AACTA Member Spotlight: Interview with Chris Bessounian

Chris Bessounian is Australia’s first recipient of the Academy Nicholl Fellows Award. The Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting is a $30,000 cash prize presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to a small selection of emerging screenwriters every year. This year, seven writers were selected for the prestigious award, and among them were Chris and his partner Tianna Langham, for their harrowing screenplay, Guns and Saris.

Chris and Tianna

Chris and Tianna accepting their Academy Nicholl Fellows Award

Inspired by true events, Guns and Saris follows the remarkable journey of a determined young Indian woman who, in response to upper-caste violence, forms an all-female militia. Guns and Saris is not Chris and Tianna’s first collaborative work. They also worked together on the short film The Kolaborator, which received accolades at the 2007 Angelus Student Film Festival. Theirs is a special kind of working relationship, an enviable creative partnership that operates in simpatico with the goal of producing art  imbued with character, strength and integrity.

Chris grew up in Sydney and spent time living abroad in both London and Brazil, before finally settling in Hollywood.  Over the years, he has turned his hand at acting, editing and cinematography, but his true calling is writing and directing for the screen. He promises to one day return to Australia – if we find the perfect underdog story, one full of intrigue and suspense, to lure him back!

Chris is not a fan of sitting in a darkened room in front of a computer and rather tellingly, his fascination with the human condition, the complexity of people’s ethical codes and the appeal of a good story can all be traced back to Peter Weir’s epic historical drama, Gallipoli. Here Chris speaks about his work, its challenges, his aspirations and what its like living in LA.

AFI: Where did you grow up in Australia?

Chris Bessounian: Sydney. I grew up in Chatswood, moved to Paddington, then Bondi after I left home.

AFI: What inspired you to become a screenwriter?

Chris Bessounian: My first intention was actually to become an actor. When I realised I wasn’t so good at it, I turned my interest to cinematography and editing. I never planned to pursue screenwriting until I made my short film, The Kolaborator, and enjoyed the process so much that my partner, Tianna, and I decided to write a feature film. The challenge of the craft was so invigorating and rewarding that we kept on writing more screenplays. I also loved the empowering aspect of screenwriting, how all it takes is your imagination to create something unlike almost every other role in film, which requires financing and endless logistics. With screenwriting, the only thing to stop you from doing it, is yourself.

AFI: What is your all time favourite Australian film? Why?

Chris Bessounian: Gallipoli. This film has had a great influence on me and on the stories I wish to tell. It was from this film that I first really learned about the Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey, but also felt and experienced the emotional journeys of those involved. I love films that tackle the micro against the macro: love against war, friendship against a battlefield. Situations which force characters to tackle life’s most difficult moments, and make the most terrifying decisions, pushing us all to ask, “what would I do if I was in this situation?” One of my screenplays, Butcher of Bosnia, deals with similar themes and struggles as Gallipoli. But rather than against the backdrop of World War I, it’s set amidst a more recent conflict – the war in the Balkans.  If only Peter Weir would also direct that!

AFI: How long have you been living in LA? What first took you there?

Chris Bessounian: I’ve been in LA for 6 years. I studied drama in Sydney, did some theatre, decided it wasn’t for me. I fell into some camera operating gigs and loved the idea of working behind the scenes. Shortly after, I left Australia and spent a year in Brazil then two in London. I finally landed in LA, enrolled in film school with the intent of becoming an editor but realised I didn’t enjoy sitting in a dark room staring at a computer and decided to try to direct something. Just before this I had read a riveting book about the war in the Balkans so decided to dramatise some of the moments I read about, and craft them into a short film.

AFI: What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced during your career?

Chris Bessounian: The kinds of stories both Tianna and I are drawn to aren’t the usual Hollywood fare. Guns and Saris is the story of an untouchable woman in rural India who takes up arms and creates an all-female militia to protect herself and other untouchable women from upper-caste violence.

Another of our screenplays is Butcher of Bosnia, based on real life events during the conflict in the Balkans concerning notorious Serbian General Ratko Mladic, currently on trial at The Hague.

It’s tough sticking to the stories you are drawn to when you receive constant pressure to “write something commercial,” something that will sell in Hollywood. I couldn’t count the amount of times we’ve heard the sentence, “I love the script, but I can’t do anything with this,” which is not particularly fun to hear. 

AFI: Inspired by true events, is there any particular personal motivation for exploring the harrowing premise of Guns and Saris?

Chris Bessounian: Both Tianna and I love to explore and learn about people, places and ideas that we may not normally be exposed to. I am very struck by underdog stories, tales of people overcoming great odds regardless of whether or not, on the surface, I have anything in common with them. Writing is a great way of constantly learning, constantly being moved by new people and ideas. That’s what Guns and Saris has done for me. It has made me passionately furious about the plight of millions of untouchable people, who, without writing the script and spending years researching, I may never know much about.

AFI: Is there a strong message that you want to get across in your scripts? Or do you prefer to leave it up to your audience to create their own meaning?

Chris Bessounian: Everything we write starts from a personal story, the events surrounding that personal story – war, politics, religion – are a backdrop. What is important to us and I think what resonates in our screenplays is how these grand events are more than just numbers in a newspaper, more than images we see for a second or two on the evening news. They have an incredibly profound and real effect on the individuals living through them, a human toll. If by exposing an audience to the small details of lives they’re not familiar with, and by doing so creating an emotional and/or intellectual response, I feel satisfied. I believe it’s by learning about the lives of others, by feeling an ounce of what they feel, that humanity is drawn closer together.  

AFI: You and your creative partner, Tianna Langham, previously worked together on the film The Kolaborator, how has this experience contributed to and/or shaped your current writing/script development style?

Chris Bessounian: This was the first screenplay we worked on as a team. We discovered that we worked well together and really understood each other. Obviously each of us has specific strengths and weaknesses, but it seems where I have a weakness, Tianna shows strength and visa versa. It’s a perfect balance. There’s also the added bonus of a male/female perspective. It seems to be working out.

AFI: You and Tianna won the Angelus Act One Screenplay Award for The Kolaborator in 2007 at The Angelus Student Film Festival, what does it mean for you now four years later to win an Academy fellowship for your craft?

Chris Bessounian: This was the first screenplay award we’d ever won and a huge boost to our confidence as writers. Even with a partner and a second perspective, sometimes you wonder if what you’ve been writing for the last 12 months is any good.

The Academy’s fellowship is a huge encouragement and validation. It made us believe that what we write, our voices, and not what some people in Hollywood suggest we should write, is what they responded to. It’s what made them recognise our screenplay and honour it with such a prestigious award. In fact that’s one strong message that came through from the Academy Committee during the awards week for the Nicholl Fellows. “Don’t write what you think you should write, don’t write something derivative, write what you care about and write it in your unique voice.”

AFI: How does it feel to be the first Australian to win this Award?

Chris Bessounian: Humbling, I know other Australians have come close, many have reached the Quarterfinals, Semi-finals and even the top 10, no mean feat considering, this year there were a record 6,730 submissions from 62 countries. The Quarterfinals are the top 320 or so, the Semi-finals the top 120 or so.

AFI: What advice would you give upcoming Australian screenwriters wanting to make it in Hollywood?

Chris Bessounian: Keep writing despite the disappointment and rejection that may come along the way. But beyond that I think the real skill is to be open to feedback, and learn how to dissect and apply it. None of our work would be much good if it wasn’t for the honesty of a trusted group of mentors and friends who read all of our work. Criticism hurts, but the pain pays off when the result is a much more compelling and better crafted screenplay.

AFI: Do you see yourself returning to work in Australia in the future?

Chris Bessounian: I’d love to. Tianna’s never been and is dying to. We have a couple of Australia-centric ideas floating around, not sure if it’ll be one of those. If anyone has a great Australian story that would make a riveting film, let us know!