Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian writers and Hollywood

This will be my last Monday Musings posted from the USA, so I figure I should do at least one post inspired by where we’ve been. I’ve put it together pretty quickly though, as time for blogging is pretty limited, so please forgive all the gaps!

Since this is a litblog, my focus here is the relationship between Australian writers and Hollywood, and I’m narrowing it to the last couple of decades. (This connection, in fact, goes back to the silent movie days, but that would make for an essay rather than the brief post I have time for here.) I should also explain that I am using “Hollywood” to stand for America (a common synechdoche for which I should perhaps apologise, but it suits my California-holiday-post purpose, and is probably pretty accurate anyhow.)

I guess there are political issues that could be discussed here – brain drain, and all that – but I’m not going there. And, anyhow, besides the fact that obtaining enough work can be difficult in Australia, many Australians do seem to keep their feet in both hemispheres.

There are two angles from which this topic can be tackled – Aussie scriptwriters in Hollywood, and Australian writers whose stories have been optioned for film adaptation by Hollywood – and I plan to briefly do them both.

Aussie scriptwriters & Hollywood

Many scriptwriters well-known in Australia have also written for American productions – usually having been identified because of their Australian success. Laura Jones and Andrew Bovell are two such. Laura Jones, for example, worked on Portrait of lady (1996) and Possession (2002). She also wrote for Oscar and Lucinda (a 1997 British-American production of an, admittedly, Australian novel, directed by an Australian, so this is not particularly surprising!). These are all adaptations of novels, in fact, but only one is Australian.

Andrew Bovell, known in Australia for films like Strictly Ballroom (1992) and Lantana (2001), was also scriptwriter on the more recent American-British-German co-production of A Most Wanted Man (2014). Bovell said he was approached for about six or seven projects, via his American agent, after the American release of Lantana. He chose one, set to star Benicio de Toro, but, like many film projects, it doesn’t seem to have eventuated.

Less surprising in this group, perhaps, is Craig Pearce who has worked on many Baz Luhrmann films, including the recent Australian-American co-production, The Great Gatsby (2013). It is worth mentioning, nonetheless, because the film (obviously!) is an adaptation of a major American classic.

One of the most recent Australian writers to make his name as a scriptwriter in Hollywood is poet, novelist, scriptwriter Luke Davies. He was scriptwriter on the co-production, Life (2015), about a Life Magazine photographer and James Dean. He has really established himself, though, for his work on last year’s, Lion, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. (He won the BAFTA.) Sure, it’s a British-Australian-American co-production and is an Indian-Australian story, but this must put him on the map in Hollywood. And, in fact, he is now working on an American production, Beautiful boy, which is another adaptation of a memoir (two, in fact, one by a father and one by his son).

Another Australian making his mark in Hollywood – as an actor, director and writer – is Joel Edgerton who wrote and directed the critically-well-regarded film, The Gift (2015). He is now working on another film – as director and writer. It’s titled Boy Erased, and is due for release in 2018. His path is clearly different to that of the preceding names here, with his coming via his acting career rather than a writing background.

While researching this, I discovered an organisation called Australians in Film, which describes itself as “The Industry Association for Australian Filmmakers and Performers in the U.S.” It was founded in 2001, and says that it “supports and promotes Australian screen talent and culture in the United States.” One of its several programs is Gateway LA Script Development which was created in 2015 by its President. The aim is to give Australian screenwriters “the chance to have their script seen by top industry professionals” and it has apparently been successful in achieving that. There were 8 finalists this year, with the winners being a duo, Penelope Chai and Matteo R. Bernardini, whose script explores the Cinderalla myth/fantasy.

Australian novelists & Hollywood

I was going to head this section “Australian stories”, but decided that that’s not quite right, as you’ll see. Of course, Australian novels have been adapted for films in America for the longest time – like, to pick a quick obvious example, British-born Australian novelist Nevil Shute’s On the beach (1959) which was produced and directed by Stanley Kramer.

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites bookcover

Courtesy: Picador

Recently though, it seems that books by Aussie novelists are attracting a lot of attention. I’ll name just a few, which were discussed in The Australian:

  • Hannah Kent’s Burial rites, a debut novel (my review) which is currently “in development” with Jennifer Lawrence signed on to star. It’s set in Iceland, hence my qualification regarding “Australian stories”.
  • Liane Moriarty’s Truly, madly, guilty and The husband’s secret have been announced or are in pre-production. Her Big little lies has already been made into a mini-series in the USA (2017), starring, among others, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. A Los Angeles literary agent, quoted in The Australian (link above), says that “People are just so enamoured of the worlds she creates — she’s captured the zeitgeist of suburbia”.
  • Anna Snoekstra’s Only daughter, a debut novel just published last year and set in my home-city, has been optioned by Working Title, a partner of Universal Pictures.
  • ML Stedman’s The light between oceans was released in cinemas in 2016 (as British-New Zealand-American co-production).
  • Marcus Zusak’s The book thief (my review) was released in 2013 (as a German-American co-production).

Not a particularly original post, I’m afraid, but I didn’t want to miss a Monday Musings. I hope it’s been of some value, even if not particularly edifying.

I’d love to hear from readers here who can add names to this brief discussion!

Hail, Caesar: Not a movie review, not really

I go to the movies reasonably regularly and have seen many movies in the last few months. Some impressed me immensely, such as Spotlight and Brooklyn; some I enjoyed a lot with the odd reservation, such as Carol, The Danish Girl and The Belier Family; and others I could see the skill but they left me a little cold, like, say, the beautifully shot Revenant. However, although I’ve reviewed the odd (usually Australian) film in the past, film reviewing is not my thing, so you haven’t heard about them here. But then, a couple of days ago, we saw the Coen Brothers’* latest outing, Hail, Caesar.

I’m not going to review it, either – not really – but I’ve heard such mixed responses that I wanted to offer my two-penny’s worth, which is that it’s fun to watch, particularly if you have any interest in the golden years of Hollywood. The Coens weave their story around a day-or-so-in-the-life-of Mr Mannix, the studio go-to/fix-it man who reports to the studio boss. He looks after the actors, sorts out money problems and potential sticking points, deals with promotion and publicity, troubleshoots, in other words, anything and everything that happens on multiple sets. As he goes about this work, we see the films being made by the studio. There’s the biblical-Ben Hur like epic titled Hail, Caesar; an Esther Williams-like extravaganza; a singing cowboy adventure**; a Gene Kelly Anchors Aweigh style movie; and a British drawing-room drama, not to mention nods to James Dean, Hitchcock, spy-movies, HUAC‘s attack on Hollywood’s communists, and so on.

The Coens and their crew must have had a wonderful time creating vignettes for all these movie genres and styles, because they were, using my best non-review-language, a hoot. Take the drawing-room drama which, at the last minute, has to accept the singing cowboy in its starring role. Now our cowboy, Hobie, is known more for his singing and lassoo work, than his dramatic acting ability. The sentence he has to say in this vignette is the improbable “Would that it ‘twere so simple”. It’s a very funny scene, played beautifully by Ralph Fiennes as Laurence Laurents and Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle. I won’t spoil the outcome, but it’s worth every penny of your ticket when it comes (and not just because it features the inimitable Frances McDormand). There is, too, surely a joke in the title: Hail, Caesar is the title of the biblical epic around which the main plot turns, but Mannix is the Caesar on the lot.

The ensemble cast does a great job, but I do have to admit that when I and my party of movie-goers came out we all felt we’d seen a tribute but we weren’t sure there was much more to it, not like there was in, say, Barton Fink. If I could identify any specific serious point being made it would, perhaps, be about the lack of recognition of screenwriters.

However, perhaps it’s OK for the film not to have a BIG message. Perhaps it simply wants the audience to have fun, to remember the past (not with nostalgia but with a knowing sort of joy). And perhaps, too, the Coens want us to think about what we want from movies and movie-makers? I’m not sure I’ll remember this film long into the future, but I did enjoy it – and I can’t see anything wrong with that.

* I’ve written once before on the Coens – seems like I’m more likely to make an exception for them!

** In one of those strange coincidences, the day before we saw Hail, Caesar, I happened to see an old singing cowboy movie, Gene Autry in Guns and guitars, at the National Film and Sound Archive!