At Flickside, your window to the inner workings of filmmaking, we’re always looking for industry insiders to share their knowledge in a bid to help others break in. Today, we reached out to Australian screenwriter and filmmaker Claire J. Harris who very recently received her first paycheck as a screenwriter for an upcoming Netflix series called Dive Club. Even though Claire graduated in film, it was over 10 years ago and in her own words, had zero relevant experience to land this gig.
Perhaps, even more astounding and generous, is that she decided to share her entire experience on Twitter in a bid to help other aspiring writers and filmmakers.
If you’re a writer looking for work in the industry, here’s how to go about it from someone who got there on her own. If you’re not a writer but are still looking to get into films, Claire’s tips are invaluable for you as well. Over to you Claire!
**Twitter thread starts**
I just got my first pay cheque as a professional screenwriter (for an upcoming Netflix series). Here’s how it happened step-by-step. I hope this helps!
I finished an undergraduate degree in film and left to travel the world for almost 10 years. I supported myself with odd jobs mostly in teaching and care work. Apart from a brief stint in reality TV in the US, I had no relevant experience. Zero.
I returned home to Australia, unemployed and almost 30. My mum encouraged me to do a post-graduate certificate in screenwriting. Reluctantly, I agreed. I don’t think a degree is necessary but it did put me in contact with other filmmakers, some of whom helped me make my first film.
I spent two years after film school polishing a feature script. I’d no idea what to do with it so I decided to make it with someone I met while studying. We started off by funding it ourselves, like our heroes the Duplass Brothers. (Spoiler: we did not become the Duplass Brothers).
We shot the film and had no idea what to do next. Studying the Duplass Brothers’ career did not provide any real clues. Crew all moved on to the other projects. I had an unfinished film and I’d skipped making short films to go directly to a feature. I had no f***ing idea.
I reached out to a bunch of producers and they mostly ignored me. I knew they probably get these sorts of emails all the time, so I accepted humiliation as the price I had to pay. Friends, I begged.
However. ONE producer did not ignore me. For reasons unknown, he offered to help me finish the film and guided me through everything I had to do to achieve that. It took almost another two years. I spent a lot of time crying on the phone to him.
Finishing that film almost ruined my mental health. I was basically alone, apart from this producer who became my mentor. It was truly one of the worst experiences of my life, I’m not gonna lie. I wanted to quit but if I did, all the trauma would have been for nothing.
You think the film shoot is the hard part (because it’s bloody hard) but that’s actually the easy part. Then you think post-production is the hardest part. Wrong again. Sweet fool, you haven’t even gotten to the hardest part yet: getting people to hear about and see your film. 🤔
— Claire J. Harris (@Claire_J_Harris) October 21, 2020
To top it off, the film didn’t achieve anything like I’d hoped. I entered it in SXSW which was an unrealistic expectation. It didn’t even get into the film festival in my home city. I had to recalibrate what success looked like. Success was finishing the film in the first place.
It didn’t win awards of note. It didn’t get seen by many people. It didn’t get me into major festivals, it didn’t make me an overnight success, there were no studios calling me up. I honestly felt like a failure. Five years of writing and making the film and for what?
What it did was start a relationship with ONE producer who believed in me, despite how much money my film did or didn’t (more accurately) make.
Over the past two years, I’ve developed two screenplays with that producer and am working on a third. I’ve lost faith many times as those screenplays have yet to come to fruition. A truer statement would be that I question why the hell I’m doing this every single day.
But because of that film and those two as-yet-unproduced screenplays, when the producer created a series with Netflix, he asked me to be part of the writers’ room.
This is seven years after I returned to Australia and five years after I began producing my indie feature film. I gave myself 10 years and said if I had made no progress by then, I would reassess my ambitions.
So here’s my take, for what it’s worth.
1) Make the damn film. Write a screenplay, shoot it yourself, be capable of showing someone what you can do.
2) Don’t believe that you are going to “make it” by shooting a single film. It almost never happens.
But most importantly,
3) Just because *that* film didn’t do what you hoped it would, it is the first step in a very very fucking long process. It sucks because you’ll probably spend years working on it, but remember that it’s only your first film. Your masterpiece still awaits.
**Twitter thread ends**
You’ve mentioned that the film you made didn’t do too well. What would you do differently if you’d to remake it? (Is there a link where people could access the film?)
It’s not that the film was bad. I think we did a great job with the resources and money we had. The problem was that my expectations for what could be achieved with a single low-budget film were unrealistic. It was a real eye-opener going to film festivals and markets, and seeing just how many films like mine are made every year, and how many other filmmakers are out there all hoping for the same thing.
So I would go into the filmmaking process with a better understanding that it wouldn’t change my life overnight, but it could be a stepping stone to the next thing. I also wish I’d known what a long process it is, I actually believed I would be finished with the film in less than a year! Then again, if I’d known it would take three years, I might never have started.
Here’s a link to the film: https://www.ozflix.tv/#!/browse/film/13605/zelos
How did you find a producer?
Great question! I asked people in the film industry if they could recommend anyone, then found their email addresses online (easy if they’re attached to a production company) or in a few cases was put in touch by someone who had their email.
Don’t be shy of asking other filmmakers. I was given the name of a producer very randomly through a conversation with someone I only met once. It turned out to be the most important conversation of my career so far. That producer became my mentor.
I couldn’t have finished my film without a mentor. But I know I got really really lucky finding one. All I can say is to reach out and don’t be afraid of getting rejected.
How necessary is it for aspiring screenwriters to understand and learn about the creative and commercial aspect of production?
I would say it is an enormous advantage to understand the filmmaking process and how the industry works. As I said, I didn’t have much awareness of these aspects and it was something I had to learn along the way which, of course, makes everything take longer. It’s better to get a headstart in any way you can, or you’ll be thrown in the deep end like I was. It helps with writing as well, and I really think it should have been taught during my screenwriting certificate.
Was it daunting to work with Netflix and what I presume, are experienced writers. I’m sure you can’t tell us about the series but can you talk about the process as a writer? Are you expected to flesh out the brief for a plot from scratch or is your responsibility to add to an already established plotline and characters?
Actually it wasn’t daunting, because my relationship was not with Netflix but with the producer I mentioned and his company. He has a network of creatives that he works with often, and so I had already met some of them. That made the environment very friendly and collaborative because we mostly knew each other to begin with. The process itself was a little unusual due to COVID as the writers were all in different states and cities, instead of in a room together. So there were a lot of very very lengthy Zoom meetings, which was quite fatiguing but there was also plenty of support from the other writers. The series already had a structure and characters in place by the time there was a writers’ room, so it was a matter of working together to flesh these out.
Would you be able to pass on any advice/tips for screenwriters and filmmakers looking to pitch their films/series to Netflix considering you now have an insider’s point of view?
I wish I had an insider’s point of view! I wasn’t responsible for pitching to Netflix – my understanding is that you’ll need a producer who has that relationship with them. They do occasionally have opportunities for unsolicited pitches, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for those.
Do you think a formal education/degree is necessary? Any tips for screenwriters, just starting out.
Film school was a great way to meet other people looking to do the same thing. But it also got me a lot of debt which I’m still paying off. I can’t say which choice is right, but there are other paths to getting experience, like working on film sets. Some excellent books as well.
There’s a book called Into The Woods that I find really helpful. Also try to connect with other people doing the same thing… And WRITE!
Where do you see yourself going from here? Would you be interested in making another independent movie or will you prefer to stick to writing?
My interest has always been in writing. I learned a huge amount by producing my own film but I don’t have career aspirations as a producer, and ultimately it took me away from writing for several years. I wouldn’t say no to doing it again if I felt that would be worthwhile, but I’m currently more focused on building partnerships with directors and producers who can take care of that side of things, so I can continue writing.
Tips for filmmakers from Claire J. Harris
If you’re a screenwriter or director looking for a producer, remember that they also need good scripts and talented people to direct them. Instead of thinking you are asking for a favour, consider that you are actually offering them the skills they are looking for.
If you’re scared about reaching out to people who can help you, just ask “What’s the worst that can happen?” They ignore you (most often). They think you’re an idiot (possibly). It won’t kill you. But the best thing that can happen is they do actually help.
1. It takes years to make an indie film. The #1 thing is to choose your people very carefully. Will they stick around for the long haul? Are they willing to do the work? Will they quit when it gets hard? The last thing you want is to be left pushing the boulder uphill on your own.
2. When making an indie film, start building your audience right at the very beginning of the process. You want to bring them along for the ride so they’re excited to see it. They are your cheerleaders. If you wait until you actually have a film, it’s much harder to create traction.
3. When imposter syndrome hit hard before our film shoot, the best piece of advice a producer gave me was “You don’t need to know how to make a movie. You just have to surround yourself with people who do.” Your crew know what they need – your job is to get it for them.