Adventures In Motion Pictures Essay Research Paper

Adventures In Motion Pictures Essay, Research Paper

Adventures in motion picturesThe writer of prose fiction, when he first turns his hand to screenwriting, often does so with a condescending air. Surely this can’t be so very difficult, he thinks; all that’s required is to come up with the bare bones of a story. So he goes to work anticipating a quick job with easy money at the end of it, and possibly a bit of glory. He is soon disabused of these prideful assumptions. It becomes apparent that what he has at his disposal is merely an ordered succession of dramatic pictures. With these he must do the work he once did with all the infinite resources of the English language at his back. My own adventure in the screen trade had been in progress for some years before I attempted to turn my novel, Spider, into a script. I had been to Hollywood a number of times. My adaptation of my first novel had been produced in Britain. I understood just how difficult it was to write a film, particularly a film in which the narrative is driven as much by psychic events as by external incidents. Stories with any depth of psychological complexity tend to throw up a problem of imagery – how to find the visual correlative of some complicated interior event, an act of misperception, say, with an associated flash of paranoia, concealed from the world but integrated into a developing pattern of skewed logic. I had attempted in my one produced script to pull this off with a neurotically repressed character called Sir Hugo, who may have murdered his prospective son-in-law in a fit of sexual panic, and then blamed it on the butler. The film was called The Grotesque, with Alan Bates playing the cantankerous Sir Hugo, and Sting the predatory butler, Fledge. It bore in its essentials a strong resemblance to Joseph Losey’s The Servant, although I wasn’t consciously aware of the influence until later. I had tried to present a complicated idea I had come across in Freud, one that linked paranoia to homosexuality. A man is attracted to another man but out of shame is unable to admit it to himself. So he reverses the current: instead of saying, I love him, he says, I hate him. But this too is unacceptable. So he reverses the current again: he says, not, I hate him, but rather, he hates me! He then finds “evidence” of such hatred in the other man’s behaviour. In just such devious movements of inversion and reversal, says Freud, does the unconscious mind operate. A secondary dynamic involves Sir Hugo’s wife, played in the movie by Theresa Russell. The confused man, unable to say of the object of desire, I love him, says, instead, she loves him! And so he compounds his paranoia with morbid jealousy. All this I had tried to work into the screenplay; the results had been disappointing. To try again with Spider seemed pure folly. The difficulty lay in the fact that Spider, the character, was not, like Sir Hugo, merely neurotic; he was floridly psychotic – a schizophrenic man spiralling out of control after being prematurely discharged from a top-security mental hospital. His thinking, to put it mildly, is bizarre, and, at least in the novel, Spider’s thinking is all we have – there is no way out of Spider’s mind other than death. He is unable to edit reality, nor can he see that the edifice of delusion he has constructed to account for his traumatised childhood (a very shaky structure, upon which he has established his equally shaky identity) is liable at any moment to collapse. So this strange, fragile creature wanders the desolate places of the East End of London while his faltering mind attempts with growing desperation to cling to a few last shreds of coherence. Again, it’s hardly the stuff of cinema. Little happens in the present, and what seems to have happened in the past is actually a gross distortion. Cinematic imagery is loaded with authority: you see an event occur on the screen, you tend to accept it, to believe the story you are being told. How, then, to communicate the idea that what you are seeing on screen did not happen but that its significance lies in the fact that a given character believes it did, in order to conceal from himself what actually did happen? I came up with various solutions, none of them satisfactory, none of them particularly elegant, including the extensive use of voice-over, which is not really good enough. Voice-over means that the writer has failed to solve his problem in purely cinematic terms – that is, through imagery. My wife, Maria Aitken, had urged me to adapt Spider, not sharing my own scepticism about its filmic potential. I was between books, and I agreed to give it six weeks. It took six months. But then, to my astonishment, things happened fast. Maria gave the script to the independent producer Catherine Bailey, confident that Catherine, who wanted to expand from TV and radio into film production, would not compromise the austere character of the piece. Catherine was then producing a Shaw play for the BBC, with Ralph Fiennes. It is a risk to give a script to an actor before you have a director, but she thought Ralph would make a perfect Spider. So she gave him the script, he read it the same night and promptly committed to the role. A novelist need never show his work to anyone, until he decides to hand his manuscript to the publisher. But we all have our special, trusted readers who see the book before it goes off; they even read it while it is work in progress, and their reactions we take extremely seriously. Screenwriters, by contrast, are inundated with other people’s opinions almost from the start and have little control over who gives these opinions. Everybody in the producer’s office can have a go – an interesting experience for the writer in Hollywood, where most of the producer’s people are about 12 years old. They glance at a piece of work so intricately constructed that its internal mechanism resembles that of a Swiss watch and blithely suggest changes of seismic consequence. What if the guy’s ex-wife shows up, they say, and she’s dying of cancer? But the guy has no ex-wife, you gasp, incredulous, and do you even begin to realise what a dying cancer patient would do to this story? OK, they say, but what if you make him a pro football player instead of a psychiatrist? Such things do not happen in London film production offices, at least not the ones I’ve been in. Nevertheless, the suggestions come thick and fast, and the more people who see the script, the more suggestions there are. The effect of this is eventually to blur the writer’s ability to evaluate the quality of the script, as it changes in response to plausible ideas originating elsewhere. The search for a director for Spider took several years, and by the end of that time I no longer had any clear notion whether the script was good or not. Various directors had at various times been “attached” to Spider, or had shown an interest. Stephen Frears drove across London one evening, out of the goodness of his heart, to sit at the kitchen table and discuss it with us in depth. I spent several days in LA, in a suite at the Chateau Marmont, working on it with Pat O’Connor. I learned that bringing in a good director is a tricky proposition, particularly if the budget is small. Movie directors often have large families to support. Timing is all. And then one day in the summer of 2000 the script was given to David Cronenberg in Toronto. He called Catherine, who invited him to come to London to meet us and Ralph. Everybody got on famously, and by the time he left five days later we had our director. In fact, he was the very best director any of us could have imagined for this rather dark and complicated material. Cronenberg’s handling of what I had seen as the problem of Spider’s interiority is deft, perfect, inspired. The film is a masterpiece – a clear, slow, harrowing picture of a man’s journey into psychic night. On the other hand, the story of the financing of Spider is a baroquely twisted tale of gothic proportions, involving bad calculations, outrageous betrayal, brutal vindictiveness, scheming manipulation, dogged obsession, high moral courage, breathtaking brinksmanship, plus amazing feats of self-sacrifice, loyalty, recklessness and hard work. It would require at least a slim volume to tell that story, for it involves the arcane minutiae of film financing in volatile combination with much that is base in human nature, and much that is fine. Suffice that a month before the start of principal photography, the financing was withdrawn and Catherine Bailey was faced with the task of finding $9.4m elsewhere. That she did so is little short of miraculous, but even so, like Spider’s sanity, the entire edifice teetered on the verge of collapse throughout the production period. On the artistic side, meanwhile, all went smoothly – the very reverse of the usual Hollywood situation, as Cronenberg wryly remarked, where the money’s not a problem but the work is hell. His set was a calm, efficient workplace. The atmosphere was serious but jokey. One of the jokes was him saying, “Oh Christ, here comes the fucking writer again.” In fact, he is far too assured and focused an artist ever to be disturbed, as some directors are, by the presence of the writer on the set. Many of his key people had been with him for years, including his cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, and his sister Denise, the costume designer. Ralph Fiennes liked and trusted him, and so did Miranda Richardson, who co-stars with Ralph and plays not one but three women, including Spider’s mother – a performance of such consummate skill that some viewers will be unaware of her multiple roles. As regards the script, the changes David wanted took me a morning to complete. The voice-overs had to go, and strangely, nothing was lost. All that suffering, the hell seething in Spider’s sick soul: it was there in Ralph’s eyes. In the summer of 2001 the exteriors were shot over a three-week period in Hackney and Kennington, and then the company decamped to Toronto to shoot the interior scenes on a soundstage. The London crew had not yet been paid, but had continued showing up for work anyway. Catherine stayed behind in London for a week to reassure them that their money was on its way. Then came Cannes. Cronenberg had spent the winter doing post-production work in Toronto. The film was cut together and edited. A score was composed by Howard Shore, who won an Oscar for Lord of the Rings and had been a Cronenberg pal since their teenage days. The score was performed by the Kronos Quartet, although when I tiptoed into a mixing studio on the west side of Manhattan to watch Shore and Cronenberg at work, David whispered to me that he thought we might have no music at all. As there was little enough dialogue in the film, and the voice-overs had been entirely excised, having no musical score was a fine, bold, formal gesture – very exciting. In the end, Howard’s lovely, haunting music was used, but sparingly, and there are scenes in the film of great import or suspense which go forward in utter silence. The film was submitted to Cannes and accepted into competition, one of the 22 official entries out of the thousands that had applied. The Cannes film festival is an extraordinary event, manic, grotesque, at times sublime. You walk along La Croisette, past the great hotels and the massive billboards advertising the American blockbusters, and the characters come at you in waves, all with their name tags and cellphones, wheeling and dealing, the spivs and the conmen, and the exquisitely beautiful boys and girls. You see major players – here is Juliette Binoche, all in black, leaning over me to murmur something into Stephen Frears’ ear, and here is Sting, showing up at our pre-screening party to wish us well. And here is Homer Kaye Dyal III, a large, loud, hearty man from Georgia whose production company has just set up in Fort Lauderdale. They did Larry Clark’s last film. Homer and I became firm friends over a bottle of champagne. But when it comes time for the big screening, you realise that the essence of Cannes is not the business aspect – the networking, the distribution deals, the signing of the talent, the financing. It is not even celebrity. The essence of Cannes is a reverence for the art of cinema so profound that the chosen films are accorded a degree of pomp and circumstance one would expect for a visiting head of state. It all begins at the pre-screening party, when at a certain point everyone except the red-carpet elite is kicked out and has to struggle down La Croisette to the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès on foot. The elite, comprising the key production and creative people, plus spouses, is then assigned places in the fleet of silver Mercedes waiting on the street outside the party. Behind steel barriers stand shouting, cheering legions of paparazzi and fans. A scrupulous sense of hierarchy and protocol attaches to all these arrangements, and, of course, we are all splendid in black tie and evening gowns. We climb into the cars, which are then sent off at precise intervals, forming a convoy (with outriders) which purrs down La Croisette to arrive at the Palais just as the last of the audience have taken their seats. Then comes the red-carpet experience, and one tastes for a few seconds the beefy tang of public celebrity. It is not heady, or exhilarating, it is terrifying. Four abreast, we advance along a broad swath of carpet: composer, star, director, writer. The photographers scream the names of star and director, desperate for the eye-contact shot. One lonely voice cried, “Patrick!” He won’t work again, I thought. I could hear the astonished photo editor: “The writer? You got the writer?” It all seems to last for ever. We wheel to left, to right, we are blinded by flashlights. We clutch one another as though drowning. We understand Norma Desmond’s descent of the staircase at the end of Sunset Boulevard. She thinks they’ve come to pay homage; in fact, they’ve come to take her away. What if the crowd turns ugly? And then up the steps and into the lobby, almost deserted except for the powerful young men with headsets, the enforcers of this extraordinary ritual, plus a few privileged photographers, including, bizarrely, my brother Simon, a software writer from Kew who has no business here except to root for me but who has somehow blarneyed his way into the exclusive zone. Then on, into the auditorium, where 2,000 people all in evening dress rise as one and applaud us as we make our way to the row of honour. It is not us they celebrate, it is Cinema. We are merely an instance of Cinema, we are not Cinema itself. Our moment will pass, others will take our place, Cinema is for ever. We watch the film. The silent concentration of the audience is intense. The film is a masterpiece. The lights go up. The audience rises once more – the Cannes audience famously critical, an audience that will boo, or walk out, if the movie is bad – and for many minutes they applaud us. I am pushed toward Cronenberg. We fall into one another’s arms. It is the most extraordinary hug I have ever experienced. Many faces are streaked with tears. Our departure from the Palais mirrors our arrival, but with this difference: the film has been shown, and the reaction to it has been positive in the extreme. The motorcade pulls away from the kerb, and the lights of the Palais fade in the rear-view mirror. The crowds on La Croisette gaze curiously into the cars, wondering who we are. Later that night, an Australian producer in dinner jacket and cummerbund tells me he was refused admittance to the screening because his shoelaces were the wrong colour. ? Patrick McGrath. Spider will be shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on August 22 and 24, and will be released in Britain in January 2003


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