Thursday, May 13, 2010

Day 35: Hollywood Nights

Seventeen years ago, in my old employ, late on a February night, I found myself outside the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, standing next to Bob Seger as we both waited for our respective limo’s, following that year’s Grammy Awards ceremony. I think I said something inane like “Gee Bob, limo’s, where are they when you need them?” It didn’t make much sense, let alone go down in history as a nifty line.

After five weeks of LA, I was more than ready to return to Sydney. Staying on Rodeo Drive, I’d done the work I’d come to do, turned down a dinner invitation with Janet Jackson, searched for the ghost of Jim Morrison in Venice Beach and found myself, on the last night, mesmerised by a painting I saw through the window of an art gallery that was about to close up for the night.

It was a silhouette of a horse’s head, aflame, set against an inky black, night sky. Something was resonating within me. I had to know more. Inside the gallery was a collection of similar paintings, not all horse’s heads I might add, but desert and night landscapes with fire as the central motif. It turned out that this was a show of Australian, Tim Storrier’s Fireline series and in my state of longing for Australia, like some sort of siren song, they had called to me, lured me into the gallery.

I wanted to buy one, but the US Dollar made it just that little bit prohibitive. However, stepping off the plane back in Sydney, I searched for the artist’s phone number in the white pages and soon found myself sharing a conversation with him in his studio, asking if he’d accept a modest commission from me?

Tim Storrier had moved on from his Fireline series, but on telling him how the paintings had spoken to me of all-things-Australian in the middle of Hollywood, he agreed to do one more; a television station wanted to do a docco on him painting one of these, so it all became very opportune. Fire Line From Hailstorm, my commissioned piece, took pride of place on walls of my various homes over the next few years.

The painting had another deeper attachment: when my parents died in 1992, I used money they’d left to leave that previous career path and go to drama school to begin this journey. I could have invested that money in property but chose to invest in me. “The Storrier” was the one tangible thing that I bought with that money. In 2001 I was caught between a writing rock and a hard place. My only lifeline to keep writing was to sell the painting. I am not going to pick over whether that decision was foolhardy or a demonstration of my commitment, for there's nothing to be gained looking over my shoulder. We all face difficult decisions and, compared with what some people have to choose between in life, this is hardly up there with the really tough ones.

If I have one fiscal mission in life, it’s this: when my screenwriting ship comes in, on that first day of principle photography on the first script of mine that goes into production, hopefully, I’ll earn enough to track down Fire Line From Hailstorm and put it back on my wall, it’s spiritual home.

Day #35 Tip: Give Your Protagonist a True Character Dilemma
There are only two true character dilemmas: Firstly, the lesser of two evils. Second, irreconcilable goods.

‘The lesser of two evils is a version of "between a rock and a hard place", neither being palatable options. In Sophie’s Choice, the lesser of two evils was unspeakable, pure abomination: a mother asked to choose “should we kill your son or your daughter?”

The climax of the wonderfully dark Seven: Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) has to choose between killing John Doe (Kevin Spacey) so fulfilling the serial killer's plan/prophecy of "the good man" becoming "wrath", or letting the man who killed his wife and then “did what he did” (I shouldn’t spoil it here for those who haven’t seen the film) live. Both are unthinkable options for Mills.

A point of note in admiration of Brad Pitt: the producers of Seven wanted to soften up the ending and not have Detective Mills kill John Doe (sorry, I have spoilt some of it), plunging us into the pessimistic ending that the film does. They had the screenwriter, Andrew Kevin Walker, write a different, slightly less despairing ending (I have a copy of that script), but when Brad Pitt read it, he rejected it and refused to do the film unless the original ending was reinstated. Brad was right, stood his ground, and that’s the climax of the film that we see today; he knew that story could not have ended any other way, as unpalatable as the ending might be to us. Bravo Brad!

The second of the two true character dilemmas: irreconcilable goods. Let me leaven this piece with a chirpier example.

Casablanca, often described as the world’s most loved film. At the end of our 90 minutes or so with Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) - once lovers - we find them at a small airport, where Rick is putting Ilsa and her husband (the Czech freedom fighter, Victor Laslo), on a plane bound for the safety of America. This is shaping up to be Rick and Ilsa’s final farewell, they may never see each other again in this life (remember there was a war on). Rick could tell Ilsa to stay, indeed, a huge part of us wants him to. But, Rick (and we) know that the "right" thing to do, irrespective of their love for each other, is to let her go. At the start of this film, Rick is a man who’s given up on life (having lost Ilsa) and absented himself from the world conflict. In this one gesture, in choosing to send away the person that he deeply loves, Rick has regained so much and is, in many ways, “born again”...he’s back in the war, on the side of the angels.

Rick could have one (Ilsa) but not the other(commitment to the war effort). He had to choose and his choice reflected deeply and truly on the character stuff that Rick Blaine is made of, as all real true character dilemma does. At some point in my screenplay, my protagonist MUST face one of these two dilemmas, if not both. I must add that I cannot claim these ideas to be my own, that would be a gross deceit; please check out Robert McKee’s Story, he came up with this one and he came up with it, studying the films, good and indifferent.

Selling Fire Line At Hailstorm was a true dilemma for me, maybe not a literal life or death decision, but certainly a metaphorical version of. Did I choose wisely? Did it reveal character? I’ll let others be the judge of that. The good news is that I’m still doing what I love and that one day, I’ll find that painting. But like Rick said to Ilsa on the tarmac of that runway: "we'll always have Paris". That applies to me too, painting or no painting. I'll leave you to work out just what that means.

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