Twenty one years ago – Starlight Hotel

ONFILM Views September 2008

The business and administration of script development has become a valid career choice, whilst film making is relegated to an expensive hobby that few can now afford, reckons Waka Attewell.

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The other night the Film Archive ran the New Zealand movie Starlight Hotel (dir: Sam Pillsbury, circa 1987) – it was almost 21 years to the day that we were shooting it and it’s become increasingly difficult not to compare ‘then’ with ‘now’.

Back then, when there were no video splits, quick and honest communication was the lifeline of the production, the language of ‘cinema’ if you like. At the end of each take we described what had just been achieved (or not), and we discussed problems and solutions as the story evolved. It was an accurate, vital, vibrant vocabulary and to the point of what the movie was about – a language honed for our purposes.

The director watched the performance over the shoulder of the crew. Every night a complete crew crowded into a school hall or local cinema to watch the previous day’s work. All the work was projected on the big screen. I’ve begun to refer to these times as “the National Cinema era” – admittedly we borrowed from the Europeans and Americans but this was a time of our voice and our stories. Starlight Hotel was made in a time before we did those ‘how to’ script writing courses.

 

Today I’m looking out on a place I’m only just recognising as home, while down the road Hollywood’s got its slippers under the bed; we’ve recently invited them into the parlour and they’ve already helped themselves – be careful what you wish for? We’ve even given their invasion a ‘pet’ name – Wellywood. They appear to be throwing people and money at a problem to find out if a solution is required, as somewhere a faint echo of ‘National Cinema’ is still rattling around the Wellington hills.

I’d forgotten how enriching it was when we were left to our own devices and followed our instincts. We didn’t waste our passion searching erroneously for the third act turning point, or agonising over the second act hole because someone, who didn’t know any better than us, said there was one – I have a memory of “just doing it”…

We didn’t care that the ‘moving parts’ had special names or a deeper purpose, so there was no need for endless meetings to discuss how or why. We certainly had a nose for what ‘stunk’ – we instinctively got into a scene as late as possible and out of it as soon as we could…

And 21 years on it’s still dripping from the screen: Starlight Hotel is an example of cinema, our cinema.

 

In the early 1990s, Robert (“don’t call me Bob”) McKee (and, a few months later, Linda Seeger) came along to help us do it better – script gurus from the Hollywood system; the proverbial experts from that somewhere-else-place. We’d recently got whiff of a move to “up-skill” and “manage” the business, something we thought we had well in hand. But the bureaucrats didn’t have anything much to supervise or hold a yardstick to and, well, um, “manage”, so this script thing was a good way to define the subjective and really make their presence felt – you know, take the mystery out of things; get to the bottom of it.

Overnight the drive seemed to change from ‘story’ – the stuff you tell around a camp fire – to ‘structure’ – like, “put the punch-line at the end of the joke” kind of thing, “and if they don’t get it, explain it”… lock it down, take the breath out of it, hog-tie the bastard.

It felt like the visuals were abandoned in favour of a new dictum – things like design, wardrobe, make-up, editing, cinematography became just the stuff the crew did a bit later.

‘The script’ was redefined as an all-encompassing document; a document that fitted neatly into the office environment of tasks, meetings and analysis; a document, we were led to believe, that could predetermine box office success but only if you followed this path – “if you take the oath and praise the lord of Hollywood, all will be movie genius; send money soonest”…

During the McKee sessions I remember thinking he drew a rather long bow attributing design, wardrobe, camera moves, performance, choreography, and music score (as well as everything else) to the writer – hence adding enormous credence to the role of ‘the script’. The bureaucrats nodded and accepted the ruse in its completeness.

 

What does a bureaucracy run on? Paper.

As it transpired ‘the script’ was the only thing they could get their teeth into and hang on to, but only with the mere pretence of understanding what was actually required to make a movie or what ‘the script’ actually did. A clone/copy approach was adopted: something from elsewhere but dressed up to look like ‘National Cinema’ – our unique voice was no longer required as the question became “what is it like?”, meaning “what is it the same as?”

Most of these people had never made movies, let alone understood the moving parts – but they’d watched a few in their time. The key to this corralling of the process was simply the fact that ‘the script’ happened to require paper and paper is what makes a bureaucracy bounce and, most importantly, it gave them complete control. And, of course, they held the all-important key to the safe and we, the filmmakers, needed the cash to further the creative process while travelling to the markets trying to get projects up.

It’s hard to sell a script you have ceased to believe in and, by the time the various committees and readers had dragged themselves through the ninth draft, you were usually over the whole clumsy deal. The Film Commission flourished under this regime.

 

The fact the process is flawed has never been properly debated; previously any suggestion of debate has caused the funds to disappear from those that chose to initiate the discussion – possibly this small conflict of priorities still exists? The McKee sessions, which I can only assume became embodied in the development process, were a mixture of delightful bluff and extremely entertaining theatre. I enjoyed them, but anything to do with evolving a story or starting from the blank page was somewhat missing – McKee worked his magic from the high ground of hindsight. Perfect for the bureaucrats to embrace while we supplied the hard work, leaving them to analyse, report and create ‘make work schemes’. Within a short time I was hearing stuff like “I think a re-write of the third act” and “Your turning point into the second act” and the catch-all aside “Your movie doesn’t seem to be on the page.” On the page? What?!? Well, for good reason – it’s supposed to be up on the screen!

Staying in sync with the requirements and tabling the right paper in the correct order became a total distraction to the story process. This script initiative gave the bureaucrats clearly defined parameters for the bag of rules they wrote – albeit with a stencil. I’m sure McKee mentioned at the end of his session that “this was not a template to affix to the process of movie making” but I think the bureaucrats were already talking amongst themselves and missed this important detail.

Mostly it created reams of paper, frigging mountains of it… and that was just the mountain I was creating to satisfy the beast – it seemed like the requirement was to stop writing stories and start writing proposals. Development hell followed – it then became apparent to me that ‘development’ used a different part of the brain, while those assigned to comment on the work used what they liked to see at the movies as the yardstick. But, alas, a movie watcher does not maketh a movie maker and development meetings were a waste of time, except, that is, for the person who was being paid to be a waste of time. It became about the anxiety of the ‘process’ rather than the ‘story’ – ‘development’ became a word that could send some people running for the hills.

 

I started to receive screenplays for consideration that had embraced this script management structure. The narrative flow was now in the dialogue (cringe), stage directions told the camera what to do (pointless), the story arrived like an express train in the first act and crashed predictably in the third act (per formula). They all had the same typeface, in the same computer format, and the characters followed an arc that bobbled at “the top of the second act” and then had “nemesis” imposed upon them, before it was all resolved and tidied away and the audience could thank you for not fucking up their Friday night at the “flicks” with a sad ending or one that might actually be about something.

I’m not saying the development process doesn’t have some merit (um, er) – I’m saying its clumsiness didn’t work for me and for a lot of others. I’ve watched in horror as colleagues joined the film bureaucracy (read development business) and ceased to be productive while quickly becoming defenders of the development rigor.

This is not a case of the guy standing outside the new “talkie” hoping they’ll “bring back the Nickelodeon” but a guy wondering why his career has slowly been relegated to a hobby.

‘National Cinema’ seems to be parked up in the paddock, the grass is growing up around the doors, the tyres are flat and the axle is broke, spiders have moved in. Lift the bonnet on this old wreck and you’ll bark your knuckles on every rusty bolt while you receive another invite to another commission-initiated lecture on “the inner workings of your engine” with the promise of “one spanner that fixes all” – and of course the guru is from that magical overseas place. But look for what’s really wrong and you’ll be told that the clunk you hear is a tick in the timing: “If you proceed through the next five years of our development – whilst, of course, believing – all will be resolved.”

Which brings me back to Starlight Hotel – in its review, the LA Times said it “creeps up on you” as a “movie” – “it’s one of the best” – it tells a story of the human condition.

I’m not saying “old-good” or “new-bad” but I’ve never thought a committee could write a story, just as I never thought a committee could make a movie. And there actually is no formula – never has been, never will be. Let’s get our cinema down into the mud again and start looking longingly through those misty windows at those distant hills with their brooding menace – I don’t think we’ve yet completely evolved within the strength of our isolation.

If progress is, in today’s terms, throwing people about in museum capsule rides whilst blasting them with computer-generated music in the guise of education, or learning the next new CGI technique to make it bigger and even bigger, or learning the next digital camera system (albeit the sixth in three years), or celebrating the new tax incentive to bring the ‘deal’ onshore, or watching low-resolution pictures on the internet, then so be it. Phew!

I’m having a breather and watering the horse and throwing a bit of oil on the armour whilst watching the kids galloping around the lawn on a hobby-horse made from a broomstick. And I’m thanking ‘the god of reason’ that the kids got bored with the online computerised colouring-in after a mere hour and went back to the real crayons. My heart is a wee bit glad and while that distant windmill is still holding the high ground of hubris, it still doesn’t stop some of us from having another tilt for old-time’s sake.

 

The bravery of the work in Starlight Hotel is still apparent – but if we had shot it today, in this PC world, the ‘rite of passage’ moment would have gone to the committee and we would have shot two, maybe three, versions of the end. We didn’t; in our movie he kisses her – the young girl, the young under-aged girl – on the mouth. It’s one of those moments at the end of a movie when the audience cry – they’ve been on the journey with us, with the story, with the magic… I remember filming it at 3am on a cold morning in Lyttelton 21 years ago, the last morning of the last day of the shoot. I was the only one that night who had the bliss of seeing this moment as a movie on the ground glass in the Arriflex BL IV viewfinder. I cried.

Some of us are not over this ‘National Cinema’ concept yet but we must find a way to move on from the fact that we unwittingly gifted the film industry to a bunch of bureaucrats who seem to be merely fiddling with the edges.

SPADA lost its ‘D’ for “director” and grew a ‘D’ for “development” – suddenly “the pitch” was the only way of the future – while the producers played the bureaucratic game to the best of their ability, and what did we end up with? ‘D’ for “dumb”.

What’s next?

 

 

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