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Affordances (and Potential Pitfalls) of Documentary as Research:

The Creative Process of Australian Screenwriter Jan Sardi

DOI: | Issue 2 | September 2019

Mark Poole

RMIT University, Melbourne


This article examines the creative process of prominent Australian screenwriter Jan Sardi (Shine, Mao’s Last Dancer, Love’s Brother, Moving Out) through the use of documentary production as a research methodology. The increasing acceptance of creative practice research within the academy has led to increased interest by scholars in the research capabilities, affordances and potential pitfalls of documentary production. I will draw upon my own extensive documentary production experience as well as my recent research in completing a practice-led PhD to offer some observations about the advantages and disadvantages of this form of research. The research adopted a case study methodology to investigate Sardi’s creative process on four feature films, and comprises a 70-minute documentary investigating the prominent Australian screenwriter’s process. The documentary enables Sardi’s own testimony about his creative process to be foregrounded, and includes corroborating data in the form of comments from his collaborators, such as the producers and directors from within his field. Documentary production also enabled the inclusion of the final output of Sardi’s screen work to be investigated through the inclusion of excerpts from the four completed films. This article explores the issues raised by documentary production as research, including the perspective taken by the researcher towards the subject in an overtly subjective stance rather than attempting a more objective point of view. The article also discusses the rationale for the selection of documentary production as a research method for this study, reviews the usefulness of documentary production as a research tool, and offers some conclusions.


This article offers a number of observations about the affordances (and potential pitfalls) of using documentary as a research tool that I have gleaned through the production of a 70-minute documentary on the creative process of an Australian screenwriter entitled Jan Sardi: A Screenwriter’s Creative Process.

My research enquiry focused upon the creative process of one particular screenwriter in order to establish what it is that this screenwriter does to write a screenplay that is successfully produced as a feature film. I chose to consider the work of Jan Sardi for this study since he has been extremely prolific in Australia over a lengthy career in both film and television drama, having written ten produced feature films and numerous hours of quality television, and his work has been rewarded by a number of Australian and international awards.

As will be discussed below, I chose to produce a documentary as a method of investigating Sardi’s creative process primarily in order to foreground the screenwriter’s own description of their work. This approach assists to redress an imbalance where particularly in the field of feature film production it is the voice of the director and the actors that is heard, and the screenwriter’s testimony is rarely heard or seen. Yet there is widespread acknowledgement that a feature film’s critical success is based upon the underlying screenplay.

Research Method

The field of screenwriting is replete with voluminous commentary about what makes a successful screenplay and how a screenwriter might create one. This commentary includes both ‘how to’ manuals and academic writing. Much of this analysis is predicated upon a close reading of completed films as texts that have been produced as the outcome of the screenwriting process, and also an analysis of those screenplay drafts and associated papers (such as outlines, treatments and pitch documents) that are available. There is much less analysis of a screenwriter’s own narrative about the creative process they employed to write a screenplay. The research method of producing a documentary to investigate Sardi’s creative process enabled the screenwriter to speak for himself about his work and he has approached the challenge of screenwriting.

The selection of the films to be included in my documentary represented a process of curation based on my assessment of the most relevant of Sardi’s output for this research. Of his ten produced features, I found that there was space for only four works to be included. I therefore narrowed the research to four films: Moving Out (1983), Shine (1996), Love’s Brother (2004) and Mao’s Last Dancer (2009). Shine (1996, directed by Scott Hicks) was included because that film achieved the most critical acclaim, including an Academy Award nomination, and also took more than $100 million worldwide which was a significant figure for a low-budget Australian film. Mao’s Last Dancer (2009), directed by Bruce Beresford was also selected since it is a successful adaptation of a well-known book by Li Cunxin, and was also successful at the box office in Australia, taking more than $15 million. Love’s Brother (2004) was included since that film was written and also directed by Sardi, and therefore he had a great deal of control over the film’s realisation, and featured Giovanni Ribisi, an internationally recognised actor. Initially I had not planned to include Sardi’s first feature film Moving Out for this study, but during the editing phase I realised that Moving Out was in a sense where Sardi’s initiation into the domain of screenwriting had begun, when he had transformed from being a teacher to a full-time writer. Moreover, that film drew upon Sardi’s Italian background and his experiences growing up Italian in inner-urban Melbourne, tropes that recur in his later works.

Sardi has written a number of other feature films, including most notably The Notebook (2004) directed by Nick Cassevetes; however this film was excluded from this study as it was made in the United States rather than Australia, and I wanted to focus on screenwriting within the Australian domain. Sardi has also written a number of outstanding works for television, including The Secret River (2015, directed by Daina Reid), which he co-wrote with longtime colleague Mac Gudgeon, but his television work was also excluded from this study as the process of writing for television differs significantly from that of film writing.

Theoretical framework

The study employed the systems mode of creativity proposed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (1999, 2014) as a theoretical framework that understands the creative process as a dynamic interaction of the creative individual, the field and the domain. The Creative Individual is represented in this model by the person or artist who is creating the work being investigated, in this case screenwriter Jan Sardi. The Field is comprised of those screenwriters, directors, producers, screen agency personnel and film critics who operate within as producers and gatekeepers of feature film production. The Domain is the store of creative work within a society that has been accepted as valuable within that society by the gatekeepers in the field. The three components of the model – the individual, the field, and the domain – overlap and interact in a complex and dynamic fashion.

The central tenet of Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model is that it is not sufficient for a creative individual to produce a work of quality by itself, but that work must be made real and produced in the world and also recognized as being of worth, in order for it to be deemed ‘creative’. So in the case of screenwriting, a writer must have a work accepted for production by a producer and director, and that work must be completed as a feature film, and then accepted into the domain through a successful release, acceptance by audiences and acclaim by critics and awards judges. As Csikszentmihalyi (2014: 47) has said:

We cannot study creativity by isolating individuals and their works from the social and historical milieu in which their actions are carried out. This is because what we call creative is never the result of individual actions alone.

The Research Process

The research process of making a documentary involves two main processes: the production process where interviews are conducted, and post-production where the material is sifted, analysed and structured into a cohesive shape. Arguably, there is an initial pre-production process where currently available material about the subject is gathered, as background for the interviews. In practice this is an iterative process as the editing phase inevitably points to gaps in information and knowledge that triggers the need for more background information and more interviews. When commencing the making of this documentary about Sardi’s work I already possessed a great deal of information since I have known him for many years, and for example recorded on audio a session where he spoke about the writing of the screenplay for Shine in 1996. So one of the tasks I completed initially was transcribing that audio session, so that I could better understand Sardi’s creative process.

The production phase commenced with a number of interviews I undertook with Sardi that formed the spine of my research as a primary source. The interviews conducted with Sardi and his collaborators were informed by the principles and practices of oral history; as Leavy has stated: ‘oral history is a method of collecting narratives from individuals for the purposes of research’ (2011, 4) and ‘[o]ral history is an effective method for gaining in-depth knowledge from participants’ (ibid., 5). Sardi is a good interview subject, relaxed and willing to share his stories of how his screenplays were created. Interviews with Sardi’s collaborators were also undertaken, with these collaborators commenting on their participation in a particular film project, and the research often draws from multiple interviews with the same subject.

Interviews by this researcher were based upon extensive research conducted prior to the interview, although open-ended questions allowed the subject to lead the discussion beyond the parameters originally envisaged, in accordance with oral history practice (Fontana and Frey, 1994: 365). The researcher was therefore actively engaged in the process as a collaborator working with the interviewee. It is understood that the oral history provided by participants is based upon fallible memory and represents an inherently subjective account. As Linda Shopes (2011: 452) has suggested: ‘Interviews record what an interviewer draws out, what the interviewee remembers, what he or she chooses to tell, and how he or she understands what happened, not the unmediated ‘facts’ of what happened in the past.’

This is relevant to this research since filmmakers are often interviewed about their work during the marketing and screenings of a film, and they may truncate or summarise their stories about production through repeatedly being asked the same questions by different interviewers during the film’s release. What’s more, my understanding of screenwriting as a practitioner enabled me to extend and develop these interview responses beyond the subject’s initial ‘summary’ position. Although I attempted to ask open-ended questions and avoid interrupting the answers, the interviews with Sardi were often more like conversations than formal interviews since I was very familiar with his work. Indeed, in one interview the camera operator suggested that he record my voice as well as Sardi’s, an offer I declined, since I knew I wouldn’t want to include my comments in the final film.

Researcher Melinda Banks has reported that using oral history methods to interview American professional screenwriters represented a useful method of gathering knowledge about those writers’ creative process since they are adept and practiced at explaining and telling stories about their work (2014: 546). As Banks has commented: ‘I have observed workers at a studio, and I find that the work of writers lends itself well to conversation rather than observation’ (ibid., 546). Banks’ research found that American professional screenwriters were eager to articulate their stories. Screenwriters contended that the histories of the projects they had worked on had usually been told by directors, producers and actors rather than by screenwriters, and they welcomed the opportunity to provide testimony from the writer’s perspective (ibid., 548).

Sardi’s descriptions of his own creative process were neither unbiased nor objective since he was constructing a narrative about himself. Sardi’s commentary was subjective and projected a favourable representation of his work, and his statements about his creative process are essentially unverifiable. However, his comments were cross-referenced with his collaborators about what occurred during the editing of the documentary. As Nichols (2010: 7) has suggested, a documentary is often regarded as being in some way ‘objective’ and related via the semiotic notion of ‘indexicality’ to be somehow ‘real’ or based upon an objective reality. This is a view less often adopted by a filmmaker whose position at the epicenter of the production makes them well aware of the inherently subjective nature of filmmaking. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a filmmaker to retain an ‘objective’ viewpoint whilst making choices about what is filmed, how it is filmed and how it is presented within a film. My role as a researcher on Sardi’s creative process is not ‘objective’ in the sense that I have had a professional association with Sardi for many years as a screenwriting peer, as well as through our association within the Australian Writers’ Guild. As such, I was aware of his extensive feature film track record, his many significant television credits and his status as the President of the Guild. However, in order to conduct this research in as objective a manner as possible I did not screen the documentary for his comment or provide him with the accompanying research materials until after the research process was concluded. This ‘arms-length’ approach came at the cost of gaining feedback from Sardi during the documentary’s development.

The interviews were conducted using the services of a professional camera operator who also recorded the sound, freeing me as the researcher to focus upon the questions asked and Sardi’s answers. This eliminated the need to consider technical issues such as framing, focus, white balance and audio levels. The camera operators were people I have worked with extensively in my professional career as a documentary filmmaker, and so we were able to function by using a sort of ‘shorthand’, for example the camera operator would give me a nudge if I waved my arms in front of the lens. I trusted the camera operator (Vlad Bunyevitch or Walter Repich) to make appropriate creative decisions and I did not need to check the vision by looking at a monitor, and that trust was justified by the resulting footage that was captured.

The Editing Process

As mentioned above, editing is a central method of organising, juxtaposing and interrogating the material gathered about Sardi’s creative process and determining what new research was required. Over a three-year period editing progressed from ingesting the initial interviews and ordering them along the timeline to a final process of refining the documentary. The interviews were initially assembled under content headings and keywords and ordered according to these subjects. As well as his internal writing processes concerned with devising and developing ideas or selecting a suitable work to adapt into a film, Sardi also discussed his collaborative working relationships with directors Michael Pattinson, Scott Hicks and Bruce Beresford, and producer Jane Scott. One striking feature of Sardi’s work is how he has been involved with the production of these films well beyond writing the screenplay. For example, Sardi discussed how he had assisted the producers of Moving Out to raise the finance for the film in order to get it made, sharing in the tasks of calling lists of doctors and lawyers to ask if the production team could send them a prospectus to elicit an investment. It is rare for a screenwriter to be involved in raising production finance alongside the producers, and this attests to Sardi’s willingness to collaborate with his colleagues within his field.

Once all the materials had been placed upon the editing timeline in a rough cut order, I realised that I needed to conduct further interviews with Sardi’s collaborators, including directors Bruce Beresford and Michael Pattinson, and Sardi himself who was interviewed for a final time late in the research journey, to clarify some of his earlier comments.

In the contemporary environment access to editing software is ubiquitous through the Adobe Suite, and I used Premiere Pro to edit the material. The process of editing a documentary offers a method of ordering the research findings, dividing the timeline into segments according to the aspect of Sardi’s creative process being discussed and the particular film under consideration. As well as the interviews I conducted, I incorporated other materials that were available, including the DVD ‘making of’ reels that had been released with each of the films, and also interviews that had been conducted by others, such as by David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz for the SBS Movie Show. Although the DVD interviews were obviously constructed to ‘sell’ the film, and therefore provided a positive spin on the filmmaking process, there was much valuable material that was directly relevant to Sardi’s creative process. For example, Scott Hicks, who directed Shine and is given a ‘story by’ credit, discussed his collaboration with Sardi and what he saw as Sardi’s contribution as a screenwriter.

While oral history projects sometimes publish entire interviews so that other researchers can revisit the original data, this study has used the documentary form as a means to juxtapose different interview subjects’ commentary upon Sardi’s creative process, and also to distil the material into its most significant parts, and issuing each interview separately would not have achieved this outcome. As Ritchie (2003: 203 has suggested, oral historians publish summaries of interviews and include excerpts from them, and that is similar to the editing process undertaken in the production of the documentary. The video editing process utilised for this documentary production is more akin to the work of a historian than that of an oral history researcher; the video editor sifts through the material much like a historian considers documents in order to interpret and synthesize the evidence (see Frisch, 1990: 84).

The practice of documentary production differs significantly from that of oral history in that the aim of oral history is to document people’s recollections and memories as accurately as possible, whilst in contrast, the intention of a documentary production is for the filmmaker to offer an interpretation of events that must of necessity by partial and selective. The oft-cited definition of documentary as the ‘creative treatment of actuality’ by John Grierson in 1926 (see Kerrigan and McIntyre, 2010: 111) alludes to the fact that a film represents a filmmaker’s subjective interpretation of events rather than an objective representation of reality.

One consideration of the editing process was the appropriate length of the final documentary and its audience. The primary audience for this documentary was myself as the researcher, since the documentary was constructed as a research tool that enabled me to analyse and comprehend Sardi’s creative process. A second audience is deemed to be a wider group of scholars and practitioners interested in the subjects of screenwriting (particularly in Australia), the work of Jan Sardi, the process of creativity, and the use of documentary as a research tool. As a consequence of these considerations the film was restricted to 70 minutes in length, and editorial decisions needed to be taken to cull the available materials. As well, in order to find an audience, the film needed to be visually interesting and engaging, and this precluded the inclusion of large chunks of text or pages of a screenplay. As Frisch (1990: 83) has commented:

to work on documentaries is to make the audience a far more explicit dimension of consideration than in scholarly writing; a … documentary text must not simply express historical content and ideas, it must also communicate this material – and communicate it to specifically imagined audiences.

In order to progress the film during its construction, I consulted with a number of colleagues to gauge the accessibility and clarity of the film. This proved invaluable and their input has enabled me to refine the production. This process included presenting excerpts of the documentary at international and local conferences, including the Screenwriting Research Network Conference in London in 2015.

As well as grappling with the testimony of Sardi and his collaborators about his creative process, I included the final outcome of his work in the form of excerpts from the four feature films. It is a definite affordance of documentary production as a research tool that Sardi’s comments about his screenwriting can be juxtaposed with the final result, the completed film. This is significant for this study since Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model stipulates that a work can be deemed creative only if it is recognised by the field and therefore admitted into the domain (1999: 315). In that regard the completed films are relevant as the final outcome of Sardi’s creative process; they also serve as a reminder that Sardi’s screenplays facilitated the production of these films.

Excerpts from the films were chosen to present scenes that illustrate Sardi’s screenwriting process, including scenes that are representative of the film itself (demonstrating the screenwriter’s use of visual metaphor) and scenes that underpin or illustrate Sardi’s comments about his writing processes. For example, a scene in Love’s Brother that depicts the making of the first espresso coffee in the rural town is included as it demonstrates Sardi’s investigations of Italian-Australian themes and their centrality to his oeuvre. Scenes were also selected in order to provide a sense of the film’s overall narrative arc, and in so doing, to represent the outcome of Sardi’s creative process. The documentary production therefore offered a useful means of conveying the power and drama of Sardi’s writing as it was realised as a completed film.

The editing of a documentary production is a complex process, and documentary filmmaker and academic Michael Rabiger has suggested it is not especially well understood by non-practitioners: ‘Documentaries are largely created through intelligent editing, an alchemy that works magic and miracles. Few understand this until they take its long, exploratory journey for themselves’ (2015: 229). Indeed, the editing process on this project took place over several years and involved numerous revisions and transitions from assembly to rough cut over that time. My experience as a professional filmmaker was extremely useful for this process. It was over the course of the editing process that the answers to research questions were arrived at and the film was ‘found,’ sifting through all the interviews, panel discussions and excerpts from the films in order to examine Sardi’s process as a creative screenwriter.

Situating Sardi within his Field

The systems model of creativity posited by Csikszentmihalyi places considerable emphasis upon the need for a creative individual to gain the support of their collaborators, colleagues and gatekeepers in order for his or her work to be admitted into the domain (2014: 52). The documentary is an appropriate format to portray Sardi interacting with his colleagues and collaborators within his field and functioning within his public/industrial sphere in order for his work to be accepted into the domain of screenwriting. For example, Sardi is witnessed collaborating with cast and crew when working on Love’s Brother, interacting with his colleagues at the Shine 20th Anniversary screening in the foyer of The Astor Cinema in Melbourne and discussing the progress of the shoot in China on the set of Mao’s Last Dancer with director Bruce Beresford. This portrayal of Sardi operating within his field makes a useful contribution to knowledge about the screenwriting process, particularly since writers are rarely seen undertaking these sorts of activities. It also underlines the systems model’s emphasis on this interaction within the field as an essential element of the work of a successful screenwriter.

Sardi’s significant collaborations with producer Jane Scott is also documented in the film. Unusually for a screenwriter, Sardi sought funding to travel to the Sundance Film Festival where he pitched his idea for Love’s Brother to Scott as they revelled in the attention they had gained by the success of Shine. Sardi’s friendship with Scott and their mutual respect has facilitated their creative partnership on three feature films, and he secured her trust sufficiently for her to invite Sardi to undertake the key creative role of director on Love’s Brother.

Affordances of the Documentary as Research

The production of a documentary as a research method has proved useful in foregrounding the testimony of the writer Sardi himself articulated about his screenwriting process. Whilst over recent years there have been some screenwriters who have spoken in their own voices about their work, such as the online ‘Academy Originals’ series, no Australian screenwriters have been included in such work. This is a real gap in the field since directors and actors have traditionally spoken about the writing process, and the strengths and weaknesses of screenwriting, but generally not the writers themselves.

The key outcome of this research was the clarity with which it became obvious how much Sardi’s creative process had to do with collaborating with directors and producers in his field. For example, Sardi explained how he became a screenwriter after pitching an idea for a film to director Michael Pattinson at a social gathering, and developed that idea over numerous drafts over several years, working with the director, whilst he was still a teacher. This represents a stark contrast to the conventional notion of the screenwriter who labours in isolation for years, developing and refining a screenplay before eventually showing it for the first time to potential directors and producers to seek their feedback. However, despite this collaborative approach the documentary has also illustrated via footage of the screenwriter labouring in his shed at the back of the garden, how ultimately the process of writing is a solitary pursuit where there is no substitute for refining and honing the screenplay until the draft is completed.

The documentary form was also useful in juxtaposing Sardi’s commentary about his creative process with those of his key collaborators, such as the directors, producers and actors with whom he has worked. This juxtaposition allowed for a vivid portrayal of the creative process, and also dramatises the collaboration process that a writer is required to undertake until a film is complete. For example, a sequence in the documentary describes how Sardi and director Bruce Beresford worked on Mao’s Last Dancer and debated how to address the problem of opening an Australian film with around forty minutes of content in the Chinese language. Sardi explained that he structured his screenplay in chronological order to preserve a sense of continuity of the film’s dramatic arc, but having done that he knew that it could be restructured out of temporal order and retain the dramatic integrity that was required. This sequence offers an audience a vivid depiction of the sorts of interactions between writer and director that occur within the field of screenwriting, and are rare in other studies of such interactions. (Beresford was also interviewed for this film).

Using documentary as a research tool also portrayed Sardi at work in his cabin at the rear of his home in Eltham, Melbourne. This footage was reconstructed (since the presence of a camera and film crew does not enhance a screenwriter’s creative process). Sardi allowed this filming to occur in the location where he labours on his screenplays, and despite the constructed nature of this footage, it provides a useful visual representation of the challenge faced by the screenwriter. The footage displays Sardi’s professional setup: his MacBook Air, Final Draft software, his use of music to accompany his work, and the way Sardi looks out through a horizontal slot window onto a forest of gum trees while contemplating his work. The documentary form also shows Sardi’s use of index cards to structure his screenplays as well as showing the board where he pins such cards for his latest project that is visible beside his desk. This footage provides a valuable opportunity to witness a screenwriter at work, and serves as a reminder that an observer is restricted to an external view of a screenwriter’s creative process, as the interior process must remain hidden from view.

The documentary form was also useful to visually depict Sardi’s Italian milieu by including footage of the Island of Elba in Italy. Sardi’s parents were born on the island and he travelled there in 2001 to accept honorary citizenship of the township of Capoliveri. This footage is significant since Sardi’s Italian heritage and background is an important component of his identity as a creative individual. What’s more, Sardi’s Italian-ness has informed his thematic interest in stories concerning migrants/migration and outsiders. (Mao’s Last Dancer is concerned with the story of a young Chinese boy plucked from a remote village and transplanted to a ballet school in Beijing, and Shine tells the story of David Helfgott who is arguably pushed to the margins of society through his mental illness.)

One major finding of this use of documentary as a research methodology has been the discovery of the usefulness of the DVD releases of the films that contained valuable interviews with key creative collaborators, such as the directors and producers Sardi worked with on those projects, as well as other relevant content such as commentary from film reviewers. The testimony of cast members was highly relevant to Sardi’s creative process as a screenwriter, since a primary role of the screenwriter is to create characters and dialogue that the actors can utilise to evoke an effective screen performance. Whilst this DVD material has been produced for the purpose of promoting the film and is therefore not objective in its testimony, it nevertheless offers valuable material not available by other means (for example, comments by USA actor Giovanni Ribisi about Sardi’s work on Love’s Brother which describe Sardi’s sense of rhythm in his screenplays).

Potential Pitfalls

Despite the affordances of the use of documentary production as a research tool described above, there are a number of potential pitfalls that should be considered before a researcher embarks upon a similar approach. The first potential pitfall is the requirement for the researcher to possess, or obtain, a range of skills in both production and post-production techniques, if they are working by themselves as I was. In addition, some physical hardware is required, including a powerful computer ideally with dual monitors. More significantly, the researcher must function as a film editor, which is a complex task necessitating the ability to understand sophisticated editing techniques such as the use of rhythm and pacing. If the researcher is deficient in these abilities or does not have the time or interest to acquire them, a professional editor can be engaged to fill that gap, but this has obvious implications for the project’s budgetary requirements.

Despite the relative accessibility of production equipment and editing software in the present day (unlike previous eras when the ability to record video of professional quality required expensive equipment and qualified personnel) a video practitioner must still possess a set of production skills to undertake research by documentary production. I was able to take advantage of professional skills acquired working as a filmmaker, including a number of years spent working at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as a producer/director, and the associated skills I have developed over many years in documentary making and editing. Other researchers could acquire the skills to record usable interviews, but this requires a degree of technical proficiency in addition to the ability to engage with an interview subject, gain their confidence and respect and ask appropriate questions. A researcher can also utilise the skills of paid technicians to fill those gaps, but that requires appropriate funding.

A second potential pitfall of this approach is the time required to complete a documentary production, particularly when the researcher is completing the majority of the work, as opposed to a fully budgeted production where a crew can work more rapidly, and an editor is paid to refine the film. Editing a documentary to a professional standard is time-consuming and potentially expensive, depending upon the eventual outcome required. In the case of the Sardi documentary this was deemed a film for the purposes of research, and therefore there was no need for broadcast quality sound post production or colour grading. In addition, the fact that the Sardi documentary is 70 minutes in length, in order to consider the four film projects, resulted in a lengthy post production process.

A third potential pitfall is that Sardi’s testimony about his own creative process is neither unbiased nor objective since he was constructing a narrative about himself. Sardi’s commentary was subjective and projected a favourable representation of his work. However, these comments have been cross-referenced with other people’s about what occurred during the editing of the documentary. Moreover, the materials included in the documentary production have been gathered over a twenty-year period (from the first audio recording at the National Screenwriters’ Conference in 1997 to the final interview with Sardi in 2016), which attests to the consistency of his testimony.

Conclusion: Key Findings on Sardi’s Creative Process

The final version of the documentary was structured by using Csikszentmihalyi’s headings of Creative Individual, Field and Domain, in order to consider Sardi’s creative process in developing the screenplay for each film within that framework. A key finding was the extent to which Sardi’s creative process is informed by his close collaborations with his field, particularly the producers and directors with whom he has worked. For example, with Shine, Sardi met with concert pianist David Helfgott and director Scott Hicks prior to working on the screenplay, and there is a scene in the documentary where Sardi talks to Helfgott during this research. The film also includes footage of Sardi collaborating with director Bruce by attending the production shoot on location in China for Mao’s Last Dancer. This research has found that Sardi’s creative process includes his ability to form and maintain strong and ongoing collaborations with the directors and producers with which he has worked, and this has been a central reason why he has been successful in having ten feature film screenplays produced, an outstanding output in a small production territory like Australia with an average output of only thirty-one feature films per year (Screen Australia, 2017) that struggles to compete with the economic and cultural hegemony of Hollywood.

The film shows Sardi describing his creative process in evaluating an idea for a feature film before commencing the writing, such as the way in which he and producer Jane Scott both read Li Cunxin’s autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer and debated its merits as the basis for a film, and then discussed how to approach the author with a view to gaining the rights to make the film. Sardi’s use of index cards to work on the structure of a film is depicted, and his method of formulating the emotional spine of a story before he commences a draft. He has identified the film’s theme and its emotional spine as his ‘map and compass’ that he uses to work through the draft and find the film, avoiding the use of the conventional three-act structure as a sort of strait-jacket that can result in an audience second-guessing the writer.

In summary, this research-documentary on screenwriter Jan Sardi has proved useful in furthering knowledge about the practice of screenwriting, especially from the perspective of the writer. This article has offered some insights into the potential affordances and pitfalls of the use of documentary as a method that this study has found. The major affordance of using documentary as a research tool for this project has been the ability to hear directly from the screenwriter about the creative process, and it is therefore appropriate to conclude with a quote from Jan Sardi offering advice to beginning writers and alluding to the struggles that any writer must overcome:

Find something that touches you, that you just have to work on. Because it’s going to be so hard, and you’re going to get so many knockbacks, and some days you’ll think ‘why am I doing this? Why do I bother?’ If it’s a great story that means something to you, that’s the answer (quoted in Poole, 2017).


The commercial release of Jan Sardi: A Screenwriter’s Creative Process is currently being negotiated for 2019.


This article was first presented at the 2018 Australian Screen Production, Education & Research Association (ASPERA) conference, Melbourne, 27-29 June.



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  • Smith, H and Dean, RT (2009) Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

  • Swift, B (2010) ‘Half of 2009 features tread Offset path’, Inside Film (October)

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