Friday, October 8, 2010

Day 183: “My work here is done”

Six months ago on April the something, I decided to set about Blogging, with the intention of writing a screenplay over six months, using a “writer’s method” as offered by Robert McKee in his book “Story”, inviting anyone who cared to, to come along for the ride with me. The six months are up today and there is no completed screenplay.

The best laid plans of mice and men and all that: there have been treatments that needed my attention on another project and synopses that I had to complete for Producers and all manner of things that explain why I left location “A” with the intention of getting to ‘B‘ but ended up in ‘P’.

There was something that I said, from the outset that I shared with friends, and that was that I was going to let the Blog take me where it would. Normally, in other areas of my life I am at great pains to try and make sure that things (especially work “things”) go in the direction that I want them to go even, sometimes, when others I’m working with don’t want them to go in that direction. From the very start of this Blog, the metaphor I used was this: “I’m going to put my row boat on the river, throw away the oars, lay down in the boat and let the current bear me where it will”. And, that’s just what I’ve done.

There have been rewards that I didn’t plan for. I have been graced, in that every day for 183 days, come fair weather or foul, I have not missed a Blog deadline; there has not been one day that I haven’t posted that day’s Blog before the cursed hour of midnight struck and so, like some Bloggers version of the Pony Express, I always got through with the day’s mail. This has taught me a writing discipline that I kind of thought I had, but never employed, before. It’s taught me that whatever’s going on, I can rely on myself and wherever ideas come from, to front up on a daily basis and come up 500+ words on something or other. It’s a sure-fire way to lick that procrastination problem.

Thank-you for being a bloggee and for being on the trail with me. Google Analytics tell me that I’ve been read in five continents, on computers in over half the States of North America, up and down the length and breadth of the British Isles and across this great Southern land of Australia. Thank you to those who took the theme literally and brought me food, thank you for the comments (whether left on this site, on F’book, emailed or delivered in person).

The Hungry Screenwriter will return sometime in the future, just like the Lone Ranger of today’s title; I’ve oft talked here, of a document in my possession that I have created of my 239 favourite films, each with a pithy sound bite recommendation as to why I love that particular movie; I’ll be back to share those with you on a daily basis in the not-too-distant future, but for now I’m done, I’ve just about run out of things to say.....okay so maybe that last bit's not true.

Until the next time, I am the Hungry Screenwriter, bidding you adieu.

Day #183 Tip: When all else fails, watch a movie
I’ve quoted him before and I’ll quote him again, because for me, the quote works. Giuseppe Tornatore, writer and director of Cinema Paradiso said this of his film (a hymn to movie romance): “Cinema Paradiso is a bittersweet lament for the love that eludes us in real life, but is there to comfort us in the dark embrace of the cinema.” I, personally, would add the word “meaning” to that quote, “....the love and meaning that eludes us in real life....”

The penultimate line, I give to Mr McKee: “Write very day, line by line, page by page, hour by hour.”

The final word comes from Ferris:

[After the end credits]... You’re still here?

It’s over!

Go home.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Day 182: Prophet or Profit?

On April 5, 1999, American illusionist and endurance artist, David Blaine was entombed in an underground plastic box underneath a 3 ton water-filled tank for seven days, eating nothing and drinking only 2-3 tablespoons of water per day. 75,000 people visited his “Buried Alive” stunt.

On November 27, 2000, Blaine stood encased in a massive block of ice in Times Square (NYC), supplied with water and air by a tube, for 63 hours and 42 minutes; “Frozen in Time”.

May 22, 2002, sees David Blaine perform “Vertigo”; lifted by crane onto the top of a 100ft pillar, (22 inches wide) in Bryant Park (NYC), where, unharnessed, he stood for 35 hours.

On September 5, 2003, David Blaine began his first major stunt outside of the USA, sealed inside a transparent, Plexiglass case, suspended 30ft in the air (by Tower Bridge, London), surviving on just 4.5 litres of water for 44 days. I was there.

I dig David Blaine, but that wasn’t always the case. At the time I was in London, working on a script of mine, The Comedians, when he began the “Above the Below” stunt and for a second or two there, I was as full of derision as much of the UK’s population were at the time. Two things begged me keep an open mind: one, was my favourite newspaper, The Guardian, saying “Blaine has created one of the most eloquent and telling visual images of our time” and the other, was a close female friend, also over from Australia at the time suggesting that I might be growing a tad more cynical than I usually was.

Knowing that “contempt prior to investigation” is a favourite pastime of mine - I’ll often give you a damning review of a film I’ve never seen - I boarded a train on the Underground’s District Line and headed for Tower Hill station one fine Sunday morning. Alighting at said Tube station, I found myself part of a throng, following the hastily-prepared signs that pointed to David Blaine’s stunt. Suddenly there was hubbub, others were obviously thinking like me too, and we crossed the Thames over Tower Bridge, craning our necks for the first glimpse of this latter-day Harry Houdini, hoisted up in the air over Potters Field Park, alongside City Hall, on the South Bank.

What a crowd, what a veritable circus there was beneath him and I, excited, joined that crowd to stand underneath his transparent box calling up to him “David, David!!”. He looked my way, or was he responding to the hundreds doing the same thing all around me? So many in the UK scoffed for the seven weeks and more of his stunt: there were those who hit golf balls at him, threw paint balls, food and beer cans, but most of all it was abuse of the kind that said something like “there are people starving in Ethiopia whilst you’re.....”. Even (Sir) Paul McCartney went down there and mocked him....but then what do you expect from the guy that by now, was musically obsolete, having written Mull of Kintyre, Silly Love Songs and the excruciatingly awful Ebony & Ivory?

The event was broadcast on tv station Sky One in the UK, with a “special” made out of his "going in", and famously - almost stopping the nation - on his ‘coming out’. Prior to the climax of David Blaine’s London outing, I visited him again, this time accompanied by the friend who had encouraged me to make the quantum shift away from the position I had initially taken; I was keen to show off my new friend, David. And, by this time, the tide had turned throughout London too, somehow now, we were all joined together on this countdown to David Blaine’s liberation from his self-imposed ordeal.

David Blaine has gone on to perform “Drowned Alive” (submerged in a sphere of water for 7 days and 7 nights) , “Revolution” (shackled to a rotating gyroscope for 52 hours) and the “Dive of Death” (hanging upside down, without a safety net for 60 hours in Central Park).

What’s the point....who knows, who cares? I love the fact that David Blaine picked his target well, with us the English, who are often happier scoffing and carping; we’re not always like that, it’s the righteous indignant right-wing middle class in us that is stirred up and agitated by the tabloid media, and the media that pretends it’s not tabloid but is. There’s something fun and optimistic about David Blaine that is within me, but needed the provocation of others to force it out.

I could have mocked with the rest, expending hot air, getting all huffed-up about things, sitting in judgement from afar, but instead I went down there and waived to David, not throwing eggs at him, but egging him on.

Day #182 Tip: On the same page
What I recollect, most interestingly about the 44 days and nights of the David Blaine London experiment, was that as the stunt gathered momentum and public opinion shifted a little towards him, we all were on the same page, all caught up in following the same event; we shared a common bond.

I’ve felt this before, often sadly - Diana’s death, 9/11 - and occasionally with joyous spirit, like when the Sydney Olympics came to town in 2000. There’s something about unity, about being kindred spirits and it’s flip side, so eloquently put by John Donne : “...And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Yes, “we are the world, we are the people” and it’s heartening when we all move in step, drawn together, pulled by a force that gives us a common talking point to focus on; it’s as though our collective energy is being directed in one powerful uniting way, before the event that binds us together ends and we go back to our individual hidey-holes.

Film is like that, it’s collaborative and, we the writers, are often the David Blaine’s who come up with the stunt that galvanises everyone. Doesn’t mean that our work has to be happy stuff or sad stuff, it can be whatever stuff we like, but, with the caveat that it inspire, move and touch; firstly those we are going to work with and then those who we will share the story with.

Where are you David Blaine, reveal yourself, we need you!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Day 181: St.Paul’s Cathedral

Tomorrow, I was meant to be leaving for London, to enjoy a few weeks over there, but circumstances beyond my control prevent that from happening; not to worry, I will try again at Christmas and maybe that is what is meant to be.

When in London, I walk a lot, there is plenty of walking and, for me, thinking, to be done. Thinking, that precious commodity of the writer, is best accessed when I put in some repetitive physical action that distracts my mind from what it thinks it should be thinking about, to think other things. I combine my walking in London with the work of filling the creative well. Every day that I sit down to my trusty laptop and open up the synopsis, treatment or screenplay du jour, I summon up the Gods and go to the creative well for inspiration.

Julia Cameron, in 'The Artist’s Way', teaches that we must fill ourselves (our well) with matter to call on, when we dip our metaphoric buckets into that creative well (I think the “well” part of the metaphor is mine). Julia counsels for us to go on an “artist’s date” (alone), once a week: to the cinema, the art gallery, the second-hand book emporium, the aquarium or the concert hall (in Sydney’s case, maybe the beautifully monikered Angel Place Recital Hall [where on such a solo date, I saw the late, famed harmonica player Larry Adler play and met David ‘Shine’ Helfgott into the bargain]). In London, I am spoilt for such destinations.

London’s skyline may draw your eye to what was once called the Post Office Tower and the goofily-named “Gerkin” (Swiss Re Building), but really, it is dominated by one edifice: St. Paul’s Cathedral.

On Ludgate Hill, in the City, stands St. Paul's, dreamt of and designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1675 and 1711. Great marriages and funerals have taken place there; who can forget the voluminous train of Diana’s entering and exiting St. Paul’s, on 29 July, twenty-nine years ago? Indeed, 750 million plus, watched the celebrated and joyous affair on television; how the bells rang out.

Those same bells, muted and muffled, tolled, sixteen years earlier, in 1965, when I was but a boy of seven, for Sir Winston Churchill, who lay in state for three days (by decree of the Queen) in the great cathedral. I have visual snatches in my memory of the sombre day of his funeral, pictures that haunt my mind as though from some Gothic tale. Churchill’s coffin was borne along the River Thames on the passenger ship the Havengore, as dockers lowered their crane jibs in salute, following the service of funeral in S.Paul’s.

Two of England’s greatest sons, rest in the crypt of St.Paul’s: hero of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington’s sarcophagus, sits alongside that of his naval counterpart, Viscount Horatio Nelson, Duke of Bronte, smasher of the French fleet in 1805 at Trafalgar. There are other non-fighting men to keep them company in the crypt, like Wren himself, Turner (the painter) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (of G&S fame).

Ironically, my favourite spot, within the City, to take in the skyline of London is from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, after all, St. Paul’s stand’s on the City of London’s highest spot; there’s bound to be a fee for this small adventure but you get to go up to the inside of the great dome and enjoy the phenomena that is “The Whispering Gallery” - stand on one side of the dome interior and whisper to the wall and it’ll carry 180 degrees around to a friend (if you have one handy, on the other side). But it’s outside, at this level that one can survey the Thames, both upstream looking towards the Embankment & West London and then back downstream to the City, Tower Hill and Bridge.

But for all this, what most stuns me about this building - testimony to man and God - is the fact that it survived the Blitz of 1940. Nightly, the Germans would drop their payloads over London (I have heard many eyewitness accounts from my late mother and her family), hundreds and hundreds of bombs, and yet the biggest target of them all, survived? The famous photograph, on this page, was taken by photographer Herbert Mason on the night of 29 December 1940 and published in the Daily Mail two days later, with the caption: symbolises the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy: the firmness of Right against Wrong.”

Churchill said this “At all costs, St. Paul’s must be saved.” It did take a hit or two, but how on earth did this iconic landmark survive....maybe asking questions looking for “earthly” answers is not the best line of enquiry?

Day #181 Tip: Ours is not to judge
When the work is done, when the six months (or more) of screenplay writing is completed, we cannot survey what we have done with any objectivity until distance of time allows us to climb a hill and look over what we have created. In the meantime, others will make assessments for us, don’t worry about that. My scripts have sometimes had to endure slings and arrows of an outrageous nature, but still they’ve made it through, one way or another.

I can think of two films that I treasure, in which St. Paul’s features: Lawrence of Arabia, which begins with those who knew TE Lawrence leaving his memorial service in the cathedral and Mary Poppins, where the bird lady sits, feeding the pigeons. In the lyric of ‘Feed the Birds’ it says that “All around the cathedral, the saints and apostles look down as she sells her wares...” When my wares are done, I leave them (the wares) for others to look over and wait for the dust to settle before viewing the work myself.

London can wait....for a little longer.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Day 180: Chinatown

Anyone who has followed the blogging of the Hungry Screenwriter, or anyone who knows me for that matter, is more than likely aware that my favourite film is Chinatown.

Where to begin?

There is a series of slim volumes, published by British Film Institute Publishing, each of which dissects and analyses “classic” and “modern classic” films. I have a copy of the “classic” volume on Chinatown, by Michael Eaton, who at the start offers this:

“Every film, even (perhaps especially) those that never see the light of day or the dark of night, is the result of an accident. Sometimes that contingency leads to the serendipitous discovery of a fragrant isle hitherto only alluded to in unreliable travellers’ tales. More often it resembles a multi-vehicle pile-up on a rush-hour freeway. The fact that any film ever gets made at all seems more a demonstration of the operation of chaos theory than the result of rational, industrial planning. But for once the magic worked: so, Chinatown.”

My pocket-size justification of Chinatown as my favourite film is this: I believe that every facet of the film making craft is shown at the top of it’s game in this one film. Directing, acting, cinematography, casting, musical composition, costume, set, hair & make-up and, of course, screenwriting.

Anyone who knows the film might recall that long before we see anything, we first of all hear the mysterious opening stanza of the late Jerry Goldsmith’s suitably haunting them: a harp, over strings and then a solo trumpet (in the style of Jackie Gleason), supported by a piano, playing the “love theme”. Even before I’ve seen private investigator, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), in his natty suit, at work in his Los Angeles office of the 1930’s, with his quick and sardonic repartee, I’m sold.

I’m not a big Polanski fan, and Roman was not a big fan of the Robert Towne script, when producer Robert Evans (at the time, Vice-President in charge of Production at Paramount Studios) gave it to the Polish-Jew, then living and working in America, to read. Actually, that’s not true; Roman Polanski was struggling to understand the script, as was Jack Nicholson when it was given to him and as was Producer Robert Evans, himself, when he first read it. I also think that anyone who watches the film for the first time is pretty mystified too. But they all knew that there was “something” in this impenetrable screenplay and, they were right.

Chinatown is mix of genres, Detective Story, Film (neo) Noir, Love Story and Thriller. Robert Mckee (who devotes a whole seminar session to this film alone) defines the Crime sub-genre of Film Noir by dint of it’s protagonist being “a tough guy with a fatal flaw”. The “fatal flaw” in Jake Gittes is that - with the best of intentions - he tries, like Oedipus, to get to the bottom of what’s going on in this world (his world) endeavouring to make a wrong situation turn out right (the raison d’être of most detectives and law-keepers). Only trouble is, that Jake, just like the King of Thebes, won’t let go until everything eventually, in tragic irony, turns on him and those he’s trying to save.

What McKee defines as a “Thriller”, as oppose to a film that’s “thrilling”, is a story in which the protagonist comes up against an antagonistic force that is driven or consumed by “the spirit of evil”, meaning that the bad guy (wearing the black hat) can’t be bought off. No bag of money will stop him, no deal-making or bartering, no release of hostages or a plane to spirit him away will stop him from doing what he wants to do. Jake Gittes comes up against such an antagonistic force in the shape of Noah Cross (John Huston). If you meet me “out there”, outside of this “cyberworld”, ask me to explain what Noah Cross means when he justifies what he’s doing by saying “...the future, Mr Gittes, the future...” (sorry to be so cryptic but I can’t give all the gold have to earn some’s worth it!).

Sometimes there’s a part of me that wonders - craft and technique and all that aside - why it is that I love this film so much? Am I kidding myself, living in the delusion that I think it sounds knowledgeable and impressive to say that I like this one best of all, rather than something else more “mainstream”, less “lofty”, say like Mrs. Doubtfire or School of Rock (both tremendous films)?

Day #180 Tip: In defence of no defence
I love Chinatown because I love Chinatown.

Maybe it’s the “romance” of the film, in the broadest sense of the term? Wise guys in suits and hats, waving guns, chasing women, drinking liquor, smoking cigarettes, being smart, outwitting fools, living on the margins of society?

It could be because of the pessimistic ending and the film’s Controlling Idea of “the futility of good intentions”; maybe that’s the glass darkly through which I see life and it resonates with me?

In Edward De Bono’s book, the Six Thinking Hats, there are different colour hats to be “worn” for different types of thinking: White (facts & information), Black (negatives), Yellow (positives), Green (new ideas), Blue (the big picture) and lastly, Red (feelings & emotions). Red is about “gut feelings”, sixth-sense thinking, intuition and instinct. 

Sometimes in our work, in our writing, we just gotta trust what we feel and can’t marshall facts, figures, reason and logic to support our case and that’s okay. However, we can’t play this get-out-of-jail-free-card all the time (at least not in the $$$$$ world of the film industry), but every now and then, well, we know what we know. I have many other loves in my life and I’m not going to justify, defend or vindicate why I feel the way that I do about any one of those.....even the Caesar Salad at Trop. I do have plenty of reasons, actually, for that salad and for Chinatown and, for all the other loves of my life; they’re my “favourite” things, just like Maria Von Trapp had her “favourite things”.....

...and let me tell you, “snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes” isn’t one of mine (can you remember the other 14 “favourite things”?); maybe that’s a little of my “glass darkly” again?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Day 179: Are you looking for a screenwriter?

Seven years ago, a producer - looking for “new” writers - read a draft of my first feature film screenplay. A meeting ensued and whilst he told me that he’d enjoyed reading the script, it wasn’t “the kind of thing” he was looking for. Some candour: I was sat in the boardroom of this producer’s production company and could smell a cheque book, so, like any good writer worth their salt, I replied quick-smart “what kind of ‘thing‘ are you looking for?” The producer went on to tell me of a book, an Australian story from the Second World War, that he’d always thought would make a good film. I suggested that maybe I could read the book and return with some feedback from a film writer’s perspective. He wished me good luck as the book was long out of the print, but, yes, he’d welcome that if I could find a copy.

I did find a copy of ‘The Ridge and the River‘ and returned to the same producer with a ten-page document explaining why I thought the story a great yarn but perhaps not such a propitious candidate for a feature film. The producer listened to my debrief, then left the room, returning with a pile of five more books. So began a two year process of him giving me potential film stories to read and me, dutifully reading them and responding.

This process went on until I was heading off to the UK to embark on a year-long feature-writing programme (Writer’s Passage) at The Script Factory in London; before departure, my producer-friend handed me a weighty photocopy of the latest work that he wanted me to read, a substantial enough piece to send me over the allocated baggage allowance at Qantas check-in. That document sat by my bed for the first six months of the trip, until I returned back to Sydney for Christmas.

Not two minutes off the plane and I received an email from the producer, wanting to know where I was? I thought it best to read the hefty tome before I let him know that I was back in Australia, and so I did. Now, this book wasn’t the best of the ones I had read, BUT, there was something in it that I loved; an essence or spirit at it’s heart that made me want to adapt it. I rang the producer, we met up to “do lunch” and before I even put my writer’s arse onto a bistro seat he enquired “what do you think?” I replied “I think you’re onto something with this one”. He was glad I’d responded in this way and said “I’ve bought the rights!” “Good for you.” “I want to you to adapt it”, “good for me!”.

We’re four drafts on from that original conversation; Australia’s federal film funding body have invested in two of those drafts, the NSW state film office paid for another. Academy Award winner Robert Towne (screenwriter of Chinatown, Shampoo, Days of Thunder) has worked on it, so have writers Jan Sardi (Shine, Mao’s Last Dancer) and Matthew Dabner (The Square), producer Sue Murray (Ten Canoes) and director Peter Andrikidis (tv series East West 101, Underbelly, Wildside).

The story’s location has shifted from Cambodia to Afghanistan, the time of the story from 1948 to 2010, a French detective is now an Australian; work on the fifth draft of The Detective is imminent. All this because someone opened their door just a crack and I wedged my foot in, then my elbow and stuck my body in to keep it ajar.

Day #179 Tip: The first rule of business: stay in business
The business of writing is, in many ways, no different from any other business, in that the biggest trick to pull off, is to keep writing; even when - as the banner at the top of this Blog announces - there is no money. Like the water diviner with his Y-shaped twig (a practice known as “dowsing”, after William ‘Smasher’ Dowsing [1596-1668]) we must practice our own methods of seeking out where the necessary “stuff” is, without the aid of scientific apparatus, if we are to put food on our table and a roof over our head whilst going about our business

Somehow, I’ve managed to keep going and today, I had lunch with a another successful producer, whom I’ve recently become acquainted with, who has an idea for something that he wanted to pitch to me in order to start the slow roll of a ball that may gather momentum. Many such efforts have, in the past, turned into “balls of confusion” and crashed off into the undergrowth, taking me with them, but that’s part of the rough n’ tumble of this business. Right now, I’m inspired, the creative sap is rising and who knows where this one might roll to?

Maybe “Smasher” Dowling and his twig of divination is not the best parallel to use, perhaps Burt Lancaster’s character of Starbuck (!!!!!), the “charming” con man who came to town promising to bring rain (for money) in the 1957 film The Rainmaker, is nearer the mark, maybe not?! But who is who in this metaphoric scenario that I’ve invoked?

My point is this: when the pennies from heaven are not falling, well, maybe that’s just how it’s meant to be, but perhaps we have develop a bit of a weather-eye for these things and best we nurture our olfactory senses too, for there’s gold out there in them-thar hills somewhere and no reason, dammit, why it shouldn’t be ours....make that, MINE.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Day 178: A league of his own

Australia’s Australian Rules Football season and the Rugby League season are over for another year. Collingwood’s Magpies settled the “rules” replayed final in Melbourne, at the MCG, yesterday and, today, the St.George-Illawarra Dragons beat the Sydney City Roosters in the “league” final.

The coach of the Dragons, is Wayne Bennett, arguably Australian rugby league’s greatest coach of all-time, having now won seven Premierships with two different teams (the Brisbane Broncos and the Dragons). Wayne Bennett is an extraordinary and, in many ways, unassuming man.

Sixty year-old Bennett was, himself, a player who competed at the highest level for the national side, was coach of the Queensland State of Origin team and once, a Queensland police officer, before finding great success as coach of the Brisbane team and now at St. George. In 1999, however, it was not Wayne Bennett’s professional world but his personal life that was revealed to the public, via the ABC television series Australian Story, which detailed his and his wife’s family life in this “deeply personal documentary”, much of it centering on the raising of their children, two of which have disabilities.

I can’t remember the radio show that I heard Wayne Bennett interviewed on, about that time, but I recall how his words moved me when he faltered, consumed with emotion, speaking of the fears he held for his disabled children and how they would cope when one day in the future, he and his wife were no longer around. That interview must have been two or three years after, as it prompted me to buy a copy of his inspirational book “Don’t Die With The Music In You” (a quote from American intellectual, Oliver Wendell Holmes Snr., “regarding failure to meet one’s potential”).

On the back sleeve of my copy of the book, there is a quote from humanitarian and one-time Australian cricket captain, Steve Waugh, who says: “If you want to be mentally tough, do as Wayne Bennett says: ‘follow your beliefs and don’t give into yourself.....’” Bennett himself, in one of the many quotable lines in the book offers this: “You have a choice in life. You can sit back and criticise or you can try to make a difference.”

Everything I’ve read about Bennett, quoted by others who know him, includes the words “revered” and “respected” amongst many, many other plaudits and just watching the response to this tall, genteel figure of a man at the final siren tonight, when the Dragons had won, spoke volumes of the love and affection all those in his orbit, feel for him.

There are many inspirational books by sportsmen and women - players, athletes and coaches alike - Wayne Bennett’s 2002 publication is the only one that I have and I’m not really a huge League fan?! But I like the headings of some of the bite-size chapters in this slim’ish volume: Talent Is Only The Beginning, A Stranger Called Discipline, You’re Not A Failure Until You Start Blaming Others and A Dreamer Who Saw Things We Cannot Imagine.

Congratulations to Wayne Bennett and the Dragons on today’s victory.

Day #178 Tip: Clichés are clichéd for a reason
The dictionary defines the word “cliché” as “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought”.

Many times in the process of writing a screenplay I find myself confronted with choices to make about a scene or a character and I question whether the idea that I’ve come up with is clichéd or not? What I’ll do is take out an A4 pad and then list twenty solutions to my problem, twenty ways that I could execute the scene in question, putting my first thought, the clichéd one at the top of the page. By idea number ten, I guarantee you that I am so far away from cliché that I have now become contrived.

Contrivance is as deadly an enemy of the screenwriter as cliché, so from thought number eleven through to number twenty I must press on, to not only find a solution that is somewhere in between the two extremes, but a solution that works for the the problem that I’m trying to solve, is organic to my story and is the most powerful solution for the script.

However, sometimes, not always or often, I find myself back at the cliché because in some instances, cliché is tried, tested and true; what I have to do then is find a way of reworking the platitudinal so that it appears new and fresh.

Wayne Bennett expresses “don’t die with the music in you” in this way: “It means don’t go through life, whether it be relationships, sport - life - sitting down at the end saying it could have been better.” Is coach Bennett thinking “seven times champion” tonight, or is he contemplating a return to the Bronco’s for a tilt at an eighth? Maybe amongst all the deserved celebratory chaos, he’s thinking that now the season’s over, he’ll get to spend a little more time with his kids?

There is nothing clichéd or contrived about Wayne Bennett.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Day 177: “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”

I’m missing delinquency and wrong doing, not in my own life, thank God, but on the page, on my trusty laptop’s screen, the “dagger of the mind” that Macbeth spoke of.

It’s TIME for some CRIME.

One hundred and seventy-seven days ago, I began this blog with ambitions of writing a screenplay over the six months, that began back then, arriving at my destination (next Thursday) with 110 pages complete and done, of a script called Jerusalem. Here’s my opening gambit of that story:

In the forests of a wintery New South Wales, a corrupt detective - DRAKE- unable to
see his way back to a decent life, sets out into the Barrington Tops National Park, with
his dog (his lifelong companion), a shotgun, two cartridges and a suicide note safety-
pinned to his coat for easy identification. Intending to kill his dog and then himself, the
dog bolts after a paddymelon, which leads to a two hour chase deep into the forest,
where the man finds his dog impaled and in pain. As he loads the shotgun with the cartridges, the paddymelon loiters nearby in the trees, refusing to move despite
the shooing-away of Drake. His conscience won’t allow him to kill a defenceless creature under the watchful gaze of another, Drake is given the smallest window of sanity and
shoots off the two shotgun cartridges into the air; the paddymelon is then happy to
leave. Drake sets about freeing his injured dog. The animal is caught on a piece of metal
in the undergrowth and as the ex-cop peels back the tangled scrub to free him, so the fuselage and wreckage of a light aircraft is revealed. Even his detective’s sensibility is unable to make sense of the human remains left in the carnage. He snaps off a couple
of quick pictures of the wreck and it’s number on his mobile phone’s camera and, picking
up his dog, begins the long struggle back out of the forest to his car.

The ex-cop wakes the town’s vet, for help with the dog, and then reports the wreckage discovery to the police station in the local one-horse town. There is just one duty-sergeant on, dealing with the a drug-affected youth. The index number of this plane registers:
this is a plane that infamously disappeared in this wilderness, near this town, over twenty years ago, they both know that. The duty officer officer also knows who Drake is: the
bent detective responsible for another young cop’s death, the detective who was ushered
out of the force in disgrace. Drake points out that the skeletal reamins in the aircraft indicate
only one person, when in fact, two men went missing in the crash. Treated like a pariah, his suppositions seemingly of no interest to the sergeant, Drake is told to leave his phone with
the photo’s, to be downloaded when someone more techno-savvy comes on duty.

On returning the next day to check on the progress of their follow-up enquiries and
collect his phone, Drake is met with blank stares and told that they have no record of
his report nor evidence of the written statement he made and that the sergeant who
had been on duty the night before is now on long-term leave, uncontactable, abroad;
it’s as though Drake never came to the police station. But Drake remembers that there
was a third person in the police station, a youth, who could verify his story.

Hours later making his own enquiries to find the drug-afflicted young man, Drake learns
of a body that’s washed up in the run-off channel of the local dam; it’s that of adolescent,
the one other person who could vouch for what took place the night before.

And so I have the rough beginning of a story from the film super-genre that is CRIME. My story is one of the twelve sub-genres of crime, the DETECTIVE story. This short opening stanza gives me a protagonist of a ex-cop, corrupt and kicked off the force, a man also at the bottom of his life, on the brink of looking for a way out, maybe a candidate for redemption. He’s in a small town where everyone knows who is is and is loathed for what he’s done.

My protagonist’s world is then knocked out of balance: he discovers a crime scene that doesn’t add up, with a body count that makes no sense and reports it; the report and any evidence of him lodging it vanish into thin air and the one person who could witness this turns up dead. My protagonist suspects this is murder and, in the words of one of the witches from Macbeth:

“By the pricking of my thumbs
Something wicked this way comes.”

Day #177 Tip: “What’s ‘appened before, may ‘appen again”
I have the feeling that I’ve shared that opening of Jerusalem with you before, back in the early days of this Blog, which is symptomatic, to me, of the risk that I am running into the disease or repetition; I’m running out of things to say, this time around.

But there’s something actually nice about that and hence I’ve quoted the inimitable Bert (from Mary Poppins) to title today’s tip. You see, early on in the adventures at Cherry Tree Lane, Bert is practicing is one of his crafts - as a pavement artist (a screever[sic]) - when Mary Poppins arrives and Bert predicts what has gone before and what might be to come; it’s all very mysterious and yet exciting.

There’s whispers on the wind, for me too, that I might be heading back into the detective land of a project that I’ve been on for six years now, and, should that come to pass, then the whirligig of time will have swung around once again.

When I get to the end of six or seven months on a screenplay, almost as soon as I “put the pen down” on one story, I must pick it up on another, hence why I wanted to remind myself of Jerusalem, of where this Blog started, as I near it’s destination. I’m not sure that I’m making sense today, I’ll endeavour to do better tomorrow.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Day 176: The Usual Questions

On a screenplay of mine called The Detective I worked with a script editor - Matthew Dabner - on the second draft; Matthew is also a screenwriter in his own right (The Square) but was a diligent and thorough guide and companion, to this writer, on that draft. I’ve tried to secure his services since, on other pieces, but between his own writing and work at Screen Australia, Matthew’s dance card is pretty full these days.

At some point in the journey of that second draft, probably in the midst of getting lost, creating the Step Outline, Matthew gave me the following “usual” questions to ask of the story so far, in an effort keep me on track. I think these questions can be used as a litmus test at any point in the journey of a screenplay, even for analysis once a film is completed. Let me use the William Hurt film, The Doctor (1991), a redemption story, to demonstrate:

Dr Jack McKee (William Hurt) a successful and rich surgeon with no problems in his professional or personal life; he’s in a thriving practice with two other surgeons and in a happy marriage with a wife and child

WHAT DOES HE WANT (tangible goal/conscious desire/text):
Early on in the story, Jack is diagnosed with throat cancer; he, like all patients, wants to be cured

WHAT DOES HE NEED (intangible/unconscious goal/subtext):
Jack needs to get a “bedside manner”. Abrasive, arrogant, cold and unavailable - at work and increasingly home, once diagnosed with the cancer - Jack finds himself on the other side of the doctor-patient relationship, seeing hospitals. medicine and procedures from a very different perspective

His career (he can’t practice while going through the final stages of his treatment), his practice (when Jack begins to see things from a different perspective, he refuses to lie in order to back his partner up in a malpractice lawsuit) his marriage (during his treatment, Jack befriends a fellow cancer patient - a young woman called June - adding to the alienation and distancing Jack’s wife already feels), his life (this, of course, is cancer that Jack is dealing with).

Because, even though Jack McKee is an uncaring and, seemingly unfeeling guy, we all know what it’s like to endure invasive medical procedures, to be at the mercy of a medical system that sometimes forgets that we are human beings with lives and loved ones, to be around those we care for when they are sick, to be confronted with the prospect of our own mortality, and how it feels, in that fearful dark night of the soul when we are scared and alone during all of this.

In an operating theatre and a marriage where he has little compassion, pity and patience for those who need, trust and rely on him, espousing these character traits and promoting them in the interns under his care and guidance.

Taking the time to personally reassure a patient who is in his hands, about to have a heart operation, Jack does everything he can to allay the fears of the man and his family. In his own family life, through the recuperation and convalescence from his illness, Jack has learnt to open up to his wife and allow her into the vulnerable parts of his world. And at the hospital, Jack creates a role-play situation for his young interns whereby they will sample and endure many, if not most, of the procedures that they will be prescribing for those they are going to care for.

The ear, nose and throat specialist that treats Jack with an appalling bedside manner
June, the fellow-patient jack befriends, from whom he learns humility, kindness and courage
The young Jewish surgeon (often bearing the brunt of Jack’s mocking) who agrees - at Jack’s request - to operate on him
Being on the other side of the patient-hospital relationship
Undergoing illness and treatment
Living with the fear that the disease may consume you
June’s death
Jack being without a voice, post-operation
The very real possibility that they might not save his vocal chords in the operating procedure
Going through radiation treatment
Watching others, at close-quarters, go through the same treatment
Travelling alongside fellow-patients, watching them deal with their own fears
Lying to June to boost her hopes of recovery and being found out
Shutting off from his wife and not sharing his fears wife her
Helping a man - physically and emotionally damaged - because of his partner’s malpractice

I could go on and on with this list.....

Day #176 Tip: There’s always more to do
There are several versions of the questions Matthew gave me that are around in the industry - Robert McKee’s “Key Questions” and his “10 Commandments”, the examining questions offered by UK scriptwriting hothouse Arista - and they are all good tools that I use to to interrogate my own writing, that of others or scripts that I read & films I watch.

The job’s never quite done, there’s always further to go.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Day 174: "Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven"

On 5th April 1994, three months before his death from pancreatic cancer (with secondary cancers in the liver), television dramatist, Dennis Potter, gave a TV interview with Melvyn Bragg on Britain’s Channel 4. He knew at the time that he was dying and the interview is punctuated with Potter sipping from a small flask of liquid morphine, enjoying champagne and smoking his favoured cigarettes.

Dennis Potter’s television work was distinctive and seminal, using the non-naturalistic devices of characters lip-synching to songs, having adult actors play children, characters addressing the camera (speaking through the fourth wall) and more. These techniques became the trademarks of his famous television series Blue Remembered Hills, Pennies From Heaven, Lipstick On Your Collar and the his most well-known and loved of pieces, The Singing Detective,

The Singing Detective went to air on BBC in the UK, in 1986 and was most people’s introduction to the actor that is Michael Gambon (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Gosford Park), making him a household name, but maybe not known in as many households as his is now, for playing the part of Albus Dumbledore in the wizardry that is Harrypotterworld. The Singing Detective suffered a ghastly film remake - featuring Robert Downey Jnr and Mel Gibson - in 2003. Maybe my thinking on the remake is coloured by my affection for Dennis Potter and the original, but I know that I’m not alone; enjoying a mixed reception, the film was called “an interesting failure” by one critic.

But then, the original television series in the UK was by no means a phenomenal hit, rather it was for an acquired taste, even an eccentric palate, however it was influential. So to was it's predecessor Pennies From Heaven (1978), the first of his several television series, in which this time, we met Bob Hoskins (The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa), as the protagonist, Arthur Parker, a role that was to make his name.

It was this stylistic choice in Dennis Potter’s work, of characters suddenly breaking into song, that made his work instantly recognisable, but not singing in the way that characters do in traditional musicals; in this style of his, characters would lip-synch to the original recording, a style that has since been much imitated on television and in TV commercials.

He followed-up The Singing Detective with Lipstick On Your Collar (1993), the first major role for another acting talent who has endured, Ewan McGregor. It’s unofficially thought of by many, as the third in the trilogy of works that Dennis Potter began with Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective.

Potter wrote much; as well as the television work, there were stage plays, novels, journalist works and film scripts - Gorky Park (1983) and his own film Brimstone and Treacle. However, Dennis Potter is also well-remembered for his thoughts on the media and notably, his verbal “attacks” on mogul Rupert Murdoch. At the beginning of an half-hour television piece called Opinions (broadcast on Ch 4 in 1993) Potter opened with this: “I’m going to get down there in the gutter where so many journalists crawl... what I’m about to do is make a provenly vindictive and extremely powerful enemy...the enemy in question is that drivel-merchant, global huckster and so-to-speak media psychopath, Rupert Murdoch...Hannibal the Cannibal...”

Journalist Craig Brown, writing in the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times described this performance of Potter's thus: “ many ways it felt like being collared by a mad man on the Tube. Filmed disturbingly close to camera, seemingly ad-libbing the entire half hour, now mumbling, now rasping. Potter somehow managed to cut through the vacuum that on television usually separates viewer from viewee. This made the performance extraordinary.”

And that was the hallmark of Dennis Potter’s work, the ability to “cut-through” on an increasingly mind-numbing medium.

In that final interview with Melvyn Bragg, Dennis Potter revealed that he had named his cancer, “Rupert”, adding “ can we have a mature democracy when newspapers and television, where there’s standard television, cable television is beginning to be so interlaced in ownership terms? Where are our freedoms to be guaranteed? Who is going to guarantee them? Look at the power Murdoch has....”

Benign or benevolent dicatorship (however well-meant) worries me. I have a great sense of unease over the rich and powerful holding undue sway and influence. It concerns me that previous Prime Ministers of the country in which I live, oft supped with Rupert Murdoch and that other late media-mogul, Kerry Packer, and it worries me greatly that on a television programme last night - a programme that astutely analyses the world of advertising - one of the commentators said what I have often thought: Oprah’s “hand of approval” on Barrack Obama’s shoulder “probably got him the Presidency”.

Day #174 Tip: Tell the truth
Let me turn to my barometer on all such screenwriting things, that is McKee: “...given story’s power to influence, we need to look at the issue of an artist’s social responsibility. I believe we have no responsibility to cure social ills or renew faith in humanity, to uplift the spirits of society or even express our inner being.We only have one responsibility: to tell the truth....for although and artist may, in his private life, lie to others, even to himself, when he creates he tells the truth; and in a world of lies and liars, an honest work of art is always an act of social responsibility.”

“They” say that on the day of the revolution, whatever that might be and whenever that might come, we writers will be the first to be lined up against the wall, because writers are to be silenced. For “silenced” read “shot”!

Maybe I’ve drifted back to my feisty, late teenage years, when I listened to The Clash and Billy Bragg, that same period in the 1970’s when an emerging Dennis Potter was in full-flight? Maybe I’m romanticising the whole notion of speaking one’s truth and being a writer; forgive me, beneath my imperial British exterior, I have some long-lost French ancestry that rears it’s head de temps en temps.

Power to the people, power to the late Dennis Potter.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Day 173: “Come on with the rain, I’ve a smile on my face”

“What’s your favourite film?” I get asked this question all the time. If a friend is close by, they’ll often answer for me: "Chinatown". Often, the person who enquired will then say “never heard of it.”

Australian Film critic David Stratton’s favourite film is Singin’ In The Rain (1952), a glorious film that he watches twice a year; I have often wondered to myself why he does that? It’s a bizarre thought, given that I watch Chinatown a couple of times a year. One of my rituals, on completing the six-month journey of writing a screenplay, is to watch this favourite film of mine (which I will talk about before we’re done here on the Blog) as a treat, a reward, maybe even a reminder.....of what? To remind myself that great screenplays can be written.

It’s shocking to admit, but when I’ve completed the journey of six or seven months, or however long it takes to write a screenplay, and type those final words FADE TO BLACK, END, my first thought is always “well, that’s a piece of s**t”. Actually, that’s no longer true, it USED to be my first thought, I’ve progressed. Whilst I’m not yet at the “what a brilliant piece of work that is” stage, at least I’ve reigned in my self-deprecatory judgement and the harsh critic that wanders lonely as a thunder cloud around my head. My head’s a dangerous neighbourhood and I shouldn’t go in there alone, because there won’t be too much singing in the rain for me, let me tell you.

My head is now pretty neutral at journey’s end of a script. I’ve always had other people who are waiting to receive the draft, either a producer and/or director, and I whizz it off through cyberspace and let them decide what they want to decide, me, I stay out of things whilst the jury has retired to consider it’s verdict and here’s a newsflash: that considering can take a very long time.

By and large, I’m a pretty quick reader of scripts. On the other hand, if you pay me to give you feedback I’ll tell you honestly when I’ll get back to you, which is generally no longer than two weeks, during which, I’ll read the script three times: the first time I’ll read it through in one sitting, resisting the urge to make any notes whatsoever, I just want to read the piece in it’s totality and get a feel for the arc and trajectory of the story. I’ll leave it a couple of days before my second read, but this time I’m stopping and starting to make initial notes and jot down thoughts. At the back end of the two weeks, I’ll read it a third time, to try and write a synopsis of the story, so that then I’m really clear on what’s written and to make sure that I haven’t missed anything.

Handing out scripts to friends and colleagues (unpaid) is, in my general experience, an entirely different thing altogether. Days, weeks, months can go by and I might not hear a thing; sometimes it never gets read. On one particular occasion, I was badgered by someone to let them read a draft of one of my pieces and, I reluctantly caved in and handed over a hard copy in person (I should have listened to my intuition) only for them to say, six months later, “when are you going to let me read that script of yours?” Luckily for me, and that friend, I’m past the point where I hold that against them: I’ve become a little more judicious about who I give my scripts to, and, if I choose to do so, I hand it out with NO expectations.

Day #173 Tip: Thou shalt think long & hard about who you give your script to
Asking someone to read 90-110 pages of a screenplay is a big request. I’m used to the form of the film script and can knock one over in two to two and a half hours; good, bad, weird, crazy, brilliant or indifferent. I’m used to reading between the lines of what is and isn’t on the page and I love reading screenplays, for me they don’t sit like a leaden lump next to my bed, I devour them.

My advice, based on experience, is this: think long and hard about who you’re giving your script to, give a great deal of thought about what response you’re looking for and whether the person is capable of giving it to you. If it’s a professional and a they’re doing you a favour, then when you have handed it over, you lose all rights to expectations, so, again, think LONG and HARD. Alternatively, offer CASH. If you’re sending it out, unsolicited, to a producer, agent, director, actor or studio, think twice before you embark on this MADNESS. If you’re giving it to a friend who “likes films”, deeply consider and meditate on this action before you set sail on this voyage of INSANITY; it’s akin to sending your baby out, naked, into the world, to knock on the doors of strangers to ask “do you like me”, if and when the doors are opened.

But the paradox is this: you must get your screenplay out there, if you want to get it made. Between the devil and the deep blue sea we are, indeed, caught. When you’re finished your script, when you’re done, just press the ‘pause’ button of your life, put on your favourite film and have a think before you act.

Or, if Gene Kelly is your choice, have a song and a dance, whilst mulling things over. In my case, I lieback on the sofa and mumble that favourite mantra to myself “Forget it, Jake - it’s Chinatown.”

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Day 172: Apu

Eating some of my favourite homemade dahl (see a previous blog in the archives for the recipe), with a little broccoli and a touch of mango chutney, whilst listening to a selection of soundtrack pieces from the movies of Indian director Satyajit Ray, I was immediately wafted back, on gentle winds, to my experience of the Ray’s The Apu Trilogy.

The Apu Trilogy (1955-59) consists of three Bengali films - Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), Aparajito (The Unvanquished) and Apu Sansar (The World of Apu) - made on a shoestring budget by lauded Indian director Satyajit Ray, they are considered, collectively, as one of cinema’s greatest trilogies ever made; not Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Herbie the Love Bug. I saw the three as part of the Sydney Film Festival’s retrospective programme some ten years ago now. Look, I have to be honest and say that I struggled with the first of the films which deals with Apu’s childhod in rural Bengal, but at the end of that first film, thankfully, Apu leaves the family hut for the holy city of Benares, making, in my humble opinion, for a better second and third film.

Film magazines, critics and cognoscenti rave about the Apu Trilogy, as they do the films of Hungarian director Béla Tarr, whose latest offering of the time - The Werckmeister Harmonies - was in the same festival line-up.

The Werckmeister Harmonies was, for me, an almost impenetrable film. Let me quote from another source: “Shot in black and white and composed of only thirty-nine languidly placed shots, the film describes the aimlessness and anomie (personal feeling of lack of social norms) of a small town on the Hungarian plain that falls under the influence of a sinister traveling circus lugging the immense body of a whale in its tow. A young man named Janos tries to keep order in the increasingly restless town even as he begins to lose his faith in the world.”

I could go on and tell me more, but truth is that I feel I’m catapulting myself back to that cinema ten years ago when, for 145 minutes (two and half hours that I won't get back), I had no idea what was going on, from one of those 145 minutes to the next? Yet, the film was a darling of the festival circuit??!!

I must own up and confess here that, whilst I love attending film festivals (if I have the money and time) I increasingly find myself squirming in my seat, restless and agitated at often, what I think of as two hours of “pretty pictures‘ edited together or composed to make what’s then referred to as a “feature film”; a feature film that in all probability will never see the light of day beyond the festival circuit.

I have a suspicion that many films are made or first dreamt of, that never aspire to a general release, knowing that, if lucky, the film can live and breathe, hopping from festival to festival to festival. Who am I to say that’s wrong, who am I to say that all films should have a commercial rather than cultural or artistic imperative? Indeed, I have sat through some magnificent crud at film festivals, just as I have similarly watched some diabolical efforts at my local cinema that should never have got a release. A plague on both their houses.

Just because a film is in a film festival, doesn’t mean that it’s “good”. Like my mini-discussion about the false economy that is the French film industry (two days ago), so I often think that some festival films can be accused of living in a protected environment where they are showered with accolades, awards and plaudits beyond their actual “ability” (if that’s the right word).

Day #172 Tip: Know what you want to make
I have a very clear explanation, to people, of the type of films that I want to write.

At one end of the film-making spectrum (imagine a protractor or semi-circle) you have the art-for-art’s sake film that maybe I’m alluding to, which if released, might play to an empty, darkened cinema, whilst one hundred and eighty degrees away, there is the third or fourth film in whatever the latest gangbusters “Hollywood” “franchise” or abhorrently vile “horror” brand of film is, either of which has had the worthwhile filmic air sucked out of it. Well, plum in the middle of that arc, at about the eighty to one hundred and ten degree mark are the films I aspire to watch and write.

For me, they are the are or were the films of the last golden age of cinema, which was the late 1960’s and the early 1970”s; a time that predates the multiplex. This was when most towns had one cinema and showed the one film and everyone queued up for that one film and tried to, or not to, catch the whisperings of the audience that came out of the screening before: "was it any good?"

These were films that won awards, made their mark at the box office and were hits with critics and audiences alike, from The Graduate, Butch Cassidy, The Way We Were, The Godfather, and Dirty Harry to Jaws, The Exorcist, Love Story, 2001: A Space Odyssey and American Graffiti.

By and large, I’m a three-act, beginning, middle and end, kinda guy; maybe I could be accused of being overly nostalgic and wistful about the past, especially in regards to the cinema? I have no truck with that, you’ll get no argument from me. Film is a broad church, there is room in the congregation for Bratz: the Movie and The Werckmeister Harmonies alike, but I think it helps to know which side of the aisle you’re standing on, NOT, I hasten to add, to TAKE sides or draw up battle lines, but just to work out from which part of the church you like the view best, so that you know where you are with your work. Believe me, it helps.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Day 172: Move over "wolf of Wall Street"

Tess McGill is one of the many commuters who make the daily Staten Island Ferry trip to their routine office job in Manhattan, in Tess’s case, like so many other of the other young women, as a secretary. Only, Tess is different in that she uses her ferry time to research financial and business opportunities in the daily paper, as Tess wants out of the typing pool and into an executive position, that’s why she’s just recently earned a business degree by attending college at night. But Tess has luck on her side, as her successful, formidable and ruthless boss, the financial executive, Katherine Parker, agrees to help Tess and will look over any potentially good ideas that her secretary has.

However, when Katherine breaks her leg on a skiing trip and is unable to return to New York, Tess discovers that Katherine has been duping her and is about to pass off one of Tess’s ideas as her own. In her boss’s absence, Tess wastes no time in using the opportunity to pose as Katherine and run the idea past executive, Jack Trainer, who is working on the deal. Tess and Jack immediately fall for each other, but Tess soon learns that the situation is both professionally and personally complicated, as Jack is Katherine’s boyfriend.

So, the pieces of plot are carefully arranged in the blend of Romantic Comedy and Comedy of Disguise that is Working Girl. This 1988 film that starred Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford and (famously) Sigourney Weaver, in a delicious performance as Kathereine Parker, was a winner on all fronts: box office (it took $103 million [and that was twenty-two years ago]) so audiences obviously loved it, the critics went for it (the respected Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times said “The plot of Working Girl is put together like clockwork. It carries you along while you’re watching it, but reconstruct it later and you’ll see the craftsmanship"), and it garnered a sackful of awards and nominations for the three lead actors, for supporting actress Joan Cusack, for director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Silkwood, Heartburn) and for Carly Simons anthemic song ‘Let the Rivers Run’.

But Working Girl is more than just the mix of two comedy sub-genres; Tess’s journey is heroic and transformational. Her rise and battle to escape everything that is her and so many other women’s lot, using her guile, tenacity and hard work, is the stuff of a rebirth plot and a her eventual triumph, over the monumental opposition inherent within the man’s world of the New York financial market (in which Sigourney Weaver’s Katherine is more-than-equipped to play like, and with, the boys, however dirty she has to get) is inspiring.

In the climactic moments of this great film, Tess finally manages to lay all asunder before her and win the day, so exposing the wretched Katherine in the process and winning Jack’s loyalty (his heart and body were hers from the get-go) and we are left with the sweetest of coda’s:

Tess and Jack have moved in together and Jack has prepared a lunchbox for Tess on this first day of her new job at Trask Industries. When Tess arrives at the office, she sees a woman on the phone and the dutiful Tess hangs up her jacket in the cubicle opposite the woman’s office; Tess knows her place in this familiar world. When the woman gets off th phone and introduces herself, Tess asks how she takes her coffee? The woman is nonplussed and embarrassed, after all, she is the secretary and Tess is the boss, she had just been caught out, on her boss’s phone, in her boss’s office. A stunned Tess McGill, takes in what is HER office and the view over downtown, then insists that her new secretary treat her as a colleague rather than a superior, after which Tess calls her friend Cyn, back in the typing pool to say “guess where I am”. Tess’s journey is complete.

Day #172 Tip: “Return with the Elixir”
Yesterday, I talked about the Resolution as the fifth stage of the five-part screenplay structure, the “tying of the bow on the giftwrapped present” that is the script.

In Christopher Vogler’s great book ‘The Writer’s Journey’ (based on mythologist Joseph Campbell’s work), the twelfth and final stage of the 12-part journey, is the “hero returning to the Ordinary World” but, and there’s always a but, “the journey is meaningless unless she brings back some Elixir, treasure or lesson from the Special World”.

What Tess brings back to the “ordinary” world which she is from - the very literal "typing pool" of life, where women of her kind are maltreated both professionally and personally - is hope and proof of a way out. Even though it strikes me that the script was written with more than a little sexist ink (and that’s over two decades on), nevertheless, Tess has definitely broken through that glass ceiling and this is is her “return with the gold”.

Just watch that last shot, panning out from Tess’s high-rise, office window in downtown Manhattan, underscored by Carly Simon’s Grammy and Oscar Award-winning song and tell me if that’s not a victory and an accomplishment; not just for women, but for everyone who's trying.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Day 171: Fidelité

A middle-class, married woman - Connie - from the suburbs of New York City, embarks on a passionate sexual affair with a younger, Frenchman - Paul - that she randomly encounters on the streets of Manhattan. Unbeknownst to Connie, her husband - Edward - discovers the adultery and goes to the young man’s loft apartment to confront her lover. In a fit of unpremeditated rage Edward kills the young man and then disposes of his body. Paul’s corpse is eventually found and then, Connie’s phone number - hastily scribbled down at the young man’s apartment - leads police detectives to her family home. Connie is distraught on learning of the death of her lover, but cannot display her distress in front of her husband (for she has no reason to believe he knows what has taken place, nor dare he find out). She has to lie about knowing the dead, young man and her husband backs up her alibi, in turn, lying to protect his wife. Connie wonders why her husband takes this out-of-character, and illegal, action (for he is a lawyer) and soon unearths clues that piece together the story she knew nothing about, realising that her husband killed her lover. Now they share each other’s dark confidence. Edward offers to turn himself in but Connie rejects this idea, telling him that they will “get through this crisis together”. The pair decide to keep their respective secrets and move on with their lives. Later, Edward and Connie are in the car and find themselves, inert, at traffic lights that change from red to green and back again; this happens several times, as it’s revealed that they are outside a police station.

This is the short synopsis for the remake of Unfaithful (2002), directed by Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal), starring Diane Lane and Richard Gere. The script was adapted from the original La Femme Infidèle (1968) by that French master of the erotic drama, the late Claude Chabrol, and starred his wife, Stéphane Audran. Chabrol, who died just over a week ago, at the age of 80, was a member of the “nouvelle vague”, the French New Wave, along with his contemporaries Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer and Jaques Rivette.

I’d really love to go into a debate and discussion here about the French film industry, and in particular, the funding of French film; did you know that a percentage of EVERY cinema ticket sale in France goes into a kitty, along with money from the national TV networks and government funding, to ensure that French language films survive? For if the French do not make films in their own tongue, who else will (save the Canadians and a few French-speaking colonies)? A staggering 200-250 feature films were made in France last year, and yet interestingly, an ongoing debate is gathering airspace and column inches as to whether this serves French filmmakers (and audiences) well or not? The argument goes something like this: ensuring that French film and the French film industry always remains alive and vibrant, guaranteeing a cinematic platform for French culture, and employment for local artistes is a great thing, but, does the “unearned” financial support cosset the French filmmakers and protect them from the vicissitudes of global tastes and commercial vagaries, leaving them in an artificial film vacuum, a filmic arena that whilst being highly individual is out of kilter with (maybe detrimentally so) with other parts of the film world?

Day #171 Tip: Tie a ribbon on your story
But, back to Unfaithful. That final moment at the traffic lights, is the fifth of the five-part story structure (offered by Mckee and other writing scholars), the Resolution or what the French call the dénouement: “...the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved.” McKee offers that “a film needs what the theatre calls a ‘slow curtain’", even if it is open-ended.

The Resolution (or Denouement) can be an opportunity to tie up the loose ends of any incomplete subplots or, as Mr M suggests, “a second use of the Resolution is to show the spread of climactic effects”, after story’s “end”.

I think that this final “slow curtain” of Unfaithful (possibly a tad heavy-handed?), shows us the spread of the climactic events of Connie & Edward’s story, in that here is a husband and wife who both claim have acted out of “love” (even though misguided?) and now, in the spirit of love and commitment (they have a young son), are prepared to move forward with their lives, albeit in a covenant of guilt. But as the changing traffic lights show, for human beings to attempt that, might not be possible and maybe akin to only existing in some sort of living limbo, which I think, is a place called purgatory.

The things we do for l’amour.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Day 170: “...I really don’t know life at all....”

HARRY: What is this we’re listening to?
KAREN: Joni Mitchell.
HARRY: I can’t believe you still listen to Joni Mitchell.
KAREN: I love her and true love lasts a lifetime. Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.
HARRY: Did she? Oh, well, that’s good. I must write to her someday and say thanks.

That’s a vignette between two of the UK’s finest acting talents, Emma Thompson (Karen) and Alan Rickman (Harry), from the uneven Richard Curtis film, Love Actually (see blog from the archives date 25 April).

I don’t know many male friends who have Joni Mitchell albums in their CD collection (apart from my bricklaying friend Pete), but most of the women that I know have Blue and/or one or two others. My anima (and Pete’s for that matter), must be more prevalent or “higher” than that of your average bloke, I guess, for I owned copies of The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) and Hejira (1976), when I was 17 going on 18. The “anima”, by the way, was Carl Jung’s term for the feminine part of a man’s personality; the part of the psyche that Swiss psychologist Jung felt is directed inward and is in touch with the subconscious.

In Love Actually, Richard Curtis continues the Joni Mitchell theme and uses an orchestrated version of Both Sides Now, to moving effect, in a scene which finds Emma Thompson’s Karen character, cruelly duped by her husband, the carpet of life pulled from under her feet. It’s a film moment that I would swap for nought, as heavy-handed as I could label it. This small moment of screen time touches me so, that I would protect it to the death from that side of my film brain that screams out “it’s all wrong”!!

The film was made in 2003 and so, twenty-seven years after my last brush with Joni, she was able to pick up where I’d left off and begin my “emotional education” once more; Joni harbours no animosity because of my absence. The play count on my laptop’s iTunes, tells me that I’ve played this purchased version of Both Sides Now, 78 times, a similar orchestrated version of A Case of You, 47 times; Amelia clocks in with a respectable total of 31 nudges and the Diana Krall version of 'A Case of You' (from her Live in Paris disc) has hit a healthy 40 plays, which I think is inaccurate because I’ve listened to it countless more times than that.

So there you have it, Joni has dibs on a musical and emotional part of my heart and always will have; in my little fantasy world I would marry her off to Nick Drake and have them give birth to a love child that would sing the early works of Elton John: Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters and Tiny Dancer.

So man-up my fellow man and admit, that like me, you are just as smitten, just as bitten, by the strains of Joni songs that are there for you, in those reflective emotional moments of your life.

Day #170 Tip: Listen to Joni
It may seem like not much of tip but believe me, it is; in fact, if truth be known, it’s probably better than the 169 other snippets of advice that I’ve offered up: go to the iTunes store, shell out your $2.19 and buy the version of Both Sides Now, from the album of the same name and listen to her.

You tell me something else that you can buy, so inexpensive, that will give and give and give and give and give, asking nothing of you, that will last a lifetime?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Day 169: Chocks away!

Ten years ago, in 2000, I was invited to accompany a friend to the premiere of the Australian movie My Mother Frank, a film that starred Sam Neil and Sinéad Cusack. At the opening night party that followed, I found myself abandoned by said friend, temporarily, and noticed an elderly woman nearby, in the same boat. Being the courteous young man that I am, I sidled up to the woman, recognising her as an actress who had played a small part in the film, and engaged her in conversation. What I’m about to tell you is exactly as I recall it.

I complimented the woman (who I guessed must have been in her seventies) on her role in the film and enquired politely, about other pieces that I might have seen her in. The actress in question mentioned a couple of things that I hadn’t heard of and then, cursorily dropped the tiniest of devices into the conversation that exploded the dialogue, for me. The woman mentioned - as she distractedly glanced around the the film people that surrounded us animatedly working the room - that she had had a small part in a film called The Dambusters. I think I nearly spat out the nineteenth morsel of sushi that I was enjoying.

I’m of the generation of Englishmen, that was raised in the 1960’s on black & white Sunday afternoon movies (on TV) that depict with great pomp, fanfare and Britishness, just exactly how we won The War; films like Reach for the Sky, 633 Squadron and In Which We Serve. The Dambusters was a veritable jewel in the crown of these heroic tales.

The Dambusters, made in 1955, tells of the RAF’s 617 Squadron and it’s bombing of the Ruhr dams (the Möhner, Eder and Sorpe, in industrial Germany), using the prototytpe “bouncing bomb” developed by scientist/engineer/inventor, Barnes Wallis. In the film, (Sir) Michael Redgrave plays the affable and retiring Barnes, whilst the devilishly handsome Richard Todd, channels Wing Commander Guy Gibson. The first two thirds of the film detail the never-say-die spirit of Wallis and Gibson to develop the “bouncing bombs”, when all others had given up on Wallis’s fanciful and far-fetched idea. The final stanza of the movie deals with the “never say die” courage of the young men of the Royal Air Force, who in their Lancaster bombers, flew a great distance into enemy territory to deliver their payloads.

The Dambusters is part of my DNA, as it is for probably any male of my vintage and of my homeland, and here I stood with an actress that had actually been a part of that iconic film. Not only that, as quickly as my newfound friend had “thrown away” this titbit of information, I was already scanning the film in my mind and could only come with one “speaking” female part of any real significance....that of Barnes Wallis’s wife. I almost stammered the words out to her and, she turned to me with a beady eye and smiled. I was tempted to climb onto a chair and call for attention, wanting to silence the whole room, to stop them from clamouring around the new young talents of the day and draw attention to the filmic greatness that was among us. Before I could perform such an action, my friend told me that it was time for her to go, she thanked me for the conversation, grateful that I’d rescued her and thanked me for the praise I’d given her. She shook my hand and was off into the night.

When I contemplated writing this piece this morning and the themes that I wanted to explore, I recalled those events of ten years ago and how I’ve dined off that serendipitous meeting, from time-to-time, and thought that I’d best research my facts and find the actress’s name for this article. Here’s what I discovered: the part of Mrs. Molly Wallis was played by Ursula Jeans, who died in 1973. Who had I been talking to?

Day #169 Tip: Never abandon your script
Somewhere in the writing of the screenplay proper, after five months of hard work have gone into the preparation, I get to a point where it all seems to difficult and I want to throw the whole thing up in the air and run away. It usually takes a phone call to someone who knows me well, to remind me that this is not an option, that I’m not playing Monopoly now (and losing) and that I owe it to myself and whoever I’m working with (paid or unpaid) to complete the task.

The Dambusters is inspiring for many reasons, not least of all, to me, for Barnes Wallis’s refusal to give up and give in, even when others were writing him off as a “crackpot”. Jimmy Stewart’s boffin’ish engineer character faces a similar test in the film, No Highway in the Sky (Nevil Shute wrote the original novel that has James Stewart’s character all chewed up about metal fatigue, and planes falling out of the sky, and everyone else concerned that Jimmy S’s character is going bonkers).

Half a mile from the finishing line is a place for “creative u-turns” (a phrase coined by Julia Cameron); that’s the time when I must remind myself of Barnes’s Wallis’s tenacity and self-belief.

I must add a coda to this piece. I was a different person ten years ago and not always “in command of my faculties” at such events; it could be that the actress in question told me that she was the housemaid (if there is one) in the Wallis household in the film??!! My retelling of the conversation of that night could be completely unreliable, and I hate to think that I have may have sullied an otherwise impeccable professional reputation because of the mists and fumes of time and because I “got it all wrong”.

Whether this is so or not, perhaps I’ll never know. It’s a great film, and anyway I look at it, it’s a fond recollection.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Day 168: Danse macabre

Around the desk at which I work, are piles and piles of folders, notes, clippings and sheets; some of film projects that I’m working on, many others of cinematic progeny that I’ve yet to send to school. On this computer, I have folder and file upon folder and file, containing more abandoned creative offspring, left to become something one day, maybe go nowhere or be there when a file attracts my attention and, like an old box in a store cupboard, I open it to find one or two little trinkets and baubles inside.

Here’s the contents of one such “untitled” file that I stumbled across today:

“An old man and his daughter quietly about on the River in a small wooden
boat at night in the fog. They pull a sodden body from the water. The old man
takes any untraceable valuables that are found on the body: cash and jewellery
and then delivers the cadaver to the back door of an old-fashioned Funeral Parlour.
The body is then picked up and taken to another place where the stomach
is sliced open and bags of drugs are extracted. From here the body is removed
to a further place where the organs are taken. The body is then disposed of”.

I then wrote “Red Chinese firecrackers. Green poison. Gunther Von Hagens”.

A grusome little piece, I grant you. Suitably Victorian Gothic, both grotesque and yet exotic, words that remind me of the typical clues given to Sherlock Holmes at the outset of an enquiry that would see he and the trusted Watson a-foot through wispy lanes in London’s Spitalfields or dashing to Paddington Station to catch the 4.50 to somewhere on Dartmoor, once the great Holmes has realised that another life is in peril and only he can stop the murderer.

In my mind, I see Watson deferring to his intellectual friend, asking “who is Gunther von Hagens?”

Let me handle this one. Gunter von Hagens is a 65 year-old German anatomist, famous or infamous, for his invention of a technique used to preserve biological tissue specimens (and bodies) called ‘plasticination’.

In 2002, when I was back home for the first time in a long time, Prof von Hagens performed the first public autopsy in the UK for 170 years to a sell-out crowd” at London’s Atlantis (art) gallery. The procedure was relayed to the 500 on giant screens within the East End location, whilst 200 more disappointed hopefuls, stood outside in the rain, having turned up on the off chance that they might spring a ticket; the unsatisfied waiting list for seat was more than 1,000.

Professor von Hagen defied warnings from Scotland Yard, HM Inspector of Anatomy and a vast hue & cry from affronted members of England’s decent, yet “outraged” middle class.

“After opening the corpse’s chest, Prof von Hagens stuck his hand in deep and with the help of a colleague, pulled out a huge portion of innards. He declared, ‘I have liberated the lungs and the heart’. Many of the audience covered their mouths and noses as the stench from the body filled the auditorium.”

A year of two later, aptly, in the East End of London, somewhere in the once-grisly neighbourhood of Whitechapel, von Hagens toured his Köperwelten (Body Worlds) exhibition; a collection of preserved human bodies and body parts, all plasticinated. Over 500,000 people paid “the ferryman” more than a simple coin or two to temporarily cross the River Styx and enter von Hagen’s “underworld”.

Two people attacked the exhibits, prompting commentators to ask if the British are more squeamish about death than other nationalities?

Day #168 Tip: Save everything you write
I would like today’s tip to be about encouraging everyone to embrace the dark arts, like I’m a chum of Professor Snape or Draco Malfoy or something. A learn’ed man once pointed out to me that those who shy away from "difficult" material in films, claiming “I have enough of that in real life” are often found to have nothing like that at all going on in “real life” at all, whatever dimension that might be? A healthy relationship with the dark arts, the shadow world, is a good thing.

But alas, my tip today is more prosaic, less expressive: keep everything, throw nothing away, you never know when things/ideas are ready to bear fruit and it is always a great pleasure to stumble across an old friend of a thought and reacquaint oneself with a little rough pebble of a premise...even if it was dragged from a murky river.

The discarded and the "dead" often have plenty tell us

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Day 167: LA Confidential

Curtis Hanson directed LA Confidential and co-wrote the film with Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by James Ellroy (part of his 'LA Trilogy') and it is one of my favourite detective movies.

A box office-disappointment, it received huge critical acclaim and garnered nine Academy Award nominations, winning two: one for Hanson and Helgeland’s screenplay and the other for Kim Basinger’s support role as call-girl Lynn Bracken.

The story is dense, convoluted, weaving in on itself and has us follow three LAPD cops - Officer Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe), Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) and Sergeant Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) - all three of whom are caught up in, and investigate the Nite Owl slayings (a multiple murder at a coffee shop).

It’s the early 1950’s in Los Angeles and the lines of corruption, sex, lies and murder, blur, between the law-makers and the law-breakers. It’s equal parts glamour and violence and the body count his high; seems that crime-on-film and the two major cities of California are familiar bedfellows: The Maltese Falcon (San Francisco), Chinatown (LA), Basic Instinct (San Francisco), Vertigo (San Francisco), Bullitt (San Francisco), The Big Sleep (LA?), Dirty Harry (San Francisco), The Black Dahlia (LA), Zodiac (San Francisco).

The plots in most of these stories are complexed and demand several viewings, perhaps that’s why these stories of the ‘dark arts‘ make for my favourite films? I like to revisit LA Confidential again and again, each time, discovering another little piece of the investigative jigsaw that I hadn’t picked up on before. I’m not meant to solve the crime on first watching, that’s an implicit deal that I make with the filmmakers, however, when the architect of the crimes is eventually revealed in the climactic moments, I am meant to nod and think to myself “why didn’t I see that?”

Every time I watch either The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown, The Big Sleep or LA Confidential, I wonder what it is that endears these films to me; stories set in a very different, hard-bolied time and place to that of mine and my life, today? It would be easy to hang it on the sartorial elegance of the detective (private or otherwise) or lazy of me to pin it on my attraction to the smouldering love interest - Lauren Bacall, Faye Dunaway, Kim Novak - but it’s got to be more, something, dare I say it, deeper?

I’ve made a great study of the detective-on-film and, with a few exceptions, they’re all hewn from the same stone: a drinker, smoker, loner, ladies man (with a failed relationship somewhere in the past), a man prepared to step outside the law to get the job done, if he’s a cop he’s often despised by his superiors yet they love the results he gets, he’s violent, troubled, smart, smart-mouthed and lives on the margins of society. The actors that get to play the memorable detectives bring a vital unpredictability to these roles - whether it’s Mark Ruffalo in the recent Meg Ryan vehicle In The Cut or Gene Hackman in Mississippi Burning or Tommy Lee Jones in In The Valley of Elah.

They are volatile men but they are not two-dimensional, their writers and creators give them contradictory character traits: Russell Crowe’s “Bud” White, in LA Confidential, abhors men who beat up on women, but come one of his moments of unguarded rage later in the film and he hits the woman he loves, so becoming the very thing that he loathes. Sergeant White is best deployed -professionally - using his brawn and the brute strength of his fists, yet he metaphorically floors Basinger’s Lyn Bracken with his sincere words in one of the film’s finest moments.

Lyn Bracken is a call girl “cut” to look like a movie star, in her case, Veronica Lake (a femme fatale in many noir films with Alan Ladd); if you are wealthy enough then your money will buy you time with Lynn, doubling as Lake. But Lyn Bracken and Bud White fall for each other and in the moment that clinches Bud’s claim on her, this is the deftest moment of the 3/4 pages of dialogue that take place:

BUD: You fuck for money.
LYNN: There’s blood on your shirt. Is that an integral part of your job?
BUD: Yeah.
LYNN: Do you enjoy it?
BUD: When they deserve it?
LYNN: Did they deserve it today?
BUD: Last night. And I’m not sure.
LYNN: But you did it anyway.
BUD: Yeah, just like the half dozen guys you screwed today.
LYNN: (laughs) Actually, it was two. You’re different Officer White. You’re the first man in five years who didn’t tell me I look like Veronica Lake inside of a minute.
BUD: You look better than Veronica Lake.

Day #167 Tip: Work the dialogue
If I knew what to tell anyone, to ensure that they wrote the greatest dialogue going. d’you think I’d be sitting here, banging out a blog?

The best advice I can give is this (i) follow the method I’ve espoused (of Robert McKee’s) that will lead you to writing ONLY what the characters NEED to say and NO MORE (ii) read scripts and watch great films again and again and again (iii) go back over the dialogue in your script again and again and again, cutting, cutting, cutting (iv) cut all of your CLEVER lines (vi) in the hands of great actors, that might be cast to play your characters, be in on rehearsals and the shoot and cut some more and then some more. When you think you’re done, see if there’s any more extraneous, superfluous, look-how-high-I-can-jump stuff and definately cut that.

It’s a late one today, time for some dinner.