Lying in bed with flu, as I listen to the January storms ripping limbs from the ancient lime outside my window, I think of Erica’s journal in which she compares the ‘tossing of the trees, writhing as if in agony’ with her own tortured mental state. In a year when the news is already dominated by negatives – mainly the sudden and violent deaths of named and unnamed victims in France, Syria, Iraq and Nigeria – it seems the entire world is in torment.
However these events are overshadowed by the call I received an hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve, informing me of my father’s death at Wick Hospital, Caithness, a year after his prognosis of ‘weeks, not months’ for inoperable and untreatable cancer. He was aged 80.
Summoning the will to resume work on this film, I realise “Voyageuse” is in some way cathartic, dealing as it does with the themes of loss and grief. The parallels are evident; Erica’s formative years were informed by loss. Too young to grasp the import of fleeing her native Hungary to England prior to WW2, she forfeited her country and language, even her name. She also mourned the absence of her father, fired from his job and interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man but who later – on a German passport – joined the British Army and served his adopted country for three years.
Despite her attempts to assimilate into middle-class provincial England, Erica would never bloom into an English Rose. A victim of history, she could never reclaim the exoticism of her past ‘true’ self nor truly adapt to England, an England that only ever existed in the narratives created by the propagandists at the Ministry of Information.
In later years Erica’s confusion of identity manifested in her conviction that she was somehow ‘other’ and excluded. Although not given to magical thinking, she indulged these negative thoughts and on paper savaged both her mother and brother for instilling in her a sense of inadequacy that would afflict her into adulthood.
When I first began to write screenplays in 1992 I devoured many books, notably by script guru, Syd Field, whose assertion ‘film is behaviour’ still resonates. Screenwriting wisdom tends to prescribe the ideal qualities that make for a compelling protagonist. My struggle over the past decade is in placing enough faith in my character. An elderly, white, educated, middle class woman is perhaps not the likeliest candidate to carry a film but for the fact that the most engaging and moving stories have at their centre a flawed human being. In this respect Erica is well-qualified and only by a process of dissociation could she go beyond the limit of her usual behaviour.
Given the gulf between what exists on paper and what ends up on the screen, I’m not yet hung up on achieving the perfect script – the draft I completed last year is overlong and needs a judicious edit. Besides, I tell myself, choosing not to solicit funding obviates the need to appeal to untutored or unreliable readers. Weighing the pros and cons of working this way, I conclude it’s preferable to not working at all, given a climate where even the most modestly budgeted films take years to produce yet gain little exposure, let alone profit.
With themes that otherwise would be classed as box office poison, I console myself that making “Voyageuse” is to take a risk. It strikes me that death and its consequences have been ill-served by cinema, a medium with a higher-than-usual dependence on its instance, be it the numbing cartoon violence of action movies or the mawkish treatment of tragic romances, the type where the heroine coughs lightly during act one with all the nuance of a klaxon only to peg out by page 92 accompanied by a minor key piano score.
In the immediate aftermath of my father’s death I received a text from a woman named Linda, a Humanist celebrant charged with leading the funeral service. We had spoken on the phone days before as she pieced together the clues of who my father was: his work, family and achievements – admittedly no easy task for a complete stranger on a tight deadline. Her text gave me pause – ‘Many thanks. Your contribution to the script is truly valued’. Bemused by the word ‘script’ as opposed to ‘eulogy’, I wondered, at what point in our culture did we all suddenly need to work to a script?
The following day I received a call from my brother. ‘I got the script’, he said, ‘but I had to tell Linda that our mother’s name wasn’t Val’. Val? Our late mother’s name was May. ‘Probably a cut and paste job’, he added dolefully. ‘Sounds like she could use another draft’, I reply, thinking but not saying – couldn’t we all?
The photograph is of my desk showing some of the archive photos I’m currently scanning.