creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Marketing your research, Writing strategies

No laughing matter – 10 lessons in taking comedy off the page

Simon Mallory in The Heckler
Simon Mallory in The Heckler

One thing that universities rarely do well is getting students to think beyond the doctoral completion and how to sell their product. This is a problem if that ‘product’ is the result of four years of a Creative Writing PhD. I can vouch for the fact that while I had to sweat through classes in research methods, advice on pitching to an agent, writing a killer synopsis and finding a publisher were not taught. Or – even mentioned.

Perhaps there needs to be a post doc course in ‘making the research count in the real world’. Who wouldn’t sign up for that? More to the point – why isn’t it taught? Instead of lamenting the fact, I went to some experts for advice. And by experts, I mean people who have made the successful leap from theory and research to industry success.

Writers Steve Mitchell and Graeme Simsion, who both met as screenwriting students at RMIT, wrote and produced The Heckler , which recently won the “Best Ensemble Award’ at the LA Comedy Festival.

The Heckler is an out-of-body feature in the tradition of the great Ellen Barkin comedy from the early 1990s, Switch. Like that movie, The Heckler’s protagonist Steve isn’t entirely likeable or laudable. So when the self obsessed stand-up comic’s body is hijacked by a jealous heckler following an accidental death after a gig, it provides the opportunity for Steve to start literally waking up to himself and rebuilding his relationship with those around him. The movie features some wonderful twists and sight gags, and a truly sexy and romantic kiss that in the way of body swap happens between two women.

Steve Mitchell’s background is in IT. As an emerging comedy writer who has many TV credits under his belt, he jokes that he sometimes performs stand-up comedy to “prevent his self-esteem from reaching acceptable levels” (stand up obviously has much in common with sending articles to academic journals). Steve studied filmmaking at VCA and Professional Screenwriting at RMIT (where he met Graeme Simsion), and has the stand up gift of making everyone in the audience feel that he is speaking directly to them – a skill that is invaluable when promoting his movie.

Graeme Simsion is the author of the 2013 best-seller, The Rosie Project; translation rights to his book have been sold to over 35 countries, and a film of his novel is in the pipeline with Sony Pictures. When Graeme came to the screenwriting course, he already had a PhD (in Data Modelling) under his belt and says that helped him overcome any fear of writing a large project. I rather like the fact that the producer of a movie about hecklers on the comedy circuit has not one but two PhDs – Graeme received a Doctor of Communication Honoris Causa from RMIT in 2014.  Lesson # 1– doctoral skills transfer, and as a mature age student you bring skills and life experience that will help you leverage your research into industry.

I got together with Graeme and Steve at a café near RMIT to discuss creative careers, collaboration, and advice for students hoping to see their stories on the screen.

Steve Mitchell promoting The Heckler
Steve Mitchell promoting The Heckler

Graeme wanted to dispel one myth first – that creative writing students have it tough because there is no defined pathway into a career after they graduate. “There is actually no defined pathway after a commerce degree either, and I built a career as I went in IT. I had to adapt to what’s changing; the arts are not madly different.”

Steve agrees that ‘you make the path’. Lesson # 2 – don’t be too defined in your career path because it might be a long and winding road to where you want to go But that’s fine – don’t be so precious about what you want to do. As a writer, every encounter and experience is copy. Take notes.

Now this is all well and good, except if you are grinding through your doctorate and wondering what comes next, if that creative project that has to pass through the examiners will ever see the light of day in the commercial world. Here is their advice – stop looking at the end goal and the ‘Hollywood movie’ (or best selling novel) as the big dream. That, says Graeme, is a million miles away. Lesson # 3 – major success may be so far down the track, break up your goal into smaller chunks – keep revising your goal with what you learn on the way.

Ironically, The Rosie Project started out life as a screenplay, and ended up as a book when Graeme changed his goal to something he felt was more attainable. Don’t lock yourself in. “The journey is important,” said Graeme. “You have to enjoy all the little goals along the way.”

GraemeSimsion. Photo credit James Penlidis
Graeme Simsion. Photo credit James Penlidis

This attitude is necessary in surviving – and thriving – in the creative industry. Just last week it was announced that Jennifer Lawrence, who was to play Rosie in The Rosie Project, had to pull out of the movie. The director Richard Linklater then followed. Graeme’s response to media was that he was disappointed “that the deal with Ms Lawrence didn’t happen” but he was getting on with writing his next book. Lesson #4 – don’t lose sight of the work, and don’t measure yourself against massive goals. Anything could happen.

The Heckler is a movie that came to the screen via networking. The sort of networking within an academic cohort that we so often overlook because as doctoral students we are focused on word counts, deadlines and completion. But your academic cohort are your network, and you need to put the effort in to meet them and work with them.

Not surprisingly, Graeme and Steve gravitated to each other during their course as they both put in the time and effort above and beyond what was expected. They instantly recognized each other as kindred spirits – ex IT, ambitious, mature age – and immediately partnered up to help each other with writing and editing. Steve was Graeme’s writing buddy from the inception of The Rosie Project, back when it was The Klara Project, and Graeme is credited as an editor and producer on The Heckler.

Lesson #5 – working within your cohort and finding the people among them who have similar ambitions and experience is important. Find writing partners, writing groups, academic reading groups – but make sure these are with people of a similar level of experience and energy. You don’t want to carry a dead weight.

But what about external networking? You know – making contacts in industry, pressing the flesh, finding out who can help you get a job inside or outside academia? How does that work?

Steve laughs. “You shouldn’t work the room when you are starting out. What do you have to offer? It’s not about what someone in power can offer you – it’s what you can offer them.”

Steve Mitchell (right) at the opening night of The Heckler.
A dream realised – Steve Mitchell (right) at the opening night of The Heckler.

Well, what can you offer? Look at it this way – you are smart, ambitious, and want to get ahead. Offer your time, and your hard work. Contribute to joint projects, volunteer. I volunteered my communications and journalism expertise to promote and support an academic conference as soon as I completed my doctorate – a way of getting to know those in the industry and also supporting the academics who supported me in one way or another during those four years of study. Lesson # 6– when it comes to networking, put in, help out, be humble and learn. No one will help you unless you offer to help first. Your efforts will be recognised as will your attitude.

While having a movie such as The Heckler, or a book published, is a major achievement, those in the creative arts need smaller calling cards to alert people to their ability to manage a project to completion. Do you have one? Lesson #7 – get a calling card. Make something and put it in the public eye so people can see what you can do. Send your stories to smaller literary journals. Publish a poem. Start your own blog – get your writing out there.

Graeme put in money as The Heckler’s producer, but he only did so because he knew Steve had the runs on the board as a writer and director. Steve received development funding from Film Victoria for his AWGIE-nominated feature ‘The Non-Believers’ and he wrote and directed ‘The Unusual Suspects’, which was a finalist at the 2012’s Tropfest Film Festival. Lesson #8 – submit your writing, put it out there for grants and festivals and awards. As someone reminded me when I was wavering about whether to put in the time and effort pitching for a project I didn’t think I’d get – opportunity involves being there to begin with.

By now, it should be clear that as funny and uplifting as The Heckler is for someone sitting in the audience, the path to the screening has been a long, arduous and unpaid one for the writer. That didn’t change once Graeme was on board as producer. “The last thing I want to do is give someone money for a salary,” Graeme said. “Writers are going into the ultimate capitalist world and people expect them to work for nothing. This is where courses get it wrong by telling students to go and get grants. It’s not about grants – you can’t write a book or film in three weeks or three months, you can’t write it while on a retreat, if you can’t do it without a grant, chances are you can’t do it.”

The length of time that Steve worked – unpaid – on The Heckler before Graeme came on board as producer was three years. Lesson #9 – be prepared to put in many long years of unpaid labor before you get your break. Even The Heckler’s final sound mix and mastering was achieved via crowdfunding with a Pozible campaign to raise the required $20,000.

Finally, both Graeme and Steve have a piece of advice for writers who feel pressured to build a social media presence in order to sell their work. Lesson #10 – work on your writing rather than your social media profile, and get the product as good as it can be. It’s ready to go once you are proud of it.

Steve agrees, “even with all the years I spent on The Heckler, once we committed to the shoot we did two more tighter drafts and made it as good as it could be, because once it is made, it is forever, and while the act of movie making has never been easier, making people care has never been harder.”

Graeme agrees. “In the end, your best promotion is word of mouth. Don’t worry about the critics.”

The Heckler is screening at selected venues around Australiawhere to see the movie

The Heckler is also available to download on iTunes.

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