Stuart Beattie

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After conquering Hollywood with not only some of the biggest and best films of the past few years but the most varied CV, Aussie Stuart Beattie talks about his mark on GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, how different it is from his more cerebral efforts and the trip home for his directorial debut.

How do you find something in the brief from the producers about a big, noisy action pop gone thriller to stand out from the rest of the CGI pack?

It goes to source material and making sure you make a movie that's unique to it, not generic in any way. I was already very familiar with the world of GI Joe so it was about coming up with a story that couldn't exist in the world of Jason Bourne, James Bond or any other action movie but only in the world of GI Joe. So it starts there and then you're always asking yourself what the audience has never seen before.

How well did you have to know the source material?

I actually knew it really well because I was approached to do a movie in 2000 by a whole different set of producers. I went through the whole GI Joe Bible back then, so it was simply a matter of taking all that material off my shelf and diving right in. It as also lucky because I didn't have any time to research if I wanted to.

Did it make it easier because audiences maybe aren't as familiar with the mythology as with other toy or comic strip characters?

There's still a huge audience out there that do know it very well, so it was like walking a tight rope between fans and non-fans and being able to satisfy both. It's always a tricky business.

Anything in the final version you weren't that happy with that they got wrong about the script or in the edit?

No. It's definitely the script I wrote and I was on set every day throughout the production. It's actually one of the bizarre occurrences where it's a big budget, Hollywood movie but really I was the only writer to contribute to it.

Stephen Sommers didn't ask you to make it more action packed or more frenetic to suit his breakneck style?

No, he was great. I said at the beginning 'let's not do ten four minute action sequences, let's do four ten minute action sequences, make them really good, make each one better than the last and leave the rest of the movie to story and character.

How do you approach a movie like this or Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl differently then you would something a bit smarter like Collateral or Derailed?

Because Pirates and GI Joe have a mythology you can either go one or two ways. You can write from the outside in – which in the case of Pirates or GI Joe would be to take all these characters and fashion a story around them. Or you can go from the inside out, which I prefer, where you tell a good story and if moments from the mythology occur or if the characters can help tell the narrative, great. You have to put the story first and weave as much from the mythology in as you can.

Do you put yourself in a different mind set when you're writing something that you know is going to end up on lunch boxes and action figures?

No, it's just more pressure. The essence of every great movie is a good story well told.

How does a screenwriter go from short films and little local movies like Kick and Joey to the $150 million Pirates of the Caribbean?

Just work. I've worked as hard as I've had to and been on as many sets as I can and had the good fortune of working with some of the greatest people in the business. You just keep at it, never give up and never let all the doubts win. I just know if I can't do this there's nothing else I'd want to do so I've got to somehow make this work.

Everyone's always looking for a good script no matter what and it's one of those great levellers in the sense that you can be a nobody but if you have a good script it'll work. The industry joke in that you can leave a good script on the side of the 405 freeway and someone will eventually pick it up and turn it into a bad movie.

You've very successfully avoided being pigeon-holed after movies like Derailed, Australia, Collateral, Pirates and now GI Joe. How do you avoid Hollywood enforcing labels like the blockbuster guy or the thriller guy on you?

It's a very conscious decision I made very early on to always write something different than I wrote last time. So after Collateral I got offered a bunch of thrillers and I turned them all down. And in every meeting I'd just keep impressing 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. I don't believe you can just a thriller guy or a comedy guy or an adventure guy, I just think you tell stories or you don't.

It's worked for you because you've got such an interesting mix of projects under your belt.

It's important to keep things interesting because you're always learning and you never get comfortable. The second you get comfortable, you start to produce generic material.

A lot of your films have also featured actors with very strong personalities of their own such as Johnny Depp or Tom Cruise. Is there a point where you stop trying to put everything about the character onto the page and have faith that the actor will flesh it out?

You never stop, always keep going. Actors want that. Anything actors bring to a role I see more as a happy accident. You should never stop and think they'll carry the rest, because that's just lazy. So I'm always throwing in as much as I possibly can and actors respond to that because they see you're passionate about it so they get passionate about it. Just keep building and building and building.

So it doesn't tread on your toes a little bit when they do add a whole lot of stuff to characters that you haven't written?

No, it's wonderful. That's what they're paid to do. No single person makes a movie and you're always after the best idea in the room. These people have been doing what they do for many years and you're a fool not to listen to them.

In a film like GI Joe or Pirates of the Caribbean, what's more important on the page, the dialogue or description of the action?

If I had to pick one I'd probably go with dialogue because with description of the action – especially in big films like this – storyboards come in, art directors come in and then the actual shooting starts, so there are so many more iterations that come between writing and action. With dialogue's, you write it, the actor says it and the director directs the actor how to say it, so there are fewer people involved.

We're all excited in Australia about the Tomorrow When the War Began series [shooting in Sydney, The Blue Mountains and the Hunter Valley]. Any hints you can give away?

We're on week three of pre-production and it's going great. We've got a phenomenal group of people that have come on and the amount of talent and experience is really humbling. The script is now locked, locations are all coming together and we're gearing up to start in late September so we're all very excited.

You started getting credits around the late 90s which was of course the time when Hollywood started really taking notice of Australia with the filming of both The Matrix and the first Star Wars prequel in Sydney. Did it help your career or were you were already on track for that?

It didn't really affect much of what I was doing [Beattie has lived in LA for 20 years]. I was just happy to see these big films getting made in Australia because it's such a wonderful place to make films with all the crews, sound stages and locations. I always wanted to come back and make movies in Australia so just to see the infrastructure being built down here for those bigger films was great.

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