BY JONATHAN PETT
Copyright is held by the author.
WE DIVE into Soho House for a quick meeting with our would be/maybe/as long as I don’t lose any money and time film producer about getting funding for our screen adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel. She gazes, green eyed, into my eyes. I’m startled for a second. Is she open mouthed in love with me, gazing at me like that or is she really a bit vacant? Then she turns and does the same to Isabella, my partner in writing as well as life. It’s not love then. Must be the other thing then. Bodes well for the script meeting with the funding body later.
Little twitch of panic when a better dressed girl than the three of us comes up and asks what we want to drink. Oh God. Cappuccino? — sounds tacky. Tea? —I’ll have to say that I hate Earl Grey which will make me look lower middle class. Alcohol? — will make me look like an inadequate alcoholic. Oh, alright, water. Soho House must be filled with bottles of fizzy water. At least in that other horrendous, male dominated, anti Christ Club, Groucho’s, they all sit around smoking cigars and going red with alcohol. I turn and catch someone looking at me, quizzing me, trying to work out if I could be someone worth knowing. Well, he is with that pretty young producer who used to work at Miramax and the beautiful moody looking French girl. I look back at him, quizzically, trying to work out as if he should be someone that I should think worth knowing.
“You know, they want us to do this as a modern day thing?” our producer says.
I refuse to look at Isabella. I just hope she hasn’t understood for now.
“Oh yes and for teenagers,” she adds.
“For?” I ask hoping I haven’t understood correctly.
Very assertively, “Teen movie,” comes the reply.
Thomas Hardy The Teen Movie!
Even more assertively, “I think it could work.”
“Yeah, yeah. I mean, yeah, definitely,” I say, not believing a word I’m saying.
“It’s the only way we’re going to get the funding.”
Obviously. Otherwise we wouldn’t be nodding our heads, slightly bemusedly.
“So, we’ve got to brain storm about how we could do this as a modern day teen movie. Or maybe somewhere between a teen and adult movie. Any ideas?”
Yes, run for your lives . . .
“How long have we got?” I ask.
“About an hour.”
Why don’t we just say no now and save months of wasted time, humiliation, confusion, hurt…
“But look, if you don’t want to go through this process, then it’s fine, you know.”
Meaning : if you don’t go along with everything we want and are not prepared to completely re-write everything on our suggestion, then we shall just have to put you down as difficult, unable to come to terms with the development process and therefore losers with a bad attitude who will never make it in the film industry.
“It’s entirely up to you.”
“Yeah, no, let’s give it a go. Is she definitely up for it at the Film Council then?”
Sudden fear streaks across our producer’s eyes. “I didn’t say that. I think she could be interested. She really loves the book. She read it when she was 16.”
Oh so she’s got an in-depth knowledge about it then. Probably just read the GCSE study aid notes.
“But it’s down to you guys to convince her and come up with something really exciting. But I”ve got faith in you guys.”
So, if all this goes wrong, then it’s going to be entirely our fault for not coming up with something exciting?
“Shame, we haven’t got very much time,” I venture.
Yes, don’t you think you could have told us this when we set up the meeting a couple of weeks ago?
“I think she’ll go for it if you come up with something surprising.”
Yes, you keep on saying that, thanks for taking the pressure off us. It’s a bit like the “can’t you make this gag funnier” type of help.
Now, it’s strange that we just didn’t say, “What the hell are you talking about, teenage film?” But somehow the atmosphere gets laden against you, the air pushes back against your mouth, your brain ceases to function, my left eye starts to twitch (always a bad sign), I have to put my finger on it to stop it twitching too noticeably. I can’t look at Isabella. I don’t want to provoke her. She’s obviously died from amazement anyway.
Throughout the meeting at the film council, I just didn’t find the courage, wit or time to say . . . anything really. I squirmed there, not looking once at Isabella for fear of encouraging her, imagining her squirming, laughing along, nodding her head like a twat, occasionally saying things that brought a massively dead silence from our producer and funds holding exec/torturer. Please don’t say anything more Isa. You don’t understand how evil they are. They don’t want you to talk. I don’t know how, considering what ill informed crap they are saying but somehow you are looking such a pratt coming out with your stuff and they are looking so cool, so right, sucking their little soup cups. What do they need us for exactly? They seem to be in such agreement on how the film should be written. I don’t think we are asked one single question on how we see the film being written.
Me: “So, d’you definitely see this as being a teen film then?”
Our Exec: “Yeah, it definitely has to be a teen film.”
Our Producer: “Yeah or somewhere in between maybe. Not a teen film but not an adult film either.”
That’s more helpful, we’re getting it now. What is that? Like between music and crap — musac. Teen film and adult movie — MISTAKE. Get the hell out of there. I still don’t look at Isa, I don’t want to provoke her into action. She’s gone brain dead anyway. I beg her with my silence not to say anything. Because there suddenly seems such a logic behind what they’re saying. They suddenly seem so right. I don’t know if it’s the fact that they’re both drinking the same soup but they seem suddenly so cool and we seem like . . . funny old people up for the day on the coach.
“I think the film’s about Stephen,” our exec/torturer says, confidently.
That’s interesting because the book clearly isn’t. It’s about a 19-year-old girl.
“I think today’s teenagers would more identify with Stephen,” she adds.
Our producer (to us): “I think she’s got a really good point there.”
“And the ending. It’s got to be changed. I think she should end up with Stephen.”
What have you got with this bloody Stephen??? She doesn’t love Stephen, she doesn’t love Knight, she ends up with Lord Luxellian.
“I don’t like, what’s his name, Lord Mexford,” our exec goes on.
“D’you mean Luxellian?” I ask.
“He’s old and old fashioned. Maybe we don’t need him. And I think we’ve got a problem with the setting.”
“Couldn’t it be set in Birmingham or somewhere?”
“What, you mean instead of Cornwall?”
“Yeah, it’s a bit boring isn’t it, setting it in the countryside?”
“But Hardy sets all his novels in the countryside, it’s sort of what he’s known for.”
She turns to our producer. “Birmingham is really in at the moment.”
Our producer: “Yeah, I think it’s a really good idea (turning to us) or what about Brighton?”
Our exec: “Brighton’s cool.”
Our producer: “And it’s by the sea.”
Our exec: “Yeah, that’s right, the book is set by the sea. But it’s been done too much, Brighton, don’t you think?”
Our producer: “Yeah.”
Our exec: “Birmingham is really the place right now.”
Our producer (turning to us, willing us to agree): “I can see Birmingham.”
Isabella: “But the whole point is, she’s meant to be getting bored living in the depths of the countryside, that’s why when she comes up to London, it’s such a big deal.”
A little pause.
Our exec (to our producer): “Isn’t the countryside a bit boring for teenagers?”
Our producer (to our exec): “What about Hastings?”
Our exec (to our producer): “I went up to Birmingham recently, they’ve really got a good scene going up there.”
Our producer (to us): “I think Birmingham could work.”
So, let’s get this straight. We’re going for something between a teen flick and an adult movie. Set in Birmingham, if possible (or Hastings). Not too much boring Hardy countryside. Lots of London nightlife. Posh parties. A completely different ending. A different main character. Getting away from the book as much as possible and at the same time doing justice to a great story. You’re both sodding off ski-ing now for three weeks. But expect something in your mailbox when you get back.
Our exec(to our producer): “You going to Bertorelli’s for your Christmas party then?”
Our producer (to our exec): “Yeah, when’s yours?”
Our exec (to our producer): “Friday lunch.”
Our producer (to our exec): “Oh ours is tomorrow. We went to the French House last year.”
Our exec (to our producer): “Did you?”
I suppose, for these middle management people with pension schemes, proper holidays and Christmas parties, Proust wrote too long sentences, Beckett was irritating and deliberately obscure, Thomas Wolf rambling and unstructured, Camus too intellectual. And what do they care? Their decisions are only made as part of an organization, a larger concern. No longer just an old cigar smoking film producer backing a hunch or an educated upper class publisher getting a thrill discovering some new awkward talent. I wish art was more like sport. Because Van Gogh, instead of cutting his ear off and dying in yellow madness and obscurity, would have five Olympic golds and three world records by now. Sam Beckett would be the World Cup winning captain of Juventus instead of having to be playing left back for Chesterfield Reserves. But maybe art has always been run by middle management.
Jonathan Pett’s work has appeared in several anthologies, magazines and literary journals, both in print and online. He has also written for theatre (Royal National Theatre studio, London Fringe, Edinburgh Festival), TV (BBC, World Productions,Carnival Films) and Film (Scala Productions, Met Films). One of his films is currently in pre-production.