In making a film based on a true story I’m conscious of giving precedence to certain facts over others. Here I’m reminded of the producer, Robert Evans’ quote – ‘there’s three sides to every story, yours, mine and the truth’, drawn from his biopic, ‘The Kid Stays in the Picture’ (2002). Anyone who saw it perhaps recalls the other half of his assertion – ‘And no one is lying. Memories shared serve each differently’.
For any conventional feature film a 107-page script is standard, the rule of thumb being a minute of screen time per page. The current draft of “Voyageuse” – a narration/performance – currently runs at over 3 hours so my task of editing the script to a manageable feature length is less about writing and more about amputation. Writing is hard enough but arguably screenwriting is harder because unlike in literature, where the author commands the parameters of his or her endeavour, a novel can be of any scope and length whereas screenwriters are limited to industry-defined conventions.
D. W. Griffiths made the 165 minute “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 but today’s equivalent isn’t to be found in cinemas because episodic television and games now offer the opportunity to produce and consume long-form work in ways that cinema can’t and won’t; that, and by offering audiences the option of the off-switch are TV and Games truly interactive.
Time to kill my darlings. Last week I culled 32 pages by asking the question: does this scene advance the page-one premise and/or the story’s themes? The brutal process of omission is no less painful by literally cutting printed pages and making two piles – in and out. Having spent most of last year writing and researching the script, informed by Erica’s diaries, letters and papers, I realise each scene must earn its keep no matter how fascinating or revelatory. The same applies to the words; those hard-won turns-of-phrase and the recreation of Erica’s speech patterns. If it’s not on the spine of the narrative, I chastise myself, it’s got to go.
But what exactly is the narrative? As words on paper “Voyageuse” contains no action or description, none of the black stuff found in any normal narrative script. Rather, it’s a piece of pure storytelling based on person, place and memory that attempts to convey 40 years of Erica’s life as a series of seemingly random reminiscences recounted over the span of one day, a typical day in her empty life and heavy heart. Given this matrix of multiple timelines, my instinct is to recreate Erica as two characters, or at least two distinct consciences/voices, in effect, the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ selves that reveal her struggle, to my mind a human struggle more common than most care to admit.
In the context of film is there space for such a contrary and complex character as Erica? Given the narrow range of roles for female actors is it too big a stretch for an audience inured to a century’s worth of cinematic stereotypes to connect with her? A quick scan of previous years’ Best Acting Oscars shows how film thrives not only on the portrayal of highly dysfunctional characters but also how many stellar performances are based on ‘real’ people. Filtered through the lens of stardom and A-lister script approval, however, in these films the flaws are not quite as flawed, the behaviour more well-behaved, the pill sugar-coated and easier to swallow. The ‘truth’ – as Evans observed – becomes the plaything of the highest bidder.
In previous versions of “Voyageuse” I shied away from Erica’s demons; her drug habit, her all-consuming sense of loss and loneliness, her desire for ‘congenial company’ that conflicted with her perceived lack of social skills, her longing to express emotion while striving for composure. These flaws and frailties, so I thought, were unattractive, certainly not the stuff of cinematic heroines. Lately I’ve concluded, as echoed by Peter Greenaway, that I should not have the arrogance to assume I’m making this film for anyone else but myself. To deny Erica her version of the truth would be wrong, no matter how disagreeable or unpalatable I find it. To do this story justice I need a scalpel, not a blunt knife.
The photograph is of Erica, taken in 1971 at the entrance to her Edinburgh house. It is unretouched.