Years ago at a meeting with a London film executive we got to talking about passion projects, those worthy and obscure ideas that obsess their creators but are rarely realised. If I’ve learned nothing else in this business it’s to make sure you’re in love with your ideas because you’ll live with them for longer than you think. Only now do I see that through all its ups, downs, standing stills and false starts “Voyageuse” resists all attempts to be commercial.
Not for the want of trying. A year after Erica’s death in 2004, I wrote a short story called “The Snagging List”. The premise: her battle to reclaim her house from a firm of builders who had installed themselves in her Regent Terrace home and three years later showed no signs of completing the job – an irony not lost on me. Based on a true episode, it felt too slight, too pat and generic, the kind of tale that would sit comfortably on Radio 4’s daytime schedules, appealing to their target demographic – older women.
Plainly I needed to learn more about my subject. More important, I needed to know more about my motive for telling her story.
In 2006 I wrote a spec screenplay titled “Erica”. In my attempt to appeal to the market – a fool’s errand – I committed the worst sins of screenwriting. Dwelling on plot rather than character, I turned Erica into a Central Casting cipher – a bookish, lonely old cat lady who takes in a recalcitrant lodger who – predictably – turns her life around. While this version brushed, indeed, airbrushed the truth – Erica often took in lodgers, typically foreign students – the script had too many false notes. Events could never unfold with the requisite hilarious consequences.
Again I had started from the wrong place. Conventional wasn’t the way to go if I really wanted to tell the truth. I simply couldn’t escape the fact of Erica’s chronic depression and her 30-plus year drug habit – an unattractive prospect to potential funders. By reducing such a complex character to one dimension I had betrayed Erica, the cardinal sin of any bio-pic.
In 2007 “The Devil’s Plantation” diverted my attention for the next three years. One of its aims was to experiment with narrative forms. On reflection, the project’s funder – the Scottish Arts Council – did me a favour by denying me the chance to make a conventional film. The resulting website
www.devilsplantation.co.uk was based on two real-life characters and by coming at their stories in an oblique way – I inserted 66 short ‘films’ into the site – taught me a lesson on different modes of storytelling.
Curiously, when I compiled these shorts into a feature-length film at the beginning of 2013 – even removing several ‘chapters’ – it not only seemed to make sense to the viewer who, judging by the feedback, experienced an emotional and psychological connection I hadn’t anticipated.
In spring 2010 I revisited “Erica” by which time I had a better title: “Voyageuse” – the word leapt out from a bound volume of “Women’s Life”, a compendia of women’s magazines from the 1880s I found among Erica’s belongings. I liked the title immediately – a female traveller – knowing she had travelled widely prior to her marriage in 1960 and knowing too that in the space of a decade her life would be totally transformed.
This new draft retained the lodger while focusing on the testy relationship between Erica and her mother, Vera. It focused too on her dealings with her therapist whom she had consulted since the 1970s. In the back of my mind was the Bette Davis film, “Now, Voyager” (1942) a wartime ‘women’s’ picture premised on a clash between a society matriarch and her plain-Jane spinster daughter, the latter redeemed by the intervention of a psychiatrist/love interest that tested the morals of its time. Melodramatic to the point of hysteria, it’s the kind of film Hollywood does best but is rarely made today.
However the Hollywood of 1942 isn’t Glasgow in 2014. When making “The Devil’s Plantation” I relearned ways of storytelling for the screen on a miniscule sum and by trading a workable budget for creative freedom – i.e. by thinking, as opposed to spending my way out of problems – and concluded it wasn’t such a bad bargain.
At the end of 2013 I resolved to give the project one last go. I re-read every diary entry, every letter, and every scrap of paper retrieved from Erica’s house. I scrutinised her photo albums, family films and her cherished ephemera: school jotters, concert programmes, postcards, travel guides, restaurant menus, even her impenetrable doctoral thesis written while at Somerville College, Oxford in the mid-1950s. Buried in these items, I knew, was the story of a woman’s life worth telling – in other words, a passion project. Recently I completed a new version of the script, one that lends itself to a micro-budget model but as I said after making my first feature 15 years ago, it’s not what it costs, it’s what it’s worth that matters – and it’s not always about the money.
The photograph is of cherry blossom and was taken by Vera Eisner. Date unknown.