Monday, March 15, 2010

Writing about Writing the Screenplay for White Lion.

Getting into the film industry is one of the most difficult things in the world because of the multi-million deals involved in the process. So when I dreamt, literally, that I had to write films just before I left the UK for South Africa, I had no idea how long it would take before I would get my first feature film “Screenplay By” credit. To cut to the chase, after having films optioned (the rights bought by a producer) three times, once by a UK producer, each time the process got stuck in “development hell.” This is the name of the process where endless rewrites, fuelled by comments from the director, the producer and perhaps even the producer’s tea lady eventually destroy the script. In all three cases the producers gave up on my film after years of hard work on my side and simply made another one. Do I need to add that they never paid me during this time? Unfortunately, development hell is not at all uncommon in the film industry.

And so it came to pass that nine years down the line, and as many screenplays later, I decided I would give up my dream of writing feature films if nothing concrete happened by the end of 2006. After all, you can write as many brilliant feature film scripts as you like but unless one of them sees the light of celluloid, you’re not considered a film writer at all.

That's when a call for scripts came through SASWA (South African Script Writers Association now called the Writers’ Guild of South Africa) from the Producers of White Lion. They were looking for a writer to develop a rough story outline about a white lion into a full feature film script. By now I’d learnt how to write scripts to a tough British standard after my five year stint with UK producer and directors. I’d also acquired one of Britain’s top agents. I had certainly paid my dues. Without hesitation I submitted a treatment based on a very loose outline supplied by the producers and went up against the pool of South Africa’s best script writers.

Like the others I had to send in a treatment, which is a synopsis of the storyline of sorts. Doing my research, however, I heard that the African elders believed that white lions are the angelic messengers of the gods. In a whim of fancy I felt that the white lions were going to be my angelic protectors at this critical stage of my career. As a child I’d been besotted with lions after seeing Born Free. I even have a photograph taken of me and my two brothers with a lion cub at a Boswell Wilkie’s Circus when I was about six. I held the cub so tightly that my brothers could hardly touch the lion. I knew in my heart that this was my breakthrough film.

The executive producer of this film, Rodney Fuhr, owned the Lion Park near Lansaria. He’d made his money in business but had a dream of telling the story of a white lion’s struggle to survive in the wild. White lions seldom survive in nature because their light fur makes them a target for predators. But Rodney had managed to breed a pair of white lions. White lions aren’t albinos but a rare genetic throwback which occurs at random in tawny prides. Rodney Fuhr’s right hand man, Kevin Richardson who was producer on this film, had hand-reared many of the cubs. They’d finally reared a fully-grown white lion which had done the rare thing of reaching healthy maturity.

So Rodney Fuhr and Kevin Richardson were looking for someone to create a story around the lions they loved. First ten writers were selected. Then it went down to the wire with just three of us left. I was up against an established production company and another top writer. When the production team did a teleconference, they asked me why they should give me the job. I answered honestly: “Because I love lions.” I thought I’d really blown it with my naïve answer. But I did really love lions more than any other animal. And I think that may just have touched Kevin Richardson’s heart.

Fortunately the treatment I’d written really got to the heart of the lion’s story too. I realised as soon as I started working on this project that we needed a classic Hero’s Journey with the lion as the hero. So, in spite of, or perhaps because of, my naïve answer, I got the job.

I was flown to the Lion Park and spent weeks driving around the reserve, meeting the lions from the safe distance of a 4 by 4, especially in the case of Letsatsi, the big male white lion. My respect for Kevin knew no bounds when he walked into the veld with thia exquisite creature who kept putting his giant fangs around Kevin’s naked calves. Kevin would swat him gently and say “Not now Letsatsi.”

I held the cubs as soon as I could. They are as beautiful as you’d imagine. Milk-white fur with blue eyes and just a little bit silly. The teenagers, though, are quite unpredictable so I stood by quietly while Kevin dealt with them. As one of the production team said the teenagers, with their untidy beginner-manes, just needed a skateboard and a baseball cap to complete their cocky looks.

When it came to writing the script Rodney wanted a story which I felt reflected his own life of making it on his own terms in a harsh world. So I created a classic underdog story for Letsasti. First principles of script writing still apply whether you're writing about humans or animals.

Also Rodney would not allow any anthropomorphism at all. This was no Lion King II fortunately. So I was given many lessons while on location by Kevin about actual lion behaviour and had to disabuse myself quickly of any notion that lions are sweet and cuddly. They can be extremely brutal and male behaviour towards their own cubs almost broke my heart as I watched many documentaries while researching lion behaviour.

In my hero’s journey for Letsatsi I needed a mentor to kick-start his journey. However I had to work really carefully to get the producers to accept an ancestral link to the lions through the ancient African tradition as they didn’t want anything “airy-fairy” to start with. I opened the door for the possibility of the mentor being a Shangaan tribesman who would take over the guardianship of the white lion because of the Shangaan’s beliefs in the mystery of these lions. This story line was later developed into a full narrative arc by my co-writer, Ivan Millborrow.

Also I insisted we had to have humans in the story to up the ante and create an antagonist of serious proportions. Just having the lion’s natural predators and his rejection by his pride wasn't strong enough to create a real sense of crisis and drama. So I elaborated a story line with hunters with one nasty man in particular desperate to bag the white lion he’d heard rumours about.

My daughter and I went onto the set a few times and it was amazing to watch the wranglers working with the animals. In this film more than most, the production crew deserve all the credit. Working with humans is one thing, but working with animals is on a completely different scale.

Our model for White Lion from the outset was a seminal film about bears called L’ours, or The Bear. Made in 1988 by Frenchman Jean-Jaques Annaud, it was one of the first feature films to star live animals in a scripted narrative. Personally, I think White Lion exceeds the success of The Bear. Directed by Michael Swan, produced and realised by Kevin Richardson, with the story conceived and funded by Rodney Fuhr, I had a small but fundamental part to play in this multi-million rand epic.

At the recent premiere in Johannesburg I watched with immense pride as Kevin Richardson and director Michael Swan were interviewed by more than five television crews. They have both worked so tirelessly on this film that they deserve all the credit they get, including winning three SAFTA Awards for Cinematography, Sound Design and Sound Editing recently.

What really made the event for me though, was when the executive producer Rodney Fuhr sought me out especially to tell me how important it was for him that I’d travelled up for the premiere. He said that making the film would not have been possible without me and that I’d got the ball rolling on the whole project. I must admit to crying a few happy tears into glass of wine in the corner afterwards. I’m sure the lions are as proud of me as I am of myself for having been part of this exquisite production.

First published in The Sunday Independent on 14th March 2010.