Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Day 75: Hare today

Christmas 1993: on the eve of me going to NIDA (the National Institute of Dramatic Art) I went back to the old country (England) and took the opportunity to prepare for the year ahead by immersing myself in theatre, both in London and Stratford. What a charmed few weeks it was. I saw thirteen productions whilst I was there, of which twelve were not only great, they were magnificicent for one reason or another. Whilst that story warrants a telling of it’s own, another day, I will mention one of the productions I saw.

The Absence of War was the third play in a theatrical trilogy by David Hare that examined the three great British institutions. Racing Demon, the first play of the three looks at the Church of England and details “the struggle of four clergymen to make sense of their mission in South London”. In the second piece, Murmuring Judges, the legal system and law itself falls under Mr Hare’s sscrutiny. The third play, The Absence of War (which I saw at the National Theatre) puts politics and government under the dramatic microscope, by examining the Labour Party of the early 1990’s.

What made the production that I saw sparkle, was the presence of the beautiful actor that was John Thaw, in the leading role. I grew up watching the late John Thaw on television as one of the hard-men detectives that were the central characters of The Sweeney, then engaged with him again, in probably his most charmed role, that of Morse, an erudite, intelligent and often thwarted Detective-Inspector, who’s stomping ground was the city of dreaming spires that is Oxford.

Roughly a decade later and back in London for my stint at The Script Factory, and I was treated to a masterclass with David Hare, a prolific writer, who has since gone onto write the screenplays for The Reader, Damage, Plenty and to be nominated an Academy Award for his screenplay of The Hours. A witty, passionate and thoughtful man, here’s some of the gems and anecdotal titbits that he had to impart:

“Ezamining my work, I often think, if I was an actor, would I want to play this? If not, then there’s something wrong with the part.”

“I love to write about people with intractable problems - good people struggling against things that can’t be resolved....characters who know that they can’t change even though they are aware of what they could do.”

“How should films end? Not more naively than the film has been.”

Talking about a favourite film, Carol Reed's The Third Man:
“I was asked to write a version of The Third Man for the theatre, but I couldn’t, I didn’t want to hear anyone else say those lines apart from Trevor Howard, Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles .....it’s a ‘here he comes movie’ - they talk about him (Harry Lime) for an hour, then he comes, 65 minutes in, with that music, that zither playing and it’s one of film’s great entrances”.

On The Hours:
Amores Perres and The Hours have similar triangular structures and I had an email correspondence with it’s writer - Guillermo Arriaga - who then wrote 21 Grams as a kind of answer or response to The Hours.....it’s (The Hours) a story about three janitorial relationships, three nursing relationships, each showing characters imprisoned by love.....Stephen Daldry (the director) was extermely resentful of the way I structured The Hours and that it couldn’t be made any other way.....all I feared during the editing, was that they were going to lose it and everything was going to go down the drain.”

Day #75 Tip: Second Act Turning Point
One of the greatest wisdoms that I got from the session with David Hare was when he talked about one of the resaons why, in his opinion, some films fail: Reel 7.

Reels of film were/are 10-11 minutes long, so theoretically (if your shooting 1:1, as Hitchock did in Rope) seven reels in and you hit the 70 minute mark, which is traditionally where the end of Act 2 lies in a movie. David Hare was of the opinion that films go to pieces somewhere between the 60 and 70 minute mark because "the writer either doesn’t know where it’s going or thge story's just not sustaining".

“This is where some writers introduce a seond idea, which is so fallacious...things can’t be fixed by a second idea because the audience are so sophisticated.” What he went on to say was that at the 60-65 minute mark or thereabouts, you need to raise the stakes and increase the pressure, not introduce new themes “arguing not about small things but fantastic things”.

He cited The Third Man and how, with the introduction of Harry Lime so deep into the story, Graham Greene gets to the heart of his material with the question of “to what should you be loyal/what do you believe” (suggesting that The Third Man was Graham Greene defending Kim Philby[1960's English political history homework for you]).

As an example of a “bad” reel 7, David Hare cited the then recently-released Calendar Girls - the story of the group of English, village-living, middle-aged women who pose nude for a calendar to raise money. "Once they’ve posed (nude) for the calendar, it’s very difficult to go anywhere after that, but the writer’s do, they bolt on a third act where the women go to Hollywood". What he's putting forward is the idea that what happens when the women pose for the calendar and overcome everything that’s stood in their way (conflicts on all three levels) is that they’ve achieved their “object of desire” that was set up at the start of the film with the Inciting Incident. The filmmakers must havethen realised that they needed another 25-30 minutes in the cinema to make it a feature film?! Here’s an idea.....they go to Hollywood.

Second Act Turning Points are never as obvious or apparent as those at the end of First Acts, often seemlessly moving the story from Act Two into Act Three, but they are there and must be so. They must be organic, must have grown out of the story and must accelerate a tale up towards the climax, still complicating things, still surprising us, twisting things in a new direction yet feeling (once witnessed) of having been innevitable.

A great (nay, unbelievable) Act 2 Turning Point (although it’s arguably not, given that this is a seven-act film[it does the same job]) comes on pg 103 (30 minutes from the end) of Seven. Detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) have been on the trail of the serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey), with little or no success (actually he’s made fools of them) when who should walk into their precinct house and give himself up but the killer himself. With the muzzle of a million cops trained on him, handcuffed and faced pressed against the concrete floor, Doe(Spacey), musters a smile and says “I wanna see my lawyer”.

He certainly ain’t going to no Hollywood.

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