I originally wrote Ben as a screenplay, developed during a low-budget script development “Pod” conducted by Screen Canberra in 2017. It was the product of a weekend’s thinking and pitching, fortified by pizzas and coffee. The motivating ideas was: what if a boy managed to make a living 3D print of himself? How would the duplicate prove that he was human? Ben, the clone, was examined before a panel of humourless lawyers and professors: he was manually dexterous, had a photographic memory, could argue logically… but the killer quality was that he had a sense of humour and made them laugh. Not a bad premise, but hardly enough conflict and resolution for a 90 minute feature film.
I developed the story over the ensuing weeks of the pod, following the 8 (or was it 12) steps of the hero’s journey. Tom (the original boy) was the hero and he found a “mentor” in Beth, his neighbour, a “tough girl”. But it all got confused when it became time to humanise Ben. Who was the hero now? I need to give a big thank you shout to Screen Canberra, which gave me some funds to hire Stephen Cleary for six weeks/sessions of script editing. The story developed, the bad guys became less grotesque and more believable, parents and other relationships assumed some importance, the main characters grew multicoloured arcs… but the story still didn’t work. Until I accepted one Stephen’s suggestions that the story needed to be told through the eyes of Beth, rather than Tom who was confused and bewildered by the experience of having a doppelgänger. Beth was a tough girl, able to stand up to the villains, and observe the conflict. Her name soon became “Biff”.
(A confession: when I was my characters’ age at Armidale High School, one of the girls in my class was so enraged at having her plaits pulled she turned and shouted to the perpetrator “Stop that or I’ll biff you!” He didn’t stop, and ended up flat out on the floor with a bleeding nose. Biffed. From that day on, the girl was known as “Biff”. She became a politician.)
The script was a finalist in the 2018 Page Script Awards (USA) and was considered by several producers. One wanted to make it as an animated feature, which would have raised the budget well above the original “Low budget” ceiling. Another said they could fund it if it was made in the USA and Canberra was transformed into Washington DC. They both fell through. This was at a time when several other film ventures—potential Australia-China co-productons— were sending me insane and draining my meager savings. One night, I read the script of Ben to one of my grandchildren, who said “Grandpa, it would make a great book.”
So, taking advanage of six a months break from teaching, I sat down and rewrote it. It’s much better as a book. The point-of-view problem that dogged the script, is solved by having four narrators, who each no part of the story. The “who is the main character?” problem was also solved by making Biff and Tom equal in weight. And with great joy, I was able to chuck the “hero’s journey” structure out the window,
But the best thing about a novel, as opposed to a screenplay, is that I am my own master: not constrained by budget or casting or producers and distributors. And it’s fun.
In the next blog, I’ll write about the struggle to get the book published.