Ann Turner is an award-winning screenwriter and movie director who has worked with some of the biggest stars of the big screen, such as Russell Crowe, Susan Sarandon, Charlotte Rampling, and Emily Blunt, to name just a few.
Her literary thriller, The Lost Swimmer, marked a stunning debut for the filmmaker turned writer. As part of our Celebration of Australian Authors, we talk to Ann about books, movies, writing vividly about gorgeous locations and her dream movie cast for The Lost Swimmer.
I’d visited most of the locations twice – first as an eleven-year-old on a trip with my parents, where the classical ruins made a deep and lasting impression. We went to Athens and walked around the Acropolis, and then visited the Palace of Knossos on Crete. In Pompeii, I saw an aisle of glass cases housing concrete casts of bodies caught in their death throes when Mount Vesuvius erupted. There was a poor dog too, and that seared into my mind. Years later I returned as an adult and things had changed. With more tourists, a lot of areas are roped off now. And in Pompeii, that aisle of glass cases has been moved; there are just a few lone ones scattered around.
The road along the Amalfi Coast is just the same, hanging off the side of the cliff with its death-dive to the ocean miles below, and ghastly hairpin bends where you take your life into your hands.
- As a filmmaker, when you write are you describing what you see in your mind as clear film images or is it a different process than writing a script?
I visualise everything as I write, but a book is a very different beast to a screenplay. Writing a book gave me enormous freedom – I could include any location I wanted, and didn’t have to worry about budget or shooting time. I could describe what I saw in a rhythm of words, and evoke smell and touch and taste, in a way that you can’t in film, and that was truly exciting.
In terms of process, I Iike films that are character-driven and plot-based, and that’s the way I approach writing novels as well. For a film, as the first step I’ve always written treatments, which are 14-20 pages of prose outlining the story; then you write the screenplay from that, which will usually be about 90-110 pages long. With The Lost Swimmer, I planned to write a treatment but I never did. I structured the book more in chapters. Then, in large sections – say every 100 pages – I’d go back and look at what I’d written and do one-line summaries. So with structure, plot and character development, I did a version of how I’d develop a script. But there are a lot more words in a novel and the style is completely different. And at the end you have a finished product, not a blueprint that has to be financed, cast, filmed and edited, with sound and music playing key roles in a physical sense, so removed from the way that you conjure sound and music in a reader’s mind.
- Do you remember when or how you first got the inspiration to write The Lost Swimmer?
It was on that horrible Amalfi Coast road. I thought I’d booked a hotel in Amalfi, but the hotel was actually in the middle of nowhere, perched on a cliff high above the Tyrrhenian Sea and with no footpath – the only way we could get in or out was by bus. Buses with huge dents up their sides from collisions with cars and the mountainside. We thought we were going to die.
I’d booked the hotel because it had a private beach. When we checked in, the friendly hotelier handed over the key to the path saying, ‘You Australians are good swimmers, aren’t you?’ We wound our way down the mountain and at the base there was no beach, only a rocky ledge. Waves slammed in against it metres high. It wasn’t a beach, it was a blowhole. That’s where the story started. It was a place of such extraordinary beauty and horror, and I thought how terrifying it would be if your loved one went missing there.
Then, when I arrived back in Australia, universities were restructuring and a lot of friends were losing their jobs, being forced to take packages. Those two ideas came together and I started writing The Lost Swimmer. I put in all the places I knew, from the windswept beach to the locations in Europe. I took that age-old advice, ‘write what you know.’
- There is a lovely canine character (Big Boy) in the book – what roles do animals play in your life?
I have always had either a dog or a cat. I can’t imagine life without an animal. For over a decade my writing companion has been a cat, Biggie Small. He’s an enormous tabby with Maine Coon heritage. In many ways he’s like a dog. He sits with me when I write, gets up for a snack when I do, then comes back and keeps me company when I return to my computer. Then at dusk, he reaches up, slides out a single claw and sticks it into the fleshiest, softest part of my side. Dinner time. For him.
- If you were filming the Lost Swimmer, which actors would you choose to play the main roles?
Nicole Kidman or Naomi Watts would be wonderful for Rebecca. Kate Winslet would be brilliant too. All strong, intelligent women. Stephen needs to have gravitas, and be extremely sexy. Russell Crowe would be perfect.
- What Australian authors do you currently admire?
A very long list! I’ll just name a few. I recently read an advance copy of Todd Alexander’s wonderful coming-of-age story Tom Houghton. There’s enormous humanity and skill in the writing and the characters spring off the page. It reminded me of the work of Alan Hollinghurst and Armistead Maupin, but with a fresh originality that is Todd Alexander.
Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is another favourite.
- What can you tell us about your next book, Out of the Ice?
Out of the Ice is a mystery-thriller set in Antarctica. Laura Green, the central character, is an environmental scientist. She realises something very bad is going on at the base where she is stationed, and as she investigates, she is forced to face her own past, fears and hopes. I think Antarctica is the last great wilderness on the planet. How we treat it, is how we treat our own fate. It was a fascinating experience writing it – every time I thought I’d made something up, I’d research further and find it had existed. I don’t generally believe in ghosts, but in this instance…
As told to The Better Reading Team.
Photo shows Ann Turner (centre) with Charlotte Rampling and Russell Crowe on the set of the 1993 movie Hammers over the Anvil.