This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 429 – Ivan Sen On Building A Story Around A Location .
Welcome to Episode 429 of the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger with sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today, I’m interviewing writer director Ivan Sen. He is an Australian filmmaker, he just did a sci-fi feature film called Expired, starring Ryan Kwanten from True Blood and Hugo Weaving a great actor who was in The Lord of the Rings, movies, among many, many others. We talked about this film and how he was able to bring it all together, so stay tuned for that interview. SYS’s a six-figure screenplay contest is open for submissions, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. Our regular deadline is May 31st. If your script is ready, definitely submit now to save some money. We’re looking for a low-budget features and shorts. I’m defining low-budget as less than six figures. In other words, less than 1 million US dollars. We’ve got lots of industry judges reading scripts in the later rounds, we’re giving away 1000s in cash and prizes. This year, we have a short film script category 30 pages or less. So, if you have a low-budget short script by all means, please submit that as well. I’ve got a number of the industry judge producers who are looking for a short-scripts so hopefully we can find a home for some of those. If you want to submit to the contest or learn more about it just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. Also, this year we are running an in-person Film Festival in tandem with our screenplay contest is for low-budget films produced for less than 1 million US dollars. We have a feature and shorts category in the film festival as well. And again, lots of industry judges are going to help judge these films in the later rounds. The festival is going to take place in Hollywood, California from October 7th to the 9th. If you’ve produced a short film or know someone who has, by all means please do submit it. Shorts are easy to program, I can run two or three of them before a feature film or I can do a whole section of shorts. So, they’re easy to program easy to get into the festival. So, I anticipate that we’re going to accept a lot of short films into the festival and show a lot of shorts. So again, if you have a short or a feature, and would like to submit the film or just learn more about it, go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/festival. You’ll see a link to the Film Freeway site, we’re actually taking all of our submissions for the film through Film Freeway. So, if you use Film Freeway, you can find us on there as well. If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review on iTunes or leaving a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast, so they’re very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mentioned in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast. And then just look for episode number 429. So now let’s get into the main segment. Today, I’m interviewing writer director Ivan Sen. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Ivan to the selling your screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Ivan Sen: Oh, no worries. Thanks for having me.
Ashley: So, to start out, maybe you tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up? And how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Ivan Sen: Entertainment business? Well, that’s one word you can describe it. Well, I grew up in a small country town in Australia, and you wouldn’t know what that town is. And my love was going to the local cinema. And saw a few Australian films and that got me excited about making films. But that was like the 70s and so it was very to make the jump from your country town into making movies, and especially back then no internet or anything and slowly found my way to photography after high school. And then photography was I found a bit limiting. And so, I wanted to tell stories with a moving image instead of just a still image. And that was when I was around 18 or 19. And then I realized that yeah, okay, I really want to, I’ve had this level of cinema my whole life. And now I think I’m going to chase that dream and then put the stills camera down and picked up the film camera. And yeah, I spent lots of years studying and then basically, after the film school, went to into making my first feature film in 1999.
Ashley: Okay, and so how did you get that first feature film off the ground? Was it just self-funded? Do you have some friends and family? What did that look like?
Ivan Sen: It was actually largely, probably different to America. It’s largely from the government screen Australia at the time, they were supporting, streaming film industry and I had already made three or four short films through with the Australian Film Commission. And it was just a natural development to go from the making short films with their financial support into making my first feature film and so yeah, it’s pretty much government support.
Ashley: Yeah, gotcha, gotcha. Okay, so let’s dig into your latest film Expired, starring Hugo Weaving and Ryan Kwanten. To start out making give us a quick pitch or logline, what is this new film all about?
Ivan Sen: Oh, look, it’s a romantic sci-fi, it’s that in a futuristic Hong Kong. And it’s about this two-characters that come together. And they struggle to love really, and to trust and in a world that actually has closed his door on human emotions because that there’s no use for them. And so, it’s a journey of struggle for trying to reconnect with these human emotions that have been slowly eroded over time.
Ashley: Yeah. And where did this idea come from what was sort of the genesis of this premise?
Ivan Sen: When I first arrived in Hong Kong, I was just blown away by the location, all of my films start with a location. And then the location always informed the characters. And I will see people living within that location. And then I’ll just take elements from real life people, and then just manifest them all together into these different characters. And then work out the story with the environment kind of pushing them, pushing the story through the characters. So, Expire, it works in that way, where it’s a location is a futuristic Hong Kong, where it’s a highly competitive world, which has with only need for human emotion. And so, it grows characters who don’t have human emotion. And that’s what these two characters are, but they struggled to try and reconnect with those emotions. Yeah.
Ashley: So, this sort of premise, though, of emotions, no longer being useful in the modern world, where did that come from? Is that something you just personally sort of see our civilization going towards, is just something you’ve been thinking about?
Ivan Sen: Well, largely like I was saying, the location is a very important part of the story, evolving, and just being within Hong Kong and also with China and that part of the world, I found is, compared to my own history is a very competitive world. And it’s becoming more and more competitive. Even from when you’re first born as a young child, in this area of the world of around China, you are forced to actually compete as soon as you’ve come out, you’re into this world, there’s competition time. And this is these extremes of competition, where the inspiration of this future world where it’s more of an expression of now than just kind of making up the fictional future.
Ashley: And with a premise like this, how do you go about starting to write your script? Do you have distributors, producers, do you pitch them? Do you have agents? Do you pitch them; oh, yeah, this is a sci fi requires a certain budget, you’ve got a lot of production value, how much do you take from that? Do you just write the script and then hope you can get it made? Or are you talking to your distributors and producers beforehand?
Ivan Sen: Yeah, it’s not like writing a book at all, you know, whatever, you when you put something to pay writing on the computer, every time you put the word there that has to be realized, you know, if someone’s got to pay for it. So very beginning, you’re thinking about budget and market. And the type of film it is, but so I knew that at this budget, if I wanted to make it with the artistic aesthetics that I wanted to, I’ve got to keep it low. But my challenge is to keep a sci-fi low-budget. So usually, when I write a film, the script is completed. And then I kind of approached the financing after the script is in very good shape. And the reason why I do that is because when the script is in good shape, you can attract the actors that you need or want. So not only when the script is strong, you get the actors, but the actors as these days, especially the actors trigger finance, probably know. So, once I got Hugo Weaving and Ryan Kwanten on board, that’s when we started to look at the financing of the film.
Ashley: Gotcha, gotcha. So, we’ll circle back to that maybe at the end. So, let’s talk about your writing. process, I just be curious to kind of hear your process. Where do you typically write? Are you writing in your home office? Do you need to go to Starbucks with that ambient noise? And when do you typically write; early morning, late night? What is your writing schedule look like?
Ivan Sen: Look, I think has changed as I’ve become older. I find that nighttime I’m pretty useless these days, creatively. I tried to write while I’m fresh in the morning. But yeah, look, I used to write in cafes, like I wrote three films in cafes in Hong Kong, in mainland China, in Starbucks and places like that. But I also will rent some cabin in the woods for a week and go and smash out a screenplay. But I’m the sort of person that likes to just write a film over a short-time, and then try to get made. Like, I mean, my last film, Goldstone, I wrote that in 10 days, and I mean, it did go through some work after that, but it was pretty much after that 10 days, that’s pretty much what the film is, you know, and so, I enjoy just going in, I think, because the more you get the… if you give yourself like a 10-day period, where you can get totally absorbed with the story, everything in your brain when you’re sleeping, as well as being awake, it’s all about that story. And so, this is your once you get into it, you go into a deep. And then when you come out of it, hopefully you’ve got the script.
Ashley: Yeah, hopefully. How much time do you spend preparing to write? Like you say, 10 days, you were able to knock the script out. But how much like outlining and thinking about the story have you done before you got into that 10-day period?
Ivan Sen: I’m always thinking, always thinking about story. Yeah, always thinking. But once I sit down and write that screenplay, that’s kind of, I don’t do treatments or outlines or anything. For me, it’s all about the moment. And the moment is how thing can evolve later on down the track. And so, if you can feel that moment is real, as you’re writing the screenplay, that triggers the rest of the story. And you just follow the flow of the water from that point, instead of trying to be too analytical with outlines and treatments and all that stuff. I just do the creative screenplay. And then that’s it.
Ashley: And what is your development process look like? Once you’ve knocked out this first draft, do you develop yourself for a while? Do you send it out then to some trusted writer friends, some trusted producers? What does that development process look like?
Ivan Sen: It’s very intimate. I just give it to my producer. And then he’ll give me some feedback. And that’s pretty much it. And then it will go to the actors, and then I will get the actors feedback on the script, and then I’ll do another draft. And then it’s kind of just very, very intimate.
Ashley: Does your producer give you creative notes or is it more practical stuff and budgetary type stuff? Or is he actually giving you creative notes to put in?
Ivan Sen: It’s all about story and the character, I mean, nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of making a film at all. It’s just all creative. And yeah, he knows the way I make things and how I can make things kind of cheaply, or effectively, efficiently. And so, he doesn’t get… I mean, for Loveland was a bit of a challenge. But he said to me, I would not make this film on this type of budget with anyone except for you.
Ashley: I noticed too, on your IMDB page, not only you the Writer, Director, Producer, you also was Cinematographer and Editor. And I wonder how much does that help you get these sorts of things financed where you’re sort of a one-man filmmaking stop, and they can rely on you for all of these different positions? Do you think that’s an advantage or a disadvantage?
Ivan Sen: I think it’s an advantage now, I think a few years ago, when I hadn’t made so many films, you know, people are thinking; Oh, maybe you should get a DP and maybe you should get an editor and all this type of thing. And I actually did use a DP years ago, and editor years ago, but for me, there wasn’t enough attention to detail. And also, you know, I like to work off the clock. I like to, if it’s at night, and I just think about the scene, I’m just go back and do work on it. And I just always want to get my hands dirty, and I want to keep working it like a bit of clay. And when you’ve got all these people in the way between you and clay that you know, what do you do your hands are tight. And so nowadays yeah, it’s like, yeah, we know you can pull this film off on a much lower budget. And we have a more focused and efficient kind of approach.
Ashley: And so, let’s circle back now to the actors. I get a lot of emails from people just asking; Hey, how can I get this actor attached or that actor attach? Do you have any tips? How did you get Hugo Weaving and Ryan Kwanten on this? Was there some previous relationships, did your producers have relationship, did your casting director? What is sort of the nuts and bolts of getting cast attached to something like this?
Ivan Sen: Yeah, I mean, the front door is usually not the easiest or the best way. Because it may or may not open, you know, so I had actually worked with Hugo Weaving and Ryan Kwanten previously on another film called Mystery Road. And so, I’ve already had established a relationship with them now, I just emailed and when I wrote it, wrote this new, Expired script, I just emailed it to them without talking to agents or anything, but saying that for Mystery Road, I still have to get them for that initial time. And so, I actually ran into Hugo Weaving’s brother, who was the festival director in Australia, and another in Canberra, actually. And he suggested that I look at Hugo for any future roles. And I said, okay, and then he gave me Hugo’s contact. So, Hugo’s family kind of contact. But with Ryan, I think when Ryan came on board to Mystery Road at that point, the film already had lots of pretty major Australian cast attached. And so, I sent the script to Ryan’s Australian agent. And because the film already had a bit of heat around it, she just gave it to Ryan straight away. And Ryan was totally … he was in the States doing the super vampire show. What’s that called?
Ashley: True Blood. Yeah.
Ivan Sen: Yeah, he was doing True Blood. And he just read this and it was just like some fresh air for him. And so, he just jumped at it. And yeah, so some times a front door can work when you can get some heat. But otherwise, it’s usually some kind of backdoor ways is more successful.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. I hear you on that. So how can people see Expired? What’s the release schedule going to be like?
Ivan Sen: Well, I think it’s March 18th. Online and selected cinemas.
Ashley: Perfect and what’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? If this you want to follow along with your career, Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing, I’ll roundup for the show notes.
Ivan Sen: I have never been into social media, but recently I did get Instagram. Instagram, I think it’s like IvanSen6 or something.
Ashley: Okay, profile, track that down. And I’ll put in the show notes. Ivan, I really appreciate you coming on talking to me today. Fascinating interview. Good luck with this film and good luck with all your future films as well.
Ivan Sen: Thanks for having me.
Ashley: Thank you. We’ll talk to you later. Bye.
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On the next episode of the podcast, I’m going to be interviewing writer director Hamza Zaman who just wrote and directed the new thriller feature film called The Institute. We talk about his career and how this film came together for him. Like so many filmmakers that I talked to here on the podcast, he did a bunch of short films, which really helped him get to the point where he is now doing this feature film, so keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s the show. Thank you for listening.