My first produced feature-length screenplay REALITi will be showing at the 2014 New Zealand International Film Festival this month. Directed by Jonathan King and starring Nathan Meister, Michelle Langstone and Graham McTavish, REALITi premieres in Wellington and screens later in Auckland. You can book for the Wellington screenings here and the Auckland screenings here.
I'm biased, but I think you should see it. Jonathan has made a really good movie.
This is a blog about writing the screenplay and its relationship to my other work. If you want to avoid spoiling the movie, stop reading now.
Making REALITi has been a long road. Around 2005/6 after he had made the horror-comedy Black Sheep, Jonathan asked me if I had any movie ideas "lying round." I did. In 2004 I had written a short film called The Alibi Girl for the 48 Hour Film Festival. Directed by Clinton Phillips. The Alibi Girl is about two women trafficking a street drug that alters the perception of time. You can see it below – again, if you want to avoid partly spoiling REALITi, don't.
The Alibi Girl was an idea I had been thinking about taking further. Using the short movie as the set-up for a longer story I wrote a treatment and then a feature-length screenplay, now titled REALITi. I wrote the screenplay very quickly. I liked it and so did the director.
The project was put into development. I wrote several new drafts of REALITi but they were never as good as the first. The project stalled.
(Americans call this development hell but it's more like limbo. I've had two features "in development" and the process – the "journey" – killed them both. For a long time REALITi was in the same hole. I just don't write that way.)
In the meantime Jonathan had had the opportunity to make another movie, the fantasy-horror Under the Mountain based on the novel by Maurice Gee, and I was living in London. Jonathan and I teamed up again online when he illustrated a comic I had written, City Lights. He raised the idea of making REALITi using that early, good draft. One of the strengths of that original draft is that it could be made for a low budget. When we couldn't get funding for the movie, we decided to go ahead and make it anyway.
In this blog I've referred to REALITi as both a sci-fi noir and a SF movie with no special effects. It's a drama about normal people confronting a surreal possibility. In that respect it shares something with my 1994 novel, Heaven, which plays with the idea of changing realities and emotional discord. Heaven was made into a movie by Miramax in 1998, directed by Scott Reynolds:
Like Heaven, REALITi plays with the idea of repeating, if slightly altered, personalities and events. It's about a media executive who begins to wonder what's real – an idea which also popped up in my 1994 science fiction story 'Somewhere in the 21st Century'.
Collected in The Man Who Wasn't Feeling Himself, 'Somewhere' is about a man who discovers he's the star of a TV science-fiction series. Here's an overlong excerpt:
As Miles left Larry's dressing room the clapper boy glanced up at him with a rapt expression, star struck. 'I don't care what the director says, Mr Despot.' The words pressed on him like a confidential hand. 'I think you're cool.'
'Well.' Miles looked at the star on the door, and then at the handle. 'I'm. Uh. Um.' He wondered if he should lock the door behind him in case someone tried to steal Larry's things. He broke with his thoughts and turned to the young man. 'How long have we known each other?' he asked in a too-shrewd tone, trying to sound as he imagined a TV star would.
'We've never really spoken before, Mr Despot. But my friends and I, we all watch The 21st Century and it's really...' He groped for the word. 'It's cool, Mr Despot. It's a cool show. You're just the coolest.'
Miles nodded. His reflex was to say thank you but he felt enough of a fraud simply standing at the door. The boy bit his lip, waiting for an answer. Miles fumbled. 'You're doing a great job of that floor there,' he said finally. It was all he could think of, but it seemed to please the young man enough.
He was relieved to find large signs directing him to the car park. As he made his way through the building he was prodded by a chorus of similar pleasantries. Fabulous show, Larry, called a tuxedoed young executive from a European convertible. Loved it when you zapped the Martian, Larry, chimed in the slender young thing in the passenger seat. Enjoyed last week's show, Mr Despot, said the garage attendant and automatically Miles acknowledged the man with a thank you and a nod as if he really was the star of a show called The 21st Century, and it was a good show. Then he stopped: good for whom? For Steve the director? For Larry Despot? Who was Larry Despot? And his wife?
'Babe...' A woman motioned to him from a 1963 Thunderbird at the front of the car park. Miles leant down and peered through the passenger window. Her eyes were blue. She had a heart-shaped face and blonde hair tied with a scarf like Grace Kelly. Her chin was pointed, her smile sharp at the corners. She wore a white dress. He didn't even ask if she was Imogen Hush. He just got in the car.
The highway was long, the traffic seamlessly fast. Gleaming beetle shapes, black windscreens, white, star-crossed lights. The engine whined like a jet.(If you want to read the whole thing, the e-version of the collection The Man Who Wasn't Feeling Himself is available on Kindle | Smashwords and iTunes.)
Miles cleared his throat. 'You're really something,' he told her.
'Well, you have my worst side.' She reached behind the seat and pulled out a thick glossy magazine which she passed to him. Vogue Italia . He looked at the cover for what seemed like a long time.
'You're right,' he said finally. 'You look better from the other side. But that's splitting hairs. You're still really something. Are you a famous model?'
'I used to be. But marrying you meant I could give all that up. It got kinda boring.'
'Ms Hush –'
'Imogen. Ms Hush.' He felt ridiculous. 'I don't know what all those people think, but I'm not your husband. I'm not Larry Despot.'
'You are now.' She held up her hand before he could interject. 'I know, I know – you're not Larry. But as from now you're positioned in the universe in such a way that you appear to be Larry Despot, to me and to everyone else.'
'But you can tell that I'm not Larry. Can't you?'
'Oh sure. But I'm a little closer to Larry than other people. And I've seen this happen before.'
Miles felt his head beginning to spin. 'You have?'
'Larry first changed about two years ago,' she said with a faraway look in her eyes. 'Now it's happening every few months. They all showed up like you did – in a club or a restaurant, middle of the night. I'd wake up and it wouldn't be Larry any more. Well, I mean, it would be Larry, but someone else at the same time...' She winced. 'I feel guilty about it, but what can I do?'
City lights flickered past, whipped by the wind. 'What happened to the other Larrys?' Miles said.
'I don't know. They passed, and their respective identities with them. The doctor diagnosed it as a series of paranoid schizophrenic episodes. That was what I thought too, that the strain had finally got to my husband. But it's happened so many times now that I've become able to discern physical differences between one Larry and the next. I believe what you're saying – and what the others said. You're not Larry. You're simply occupying his place in this reality.' Imogen squinted at him, hard, for as long a time as she could take her eyes off the road. Her gaze was acute, perceptive. It felt as if she was digging her fingernails into his skin.
'But I have memories of my life before,' Miles interrupted. 'I was standing in the Pavilion on New Year's Day in the year 2000... and then I was in a studio, and everyone's telling me my real name's my character name, that my life was really the episode in which I was acting.' Miles sank fitfully in the passenger's seat. 'Jesus.'
'It's okay. Be cool,' she reassured him. 'What I think is, we're occupying parallel universes. Like the lanes on this highway. Now, for some reason, things have begun to change lanes. Maybe because the lanes have become similar. Maybe all these science fiction stories are making us catch up with the future, in some way.' She shrugged. 'Maybe some sort of space-time anomaly. Anyway, we're almost home.' She pointed out the window. 'That's where you live. We live. Together.' She seemed not unhappy at the thought. 'Have done for four years.'
'We have?' He looked across the highway to twin apartment towers sprouting from the low, serrated skyline. 'Is it a nice area?'
'Anywhere's nice from the fifteenth floor. You can see the ocean.'
'Wow,' he said flatly. He rubbed a contemplative hand across his chin and was rewarded with a palm full of studio makeup.
'Larry always washes before he leaves the studio,' Imogen stated. 'And he doesn't touch his face when he's wearing makeup. No TV professional would.'
'I was thinking about the apartment.'
'Well, that's the wrong expression for thinking. You're not holding your hand properly.' She demonstrated with her left, flicking her thumb up and down through her hooked index finger. 'Larry Despot always does this when he's fidgety or irritated. See? Like an imaginary cigarette lighter. It's a subliminal gesture – he does it when he wants to smoke. Do you smoke?'
'Wrong. We both do.' She dug into the glove compartment and pulled out a packet of menthols. Keeping her eyes on the traffic she put the pack to her lips and drew out two cigarettes. She left one in her mouth and held out the other to him. 'Try the movement first.' He flicked his thumb very slowly. She shot him a bored expression as she tossed him the cigarette. 'You're not even trying.'
'I have enough to think about.' He depressed the car lighter and waited for it to heat. 'Half an hour ago I was standing in a different city at the beginning of a new era and now I'm a television star being driven around by a woman telling me how to wiggle my hand. I mean, Jesus. 1965 – I don't think I'm born yet.'
'I know. I'm the one who should be saying sorry.' Her tone was automatic. 'But really, this has happened so many times it's more tedious than anything else.' She sighed and leaned forward on the steering wheel. 'What a dumb-ass situation. Didn't you ever watch The 21st Century?'
The heated lighter popped out. He lit her cigarette, pressing the orange ring against the tip. Then he lit his own. It didn't taste bad. He didn't cough. He waited for the element's heat to disperse before answering. 'I don't recall any such show.'
'Maybe it doesn't exist in your universe,' she said, trying to prick her own interest as much as his. 'That's possible.'
'How many other Larrys were there?'
'Counting Larry? Five.'
'So I'm Larry six. Am I much different?'
'You're taller,' she said. 'The last one barely came up to here.' She indicated her nipples with a karate chop.
It was a grim lineage. And yet if what she said was true... 'Doesn't someone notice the height difference?' he wondered.
Imogen shrugged. 'I do. No-one else does. You know what it's like with TV stars: someone says they're short, someone says they're tall... If Larry's suits are tight the people in wardrobe assume he's put on weight. Too short and they figure they have the wrong suit, a bad tailor – something like that. I mean, would you accuse someone of shrinking?'
'I guess not.'
'Especially not Larry Despot.' She blew two lines of smoke and her nostrils flared. 'Nobody would dare say that to Larry.'
The idea of reality-altering drugs figured in Electric, in which chemicals cause different cities around the world to occupy the same space:
Dawn was coming up. The light was the colour of cornflour. The traffic sounded like gentle rain. Somewhere between sleeping and waking she had slipped out of bed and left me alone. Beyond the Chrysler Building the Eiffel Tower was fading in the sun. I was dreaming a lullaby: a girl singing 'Sweet Jane', her faint voice stretching to reach the notes. Na na na na na, sweet Jane. And then it really was a voice.Chemicals influences are everywhere in REALITi. Four of the character names – Holly, Mandrake, Meg (nutmeg), Jessamine (jasmine) – are taken from plants with toxic qualities. There is also some nominative determinism in the lead character of Vic Long: he's not quite a Victor.
Although it's science fiction, REALITi is mostly a noir. It's a detective story, as was Shirker, Electric and Departure Lounge, in which the darkness and cold of the city mirrors the characters' lives. The plot can be read in two ways: one traditional, one meta. Either will do.
UPDATE: Some people have asked if the plot all adds up. It does. But you will have to watch it more than once.
Pic: Michelle Langstone in REALITi.
QUQ has blogged about authors' incomes in response to an article in the Guardian.
Whenever the subject of authors' incomes is raised – in particular by someone who's been paid to do so – I reach for this, by Nick Tosches from In the Hand of Dante, my favourite rant on the subject. When I got the book from the shelf I discovered it was bookmarked: the subject must come up often.
"Faulkner. His story said it all. For every writer, every publisher, every editor, every reader: his story said it all.
"'I have written THE book, of which those other things were but foals,' he had told Boni & Liveright, the publisher of his first two, God-awful novels, after finishing the manuscript of Flags in the Dust, in the fall of 1927. He was right. And the book was published in due time, in the summer of 1973, eleven years after he was dead.
"The house of Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith did, however, publish another one of his great books, The Sound and the Fury, in the fall of 1929. Depression or no depression, bestsellers then, as now, could and did sell in the millions. All Quiet on the Western Front, also published in 1929, would sell more than three and a half million copies throughout the world in the span of eighteen months. The Sound and the Fury sold one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine copies.
"When Harrison Smith saw Faulkner's next book, Sanctuary, he responded aghast: "Good God, I can't publish this. We'd both be in jail.'" Smith eventually summoned his courage, and when Sanctuary was published, in early 1931, it sold more than six thousand copies – a degree of commercial success that Faulkner would not see again for another eight years.
"Random House acquired these books when it acquired Smith's company and became Faulkner's publisher in 1936. As Smith had shown bravery, conviction, and devotion, so did Random House. Though it took almost thirteen years, from 1931 to 1943, for The Sound and the Fury to sell another thousand copies, bravery, conviction, and devotion paid off. For Random House, The Sound and the Fury, and the rest of Faulkner's novels, became in years to come one of the most profitable and prestigious treasure-troves that any publisher could dream ever to possess.
"The catch, of course, is that, while Random House has justly prospered from its bravery, conviction, and devotion, the sweat and suffering of Faulkner's own brilliance and bravery have, as they say, earned out only after he has taken his place beneath the dirt.
"I'm sick of these sons of bitches who moan and groan about how they work so fucking hard for their families. They're full of shit, every fucking one of them. Only the artist truly works for his loved ones and descendants alone. And this is because they are the only ones who get to see the fucking paycheck. Artists are not paid hourly. They are not paid weekly. They are not paid monthly. They are not paid annually. They are paid posthumously. In life, there is nothing: not even a decent down-payment, not even the token gesture of a ten-percent lagniappe."
Nick Tosches, In the Hand of Dante (Little, Brown and Company, 2002) pp.99-101
Harold Budd talking to Tim Jonze (2014):
I owe Brian [Eno] everything. But the primary thing was attitude. Absolute bravery to go in any direction. I once read an essay by the painter Robert Motherwell and he pointed out a truth that is so obvious and simple that it's overlooked: 'Art without risk is not art.' I agree with that profoundly. Take a flyer – and if it fails don't let it crush you. It's just a failure. Who cares?The Mouth (2014):
I live in a very handsome house in Joshua Tree, California, in the desert. A very beautiful house – very artistic shall we say. I’ve often been asked that I must be very interested in the desert, in the open spaces. In fact, I’m not. I’m not interested in that at all. I’m not interested in the architecture outside of it being architecture. There’s no correlation with my music at all. Not so far as I can tell, anyway.And Andrew Fleming (2012):
I’m in a very strange place right now. I don’t listen to music. I look at a lot of art. I’m not sure where I’m going with it. I would say, in other circumstances, that I have a block of some kind.., but it doesn’t bother me. It’s not something I have to overcome.Namaste.
Paul Mazursky's Tempest (1982) is the sort of movie people used to make all the time. It's not huge or important or famous or even a cult classic: it's just good. The screenplay was co-written by Leon Capetanos and that Shakespeare guy. It's a riff on The Tempest and stars John Cassavetes as a disillusioned New York architect (Phillip) and Gena Rowlands (Antonia) as his disillusioned wife. Also starring Molly Ringwald (Miranda), Raul Julia (Kalibanos) and Susan Sarandon (Aretha – but basically, Susan Sarandon). Julia's great. They're all great.
Tempest is a film about personal crisis and love affairs and escape, beautifully acted, with scenes that could have only come together in the editing suite. My favourite moment is Miranda and Aretha washing a sheet in the sea: they raise it; the movie cuts to a long and disruptive flashback, then they lower it again and the story continues. I suppose it's a theatre trick ("We're Segueing Here, Everybody! Segueing!") but it's an example of a moment that would be the first thing to go now, struck out or hammered flat by committee.
Nine years after Tempest Peter Greenaway made Prospero's Books, which had far more cred but a comparison between the two now (do "audiences" even remember Greenaway?) is sobering. Mazursky's Tempest is variously funny and sad, angry and sentimental, disciplined and spontaneous. Rowlands and Cassavetes are amazing. It's a story. It's a movie.
Maybe it's the allure of The Island. Maybe it's because it's medium budget and small scale, or that great idea Shakespeare had. Or the performances. Or maybe I'm simply prone to being charmed by art that's pre-everythingthesedays. But I recommend Tempest to anyone.
I am very late to The Wire. Partly from being a refusenik but also timing. I prefer to obsessively binge-watch one thing at a time.
It's great seeing it now when it's so old: 35mm screen ratio, Hill Street Blues production values. The drama is all in the writing. Season one was dense with ideas and directions: you didn't know which way it was going to go. Towards the end of that first run there was a perceptible budget bump and the show acquired a little more predictability... but, man: the writing.
Here is creator-writer-producer David Simon talking to Nick Hornby in 2007:
I think what you sense in The Wire is that it is violating a good many of the conventions and tropes of episodic television. It isn’t really structured as episodic television and it instead pursues the form of the modern, multi-POV novel. Why? Primarily because the creators and contributors are not by training or inclination television writers.
Another reason the show may feel different than a lot of television: our model is not quite so Shakespearean as other high-end HBO fare.... We’re stealing instead from an earlier, less-traveled construct—the Greeks—lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality.And talking to Meghan O'Rourke in Slate, 2006:
We realized that explaining that why the drug war doesn't work would get us only through the first season. So, we started looking at the rest of what was going on in the city of Baltimore. The big thematic heavy lifting was done in Seasons 1 and 2, when Ed and I were figuring out what we wanted to do: how many seasons, etc. We came up with five. We talked about many things; nothing seems substantial enough for a Season 6. When other writers came onto the show, George Pelecanos, Richard Price, we would throw it at them: This is what we came up with, five things. If there's anything else you have, any ideas for extending the series, say so. There was no general agreement on anything but the five.And to Alan Sepinwall at The Star-Ledger in 2008:
To talk about symbolism, if people get it, they get it. if they don't, telling it to them ruins it. You know that.