Friday, October 8, 2010

Day 183: “My work here is done”

Six months ago on April the something, I decided to set about Blogging, with the intention of writing a screenplay over six months, using a “writer’s method” as offered by Robert McKee in his book “Story”, inviting anyone who cared to, to come along for the ride with me. The six months are up today and there is no completed screenplay.

The best laid plans of mice and men and all that: there have been treatments that needed my attention on another project and synopses that I had to complete for Producers and all manner of things that explain why I left location “A” with the intention of getting to ‘B‘ but ended up in ‘P’.

There was something that I said, from the outset that I shared with friends, and that was that I was going to let the Blog take me where it would. Normally, in other areas of my life I am at great pains to try and make sure that things (especially work “things”) go in the direction that I want them to go even, sometimes, when others I’m working with don’t want them to go in that direction. From the very start of this Blog, the metaphor I used was this: “I’m going to put my row boat on the river, throw away the oars, lay down in the boat and let the current bear me where it will”. And, that’s just what I’ve done.

There have been rewards that I didn’t plan for. I have been graced, in that every day for 183 days, come fair weather or foul, I have not missed a Blog deadline; there has not been one day that I haven’t posted that day’s Blog before the cursed hour of midnight struck and so, like some Bloggers version of the Pony Express, I always got through with the day’s mail. This has taught me a writing discipline that I kind of thought I had, but never employed, before. It’s taught me that whatever’s going on, I can rely on myself and wherever ideas come from, to front up on a daily basis and come up 500+ words on something or other. It’s a sure-fire way to lick that procrastination problem.

Thank-you for being a bloggee and for being on the trail with me. Google Analytics tell me that I’ve been read in five continents, on computers in over half the States of North America, up and down the length and breadth of the British Isles and across this great Southern land of Australia. Thank you to those who took the theme literally and brought me food, thank you for the comments (whether left on this site, on F’book, emailed or delivered in person).

The Hungry Screenwriter will return sometime in the future, just like the Lone Ranger of today’s title; I’ve oft talked here, of a document in my possession that I have created of my 239 favourite films, each with a pithy sound bite recommendation as to why I love that particular movie; I’ll be back to share those with you on a daily basis in the not-too-distant future, but for now I’m done, I’ve just about run out of things to say.....okay so maybe that last bit's not true.

Until the next time, I am the Hungry Screenwriter, bidding you adieu.

Day #183 Tip: When all else fails, watch a movie
I’ve quoted him before and I’ll quote him again, because for me, the quote works. Giuseppe Tornatore, writer and director of Cinema Paradiso said this of his film (a hymn to movie romance): “Cinema Paradiso is a bittersweet lament for the love that eludes us in real life, but is there to comfort us in the dark embrace of the cinema.” I, personally, would add the word “meaning” to that quote, “....the love and meaning that eludes us in real life....”

The penultimate line, I give to Mr McKee: “Write very day, line by line, page by page, hour by hour.”

The final word comes from Ferris:

[After the end credits]... You’re still here?

It’s over!

Go home.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Day 182: Prophet or Profit?

On April 5, 1999, American illusionist and endurance artist, David Blaine was entombed in an underground plastic box underneath a 3 ton water-filled tank for seven days, eating nothing and drinking only 2-3 tablespoons of water per day. 75,000 people visited his “Buried Alive” stunt.

On November 27, 2000, Blaine stood encased in a massive block of ice in Times Square (NYC), supplied with water and air by a tube, for 63 hours and 42 minutes; “Frozen in Time”.

May 22, 2002, sees David Blaine perform “Vertigo”; lifted by crane onto the top of a 100ft pillar, (22 inches wide) in Bryant Park (NYC), where, unharnessed, he stood for 35 hours.

On September 5, 2003, David Blaine began his first major stunt outside of the USA, sealed inside a transparent, Plexiglass case, suspended 30ft in the air (by Tower Bridge, London), surviving on just 4.5 litres of water for 44 days. I was there.

I dig David Blaine, but that wasn’t always the case. At the time I was in London, working on a script of mine, The Comedians, when he began the “Above the Below” stunt and for a second or two there, I was as full of derision as much of the UK’s population were at the time. Two things begged me keep an open mind: one, was my favourite newspaper, The Guardian, saying “Blaine has created one of the most eloquent and telling visual images of our time” and the other, was a close female friend, also over from Australia at the time suggesting that I might be growing a tad more cynical than I usually was.

Knowing that “contempt prior to investigation” is a favourite pastime of mine - I’ll often give you a damning review of a film I’ve never seen - I boarded a train on the Underground’s District Line and headed for Tower Hill station one fine Sunday morning. Alighting at said Tube station, I found myself part of a throng, following the hastily-prepared signs that pointed to David Blaine’s stunt. Suddenly there was hubbub, others were obviously thinking like me too, and we crossed the Thames over Tower Bridge, craning our necks for the first glimpse of this latter-day Harry Houdini, hoisted up in the air over Potters Field Park, alongside City Hall, on the South Bank.

What a crowd, what a veritable circus there was beneath him and I, excited, joined that crowd to stand underneath his transparent box calling up to him “David, David!!”. He looked my way, or was he responding to the hundreds doing the same thing all around me? So many in the UK scoffed for the seven weeks and more of his stunt: there were those who hit golf balls at him, threw paint balls, food and beer cans, but most of all it was abuse of the kind that said something like “there are people starving in Ethiopia whilst you’re.....”. Even (Sir) Paul McCartney went down there and mocked him....but then what do you expect from the guy that by now, was musically obsolete, having written Mull of Kintyre, Silly Love Songs and the excruciatingly awful Ebony & Ivory?

The event was broadcast on tv station Sky One in the UK, with a “special” made out of his "going in", and famously - almost stopping the nation - on his ‘coming out’. Prior to the climax of David Blaine’s London outing, I visited him again, this time accompanied by the friend who had encouraged me to make the quantum shift away from the position I had initially taken; I was keen to show off my new friend, David. And, by this time, the tide had turned throughout London too, somehow now, we were all joined together on this countdown to David Blaine’s liberation from his self-imposed ordeal.

David Blaine has gone on to perform “Drowned Alive” (submerged in a sphere of water for 7 days and 7 nights) , “Revolution” (shackled to a rotating gyroscope for 52 hours) and the “Dive of Death” (hanging upside down, without a safety net for 60 hours in Central Park).

What’s the point....who knows, who cares? I love the fact that David Blaine picked his target well, with us the English, who are often happier scoffing and carping; we’re not always like that, it’s the righteous indignant right-wing middle class in us that is stirred up and agitated by the tabloid media, and the media that pretends it’s not tabloid but is. There’s something fun and optimistic about David Blaine that is within me, but needed the provocation of others to force it out.

I could have mocked with the rest, expending hot air, getting all huffed-up about things, sitting in judgement from afar, but instead I went down there and waived to David, not throwing eggs at him, but egging him on.

Day #182 Tip: On the same page
What I recollect, most interestingly about the 44 days and nights of the David Blaine London experiment, was that as the stunt gathered momentum and public opinion shifted a little towards him, we all were on the same page, all caught up in following the same event; we shared a common bond.

I’ve felt this before, often sadly - Diana’s death, 9/11 - and occasionally with joyous spirit, like when the Sydney Olympics came to town in 2000. There’s something about unity, about being kindred spirits and it’s flip side, so eloquently put by John Donne : “...And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Yes, “we are the world, we are the people” and it’s heartening when we all move in step, drawn together, pulled by a force that gives us a common talking point to focus on; it’s as though our collective energy is being directed in one powerful uniting way, before the event that binds us together ends and we go back to our individual hidey-holes.

Film is like that, it’s collaborative and, we the writers, are often the David Blaine’s who come up with the stunt that galvanises everyone. Doesn’t mean that our work has to be happy stuff or sad stuff, it can be whatever stuff we like, but, with the caveat that it inspire, move and touch; firstly those we are going to work with and then those who we will share the story with.

Where are you David Blaine, reveal yourself, we need you!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Day 181: St.Paul’s Cathedral

Tomorrow, I was meant to be leaving for London, to enjoy a few weeks over there, but circumstances beyond my control prevent that from happening; not to worry, I will try again at Christmas and maybe that is what is meant to be.

When in London, I walk a lot, there is plenty of walking and, for me, thinking, to be done. Thinking, that precious commodity of the writer, is best accessed when I put in some repetitive physical action that distracts my mind from what it thinks it should be thinking about, to think other things. I combine my walking in London with the work of filling the creative well. Every day that I sit down to my trusty laptop and open up the synopsis, treatment or screenplay du jour, I summon up the Gods and go to the creative well for inspiration.

Julia Cameron, in 'The Artist’s Way', teaches that we must fill ourselves (our well) with matter to call on, when we dip our metaphoric buckets into that creative well (I think the “well” part of the metaphor is mine). Julia counsels for us to go on an “artist’s date” (alone), once a week: to the cinema, the art gallery, the second-hand book emporium, the aquarium or the concert hall (in Sydney’s case, maybe the beautifully monikered Angel Place Recital Hall [where on such a solo date, I saw the late, famed harmonica player Larry Adler play and met David ‘Shine’ Helfgott into the bargain]). In London, I am spoilt for such destinations.

London’s skyline may draw your eye to what was once called the Post Office Tower and the goofily-named “Gerkin” (Swiss Re Building), but really, it is dominated by one edifice: St. Paul’s Cathedral.

On Ludgate Hill, in the City, stands St. Paul's, dreamt of and designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1675 and 1711. Great marriages and funerals have taken place there; who can forget the voluminous train of Diana’s entering and exiting St. Paul’s, on 29 July, twenty-nine years ago? Indeed, 750 million plus, watched the celebrated and joyous affair on television; how the bells rang out.

Those same bells, muted and muffled, tolled, sixteen years earlier, in 1965, when I was but a boy of seven, for Sir Winston Churchill, who lay in state for three days (by decree of the Queen) in the great cathedral. I have visual snatches in my memory of the sombre day of his funeral, pictures that haunt my mind as though from some Gothic tale. Churchill’s coffin was borne along the River Thames on the passenger ship the Havengore, as dockers lowered their crane jibs in salute, following the service of funeral in S.Paul’s.

Two of England’s greatest sons, rest in the crypt of St.Paul’s: hero of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington’s sarcophagus, sits alongside that of his naval counterpart, Viscount Horatio Nelson, Duke of Bronte, smasher of the French fleet in 1805 at Trafalgar. There are other non-fighting men to keep them company in the crypt, like Wren himself, Turner (the painter) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (of G&S fame).

Ironically, my favourite spot, within the City, to take in the skyline of London is from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, after all, St. Paul’s stand’s on the City of London’s highest spot; there’s bound to be a fee for this small adventure but you get to go up to the inside of the great dome and enjoy the phenomena that is “The Whispering Gallery” - stand on one side of the dome interior and whisper to the wall and it’ll carry 180 degrees around to a friend (if you have one handy, on the other side). But it’s outside, at this level that one can survey the Thames, both upstream looking towards the Embankment & West London and then back downstream to the City, Tower Hill and Bridge.

But for all this, what most stuns me about this building - testimony to man and God - is the fact that it survived the Blitz of 1940. Nightly, the Germans would drop their payloads over London (I have heard many eyewitness accounts from my late mother and her family), hundreds and hundreds of bombs, and yet the biggest target of them all, survived? The famous photograph, on this page, was taken by photographer Herbert Mason on the night of 29 December 1940 and published in the Daily Mail two days later, with the caption: symbolises the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy: the firmness of Right against Wrong.”

Churchill said this “At all costs, St. Paul’s must be saved.” It did take a hit or two, but how on earth did this iconic landmark survive....maybe asking questions looking for “earthly” answers is not the best line of enquiry?

Day #181 Tip: Ours is not to judge
When the work is done, when the six months (or more) of screenplay writing is completed, we cannot survey what we have done with any objectivity until distance of time allows us to climb a hill and look over what we have created. In the meantime, others will make assessments for us, don’t worry about that. My scripts have sometimes had to endure slings and arrows of an outrageous nature, but still they’ve made it through, one way or another.

I can think of two films that I treasure, in which St. Paul’s features: Lawrence of Arabia, which begins with those who knew TE Lawrence leaving his memorial service in the cathedral and Mary Poppins, where the bird lady sits, feeding the pigeons. In the lyric of ‘Feed the Birds’ it says that “All around the cathedral, the saints and apostles look down as she sells her wares...” When my wares are done, I leave them (the wares) for others to look over and wait for the dust to settle before viewing the work myself.

London can wait....for a little longer.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Day 180: Chinatown

Anyone who has followed the blogging of the Hungry Screenwriter, or anyone who knows me for that matter, is more than likely aware that my favourite film is Chinatown.

Where to begin?

There is a series of slim volumes, published by British Film Institute Publishing, each of which dissects and analyses “classic” and “modern classic” films. I have a copy of the “classic” volume on Chinatown, by Michael Eaton, who at the start offers this:

“Every film, even (perhaps especially) those that never see the light of day or the dark of night, is the result of an accident. Sometimes that contingency leads to the serendipitous discovery of a fragrant isle hitherto only alluded to in unreliable travellers’ tales. More often it resembles a multi-vehicle pile-up on a rush-hour freeway. The fact that any film ever gets made at all seems more a demonstration of the operation of chaos theory than the result of rational, industrial planning. But for once the magic worked: so, Chinatown.”

My pocket-size justification of Chinatown as my favourite film is this: I believe that every facet of the film making craft is shown at the top of it’s game in this one film. Directing, acting, cinematography, casting, musical composition, costume, set, hair & make-up and, of course, screenwriting.

Anyone who knows the film might recall that long before we see anything, we first of all hear the mysterious opening stanza of the late Jerry Goldsmith’s suitably haunting them: a harp, over strings and then a solo trumpet (in the style of Jackie Gleason), supported by a piano, playing the “love theme”. Even before I’ve seen private investigator, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), in his natty suit, at work in his Los Angeles office of the 1930’s, with his quick and sardonic repartee, I’m sold.

I’m not a big Polanski fan, and Roman was not a big fan of the Robert Towne script, when producer Robert Evans (at the time, Vice-President in charge of Production at Paramount Studios) gave it to the Polish-Jew, then living and working in America, to read. Actually, that’s not true; Roman Polanski was struggling to understand the script, as was Jack Nicholson when it was given to him and as was Producer Robert Evans, himself, when he first read it. I also think that anyone who watches the film for the first time is pretty mystified too. But they all knew that there was “something” in this impenetrable screenplay and, they were right.

Chinatown is mix of genres, Detective Story, Film (neo) Noir, Love Story and Thriller. Robert Mckee (who devotes a whole seminar session to this film alone) defines the Crime sub-genre of Film Noir by dint of it’s protagonist being “a tough guy with a fatal flaw”. The “fatal flaw” in Jake Gittes is that - with the best of intentions - he tries, like Oedipus, to get to the bottom of what’s going on in this world (his world) endeavouring to make a wrong situation turn out right (the raison d’être of most detectives and law-keepers). Only trouble is, that Jake, just like the King of Thebes, won’t let go until everything eventually, in tragic irony, turns on him and those he’s trying to save.

What McKee defines as a “Thriller”, as oppose to a film that’s “thrilling”, is a story in which the protagonist comes up against an antagonistic force that is driven or consumed by “the spirit of evil”, meaning that the bad guy (wearing the black hat) can’t be bought off. No bag of money will stop him, no deal-making or bartering, no release of hostages or a plane to spirit him away will stop him from doing what he wants to do. Jake Gittes comes up against such an antagonistic force in the shape of Noah Cross (John Huston). If you meet me “out there”, outside of this “cyberworld”, ask me to explain what Noah Cross means when he justifies what he’s doing by saying “...the future, Mr Gittes, the future...” (sorry to be so cryptic but I can’t give all the gold have to earn some’s worth it!).

Sometimes there’s a part of me that wonders - craft and technique and all that aside - why it is that I love this film so much? Am I kidding myself, living in the delusion that I think it sounds knowledgeable and impressive to say that I like this one best of all, rather than something else more “mainstream”, less “lofty”, say like Mrs. Doubtfire or School of Rock (both tremendous films)?

Day #180 Tip: In defence of no defence
I love Chinatown because I love Chinatown.

Maybe it’s the “romance” of the film, in the broadest sense of the term? Wise guys in suits and hats, waving guns, chasing women, drinking liquor, smoking cigarettes, being smart, outwitting fools, living on the margins of society?

It could be because of the pessimistic ending and the film’s Controlling Idea of “the futility of good intentions”; maybe that’s the glass darkly through which I see life and it resonates with me?

In Edward De Bono’s book, the Six Thinking Hats, there are different colour hats to be “worn” for different types of thinking: White (facts & information), Black (negatives), Yellow (positives), Green (new ideas), Blue (the big picture) and lastly, Red (feelings & emotions). Red is about “gut feelings”, sixth-sense thinking, intuition and instinct. 

Sometimes in our work, in our writing, we just gotta trust what we feel and can’t marshall facts, figures, reason and logic to support our case and that’s okay. However, we can’t play this get-out-of-jail-free-card all the time (at least not in the $$$$$ world of the film industry), but every now and then, well, we know what we know. I have many other loves in my life and I’m not going to justify, defend or vindicate why I feel the way that I do about any one of those.....even the Caesar Salad at Trop. I do have plenty of reasons, actually, for that salad and for Chinatown and, for all the other loves of my life; they’re my “favourite” things, just like Maria Von Trapp had her “favourite things”.....

...and let me tell you, “snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes” isn’t one of mine (can you remember the other 14 “favourite things”?); maybe that’s a little of my “glass darkly” again?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Day 179: Are you looking for a screenwriter?

Seven years ago, a producer - looking for “new” writers - read a draft of my first feature film screenplay. A meeting ensued and whilst he told me that he’d enjoyed reading the script, it wasn’t “the kind of thing” he was looking for. Some candour: I was sat in the boardroom of this producer’s production company and could smell a cheque book, so, like any good writer worth their salt, I replied quick-smart “what kind of ‘thing‘ are you looking for?” The producer went on to tell me of a book, an Australian story from the Second World War, that he’d always thought would make a good film. I suggested that maybe I could read the book and return with some feedback from a film writer’s perspective. He wished me good luck as the book was long out of the print, but, yes, he’d welcome that if I could find a copy.

I did find a copy of ‘The Ridge and the River‘ and returned to the same producer with a ten-page document explaining why I thought the story a great yarn but perhaps not such a propitious candidate for a feature film. The producer listened to my debrief, then left the room, returning with a pile of five more books. So began a two year process of him giving me potential film stories to read and me, dutifully reading them and responding.

This process went on until I was heading off to the UK to embark on a year-long feature-writing programme (Writer’s Passage) at The Script Factory in London; before departure, my producer-friend handed me a weighty photocopy of the latest work that he wanted me to read, a substantial enough piece to send me over the allocated baggage allowance at Qantas check-in. That document sat by my bed for the first six months of the trip, until I returned back to Sydney for Christmas.

Not two minutes off the plane and I received an email from the producer, wanting to know where I was? I thought it best to read the hefty tome before I let him know that I was back in Australia, and so I did. Now, this book wasn’t the best of the ones I had read, BUT, there was something in it that I loved; an essence or spirit at it’s heart that made me want to adapt it. I rang the producer, we met up to “do lunch” and before I even put my writer’s arse onto a bistro seat he enquired “what do you think?” I replied “I think you’re onto something with this one”. He was glad I’d responded in this way and said “I’ve bought the rights!” “Good for you.” “I want to you to adapt it”, “good for me!”.

We’re four drafts on from that original conversation; Australia’s federal film funding body have invested in two of those drafts, the NSW state film office paid for another. Academy Award winner Robert Towne (screenwriter of Chinatown, Shampoo, Days of Thunder) has worked on it, so have writers Jan Sardi (Shine, Mao’s Last Dancer) and Matthew Dabner (The Square), producer Sue Murray (Ten Canoes) and director Peter Andrikidis (tv series East West 101, Underbelly, Wildside).

The story’s location has shifted from Cambodia to Afghanistan, the time of the story from 1948 to 2010, a French detective is now an Australian; work on the fifth draft of The Detective is imminent. All this because someone opened their door just a crack and I wedged my foot in, then my elbow and stuck my body in to keep it ajar.

Day #179 Tip: The first rule of business: stay in business
The business of writing is, in many ways, no different from any other business, in that the biggest trick to pull off, is to keep writing; even when - as the banner at the top of this Blog announces - there is no money. Like the water diviner with his Y-shaped twig (a practice known as “dowsing”, after William ‘Smasher’ Dowsing [1596-1668]) we must practice our own methods of seeking out where the necessary “stuff” is, without the aid of scientific apparatus, if we are to put food on our table and a roof over our head whilst going about our business

Somehow, I’ve managed to keep going and today, I had lunch with a another successful producer, whom I’ve recently become acquainted with, who has an idea for something that he wanted to pitch to me in order to start the slow roll of a ball that may gather momentum. Many such efforts have, in the past, turned into “balls of confusion” and crashed off into the undergrowth, taking me with them, but that’s part of the rough n’ tumble of this business. Right now, I’m inspired, the creative sap is rising and who knows where this one might roll to?

Maybe “Smasher” Dowling and his twig of divination is not the best parallel to use, perhaps Burt Lancaster’s character of Starbuck (!!!!!), the “charming” con man who came to town promising to bring rain (for money) in the 1957 film The Rainmaker, is nearer the mark, maybe not?! But who is who in this metaphoric scenario that I’ve invoked?

My point is this: when the pennies from heaven are not falling, well, maybe that’s just how it’s meant to be, but perhaps we have develop a bit of a weather-eye for these things and best we nurture our olfactory senses too, for there’s gold out there in them-thar hills somewhere and no reason, dammit, why it shouldn’t be ours....make that, MINE.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Day 178: A league of his own

Australia’s Australian Rules Football season and the Rugby League season are over for another year. Collingwood’s Magpies settled the “rules” replayed final in Melbourne, at the MCG, yesterday and, today, the St.George-Illawarra Dragons beat the Sydney City Roosters in the “league” final.

The coach of the Dragons, is Wayne Bennett, arguably Australian rugby league’s greatest coach of all-time, having now won seven Premierships with two different teams (the Brisbane Broncos and the Dragons). Wayne Bennett is an extraordinary and, in many ways, unassuming man.

Sixty year-old Bennett was, himself, a player who competed at the highest level for the national side, was coach of the Queensland State of Origin team and once, a Queensland police officer, before finding great success as coach of the Brisbane team and now at St. George. In 1999, however, it was not Wayne Bennett’s professional world but his personal life that was revealed to the public, via the ABC television series Australian Story, which detailed his and his wife’s family life in this “deeply personal documentary”, much of it centering on the raising of their children, two of which have disabilities.

I can’t remember the radio show that I heard Wayne Bennett interviewed on, about that time, but I recall how his words moved me when he faltered, consumed with emotion, speaking of the fears he held for his disabled children and how they would cope when one day in the future, he and his wife were no longer around. That interview must have been two or three years after, as it prompted me to buy a copy of his inspirational book “Don’t Die With The Music In You” (a quote from American intellectual, Oliver Wendell Holmes Snr., “regarding failure to meet one’s potential”).

On the back sleeve of my copy of the book, there is a quote from humanitarian and one-time Australian cricket captain, Steve Waugh, who says: “If you want to be mentally tough, do as Wayne Bennett says: ‘follow your beliefs and don’t give into yourself.....’” Bennett himself, in one of the many quotable lines in the book offers this: “You have a choice in life. You can sit back and criticise or you can try to make a difference.”

Everything I’ve read about Bennett, quoted by others who know him, includes the words “revered” and “respected” amongst many, many other plaudits and just watching the response to this tall, genteel figure of a man at the final siren tonight, when the Dragons had won, spoke volumes of the love and affection all those in his orbit, feel for him.

There are many inspirational books by sportsmen and women - players, athletes and coaches alike - Wayne Bennett’s 2002 publication is the only one that I have and I’m not really a huge League fan?! But I like the headings of some of the bite-size chapters in this slim’ish volume: Talent Is Only The Beginning, A Stranger Called Discipline, You’re Not A Failure Until You Start Blaming Others and A Dreamer Who Saw Things We Cannot Imagine.

Congratulations to Wayne Bennett and the Dragons on today’s victory.

Day #178 Tip: Clichés are clichéd for a reason
The dictionary defines the word “cliché” as “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought”.

Many times in the process of writing a screenplay I find myself confronted with choices to make about a scene or a character and I question whether the idea that I’ve come up with is clichéd or not? What I’ll do is take out an A4 pad and then list twenty solutions to my problem, twenty ways that I could execute the scene in question, putting my first thought, the clichéd one at the top of the page. By idea number ten, I guarantee you that I am so far away from cliché that I have now become contrived.

Contrivance is as deadly an enemy of the screenwriter as cliché, so from thought number eleven through to number twenty I must press on, to not only find a solution that is somewhere in between the two extremes, but a solution that works for the the problem that I’m trying to solve, is organic to my story and is the most powerful solution for the script.

However, sometimes, not always or often, I find myself back at the cliché because in some instances, cliché is tried, tested and true; what I have to do then is find a way of reworking the platitudinal so that it appears new and fresh.

Wayne Bennett expresses “don’t die with the music in you” in this way: “It means don’t go through life, whether it be relationships, sport - life - sitting down at the end saying it could have been better.” Is coach Bennett thinking “seven times champion” tonight, or is he contemplating a return to the Bronco’s for a tilt at an eighth? Maybe amongst all the deserved celebratory chaos, he’s thinking that now the season’s over, he’ll get to spend a little more time with his kids?

There is nothing clichéd or contrived about Wayne Bennett.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Day 177: “Is this a dagger which I see before me?”

I’m missing delinquency and wrong doing, not in my own life, thank God, but on the page, on my trusty laptop’s screen, the “dagger of the mind” that Macbeth spoke of.

It’s TIME for some CRIME.

One hundred and seventy-seven days ago, I began this blog with ambitions of writing a screenplay over the six months, that began back then, arriving at my destination (next Thursday) with 110 pages complete and done, of a script called Jerusalem. Here’s my opening gambit of that story:

In the forests of a wintery New South Wales, a corrupt detective - DRAKE- unable to
see his way back to a decent life, sets out into the Barrington Tops National Park, with
his dog (his lifelong companion), a shotgun, two cartridges and a suicide note safety-
pinned to his coat for easy identification. Intending to kill his dog and then himself, the
dog bolts after a paddymelon, which leads to a two hour chase deep into the forest,
where the man finds his dog impaled and in pain. As he loads the shotgun with the cartridges, the paddymelon loiters nearby in the trees, refusing to move despite
the shooing-away of Drake. His conscience won’t allow him to kill a defenceless creature under the watchful gaze of another, Drake is given the smallest window of sanity and
shoots off the two shotgun cartridges into the air; the paddymelon is then happy to
leave. Drake sets about freeing his injured dog. The animal is caught on a piece of metal
in the undergrowth and as the ex-cop peels back the tangled scrub to free him, so the fuselage and wreckage of a light aircraft is revealed. Even his detective’s sensibility is unable to make sense of the human remains left in the carnage. He snaps off a couple
of quick pictures of the wreck and it’s number on his mobile phone’s camera and, picking
up his dog, begins the long struggle back out of the forest to his car.

The ex-cop wakes the town’s vet, for help with the dog, and then reports the wreckage discovery to the police station in the local one-horse town. There is just one duty-sergeant on, dealing with the a drug-affected youth. The index number of this plane registers:
this is a plane that infamously disappeared in this wilderness, near this town, over twenty years ago, they both know that. The duty officer officer also knows who Drake is: the
bent detective responsible for another young cop’s death, the detective who was ushered
out of the force in disgrace. Drake points out that the skeletal reamins in the aircraft indicate
only one person, when in fact, two men went missing in the crash. Treated like a pariah, his suppositions seemingly of no interest to the sergeant, Drake is told to leave his phone with
the photo’s, to be downloaded when someone more techno-savvy comes on duty.

On returning the next day to check on the progress of their follow-up enquiries and
collect his phone, Drake is met with blank stares and told that they have no record of
his report nor evidence of the written statement he made and that the sergeant who
had been on duty the night before is now on long-term leave, uncontactable, abroad;
it’s as though Drake never came to the police station. But Drake remembers that there
was a third person in the police station, a youth, who could verify his story.

Hours later making his own enquiries to find the drug-afflicted young man, Drake learns
of a body that’s washed up in the run-off channel of the local dam; it’s that of adolescent,
the one other person who could vouch for what took place the night before.

And so I have the rough beginning of a story from the film super-genre that is CRIME. My story is one of the twelve sub-genres of crime, the DETECTIVE story. This short opening stanza gives me a protagonist of a ex-cop, corrupt and kicked off the force, a man also at the bottom of his life, on the brink of looking for a way out, maybe a candidate for redemption. He’s in a small town where everyone knows who is is and is loathed for what he’s done.

My protagonist’s world is then knocked out of balance: he discovers a crime scene that doesn’t add up, with a body count that makes no sense and reports it; the report and any evidence of him lodging it vanish into thin air and the one person who could witness this turns up dead. My protagonist suspects this is murder and, in the words of one of the witches from Macbeth:

“By the pricking of my thumbs
Something wicked this way comes.”

Day #177 Tip: “What’s ‘appened before, may ‘appen again”
I have the feeling that I’ve shared that opening of Jerusalem with you before, back in the early days of this Blog, which is symptomatic, to me, of the risk that I am running into the disease or repetition; I’m running out of things to say, this time around.

But there’s something actually nice about that and hence I’ve quoted the inimitable Bert (from Mary Poppins) to title today’s tip. You see, early on in the adventures at Cherry Tree Lane, Bert is practicing is one of his crafts - as a pavement artist (a screever[sic]) - when Mary Poppins arrives and Bert predicts what has gone before and what might be to come; it’s all very mysterious and yet exciting.

There’s whispers on the wind, for me too, that I might be heading back into the detective land of a project that I’ve been on for six years now, and, should that come to pass, then the whirligig of time will have swung around once again.

When I get to the end of six or seven months on a screenplay, almost as soon as I “put the pen down” on one story, I must pick it up on another, hence why I wanted to remind myself of Jerusalem, of where this Blog started, as I near it’s destination. I’m not sure that I’m making sense today, I’ll endeavour to do better tomorrow.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Day 176: The Usual Questions

On a screenplay of mine called The Detective I worked with a script editor - Matthew Dabner - on the second draft; Matthew is also a screenwriter in his own right (The Square) but was a diligent and thorough guide and companion, to this writer, on that draft. I’ve tried to secure his services since, on other pieces, but between his own writing and work at Screen Australia, Matthew’s dance card is pretty full these days.

At some point in the journey of that second draft, probably in the midst of getting lost, creating the Step Outline, Matthew gave me the following “usual” questions to ask of the story so far, in an effort keep me on track. I think these questions can be used as a litmus test at any point in the journey of a screenplay, even for analysis once a film is completed. Let me use the William Hurt film, The Doctor (1991), a redemption story, to demonstrate:

Dr Jack McKee (William Hurt) a successful and rich surgeon with no problems in his professional or personal life; he’s in a thriving practice with two other surgeons and in a happy marriage with a wife and child

WHAT DOES HE WANT (tangible goal/conscious desire/text):
Early on in the story, Jack is diagnosed with throat cancer; he, like all patients, wants to be cured

WHAT DOES HE NEED (intangible/unconscious goal/subtext):
Jack needs to get a “bedside manner”. Abrasive, arrogant, cold and unavailable - at work and increasingly home, once diagnosed with the cancer - Jack finds himself on the other side of the doctor-patient relationship, seeing hospitals. medicine and procedures from a very different perspective

His career (he can’t practice while going through the final stages of his treatment), his practice (when Jack begins to see things from a different perspective, he refuses to lie in order to back his partner up in a malpractice lawsuit) his marriage (during his treatment, Jack befriends a fellow cancer patient - a young woman called June - adding to the alienation and distancing Jack’s wife already feels), his life (this, of course, is cancer that Jack is dealing with).

Because, even though Jack McKee is an uncaring and, seemingly unfeeling guy, we all know what it’s like to endure invasive medical procedures, to be at the mercy of a medical system that sometimes forgets that we are human beings with lives and loved ones, to be around those we care for when they are sick, to be confronted with the prospect of our own mortality, and how it feels, in that fearful dark night of the soul when we are scared and alone during all of this.

In an operating theatre and a marriage where he has little compassion, pity and patience for those who need, trust and rely on him, espousing these character traits and promoting them in the interns under his care and guidance.

Taking the time to personally reassure a patient who is in his hands, about to have a heart operation, Jack does everything he can to allay the fears of the man and his family. In his own family life, through the recuperation and convalescence from his illness, Jack has learnt to open up to his wife and allow her into the vulnerable parts of his world. And at the hospital, Jack creates a role-play situation for his young interns whereby they will sample and endure many, if not most, of the procedures that they will be prescribing for those they are going to care for.

The ear, nose and throat specialist that treats Jack with an appalling bedside manner
June, the fellow-patient jack befriends, from whom he learns humility, kindness and courage
The young Jewish surgeon (often bearing the brunt of Jack’s mocking) who agrees - at Jack’s request - to operate on him
Being on the other side of the patient-hospital relationship
Undergoing illness and treatment
Living with the fear that the disease may consume you
June’s death
Jack being without a voice, post-operation
The very real possibility that they might not save his vocal chords in the operating procedure
Going through radiation treatment
Watching others, at close-quarters, go through the same treatment
Travelling alongside fellow-patients, watching them deal with their own fears
Lying to June to boost her hopes of recovery and being found out
Shutting off from his wife and not sharing his fears wife her
Helping a man - physically and emotionally damaged - because of his partner’s malpractice

I could go on and on with this list.....

Day #176 Tip: There’s always more to do
There are several versions of the questions Matthew gave me that are around in the industry - Robert McKee’s “Key Questions” and his “10 Commandments”, the examining questions offered by UK scriptwriting hothouse Arista - and they are all good tools that I use to to interrogate my own writing, that of others or scripts that I read & films I watch.

The job’s never quite done, there’s always further to go.