Saturday, January 08, 2011
At a recent workshop in South Africa on some aspects of film- writing, making and acting, international stars Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and Greg Wise interacted with an audience of the Who’s Who of South African theatre at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. The second day’s workshop was effectively an analysis session of All That Breaks with Thompson, Fry and Greg Wise acting out scenes from the script and asking for feedback from the enthusiastic audience.
One of the first aspects of film-making to be highlighted by Emma Thompson was that getting a film made takes a long, long time. Sense and Sensibility, the film for which Thompson won Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, took over fifteen years to be made. “I was brought in to write the script just five years before it was made,” Thompson said.
She also spoke about the specialized skill required of really great screenwriters. “Sidney Pollack, the producer of that film, taught me something of great importance. He told me not to think of Jane Austen’s novel as an outdated piece of nostalgia and, as such, to treat it with reverence,” she said. “One of the first things he said to me is that he was my audience. He was just an average guy from Indiana who hadn’t a clue about Jane Austen and her times. He needed to be drawn into a story about real people to whom he could relate. So I decided the best way to write the script was to wrap up as many of the exposition points in a joke of sorts. With film writing you have to keep the dialogue going to drive the narrative along without anyone noticing it. So you have to wrap up the exposition points like pearls in an oyster. One has to layer a script. Layer it and layer it so that the audience has to dig into the screenplay to find the treasures within. Sidney Pollock’s approach was echoed by the director, Ang Lee. As an oriental he approached the film very differently than we would have. He never required us to step outside the film and observe the period we were in at all. It had to work as a modern piece in some sense for him.”
Stephen Fry added that working on a period piece was always very interesting. Referring to his role in Wilde, the film about Oscar Wilde, he said that when one is acting in a period film, it was important not to regard oneself as being in a period piece. “If you filmed all of us in the theatre now, in about two hundred years time, we would call this very moment a period piece,” he said. “Yet you are not consciously aware of being in a period right here and now. Just so, when you are acting in a period piece, you would act as if the clothing and style of speech are completely natural to you. One has to be unselfconscious in performing as well as writing period pieces.”
Regarding the modernization of classics, Fry said he had no problem with the way adaptations are done to classic pieces of literature or even of music, some of them more liberal and less reverent than others. “You don’t want to preserve a piece of work in aspic, do you,” he asked. “And the original will always be there.”
Fry spoke about the difficulties inherent in dramatizing the life of a writer. It isn’t very exciting filmically to show a writer writing. “But at least with Wilde,” he said, “he put his talent into his work and saved his genius for his life so he was one writer who was easy to dramatize. As a rule, however, it is easier to dramatise the lives of artists such as Picasso or Dali for instance. A writer’s life is the very devil. Think of trying to write about the life of Henry James? He was such an introspective character that to write about seems a little unimaginable.”
Thompson suggested that in the case of Henry James it might be better to write something a lot less vast about his life and concentrate perhaps on just one single moment which was pivotal to him. Fry agreed.
“People do have a life moment, don’t they,” he asked of the audience. “There comes a time in everyone’s life when they have to make a definitive choice. That moment defines their character and marks out the path of the rest of their lives in a sense. Showing that moment, creating a story about that moment, can become your screenplay.”
Greg Wise remarked on the importance of making the opening scene of a film completely captivating. “One can decide whether the opening scene will be a vignette – a small preview or tableau - of the whole of the film to come, or not. But what one has to avoid,” he stressed, “is what we in television call the ‘shit-click’ moment. If a viewer is watching a programme at home especially, and the opening few minutes don’t grab him, he will mutter, ‘Oh this is shit,’ and click it off or switch to something else. This is much more applicable to television writing as the cinema viewer does have more invested in staying at the cinema. So with film one can be more elliptical and keep audiences in the dark for a little longer than one can in a television show, but it is still important to grab the audience from the first scene onwards.”
Talking about adapting a novel into a screenplay, Thompson mentioned advice from Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala who adapted E.M. Foster’s A Passage to India amongst other novels. According to Prawer-Jhabvala., the best way to approach adaptation was to dramatise the whole book into events. “She said you should then remove the scenes which are the most dramatic and then re-plot the whole story,” Thompson explained. “Another useful thing to remember when writing any screenplay is, as Jim Sheridan said, always have a magnet at the end of the story which draws the reader or viewer to the end. The pull of the magnet should be felt from the very first scene.”
The importance of theme and subtext was also discussed, especially in relation to the screenplay from which Thompson, Fry and Wise had acted out scenes earlier during the morning’s workshop. In the screenplay, All that Breaks, a feature film in pre-production about the life of Ingrid Jonker, written by Helena Nogueira, Wise and Thompson had enacted a scene where Ingrid denies her real feelings for the love of her life, Jack Cope. The most compelling part of the scene was how neither of the characters had the courage to say exactly how they felt about each other.
Thompson stressed how a film’s dialogue has to convey the subtext of the characters without making the writing ‘on the nose’. “What you’re looking for in a screenplay are lines such as ‘Pass the butter, dear,’ which really mean ‘You have ruined my life,’” she said. “And by making sure that you have stayed true to the themes of your story throughout the script, the subtext of the characters should form a continuous thread throughout the whole film. This thematic subtext should form a compulsion – the magnet as I said earlier – which draws the viewer on throughout the film.”
Helena Nogueira had spoken earlier about the difficulties of writing a biopic. She felt that “the challenge of writing about a real person is not to lie about that person’s life, but to put as much of yourself into the writing as possible. One of my favourite biopics,” she said, “is Elizabeth, written by Michael Hirst and made in 1998. He plays fast and loose with the facts of her life but remains true to the essence of who Elizabeth was. That film to me is a successful transition from the facts of a life into a story about the life.”
Regarding specificity and generalizations in screenplays, Thompson spoke about the importance of specificity. “I don’t like generalizations in terms of character or even in terms of production,” she said adamantly. “Some directors can be so specific however, as to make you question their sanity, but it is better to be more specific than not. Pedro Almodovar is quite obsessive compulsive apparently. And I remember one scene I did for hours with Tony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day. We did the same take countless times and still James Ivory wasn’t happy. We had no idea what to do anymore, until he walked past us quietly, moved a vase on a table behind us just a few inches to the left and exclaimed, ‘That’s what I wanted.’ It was the vase causing all the problems!”
Perhaps that was specificity taken too far, she suggested. Better directing advice came earlier on in the workshop when Thompson and Fry acted out scenes from All That Breaks and then asked the audience for feedback. Two times Oscar winner, Emma Thompson, listened patiently while an apparent Drama 101 student lectured her as to how she could perform the scene more effectively. Thompson held her pose of rapt attention while the girl rattled on ad infinitum until the audience literally told her to shut up. After a brief moment of silence, Thompson turned to the girl and asked her if she planned on becoming a director. The irony was huge.
Thompson then continued. “All I can say to those of you who want to become directors, is to remember two things when you give advice to actors: 1) Keep it short and 2) be practical.” Amid hoots of laughter, she continued: “Sir Laurence Olivier was directing a young man who was completely lost as to how to play his character. He came up to Sir Laurence and asked him how to act the role. Sir Laurence turned to him thoughtfully and after a long moment replied: ‘Your character is very… hot.’ Masterful.”
In writing a screenplay and in acting too it is essential to keep one’s mind focused, Thompson continued. “Mike Nichols is known to say when we are working on something together that we have a lot of tone but ‘what’s the event?’ That’s what you have to look for in your screenplay and also in your portrayal of a scene as an actor: ‘What’s the event?’ For a scene to be good it has to have an event. Something of importance must take place.”
Thompson also spoke about how poorly regarded screenplay writers are. “The British playwright Christopher Hampton always goes on about how rude people are about writers,” she said. “They have no idea how difficult and delicate a task it is to create a good screenplay.”
In the afternoon session, comedy was the order of the day. Pieter Dirk Uys and Mark Banks joined the three actors on a panel. Every comic actor of note in South Africa was in the audience, including the cast of recently released Bunny Chow. The panel was chaired by the erudite Alan Swerdlow.
Stephen Fry opened the proceedings by quoting his fellow comedian Ben Elton. “Ben says that being a stand up comic is so nerve wracking that one’s rectal circle ages twice as fast as the rest of one’s body,” he said. “So while a comedian might be forty five years old, his anus is ninety!”
The international stars paid tribute to the remarkable role played by Pieter Dirk Uys through his work during the Apartheid struggle. As Fry put it, “There are real uses to comedy. Comedy can contribute to the great boulder of history which effects change.” Thompson added that she’d always thought humourlessness was the path to fascism. She quoted Mark Twain who said that “You can push at humbug (mindless ideology) with drama and rhetoric but only humour can blast it to atoms in a moment.”
Uys agreed and said that his brand of humour was the great weapon of mass destruction in this country during Apartheid. Fry quoted another of his favourites G.K. Chesterton who said that “Comedy is truer than any other form of entertainment.” Greg Wise observed that comedy was the opposite of sex where “one had to come in soft and leave hard,” meaning that you have to beguile the audience and then give them a profound message when they least expect it. Wise also spoke about the fact that everything is political, and at last in South Africa, everything is ripe for all types of comedy.
“Comedy is always truer than any other form of entertainment,” Fry remarked. “G.K. Chesterton said that if you say something amusing people don’t take it seriously but it is always truer than most other statements. And once again good comedy lies in the specifics. The enemy of comedy is abstraction. For example someone asked Woody Allen if there is a God, but he answered, ‘Not only isn’t there a God but you can’t get a Dentist on Tuesdays.’ That’s comedy at its specific and absurd best. Comedy is about the very essence of where you live, from childbirth to lavatory paper. That’s why comedians are always so keen on ‘bottom’ jokes. Everyone can relate. Everyone has an arsehole but not everyone has a computer, you see.”
Emma Thompson went on to describe the way women and men approach humour differently. “Female rhythms in comedy are very different to male rhythms,” she said. “The male joke is a bit like the male orgasm. It starts off with a da dum da dum da dum da dum, and builds up to a giant climax with its punchline. The female rhythms of humour are more about ‘mmm that’s nice, and yes that’s nice too, and mmm that’s really nice and mmmm that’s really good.’ I don’t like traditional jokes. The burden on me to laugh at the punch line is so huge! Sometimes I have to fake it. The laughs, that is.”
“Comedy films are the most difficult to make,” Thompson continued. “They’re never given the credit they deserve. And they’re never taken seriously for all the right reasons.”
Fry talked about writing comedy in novels rather than in screenplays and said a lot of comedy has to evoke a physical reaction for him. “I suppose it’s a bit like pornography,” he laughed. “There is always a physical reaction of sorts. And a certain kind of comedy is like that. Cheap comedy tickles that easily accessible comic gland, like fart and bottom jokes I suppose. But there are more sophisticated forms of comedy just like there are more sophisticated forms of erortica. Anais Nin was one such sophisticated writer of erotica for example, writing passages that you never forget. And in comedy that is the kind of writing one values, the kind that you never forget. Great classic comic writers are Dickens and P.G. Wodehouse for example. In one essay Wodehouse wrote that the letters he received praising his work were mainly from people in prisons or hospitals. At one point he thought this fact was rather depressing, until he realised that there is no greater compliment than being appreciated by those who are truly in need.”
In conclusion, Fry summed up, “humour is one of the few things which is free and it is also one of the very few things left which nourishes the soul.”
First published in Screen Africa.
Wednesday, January 05, 2011
So there I was sitting in the second from the front row of the Market Theatre in Newtown Johannesburg waiting for Emma Thomson and Stephen Fry to take an all day workshop on Comedy. Yes, Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry. In South Africa. And I was going to be in the same room. And I had a plan that was making my heart beat wildly.
It hadn’t been easy to get there. I’d just returned from Cape Town where I’d been flown by a producer to discuss turning two of my plays into an M-Net drama and a TV series that I received the press release about the workshop. Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry were coming to Joburg. The workshop was supposed to be about Comic Writing and there was something included in the press releases about the premiere of a film about Ingrid Jonker too. The workshop would start on the 13th Feb and would go on til the 14th and the premiere of the documentary about Ingrid Jonker’s life would be screened on the following Sunday night at Rosebank. It seemed too soon after my Cape Town trip and I was still broke after the Christmas drought and my scriptwriting lectures were due to start on Tuesday 12th Feb. But it was Stephen Fry and Emma! I’ve watched almost every film or TV series they’ve made. I couldn’t miss them.
But how could I afford a trip? Where would I stay? I don’t have anyone to stay with in Joburg now that Ian has sold his house. And I couldn’t bear to impose on anyone I didn’t know well enough. I couldn’t see how I could do it. But still, I answered the press release seemingly emanating from Ster Kinekor who organized the workshop at such short notice. Ever the optimist, I booked for the Thursday workshop when Emma and Stephen would be talking on comedy.
On Monday before the workshop I still had no idea where I would stay or even how I would afford the petrol for the trip. I felt it was all beyond me somehow. And then the phone rang and a sweet person on the line asked me if I would like an overdraft on my account. I told her she was an angel from heaven! I decided to increase my overdraft just enough to cover my petrol costs and two nights stay at the cheapest B and B I could find. And then I emailed the editor of Screen Africa to ask if she wanted me to cover the story for her publication. She said she would love me to write about it. This would cover the cost of my new overdraft. My cash flow problem was sorted out! Suddenly everything seemed possible again.
I left on Wednesday morning, found my B and B just off Jan Smuts Road and met a good friend for a late supper. We tired to ignore that we were surrounded by Valentine’s Day lovers drowning in each other’s eyes.
And then it was D-Day. I was in the Market Theatre in a seat second row from the front. After all, I didn’t want to appear too eager, although I was more than eager underneath my apparently calm exterior. Apart from being in the presence of the hallowed two and having to write an article for Screen Africa, I did have an ulterior motive: I had one of my best plays in my bag and was determined to give it to either Stephen or Emma to pass on to their agents. And how I was going to do that completely audacious thing made my heart beat three times faster than normal.
It was quite – I won’t say surreal – remarkable to see ET and SF in the flesh. They were accompanied by Greg Wise, ET’s dishy husband and his sister, head of the UK film council and producer Clare Wise, as well as the writer of the screenplay on Ingrid Jonker as well as maker of the documentary on her life, Helena Nonguera. And the strange thing was that no one sat in front of me in the front row. I had a direct line of eye contact to the revered ones.
People whooped with delight as their highnesses made their entrance. The Queen herself - the real one and not Helen Mirren - would have received no less an enthusiastic response. Malcolm Purkey, head of the Market Theatre, introduced them to the audience. And then the workshop was underway. Apparently, the prestigious panel had been attacked the previous day for being too “colonial” in holding court and “telling” the audience what they thought. All I can say is thank goodness I wasn’t there to see it. I would have died of embarrassment to hear these gracious and generous people accused of paternalism. To counteract the previous day’s attack, Emma and Stephen acted out scenes from Helena Nonguera’s screenplay based on Ingrid Jonker’s life and then asked for the audience to give them advice as to how to play the roles better. Two times Oscar winner, Emma, listened patiently while an apparently twelve year old drama 101 student lectured her ad infinitum as to how she could act better. I sank my head onto my chest and couldn’t help catching ET’s eye as I did so. I was mortified by the young girl’s arrogance. Especially as she was speaking such utter rubbish! Emma held her pose of rapt attention while the girl rabbitted on until the audience told her to shut up. After a brief moment of silence, Emma turned to the girl and asked her if she planned to be a director. The irony was huge.
Emma then continued. “All I can say to those of you who want to become directors, remember two things when you give advice to actors: 1) Keep it short and 2) Be practical.” Amid hoots of laughter, she continued: “Sir Laurence Olivier was directing a young man who was completely lost in how to play his character. He came up to Sir Laurence and asked him what to do. Sir Laurence turned to him thoughtfully and after a long moment he replied, ‘Your character is very… hot.’”
And Miss Thompson and Sir Laurence left it at that. Masterful. All potential grade twelve directors in the audience were silenced.
Another cringe-making moment in the morning’s workshop came when pompous ex-academics began to pontificate on the life and times of Ingrid Jonker. Seven syllabic words abounded as the academic high up in the audience made us aware of her doctorates and accolades. I turned to see who was embarrassing me yet again, catching Stephen Fry’s eye as I did so. We shared an ironic smile. I wasn’t too surprised to see it was an academic who recently left UKZN and who was secretly referred to as Miss Lavish for her self important ways. I smiled even more. Emma answered the academic’s vague question, and Malcolm Purkey congratulated Emma on not using the words Post Modern or Post Colonial once! Another shared smile between those on the podium and me in the second from the front row.
Stephen and Emma re-enacted the same scene again, taking the advice from those less pompous advisors and turned it into a very moving piece. The scene was between Ingrid and her father. She was telling him she wanted to go to University and he was saying that girls don’t need to as they will marry and have children. Ingrid also mentioned in this scene that her mother slit her own wrists. I had said nothing until this point, swearing that I would only speak when I had something life-alteringly important to say. Now, all I wanted to say was that the line from Ingrid about her mother slitting her wrists didn’t quite ring true to me. It was too ‘on the nose.’ People spoke about all manner of random things and I kept trying to catch the eye of Craig Higginson, Literary Manager of the Market Theatre, who was chairing the session.
Higginson saw me near the end of the Q and A and said that he would take my question after the next script reading. I stated very strongly that I needed to be heard right then as it had everything to do with the section they had just done. “Please please please please,” I shouted. And he relented. And so I spoke for the first time that day.
“I love subtext in a script,” I said passionately. “And your comment earlier, Emma (she looked up surprised) about the woman saying to her husband at the table, ‘Pass the butter, dear,’ when she is in fact saying, ‘You have ruined my life,’ is meat and drink to me. I love finding the motivation behind lines of dialogue more than anything. And Emma and Stephen,” I continued boldly, “I just love what your work, but my question now is for Helena, the scriptwriter.” Helena looked very surprised as no one had spoken to her the whole day. “Helena, I love what I’ve seen so far but I’m just wondering about the whole idea of reality and interpretation. I know one should never let the truth get in the way of a good story but I’m just concerned about Ingrid being as blatant about her mother’s suicide as she is in the script as it’s written now. She states blatantly to her father, in a 1940’s repressive Afrikaner household, that her mother cut her wrists which is a direct contradiction to him saying her mother had died of cancer. That worries me.”
At that moment Stephen Fry interrupted both of us by holding up his script and saying querulously to Emma, “Emma’s been reading that line wrong all morning.”
Emma looked up very annoyed. “No I haven’t” she said.
“Yes you have,” he continued. “Look,” he said, holding out the script to her. “The father says of the mother, ‘She died of cancer,’ and Ingrid says ‘It was very sharp,’ and then her father asks, ‘What?’ and Ingrid replies, ‘It cut her wrists.’ You’ve been reading ‘She cut her wrists.’ That’s very different.”
“Stephen’s version’s much better!” I shouted from my seat in the second row.
“My script doesn’t have the new line,” shouted a wounded Emma.
It was a recently made change which Stephen’s script had and Emma’s script was still the old one. I spooked myself a bit realizing I’d picked up the single script change, made for the very reasons I’d objected to in the first place, in a four hour session. Emma still looked a bit miffed but looked at me thoughtfully.
I went on to discuss how much one should change one’s script to please a funder. For example a funder wants to sponsor my film about a real person but he wants me to change the ending so that the person who is supposed to be a martyr for his cause doesn’t die. Clare Wise went on to answer me by saying that you have to ensure that the funder has the same vision as you have. She spoke about the film United 93 which was made in Britain as the producers were sure they would be forced to make the plane not crash (even though it was about one of the planes hijacked on 9/11) just to make sure it had a Hollywood ending if they received funding from the USA.
I laughed and breathed again and watched the next session without saying a word, satisfied that I hadn’t made a complete fool of myself. Yet. I still had that script in my bag. And my heart raced at the thought of handing it over to the illustrious ones.
The afternoon continued with a so-called Comedy Workshop. Pieter Dirk Uys and Mark Banks joined ET, SF and GW on the stage and the session was chaired by Alan Swerdlow. The audience was full to capacity now with comic actors of great stature in this country. Tobie Cronje, Bill Flynn, Grethe Fox, Desmond Dube, David Kau, Irene Stefanoui, to name just a few were there with the cast of the new comic film Bunny Chow which has just been released in Toronto. The Bunny Chow cast sat in the front row and included Kim Engelbrecht and Kagiso Mtwewa. The afternoon was about comedy in general and I made extensive notes for the article which I kept having to remind myself I was writing for Screen Africa. I was embarrassed a few more times. And the eye contact continued with the now tired looking Stephen, while Emma kept encouraging some of the younger actors to come on stage and strut their stuff. Some of them were the cause of the embarrassment, it has to be said. I think I will say no more on the subject except to say thank goodness for Pieter Dirk Uys and Mark Banks. They showed their intelligence and didn’t make South African humour seem like a complete oxymoron.
Then Malcolm Purkey asked if any press were in the audience. Cautiously I raised my hand. Stephen then looked at me and said “A pox on the press!” with a wry smile. I shook my head at him and said a quiet, “Now, now, no need for that…” but he continued to smile and say rude things about the press. Purkey cleared the auditorium so that the rest of the press could come in, but I’d been there all day and just HAD to have a loo break. So I asked him to wait until I returned before he started the press conference. I know how monstrous the press is in Britain, and could never quite get over the viciousness of the Tabloid press in all the five years I was there, but I still felt a little wounded by Stephen’s comments. Especially after all those moments we’d shared…Shouldn’t eye contact count for something?
Anyway, as I rushed to the loo, realizing that the script hand over would have to take place as soon as possible after the press conference I felt abject fear. I knew it would be my only chance to make contact with people I felt such an affinity to, whose advice to young writers was exactly the same as that I give to my script writing students. And I had no idea how to do it. As I ran to the loo, I prayed to God, my ancestors, guardian angels, and any off duty positive deities who might have a free moment to help!! me!! As I went past one of the many Honours’ boards in the building my eye caught the name “Richard E.” It wasn’t Grant but it made me think of him. Aha! I had it! I should tell Stephen that I know Richard E. Grant! Of course! That would be a point of contact. SF had cast him in his film Bright Young Things. I thanked the deities for their advice and concentrated on getting into a very full loo, and back into the auditorium in five minutes.
Once back in my seat, second from the front, Purkey prepared for the press conference. Cameras had been there throughout the day with telephoto lenses the size of small planets and now there were even more. Stephen kept looking at me and muttering rude things about the press with a wry smile all the while. Mics were used now for people in the auditorium and the first person who spoke was a young girl from 5FM. She asked Emma something fairly innocuous about what she thought of South Africa. I can’t remember her answer. I was by now rehearsing my opening line which I’d planned days before.
Then it was my turn. I took the mic and looked at Emma and Stephen who were literally cringing on the stage. I suppose they expected me to ask them about their sex life and whether they frequented toilets in the hope of finding rent boys. I don’t know. But this is what I said.
“Hi. My name is Janet van Eeden and I’m from Horse and Hound.” I think Emma and Stephen must have thought I’d said a foreign name or something because they didn’t respond at all. But Greg Wise got it. He turned towards me and simply BEAMED! For the first time in the day, irony was coming from the audience. He got the reference to Hugh Grant’s character in Notting Hill when he poses as a journalist for Horse and Hound magazine. I felt encouraged.
I went on hoping that at least Greg would continue to get the irony. “I must say, however, that I have been deeply wounded by His Highness Mr Fry’s rude comments about the press.”(Frozen cringing from ET and SF on stage, much beaming from clever and dishy Greg) “Especially as I am a full time screenwriter and playwright and do journalism only to cover my costs, having come all the way from the provinces to be here for this workshop. In this instance I am writing for Screen Africa, the national film journal for whom I write quite often, and which is the final word on film in this country. And so – (addressing Emma and Stephen directly now) – Emma and Stephen, I WORSHIP your work, but I’m going to ask Screen Africa-type questions now, and I’d like to ask Helena how she managed to get Clare to produce her film, and what the production schedule is like, and so on.”
I went on to ask very business-like questions from Helena and Clare Wise – only the second time in the day that they’d been addressed – and Emma and Stephen sat in stunned silence.
The rest of the press conference rattled on and I heard Fiona Ramsey (Ohmigod did she hear me say such silly things!?) and a few other familiar voices ask very unthreatening questions. Then it was over. Just before Purkey thanked everyone, Stephen thanked the press for not being like the British Press, and Emma then said that we should be congratulated for not being like the British Press. I told them so, I said with my eyes.
And then everyone was supposed to go home. This was it. My moment. Almost incoherent with fear, I remembered that I still had to take photos with my tiny digital camera. Okay, so that’s the first step to get onto the stage.
I pushed through the people who were all wanting to touch the cloak of the famous ones, and finally made it to Stephen. He turned towards me and beamed hugely. I told him that in Afrikaans my state of the art (not) camera is called a Mik en Druk – a Point and Press camera so I had to get really close to take reasonable pictures. He beamed like the star he is. And that’s when I took my chance.
As he was packing up his bag I said casually, “I’m a good friend of Richard E. Grant’s.”
“Oh yes, Richard,” he answered warmly. “He’s from Botswana isn’t he?”
“Swaziland, actually,” I smiled forgivingly, “but it’s easy to get them confused. And Richard is the person who first encouraged me to write.”
“Is he?” he answered, still not completely bored.
“Yes,” I said. “And look, there’s no easy way to do this, but I’ve brought a script I’d really love you to read. I’m sure you would enjoy it.”
A little more wary now but still very kind. “Alright, as long as it’s not too long. I don’t have much time, you know.”
“Oh no, it’s great fun and it’s a really quick read. I promise you’ll enjoy it. I’ll just fetch it then?”
Remembering to take Greg Wise’s pic on the way of course. I turned to Greg and said something deeply meaningful like “I think you’re just wonderful,” to which he beamed as I snapped.
And then to Emma, who seemed to be having her ears pinned back yet again by another twelve year old girl. Maybe this one was telling her how to write this time? As I stepped towards her, Emma turned to me with what I think was relief. She also lit up and gave me 150% of her incandescent presence. She really is remarkable in that way. Also she’d spoken throughout the day about her feminist work, even when Stephen didn’t know what she was on about and told her to stop wingeing. But I related to it hugely. Now I said that I had to take her picture, and she gave me seraphic smiles. And then I spoke to her too. From the bottom of my heart.
“You are just iconic to me, Emma,”.I said. “Really.Your work has meant so much to me over the years and especially your feminist work. I’ve really related to it.”
She accepted my adulation with much grace.
“And,” I continued, “I feel like such an arsehole asking you to do this, but I can’t see any other way. I have an agent who won’t do anything for me because I didn’t sleep with him. And so I’m giving one of my scripts to Stephen to ask him to read it and I wondered, if you thought it was good enough, if you would pass it on to your agents? I know it’s a really terrible thing to ask but I’m desperate here. I have a script for you too if you’d like?”
“Of course!” she said warmly. “Don’t worry about giving me another copy. I’ll get it from Stephen – I’m with him all the time - and I promise I’ll give it to my people…”
“Would you really?” I said, almost crying with relief now.
“Yes, I will. Promise.”
And I think I thanked her and I remember giving my script to Stephen who said (a little grumpily now) that it looked very long and me telling him quite firmly that he could shoot me if he didn’t enjoy it and then getting Clare Wise’s business card before finally leaping off the stage. I left the auditorium as fast as I could to dash to the loo where I sobbed for a solid ten minutes.
I was so overwrought by the whole experience. And yes they could throw my script in the bin and yes perhaps they thought I was a complete idiot but I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t taken the chance. As my friend Ian said to me later when I sobbed through the re-telling of the whole story, it was a calculated risk, and I had to take it. And take a risk I did. It took me days to recover. And my work and the deities now have to do their bit.
As John Lennon said: "Nobody told me there'd be days like this... Strange days indeed."