Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Day 12: An Audience With Judy Davis

I think it was 1996, two years after completing the Directing course at NIDA, that they invited me back to direct half of the third year actors in the first of that graduation year's plays. I was bent on directing a new piece called The Libertine (which was to eventually become a film...with Johnny Depp?), a black n' bawdy period piece about the greatest rake of the Restoration, John Wilmott. However, John Malkovitch and his Steppenwolf company in Chicago had snaffled the rights and refused to release their grip even for five performances at a drama school in Australia.

The rights battle between Anzac Parade, Kensington and the "windy city" of Chicago went down to the wire and, literally, at the thirteenth hour, we received the fax that demanded "which part of NO didn't we understand". I whipped a copy of Aphra Benn's The Rover out of my pocket and between us (me, the cast and crew) we still had our two ours of Restoration fun.

But to Judy. Ex-NIDA student Judy Davis paid the school a visit during the time that we were rehearsing and I sat in on an audience that she gave to the about-to-graduate third year. Judy Davis said something that I've repeated to others again and again and again, t'was this:

"Out there, in the real world, there are probably two types of acting career you can pursue. Firstly there's the one that has you on the cover of Who Weekly and New Idea, it's all sunglasses and awards, limousines and gossip-pages, fame and money and glamour, some creative reward but probably little. Then there's the other course you can charter: often performing on the stage in hard-to-find venues with little or no recognition from the public, certainly no fame to speak of, but maybe you get to command the respect of your peers, though for little money, yet speaking the words of some of the greatest writers that have ever lived. BOTH choices are valid. Choose the direction you want and head towards it. But, DO NOT, head towards one of these, whilst all the time wishing you were pursuing the other, because that's what will do your head in."

I must add that there are many fine, fine actors and actresses that have, and continue to, accomplish both. But, by and large, I'm with Judy.

Day #12 Tip: Follow Your True North
I've mentioned before, that every January, I'm one of the pre-selectors for the Tropfest Short Film Festival. I'm probably the elder of the pre-selectors now, having done it off-and-on since 1999. I and two others, sit in front of a plasma screen for five days and watch 200 short films to find a shortlist of twenty.

Every year, post-preselection, we're asked to jot down our "do's" and "don'ts" of short filmmaking to upload onto the Trop website for next year's crop of entrees. This year, the Sydney Morning Herald interviewed me and published and article about some of my top ten tips. Here's a favourite:

"Make the film that you want to make. DO NOT second-guess what the judges are looking for or make the film you think will win Trop."

Like Judy Davis's nugget of wisdom, I too counsel, for following what's right for you, what I call your 'true north'. Write the film that you want to write, because, like writing in your favourite genre, it's love and passion that will carry you through the dark nights of the soul when you don't think you can put pen to paper one more time. I was paid to write and direct a short film over a decade ago, accepting a brief to write in a genre (alien to me) that would show an actor in his best light. I should never have taking that commission. I had to commando crawl over broken glass in the nude every day to make that film and I dragged others with me. It never got past a rough cut let alone saw the light of day and still, the tapes sit gathering dust.

That's not to say that a screenwriter should ignore and be ignorant of the business end of the film business. I once was part of a salutary masterclass with the Distribution Manager of the UK's Film Council who told us, very bluntly, that when he's thinking of investing British taxpayer's hard-earned dosh in a script at the early stages of development, he has eight boxes that he's looking to tick. If, on reading the script, he can tick five of the eight boxes then he will consider pushing the project further.

Ready to hear one or two? Brace yourselves: Are the general public in some way already familiar with this story (television programme, biography of a well-known person, a topical news item)? Is there a "buzz" about this film (you'll often read about certain films getting written way before a writer's even looked at a keyboard - anyone remember the bidding war for the film rights to The Horse Whisperer). Is the protagonist 35 years of age or under?

There's more and that's for another day. I know, I know, it sounds like the anti-Christ of screenwriting decency, but..... professionally, I keep that stuff in the back of mind when I'm thinking about what to write or when I'm writing (ignore it at my peril). What I keep in the front of my mind is the thought of writing the film that I would queue in the rain to see. I also think that's the best shot I can give myself at writing the best film I'm capable of writing.

No-one queues in the rain anymore, do they? I did, plenty of times in the 1970's.

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