The idea had been floating around in Robert Taylor’s head for a while—the improbable, true story of a socially awkward 61-year-old farmer who beat professional athletes half his age in Australia’s 1983 ultramarathon.
Taylor, then an undergraduate studying screenwriting at California State University, Northridge, decided to develop the story as part of a class project. That was four years ago.
Taylor’s class project has been turned into a television movie, and last week millions of Australians turned on the television during primetime to watch “Cliffy,” the story of Cliff Young, who at age 61 won the 1983 Sydney-to-Melbourne ultramarathon, written by Taylor.
“The interesting thing is that I haven’t even seen it yet,” said Taylor, now a graduate student in the screenwriting program in CSUN’s Department of Cinema and Television Arts (CTVA). “I’m here in the U.S., and it aired in Australia.”
Taylor, who is originally from Australia, credited his CSUN professors with helping him get his script produced.
“There are three major stages of developing a script,” he said. “The first is the rough draft. The second stage is the critical stage, and that is making the script structurally sound. That is what I did in class. The third stage is just polishing the script.
“Personally, I think this reflects very well on the CTVA department and its teaching staff,” he said. “The instructors here provide an environment that helps you create extremely good screenplays.”
Jon Stahl, chair of the Department of Cinema and Television Arts and a screenwriting professor, said he and his colleagues were “incredibly proud of Robert and this fantastic accomplishment.”
“He is a talented writer and an exemplary grad student, one of many in recent years who have achieved professional success,” Stahl said.
In an email to Taylor, Brett Sleigh, executive producer of “Cliffy” for Australia’s ABC Television, credited Taylor with bringing the story of Cliff Young to the network’s attention.
“It was your original script that attracted our interest and green lit development immediately—a first in my time in public broadcasting” Sleigh wrote. “I appreciate that there was movement in the script across drafts but revisiting your very first draft, it’s so abundantly clear that the way in which you so deftly established the world and characters informed everything to follow.”
In 1983, Young, a 61-year-old man in overalls and cheap running shoes—the first he had ever owned—joined hundreds of men much younger than him in one of the world’s most grueling ultramarathons, the 875-kilometer endurance race from Sydney to Melbourne. Young, who lived with his mother and trained wearing rain boots, surprised everyone by winning the race and capturing the heart of a girl years younger than he.
“He’s got kind of a cult following around the world and like the (Australian) reviewer Graeme Blundell said, paraphrasing Mark Twain, ‘Young’s story is so improbable it does not read like history, but like the most beautiful of lies,’” Taylor said.
Blundell, a former actor now considered one of Australia’s leading critics, hailed Taylor’s film as “a treat,” calling it a “likeable, amusing movie.”
“Cliffy,” which had a $2.2 million budget, isn’t Taylor’s first script. In the late 1990s he penned “Muggers,” an Australian dark comedy about medical students who become involved in organ donation. The movie was invited to screen at the Cannes Film Festival.
Taylor’s talent as a screenwriter caught the attention of Hollywood executives. He and his wife, Juliet, moved to Southern California from Australia six years ago when one of his scripts “started generating heat.”
“It’s not dead yet, but nothing really came of it,” he said.
While waiting for Hollywood to take notice, Taylor decided to take a few classes at CSUN. Pretty soon, he was enrolled full-time in the Department of Cinema and Television Arts as a screenwriting major. He earned his bachelor’s degree a year ago and has just completed his first year in the master’s program.
“When I started, I kind of felt like a golfer on the B circuit,” he said. “Things were going pretty well, but I felt there were problems with the technique that needed to improvement. There’s technique in writing just like there is in painting and in music. That’s what the program here at CSUN has done for me. The technical flaws are getting wrinkled out.
“Does that mean that I’ll write brilliant screenplays that can sell, who knows?” he said. “But I know that I am a better writer.”
Given the success of “Cliffy,” Taylor said Australian television executives have told him that the “door is always open.”
In the meantime, Taylor is working on his master’s degree and is one of only two graduate students invited to serve as the “instructor of record” for a section of a CSUN CTVA class this fall. He is also hard at work on two separate screenplays. One is about a U.S. intelligence operative during the fall of the Berlin Wall. The other is based on the true story of Chinese musicians who secretly met to play banned Western music during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.