In our regular Spotlight On series, we talk to a member of the Writing NSW community to learn more about their writing journey, achievements, and inspirations.
This month we spoke with Ally Burnham, author of the screenplay for Unsound, which was produced for film in 2020. Directed by Ian Watson, Unsound is a progressive film that celebrates an inclusive story of love. Nikole Evans, our Administration Officer, spoke with Ally about writing the screenplay for the film and its exploration of intersectional identities.
Your screenplay Unsound was produced for the silver screen last year. Can you tell us a little bit about the film?
Sure! Unsound is the story of Noah, a disillusioned musician who’s lost his spark. Quitting his band and returning home, Noah meets Finn – who runs a nightclub for his Deaf community. The club is in danger of going under financially, so Noah and Finn work together to save it. Their budding romance grows from there!
Where did you first view the film? How did it feel to see the translation of your writing on the screen?
The very first version of the film I saw was a fine-cut – before audience testing. A few of the scenes had been shifted in order, so I had the opportunity to give my thoughts! Ultimately, the scenes were shuffled back to match the screenplay. But that’s editing, right? I really enjoyed being welcomed into that process. I watched it with such a critical eye the first time, and the second, constantly asking myself ‘do all the beats land? Does the pacing work?’. But I think I’m an over-thinker and perfectionist by nature. Probably by the fourth viewing, in my hometown surrounded by friends and family, I finally enjoyed the movie as a movie. I was really charmed by what the actors were able to do with the roles, having made these characters their own.
Unsound won multiple awards after its 2020 release, including winner of Best Australian Feature at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Congratulations – that’s a huge success! What was your reaction upon finding out the news?
Thank you! The 2020 Melbourne Queer Film Festival was happening at such a strange time in March last year! I believe Melbourne’s first lockdown occurred 2 weeks before the festival – so they moved it to an online event. The award announcements were also made online, so I found out via a Facebook notification that morning! It was such good news at a time when the team were a little disheartened about the lockdowns interrupting the film’s cinema release (and everything else happening at the time). To be recognised by one of Australia’s leading queer festivals, the award really meant a lot.
How much involvement did you have in the making of Unsound? Did the film vary from the initial screenplay?
I was welcomed into the production process with open arms – which is very unusual. Normally the writer is rather hands off after the script is locked. But our director, Ian Watson, came onto the project quite late, so it worked well that I could be there in person for rehearsals and on-set to help the story shape and evolve as it needed to. If dialogue did need to change on the fly, (which it did a few times), I was there to help shape it with the actors. Unsound is a strange beast in that the dialogue went through several layers of being written. The screenplay is on the page as English, but then during rehearsals our Auslan consultants interpret those words into Auslan. Once in the hands of the actors, it shifts again. Unsound deals with subject matter that needs thoughtful care and respect, so I was grateful to be on-set to help the meaning of the words survive these several layers of translation.
Unsound explores queerness and disability. What pushed you to showcase these intersecting identities to the forefront of Australian screen?
The idea was sparked between myself and the producer Tsu Shan Chambers. I believe Tsu Shan was working with the D/deaf community at the time, while I was personally bursting to tell a queer story. We had the bare-bones of a romance narrative, but the ‘ah-huh’ moment struck after speaking with members of the D/deaf community and our Deaf consultants. We were shown that pronouns have this fluidity in Auslan – that the sign for ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ is the same – it’s essentially gender neutral. That was a turning point, and the trans elements of the story took on a life of their own. Suddenly I had the character of Finn, a character who refused to be silenced – and that was the message we wanted to bring to the screen. I’m incredibly grateful to my network of friends and our formal trans consultants, who helped elevate Finn to a place of authenticity during the script’s development. Unsound truly is a patchwork quilt of life-stories and I was super lucky to be the person at the loom.
What advice would you give to budding screenwriters who want to hone their craft?
Screenwriting is a collaborative process. Manuscript and prose writing can be quite insular, and you have a lot more control. Whereas screenwriting by its nature wants to be a team effort. You are still the writer doing the hard hours at the keyboard, but I’d say, don’t be afraid of inviting budding directors and actors into your brainstorming sessions. Bounce ideas around. Get actors to speak and play with your words and let them evolve. Have other writers read your screenplays and get as much feedback as possible. Producer notes are a given in film, so you need to get used to taking notes! A screenplay is just a blueprint, not the finished product.
What are you working on at the moment? We would love to know what’s next for you.
In the film world I’m working on my next screenplay with an exciting producer and director team – it’s an adaptation of a late 19th century short story! We’re coming at it with a modern feminist and horror lens.
But my main passion project has been polishing my first novel manuscripts, with the goal of querying quite soon. I’ve had some early interest in my historical fiction based on a true Australian story. It’s a comedy I’m coming at with a queer lens. The dream would be to write its screenplay one day as well! Give me two decades and we’ll see!
Ally Burnham is an AWGIE and AACTA nominated screenwriter and NIDA graduate. She is best known for her multi-award-winning feature film Unsound (2020) and the cross-media sci-fi franchise Metropius (2021). She has collaborated on TV projects for CJZ, and her short film The Pilgrim Report (2013) premiered at the Sydney Opera House during its 40th-anniversary celebrations.
Burnham also writes as a novelist. In 2020 she received a residency fellowship from Varuna House for the development of her fantasy YA manuscript, Majesty, and in 2021 she was accepted into the Westwords Academy programme for professional development.
When there is time, she also teaches at NIDA Open, training school-aged and adult students in screenwriting. She’s a geek, a cosplayer, and she and her Labrador, Farrah, volunteer at their local courthouse to provide weekly therapy-dog goodness.