Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Looking Towards a New World

Sometimes, people ask me: Why haven’t you taken the Film Commission route with Development? Usually, I give a short, quick, answer: Because the Film Commission route takes too long. Give a little shrug. Move on. Because the longer answer is complicated. And I don’t really think about it now my PhD is handed in and I’m waiting for the examiners’ responses. But after a conversation with a filmmaker the other day I thought: It’s time to write a post about the origins of Development.

Moving forward

This is Ken Duncum, walking past the window next to my computer, as he often does. Under the cherry tree. He's the Michael Hirschfeld Director of Scriptwriting at Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML)—what a mouthful. And last month he won the 2010 New Zealand Post Mansfield Prize. Some of his eighty MA students—ten a year for eight years—may have been at the ceremony where NZ Post announced the award. Others, like me, were ghosts there, clapping as hard as we could. And whistling. Stamping our feet.

Ken’s supervised my work for two and a half years now, for my MA and—as his first PhD candidate—for the second half of my PhD. So I guess I’m the luckiest student of all, to date.

At law school, I encountered something called the ‘Socratic’ teaching method. I remember it as being brutal sometimes, and never particularly helpful for my learning. But with Ken I participated in another kind of Socratic teaching, a generous practice that expressed itself through his careful attention to the pages I wrote, his active reading and listening and his questioning. And his gift for the right imperative at the right time. "Go wild", he said when I started the last script. I loved it all.

I’ve given him my scripts and he’s read them. Often twice. And then we’ve talked. He’s asked sharp questions, and I’ve responded. And I’ve talked about my confusions and he’s asked more questions that helped me work them out. Sometimes he’s made notes on his white board as we go. Sometimes he’s explained things, sometimes for the fourth or fifth time (I’m a slow learner). Once, he played Snakes & Ladders with me. (Because I was trying to understand more about how people respond emotionally to the creation and deferment of hope, the key elements of drama, according to David Mamet. Because I wanted to find out if and how Ken’s responses to the Snakes & Ladders states-of-being were the same as or different than mine. Because I wanted to write a game script, about women who want to make movies.)

Ken's teaching encouraged me to become a child again, to access my imagination more fully. And then to grow up: to understand and articulate my motivations, ideas and emotions more clearly (and those of my characters). And then to move forward with writing my stories.

After nearly a year in this little PhD office I’m no longer as conscious as I was of the audience outside the window when I’m eating toast & hummus & tomato. Don’t care at all when tomato drops onto the plate when I take a bite. I don’t eavesdrop as often on the conversations outside the window. And I’ve trained myself not to hear or, if I hear, not to remember, the substance of conversations that seep through my door. But Ken’s door is opposite mine and I’m always aware of the high volume of traffic when he’s there. Often, I hear a knock on his door, and someone say, as I do, too, “You got a minute Ken?” And his warm hello, the visitor going in.

And I know that often the visitor-without-an-appointment, like me, won’t be there to talk about writing. Because we also go there to ‘chat’, as Ken calls it, about what’s happening for us with our projects and about problems beyond the writing. Many of us have brought him our latest scripts to read, long after our student time is over. And he’s read them and responded. But we also say to one another about all kinds of things: “I’ll ask Ken”. And we do. Knowing that his active listening will help us problem-solve.

As Ken's eight years have passed, more and more of us bring good news, too: of success in competitions; of funded readings and productions of our plays; of success within NZ Film Commission programmes—its First Writers Initiative, Short Film Fund, and development programme; of films made without Film Commission support; of writing for television and radio; of awards; of enhancement of work in another medium through what Ken taught us about structure.

I've heard Ken say that working at IIML is the best job he's ever had; he enjoys himself. But at the moment his voice sounds somewhat weary. I imagine he's had very little time for his own writing this year, with two PhD students on top of everything else, so I’m very happy that he’ll have a year to himself, much of it in the soft and beautiful French south, at Menton. Doing whatever he wants. Like lots of writing. (I applied to IIML after I saw his play Cherish, and long to see his next play.)

And I’m glad Ken’s going before I leave myself. If he’s gone, I won’t be tempted to knock on his door with one more script, for one more talk, for one more chat, a final question. When he goes, I’ll cry a little, his apprentice whose apprenticeship isn’t yet over. Here's a pic of me standing at the window, looking at the space he used to move through, remembering his waves: you get the idea. (I'm laughing now.)

When I leave in a month or so, I’ll also miss the long wooden table under the window, the afternoon sunshine some days, this steady summer quiet. Opening my pencil case, taking out my little silver pencil sharpener, sharpening my pencils, opening my project book. Hearing the murmurs and laughter of Katie Hardwick-Smith, Clare Moleta and Chris Price. Seeing Bill Manhire or Damien Wilkins, absorbed at the photocopier, when I go to the kitchen. And occasionally—through the window—Bill’s smile and wave.

You may be asking “Why does this matter? It's just a university writing programme, where you liked the people and you liked the space. Ken's just a teacher, doing his job well, with an ongoing commitment to former students. Get over it. Who cares?” Well, I care, beyond my individual concerns, for good reasons I think.

As you know, a good script's fundamental to a good feature film. And writing the script's often the longest part of the process. For instance, according to the New York Times, Nancy Meyers the writer/director of It’s Complicated, just out in the States, takes two years from start to finish to do a movie—a year for the writing, six months for the shooting and another six for the editing.

And, as you may remember from the other day, Peter Jackson was quoted in the Australian as saying:
The strength of a film industry is based totally on the strength of … the creative individuals working within it, the writers especially… a healthy film industry is…not really to do with infrastructure or anything else, it's about finding talent and nurturing that talent.
Ken's been developing talent, and I think that IIML provides a model for nurturing film writers as well as writers for the page. So it's helpful to think about the various elements that make the model work.

At IIML, nurturing scriptwriting talent goes far beyond the painstaking Socratic method with individual students. In twice-weekly class meetings (in the-room-with-the-wonderful-view) Ken initiates discussion about stories, structure and ‘rules’ and mediates experience in giving, receiving and using criticism. He also helps the class develop collegiality, regardless of our diverse backgrounds, diverse imaginations and the diverse practices that inform our scripts. (Here’s someone with every scene no longer than half a page, someone else who writes long scenes, or master scenes. Someone who uses…, someone who uses--, someone who enjoys using!!!) Students have always spent some time in industry placements and now they also work on projects with acting and film school students. At the end of the MA year we’re ready to build on a strong theoretical and practical foundation. And I think most of us are also a whole lot more disciplined than we were before we started. How can this kind of experience be provided outside IIML, and extended for individuals who've completed the MA?

I also care because within the larger IIML context women writers flourish. This year, the 10-person PhD group (eight women), included writers of fiction and poetry as well as us two scriptwriters. And, back in the-room-with-the-wonderful-view again at six-week intervals, I heard Bill ask questions that made my hair stand on end, using Ken’s techniques—or maybe Ken learned his techniques as Bill’s student, long ago. And I watched Bill make and pour the coffee when we had a break. And I began to think that IIML over the years has become a women-loving institution, and to appreciate the consequences of that for New Zealand literature, and perhaps, eventually—as Ken’s graduates’ work reaches critical mass—for women's feature filmmaking in New Zealand.

A few weeks ago, there was a little flurry in the United States, when the Publisher's Weekly announced its list of the year’s best books. It did not include a single work by a woman writer. WILA (Women in Literary Arts)—founded in response to perceived bias against women writers in the Association of Writers & Writing Programs—protested. Women & Hollywood and many others joined in. (WILA very quickly gathered too many fans for a Facebook group—over 5000— and are now establishing a website with a new Facebook page.)

And I thought, as I casually engaged with this controversy, that there was no way a New Zealand publication could create a list of New Zealand books of the year without including titles written by women. And wondered why. After all, few women here write and direct feature films, just the same as everywhere else. (Today I read on Indiewire that over the past decade, women directed only five of the 241 films that have grossed $100 million: Twilight, What Women Want, The Proposal, Mamma Mia!; Something’s Gotta Give; Shrek; & Shark Tale with a woman co-director: 2% all up. Only 31 films directed or co-directed by women grossed over $20 million in contrast with 1,000 films directed by men. In my view, those numbers are so small because of the cumulative effects of industrial indifference to women as storytellers and as audiences.)

And I now believe that IIML's programme is one reason women feature prominently in New Zealand’s annual lists of best books and books to buy for the holidays. Women are strongly represented in each of IIML's three annual MA streams (two groups of writers for the page, and Ken’s for scriptwriters) as well as in the PhD group, and even more strongly represented in The Expanding Bookshelf, a regular item in the IIML newsletter. The Expanding Bookshelf records publications from those associated with IIML. Twenty books by graduates were published this year, and women wrote every one. As well, in this year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards, one graduate, Emily Perkins, won the Fiction award and the Montana Medal. Another, Jenny Bornholdt, won the Poetry award, and a third—Eleanor Catton—won Best First Book: Fiction. Again, all women. In time, will the women graduates who write scripts be equally successful at getting their work in front of audiences and winning awards?

Why do women thrive within IIML's culture? Do IIML’s graceful, generous, teaching practices work especially well for us, whatever medium we write for?  Does IIML have just the right combination of rigour and tenderness? And what—if any—effect does it have that three of the four full-time teachers are men? If men teach women writers are we more likely to take ourselves seriously, access our imaginations more effectively and write better? I don’t know. Because I also see and hear—as I collect photocopying and cups of tea downstairs—that students have a great time in the IIML classes that women teach. And I loved being taught by Linda Voorhees in a two-week master-class that Ken arranged, and would do another MA to learn from Paula Boock, this year’s writer-in-residence.

The relationships formed among MA students each year—in the highly focused twice-weekly meetings and during the socialising that comes from that—may also make a difference. I know I treasure movie- and theatre-going and ongoing discussion with people I studied with, informed by what we learned at IIML, the intimacy that comes through learning together so intensively, and by our continuing writing practices. These friendships enrich me—and my work—more than I could ever have imagined.

So here I am at the end of the year, picking up a pencil, and about to turn Development into a shooting script, inserting scene numbers(!) and camera instructions like ANGLE ON(!), about to create storyboards (!!). I’m scared. Terrified. An apprentice going out into the world for the next stage of her apprenticeship—where there will be many and varied teachers—carrying her laptop, her pencil case, her project book, her scripts, and all that IIML's given her. Smiling through the fear, because there's joy there, too, a huge appetite for the adventure of getting this story onto a screen.

And there you go, Ken. Travel safely. Thanks a million for the privilege and pleasures of learning with you. (And sorry about the photo. It doesn't do you justice: sometime I'll take a better one. When you're back again.)

This post's also for you two, Allie Eagle—as you paint a series about men—and Heather McPherson—as you complete a series of poems about poet Ursula Bethell. A little contribution to our decades-long conversation about what works for women artists and writers.

8. P.S. (22 March 2010) Although I started this post at the end of December, I finished it in March, just before I wrote the 6 March post, about a contrasting culture at the New Zealand Film Commission, which invests in very few women storytellers. And about Kathryn Bigelow's success with The Hurt Locker, which encouraged me to experiment with subject matter I'd avoided in my scripts.

Then I went to my last PhD-group meeting at IIML. There were twelve of us this time, talking in turn about our projects. And as I listened to the others (and, regardless of the privilege that got us through the door to that room, and the privilege that affects us and readings of our work outside that door, in that room we're all 'other', each another writer, with no qualifier, because we'd each need so many qualifiers to describe what we bring to the writing, e.g. an older-New-Zealand-immigrant-undereducated-lesbian-disabled-woman-lawyer-mother-and-former-child-of-Welsh-English-and-Native-American-descent-creative-non-fiction-and-script-writer, just for a start*) I gained another insight into what a women-loving institution means for women writers. Place us within a nourishing environment for three years or so, free to choose what to investigate and write about, free to be fearlessly all of who we are, and we'll go for it in every imaginable direction.

So, as you can see for yourself in more detail, as writers, we—like the men in the class, and regardless of our chosen form—might explore imaginatively and analytically (creative writers sometimes struggle to separate the two, but for a PhD we have to give it a go): missing person behaviour; authenticity and form in the biographical novel; chronic pain; freedom fighting; a collection of nineteenth century New Zealand photographs; the process of adaptation from screen to stage and back again; mothers-in-law; reclamation and revitalisation of an identity decimated by colonisation; the experiences of nurses on active duty in World War I; Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand's tallest mountain; large built forms of architecture and engineering. I can only begin to imagine the diversity of exciting feature films made, if the film industry cherished and supported its women storytellers as much as IIML does.

I was last, to hand over a bound copy of my thesis and say good-bye. As usual, by the end of the three hours I was shattered by the collective impact of the presentations, so stimulating and inspirational in many ways. I was inarticulate and close to tears as I thanked everyone. Wondering how the rich and varied productivity of the writers in that room-with-the-beautiful-view can be transposed to women's feature filmmaking, globally. Wondering still, 'How, exactly, does IIML do it? How can whatever-it-is be replicated?'

*followed rapidly by: Bad Girl; If-You're-Scylla-I'll-Be-Charybdis; Siren; Virago--

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Availability & the Privilege of Being Mad

I'm learning lots as I work on Development. About the availability—and unavailability—of actors, for instance. My head pops as I organise lists of days and times & dates when this one is here and that one is there and nearly everyone else is somewhere else: I'm a little dysnumeric in relation to time and dates and days of the week, & my usual strategies are sometimes not quite enough to cope with information about other people's timetables. (Fortunately, I can do sums in my head pretty well).

I'm also learning that there's a lot of help, often unexpected. Close to hand (thank you all) and in cyberspace (thank you all).

Just before Christmas I sent a slightly crazed message to Lisa Gornick, a filmmaker who makes beautiful drawings (have included her drawings here before), someone I met via a tweet that led me to a blog that linked to her blog. I wrote about my fears, and how curiosity keeps me going. Did any of my experience resonate with her?

Here's her response, tactfully tangential. I love it. Furthermore, Lisa's heading—The privilege of being mad—reminds me that making a movie is a privilege, however much my head pops or my heart sinks on a bad day. The image is larger on her blog, where there are other stunning drawings with titles like Gossip; Drawing legs; Valerie (Solanas); Auditioning from the other side; Don't play safe; and The man at his tidy desk terrifying everyone.

This is what Lisa wrote below the drawing:
Sometimes I would be in an acting workshop and we’d be given a game to wander about instinctively, with abandon, and whilst writhing along the floor, I’d think – how lucky to be an actor and get away with this. If I did it in the street or along the top deck of a bus, I could be carted off and given heavy tranquilisers.

(for Marian in New Zealand who’s casting for her film)
Seeing this taught me something. Yes. But even better it felt like a cyberhug, made me smile.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Peter Jackson: find, train, & support creative individuals, especially the writers

The New Zealand film industry's been waiting for the results of the review of the New Zealand Film Commission, due 30 November. And we know—we hope we know—that the review will reflect the concerns of Peter Jackson, who heads the review, assisted by David Court, Head of Screen Business at the Australian Film, Television & Radio School.

So I was excited when I read Peter Jackson's recent comments to Michael Bodey, in the Australian:
My only advice to anybody is that it's about individuals. The strength of a film industry is based totally on the strength of the individuals, the creative individuals working within it, the writers especially, the directors and the producers and whatever can be done to talent hunt, to find those people and then train them and support them.

We're not talking about many people because in an environment where a lot of people want to be a filmmaker or think they can write a screenplay, not many people can, quite honestly, and it's a case of finding those people and nurturing them. That's what a healthy film industry is, it's not really to do with infrastructure or anything else, it's about finding talent and nurturing that talent.
Is this concept going to be the basis of the review's recommendations? That means a revolution--

'The writers especially' is the bit I most love. And I hope that those writers would include women like those who write many of the scripts that Susan di Rende of the Broad Humor Film Festival reads. She writes (and there's more in the full article of course, and similar ideas in Linda Seger's writing):
Women ... create a world into which they put a character or characters and then proceed to create the humor [or drama] out of what the world elicits from its denizens. The end result is a shift in the "fittingness" of the people into the world. This is contrary to the entertainment biz wisdom of making a script about one character's journey, building the world around the character so as to maximize the humor/drama/suspense/you-name-the-genre, and shattering the world if need be to deliver the character to his destiny.
Often women's scripts are perceived as weaker, Susan di Rende believes, because they do not deliver the monumental single climax that many men’s—and some women's—scripts do. Of all the opinions about women’s scripts I read or heard during my PhD research, this was the one that I found most useful, to have in mind when watching films women write. (There have been one or two this year that seem to be hybrids, that I think may have started as 'di Rende-type' scripts and then been compromised by development that tried to make them 'fit' the traditional one-character journey model.)

I've thought about Susan di Rende's ideas often lately, while reading analyses—in Women & Hollywood for example—of why Jane Campion's Bright Star has not yet done as well as some people—including me—expected, in various award nominations and in 'best of 2009' lists. I think the Bright Star script is a great example of the kind of script so familiar to Susan di Rende and that some people may view it—and the film made from it—as 'weaker' when in fact it's just 'different'. Another, local, example may be Gaylene Preston's Home by Christmas, which I saw and loved the other night.

So I'm hoping that if Peter Jackson's review recommends nurturing us writers, whoever nurtures us looks out for gender equity—equal investment in women and men—and script diversity. New Zealand could be the first country in the world to say: "OK: some women may write 'differently'. Let's make sure that they're nurtured to do that as well as they possibly can. There's an audience for narrative alternatives and there's no point—no need—to make women write the traditional single character's journey, with its single climax." Or men: I've heard that Michael Bennett's Matariki—co-written with Gavin Strawhan and in post-production—is a multiple narrative story, but perhaps not from a 'di Rende-type' script.

I've got a personal stake in this of course. I can write a single-character-journey script, well. But I prefer to write the Susan di Rende kind. And to watch films made from that kind of script, if they're made well. Like the wonderful Bright Star.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

It's about human rights-- I want equality (& equity)

Last month, Jane Campion spoke out again about women’s participation in filmmaking. This is what she said:
I think women should be given 50% of the films to make. I'm not kidding! It'll change the world overnight. Women see things differently so it'll be better for's not fair. It's about human rights...I want equality.
I thought of her statement as I read the latest New Zealand Film Commission newsletter. The best news is that of three feature writers chosen to work with Alan Sharp (Dean Spanley), two—Pip Hall and Fiona Samuel (Piece of My Heart)—are women.

But, of the six NZFC-funded features currently in post-production, only one has a woman writer/director, Simone Horrocks’ After the Waterfall. Expressed as a percentage, this project represents 16% of films produced this year, exactly the same as the NZFC’s overall record for the previous six years.

Then I read about the Short Film Fund, where the NZFC invests in short films by up-and-coming filmmakers, the feature filmmakers of the future. The three producer pods: Big Shorts, Robber’s Dog Shorts, and Kura Shorts, are the same as last year. Last year, although women as storytellers—the writers and directors—weren’t equally represented on the short-lists, they were well represented in the projects chosen for funding from the short-list; ultimately, NZFC investment in women storytellers was about equal to its investment in men.

This year's different. Big Shorts short-listed eight projects, all written by men. Seven of those projects have directors attached. One is a woman. Robbers Dog also shortlisted eight projects, all written by men. Four have directors attached. All men. Kura Shorts is the exception. Women wrote three of their six short-listed projects. Three projects have directors attached, two of them men.

I know from my research in other years that women writers and directors apply to the Short Film Fund pods. They want to participate in the programme. I don’t believe that this year no women writers applied to Big Shorts or to Robbers Dog. Why were they none of them short-listed? I agree with Jane Campion. It’s a human rights issue. About equity, as well as equality. It’s not fair that, consistently, that the NZFC funds women to write and direct only 16% of our feature films. And it’s not fair that any Short Film Fund short-list is overwhelmingly male. It is especially unjust if women storytellers are under-represented in the NZFC-funded short films because that reduces their chances of progressing to make NZFC-funded feature films. And further delays the moment when 50% of our feature films have women writers and directors.

In the meantime, over in the States, there’s been a furore about a woman writer who took a man’s name for writing, on the internet. She used the man’s name alongside her own, applying for work in the same places, using the same application methods and doing the same work. This is what happened when she worked as 'James Chartrand':
There were fewer requests for revisions—often none at all. Customer satisfaction shot through the roof. So did my pay rate…Taking a man’s name opened up a new world. It helped me earn double and triple the income of my true name, with the same work and service. No hassles. Higher acceptance. And gratifying respect for my talents and round-the-clock work ethic. Business opportunities fell into my lap. People asked for my advice, and they thanked me for it too.
Women filmmakers can’t take a man’s name; filmmaking collaborations are too public. So what can we do? There were cyberspace discussions about this too, in the last few days, and I plan to sit down this week and try to learn from them.

And beyond that, the NZFC newsletter makes me more determined to produce Development-the-movie as soon as possible. And then to start thinking—again—about what kind of legal action might ensure that the NZFC invests as much taxpayers' money in projects that women write and direct as it invests in projects where men are the storytellers. It’s not a lot to ask for, in the first country in the world where women fought for and got the vote.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Bub Bridger

Wild, passionate, and funny-- And so generous. When Bub went to the International Feminist Book Fair in London in 1984 she took the biggest suitcase I'd ever seen, stuffed with books New Zealand women had written. Even though she struggled to carry anything heavy.

It's her funeral today. She and I had a complex relationship that ended long ago; some of what I remembered when I heard of her death was very sad. And we loved many of the same people. Though I never quite got her obsession with All Black Gary Whetton. (Some of it was about his thighs. Understandably.)

Down the road there's an expensive block of flats with a gardener. Who planted daisies. Not wild daisies, like those in Bub's famous poem, but very large and beautiful cultivated ones. For weeks I admired them and wanted to take a cutting to grow at home. Couldn't do it. Finally, I heard Bub's voice in my head. "Help yourself, darling", she said. (She always advocated courage. And I saw and admired her courage many times.) So I leaned down, nipped off a shoot. Tried to be casual about it, not to scurry away. Last year the shoot grew and produced two flowers. This year, it's bigger, with lots of flowers about to open.

Wild Daisies

If you love me
Bring me flowers
Wild daisies
Clutched in your fist
Like a torch
No orchids or roses
Or carnations
No florist's bow
Just daisies
Steal them
Risk your life for them
Up the sharp hills
In the teeth of the wind
If you love me
Bring me daisies
That I will cram
In a bright vase
And marvel at

(from Up Here on the Hill —Mallinson Rendel 1989)

No-one could say MARVEL as marvellously as Bub did.

Thanks for everything Bub. I hope out there where you are is filled with people you love. All carrying daisies.