BLOG 2017

OCTOBER

On October 1st I was in Manchester for the anti-Brexit march there, directed at the Tory Party conference. I know this blog is supposed to be mainly about my work in film and TV but Brexit is an attack on the arts across its whole spectrum, particularly film. It will take away sources of finance, and probably kill off all kinds of European-wide collaboration.

I was in the U.S. Embassy a few days later (currently still in Grosvenor Square) to have my contract for the Hadrian project "notarised" since it was drawn up in the U.S and has to conform to their laws. Amazing security there.

There was footage of violent demonstrations against that building in The Vietnam War (BBC4) - a documentary that was both compelling and moving. I watched it on catch-up, finding one hour-long episode each evening was all I could handle, though I think it was broadcast in two-hour stints. Shocking footage from right within the battle zones, with the kind of images that have disappeared from war coverage due to the control the military now has over the media. Such glimpses of reality can be devastating to the political management of war; images of torture in Iraq was a more recent example – these were souvenir shots by the troops, and such images might still leak out to the public in the future. Images and how to control them is a battle of our time.

A Vietnamese veteran said, "Only people who haven't been in the fighting talk about winning or losing. For the people in it, it's just war." Or as an ex-soldier expresses it in WAITING FOR YOU, "War is bollocks."

That film is being selected for plenty of festivals. I popped over to Ireland to catch it in Kerry Film Festival in Killarney - a small festival, but director Charles Garrad and I were made warmly welcome. Kathy Horgan, line producer for MY SONGS INSIDE lives not far from Killarney and I was pleased she could see it on a big screen. Charles will be in Georgia, Florida and then Moscow early in November to present the film in festivals there.

Cinema wise: I saw BLADE RUNNER 2049. It held me gripped for its full 180 mins; there was a little too much of the old Hollywood tropes of men punching each other while Ana de Armas, who IMDB Pro tells me is No.1 on the Starmeter, is floating about decoratively with little to do. Also DEATH OF STALIN which I didn't find as funny as some of the critics did.

I caught the end of the exhibition at Leighton House in London of work by Lawrence Alma-Tadema; his work has been used often as a source for décor and costumes in movies set in ancient Rome and Greece (most recently for Gladiator). Sumptuous paintings! Of course mediated by the Victorian world the artist lived in, but he's known to have undertaken a fair bit of research.

Working hard on my MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN script all this month, but have also been busy with my film from 1982, REMEMBRANCE. More about that next month.

 

AUG/SEPT

I've combined the two months this time as there wasn't a lot happening in August, and I was away on holiday for the first two weeks of September.

A month or two previously, an artist called Judy Rodrigues contacted me; she had been on a residency in the Isle of Wight and had a particular interest in two authors who had a connection with the island - D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. She was intrigued to find I had adapted novels by both and got in touch about a possible screening. After some difficulties finding a venue, it turned out that Ventnor Film Society were keen to screen both THE TRESPASSER (which was actually filmed on the island) and TO THE LIGHTHOUSE.

A pretty hefty double bill, therefore, was scheduled on a day in early August. I wondered if everyone might choose to be on the beach; fortunately the weather was really bad. There was a short talk before by Judy and the same from me afterwards, and a cream tea between the films. It was a good day, with a pretty full house, and an attentive and appreciative audience.

Taking a step away from film... I started my Royal Literary Fund Fellowship on September 18. I am based at the Medway campus in Chatham where former Royal Navy buildings have been converted to house some departments of three universities – Canterbury, Greenwich and Kent. I have my own office adjoining the library. It's called the Drill Hall Library, as that is what it was. It's a vast hanger of a building; it must have been one of the biggest carpet laying jobs on one single floor ever undertaken. My door is propped open for students to drop in, and there's an intranet appointment system so they can fix a time to come by.

I've held several fellowships over the years. It's always interesting to be parachuted into an institution; you have to find your way to be effective in it. You are always in a sense an outsider, and that has both good and bad aspects to it. For any RLF Fellow, it's good because the one-to-one sessions are confidential so the student can air worries knowing nothing goes back to their tutors. But it can be bad because sometimes the tutors are wary, thinking that if they send a student to the Fellow they are fuelling criticism that will then be directed back at them. One needs to tread a careful path.

Aside from these events, I've been deeply involved (over the summer and continuing) in my adaptation of Marguerite Yourcenar's wonderful MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN, my project for Tommaso Jandelli. Inspired by my recent trip to Naples and Tivoli, it's now down to hard work, the usual writing and re-writing and re-re-writing.

 

JULY

I love research trips! I went to Italy on one this month – mostly I was in and around Naples for a few days, but went also to another site near Rome. Tommaso Jandelli was a magnificent host and made sure I saw all sorts of wonderful things to get me moving on with the screenplay he has commissioned. I'd never been in an area that is actively volcanic: the coast moves, the sea rises and falls and not far from the city, you can stand in what is actually a volcano and see the steam gushing from from the ground all around you. Vesuvius isn't far away, nor are the ruins of Pompeii. It was very hot; I'm lucky, heat doesn't bother me that much, but I need to slap on plenty of protection.

Hastings news: a bold move by composer Polo Piatti, a long time resident there. He has reached agreement to make a very fine old church available for arts events, presented as The Opus Theatre. There was a celebration drinks and music event to mark the start of this plan. It already suits music perfectly, with excellent acoustics, but (speaking up for my own art form) perhaps a temporary screen might be devised – the only choice in the town outside the local Odeon is the Electric Cinema, which has loyal supporters, but it is very small.

Good to be at the premiere of David Jackson's film WINTERLONG. David also lives in Hastings but his film was up on the big screen at Regent Street Cinema. Made for a very small sum, I'm sure, I thought it succeeded well – in fact, I found it very moving, dealing as it does with "fathers and sons" which is something of a theme of mine. It's there in WAITING FOR YOU, hopefully more news about that in next month's blog; I'm hoping there will be a screening in London at least in the autumn.

Dropped in on farewell drinks for Brian Dunnigan this month: he's retiring as Head of the Screenwriting MA at the London Film School, a post he has held for 12 years. I am somewhat peripheral there, it has to be said, merely called in as a mentor for a single student each summer, to give them a fresh (and hopefully not too alarming) take on the feature script they've been toiling over for many months by that point in the course. I like the place, though.

 

JUNE

I wrote an adaptation, a long time ago, of a novel by J.R. Ackerley – as a feature: WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU. It was produced by Tommaso Jandelli - quite an achievement for an Italian who arrived in the UK determined to make a film from a very English book that, at the time, wasn't even in print. He found Colin Gregg and myself as an established partnership and we were quite in with Channel Four at the time. The funding for the film came from them jointly with British Screen (an earlier manifestation of what is currently the BFI Production Fund.)

Tommaso contacted me last year, which was extraordinary in itself as we have had no contact since that film we made in 1988. He has a new project, again it's a novel for which he has a similar passion as he had for WE THINK THE WORLD OF YOU - and it's clear he will bring the same determination to it that he had before. During last year I worked on a treatment with him and now he has brought the team back together again: Colin to direct, me as writer. Now it's time for the next step, a screenplay. I am just beginning that - with the usual trepidation.

Film development is a slow business but movement continues. So, to update on MY SONGS INSIDE, I'm pleased to report we are putting together an impressive dossier of materials to strengthen our case for funding. We are now working with a casting director. And to update on another project I've worked on for a while, CEVENNES (formerly "Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes") is moving ahead: the French producer now in discussions regarding a possible international co-production.

Other news: I've put in a lot of time to improve a screenplay I worked on way back, in discussions with a director who has always liked it a lot and we're now seeking some reactions. I'm reminded of artists who have paintings that aren't finished, but aren't abandoned either. I recall going to John Wells's studio in West Cornwall in the 1970s: he'd have paintings propped up around the studio that he'd not been satisfied with. Sometimes he would set to work on one of these, and what was wrong (or perhaps what was missing) would be dealt with, and finally he'd finish it. For a screenwriter that's maybe unusual, because mostly if a project has been abandoned then it's dead forever. But (perhaps unusually?) I initiate projects sometimes (half my finished films, in fact) and sometimes there'll be a script among them that's like one of those paintings, and it won't quite let me go.

Talking of art, I've been to see some during the month (as I do most months). There was a show of new work by my friend Carol Robertson and I went to an interesting talk she gave in the gallery. And I took a trip out to Letchworth Garden City, a town with an interesting history. The town itself was the inspiration for most of the paintings showed in the main gallery there by Dan Hays - wonderful work.

 

MAY

Film Bridge International have acquired the worldwide rights to WAITING FOR YOU. I was, as you might imagine, delighted by their press release!

"WAITING FOR YOU is a warm and poignant exploration of secrets and family, coupled with masterful storytelling to deliver a thoroughly entertaining experience," said Film Bridge International's Ellen Wander. "We are eager to present this project to our buyers at the Cannes market. This is an extraordinary film from exceptional filmmakers."

I was at Cannes too, but just for a few days. It turns out I'm the same age as the festival; it's a Baby Boom Festival.

Among the films I saw there was the Turkish film YOL, written by Yimaz Guney, now being re-released. Guney is credited as director though he was in prison when the film was shot, and he edited it. It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1982, two years before Guney's death at only 47.

I was struck by many things to do with this film but here I'd like to focus on the way it dealt with a group of people, rather than with an individual. We follow five men who are all released from a "semi-closed" prison for a week, so each of them then travels home to face difficult situations. It's fair to say that the focus narrows towards one of the five, whose story is perhaps the most dramatic and harrowing - but it is still a film which is not about a sole protagonist. This is true of my own film REMEMBRANCE, also from 1982, which is a story about a group, rather than an individual - specifically, a group of young men in the Navy. The narrative directs the audience from one character to another during a single period of 24 hours. Similarly, the film that followed, TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, was about a family, accompanied by two or three guests, with scenes where various in the group are seen to be commenting on others.

There is arguably a parallel change in the novel when the "god-like narrator" almost entirely disappeared from literary fiction, requiring novelists sometimes to engage in quite laboured processes to keep the first person singular that seems to be required.

In the years since the early 80s, it seems individualism has triumphed in cinema – every film has to be about a single person. Film students seem to be taught this, or perhaps they simply regard this as the only kind of story to tell because of their own individualism.

I think there is a political significance to this, particularly now (I'm writing this with the UK General Election in full swing.) We have a Labour leader in Britain talking constantly about "the many" and extolling the idea that people are stronger together. This challenges the ideology so powerfully associated with Mrs Thatcher. It underpins, as well, the marketing strategy of many powerful players in the market now: everyone is special, everyone wants what they buy or use to be individually tailored to them. So when you meet a famous person you want to be "selfied" with that person, because then such encounters are "about you." Humility is not encouraged.

Guney identified with the working class, he can be described I think as being broadly "of the left" though there was an ethnic dimension due to his Kurdish origins. We can often see in Ken Loach's films a sense of the group rather than the individual though interestingly, perhaps his most successful in terms of box office has been I, DANIEL BLAKE. And it has to be acknowledged that almost certainly, people like a story focused on one person; it is easier to sell.

 

APRIL

Another festival screening this month for WAITING FOR YOU, this time at Belfast Film Festival, on April 4th. There was a full house; the audience included some of Colin Morgan's family, as Colin grew up in that city, but his full schedule of work prevented him being there in person. The reaction to the film was very good and many people stayed for the Q&A afterwards.

It was a useful trip for an additional reason: Dean Anderson, the director attached to make MY SONGS INSIDE, came with me and we had an excellent meeting with a Belfast-based DoP who is enthused by the project. All three of us made a visit to Crumlin Road jail: dating back to the 19th century and in continuous use until quite recently, it is now decommissioned. It serves now as quite a tourist magnet, with guided tours happening throughout the day. Our aim was to check it out for possible locations but we discovered afterwards that the most promising parts of the jail weren't included! Dean took another look a week or two later. The tour guide spoke about more recent events, when the jail was filled to bursting during the Troubles, but he also gave rather too much time to the gruesome details around the hangings that used to happen there.

I enjoyed the chance to be on the radio (Free Seed on Soho Radio) in the middle of the month: I was able to expound on screenwriting, or at least my own view of it. I value these opportunities as screenwriters are more or less invisible in cinema, though they receive more attention in TV, but generally I think people are often mystified as to what it involves. And oddly enough (these opportunities don't come up all that often!) I was talking again on a related subject when I was invited to record two short talks that are uploaded on to the Royal Literary Fund site. Fellows are offered a choice of subjects they wish to talk about and I chose "How I write" and "Why I write." When these are online I'll give the links – it may be a month or two.

 

 

MARCH

It was nice to be asked to pitch an idea for the Royal Literary Fund COLLECTED strand this month: a weekly series of articles posted online for the large number of writers, some working in universities and others who have done so in the past, with whom the RLF is in touch. The RLF doesn't take up the cudgels on behalf of writers - the way the Writers Guild does, which is a TUC-affiliated union; it isn't hunting for income streams that can benefit writers the way that the ALCS does. The RLF does, though, offer support to writers in adverse circumstances and it has created the wonderful Fellowship scheme as a valuable source of well-paid work. The resulting article WHAT IS SCREENWRITING is now published.

WAITING FOR YOU was in another film festival this month: Borderlines, which uses a number of venues on the English/Welsh border. The film, screened in the arts centre in Ludlow, looked great on a lovely big screen and received a 86% positive rating from a good-sized audience.

I reach 70 this year so I feel happy to see one or two instances of my films from way back being revived. THE TRESPASSER was screened in 2015, so a little early – but there's a hope it will be screened again during 2017, in the place, what's more, where it was shot: the Isle of Wight, the setting for the novel by D.H.Lawrence on which it is based.

Another is REMEMBRANCE, to be screened in Plymouth (again, where it was shot) later this year.

My very first film, BEGGING THE RING, has been scanned and so brought back into our modern digital world: I've not even viewed it myself for probably 20 years at least. HARD TRAVELLING exists on my shelves only as a poor off-TV VHS tape, so that's another candidate for rescue, if I can afford it.

And so finally to BREXIT (disaster movie?) set in motion this month. It's a denial of everything that I am about, as a screenwriter. Characters are prone to crossing borders in my work, being in one place but belonging in another... I like exploring issues around identity. I think of myself as a European, working in an international industry. English hostility to the E.U has always been there: a dangerous element rooted in a sense of superiority and fed by nostalgia. I doubt more than a third of the country feel that way these days, but millions of pounds and a load of lies enabled the "leavers", supported by the non-voting "apathetics", to carry the day. Along with many other people, I'm horrified.

 

 

FEBRUARY

The first public screening of WAITING FOR YOU was on February 24 in Nîmes, where it opened a film festival. Wonderfully appropriate: most of the film is not merely set in France but actually was shot not that far from the town, in countryside to the north. Nîmes itself is famous for its stunning Roman architecture, with an amphitheatre still in use.

Ecrans Britanniques / British Screen, a festival focused on British film, has been running for 20 years there, and this has been achieved with unpaid volunteers whose enthusiasm and hard work sustain the whole thing. Francis Rousselet has been the driving force as artistic director: he's written several books about British cinema and his passion for his subject is like a heat source that spreads through the whole affair. Warmth is the overall feeling! This is doubtless why all manner of starry directors and actors have accepted invitations to attend. This year they are featuring Timothy Spall and Michael Winterbottom.

And Don Kent, documentary film maker. He has lived much of his life in France and brings a bright inquisitive eye to the country he left behind. I enjoyed both BALLADE POUR UNE REINE, which explored the British obsession with monarchy, and GOODBYE BRITAIN? Both were feature-length but easily held my interest. He made the latter film last year, and looked at the "Brexit" referendum during the months leading up to that event, revealing the gulfs separating different attitudes and conflicting opinions as to what the consequences would be. Personally, I've removed that question mark; I'm waving goodbye to a country I'm still living in.

I also watched THE ONES BELOW. It was a creepily effective thriller, by David Farr (SPOOKS, THE NIGHT MANAGER) but I confess it wasn't really my kind of thing. I also watched, and the contrast could hardly be greater, Terence Davies' A QUIET PASSION, a study of the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson. It was as uncompromising as anyone would expect, knowing his work; beautiful to look at but with enough anguish to last anyone a lifetime. Catherine Bailey (who attended the screening) plays Vryling Buffam who tries, with wit and affection, to lure Emily from the depths.

There was an error in my blog for DEC/JAN saying Borderlines Festival would be the next chance to view WAITING FOR YOU. Nîmes was not then confirmed. The Borderlines screening is at the beginning of March next month and the one during Belfast Film Festival at the beginning of April.

 

 

DECEMBER/ JANUARY

I came across a novel by Willa Cather recently on my shelves: LUCY GAYHEART. I no longer recall why I bought it and it's one of the few novels I have that I've never got around to reading. So I read it. It's rather dated, a story of thwarted love. It's a tragic story, in fact - which is a genre of writing that seems to have largely disappeared. It's a Virago issue from the 1980s and I found it a compelling read, not of course in the way a thriller might be but because Cather's portrayal of emotion, of attraction and repulsion between people is so acute. It's set in Nebraska, where Cather lived herself and her preferred location for most of her novels, I believe. She refers to small town life thus, "In little towns, lives roll along so close to one another; loves and hates beat about, their wings almost touching."

"Small town America" is a term much used by film critics, and mostly recently to describe MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. I've never seen it used for any other country, including the UK; perhaps there's need to contrast with the dominant imagery we associate with the USA – spectacular landscape, or big cities. I recall a film journalist commenting on the fondness shown by U.S. film directors for such "small towns" - where few of them live. It equates perhaps to "suburbia" - a place of some fascination if not horror to British literati, who similarly avoid living there.

In MANCHESTER, though, the reality of a small community is convincing, where family and locality often link together. It's a memorable film, and very moving; it focuses with almost unbearable proximity on a small number of characters whose lives have been and will always be deeply affected by loss. The director, Kenneth Lonergan, is more known as a writer, which interests me: he's currently adapting HOWARDS END for a BBC production. It's a long film and shows the signs, I'm fairly sure, of improvisation, which interests me too, as I'm wary of it! Mainly I think it can lead to a lot of repetition and scenes going for longer than they need - which is I think occasionally the case with this film. There are also quite a few scenes with people talking (more often shouting) all at once. This contrasts with the convention that characters should not overlap in order to prevent editing problems - mostly, film is shot that way. But with these scenes, no cut is possible - the scene is shot in one take and if the director's not happy, it's shot again. But clearly this is an artistic choice: there's a lot of anger in the film, it explodes out of people; Lonergan wants that loss of control to come across. And it does.

But to return to where I started, it doesn't feel a tragedy quite. There's a tragic story contained in the film, and a lot of sadness, but true tragedy is built round inevitability: in the case of Willa Cather's central character, there is a sense of doom awaiting. In tragedy someone carries the seeds of their doom within them - as in Macbeth, or Othello. In these days of therapy on the one hand and on the other, the idea that being negative is inherently wrong, we no longer accept that inevitability. In MANCHESTER the central character is unable to overcome the effects of a tragic event but a deep affection has been built between him and his nephew which gives us a positive feeling at the end.

A final note to end this blog: WAITING FOR YOU is beginning its round of film festivals. First off, Borderlines on March 3.