Australian women crime writers taking Hollywood by storm

Rosemary Neill reports in The Australian Weekend Review 24-25 December 2016 on how Australian women crime writers are all the rage in Hollywood.

Oz writers hot in Hollywood: Moriarty, Brierley, Snoekstra

A scene from HBO’s Big Litlle Lies, based on Liane Moriarty’s nove

“It is kind of like a second coming; a bit of a frenzy goes on in this town.’’ Los Angeles literary agent Jerry Kalajian is talking about the reaction in Hollywood whenever Australian novelist Liane Moriarty delivers a new manuscript.

For Kalajian, it is second nature to talk up his clients in the time-honoured Hollywood way, with a spiel that is equal parts fact and boosterism. Still, the irrepressible agent has had plenty of practice. He works for the Intellectual Property Group, a company that has sold the film rights for a vast slate of books that became screen sensations including Million Dollar Baby, Life of Pi, True Blood and Boardwalk Empire.

Bestselling Australian writer Liane Moriarty is hot property in Hollywood. Picture: Renee Nowytarger.

Bestselling Australian writer Liane Moriarty is hot property in Hollywood. Picture: Renee Nowytarger.

Moriarty is the unassuming Sydney author and self-described soccer mum whose fractured tales of suburban life — she can spend as much time describing a school trivia night as the build-up to a murder — have sold six million copies.

Kalajian, his voice hurtling down the line from his LA office, tells Review that Hollywood is so keen on Moriarty’s novels, his company has sold the film rights to four of them (What Alice Forgot, The Husband’s Secret, Big Little Lies and Truly Madly Guilty) to prominent US producers. “People are just so enamoured of the worlds she creates — she’s captured the zeitgeist of suburbia,’’ he says. These book-to-film projects have attracted some of the biggest names in the business — CBS Films, HBO, TriStar, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Aniston and David E. Kelley.

The middle-aged mother of two may be hot property in Hollywood, but Moriarty is not the only Australian author whose books are turning heads in Tinseltown. Jane Harper, Anna Snoekstra and Hannah Kent have had their first novels optioned by key Hollywood players — Jennifer Lawrence has signed on for the big-screen adaptation of Kent’s first novel, the intensely literary Burial Rites. Meanwhile, the film version of fellow Australian ML Stedman’s bestseller The Light Between Oceans was released last month. This tale of a lighthouse keeper, his wife and a child they find in a ­shipwrecked boat stars Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander. Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks was one of the producers.

The Golden Globe-nominated film Lion is a further example of powerful Hollywood producers embracing anti­podean stories at a rate rarely, if ever, seen before. The Weinstein Company bought the Australian-produced film when it was at script stage almost three years ago. The screenwriter is expat Luke Davies, who adapted this extraordinary saga from A Long Way Home, the autobiography of Saroo Brierley. Born in India, Brierley was adopted by a Tasmanian couple in the 1980s. Years later, equipped with little more than a sense of grim determination and Google Earth, he embarked on a quest to find his birth mother. The film, which has been nominated for four Golden Globes, stars Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, and opens here on January 19.

Nicole Kidman and Sunny Pawar in Lion, based on Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home. Picture: AP.

Nicole Kidman and Sunny Pawar in Lion, based on Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home. Picture: AP.

Kalajian, who has been visiting Australia since the 80s, represents Harper, Kent and Moriarty along with fellow Australian Markus Zusak, whose young adult novel The Book Thief was an enduring bestseller in the US that in 2013 was turned into a film starring Geoffrey Rush. The veteran agent jokes of his growing stable of antipodean female writers: “I probably have more oestrogen in me than any straight man on the west coast. We are one of the very few [agencies] in the film business that attracts high-end female commercial fiction. Chick lit — I run for the hills, I can’t stand it.’’ But middlebrow women’s fiction “sucks me right in’’.

The heightened interest in Australian stories represents an extraordinary level of cultural penetration, especially when you consider it is first novels by hitherto unknowns Harper, Snoekstra, Kent and Stedman that have been hoovered up by some of the world’s leading filmmakers and producers. This page-to-screen phenomenon — the stuff of dreams for most writers — is occurring at a time when there is unprecedented convergence between the publishing and screen worlds — or, as Kalajian puts it: “IP [intellectual property] is king.”

Robert Gottlieb, chairman of the US-based Trident Media agency, agrees, arguing online recently that “the spec-script [unsolicited screenplay] market in Hollywood is virtually dead. Books provide the depth of underlying material that a screenwriter and producer can use to make a film. Books provide original ideas where the spec-script market has fallen short.’’

Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, published in 2014, has already been turned into a seven-hour HBO drama starring Kidman, Witherspoon, Alexander Skarsgard and Shailene Woodley. It will be broadcast in February, and the trailer has gone viral, attracting almost three million views on YouTube. This story explores deep tensions among a group of middle-class primary school parents that end in a violent death. The film rights to the novel, says Kalajian, provoked a bidding war in Hollywood. “A couple of broadcasters had to drop out because it got rather expensive rather quickly, and then it came down to a battle between Netflix and HBO, in which HBO prevailed.’’

Aniston is attached to Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot, about a mother of three who suffers years of memory loss and wakes up to find herself in the middle of a bitter divorce. CBS Films is developing The Husband’s Secret, which sold three million copies and asks how well we really know our spouses. Kalajian says at one point Moriarty was considered so bankable, he fielded an offer for the author, who has no screen experience, to develop a US television series — any series she liked.

Moriarty, though, intends to stick to writing novels set in Australia; after all, her wry, knowing stories about ordinary Australians whose lives unravel in extraordinary ways have catapulted her to the top of bestseller lists here, in Britain and the US, and into Hollywood’s inner circle. “The film stuff is really exciting and fun,’’ she tells Review, “but the most exciting thing for me is to see someone reading my books. That’s still the ultimate.’’ She reveals that the tone of the HBO series differs from that of her novel: “It’s possibly darker.’’ She pauses and with flawless comic timing, adds: “Definitely steamier.’’

The former advertising copywriter might be Australia’s reigning queen of the film option deal, but her feet remain firmly planted on the clay soils of Sydney’s bush-shrouded north shore, where she lives. While What Alice Forgot has a starry name attached in Aniston, the writer points out it was optioned eight years ago. Moriarty says Aniston “would make a wonderful Alice, but there’s a rule of thumb in Hollywood that you shouldn’t get too excited until the day they start shooting”. Kalajian is hoping this film will go into production next year, but he agrees “the development process is sometimes very, very long’’ — it took 12 years to sell and adapt the Man Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi for the big screen, which morphed into a $US600 million box-office hit.

The reality is that most optioned books do not make it on to TV or film screens, because the financial risks of making films are so high. Yet in the 21st century, with IP in such big demand, Kalajian says “it’s a glorious time for certain novelists”.

Moriarty visited the set of Big Little Lies last April. The HBO drama has been relocated from Sydney to Monterey, a picturesque coastal town in California. There, she met cast members, “had a lovely lunch with Reese’’ (she had already met Kidman in Sydney) and ran an eye over the script. “For me it was a very surreal experience,’’ she says. Asked if she wanted to adapt the screenplay, she responds: “I was happy to hand it over. They did ask if I wanted to write it, but I was writing Truly Madly Guilty at the time. When they got David E. Kelley on board to write the script, I was thrilled.’’

Does she now approach her bestselling novels with films in mind? “No, absolutely not,’’ she replies, before conceding she has been tempted: “I must admit with [this year’s] Truly Madly Guilty, when I first started to write it, the thought crossed my mind, ‘Maybe I should write a role for Meryl Streep.’ ’’ She laughs at herself, and says she resisted giving in to this fantasy.

Anna Snoekstra’s novel Only Daughter was instantly optioned by Hollywood. Picture: Aaron Francis.

Anna Snoekstra’s novel Only Daughter was instantly optioned by Hollywood. Picture: Aaron Francis.

A couple of years ago, 20-something Melbourne writer Anna Snoekstra also harboured a fantasy — that the novel she worked on by day, while working night shifts at a cinema, would find a local publisher. It didn’t. “I didn’t have any interest in Australia at all from publishers,’’ Snoekstra tells Review in her piping, girlish voice. So she approached US-based Trident Media, which last year secured a US publisher for her thriller. Titled Only Daughter, this taut novel deals with a troubled young woman who pretends to be someone else — an apparently beloved daughter who went missing years before.

A mere two weeks after the novel was accepted for publication, it was optioned by Working Title, a partner of Universal Pictures. “Once I had the publishing deal, the film stuff happened really, really fast,’’ says Snoekstra. Her life changed from sweeping up popcorn and selling film tickets to spruiking her book at American book fairs and meeting Hollywood executives — over the past year she has had three work trips to the US, while a draft screenplay for Only Daughter has been completed by Erin Cressida Wilson, screenwriter of one of this year’s highest-profile films, The Girl on the Train. Interestingly, both these works feature unsympathetic female protagonists, in the Gone Girl tradition.

“It’s been fantastic — a crazy few years,” Snoekstra says. Before her book and film deal, her life was “good but monotonous. I had a job I wasn’t really happy in — and then things changed so quickly.’’

Harper is a former Herald Sun journalist whose murder mystery The Dry was optioned by Witherspoon before the book was published last June. Set around an apparent murder-suicide in a drought-scarred country town, The Dry has been sold to more than 20 countries. Kalajian says he was drawn in by the muscularity of Harper’s writing: “When I read that manuscript, I flipped out.’’

The agent jokes, however, that even he thought he was crazy when he took on Kent’s Burial Rites, a literary sensation that attracted a rumoured $1m in overseas advances when it was published in 2012.

“When I read Burial Rites I thought, ‘I’ve got to be off my rocker — 1800s Iceland about the last female there to be beheaded?’ ” Kalajian says. “But the quality of the prose and the storytelling — it was just an audacious debut; I couldn’t say no.’’ Now that Lawrence (“biggest actress on the planet Earth!’’) is on board, he hopes to close a deal with TriStar.

Hollywood has long plundered the publishing world for well-crafted stories with complex characters. Even so, the accelerating trend was underscored at the Oscars last year.

Of the eight films nominated for best film, six were derived from already published texts, most of them novels. Popular books-turned-films released over the past three months include Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, The Girl on the Train, Dan Brown’s Inferno and The Light Between Oceans. Literary adaptations due for release next year include Live by Night (starring Ben Affleck), The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story and Lion.

This cross-pollination is also being driven by rising demand for roles for “older’’ women — older being a relative term in Hollywood — as actresses such as Kidman and Witherspoon ­create their own work. They are co-producing Big Little Lies, and Witherspoon has also secured the film rights to Truly Madly Guilty.

Television’s golden age is another factor underlying the page-to-screen surge. “The movie business has contracted to such a disastrous point where a lot of fabulous actors aren’t being offered quality material,” Kalajian says. “It’s Marvel, it’s DC Comics. And now the talent that’s looking at television is phenomenal. IP is really in big, big demand from nonfiction to high end fiction … Because of the wonderful work that’s being done and the people that are migrating to television, it’s a very big part of our business.’’

Simone Murray, a senior lecturer at Monash University and author of The Adaptation Industry, agrees we are seeing greater synergy between screen and print as film and publishing companies integrate.

“Adaptation is no longer an afterthought in the book industry, it’s really foreseen and calculated from the very earliest stages of a book going into production,’’ she says. As a consequence, publishers are increasingly determined to retain control of up 50 per cent of books’ film and merchandising rights. “It’s always a live issue,’’ Murray notes, even for esoteric academic titles.

These days, publishers often employ dedicated staff to deal with film rights, while Hollywood agencies frequently have authors and film directors on their books. (The industry term is “360 degree representation’’.) Murray says that for film studios, adapting a story that has already proved itself in the marketplace “is a huge part of the allure. Films based on popular books have a huge in-built advantage.’’

There is concern, however, that all this converging is narrowing reading habits, particularly among children, who are inevitably drawn to books that have big-screen lives. Still, Murray points out that while “most Hollywood filmmaking is imitative, the fly in the ointment is that creative industries are full of sleeper successes: outlier, strange texts.’’ With its icebound setting and aura of impending death, Burial Rites is an example of this, she says.

Referring to the growing band of Australian authors selling their film rights in Hollywood, Kalajian says that traditionally “there were very few Australian authors who got publishing deals here, let alone movie deals”. With one final, ebullient flourish, the literary agent declares: “You (Australians) should be proud that all this wonderful talent is getting a place on the international stage.’’