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: “ 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’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.

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