Blacktown is uneven in parts. It is assembled from shaky, grainy, handheld digital video (DV) takes and demonstrates a ‘lo-fi’ approach in its sound production. The film exhibits a self-conscious guerrilla æsthetic – foreshadowed in the opening credits – which are written as graffiti on real-world locations. Blacktown delivers some powerful cinematic moments. The scene that introduces the central relationship between Tony (Tony Ryan) and Nikki (Niki Owen) is infused with a strong dramatic tension and sense of place, set under the stark fluorescent lighting of a deserted suburban shopping centre car park.

Stenders’ idea to construct a feature around a single locale bears resemblance to recent work from (eclectic and prolific) American filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. Bubble (2005) is a (relatively) low-budget digital feature set in the small town of Parkersburg, Ohio:

We wanted to do site-specific films. You hear that term used for other art forms, but not for cinema. The writer and I come up with a basic premise, go to a location, and the people fill it up. We interview people, incorporate their stories, try to make it as organic as possible. The cameras make that possible. You can shoot using available light. (26)

Debbie Doebereiner as ‘Martha’ in Bubble. Image: Bubble (DVD)

Blacktown and Bubble both explore notions of place in communities of a low socio-economic demographic. Interestingly, both films were made from a script outline. (Bubble was written by Coleman Hough and directed, shot and edited by Soderbergh.) Both films use non-professional actors recruited from the region to lend a documentary texture to the work. Soderbergh found his lead actor for Bubble (Debbie Doeberenier) working at the drive-through window of the Parkersburg Kentucky Fried Chicken. (27)

* * *

Part II: 2007 Boxing Day (HD, 81 mins, colour)

Blacktown collected the Audience Award at the 2005 Sydney Film Festival. The film also captured the attention of Katrina Sedgwick, director of the Adelaide Film Festival:

Richard Green as ‘Chris’ in Boxing Day. Image: Smoking Gun Productions

Katrina was a big fan of my no-budget digital follow-up, Blacktown, and asked me if I was interested in developing a similar digital-based project that the festival could fund. As it was I was already working on the script for Boxing Day, which was a film I planned to make using the same methodologies I had started to develop on Blacktown. I was wanting to work in the same open and organic manner, and had an idea that was based around a central character that would be played by Richard Green. (28)

This ‘idea’ was Boxing Day. This time, Stenders turned to his remaining Two/Out cast member, Richard Green – who since had appeared in Praise (John Curran, 1998), Jewboy (Tony Krawitz, 2005) and television series The Colony (Malcolm Mcdonald, 2005). For Boxing Day, this collaboration started with the script: as co-writers. The pair were members of the panel for the Script Evolution Seminar at the 2007 Sydney Film Festival, chaired by festival director Claire Stewart. (29) Excerpts from this session are also included in this article.

Synopsis

Stewart Clark as ‘Owen’ in Boxing Day. Image: Smoking Gun Productions

A father’s impassioned struggle to reunite his estranged family over the course of a single afternoon.

– Tagline for Boxing Day

An outer suburb of Adelaide: Chris (Richard Green) is on home-detention. It’s Boxing Day. Chris is host of a festive lunch for his estranged family: his stepdaughter Brooke (Misty Sparrow), ex-wife Donna (Tammy Anderson) and her new boyfriend Dave (Syd Brisbane). Before they sit down to Christmas turkey, Chris’ old gaol mate Owen (Stewart Clark) makes an unannounced visit. Things soon spiral out of control …

1. Genre

Boxing Day is a hybrid narrative. The film fits with Dancyger’s notion of a “thriller-melodrama hybrid” which works as a “swap” of genres: “the melodrama borrows the plot layer from the thriller, and the thriller borrows the character layer from the melodrama” (30). In Boxing Day, the thriller component of the narrative is a suburban siege:

I had just seen a documentary on the real person that Dog Day Afternoon [Sidney Lumet, 1975] was based on, because it’s a real story. And then I realised what a compelling story that was, what a great film it was. You know, it is just instant drama. A siege situation is such a fantastic dramatic construct to start with. (31)

The melodrama component of the film is established via the character of Chris (Richard Green), who is introduced in the first shot of the film: washing the dishes in preparation for the festive lunch. Using Dancyger, Chris functions as “a minority character in a majority world” (32). This works on three counts: Chris is indigenous, working class and has a prison record, currently on home-detention. Chris has a clearly defined goal: “to reunite his estranged family” (the film’s tagline). He is clean – from his criminal past, from the drugs and from the booze. His anxiety and edginess are immediately apparent. Dancyger also tells us that, in melodrama, the existence of the main character depends on their outcome. (33) In Boxing Day, Chris’ outcome is a successful family reconciliation. Failure to achieve this goal may result in: return to prison, drug dependency and ultimately the dissolution of close family relationships.

In Boxing Day, these narrative ‘layers’ are not equivalent: the plot given by the siege (thriller) is less dominant than the character layer (of the melodrama). The key function of the ‘genre swap’ in Boxing Day is to serve a ‘real-time’ narrative: Chris needs to achieve his goal within the course of a single afternoon. Here, the dramatic arc of Boxing Day is amplified by the siege. When Owen (his ex-prison mate) drops in with a case of beer and a car-boot full of drugs, the stakes are raised. Owen makes a revelation about Dave (Donna’s new boyfriend and now father-figure to Brooke). Chaos ensues. In the midst of all of this, Chris’ parole office pays a scheduled visit. Chris gets his gun … In the Dancyger framework, the events of Boxing Day define Chris’ “journey” and allow the potential for a “moral education” (34). That is, as Chris is propelled towards a violent ending, he is confronted with a decision that will determine his future and that of his family.

The desire to see genre for films in the low-budget digital arena is gaining momentum in the UK at the moment. This has been led by the new digital film studio Warp X (based in Sheffield) which recently won a bid to produce a slate of seven films, to be made digitally, as part of the Low Budget Feature Film Scheme of the UK Film Council. Warp X has a plan to nurture emerging filmmakers to deliver “genre movies with an original twist and creative signature” (35). This genre-orientated approach has largely been driven by the success of Dead Man’s Shoes (Shane Meadows, 2004) released by sibling company Warp Films. In February, this year, I interviewed Barry Ryan (Head of Production) at Warp X about this:

I think, once again, it goes back to Dead Man’s Shoes which started off as a comedy. Then two weeks into the four weeks of pre-production it turned into a thriller because that’s the way Paddy [Considine] and Shane [Meadows] were developing the story. When we went out on our ‘tech-rechie’ and were talking about the story we said ‘this is a cowboy film […] it just isn’t set in the mid-west, it’s set in the Midlands. (36)

2. Containment

The siege narrative of Boxing Day also provides a high level of spatial containment. The film unfolds in a single location: a generic quarter-acre block in Elizabeth Vale, an outer suburb of Adelaide. In contrast to Blacktown, which exploited an entire suburb as its cinematic milieu, Boxing Day works with the screenwriting principle of containment:

I think this was integral to the idea: one location, it was going to be very microscopic. What I was thinking of was in terms of a cinematic experience. I love this thing when you work within parameters, or constraints, when you are given two or there colours to do a painting. So I really loved the discipline of it being one location. Blacktown was about a place, about a world, a much more macroscopic kind of thing. Boxing Day was really micro – “how can I make a suburban home – its surroundings, its textures – come to life?” It was more like a dare or a challenge. (37)

Australian screenwriter Michael Brindley promotes ‘Containment’ as one of his “Six C’s of low budget feature scripting” (38). These were presented, in 1996, at an AFC Low-budget Feature Seminar. Brindley cites examples from 1990s ‘Indie’ cinema: Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989), The Unbelievable Truth (Hal Hartley, 1989) and Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992), to name a few. His claim is that these films succeed (partly) due to their narrative containment, down to a limited number of locations. But there is no mention of how the actual script itself – the writing process or the script format – can specifically engage with ‘containment’. Also, (in 1996) Brindley doesn’t mention anything about digital cinema. Yet on a ‘D-Cinema Timeline’ complied by the editors at The Velvet Light Trap (39), 1995 is a “benchmark” for the issue of the Dogme95 manifesto and release of the first consumer digital video (DV) format by Sony (2004). Thomas Vinterberg delivered the first ‘official’ Dogme film, Festen (The Celebration), in 1998. For screen theorist Holly Willis, “the Dogme 95 movement and the release of Festen were key moments in the inauguration of the DV filmmaking movement and the attempt to rethink contemporary cinema” (40).

Festen represents the transformation of the containment principle for low-budget digital cinema. The narrative is an intense family drama that unfolds in a single location, when an extended Danish family gather to celebrate the 60th birthday of their patriarch Helge (Henning Moritzen), in a castle-like setting in the countryside. The narrative has two interlocking parts: a decadent celebration is contrasted with a dark, character-based drama played out through Helge’s son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), who is recovering from the recent suicide of his twin sister. Brindley says that “confinement or claustrophobia” work when “actually serving the narrative” (41). In Festen this holds true. The architecture serves the narrative(s): the baroque interior makes for a lavish backdrop to the decadent party, while the character-based drama unfolds within the compact accommodation quarters upstairs and claustrophobic service spaces inhabited by ‘the help’.

For a micro-budget digital production, Stenders chose to rework the principle of containment using an ‘always open’ approach to the script – where chance elements can have a major impact on the texture of the final film:

By chance we happened to find this fantastic location. And by chance – had this bus in the back. And this is the great thing about working this way: if you always keep the front door and the back door of the script open and allow anything and everything to walk through – you can take it on board. (42)

3. The Danish-Digital Model

Festen shared the Special Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival in 1998. The success of this film in particular has had some strange effects on the evolution of low-budget digital cinema, evident from a disproportionate number of films with dark subject matter. A quick scan reveals themes of: family dysfunction, suicide, rape and domestic violence, in Idioterne (The Idiots, Lars von Trier, 1998), Dancer in the Dark (von Trier, 2000), Tape (Richard Linklater, 2001) and Personal Velocity: Three Portraits (Rebecca Miller, 2002). The Danish-digital model, fuelled by Dogme95, has become a dominant model for international low-budget digital cinema. Adrian Martin is one critic who warns of an “alarmingly narrow range of possible models” being explored in this area, in which he says “filmmakers need to tread carefully” (43):

Almost inevitably, psychodrama has become a prime form of contemporary low-budget cinema. Psychodrama is all about the masks of polite society – and the volatile traumas (like a family reunion) that allow those masks to be torn off. At its crudest level, psychodrama leaves its ad-libbing actors flailing […] (44)

Martin points to (and builds on) an argument provided by Richard Combs and Raymond Durgnat, in their analysis of the Dogme films. They find that “Dogme has less to do with narrative dramatic function” than an exploration of a new digital æsthetic for feature film and describe the manifesto as “partly a manual and a manufacturer’s promo” that “tells us less about what is basic or necessary or true to cinema than it does about how the equipment can be used” (45). They also remind us that the Dogme films have been made using “traditional scripts, traditional actors, rehearsals” (46). In fact, there is no mention, at all, of alterative approaches to scripts or scriptwriting process anywhere in the Dogme95 manifesto.

Boxing Day also possesses an element of psychodrama, inherited from the Danish tradition. This link would be apparent to most festival-goers. In his report on the Adelaide Film Festival, Geoff Gardner draws out the parallel:

[Boxing Day] has more than a few parallels with Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998), another intense dysfunctional family drama in which tension is apparent immediately and a deep secret is at the core of the film’s revelatory ending. (47)

I asked Kriv Stenders how he sees this nexus of dark, traumatic subject matter with low budget digital cinema:

There are a number of factors: Those films are hard to finance; they are risky films and digital negates that risk for a lot of people; they are subjects that don’t normally get funded by studios or distributors. Also, I think on an æsthetic level – the digital allows actors to go far more vulnerable places that they normally would go, if there was a film camera turning over when shooting on celluloid. With digital – you can penetrate into a character: you can get an actor into a place, or state of being, much better with digital because with celluloid. (48)

Geoff Gardner finds Boxing Day to be “an exercise that works” – and he is correct. He also makes the point that “hyper-emotion” (or psychodrama) is under represented on the Australian screen, which suggests that international prototypes do have a potential to be revitalised via processes of cultural mutation and site-specificity.

4. The ‘Scriptment’

Part I of this article revealed Kriv Stenders as an experienced filmmaker who works across diverse moving image forms. Part II situates Boxing Day as a ‘patchwork’ narrative which reworks 1) genre expectations 2) Indie-style containment and 3) the Danish-Digital model. The prevalence of psychodrama is a area in which critics say that filmmakers should heed caution. In the case of Boxing Day, Stenders was very aware of the dangers of runaway improvisation:

The thing I was really conscious of, and really terrified of, was doing an improvised film, with actors and non-actors, where they would be swearing and yelling hysterically – and people would just switch off. (49)

To combat this, Stenders embarked on a rigorous writing process, similar to the ‘structured improvisation’ (via J. J. Murphy) used for Two/Out and Blacktown. For the Boxing Day script, Stenders wanted to explore a more “intuitive approach at telling a story, writing and making a story” (50).

It’s not like there wasn’t a script. The AFFIF did Green Light a 17-page document. They weren’t just green-lighting a synopsis […] They could see they had a story that, that in traditional narrative terms, worked. I think that this is the key to something like this. If you have something that mechanically works, as a story, then you are ‘home and hose’. You come into problems if you have an incomplete story. You have to something that is watertight as a narrative […] The story is your ‘roadmap’: you have to start here, go down this highway, take that road but we are going to be here by the end of it. (51)

This 17-page document was presented to the AFFIF in the form of a ‘Scriptment’, co-written by Stenders and Green. Stenders expands upon this collaboration:

I came up with the initial story outline […] I sent that to Richard Green. He went into it and added his ideas. It was a very organic kind of ‘volley’ process. He would write in a different typeface, and I would write in mine, then I would take his typeface and make it mine and amalgamate it and streamline it – he wasn’t an experienced screenwriter so he wasn’t writing with screen direction in mind and plus he was writing novelistically – in past tense – so I had to make it present tense. But it was a really interesting way of working. He would come at it from a totally different angle. And then I would assimilate his suggestions. I was ultimately driving it structurally while he was coming into it from the character point of view and exposition. (52)

Stenders describes the form of the Scriptment as: “half-Script and half-Treatment”:

Some scenes are fully written, some scenes are not. What it is, primarily, it is a script in terms that you have each scene numbered (a scene breakdown) but it’s written in a Treatment style. The story is very precisely mapped out from scene to scene. You can schedule it: you could basically shoot it. It’s not like a Treatment, where what becomes is a scene, or a new scene, is left open-ended. (53)

His Scriptment is a hybrid mode of screenwriting. It is written in the style of a Treatment (it includes ‘zinger’ lines of dialogue) and is presented within the architecture of a scene-breakdown. The document represents a (minor) variation on the standard definition of a Treatment, as outlined by funding bodies like the AFC. That is, the Boxing Day Scriptment is largely written as a ‘prose summary of the film’s story’ (AFC) except presented in scene-breakdown format. The most important factor, for Stenders and Green, is that their Scriptment was not written with a view to progression to a standard script – but as a lean document activated for (micro-budget digital) production.

Boxing Day Scriptment, Stenders & Green, First Draft, 8/7/2005. Scriptment: Kriv Stenders and Richard Green

Stenders got the idea for a ‘Scriptment’ from Hollywood writer-director James Cameron:

I found this whilst reading something about the making of Titanic [1997] – where he started with a Scriptment: half-Script and half-Treatment. This is what he uses to sell the film and then write the Script from. (54)

The big budget world of CGI blockbuster cinema might present as an unlikely place to look for inspiration for a micro-budget film but Stenders’ hijack of Cameron’s concept does prove an interesting tactic.

Cameron reflects on the nature of this hybrid screenwriting mode, in the introduction to his Scriptment for Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995):

A kind of pathetic document; it is as long as a script, but messy and undisciplined, full of cheats and glossed-over sections. But it is also an interesting snapshot of formatting a moment in the creative process […] a flawed document, a work in progress, a detailed study for a painting…The value of this “scriptment” lies in it being presented unchanged, unedited, unpolished. It is the first hurling of paint against the wall […] (55)

There are, not surprising, significant differences between Cameron’s Scriptment (for projects like Strange Days) and that of Stenders. Cameron works with a “novelistic treatment form” to expand the “creative process” (56). This takes the form of a monolithic slab of text, without scene-breakdowns. It includes a significant amount of dialogue (which rivals that found in a traditional script) and presents a reader-friendly strong narrative flow. Cameron exploits the Scriptment as a ‘work-in-progress’ tool, but one to be ultimately converted into traditional script format. For Stenders, in the micro-budget digital domain, it is precisely the ‘unpolished’ nature of the Scriptment that attracts him:

Working in this organic way: the characters, the casting, the location – everything influences the script, rather than the other way around. The traditional way is you that you write everything – and the script takes a stranglehold on reality and you force reality into the script, rather than reality forcing its way into the script. (57)

5. Story Outline

The Boxing Day Scriptment moved towards a ‘Story Outline’ over six drafts, through a period of four months from July 2005 to October 2006. The Story Outline is a 19-page document. The cover sheet lists 18 scenes (one per page) with cumulative timings of 76 minutes (the final film was 81 minutes). Each scene is fractured into a series of concise, numerical steps, with a set of pragmatic production notes below. The relationship of the initial Scriptment to the final Story Outline is equivalent to that of a script and shooting script.

The Story Outline presents the following line, in bold print, on page one:

‘This film will be shot in a single, continuous 90-minute scene’ (6th Draft, 22/10/2007)

Boxing Day was first conceived as a single-take feature – another element to its ‘patchwork’ story design. Stenders’ ambition to work with the digital long(er) take puts the film in dialogue with Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russkiy kovcheg (Russian Ark, 2000; 87-minute take) and Mike Figgis’ TimeCode (2002; 93-minute take), and Boxing Day was eventually shot in “twelve distinct grabs” (58). Colin Zammit, technology assistant for Boxing Day, explains the technical aspects of the digital production:

Once one card [8 Gigabyte] fills up, it automatically starts on the second card. But we can only record for 17 minutes. So with our longer scenes we’re just getting one good scene, and I’ve got to come here and transfer it off onto the hard-drives so that we can record the next one. (59)

The Story Outline was required to function within the technical constraints. Stenders describes the evolution of the script as “a process of distilling screenwriting right down. The best analogy is musical notes, or dance steps – or just a set of instructions” (60).

Boxing Day Story Outline, Stenders & Green, 6th Draft, 22/10/2006. Story Outline: Kriv Stenders and Richard Green

I asked Stenders how the 18 scenes of the Story Outline integrated with the 12 long takes captured in production:

I realised there was a certain critical mass – I could only keep shooting and keep the actors memory and intensity up to a certain point. There were natural ‘chunks’ of drama that worked in one flow. There were natural ends, for example when Chris drives away and Richard goes to get the gun – that felt – we shouldn’t cut there – that was a natural join there. These presented themselves as I was shooting, rather than when I was writing. (61)

6. ‘Live Filmmaking’

At the end of week one, we had a version of the film. At the end of week two, we had another version. At the end of week three, we shot the film. (62)

The final draft of the Boxing Day Story Outline also includes a ‘Schedule’ that illustrates the three phases of production designed for the digital medium. Stenders describes making Boxing Day using the term ‘Live Filmmaking’ – where the “writing, shooting and editing” happen “all at the same time” (63).

3-Phase Digital Production Schedule of Boxing Day

Week 1: Mini-DV handheld camera. Sound recorded to camera microphone.

Week 2: Panasonic HD (HVX 200) camera operated in Mini-DV mode. Sound recorded to camera rig.

Week 3: Panasonic HD (HVX 200) camera operated in HD Mode. Sound recorded to DAT.

Stenders expands on the three-phase process:

What the [filmed] rehearsals allow is the benefit of hindsight and revision. What we were doing is that we were rehearsing chronologically: In Week #1 we would start with the opening scene and we would not go back. Then, at night I would return to my hotel room (edit suite) and select the best take and cut them into a timeline. So in the evenings, of every rehearsal day, the film was right up to date, which meant that I could plug-in the next day’s scenes straight away. Just before dinner, really quickly, I would log and capture it, have a quick look at it. Then after dinner, look at it again and go ‘well that’s not working […] that is’. And not going back – knowing that the following week (Week #2) I would change it. Because the point was to get to the end – and look at the film as a whole. (64)

This mirrors Stenders’ experience on Motherland: feature filmmaking as an osmotic process of writing and filming. In fact, the first two unofficial ‘versions’ of Boxing Day might even be considered as draft screenplays – realised in the medium of digital video instead of ink on a page.

The process for Boxing Day also reflects Stenders’ training and experience as a cinematographer. The level of intimacy afforded by lightweight, digital cameras has been a key factor for established writer-directors getting behind the camera. Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier is one recent convert. On Dogville (2004), von Trier says, “When I am holding the camera I am co-actor. I become observer and I can talk to the cast at the same time.” (65) This makes for a good example of the film theorists, Adam Ganz and Lina Khatib, claim that digital cinema involves a “reconfiguration of the cinematic gaze” via a “feedback and crossover behind and in front of the camera” that transforms the “spatial relationship between the players” (66).

The transition from digital video (DV) to High Definition (HD) is also having a big impact on digital filmmaking practice. Sam Oster, on the set of Boxing Day, notes the use of HD playback: “I watch the last take with the cast and crew huddled under a black tarp on set.” (67) For Stenders, the transition from consumer DV to the professional/prosumer HD format means that: “with HD we can watch high resolution rushes through the playback and still see all those details the audience will see on the big screen” (68).

Conclusion

Boxing Day is an important film in the landscape of recent Australian cinema. It is an ambitious film, which will open up the ‘digital debate’. It provides a valuable case-study: a feature conceived, written and designed specifically for the medium of HD digital video. Boxing Day was born from a patchwork of ideas: a genre-hybrid narrative; an Australian psychodrama; an exercise in containment and an experiment with the long-take æsthetic of real-time cinema. The film helmed by Kriv Stenders, and co-written by Richard Green, represents a rigorous examination of the role of the script and the scriptwriting process in the micro-budget digital domain. This opens up a space for alternative modes of screenwriting for feature films – from a Scriptment or a Story Outline. With Blacktown and Boxing Day behind him, Kriv Stenders stands out as a key player in the evolution of digital cinema in Australia.

* * *

Richard Green was awarded Best Actor for Boxing Day at the 36th Festival du Nouveau Cinema.

Kriv Stenders was awarded the Finders Screen Award for Boxing Day at the Australian Directors Guild (ADG) Awards 2007.

This article has been peer-reviewed.

Endnotes

  1. Australian Film Commission, “Kriv Stenders on the attraction of low budgets, tiny crews and fast shoots”, IndiVision News, June, accessed 9 November 2007.
  2. S. Cameron, “Adelaide Grows a Festival”, Real Time, No. 76, Dec-Jan 2006, p. 17.
  3. Clare Stewart, “Provocateur”, in Programme for the 54th Sydney Film Festival, 2007, p. 42.
  4. Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush, Alternative Scriptwriting: Successfully Breaking the Rules (Oxford: Focal Press, 2007), p. 319.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Lynden Barber, “Homeland Visions: Reality for local filmmakers means doing it for themselves”, The Weekend Australian Review, 15-16 September 2007, p. 21.
  7. Pod Film, Kriv Stenders: Background, www.podfilm.com.au, accessed 9 November 2007.
  8. Maree Delofski, “Writing the ‘Real’ / Really Writing”, SCAN, Vol. 3, No. 2, October 2006.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Kriv Stenders in Delofski.
  11. Dancyger, p. 381.
  12. Stenders in Christos Tsiolkas, “Notes from the Penal Colony: An Interview with Kriv Stenders”, Short Site: Recent Australian Short Film (Melbourne: ACMI, 2004), p. 247.
  13. Tsiolkas, p. 240.
  14. Ibid, p. 244.
  15. Ibid, p. 247.
  16. J. J. Murphy, Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work (New York-London: Continuum. 2007), p. 239.
  17. Stenders in Tsiolkas, p. 248.
  18. Ibid, p. 250.
  19. Stenders interview, 2007.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Kathryn Millard, “Beyond the Gospel of Story”, SCAN, Vol. 3, No. 2, October 2006.
  22. Stenders in Lynden Barber, “Unscripted sense of reality”, The Australian, accessed 10 November 2007.
  23. Stenders in Garry Maddox, “One from the Heart: Director Kriv Stenders revels in risk by setting aside the trappings of big-budget filmmaking”, The Sydney Morning Herald, accessed 10 November 2007.
  24. Stenders Interview, 2007.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Steven Soderburgh in X. Jardin, “Thinking Outside the Box Office”, Wired, issue 13.12, December 2005, accessed 10 November 2007.
  27. Bubble (film), Wikipedia, accessed 10 November 2007.
  28. Stenders in IndiVision News, 2007.
  29. Sydney Film Festival, Script Evolution Seminar, “Me and Boxing Day”, 19 June 2007, Metro Theatre.
  30. Dancyger and Rush, p. 111.
  31. Stenders interview, 2007.
  32. Dancyger and Rush, p. 98.
  33. Ibid, p. 99.
  34. Ibid, p. 100.
  35. Warp X, accessed 10 November 2007.
  36. Barry Ryan in A. Munt, “Warp This Way: An Interview with Warp X’s Barry Ryan”, Metro, Vol. 154, October 2007, p. 116.
  37. Stenders interview, 2007.
  38. Michael Brindley, “Writing the Low Budget Feature: Concept, Collaboration, Cast, Control and Containment”, in C. Knapman (Ed.), Low Means Low: The Collected Papers (Sydney: Australian Film Commission, 1996).
  39. Editors, “D-Cinema: A Timeline of Experimental and Mainstream Uses of Digital Technology”, The Velvet Light Trap, No. 53, Spring, pp. 55-8.
  40. Holly Willis, New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image (London: Wallflower Press, 2005), p. 29.
  41. Brindley in Knapman.
  42. Stenders interview, 2007.
  43. Adrian Martin, “Kind of a Revolution, and Kind of Not: Digital Low-Budget Cinema in Australia Today”, SCAN, Vol. 3, No. 2, October 2006.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Richard Combs and Raymond Durgnat, “Rules of the Game”, Film Comment, No. 36, 2000, p. 28.
  46. Ibid, p. 29.
  47. Geoff Gardner, “More Please: Report on the 3rd Biennial Adelaide Film Festival”, Senses of Cinema, No. 43, accessed 10 November 2007.
  48. Stenders interview, 2007.
  49. Ibid.
  50. Ibid.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Ibid.
  53. Ibid.
  54. Ibid.
  55. James Cameron, “Strange Days Scriptment”, accessed 10 November 2007.
  56. Ibid.
  57. Stenders interview, 2007.
  58. Peter Galvin, “Stenders tackles family dramas in Boxing Day”, accessed 10 November 2007.
  59. Quoted in Sam Oster, “Ingenious Truth”, Inside Film, 2000.
  60. Stenders interview, 2007.
  61. Ibid.
  62. Stenders in Maddox.
  63. Stenders interview, 2007.
  64. Ibid.
  65. Dogville DVD Extra.
  66. Adam Ganz and Lina Khatib, “Digital Cinema: The Transformation of Film Practice and Aesthetics”, New Cinemas, Vol. 4, No. 1, p. 22.
  67. Oster, p. 15.
  68. SFF Script Seminar 2007.

About The Author

Dr Alex Munt is a screenwriter/director and visual artist. He is a Senior Lecturer in Media Arts & Production in the School of Communication in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney.