Monday, May 31, 2010

Day 54: Days Like These

My dentist was playing the Cat Steven's Teaser And The Firecat when he pulled my tooth out yesterday. It wasn't my choice (of music or ways to spend my Monday afternoon). Usually he offers me the menu of CD choices and let's me pick but today I sat down to Ruby My Love full of trepidation and got up out of the chair - one tooth less and a whole lot of pain later - to Peace Train.

Fortunately for me, the upper molar was some way back, so my smile is not demonstrably affected, although, let me tell you, I'm wasn't smiling much for most of last night. There's one or two things I know about pain. One is that however much someone describes their (physical) pain, it is impossible to feel someone else's pain. Backs, teeth & a kidney stones (which I've heard or read, likened to a gunshot wound - I haven't had a gunshot wound[touch wood I never will] but I've had a kidney stone alright) I have had all three of those "fun" pain experiences. Whilst friends and strangers offer compassion, help, care and comfort, they can't feel my pain just as I can't feel yours.

I've heard "no pain, no gain"...we've all heard that one. And I'm oft told that "growth comes through pain", which I have experienced.

The other thing that was once told to me was that "the mind has no memory of pain". I mean, we can remember that an experience was painful; I can certainly recall that about the day I was struck down in the British Museum, when my "stone episode" began. But I can't channel that pain back, I think that's what that quote is driving at? An esoteric concept....maybe?

I saw a tremendous short film from France in the Sydney Film Festival (which opens this Wednesday) which must have been at least ten years ago. Short films can stick with you like that, especially, if like this one, it's the one, simple idea, exquisitely executed.

It was a grainy, black and white piece about a young guy who wakens from sleep in his suitably low-rent Parisian apartment, writhing in agony, clutching at his jaw, obviously in pain from his own toothache. He goes to the medicine cabinet, shakes out a handful of tablets and washes them down with a heavy slug of Pernod (from the bottle). Some minutes later and our guy has gained no relief, so he chug-a-lugs the rest of his bottle of pastis and throws down the remainder of the analgesics (I should stress at this point that the film is absurd in it's style and nature). Further into this man's nightmare of a night and he's unscrewed a second bottle of Pernod and drinks that down in one. With no improvement, he finds himself in front of the mirror above the sink with a razor blade and pliers, trying to extract the tooth himself. With blood running down his chin and his own amateur dentristy having failed, he goes to the kitchen, opens the oven door, kneels down, puts his head inside the oven, only to withdraw, clutching something wrapped in a cloth. He unwinds the cloth to reveal a pistol. Sitting with his back to the cooker, he gets the angle of the gun barrel right and blows the tooth away!

I think that's what they call "Grand Guignol" ( the dictionary describes this as "A dramatic entertainment of sensational or horrific nature, originally a sequence of short pieces, performed in the Grand Guignol theatre in Paris"). As gory as the film sounds, it was in equal parts "horrific" and yet hysterical. Such was the 800 members of the audience's identification that the noise of groans and agony-induced writhing was the like of which I've never heard before or since in a film.

Day #54 Tip: How to Write Pain and Other Character Feelings
"If I were this character in this character's set of circumstances, what would I do?" Yet another quote from Hollywood Bob (Mckee).

That's what we do when confronted with the choice in a scene for the character's action. There's subtle nuance between what Mr Mckee proposes as oppose to "what would I do if I here him?" or "what does she do next?".

My example today - of the French short film - is extreme and maybe you can hunt down the work on Youtube to see for yourself how much a watcher of the succinct and pithy tale can relate to the character and his given circumstances, even if the treatment is illogical (I'm not so sure after my night of tooth pain) and inappropriate. In a short film, probably more so than any other film format, you can push boundaries, stretch the limits of reason and (I use this word guardedly) have some "fun".

Remember, whether in outer space or the inner city: "What would I do if I were that character in that character's circumstances?"

Me, I ran to friends (one of whom is a doctor) who got me through the night with love, care, compassion and some prescription drugs. Will I now ever be able to get the agonising association of Cat Steven's Moonshadow and the dentist's chair out of my head?

Day 53: Who's House of God?


Some years ago, when in the UK, I sought consultation from a careers guidance counsellor, looking, strangely enough, for a bit of careers guidance. A centerpiece of the technique used to find the square hole in which to fit my square vocational peg, was a questionnaire of over one hundred questions, all of which resulted in choices that must be made, the response of “I don’t know” was unacceptable.

I was doing fine and on the path to the bespoke career of my dreams when I came up against a question that begged the “unacceptable” answer. This was the question: "You walk into a cathedral, are you struck by the divinity of the architecture?" I couldn’t truthfully answer this question with either one or other of the options.

Cathedrals (Abbeys and grand churches) are a regular haunt of mine, not because I belong to any particular denomination or religion. I am indeed inspired by the architecture of these buildings, whether it’s St.Paul’s in London, Sacre Coeur in Montmartre or St. Mary’s here in Sydney. I also find them to be havens of sanctuary and stillness.

Wherever I am in the world, I gravitate to sacred sites; a great deal of my spiritual path is grabbed from the religious, the holy and the secular. I am partial to hymns (especially carols), keen to marvel at stained glass windows and, like John Donne (himself once Dean of St.Paul’s‘s Cathedral) I’m more than content nosing round a corner of an overgrown graveyard.

Does the architecture of a cathedral create the sacred space where divinity dwells? I think so? Could the divinity of such a hallowed space exist (the cathedral) without the construct of the building? I think not.

The question that I could not answer came back to haunt me, in a creative way, many years later. A film idea that languishes somewhere on this laptop is in the form of a synopsis called To Build The House Of God. It’s the story of an architect, a man of great faith, whose company and personal design win the commission to build his city’s new cathedral. Not long after, he loses his wife and children in terrible circumstances and his faith is extinguished. The man’s fall is great and the church questions whether he and his company can follow through with the plan for the cathedral. Keeping his faithlessness to himself, the architect is able to pull himself together enough to rescue the enormous project. But he harbours a secret: he decides that he will build the grandest monument to God, without faith, without a belief and when all is complete, he will tell the Church that this is what he has done; that he has built a house of faith with no faith himself. The house built to worship God was built by man without God’s help. The story climax (which I won't go into here) centres on the idea that the architect has to find a spiritual path that works for him, that he believes in, that he can live by and with.

Something else: From my verandah, I have a wonderful view across to the city of Sydney and in the foreground is Wardell’s nineteenth century St.Mary’s Cathedral. Some fifteen years ago, St.Mary’s set about a grand restoration of the cathedral in preparation for the visit of Pope John Paull II. So grand were the plans, that they decided to carry out major building work on the cathedral. The Church’s plans were narrowed down to two options (1) to complete the unfinished original architectural plan of Wardell’s adding the two spires to the two towers at the Southern end of the cathedral (see my attached picture) or (2) to forego Wardell’s plan and to build a glass spire (see illustration) over the nave (the central tower) in the middle of the Cathedral; the plan being to remove the existing ceiling of the nave so that the sunlight could shine into the cathedral during the day and light be beamed out of the. glass spire, toward the heavens, at night.

The powers that be, the synod, whoever, decided to complete Wardell’s original vision, which as you can hopefully see, is wonderful (St.Mary’s is apparently the best example of Gothic architecture in the southern hemisphere)) but I wonder if they made the right choice?

Day #53 Tip: Write what you want to write not what “they” want you to write
David Ogilvy, the late, great teacher of advertising and founder of the Ogilvy & Mather agency instilled in his employees the notion of “the big idea”. “What’s the “big idea here” is a question I’d hear of creative work, over and over again in my time at O&M.

Robert McKee has a kind of version of that when he says that “...come the revolution, the writers will be first up against the wall(to be shot)”; because, great writers dare to say what others are thinking and not saying, because great writers are brave enough to put forward thoughts and ideas that others may find unacceptable.

Writers have always stirred the pot of revolution, rebellion and revolt. I don’t mean to put us on a pedestal or take the moral high ground, I’m just pointing out what history has shown us, again and again and again. And, I mean all writers: from Bob Dylan to Aristotle, Marx to the gospel- makers, Matthew, Mark, Luke & John.

In the world of screenwriting, it’s naive for a writer not to be aware and mindful of the vagaries of the commercial world for which we write. I certainly do not want to the writer of a film that nobody goes to see. However, it would be the hugest betrayal of myself, not to write what I actually believe to be true. I may have to write things that I don’t necessarily want to write, but it doesn’t mean to say that I can’t believe in the content.

A great friend of mine once encouraged me, when I was thinking of writing to my local MP, telling me that research had shown that if one person puts it down on paper, probably at least 500 other people are thinking it too. If I’m thinking it, so are many many others.

Never write the film that you think the world/Hollywood/the film industry wants, write the film you want to write.

I circled both answers in that questionnaire - “divinity” and “advertising” - I was true to myself , honest. They recommended that I go into advertising. There’s irony for you.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Day 52: Is the past a foreign country?


"For me, it is also somehow a last chance to glance briefly over my shoulder at the quickly receding past.”

Them’s the words of writer/director Mike Leigh from his Venice Film Festival Notes of 1999, speaking about his film Topsy-Turvy.

Topsy-Turvy is his love letter to Gilbert & Sullivan: “...a film about all of us who suffer and strain to make other people laugh”. Based on facts and anecdotal material, from 1884, it’s about how WS Gilbert (librettist) and Arthur Sullivan (composer) nearly walked away from their partnership over creative differences; differences that melded and then welded them back together to create The Mikado.

G&S are not everyone’s cup of Early Grey, but I love this much-overlooked film. Stories about the making of films, plays, music and entertainment win me over every time, perhaps it’s because I identify with the quest. Rich in it’s sumptuous imagery of Victorian London and eloquent in the depiction of the ephemeral nature of theatre, it surely is Mike Leigh’s bon mot to a delicious time, now long gone.

Life in the arts and entertainment is not all beer and skittles; what was it Nietzsche said about chaos giving rise to dancing stars?

Radio Days, on the other hand, is Woody Allen’s hymn to the golden age of radio, a time when announcers wore black tie and ball gowns to broadcast. Like the Mike Leigh Film just mentioned, this movie is one that’s also overlooked. in Woody’s canon, perhaps because he’s not in it, who knows? But it’s another of my favourites. Maybe it’s because I grew up just at the end of the radio era in the 1960’s. I too have memories of favourite radio shows that the family would listen to. I remember The Goons and I recall hearing of the death of Winston Churchill in 1965 via the BBC's Home Service on "the wireless".

A favourite play of mine is David Mamet’s Prairie Du Chien, a short piece, a radio play that he wrote as his homage to drama that he and his family would gather around the radiogram to listen to when he was a boy. It’s an evocative piece set in a 1910 railroad parlour, speeding west through the Wisconsin night at three a.m . The sleeve notes of the play describe it as “...a violent story of obsessive jealousy, murder and suicide, told within shooting distance of a card hustler and his victim.”

I wanted to make a short film of it once, setting the whole piece in a car as a family travelled home on a Sunday night having visited relatives, just as my family used to do. Prairie Du Chien would be the play on the car’s radio and a boy in the back, alongside his sleeping brother, would be the protagonist who we share thelistening with as he stared out through the window, at the passing blackness and occasional lamplit home.

Mamet’s “people” wouldn’t let me have the rights.

A third movie in this trilogy of films, is Guiseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, the Italian director’s fond postcard to movie romance and the cinema of his childhood. I may have quoted Signor Tornatore here before when he said “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 don’t mind repeating myself or him on this occasion.

Three films and a play that touch, move and evoke in me a world of theatre, radio and film that is gone. As Woody Allen’s voice-over in Radio Days said:

“I never forgot that New Year’s Eve when Aunt Bea awakened me to watch 1944 come in. I’ve never forgotten any of those people or any of the voices we would hear on the radio. Though the truth is, with the passing of each New Year’s Eve those voices do seem to grow dimmer and dimmer.”

Day #52 Tip: Use your two hours truthfully
I can’t remember if it was William Goldman or Robert Mckee who said it, but one of them posits the question of what am I (the screenwriter) going to do with my two hours of screen time? Both of these two men inspire me to be the best writer that I can be, Both talk about love of craft, love of actors, love of other writers and love of film.

McKee quotes Stanislavski asking his actors: “Are you in love with the art in yourself or yourself in the art?” McKee goes on to tell me that I must examine my motives for wanting to write the way I write, that each tale that I create must say this to the audience: “I believe life is like this.”

The films and play that I’ve already mentioned are not (with the exception of Cinema Paradso) the pieces that those writer/directors are most remembered for, nor are they their most critically acclaimed or successful works. But even though I never lived in Rockaway NJ, rural Italy, Wisconsin or London of the late 1800’s, there is a truth in those stories that I know. For circumtances may change, but human nature always stays the same.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Day 51: Let me read your mind


A magic trick. Please, humour me and play along with this and do it quickly, don’t stop to think about it:

Think of a number between one and ten. Multiply that number by nine. Whatever the number you have now, add the two digits together. You now have a single figure. Subtract five from that figure and you’re left with another single number. Think of the corresponding letter to that number in the alphabet (A=1, B=2, C=3, D=4 etc). Now you’ve got a letter, think of a country beginning with that letter. Think of the second letter of that country. Think of an animal that begins with that letter. Think of the colour of that animal. Have you got a grey, elephant in Denmark?

If you ended up with an echidna or an emu or something from the Dominican Republic, well I’m sorry, but the majority of you reading this WILL have that grey, elephant in Denmark. Don’t believe me? Then try it on a few friends next time you’re at the dinner table.

I’m a sucker for magic tricks. What I love about them is the fact that the climax of the trick, the “reveal” I think it’s called (if you’ve seen the film The Prestige) is already set up very early on in the piece, in the “prestige, and everything that follows, which serves to obfuscate, is just showmanship and razzle-dazzle. Once the sleight of hand has been carried out early on in the trick, the work is done and the stunning finale, inevitable. That’s what they do in the The Prestige's story to pull off the big trick at the end.

Most screenplays are like that. Once you, the writer, know your ending, your Climax, your “pay off” to top all “pay offs”, then you can work backwards through your script to set it up

A film spoiler is coming here to demonstrate this idea.

At the end of The Da Vinci Code (and whatever you think of the film or book, that novel was a phenomenon and a page-turning yarn that captured plenty of imaginations) - when we finally end up in Roslyn Chapel in Scotland - the climactic moment of the film comes when we learn (as our two protagonists do) that the Audrey Tatou character is the last survivor of the bloodline of Jesus Christ (and Mary Magdalene); you've got to say that it’s a pretty great story moment. When writer Dan Brown came up with that ending, he knew that he had his story’s climax and could then begin work on the rest to make that play.....he couldn’t have constructed it the other way around. There’s no way he gets Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu all the way through the story from Paris to London to Scotland and then thinks to himself “gee, you know what, she’s the Grail”.

That climax may come as a surprise, even a shock, to us (I didn’t see it coming), but in hindsight we can see that it was inevitable and that Dan Brown had been palming off the evidence, working the “prestige” right from the get-go. In fact, the heavy lifting, the hard work of this story that gives him his “reveal”, happens a long, long time before we get to Scotland. It even happens way before Westminster Abbey, way before the Louvre and Paris and way before what’s on screen; well, some of it’s on screen, in the film's flashback of Sophie’s story as a child in the final Act. The hard work actually happens before that flashback and it happens before the backstory that Dan Brown would have created for her character before he started his first draft. My money says that Dan Brown’s sleight of hand was done the moment he came up with his premise, the moment that he thought the “what if” question, to himself: “what if Christ had a descendant who’s alive today?”

That’s when Dan Brown’s work was done, same as my work/my “prestige” was done when I asked you to think of a number between one and ten; everything after that was progressive complication leading to my “reveal”.

Day #51 Tip: Do the heavy lifting early on to creates the Climax
Thelma & Louise could only have ended one way, and that was the way that it ended. Same goes for Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid.

Thelma & Louise boasts one of the most endearing and memorable endings to a movie; tough job making us cheer for heroes/heroines in such situations, but t'was the story path we were led down from which there would be no turning back. From the outset of that story, did not those two women, and the writer (Callie Khouri) make a deal with us (the audience) to show how those two women (originally it was cast as Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer), could break free of the yolk of men that had them pinned down in their lives of repetitious entrapment?

Remember the penultimate moment of that film? Thelma and Louise, sitting in the car. In front of them, the canyon, behind a line of state police cars and Harvey Keitel(through his loud hailer), encouraging them to turn back and give themselves up. When Thelma or Louise(I can never remember which was which) suggests “let’s go for it” and the other agrees, sad as it is, those two heroines have completed the pact that they made with us at the beginning of the film. They could never have gone back. If they had, they’d have let every woman down who was watching that film. So they drive and the frame freezes or dissolves or something whereby we don’t see them plummet to their inevitable and tragic deaths.

No one ever mentions the word “suicide” when they talk about Thelma & Louise. But in the cold, harsh light of day, that’s what they did. Because we didn’t see their ‘end’, those two live on, in the hard-won triumph of an ironic MOVIE ending: negative that they are gone, but ultimately positive in that they are "free".

Same deal with Butch and "the Kid”; they never went looking for a fight but they never ran from one either. When they were finally holed up and cornered in that room in Bolivia and we see the hundreds of guards outside readying rifle after rifle after rifle, we know that our heroes are cruelly outnumbered. Butch and Sundance know that too, but never let on (that’s part of why we love them). We cut back to the two of them, loading a couple of hand guns each, still wisecracking, pretending that they can fight their way out of this one. The final shot is of Butch and Sundance bursting out of that door, pistols blazing (not wriggling on the floor riddled with bullets and blood). The screen freeze-frames to the sound of a volley of rifle-fire, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, still their irrepressible selves; not dead, but living forever, as only their kind can, on the screen, indelible in our hearts and minds.

William Goldman, who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid says this about his ending: “I can’t do any better than that.”

It’d be a miracle if any of us ever could.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Day 50: Hey, Satan....leave my date alone!


It was 1973, I was fifteen and took a girl on our first date to see.......The Exorcist.

Need I go on? What was I thinking? I obviously wasn’t thinking much at all. There were reports in the newspaper that people had killed themselves after seeing this film. Do you think that might have made me pause and reconsider?? The film’s poster logline read “the scariest movie of all time”; do you think that might have made me stop and weigh things up?

The bus journey home, from downtown Portsmouth - we’d been to the ABC (or was it the Granada?) was usually my chance to slip up to the top deck with the young lady in question and break out my packet of 10 Gold Leaf (you could still smoke on buses then and still buy cigarettes in tens), inveigle my arm round my date’s shoulder, light up two ciggies and, I dunno, make like I was the suave Simon Templar from TV's The Saint.

Instead, this night, this journey home, was spent reassuring the young lady (and probably myself) that Lucifer the Prince of Darkness wasn’t going to get either of us between the bus stop and home (not a short walk). More than thirty years on (and some) and I must repeat: “what was I thinking”?!

All that said, how good was/is William Friedkin’s film of William Peter Blatty’s screenplay (I think he wrote the book as well)? With Ellen Burstyn as the mother, Max Von Sydow as Father Merrin; as for Linda Blair’s performance as Regan?! Linda Blair was never really seen much again after that
....surprise, surprise. Twenty bucks says that her agent was fending off disturbed teenager role after disturbed teenager role after that. It’s weird, but that’s how it works. You make a name for yourself in one particular role or one particular genre (actor, director, producer, writer) and the world thinks that’s what you want to make again and again and again? Was Linda Blair in much of anything after that? "Yes" comes the resounding cry, "...amongst other things, she was in The Exorcist II: The Heretic". Anyone remember that?

I’ve actually bought the re-mastered, digitised new DVD version of The Exorcist, which also carries a logline: “Brace yourself for the version you’ve never seen.” Do you think I’m hoping for another romantic night?

Horror is the perennial genre. Just when you think it’s dead, gone away and washed up, out comes the film that re-invents the category all over again. The Exorcist did it in 1973, The Amityville Horror (1979), The Shining in 1980, Blair Witch in 1999 and so on. Each is preceded by some scary, urban-myth hype where fiction and falsehoods blur with reality and each time the genre is reinvigorated for another ten years.

I’ve little or no expertise in this field, especially these days. A Horror film with something more, dare I say “substance” like The Exorcist or The Shining, I’m up for but gruesomeness just for the sake of gruesomeness is not my cup of slime or blood. It may well be your bag, don’t let me stop you. I’m old school I guess. the first two James Whale Frankenstein movies, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, Dracula, Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde and I’m done, with one exception.....

It’s not a film, it was a TV series that screened in England when I was a kid and it was called The Singing Ringing Tree!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Did I put enough exclamation marks behind that title to transmit the fright, the terror and the dread which crept, insidiously into my life from watching that European-made expressionistic piece that they put on during the children’s hour?? All I remember was that there was a dwarf (for some reason he calls to mind Bob in Twin Peaks) who scampered around and I think he was a hunchback too. I know, this all sounds very politically incorrect, but if you’re reading this and you saw that show (I daren’t even Youtube it) you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Regan spinning her head round was a walk through daisies in comparison.

Day #50 Tip: Look To What Scares Us
When I was back in the UK not so many years back, doing my writer’s stint at The Script Factory, I was earning some part-time shekels at a research company in Hammersmith (now we’re really talking Horror...Hammersmith Broadway on cold, grey, windy, March, Tuesday morning).

I was stuffing and sealing a mountain of envelopes, locked away in a room with une autre part-timer, a young woman who had just finished her university thesis/paper on the very subject of the Horror genre.

The point that her "paper" made was this: history showed us, that in the movies, whatever it was that attacked/scared/cursed society (in the film) was a metaphor for something (outside of the film) in life that we - the community at large - were afraid of and that we needed to demonise if we were to get some peace of mind and sleep dafely in our beds at night. The example used as the centre piece of her dissertation was the 1933 movie King Kong.

Her theory went (and I don’t think she was alone) that the film King Kong represented the white man’s fear of the black man in modern society. She drew reference to the giant ape coming from the jungle, the beast being “intimately” involved with a white woman, the climax taking place in the great metropolis of New York and so on. I’m paraphrasing here and drawing on the small bits that I can recall, but what I do remember was that her argument was compelling; does that have any reference to why we keep remaking it.....I hope not?

Before we finished stuffing our envelopes, I took the opportunity to ask my new-found Horror friend, that, if I was to write a horror film set today, what should I pick as the fearsome antagonistic force. She told me that I should pick whatever society fears today.

What do I fear today? For a while it could have been SARS, bird flu, swine flu...it was even AIDS for an hysterical moment there in the 80's, but the threat of those medical pandemics come and go.

No, what really scares me today, are: giant corporations and ‘benign’ dictators who get in the ear of our governments and pull the strings that run the world - media moguls, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, the mining industry, Monsanto, Rupert Murdoch.....even Oprah’s seeming omnipotence gives me the heebie-jeebies (books thrive or wither on her say-so as do American Presidents - sorry but it just doesn’t sit right with me). Of course I’m worried about the “rogue nations”, the extreme right wing of politics, the frenzied righteous mob whipped up by tabloid media and the oil companies; one day, I’ll talk here about Ken Saro-Wiwa, the NIgerian environmental campaigner executed in 1995. Shell Oil had a black hand in that episode; that’s real Horror for you.

But like Clarice Starling in The Silence Of The Lambs (Psycho-Thriller not Horror) the real fear lies within us.












Thursday, May 27, 2010

Day 49: I (and the world) miss Freddie Mercury


My brother saw Queen, in their earliest incarnation, opening for Mott The Hoople at the Bournemouth Winter Gardens, sometime back in the early 1970’s. He came home, raving about the support band he’d seen rather than the main act. I want to say that this must have been around the time of their first album Queen (by Queen).

I must have paid attention as I asked for Queen II for Christmas and Santa, god-love-him, delivered the goods. I’ve just stepped away from my laptop keyboard to check my dates in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music and that first Queen album was indeed ’73. To put it in some sort of perspective for you, Bohemian Rhapsody (which wasn’t the musical cliché then, that it is now) went to number one in the UK in 1975. The time I’m talking about was when Queen were on their way up.

I remember that one of the interesting facts or rumours (who knows, who cares?) that spread about the four members of Queen, was that they all held degrees of some substance from various universities. Why this was of interest, I can only imagine. But there were more titbits at odds with the usual dark arts of rock and roll: Frederick Bulsara (Freddie Mercury) was gay, maybe bisexual, until his death in 1991, he was born in Zanzibar, he was ‘interesting looking’. Freddie (and Queen) didn’t fit the prototype for rock stars we’d been supplied with.

I liked early Queen. The first two singles - Seven Seas Of Rye and Killer Queen - were as different and original as Freddie himself. The first six albums were in the LP collection at our house, but then the band turned a bit commercial, and as the expression went, back then, “everyone was into them”. That was always the moment to jump ship and pick up on the new kids in town.

Even so, Freddie Mercury’s finest hour was yet to come: Saturday 13 July 1985. I don’t know where you were, but I was still living in the UK at that time and I think we sat down to watch the whole shebang of the day-long, charity, fund-raising TV broadcast/show, beginning on the Saturday lunchtime (Status Quo were the opening act) and we didn’t get up from our seats until Live Aid was all done and dusted. My memory tells me this: as the day wore on and a few average artists were trotted out, things started to drag a little, maybe it was when they were doing the simultaneous cross to Philadelphia. Anyway, with kids in Ethiopia still starving and a billion viewers worldwide starting to drift, the moment was ripe for something or somone to bring thunder to the proceedings and rattle the house.

I can’t remember whether it was Radio Ga-Ga or We Will Rock You that hammered out of a wall of Marshall amp’s and speakers, but the moment that Queen hit the stage, fronted by Freddie Mercury, everyone from the Horn of Africa to Wembley and beyond, knew that they were watching something very, very special - the best act of the day - and they knew they were witnessing a star-power that eclipsed everyone who had been before or might come after, on either side of the Atantic that Saturday.

Freddie Mercury died in November, 1991, of bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS. It was a shock; I never saw that one coming.

2002:another live open-air concert in London, this time in front of Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Queens Golden Jubilee - 50 years on the throne. Once aagain, a cavalcade of musical stars were paraded. From Paul McCartney to Brian Wilson and Queen, this time post-Freddie Mercury. I think the remaining members of the band - Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor - missed a trick that night. They elected to have Robbie Williams, who was riding the crest of a wave after Take That, on vocals, singing the lyrics that Freddie Mercury used to sing. On his day, Robbie Williams is a great performer, the consumate minstrel and troubadour. But their mistake was that Freddie Mercury is irreplacable, incomparable, treasured, prized and cherished.

Excuse my humble opinion, but this is what I would have done: I’d have found the best live footage I could lay my hands on of the band performing Who Wants To Live Forever or Somebody To Love and I would have erected a massive cinema screen behind the band and brought Freddie Mercury back; the three members of the band could have played live, with the footage of Freddie Mercury singing, and then for one night only, we’d have had the real thing just once more: Freddie Mercury resurrected.

Day #49 Tip: Create a Charismatic Hero
At the beginning of The Godfather (the first in the trilogy), Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) is in his study, listening to the request of a man, who wants retribution on two guys who defiled his daughter. Outside the window, the wedding of Don Corleone’s own daughter is taking place. Outside is sweetness, light, love and celebration. Inside is danger, darkness, power and retribution. Don Corleone asks the man what he would have him do? We can guess that the man would have something not particularly nice done to the two men and the Don acquiesces. The very next moment in the film, Brando, the godfather, parts the crowd at the wedding so that he can get to dance a bridal waltz with his daughter. Fearsome, authoritarian-cum-gangster one second, father-of-the-bride the next.

Don Corleone is a three-dimensional character, a man with many contradictory character traits.

Heroes, Heroines and protagonists in screenplays need to be fully rounded, fleshed out, contrary, charismatic, out-of-the-ordinary and much larger than life; that’s why we love them, even in the same moment that we can hate them - check out Ian Mckellen's Richard II .

I can’t remember how long it is into The Third Man that we meet Harry Lime, but it’s a long way into the film. He’s there alright, hiding in some doorway in Vienna ready to step out of the shadows into the light of a legendary film role. Orson Welles’s character (the creation of Graham Greene) had been talked about and talked about so much that you’re practically salivating at the thought of meeting this guy.

Showmen need an entrance.

Whether a loner Hero (Clint Eastwood made a film career out of this type), an Anti-Hero (Bogart’s stock-in-trade), a willing Hero, unwilling Hero or Catalyst Hero, make them shine, give them flaws, put adversity in their way and give them contradictions. When Harrison Ford was at the top of the Box Office pile in the 80’s and 90’s, this was said of him: “he can save the world one minute and put a band-aid on a child’s finger the next and do both with with the same wry grin on his face.”

Freddie Mercury was an unusual leading man, the likes of which we’ll never see again...a Queen Hero.









Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Day 48: Field 58


In Surrey’s ‘Green Belt’ just south of London, beyond the orbital M25, lies the town of Chobham. You can see the church spire of St. Lukes from Junction 14 nestled amongst the green canopy of oak, elm, beech, horse chestnut and ash.

Chobham is not a very big town and it sits somewhere between a number of other settlements in the well-heeled commuter belt: Egham, Virginia Water, Sunningdale and Ascot. Most of these communities are serviced by train, all are neat, tidy and attractive, cars are mostly new, schoolchildren are invariably uniformed, local activities and clubs vibrant. Middle class England, serviced by the gym, cable TV, the country club, golf course, nursery, local pub and Sainsburys (supermartket).

Driving into Chobham, which is not at all big, one gets the feeling that despite it’s very cottageyness, it’s not rural, pastoral nor bucolic, yet neither is it citified or urban and its certainly a far cry from the other uglies that spring up along the motorways spreading south and west of the capital.

Surrounding these towns and tucking in where they can are pockets of agricultural land. It’s not easy to make a profitable living exclusively through agriculture these days especially if you’re right under the Heathrow flight path and subject to the vehicle emissions of London’s grand prix ring road which often sits chockablock, at a standstill, for most of the day. And, if your farm is not one of those hand-picked to supply produce for one of the major supermarket retailers, then you need to look at ways to supplement your income.

One such farmer, just outside Chobham, has found a way to boost his idling profits by selling a piece of his land - Field 58 - to a group of “travellers” (once known as gypsies or Romanies). He had to let it go it to because his farm was not one of those selected for supermarket produce; hence Field 58 was sold.

Field 58 was occupied by one caravan, one family, who then sub-divided the field into lots 1 and 2, selling off half of their own lot and the whole of Lot 2 to other travellers. Lots 1 &2 were sub-divided again into Lots 1,2,3 & 4 and so the process has gone on until caravan saturation point in Field 58 (to the power of four and a half) had been reached and something like 64 mobile residences occupied what was originally one plot of land. No by-laws had been breached in the process and the small community of Field 58 was thriving.

As the caravans arrived and the population on the farm swelled, so the complaints by residents local and nearby increased - traffic, refuse, noise, degradation of green belt land, disturbances, an increase in crime, violence; the plot of land had become an eyesore and there was a considerable increase of pressure on local infrastructure - schools, health facilities, utilities. The locals of Chobham had had enough and when another farmer, just outside town, decided to sell a field for the same purpose, a line in the sand was drawn.

The ‘Friends of Chobham’ (FOC) was formed with the express intent of halting a further sale and evicting the travellers from Field 58. A committee was made up of local residents - lawyers, businesspeople, interested parties - and the community was canvassed for membership to fight each case (each Lot warranted it’s own legal challenge) in whatever court they would have to go to. A membership fee or tithing of sorts - 0.10% of the value of your house/property - was needed to join FOC (“Who cares? We do. We give a FOC!!”) and the money was to be their war chest.

There was been no shortage of active subscribers and soon the local Member of Parliament was rallied to the cause and the campaign begun in earnest with an FOC meeting in the Chobham Village Hall. The battle for Field 58 was on.

Day #48 Tip: Grab your ideas where you can
From time-to-time, when attending social functions, parties, events and the like - but especially dinner parties - someone asks me what I “do”. I generally tell them that I’m a writer; they then ask “what” I write, I say “film” and they want to know if I’ve written anything that they’ve seen and I say “yes, Lawrence Of Arabia”. I let the answer hang there in space for two seconds before telling them “that’s a lie, I didn’t write Lawrence Of Arabia at all.... I was too busy on Doctor Zhivago”.

I think I’m funny, I don’t know that the other person agrees. But once my career cat is out of the bag, this is what invariably happens next, especially if I’m seated alongside the someone at a meal table: in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink sort of way, they’ll tell me that they’ve got a “great film idea” for me but that they wouldn’t dream of boring me with it at the meal table.

I can almost set my watch by what happens next; before we’ve got to the dessert, they lean into me and, checking that Steven Spielberg isn’t within earshot (in case he’ll overhear and run off with their filmic gold) they ask if I want to hear their idea. Of course I do, I’m a polite young man. I’m told a mildly amusing anecdote (mildly amusing to them maybe), they roar with laughter, I offer my best wry grin and they tell me “it’s true, it really happened” and then ask what I think?

What I think is that they want me to say: “we must have a meeting because I think you’re onto something there and we must run off to Hollywood together.” What I actually say is “you should write that”. This generally stuns them and gets me off the hook from what, I don’t know. They then respond with “do you think so?”, and I tell them “absolutely.”

I don’t know that it’s actually ever happened like that and most of the time I’d rather tell them that I’m an astronaut than have to explain the down and dirties of the screenwriter in all shades of script development at the un-Hollywood end of the biz. At least these days, I have a shorthand version: “I’m the Hungry Screenwriter”, to wit, I urge them to get their iPhone out and check me out on the web.

But the story of Field 58 came to me, fully packaged like I wrote it hear today. I don’t know if it’s a film, TV idea maybe or whether it’ll be consigned to the bottom drawer of my laptop to never see the light of day, but it’s got something - the something that is like a piece of creative grit in my shoe - and I’ve learnt to pick up on the good stories when I hear them. When I do, I ask the teller of the tale: “can I have that story?” They usually say “yes” and I usually reach for my Moleskin notebook and pen to get it all down before I forget or before Steven Spielberg hears of it.

The world is a Hungry place my friends.








Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Day 47: Five Fruits


A favourite dinner party game of mine: stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life you’re allowed to pick five fruits and that’s all you’re going to get to eat forever. What are your five fruits?

Over the years that I’ve put this litmus test to friends and acquaintances, I’ve found it to be very revealing, giving me an insight into someone’s character make-up, which up to that point, I’d never picked up on. I’d even consider running the fruit question past someone that I was considering working with, it’s that dependable.

I mean, if I’m thinking about writing a screenplay for someone - let’s say a first draft which is going to take up to six months of my life and who knows how many years after that - and the first fruit that they pick is a Red Delicious apple, then I’m outta there and leaving the commission for some other nut. Red Delicious? Why would you even bother?

Prospective dates...give them the fruit test, you’ll soon know whether compatibility is remotely possible...if you hear the words “seedless grape”.....run for the hills and don't look back.

I’ve given this plenty of thought, which you can probably tell. Before I reveal myself, via my choices, a rule: no avocados or tomatoes or any of those confused species that don’t know whether they’re a vegetable or a fruit; they end up in salads not fruit salads and that’s the ruling.

Now, down to business. Pick of the bunch has to be the banana. It’s a different texture, it’s filling, high in potassium and it's unlike any other fruit that you’re going to come across. Second up and I’m reaching for the mango. Part of me wants to say that if there was only ONE fruit then it would have to be this, but a word of warning: make sure that it’s a Kensington Pride. Forget the Calypso or the EMc2 or whatever it’s called or the green and red coloured varieties. It’s the Kenny Pride or nothing.

An apple has to be included, but which one? This is going to depend one where you come from. If I were back in the UK I’d be choosing the Russet: small, brown, a little sour, even tart...my kinda apple. If I could rely on the heritage apple man that used to be a regular stall holder at my local Saturday morning market here in Kings Cross, Sydney, then I’d be picking his London Pippin or the King David. Given that I haven’t seen him for a while and can’t rely on his coming through for me, I’ll go with what most people consider to be the queen of Australian apples, the Pink Lady.

Two fruits left and, whilst I’m thinking about this, let me tell you that you’ll hear some people come up with the craziest ideas in this game, people really not thinking through their choices or trying to be controversial. Just last week someone nominated Limes!!! Their rationale: so that they could squeeze the juice on the other fruits. Two months into their stay on the remote outpost, as they squeeze a little more "lime" juice onto their four other fruits, do you think that they might be wishing they chose a pineapple? I’ve just about heard it all...even passion fruit? People, there’s very little fruit bang for your buck with the passion fruit.

I think I have to go a citrus fruit and for me that’s the mandarin. Lemons - no point. Grapefruit - too kooky. Oranges - too much peeling business. Tangelo - sounds stupid, looks stupid.

The final choice and this is where I might go a little out on a limb. The lychee came close, blueberries were there for a second, but I will bestow my fifth and final fruit choice on the black cherry. Luxurious, sensual, sour, sexual....I know, it’s more of a treat than your practical everyday fruit, but maybe it’s the fruit I’m reaching for on a Friday night on that desert island, the special occasion fruit: “Ah, the weekend’s here, time to kick back and bring out the black cherries.”

I will say that I admire those who pick the coconut (milk and meat), I think those people, those fruit-pickers have given great thought to that choice and I’ll always be envious of those who choose the plum...I can make a good case for a plum. And then there is the fruit gulf that is paw-paw. Me, I’m a paw-paw guy, but we don’t number many. I think think it’s an olfactory thing for some people. Good....plenty more for me.

What’s all this got to do with screenwriting? Let me try and enlighten you.

Day #47 Tip: Know Your Kings & Queens
This thought holds good for any stage of the writing of any draft that I'm working on. Whether it’s sifting through the Index Cards, trying to reject and select as I reduce the pile down to 40-60, or it could be when I'm making choices in scene writing or coming up with arbitrary inclusions for a character biog.

What do I do when faced with choices? Do I go this way or that? Does the character do this, that or the other? Which location, what month of the year, doe he leave her or does he stay?

The process of screenwriting from the first bubble of inspiration to the last bead of perspiration will constantly and continuously bring me to forks in the road where I must choose. McKee counsels that before making my choice, I should ask myself this question: “what’s more powerful for my story/screenplay?”

My version of that is to think of my work as though it were a chess game. Surveying the kingdom that I have created, decide on the value of everything, just as the different chess pieces have value. I can play chess - I’m certainly no grand master flash - but, at the risk of referring to something that I am no expert in, I do know the rudimentary value attached to each piece. Prawns - sorry that’s pawns (a lame attempt at humour) - are two-a-penny, everything else less so. Rooks (lovely word rook, don’t you think?), knights and bishops mean different things to different people. One man’s Bishop is another man’s knight. The queen out-trumps those three (the most powerful moving piece) and the king is the most important piece on the board. Lose your king and it’s goodnight-god bless, game over.

When I’m faced with a choice in my work, a choice that could see me move in one direction or another - both valid - I think of Mr McKee’s questions and then I try and work out - of the elements involved - which bit is maybe a pawn and which is rook, knight or bishop. If I can assign values to each part or facet of the choice I’m faced with, then maybe I’ve got a chance at knowing what to let go of and what to hang onto. If I designate something as a king or queen, then I protect that at all costs and guard it with my life, it’s obviously beyond-vital to the script I’m writing, the story I’m telling: “I’m happy to lose that character, sure the gun can go, kill her and him off, but I am not, repeat 'not', moving this location from the desert island. Not for all the tea in China nor all the mangoes in Queensland.”

I will return.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Day 46: I Have a Question for Mohandas



Seven years ago, I was taking part in a year-long process at The Script Factory, in London, moving my screenplay, The Comedians, from draft #2 to draft #3. In between sessions, masterclasses, readings and one-on-ones, there was plenty of down-time. Whilst I was financially supported by the Australian Film Commission, the funds (for which I was extremely grateful) barely covered my expenses. I was lucky that a friend from my youth, over there, is a bricklayer who specialises in restoration work and often has the need for a sophisticated brickie’s mate, like my good self.

My screenwriting apprenticeship has been bolstered by begging, borrowing but not stealing; part-time and casual work have found me as a driver, babysitter, warehouse worker, house-cleaner, gutter-cleaner, photographic model, copywriter, house renovator, data-entry operator and, during the particular summer in question, bricklayer’s mate.

My bricklayer friend - Pete - had been given the task of restoring the chimney stacks, high up on the roof of Penge East Railway Station (pictured) in South London, a listed building. My job, as the “brickie’s mate” was to mix up the pug, sort the bricks, hoist the pug and bricks up to the craftsman on the roof, tune the radio and then sit high up on the eaves to survey England’s capital. I must say that it was one of the more enjoyable labours that I’ve carried out to finance my labour of love.

The National Film Theatre (NFT) were having a retrospective of the work of Lord Richard (Dickie) Attenborough that summer: films in which he acted, including the adaptation of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (I could almost see Brighton from the my eeyrie in Penge East....actually I’m lying) through murderous moments in 10 Rillington Place as John Christie. As a producer and director, Lord Dickie’s work includes Chaplin, A Bridge Too Far, Shadowlands and Ghandi, all of which were playing.

Astride the tiles covering the railway station roof, I espied in the Evening Standard (London’s afternoon newspaper) that on the particular night in question, the NFT were screening a new print of Ghandi, which would be followed by a Q&A session with the Mahatma himself; I’m lying again, it was to be Ben Kingsley (not yet a Knight of the realm, nevermind spiritual leader and pursuer of non-violent civil disobedience). Thinking I’d no chance of scoring a ticket, still, I phoned the hotline in between pug mixes and was astonished to secure the last single seat in the house. An audience with Gandhi-Gee was mine!

The evening turned out to be the best £17.00’s worth of a brickie’s mate expenditure that I’m liable to part with, in a long time: to see Ghandi on the big screen again was profound, then Lord Richard made a surprise appearance and closed the first half of the evening reminiscing with Ben about their tales of mother Ganges. Part Two of the night’s enetertainment was English TV presenter, Jonathan Ross, showing clips of Ben Kinglsey’s various films and inviting questions from the audience, that must have number two or three hundred.

I normally have zero interest in thinking up some question to ask whoever the guest is at events like these - it all seems so self-important to me - however, I’d recently just watched Schindler’s List several times as research for something that I was working on. I think it’s a great film and is Ben Kingsley’s finest hour (or two).

Ben Kingsley’s character, Itzhak Stern, the humble Jewish accountant, arguably Oskar Schindler’s conscience and the conscience of the story, is beautifully written and portrayed. I wanted to know, how he, the actor, coped with the day-in, day-out immersion in the subject matter of “the camps” and the horror of the film's content, for the months of the film shoot: “How did you deal with that Mr Kingsley?”

He let out a sigh and admitted that he often didn’t “deal" with it. They were shooting in Poland, in Lodz maybe, and at night would return from the set to their hotel, where, of an evening he would get his lines down for the next day, sleep and then be up at the torturously early hours that film shoots start (for the crew and actors), day after day. Breaking for the weekend at the close of one particular week of filming, he was drinking in the bar of their hotel with other crew/actors, when someone not associated with the film, made a crass joke about Jews. Ben Kingsley ended up in a fight with the man and regrets his behaviour.

Exhaustion, deeply confronting subject matter, a lengthy spell away from home and loved ones; all played a part in what happened, but Ben Kingsley was quick to admit that none of these mitigating circumstances excused what happened and his part in things. The evening at the National Film Theatre and Ben Kingsley’s candid, revealing response to my question gave me plenty to think about the next day, up on top of the roof at Penge East, as I watched the Eurostar train whistle past at high speed, bound for Europe.

Day #46 Tip: Know That There Is a Cost and Decide What You’re Prepared To Pay
There is no such thing as a free lunch; that old business adage is true. My screenwriting apprenticeship has cost me plenty: money, physical health, mental health, creature comforts (I often joke that I will title my autobiography, 50 Ways With A Chick Pea). It’s tested relationships with friends, family, significant others and I often question what it is that I’m doing...why? I mean, old hands will tell you: “...film is over.”

I changed my career, giving up a fairly-lucrative and successful one in business, some seventeen years ago now. After re-education and fiddling about pretending I was a director for a few years, I settled into the writer’s saddle in August/September 1999. “They say” that the screenwriting apprenticeship is ten years long. Here’s the kicker: there’s no guarantee of success when you’ve done your ten years...it’s just that you can probably write a reasonable first draft by that time!

Holding a plumb line to measure the vertical accuracy of the chimney stack on Penge East Railway Station roof, when we’d completed our job that August (a job well done I may add) didn’t necessarily give me any greater or lesser pleasure that completing a character biography or writing a scene that I’m happy with. Holistically, they’re all one and part of the same job, all part of being a writer.

I’m not looking for kudos, sympathy, medals, pity or acknowledgment; I’m just trying to link up my own journey to the anecdote about the night I put a question to Ben Kingsley. I’m attempting to make sense of the two events as though they were crop circles in two different fields not so very far apart, phenomena that have come to pass which have completely taken me by surprise. "How on earth did I get here?" I think that’s what Ben might have thought that night in the bar, in Poland, and it’s what I was thinking on top of that roof, in Penge.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Day 45: A Cracker of a Man


Observant followers of my thoughts will have noticed by now that I’m not afraid of collecting a quote or two. In fact, whenever I’m in the company of someone who has wisdom or experience that I’d like to plunder, I’ll always have pen poised, ready for that nugget that’s going to solve my life.

I do quite a few script consultancy jobs and I’m constantly amazed at the number of writers who sit down with me, in readiness for a two hour session, with no notepad. Even though I’m going to give them a hard copy of my notes at the end of the session, I let them them know that during the course of our time together, pearls of wisdom will drip from my mouth, gems that might be not in the notes and they won’t want to miss them (excuse me a second whilst I just check my ego at the door).

“There is no higher calling than to write about injustice; I don’t know how you could turn it down.”

Thus spake Jimmy McGovern, creator and writer of Cracker, The Lakes, Dockers, Hillsborough and many other fine, fine film and television pieces. I sat in on two audiences with Jimmy, back, I think, in 1999, when he was out here in Australia. He first came to my attention as one of the writers on the seminal TV series Brookside (Channel 4) in the UK, back in the early 1980’s. For the unwashed of you, Brookside was a daily ‘soap‘ that gave the up-until-then ‘soap‘ genre a bit of a scrub up.

By the way, the fashionable term for “soaps” today, is “continuing drama”. East Enders, Coronation Street, The Young and the Restless, Neighbours, The Bold and the Beautiful, Home and Away are all, “continuing dramas”; don't say that you haven't been told.

Brookside was real in a way that I hadn’t found the “continuing dramas” to be like before. It seemed as though writers like Jimmy McGovern and Frank Cotterell- Boyce (amongst many many others) arrived with the brief to rip out the melodrama, tear through the wall of naturalism and get stuck into realism. Subject matters - many of them television-taboo - were suddenly on the TV set which I and my middle-class English family crowded around...how risqué. Actors like Ricky Tomlinson and Sue Johnston(Mr and Mrs from the Royale Family/Grace from Waking the Dead) brought a performance sinew to the scripts that I certainly hadn’t seen before in the cast of television actors that I was familiar with. Were they actors, they seemed like “real people” to us?!

Suddenly, the “gogglebox” became relevant to me through programmes like Brookside, Boys From the Blackstuff and the writing DNA that flowed down through Jimmy McGovern’s milestone mini-series, The Lakes (just been re-issued on DVD). Drama content had something to do with me now, it was relevant, not removed; no longer did it feel like somewhat of a frothy construct, which “continuing dramas” feel like today, at least to me they do.

Day #45 Tip: There Is No Substitute For Authenticity

In the late 90’s, Jimmy McGovern turned his writer’s sensibility to a feature-length TV piece called Dockers. It was broadcast here, in Australia, on ABC Television, along with a companion piece about The Making of Dockers (except it wasn’t called that).

Dockers came about, following the real-life events of the striking workers and their families who lost their jobs in the Liverpool dock strike of 1998. Without going into great detail about the how’s and the why’s of what happened, the upshot was that, when the dust had just about settled, these men and their families were left without jobs, without income and without a voice; their local members of parliament and even their union had abandoned them.

I can’t remember how it came to pass, but with Liverpool being Jimmy McGovern’s home turf, he became involved with this group of people and suggested a way that they could turn from being the unheard to the heard. They formed a writers co-operative of sorts (The Initiative Factory) and the idea was suggested of telling their story/stories through the medium of a dramatic piece for the screen, the television screen, the most powerful of mediums. This process is the very subject matter of the “making-of” companion piece and, for my money, is as good as, if not better than the Dockers film itself.

On a regular basis, Jimmy McGovern would meet with this group of people, sometimes en masse, sometimes individually and guide them through the process of creating the film from their own experiences which, memory tells me, THEY wrote and he shaped/co-wrote. The fundamental difference here was that rather than a writer parachuting in and collecting together the material needed and whizzing off, never to be seen again, he empowered this group (none of whom had turned their hand to writing before) to give voice to their stories and become the accountable architects of their own work.

Verbatim theatre is a common strand of theatrical performance/writing, a kind of “word for word‘ replay of events, documented by a writer or company and then replayed on stage; The Laramie Project (in it’s theatrical rather than filmic form [personal preference]) about the murder of Matthew Shephard (a murder widely considered to be motivated by homphobia)is one piece that comes to mind, as is the play/film Aftershocks about the devesation following the Newcastle (NSW, Australia) earthquake of 1989.

Robert McKee says this: “A true author, no matter the medium, is an artist with godlike knowledge of his subject, and the proof of his authorship is that his pages smack of authority....this writer knows. I’m in the hands of an authority. And the effect of writing with authority is authenticity.”

These thoughts are but rules of the road, nothing more and I always love the exceptions to the rules: In one of those Q&A sessions with Jimmy McGovern, he was quizzed at length about the television series Cracker and it’s protagonist, the criminal psychologist, Fitz (Robbie Coltrane). Here’s something he said: “With Fitz, I wanted to create someone who was looking for the pure truth...however, I never met a criminal psychologist until the wrap party”. Then he added, about writers: “...we’re human....”

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Day 44: Me and Anton Pavlovich


Chekhov, notable for his plays, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard and a swag of short stories, was born in Taganrog, Russia, in 1860, dying only 44 years later; a man who described medicine as his wife and writing as his mistress.

Where should I begin? I am, by no stretch of the imagination, anywhere near an authority on Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, but he and and I, or should I say "his work and I" bump into each other and when we do, I feel like he's an acquaintance that I should spend more time with, because my life is richer with him in it.

First bump: I spent many many years, worrying so much that I would live my life and not read some of the great writers everyone was banging on about, that one day twenty years ago, on a whim, I bought myself a copy of the Penguin Classics collection of Chekhov’s plays. I think I gave him half an hour of my time and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

Bump #2: My first week at NIDA (see yesterday’s thoughts) and we, the directing course participants were thrown into a week-long workshop with the third year acting students, under the charismatic guidance of director/teacher Lindy Davies. We observed the actors and Lindy interrogate and bring scenes to full-blooded life, from The Three Sisters. My heart sent messages to my head that maybe this was what the all fuss was about.

Third Bump: I become the assistant director on the Second Year actor’s production of The Three Sisters (translation by Irish playwright Brian Friels). I make some great, great, friends whose company I still find myself in, sixteen years on. I will probably never have another Three Sisters experience like that one again in my life.

Bump #4: My first gig as a director: an extra-curriculum piece that I put on at drama school - Chekhov’s short play, Swan Song.

And so it has gone, over the years. William Goldman, the screenwriter (Misery, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, All The President’s Men, Marathon Man, The Princess Bride) talking about Ingmar Bergman, digresses for a second when he says this: “Chekhov is THE playwright of the last hundred years and Bergman works the same side of the street. Heartbreaking, sure, but sometimes laughter. Funny/sad. Think it’s easy? Good luck.”

Friends of mine have directed and designed and acted in various productions of Chekhov’s plays, I saw Cate Blanchett in the Belvoir Street Theatre production of The Seagull, Woody Allen’s Hannah & Her Sisters (one of my favourite films) is an homage to Three Sisters, I love the movie Vanya On 42nd Street....I keep bumping into him - Chekhov - and did then, did I bump into him, or did I bump into him, just over three years ago?!

Cold January 2007, London, Sloane Square, The Royal Court Theatre. I had two more nights in England before returning home to Australia. I was in the grips of a favourite pastime of mine - hypochondria (I won’t go into the gory details right now) - and this was my one and only chance to see a preview of the new production of The Seagull, in a translation fresh from the computer keyboard of Christopher Hampton (writer of films Dangerous Liaisons, The Quiet American and too many plays to mention).

All seats were sold, the only option being to go into a mini lottery for any returns or pay the princely sum of twenty-two pence (that wouldn’t even by you a button these days) for an obscured vision standing ticket. 22p....what’s to lose? I mean, the cast included Art Malik (the evil-doer in The Living Daylights), Carey Mulligan (Oscar-nominated Best Actress this year for An Education) Chiwetel Ejiofor (Love Actually), Mackenzie Crook (Gareth from The Office), Katherine Parkinson (the receptionist from Doc Martin) and...and...and, in the lead role of Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina, the wonderful and effulgent (look it up), Kristin Scott Thomas.

When theatre does what only theatre can do, the cathartic experience can be had in a way that film cannot compete with. That Monday night, that obscured standing ticket experience was one of those hen’s teeth occasions. When the curtain came down for the interval at the end of Act One and again at the end of Act Two, I could not, dare not, leave my spot, lest the hermetically-sealed dream be broken by queueing for a tub of ice cream. Plus, my feet were emotionally nailed to the floor.

Remember, I’d seen the exact same play a few years earlier with the “great" Cate (absolutely no disrespect intended to anyone involved in that production) and it was, a reasonable night in the theatre (doesn’t sound thrilling does it?). Here, this night in SW-whatever-postcode, my soul was melting or evanescing or something??!! When the curtain finally came down on Act Three, they had to hose me off the floor....I think other members of the audience had to step over me on their way out.

How can a playwright have such power over me? I’ll offer you these words from The Three Sisters:

“I’ve got something to confess to you. I must get some relief, I feel the need of it in my heart. I’ll confess it to you, and then never again, never to anybody. It’s a secret, but you’ll have to know everything. I can’t keep silent any more. I’m in love, in love...I love that man.”

Day #44 Tip: Have An Affair With Chekhov
I know, it may not sound like much of a Tip, but believe me, this advice is gold or whatever’s the most precious metal you can think of.....Bohrium or Seaborghium maybe.

I’ll paraphrase Bill Goldman again (again, he was talking Bergman, but the cap fits Chekhov): “...he takes you places you’ve never been before, never knew existed, and you know you’ll never be quite the same after.”

I think that Anton Pavlovich Chekhov mines, understands and reveals the human condition like no other dramatic writer. But, I must add a caveat: I can’t "get this" by just reading, watching or intellectually understanding, I have to experience it, viscerally so, and that only happens when certain celestial bodies line up in the sky in a unique formation.

I hope those stars come again. I hope they come for you too.









Friday, May 21, 2010

Day 43: If I Were A Rich Man


As a mature student (their title, not mine), I studied Directing at Sydney’s NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art), Australia’s foremost drama school. I had no right to make it onto the course for would-be theatre directors, having only seen one play in my life: The Caucasian Chalk Circle, starring, of all people, Topol (Fiddler On The Roof) at the Chichester Festival Theatre. I was less that eleven and bored senseless. If only he had have broken into: “If I were a rich man...”

I talked the other day about a philosophy I adopt when applying for jobs, positions and grants; I work on the theory that I can’t force “them” to say “yes” but I can make it nigh on impossible for “them” to turn me down and say “no”. Applying for NIDA was the first time I employed this strategy, because I knew that my one theatrical experience made for a very slim catalogue of experience.....I had my work cut out.

For several months leading up to the audition process for the Director’s course, I ate, slept and breathed plays. I would watch them, read them, listen to them on tapes & CD’s and generally consume plays any which way I could, to get my theatrical vocabulary, knowledge of playwrights and their works up to scratch.

Reading dramatic works - plays and film scripts - is not an easy thing to do, if you come from a starting place like I did, of never having read any before, but I supplemented the reading of the plays with books on how to read plays. I was like a runaway train, desperate to get one of the six directing berths on offer.

The first audition centered around us, the applicants, turning up to talk about our production of one of four titles (plays) that we were given to choose from. I elected to talk about Twelfth Night by Shakespeare but, not happy to just talk about it, I built a model box and created a sort of production bible that included costume drawings, character notes and my plotted out stage directions for the whole show. I read that play 60 times in preparation for the audition and tracked down every tape and video of every production that had ever been recorded. In hindsight, I think the panel may have thought me a little unhinged: at best I imagined they thought me obsessed, at worst, maybe a little mentally disturbed?

The head of the directing course flicked through my malnourished application form, leaving others to pour over the items I’d brought in with me, and gave me “ten minutes” to plead my case. One hour later, he, being the ultimate decision maker, prevaricated, stared me down with his beady eye, then hinted that he might be persuaded to have me in for a callback (second audition). As part of my preparation, he asked me to go away and come up with ten pieces I’d like to direct and why.

I’ve heard ”luck” described as “opportunity meeting preparation”, and so it was for me. If I had not been consuming plays in the way that I had - like some sort of theatrical cookie monster - I wouldn’t have had a pool of resources to go and dredge; I’d have had to return and say that I’m burning to direct The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

As it was, I feel that my choices were a little thin. To really want to direct something, I think you first must have a ton of pieces that you know, but then know them so well (or at least the ones you’re keen to turn your hand and thoughts to) for you to be able to discern those you’d like to spend a chunk of your life on and why.

I returned to the callback, bent on distracting them with more model boxes rather than my selection: it was a real Jamboree Bag of choices: David Mamet’s American Buffalo, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, Murder In The Cathedral (the dramatic poem by TS Eliot), others that have long-since escaped my memory and a pantomime, Ali Baba & the Forty Thieves.

What a motley selection, but blimey, 'twas enough to get me through to the third and final audition.

Day #43 Tip: Have Five Books In Your Bag, Ready
A couple of years ago, I was catching up (part-social and part-professional) with script consultant/writer Joan Sauers and script consultant/writer, Matthew Dabner - both of whom I’ve had the pleasure to work with - to talk about a screenplay I was working on at the time and to pick their brains about “where I should go from here”.

Amongst titbits of advice, my head tells me, it was Matthew that came up with this gem:

“Any good screenwriter should be walking around with the five books they’d love to adapt, in their bag, just in case you get that chance meeting with a producer who says ‘so, what do you fancy writing?’”.

That thought is paydirt. I come across plenty of ideas and suggestions and it’s my job to sift through the sand and grit to get to the pearls of wisdom. I mean, I read plenty. I’m a writer, I’d be a nut-case if I didn’t, and in the course of my reading I’d often think “this would be a great film”. Adaptation or original piece, I’ve worked on both, I enjoy writing both, I don’t consider one form to be better than the other, nor one lesser that the other. Writing is writing and if someone’s paying me, you bet I’ll head to the keyboard (within reason - I’m hardly in a position of luxury where I can say “no” to things, but I’m not going to spend a chunk of my life on something that makes my eyes bleed).

I’ve got my five books. Sorry, I’m not going to share them with you unless you’re a director, producer, investor, Jack Nicholson or Isabelle Huppert; if you’re one of those just mentioned, then you can contact me through this site and I’ll be happy to sit down and take you through my priceless gems.

I’ve added an extra cherry on the top of Matthew’s 'cake': of the books/stories that I’m eager to bring to the cinema screen, four of the five are in the public domain, meaning that there is no copyright issue for the producer/investor to worry about. In only one case, will rights have to be obtained. Again, I can’t force someone to say “yes”, but I certainly don't want to make it easier for them to say “no”.

Public domain laws change from country to country. But as a very rough rule of thumb, anything where the writer has been dead for 75 years or more, is fair game (check it out for yourself though). If my production of Twelfth Night is an original and radiant take on that play and I want to adapt it for the cinema screen, nothing stands in my way.

At the risk of gilding the lily of today's Tip; one of the ideas that was on that first list at my NIDA callback was decanted to my five pieces that I’d like to adapt. A couple of weeks back, I pitched a bunch of ideas (including that one) to a director I know and have a real interest in working with. Today we’re having our second meeting to progress the idea forward to it’s next stage. The journey may have taken over 16 years but that’s short in comparison with the time it takes for a pearl to form.

By the way, I haven’t mentioned that piece here...go get your own oysters.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Day 42: Love For Sale


Have you heard the rumour, the urban myth, that Hollywood has an open cheque book for anyone who can come up with a contemporary love story?

The classic Love Story, the ‘dramatic’ kind of love story - like it’s comedic cousin, the Romantic Comedy - has a crucial dramatic engine at it’s heart, the thought or question: “why can’t they be together?” Every romantic tale that the western world has ever told has been built around, and on, this idea since the story of Tristan & Isolde. Romeo and Juliet couldn’t be together because their families were at war with each other. Much more recently, Jack & Rose (on the good ship Titanic) couldn’t have a crack at it because she was from first class and he was in steerage (her hand was also pledged to another).

I’ve watched plenty of Loves Stories recently, aiming to master that convention for a Treatment that I’ve just written. Let me tell you, it’s a depressing genre. Here’s why: more often that not, in every classic love story that I watched, guess what happened at the film’s climax? I tell you what happened: “he” dies, “she” lives. Let me prove my point with a selection: Titanic (he dies, she lives), Mrs Brown (he dies, she lives), Out of Africa (he dies, she lives), Leaving Las Vegas (he dies, she lives), Cold Mountain (he dies, she lives), A Star is Born (he dies, she lives), Brokeback Mountain (he dies, he lives), Romeo and Juliet (he dies, she dies). If it doesn’t happen literally, then it happens metaphorically, like in Casablanca. But it doesn’t end there, I’ve cheated a little by not adding the third part to this equation.

Yes, "he" dies (negative) yes "she" lives (positive, but negative without him); the scales look as though they tilt way too much to the negative here, so what do the filmmakers add to restore balance toward the positive, how do they leaven this sour-dough of love? They add one more piece to complete the puzzle: "he" dies, "she" lives....."their" love endures. Remember the lyric of Celine Dion, how could you forget...the heart goes on...foerever. Hence, the target audience does not leave the cinema feeling that their time spent there was depressing, beacuse we, the western world, worship at the altar of romatic love and know that a sacrifice has to be made. “She” can live, “their” love can live, but “he” must die. Have we come very far since the age of chivalry I ask myself?

But back to that cheque book in Hollywood. The problem today is that there is very little that prevents a couple from being together. Differing religions...get over it. Different parts of the world.....get on a plane. Same gender...so what?! Older, younger, race, culture, creed....it doesn’t matter any more. We’ve run out of reasons. Emotional problems? Go see a therapist. Warring families.....get a bunch of therapists. It is almost impossible to come up with a contemporary setting for a dramatic Love Story where there is a reason that the couple can’t be together, which the audience will buy? Yes, there are exceptions to the rule, in some corner of some culture, somewhere in the world, but most of the Love Stories that you can think of, on the cinema screens today (not Rom Com’s) are set, some place, some time in the past where there was very good reason to keep the paramours apart.

Hollywood has a cheque waiting if you’ve got the great, original, contemporary story ( I don’t know who exactly has the cash, but you get my point).

There has been a knock-on affect of sorts though, where scriptwriters have started to look at imaginative and very different ways of overcoming this, mutating the love story with another genre to keep love alive in today’s world. I give you the film sub-genre du jour “the vampire movie”. Let’s mix some blood from the Horror sub-genre with a Love Story and that’ll work...you betcha’s it does and has. At this point I have to implore you to run to your local DVD store right now and rent the exquisite Swedish take on the vampire thing, Let The Right One In (do not wait for the Hollywood remake that’s heading our way). Why can’t Oskar & Eli be together in that film? Because she‘s a vampire and he’s not, just like all the other vampire movies. Please, please, check out the book on which the film is based for more reasons why they cannot be together.

But another movie, trying to get around the star-crossed lovers dilemma, has caught my eye in the last few years.....

Day #42 Tip: Refresh & Tweak A Genre
Nicole Kidman is not one of my favourite actresses, but I certainly don’t dislike her either: I offer you To Die For as at least one exhibit of her good work. I think that she was very poorly treated in the wake of Australia; roundly bagged by the press for her heightened, meoldramatic stye of performance. Hey, EVERYONE was doing it.....the antagonistic male characters were one step short of twirling their moustaches. I cannot believe that the mannered style was Nicole Kidman’s choice, it makes absolutely no sense to me that she walked on set and said to the director (Baz Luhrman) “this is how I’m going to play my character”. If it was, then why didn’t the director stop her? May it was HIS choice, for every character, I could be wrong? But if it was his choice, then where was he to defend his lead actress during the schlacking she took after the movie’s release. From what I saw, the director did the opposite and appeared to distance himself from her.

Let’s move on and back to said actress and the film Birth.

In Birth, Nicole Kidman, plays Anna, a widow, engaged to a new love in her life (and I use the word “love” with some reservation). Enter, ten year-old Sean, a boy who claims to be the reincarnated version of Anna’s late husband of the same name (the man who was obviously the love of her life). Sean doesn’t want Ann to marry the new guy (nor do we) and d’you know what? She starts to believe the boy and then falls for him...falls for her husband all over again, her reincarnated, dead husband, channeled by this child.

Now that is a vibrant, twist on the love story in a contemporary urban setting. The age difference thing is nothing original, but the rest is, as is most of everything about the film. I have to add that there are structural points that I still have question marks over, but, it captured my imagination; “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” they say, and I ate this film three times in 36 hours. Nicole Kidman is wonderful in this movie which marries a Love Story with something between a Revelation Plot, an Education Plot, a Tragic Plot...I’m really not sure which?

I’m enjoying what I call these 'neo-love stories". Despite what Hollywood might think, love never does truly die.



Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Day 41: Applying Myself to My Craft



I’ve been taking a break from my crime work, last week and this, to prepare a development funding application that I, a director and a producer are submitting to Federal (Screen Australia) and State (Screen New South Wales) film funding bodies for me to write a first draft.

There is no prescribed way to find money to write film. For the screenwriter, it’s part of the business-end of the writing business and you’ve got to get professional at doing it, but I digress.

The long synopsis (20 pages) that I’ve written is for a film called The Age of Enlightenment, a love story between a young woman who lives in England of 1870 and an urban Aboriginal man, living in Sydney in the 21st century. I’m sorry but it’s neither the time nor the place to explain how and why boy-meets-girl, but let’s just say that the “meeting cute” scene is a little different.

I first came up with this idea and spitballed it with a friend some fourteen years ago. The idea was jotted down on a file somewhere on my Mac that I owned at the time (an SE). Occasionally I’d open up the file in a moment when I was tired of whatever it was that I was working on at the time, and I’d fiddle. The file was then transfered to my Blueberry iMac Laptop in 1999 (still the fastest computer that I’ve ever owned, including this one that I’m working on now) and again, de temps en temps, I’d click on the folder named The Victorian Girl and I’d tweak it a bit and dabble in the idea.

FInally that file and folder have ended up on this iBook G4 and the story is ready to go to a First Draft screenplay; it has a producer attached and a director, the same friend that chewed the idea over with me all those years ago. Neat, huh?

We’re very lucky to live in a country where we have a Ministry of the Arts that commit to funding film projects and film practitioners. I have personally been very lucky in that they have funded me on several ocassions over the years on different drafts of various screenplays. But I was never always successful in my applications, in fact, for a long time there I got knock-back after knock-back and became quite the cynic. Who me?!

That was until I heard a friend talk about a friend of his who was being a repetitively successful recipient of film funding monies and put it down to “mastering the art of the application”. My ears sprung up when I heard that and I set about making it my business to also develop this facet of my writing craft. I didn’t think that there was a secret formula or recipe and I didn’t go and talk to the successful friend of the friend, although I could have. What I did, was put as much care and applied equal diligence into the writing of my application - the CV, Biography and all-important Script Development Notes that accompany the application - as I did the writing of the script.

I figured out that I couldn’t force anyone’s hand and make them say “yes” to my application, but I could make it very, very hard for them to say “no”. It’s a nuanced difference and I’ve continued to have as many losses as I’ve had wins, but it’s forced me to hone my skills in writing the one-line, one-paragraph, half-page, one-page and three-page synopsis and learn how to pitch myself and my film stories. As a consequence, if you’re a producer, investor, director or financier, depending where and when I bump into you and how many seconds or minutes you’ve got to hear me out, I’ve got THE pitch for you.

Day #41 Tip: “I Have Numerous Projects In Various Stages Of Development”
Back in 1999, I stumped up the Aus$400, or whatever it was then, to attend the DOV Simmons (see picture above of a man that looks more like a magician than a teacher...in some ways he is!) 2-Day Hollywwod Film School. Sounded great; he promised to tell you everything they take three years to tell you in Film School, over just one Saturday and Sunday.

That noise I just heard....was that the door of your open mind just slamming shut?

I can’t remember much of what DOV rattled through at high speed with incredible chutzpah (I think the notes I made were on that old SE) but I remember him telling us keen and assembled filmmakers that we need to have “...various projects in numerous stages of development”. And if I didn’t have such projects, I at least needed to memorise the phrase so if ever asked what it was that I was working on, I could at least trot out that sound-bite to give the impression that I was a pretty busy writer.

I have made it my business over the course of my screenwriting apprenticeship to squirrel away ideas and gently nudge them along to different stages of being and store them away in files on this computer, because they’re the embryos that will wonder develop into my ideas that might grow to be screenplays that could eventually make it to a cinema near you. It's the currency of my business.

Last year, I was able to put together a document that held thirteen synopses of feature film ideas, two of which are now moving forward. It’s a far cry from me, the writer, that used to have all his eggs in the one basket. Like most of us, I learnt the hard way; when that one script (the one egg in the basket) was moving along, so was I. When that script was floundering, (the basket had tipped over) strangely enough, so was I.

Nurture your ideas, scribble things down and stash them away, type them up when you’ve got a few minutes to spare, open up a file, collect visual images, come up with titles, then forget about them and get on with the stuff that’s in front of you. As I write this, it sounds like motherhood adviceme, and to a degree it is, but I don’t mind writing it down and I certainly don’t mind hearing it again.

My recollection tells me that DOV was worth the money, for inspiration alone, check him out.















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