Working with Words: Ted Wilson

Ted Wilson is a screenwriter and Hobart New Wave filmmaker. His debut independent feature film, Under the Cover of Cloud, premiered at Melbourne International Film Festival earlier this year. We spoke with Ted about lost diaries, big ideas and complexity in Australian cinema.

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry? 

Photograph of filmmaker Ted Wilson

My older sister Beck used to read to me sometimes when I was a child. I remember her reading me The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton and us laughing at the names Dick and Fanny. I have always had very discerning sense of humour.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

I started writing a lot in Grade Two with my friend, Mark Reynolds. We wrote about a barbarian called Micron. I have never been as prolific a writer as I was in Grade Two. I stopped writing shortly after that and didn’t really return to it until I was doing amateur theatre while studying at the University of Tasmania. Even now I am fairly reluctant to put pen to paper.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

I have had such a huge variety of work in my life: as a pizza chef, a social advocate, an economist, a corruption investigator, a public health manager for Beyond Blue, a comedian, an actor, a radio announcer, a director. I’ve also experienced plenty of loss and heartbreak. It all goes into the mix. My first feature film, Under the Cover of Cloud, is certainly the product of everything I’ve learnt in my first 38 years, and everything I’ve felt.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I think I am someone who needs to keep working on something creative to keep the boredom at bay, because jobs are so ridiculous. Well most of them are. I actually think I may end up taking up painting partly because I am so bad at aesthetics and will enjoy being completely lost. And unlike with filmmaking, the costs are low.

For me, the idea is everything. I usually don’t write until I have something which I am very excited about, and it is often the story in its entirety.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

In Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa he makes the point that art often suffers from too much politics or not enough politics. It is something that has really stuck with me as a writer. It explains why I am often fairly ambivalent about polemics, and more likely to be drawn to that which focuses on the timeless aspects of our humanity. It also for me explains why I do not connect with a lot of Australian film and television which is often superficial and meaningless.

Another Hobart New Wave director, James Vaughan, once said to me that any film that can be described succinctly is not worth seeing. Yet of course that is what the Australian film and television industry is built on: a house of cards of loglines and thirty-second pitches.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now? 

I tried to, after reading a diary by Soviet film director, Andrei Tarkovsky. His was a mixture of fabulous insights into art, shopping lists and periods of bitching about the bureaucracy. I didn’t really know what to write about. I bought a lovely book for it, though. I lost it eventually.

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

Most of what I read are classics. I thought the Picture of Dorian Gray was a bit crap. An underrated novel is The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. Actually, I lent it to a lover once and she never gave it back. Which is pretty cool.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

I think I am someone who needs to keep working on something creative to keep the boredom at bay, because jobs are so ridiculous.

I guess so. One of the things I observed of some of my more prolific peers is that they write a lot, but what they write about is often not good enough – their choice of story is often weak. They appear to jump into writing and then work and work and work to try and polish that turd. For me, the idea is everything. I usually don’t write until I have something which I am very excited about, and it is often the story in its entirety.

I spend most of my time thinking about ideas in the shower or walking or jotting down loose ideas or jamming with friends. I believe that once you are actually writing, you are confining your mind with the practice of worrying about word after word and the linearity of this has a detrimental effect on your creativity.

Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

No. Thankfully. I am still growing. Everything I have done I look back on fondly as a stepping stone. I just want to keep improving.

Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with? 

Mum and Dad.

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