On the Edge

TAKE (Director’s Guild Magazine)  September 2008  Waka’s World


I’m sitting in the dark. It’s the nineteenth Wellington Fringe Film Festival and I’m here doing the mentor/wise-person thing for the fifth year (maybe sixth year) in a row. People thank me endlessly for doing this task, but really it’s totally selfish of me to ‘swan’ in after all the hard work has been done. Besides I get to see what I really should be making as a filmmaker.

It’s the end of the fourth day and I’m watching my sixty-fourth film, a New Zealand short, Big Bad Wolves, directed by Rajneel Singh and produced by Craig Parkes. I’m a little jaded but still paying attention. The film is edgy and shows a total disregard for political correctness. It is good … f**king good, in fact. Then part way through the film it hits me: ‘They’ have institutionalised me. Suddenly I feel sick because I know that if I had read the screenplay of Wolves, chances are I would have turned it down. Why? Because it is too dark and it doesn’t have a hope of funding. I realise then, and this is the bit that hurts, I’ve lost my edge, and I don’t know when it happened.

Doubt sets in quickly in this business. I go home and stare into a bottle of red wine and like any good Kiwi I immediately start looking for someone to blame. But first I have to find out who ‘They’ might be.

I begin a list. Could it have been my twelve years in the development loop with the New Zealand Film Commission writing and re-writing endless submissions? This process uses a very strange part of the brain. Or could it have been those few but memorable meetings with the various Controllers of Programming at TVNZ? Or maybe could it have been the ever increasing layers of compliance at NZ on Air. Perhaps it was those moments of ‘profound truth’ when I worked in advertising (like when the guy from the TAB explained, in exasperating detail, the benefits of gambling and how our society was all the better for it)? Or could it have been the phone conversation I had with someone at Creative NZ who explained that I had to have a track record before I could apply? Are these the proverbial ‘They’ I’m seeking to blame? Are these the organisations and the mind-numbing bureaucrats that I can finally point the finger at and say: ‘You have institutionalised me. You have taken my ‘edge?’ I’m beginning to think like them. And, an even scarier thought is, was this their intention all along?

I hear you ask, why should I care about these people? Why not just get on with it? Well, you like to think you can but in reality you still have to include them at some stage. My heart sinks when faced with this reality – a little chip gets taken away every time, especially when the concepts of any creative endeavors have to be like something else that already exists somewhere else in the world, preferably in Britain or the United States.

Thinking about who ‘They’ are leads me to contemplate the gatekeepers in this industry and the flow of the creative process. Personally, submitting ideas to the industry machine has often been a frustrating experience. Lets just say one version might go something like this…

You have an idea for a film and write it up so that it is reasonably easy to understand. You submit it to a controller of ideas who is a little evasive. You then give a bit of your idea away on the phone to get the controller to bite. The controller finally calls a meeting after you have called every day for a year. The controller talks about him/herself for most of the meeting and then suggests that ‘X’ (fill in suitable celebrity) would be great for the piece. However, the controller also suggests that s/he has heard this idea before. Quickly, you explain that yes, you told him/her about it on the phone earlier. “Oh, yes,” s/he smiles knowingly. You don’t hold out much hope. You shake hands with your business partner on the street outside and say goodbye. Three years later you see your idea on the screen but with a different title, director and producer attached – your name is somehow missing from the mix. You reach for the phone and talk to your lawyer who quotes the Wilson versus TVNZ case (an early 1980s case involving a children’s programme). You fall into deep depression and look seriously at the fridge magnet franchise advertised in the local rag.

I used to believe this was just an honest mistake until I came across others who had had the same experience. A collective stunned silence seems to be the end result. There’s usually an air of fateful defeat and the misguided sense that ‘they’ were somehow justified in stealing the idea and that the purveyors of ‘original ideas’ should know their rightful place.

A few years ago I had the unfortunate experience of having a script ‘borrowed’ by a reputable international film company and by the time I discovered this fact they were already in production with it. In fact, they were already into the second season of the series (it’s amazing what pops up on SKY TV). I then had to make the hard phone calls and confess to the other writers and development partners that the script had been ripped … I mean, ‘borrowed’. The senior head writer’s reaction was surprising but also somewhat profound. He said, “See, what did I tell you. It was good enough to steal!” The legal advice on that occasion mentioned the depth of the pockets of the international film company and the exchange rate of the New Zealand dollar to the Canadian dollar and the fact that ‘They’ will win the case anyway.

At close to thirty-five years in the biz I’m finally starting to come to the conclusion that all this conniving, thieving, dishonest backstabbing, cheating, lying, stealing, carry on will never change until … um, er, someone speaks out. Bags you go first?