We Talk With Brothers’ Nest Screenwriter Jaime Browne9 August 2018
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Jaime Browne is a prolific Australian screenwriter whose credits include The Mule, the Emmy-nominated Please Like Me, telemovie The King, as well as ABC’s Devils Dust, Laid, The Straits, and Squinters.
His latest project is Brothers’ Nest, “the sleeper hit of the 2018 SXSW festival”, which is currently showing in Australian cinemas. I gave Jaime a shoutout in my review a month ago and this week I got to speak with him about making the film, working as a screenwriter, and diversity in Australian media.
What was the inception of Brothers’ Nest? Where did you come into the process and how did it come about?
It was based on a pure lightbulb moment. I was working on Clayton Jacobson’s property in the country, the Sun was going down and it was like fire it was so red. I got this image of two guys approaching the house who were up to no good. I thought that was a pretty dramatic opening to a film, though I had no idea what it would be about. I went away without telling anybody and wrote a script that I built up from that. It was a completed work before anybody else knew about it and when the others agreed to come onboard I was able to make it happen.
How were you involved during and post production?
Different productions will give writers different roles and different levels of import pre- and post-production. Pre- is often where you’ll be meeting with investors, actors, working with the director to develop and make changes to the script. Production you’ll generally have nothing to do with. You might make one set visit or two—I was on the set everyday—and in post you’re another voice into the key creative decisions and edit. As a writer I’m happy to speak my mind, so I was in the room with Clay deciding what to push or pull. I was pretty involved compared to anything else I’ve done.
Is the extent to which people will be involved highly variable? Are you expected to tread a path as a writer with certain expectations?
In TV it’s pretty standard, but in film it really comes down to the director’s choice. Some directors will take your script and say, “Thanks very much. See you at the premiere.” Other directors will keep you involved like Clayton did. Writers are creating the only thing that can’t be replaced: the script. I feel sorry for writers because every other role could be done by somebody else except that script and a lot of times that’s given no respect. In this film it was, but it can be variable to the point where my level of involvement will help me decide whether to work with certain directors or producers. If I sense that they’re gonna take the script and not call for six months, then they’re not getting it. I’m really open about that. I also make sure they don’t get a long option period to fuck around with. If they want a script, they should be as committed to direct as I was in writing it.
What are your hopes for the film? Do you see it continuing or do you want to work with Clay and Shane again soon?
Once the film is made and the edit is over I feel like my experience with it as a writer is over. Actually I feel like it’s nearly over once they start rolling. Honestly, I don’t read reviews. I don’t look at the box office…
You read my review.
Yeah, I was told to read your review. They said that “Oh, they actually mentioned your name!” Generally the reviews that I do read are the negative ones because I find them quite interesting. If you get uplifted by the good ones, don’t you then have to be kicked in the teeth by the bad ones? You don’t wanna let that get into your mind too much. I think ego and your hunger to be better isn’t helped by only reading good reviews.
My hope for the film is that as many people get to see it as possible and that they’ll find it a memorable and unique experience. I set out to write the film with zero adherence to structural story rules. It’s also a script that I wrote on the Final Draft app on my phone, so it is a kind of unusual film—a very DIY process. It’ll have a long run in Australia because of the way it was sold, and we have a broader world release coming up. We’ll be trying to get it into the bigger festivals just to keep that word of mouth going.
One of the things that really struck me about Brothers’ Nest was the Australianness of it, particularly the rural elements. Was that an experience that you deliberately brought to it?
Not really, I grew up working-class in Sunshine, but you throw in guys like the Jacobsons they add that heightened sense to it. It was written to be slightly poetic and over the top, and that’s a hard thing to write. In this country people either want you to do dialogue like Home and Away or so over the top that you can’t even imagine a world that these people would inhabit.
Like the Australianness you’d see in Mad Max.
I think that’s a good comparison. I went to film school, and someone there said that when you’re making a film, “National is national but local is international.” I took that to mean that the tighter and closer you can place the story, the more international it is. Everyone can relate to having a neighbour or going to their local shops. I’m working on another script that’s really big, It’s about a national crime story. International distributors look at that and say that everyone is doing it. But if you really grind down into the personal minutia you’ve got something international—and that’s where Brothers’ Nest seems to sit.
Do Australians in film and TV band together out of principle or loyalty?
I don’t necessarily think it’s loyalty, but you always try and take care of someone who’s struggling to get work or has had a failure. I think most of it is working with people who you trust. There are people I’ve worked with who have done something horrible and I’ll never work with again. It’s like a friendship group; You end up sorting through and finding these people. Everyone’s seen Stephen Curry and Shane Jacobson in everything. You know why they’re in everything? They are workers. They’re good at what they do and they’re the most trustworthy people on and off set. You just want to work with them because you know your day is going to be good. It’s the same reason directors and producers talk about guys like Will Smith; they have an amazing energy.
We stick together because there are times in this industry where shit happens and you have to be loyal. It’s what Andrew Denton said, “getting a core group is just about dickhead minimisation.” That’s what his job as a producer was. As a writer I spend my time alone making stories for people, and when I go out into the sunlight I want those people to be as trustworthy as possible. It is a fraternity, but it’s a fraternity of people who can make it work. That’s the key.
You’ve mentioned before that there’s a difference in the way writers are perceived and treated in Australia vs. the United States. Can you elaborate on that?
It’s a broad rule—and there are exceptions that I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of—but generally writers in Australia are treated like shit; Inconveniences to be paid and seen as little as possible. I think it’s mostly because your work is done in private and when people read the scripts it seems so simple to them. Then you go to a market like the US and their TV culture doesn’t bear comparison. I’ve written Australian TV where I’ve done three seasons without meeting the actors. You do a show in the US and you’re on set every day, helping with casting and basically producing. Show-writers are treated like the creative people that they are. I’m not saying they’re treated like rock stars but in Australia writers get screwed every day, day-in day-out.
Is that something that varies a lot between people?
I’m part of the Australian Writers Guild’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee. It’s basically Australian media catching up with the stuff that’s been going on in the US and UK; getting in more diverse writers and telling more diverse stories than we have been. You go into a writers’ room in Australia or the US and nine times out of ten it’s gonna be guys in jeans and plaid shirts with recent college degrees—all white as hell. That’s not to say anything bad about them; I am that. My point of difference is that I was in a wheelchair for 6 years and I know that it changed my perspective; It also made me regularly write characters with disabilities. It’s about making the industry open and respectful of writers whether that’s in terms of pay or how they’re treated. It’s a way to get voices involved and for them to be happy once they are involved. There’s no point fighting your way into this industry and feeling like you’re always one phone call away from being fucked over.
Is that something that’s regularly experienced?
Do you mean that there’s racism or sexism within Australia?
Yeah, pretty much. Is it a significant problem in the industry?
It’s impossible to say how writers from non-traditional backgrounds are treated because they aren’t getting any jobs. They’re not being invited into the rooms or forcing themselves into the rooms enough so that they can be treated badly. So what the AWG is trying to do—generally they try and protect writers with jobs—but what we’re trying to do now is get people into those jobs. We’re using those same tools to get people through the front door so they can tell those stories or give a new perspective to existing ones.
Signs seem promising at the university level. I can’t say much for whether people are getting hired, but I’m seeing a very diverse group of people who’re putting in the effort and coming though as media majors or writing regularly for Farrago…
I’ll tell you a story. Recently I worked on the ABC show Squinters, and there was a directive from them for full diversity. I was basically the only Australia-born white male in the room. There were definitely teething problems; these people didn’t all have the tools to work in a writers’ room and put a script together. You can’t dismiss that this is a process and there are going to be those problems.
I was honoured to be a part of that. That the ABC could just bite the bullet and insist on that. No tokenism—the usual writers plus one Aboriginal guy. This was a real representation of Australia and what they got was something really unique.
How did the show benefit from that?
You can take a classic situation like a road scene, say you’re going up to Byron with the driver in front of you. My instinct there would be for them to get out, something strange happens, you throw some comedy into it that would impact their lives. Then one of our writers started telling stories about how she and her family would handle it—how a Lebanese guy might handle a fight. It might not be getting out and swapping details, it might be calling family before the cops or not calling the cops at all because there’s someone here illegally. Those perspectives had direct moment-to-moment impacts on that show.
The group was incredibly diverse but they were very young, and I saw a level of political correctness that I’d never seen before in a writers’ room. Writers’ rooms often require you to say the most outrageous things because you’re writing about characters that aren’t necessarily good people. These guys were so politically correct that it got frustrating. Eventually I had to get up and say that we weren’t writing about people that all act in good middle-class ways. There are racists, there are sexists, there are racists that have black friends, there is violence in the world. Writers have to be free to go to those places.
So there was one amazing element in the diversity, but there was this age element which I’d never seen to that extent before. I think we need to fight it, because stories which involve people behaving badly are the ones we need to tell.
So political correctness should perhaps be put aside when media is being produced?
Take the example of writing about a racist character. In the process of writing them you’d need to put yourself in their mind and be thinking and saying some pretty terrible things. When you present that character the only real responsibility you have is not to present them as heroic, but you can make them three-dimensional. There is a push—where I think political correctness has been somewhat bastardized—where those characters aren’t making it onto TV or film because we’re so careful about being seen as promoting somebody like that. When I put criminals in my work I’m not promoting that criminal, I’m putting them under a negative microscope and with racist characters you need to be doing the same. We’ve had racist characters in the past and laughed at them and thought “Isn’t that sweet and funny?” That is over. What we’ve got now is avoiding those stories which need to be told, because those people exist in this world.
The key part for me—and this is where Brothers’ Nest happened—you can take any situation where people are up to no good from racism to sexism to harassment and shine a light on it. That’s where something like Romper Stomper was extraordinary. You had guys in a pub talking about how they’re going to murder someone, and that showed you the true horror of what they were. There’s been a recent pushback from some people that don’t understand what political correctness is, who’re making things without edges. I think it’ll correct itself, but it’s a fascinating thing to watch right now.
To be completely honest I think that lasting change that isn’t about tokenism will come through new voices, hopefully because of programs like what the AWG is running, that connect with an audience. Executives don’t really care about the colour of your skin or who you are if you’re bringing in the promised audience. That’s what they’re discovering now with female-led movies. We’re discovering all these amazing minority-driven comedies coming out of the US, we’ve made a couple here.
What advice do you have for the writers studying at Melbourne?
Brothers’ Nest literally broke a record in getting written and financed. When I sat down to write it I thought ‘I’m just gonna write a film for me that doesn’t adhere to the usual rules of structure and I’m gonna see where this thing goes. I’m going to finish it and I know that it’ll find a home.’ And it’s become probably my proudest work. If you can find your voice as early as possible—and go out on a ledge a little—I think that there are great things waiting for you. I regret that I didn’t take this chance five or 10 years ago. Do whatever you need to do to get your foot in the door. If that’s a feature script, if that’s a short—I would always say to writers that you can work at McDonalds or be on the dole but still be writing that great feature script. And once you’ve got it made somebody will find it: I guarantee.
For more information on diversity and inclusion in Australian media, or if you have a story to tell, go to awg.com.au.