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.

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