Monday, September 13, 2010

Day 158: The day I met Thelma or Louise

In 1999, which I date as the true or official start to my screenwriting career, I was one of an intake of four “emerging” writers, at a cottage within the Fox Studios grounds here in Sydney, called Tropnest - a now defunct writing hothouse spin-off of the Tropfest short film empire. During my time at the ‘nest we were paid a visit - who knows why exactly - by the fine American actress Geena Davis.

Geena Davis was not in Sydney in her acting capacity but because of her well-publicised involvement in the sport of archery. Sydney was in pre-Olympic mode in 1999, trying out the venues that were to be used the following year, before the world descended on us for the 2000 summer games, Geena Davis was here to compete in the Sydney International Golden Arrow competition, having narrowly missed inclusion in the US team for the Olympics proper.

Successful archer, member of Mensa, founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and either Thelma or Louise, the very tall Ms Davis, joined us at the cottage for afternoon tea, resplendent in a very sporty tracksuit and regaled us with anecdotes, mostly (at our insistence) about being either Thelma or Louise. Being the “emerging” writers that we were, we hung on every morsel of advice, wisdom or tittle-tattle that dropped from her lips, the only one of which I can remember however, is this: the first choices to play Thelma and Louise, were not her good self and Susan Sarandon, but Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer??!!

Just hold that thought for a moment..........weird, isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, I think both of those women are very fine actresses and, in the case of Michelle Pfeiffer, to quote Robert McKee: “proof of the existence of God”, his words not mine. But Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, so made those roles theirs, and their faces and voices are so imprinted on my filmic psyche now, that to think otherwise feels somehow indecent.

Here’s another one gleaned from the book ‘The Making of Blade Runner’ by Paul M. Simmon, Dustin Hoffman was the first choice to play Deckhart - hunting down replicants like Rutger Hauer - not Harrison Ford? Doesn’t make sense does it? But wait, there’s tons more: Mel Gibson turned down Gladiator, Warren Beatty passed up Burt Reynolds’s role in Boogie Nights,, Julia Roberts was first slated as Catherine Tremmell in Basic Instinct and John Travolta said “no” to Forrest Gump.

What about the notion of Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones, or Sean Connery as Gandalf?! Gandalf in a black polo neck sweater with a Scottish brogue.....that wouldn’t be at all right in Middle Earth?

A final word on this one, once more, must go to scriptwriter William Goldman, who in his book ‘Which Lie Did I Tell’ (Bloomsbury) lets us in on the fact that, before James Caan was cast as Paul Sheldon - the writer held hostage by Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) in Goldman’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel Misery - one or two notables turned down the role: William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty and William Hurt again.....have I missed anyone? There’s reason for this, but I’ll leave you to get the Goldman book rather than give his ‘gold’ away.

Day #158 Tip: Pay attention to the voices in your head
When I’m writing screenplay dialogue, do I see or hear particular actors and/or actresses in the cinema of my mind? I think this is an individual choice and there’s no hard line or answer on this one, but for me, it’s a “yes”.

The cadence, lilt, timbre or particular phrasing of an actor or actress can help me pin down a character and bring specificity to a role, but consistency is the watchword here. In a screenplay of mine for which I’ve written multiple drafts, I’m now just about past the rewrite stage and am looking down the barrel of another draft, where the dialogue is going to the focus of my attention.

In this particular script - The Detective - the antagonist of the story, an American from the south, was a character drawn, at the time of writing the last draft, with the voice of Tommy Lee Jones in my head, the only trouble was that I drifted a bit here and there. Consequently, in the notes that I’ve just received from the UK, I read that this character “...veers between sounding like a cowboy and a refugee from a (Terrence) Rattigan play”. That note is on the money, although whether I was drifting from Tommy Lee jones to Jeremy Northam (in Mamet’s version [1999] of Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy), well who knows, but, hopefully, I’m getting another shot at writing the words that fall from this and other characters’ mouths.

I’m not sure how much I’d counsel making those decisions before screenplay stage as I’d still like to keep some options open, although, if my character biogs are as thorough as they should be, then I’d know the demographics of any one of my lead and/or co-leads, which would narrow down the choices of who could or would play that character.

In The Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis’s character may very well have seen dead people, I do my best to use my senses to channel the living.

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