I’d just spent two years riding shotgun to Australia’s toughest truck-drivers, encountering crocodiles, desert storms, bogged vehicles and countless flat tires – directing twenty-six episodes of the Discovery factual series Outback Truckers. And now, a promotion! To the ultimate in male-skewed transport television… Outback Pilots.
I’d never cried at work before. Doing so in television would surely be career suicide. But now for some reason, mid-negotiations, I had burst into tears and I couldn’t stop crying.
I’d gone to film school to write and direct drama but struggled to find my voice straight out of high school. I was terrified I wouldn’t be any good. In documentary, there were causes to get behind and fewer egos. And despite being a side-step from my actual dream, I fell in love with the form and forgot about writing. But now the world was screaming out for female voices and I felt like I was wasting mine.
While researching Outback Pilots I’d come across a helicopter company that specialized in feral camel culling. Camels had been introduced into Australia from the Middle East in the late 1800s to help build desert railways. Afterwards, the camels were set free and with no natural predators, they had become overpopulated. But these wild camels are hard to find, moving across the vast Australian desert.
To solve the problem, the Australian government had started using a tracking device known as a Judas collar. They’d tranquilize a wild camel and collar it, tracking it back to its herd. A hunter, travelling by helicopter, would then kill every camel in the herd except the Judas, who would go on to find a new family. A few weeks later, the helicopter would return. Again and again.
But it was even more devastating. It was believed that some of these Judas camels would eventually become aware they were responsible for the bloodshed around them and would decide to walk alone for the rest of their life.
So here I was, in tears, staring down a long career directing transport television. The next day I quit my job and started writing.
I wrote four drafts, putting myself into the story, with each draft centering on a female protagonist, physically and emotionally lost in the outback who comes across a Judas Camel. Through meeting the camel and the helicopter pilot she comes to understand what the collar does and learns the value of human connection. It was fine. Kind of moving. Interesting even. But it wasn’t as good as the original story.
I think as writers we are always aiming to make the film as good as the premise. So eventually, I made the terrifying decision to take all the humans out of the story and write it from the camel’s point of view. There would be no dialogue and no narration. Just camels and a helicopter.
Without words to explain what’s happening, the narrative had to be incredibly simple and clear. In order to emotionally invest, you need to engage, and to engage you must first understand what’s going on. Clarity would be key.
Putting strong emphasis on action and visual motifs, I followed the camel’s emotional journey as you would with any protagonist, using the collar as the camel’s flaw. Part of the tragedy is the camel’s limitation in understanding the bigger picture. Something I felt was deeply human.
What’s resulted is basically a kind of Dunkirk with camels. When we screened at Austin, a grown man came up to me in tears, saying he hadn’t cried in years and it was all this camel’s fault.
Judas Collar won best live-action short at AFF. At the awards ceremony, my producer Brooke Silcox and I were lucky enough to speak with screenwriting legend Tony Gilroy. He shook my hand and said “Don’t let this make you complacent. Just keep on writing. Write tomorrow. Even better, go home and write tonight.” And I took that to heart. Not the tonight bit though, because it was the Austin Film Festival damn it! There were drinks to be had.
Judas Collar is now Academy Accredited, eligible to be shortlisted for an Oscar in 2020. And winning Austin lead directly to me finding representation in LA, which has opened up a whole new world of opportunities.
I’m now in LA, writing. And it feels a long way away from the time a handful of filmmakers transported eight camels and a helicopter a thousand kilometers north of Perth, Western Australia. A long way from the scorching desert heat, the flies, the seven flat tires, two bogged vehicles and the blown head gasket on our camel truck.
It’s a shame that we didn’t film a behind the scenes actually, because it would have made a cracking episode of Outback Truckers.
All pics copyright Jessica Wyld @ No Thing Productions