I had the opportunity to speak with Stuart Beattie – the writer/director of the highly anticipated film Tomorrow, When the War Began. The film is based on John Marsden’s novel of the same name, and follows the story of eight teenagers who are forced to survive on their own when a war suddenly erupts while they are on a camping trip deep in the woods. Filled with big action sequences, teen romance and strong characters, the film should please fans of the popular book series.
At the red carpet world premiere of the film in Sydney, Marsden said that he was “exhilarated” about he premiere, and the cast also expressed their excitement about the film’s release, with many noting their appreciation of the original source and their connection to their characters. Caitlin Stasey who plays the protagonist noted that “I think every girl who reads these books wants to be like Ellie, which is why I felt a bit terrified about my portrayal, but she is very loyal and I admire her strength, and her character”. Others mentioned the positive experiences they shared with Stuart Beattie. Phoebe Tonkin who plays Fiona commented that “he is a friend – he didn’t feel like the boss. He included us in the whole process. We were given the freedom to change our lines within reason, which was amazing.”
Beattie’s previous screenplays include films such as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, thrillers such as Derailed and Collateral, the vampire horror 30 Days of Night and Baz Luhrman’s epic Australia, and during our interview he discussed his inspirations, his time in Hollywood, his experiences on this film, and his desire to continue directing.
Where did you get your big break? Are there any screenwriters/filmmakers that have influenced you in particular?
I studied screenwriting through an extension course at UCLA and one of my scripts won an award which was published in Variety, the Hollywood Reporter and trade magazines, and I signed with an agency from there. Many screenwriters have influenced me, particularly Steve Zallian, Frank Darabont and Larry Kasdan.
You’ve worked in a variety of different genres – do you have a favourite?
I don’t. I actually prefer to work in different genres to keep things fresh. Hollywood is very quick to pigeon-hole people, so I’ve got to work against that.
You’ve returned to Australia for your directorial debut – did you miss anything about life in Australia while you were in Hollywood?
I moved to LA when I was 19 years old because I was too young to go to film school here (you had to be 21 years). So I do miss many little things, such as the fresh water, the sun, the lack of pollution and the small population. But at the same time, LA it is all about the film industry. You have access to any script and any movie at any time. It’s where I learnt how to make this kind of film.
Were you a fan of the Tomorrow series before signing up for the project?
I was not a fan of series when they were first released because I was in the States. They were a success in other countries, but they are very had to find in the US. Hopefully they will be released there now that the film has been made.
What was it about the novel that particularly interested you?
It’s a great story with great characters. On top of that it’s Australian, and on top that, it’s commercial. You can see when you read the book that it was made to be a movie.
Did you try to maintain a level of faithfulness to the novels?
Yes, and I think it’s a faithful adaptation. There were only a couple of things that I had to fine-tune. But on the whole, it really is the film of the book.
I’ve heard that John Marsden was hesitant for years to turn the novel into a film – what made him change his mind?
I think it was the screenplay that turned him around this time – he saw that I knew the story and the characters and that I was willing to be faithful to his work. We got his official blessing and he is thrilled with the result.
What were the benefits of writing and directing this feature? Do you prefer one to the other?
Writing gives you a micro idea of the film – a chance to understand each and every word that is in there, while directing is all about the macro and overseeing the entire project. So both roles help each other… movies are like a house of cards, if you pull out one card, it could all fall down. So it’s definitely an advantage acting in both roles.
So why did you wait so long to direct?
It had to feel right to me, and I wanted to be confident that I could do the job. I wanted to reach the point where I felt that I knew enough, so that I wouldn’t waste anyone’s time. It was an amazing film school to be on the set with Baz Luhrman, Michael Mann and Steve Summers, and watch these masters interpret my scripts. I could have done that forever, but I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I started to get that urge and felt that I was ready when I found this project, which was right for a lot of reasons. I would love to continue directing.
What do you think is the message of the story/film?
To me it’s about survival – physically and spiritually. Ellie’s character is very logical and I think she tries to suppress a lot of what is in her heart (because there’s a war going on), but she needs to let those walls down and let her heart feel what it wants to feel, otherwise she’ll go crazy. I also think it is about teenage empowerment.
Did you intend on having an upcoming cast?
Yes – the film seemed like it was tailor made for introducing new actors. There aren’t many 19 year old Australian Brad Pitt’s, but once I accepted that, we found the best eight actors for the roles. And one thing I learnt from writing for so long is not to be precious about your words and so I encouraged the actors to improvise in scenes, which allowed them to put more of themselves into their characters.
How did the cast and crew cope with filming on location?
Umm they were happy to be there, but location shooting is tough. Living in these places and working over night, can mess with your mind after a while (laughs). I’d much rather work on the sound stage during the day, but you obviously don’t achieve that sense of realism. We spent a total of seven weeks on location in the Blue Mountains, Arcadia, Dungog, Maitland, Warriewood and the list goes on.
The conclusion of the film certainly suggested the likelihood of a sequel, and there are a series of novels - are there plans for the next instalment? Do you think this will be the next big franchise?
There are no plans yet, because this film cost a lot of money and no one will have the cash flow until it gets out there, and people see it. If it’s popular enough to warrant a sequel, that would be great because we would all love to work on another title, and as you say, the stories are there.
You’ve also got a few other projects in the works – what shall we expect to see out in theatres next?
I don’t think any of my other scripts are in production yet. I wrote a script for Ron Howard, which is still sitting there. A few of my scripts are trapped in development hell, and I’m just waiting. Hopefully this film might allow me to pick up a few of those projects because I would love to get those made!
Tomorrow, When the War Began will be released nationally in cinemas on the 2nd of September.