Friday, April 23, 2010

Day 15: Was Jerusalem Builded There?

Happy St. George's Day. April 23rd is the celebration of the patron saint of England, Germany, Cyprus, Valencia and many other countries and cities. On a day when everyone else has turned their attention to the Storm, I have turned mine to the Dragons, or at least the one slain by St.George.

To be perfectly honest, I'm quite happy for the Melbourne Storm salary cap story to have broken during a week when I normally duck for cover from the media; a week that I, not jokingly, refer to as "The Festival of the War". I have not the stomach for war, but more of that on Sunday. I have little time for flag waving either, or carrying out deeds and acts in the name of flags. Oscar Wilde said that "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel". Or did he say that "rehab is the last refuge of the celebrity fleeing a scandal"; hush my acerbic mouth.

I am English by birth and the flag of St.George holds little or no sway over my life. It stirs no fervent ardour in me for my 'state of my origin', I don't start singing Blake's words, invoking "dark satanic mills" or "green and pleasant lands". In fact, all that comes to mind these days, when I think of the flag of St.George, are the village idiot faces of football thuggery, English cricket's Barmy Army and the right wing of British politics who all seem to have wrapped, daubed and made this flag their shroud, their cape, their Potteresque cloak of nationalistic invisibility . Too many flags waving this week for me.

But a deep and undeniable seam of my homeland does lie within me and I know how to tap and mine that rich vein at the press of a button. Loaded onto this computer, on which I hen and peck, is a store of music that I regularly turn to when I want to be transported to my 'spiritual' home, I am no more than one second away from Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten; two of England's greatest composers.

I am not alone. Peter Weir used Vaughan William's 'Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis', exquisitely in his film Master & Commander. A film, based on the fictional character of Patrick O'Brien's novels about Nelson's Navy of the early 1800's. My hometown is Portsmouth, where Nelson's HMS Victory (of Trafalgar fame) sits in dry dock, so there are many guy ropes anchoring me here (apologies for the mixed metaphor of tents and ships).

Australian director John Duigan, employed 'The Lark Ascending', transporting the most quintessentially English of pieces to the Southern Highlands of New South Wales for his most iconic Australian of films, The Year My Voice Broke, which introduced us to Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelssohn...perhaps my favourite Australian film. He weaves the English and the Australian well together.

Day #15 Tip: Get Yourself A Musical Touchstone Or Two
The journey of a feature film screenplay is a long one for most of us to set out on. The expedition of a vocation or career as a screenwriter is a lifetime's odyssey. Nights on a bald mountain will come.

Somewhere in the journey of every script I will find myself halfway up the mountain on a cold, dark and desolate night; it's as hard to climb back down as it is to carry on up. Note that I don't say "if" this happens, I say that it "will". So, packed in my screenwriter's rucksack, right at the bottom for when I need it most, is my touchstone, a musical touchstone.

For each script that I work on I have one specific piece of music that, when listened to, fast-tracks me straight to the inspiration point that fired in me the spirit to write this script. No matter how many times I listen to it, again and again and again, it always re-ignites that fire in me to light that darkest of places. The moment the piece starts, within half of a half of a second, I am reminded of why I want to write this screenplay and why I must.

I have a piece of music that is the touchstone for my screenwriting career too.

A couple of years ago, I thought that all was lost and that I'd have to give this career choice - my dream - away. I was working in a warehouse, not getting to my writing, feeling lower than low and was plagued with all sorts of apocalyptic horseman on my tail. I asked for a sign; a sign that would tell me whether I should keep going or give it away. Later that morning, picking and packing boxes in the warehouse, I had one ear on Margaret Throsby's radio show on ABC Classic FM. The film critic David Stratton was her guest that morning, talking about his life, spruiking his newly-minted biog and playing a few favourite tracks that meant something to him. My mind and memory both tell me that perhaps it was his last choice of music for the morning. The moment that it started I knew the strains of the introduction to this piece, a piece that I have never heard on the radio before, nor since. Those opening threads of music were the sounds of fingers running over a harp in a fashion that can only be described as eerie and mysterious. Music that I know as Jerry Goldsmith's score to the title sequence that begins the film Chinatown.

Chinatown is my favourite film. I had my message. The storm within was silenced. I knew which which to head on the mountain.

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