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Embracing uncertainty

by Lisa Hoppe

In 2012 I wrote the first draft of feature script Viva La Vida. There is a scene set in vibrant Oaxaca, Mexico during the Day Of The Dead Festival. Three years later, the project had an Academy Award nominee attached for the female lead, an enthusiastic financier and an international sales agent and lead producer Julie Ryan (Red Dog, Hotel Mumbai) and I had flown to Mexico on a recce, propelled by Screen Australia development support.

We were swept up into the very scene in the script - offered mezcal cocktails by the local Mayordomo amidst the colourful costumes, the brilliance of fireworks against a balmy night sky and I thought - this is really happening, we're going to make this feature film.

The best stories are full of surprise and unexpected outcomes.  I sought them out in the stories I was working on - but recognising them as essential elements of my own filmmaking career is a fairly recent revelation.

After attending the Australian International Movie Convention on the Gold Coast, Creative Content Australia's Lori Flekser asked me to write an article about the challenges as a writer-producer on the journey to make my first feature. Reflecting upon this question, I have realised that accepting uncertainty did not come easily to me.

I grew in Canberra - public servant father, homemaker mother, and nine siblings. Our survival (my mother's sanity) depended on routine, rules and rigidity; knowing all the ducks were in a row.

A good measure of predictability also followed in the years I spent writing for television where I had regular work on other people's shows like Heartbreak High, White Collar Blue and Guess How Much I Love You. I valued it when I had small children - but I always yearned to create my own work. I became very determined to have more agency and involvement in the projects I was working on.

I sought out the most logical path to deliver the opportunity to create my own work - attending the Australian Film Television and Radio School.  My thinking was - If I learn how to be a producer, I will be able to create my own work. I thought that getting on that path would inexorably lead me to making a film. It's not that this was wrong but looking back, I was operating with a mindset that there's a prescribed process to making films.

I was still seeking certainty.

In 2012 I followed my 2011 Graduate Diploma in Producing with my Masters in Screen Arts. Studying gave me an understanding of the underlying economic imperatives of the industry - and how these impact on the commercial potential of projects. I left with a good grasp of how to package a project financially; how to identify and value the assets of the project and in particular the need to be extremely clear about the audience, the type of production and the marketing and distribution strategy - and then budget accordingly. I produced some successful short films and also wrote the first draft of Viva La Vida and getting projects up on the screen became the focus of the next few years.

I had the great fortune of pitching it to producer Julie Ryan of Cyan Films, who was enthusiastic and agreed to work with me. I didn't realise at the time how much my working experience to date has benefitted from that first phone call; how impactful working with Julie, a consummate professional, has been for me.

We worked on the development of Viva La Vida over a few years to the point where the project had great momentum and we were full of hope as we set off for Mexico. At that time the $5 million Australian film was hard to finance and filming in Mexico necessitated a budget in this range. To raise the funds we needed an A- list male actor of a certain age to spend six weeks in Mexico for a lesser fee than was on offer by the studios for guest roles in a blockbuster. Our search to tick this important box slowed the project down while other projects gained momentum and took priority.

Suddenly this thing I'd invested so much time, physical and emotional energy was stalling.

I optimistically tried to bootstrap the development of various online and television productions but despaired when I went up one blind alley too many. I was treading water.

At that point I thought back to a course from film school that had particular resonance - entitled 'Living with Uncertainty'. Head of Screen Business David Court had organised for psychologist Dr Chris Stephens to deliver a weekend course where we were given a tool box of sorts on how to manage the unpredictable nature of working in the industry; how to develop resilience for a creative life. I realised that to continue, it was absolutely essential for me to accept the uncertainties of the business.

The point at which I stopped expecting things to unfold in a predictable way, stopped expecting a cause and effect process is the time I felt liberated about the possibilities ahead.

I then went back to a book I'd read some years before. Children's book My Life As An Alphabet carried a message of great hope and stood alone among dozens I had read at the time. It had all the elements needed to create a fantastic cinematic experience. I optioned the book, wrote the script and titled it H is for Happiness.  I submitted it into a US script comp in the hope that l would get some feedback that would be reassuring for those I asked to read it.

In the meantime, it felt important to gain some long-term exposure to producing practices. Avrill Stark, CEO and creative driver of A Stark Production (producer of hit TV series The Deep) generously offered to mentor me as I transitioned more formally into creative producer. At the beginning of 2017, I began work at A Stark Production with the support of Screen Australia's Enterprise People Program. I brought H is For Happiness onto the slate and set about finding a live-action producer to work with. I reached out to Julie Ryan and when she came up for air after Hotel Mumbai, we were away.

Incredibly the film was fully financed in one year and so three years after that trip to Mexico, I am heading for the shoot of my first feature... in remote seaside town, Albany WA, about as far away from Oaxaca as one can get. But along with everything else I've learnt, I know things happen in their own time -Viva's time will come.

In the meantime, Julie and I are being joined by an enormous and terrific team including our director John Sheedy, producer Tennille Kennedy, executive producers, sales agents and distributors: All up including extras, we will have around 114 working on the project and sharing the ambition of seeing this film in cinemas across Australia and the world.

Part of the privilege and excitement of working in the industry is being surrounded by the filmmakers who have always known that the secret is not just accepting uncertainty, but embracing it with open arms.

Writer-producer Lisa Hoppe is working with producer Julie Ryan on the  family film H is for Happiness and the feature drama Viva La Vida. She has produced a number of short films including Godel Incomplete starring Elizabeth Debicki and the AWGIE-winning Heck which is screening on ABC iview.

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