There are smart, cerebral thrillers full of twists, turns and tension like Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004) or the Clive Owen/Jennifer Aniston starrer Derailed (2005). And then there are the big, noisy action movies targeted at teenagers at this time of year, the kind Hollywood studios know critics are going to hate so much they abandon the traditional practice of showing them to the media before the release date, as they’ve done with this week’s GI Joe.
It’s hard to believe films of both types can come from the pen of the same artist, but since becoming a ‘name’ screenwriter in Hollywood, Australian Stuart Beattie reveals how such wildly different films have been the secret of his success. “It’s a very conscious decision I made very early on to always be writing something different than I wrote last time,” the 37-year-old scripter tells The West. “So after Collateral I got offered a bunch of thrillers and turned them all down. After that, in every meeting I had I’d just impress upon people that I’m not a thriller guy, I’m a story guy. I like telling good stories and it doesn’t matter what the genre.”
It’s a philosophy that’s absolutely worked for the Sydney-born writer, with films of almost every genre and scale to his name, from short films to Pirates of the Caribbean, the Bra Boys documentary to Baz Luhrmann’s Australia and bloodthirsty comic book vampire movie 30 Days of Night to GI Joe.
“It’s important to me to keep things interesting,” Beattie adds. “That way you’re always learning and you never get comfortable. The second you get comfortable you start to produce generic material.”
Beattie also takes the aversion to labels to heart for his own craft, not just in meetings with executives more concerned in product placement or action figure licensing. When the contract to write GI Joe landed on his desk, he must have to put himself in a totally different frame of mind from that of the forthcoming Bra Boys adaptation starring Mark Wahlberg or the long-gestating film based on the hit videogame Halo.
“Because films like Pirates or GI Joe have a mythology you can go one of two ways,” he says. “You can write from the outside in — in the case of Pirates or GI Joe you take the characters and fashion a story around them. Or you can go from the inside out, which I prefer, where you just tell a good story and if moments from the mythology or characters happen to occur or can help the narrative, great. It’s not a different mind set when you’re writing something that’s going to end up on lunch boxes, it’s just more pressure.”
Isn’t it possible however that Beattie will face the dilution of his Hollywood brand with no distinctive mark of his own? Films directed by Tim Burton (Corpse Bride, Sleepy Hollow, the forthcoming Alice in Wonderland) or written by Robert Towne (Chinatown) bear the unmistakable mark of their creators. After such disparate projects, what can Beattie to do to make sure a film stands out — especially among the midyear popcorn blockbusters that are overwhelmingly put together by marketing committees?
“It’s about the source material and making sure you make a movie unique to the source material and not generic in any way,” he says. “It was about coming up with a story that couldn’t exist in the world of Jason Bourne or James Bond or any other action movie but only in the world of GI Joe. So it starts there and you’re always asking yourself what the audience has never seen before.”
Although he’s lived in LA for 20 years, Beattie came to prominence around ten years ago at a time when the biggest movies of 1999 (Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace and The Matrix) were both being shot in Sydney and Hollywood was paying serious attention of Australian actors, writers, facilities and technicians. Coincidence? “It didn’t really affect much of what I was doing,” he says. “I was just happy to see these big films were getting made in Australia because it’s such a wonderful place to make films. It’s got all the crews, sound stages and locations.”
And now, Beattie is getting the chance to put Aussie facilities and craftspeople to the test after the recent announcement his directorial debut will be the film adaptation of John Marsden’s Tomorrow: When the War Began series of young adult novels, another project that seemingly couldn’t be more different from GI Joe.
“We’re on week three of pre-production and it’s going along great,” he says of a shoot that’ll take place in Sydney, the Blue Mountains and the NSW Hunter Valley. “We’ve got a phenomenal group of people, the amount of talent’s really humbling. The script is now locked, locations are all coming together and we’re gearing up so we’re all very excited.”
We’re now quite used to seeing our best and brightest go off to make it in Hollywood and show up in the multiplex soon after, a well-worn path trod by everyone from Nicole Kidman to Sam Worthington. So in signing on for one of Australia’s most beloved literature properties, it’s kind of ironic that Beattie — having already conquered Hollywood in a way most writers only dream about — is returning to cement his name at home…