Lovers, Victims And Heroes, Mr. Pinter
South Of Left Bank
Denise Vickers in conversation with James Sapsard
How did you become a scriptwriter?
In the 1990’s, I was browsing in a bookshop in Oxford and came across a two volume set of the collected TV plays of David Mercer containing the play, A Suitable Case For Treatment. I was familiar with the 1966 film, Morgan: A Suitable Case For Treatment, with David Warner in the lead role but didn’t know that David Mercer was the playwright or that it had been transmitted by the BBC in 1962 with Ian Hendry in the role of Morgan Delt.
A week or two later, I was browsing in a long gone bookshop in the Strand and bought a single volume copy of the Oliver Stone screenplays, Platoon and Salvador, Richard Boyle being co-writer of the latter. I also picked up a copy of Five Screenplays by Harold Pinter, including The Servant, The Quiller Memorandum and The Go-Between, all of which I knew.
Over the years, I had started several novels culminating in no finished novels but enough material for a book of short stories. I decided to use the screenplay as a vehicle of expression for my ideas because I was attracted to the idea of creating more dialogue and less descriptive narrative, leaving the imagery for the mind of the reader.
Were those three books enough to start your journey?
I also wanted to study structure and content. I read many relevant books as teaching guides. I learned such simple things as making sure that character’s names are brought into the dialogue so that the audience knows who each character is. I learned that every play has a beginning, middle and an end. Loosely, it begins with the principal character wanting something; goes on to the difficulty he or she has in achieving that desire and culminates in his or her success. It also has to be the appropriate length. For a new writer, expensive locations should be avoided because a production company is not likely to take the risk on an unknown writer.
How did you decide on your storylines?
In one of the many books I read, I came across the view that a good scriptwriter can write a screenplay from a single word. The theme of twins appealed to me, particularly if I could write a screenplay with a sequel where the lead character was not a twin but encountered a different set of twins in each screenplay. I wanted to examine the relationship between twins, exploring the themes of deliberate impersonation, mistaken identity and sibling rivalry and the impact of these concepts upon people they encountered.
How did you decide upon the title of your first screenplay, Lovers, Victims And Heroes, Mr. Pinter?
The working title was Jimmy’s War. It contains aspects of each of the three themes I mentioned but I also wanted to explore certain post-war, 1960’s themes such as blue collar/white collar, secondary modern/grammar school and mod/rocker rivalries. Significantly, I wanted to touch on the Protest Movement and how circumstances exist in which a pacifist like the lead character, Jimmy, will kill, quintessentially to survive.
Being my first screenplay, I had a tendency to over-indulge my characterisations and storyline. I changed the name to help me depersonalize the action, to put it at arm’s length to me. At some time in our lives, we are all lovers, we are all victims and, even if only to ourselves, we are all heroes. I retitled it in homage to Harold Pinter for his 1960’s era dramatisations of the original works I mentioned earlier of Robin Maugham, Jonquil Trevor and L. P. Hartley.
Many scenes take place with music playing. Was a contemporaneous music soundtrack something you considered?
Initially, I included some thirty tracks from the 1960’s, a few of the words of each relating to the action taking place. I wasn’t trying to create ‘the best sixties soundtrack ever’ and didn’t want the soundtrack to be so recognisable as to overshadow or detract from the dialogue. I asked Roger McGuinn if he was interested in writing a sixties style soundtrack and sent a copy of the screenplay to him. Hopefully, that remains an option. It’s a matter a director or producer would need to consider.
You include some of your own poetry. Is that self-indulgent?
I regarded poetry not only as necessary to demonstrate the extent to which dreams and fantasy were as much a part of post-war real teenage life as the toils, tribulations and troubles with which those teenage daily lives were actually impregnated but as an homage to the Beat Generation.
Are you fusing or confusing reality with myth?
It’s a story. It’s already fantasy. In reality, people refer to Hamlet or Guinevere, Morgan Le Fay and Nimue as relevantly as I have done in this fantasy. Young love is as much a myth as it is a reality.
Where does your second screenplay, South Of Left Bank, take Jimmy?
The lead character, Jimmy, has gone on to university where he meets another set of twins. This is focused on individuals rather than themes; the emotional relationships between them rather than the contextual and circumstantial necessities of their lives. It too has a moral. The working title was Take It Easy which is a throwaway line not without significance. Jimmy represents a concept and not a particular individual.
Where did the title South Of Left Bank come from?
The first screenplay closes with Jayne’s words, “you are au sud de la rive gauche.” La Rive Gauche, The Left Bank, is the southern bank of the river Seine in Paris. It’s a reference to the members of the artistic community at Montparnasse; artists, writers and philosophers such as Pablo Picasso, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Henri Matisse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The words convey that Jimmy is just such an artist in Jayne’s eyes.
Do you have any acting experience?
In 2002 I played the part of Lou Tanner in Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady in a six night sell-out run in the East Lane Theatre in North London.
Have you ever visited a film studio?
In 1999, I was invited by Frank Capra Jr. to visit Screengems Studio in Wilmington, North Carolina. I spent three days at the studio and spent time on set during the filming of Dawson’s Creek. I visited the set of Muppets In Space and incongruously the spot where Brandon Lee died.
You conclude with acknowledgments.
Yes. A list of writers and their plays and technical books which have influenced me in my work.
Denise Vickers is a Film Co. Exec.
You Murdering Barristers!
Denise Vickers in conversation with James Sapsard
This is the third screenplay in your twins trilogy. Do you explore the same themes you explored in the first two screenplays; Lovers, Heroes And Victims, Mr. Pinter and South Of Left Bank?
In the first two screenplays, I explored the themes of mistaken identity, deliberate impersonation and sibling rivalry between twin sisters. This screenplay is about the relationship between twin brothers separated at birth who meet in adulthood. There is no sibling rivalry in the way the storyline develops. It’s quite a different scenario. These twins have neither the naiveté nor the teenage, adolescent problems of the protagonists in the first two plays.
Each of the three screenplays deals with loss and acknowledges the futility of existence.
Lovers, Heroes And Victims, Mr. Pinter, leaving aside the homage, in the title, to Harold Pinter, is firmly set in the 1960’s against a backdrop of differing class cultures emerging from post-war affluence. South Of Left Bank, with the same lead character, Jimmy, carries the values of those cultures into the early 1970’s. This was a period that carved in stone the end of the 1960’s with the demise of Jimi Hendrix in September 1970, Janis Joplin in October 1970 and Jim Morrison in July 1971 and the arrival of stultifying glam-rock. Although You Murdering Barristers! examines the relationship between male twins, who were separated at birth in 1970, this screenplay too marks a demise, that of a century rather than a decade.
Is the examination of demise, whether inevitable or otherwise, something of a pessimistic theme?
I am aware of a nihilistic leitmotif running through these screenplays in the sense that one aspect of nihilism is the belief that destruction of existing political or social institutions is necessary for future improvement. I had intended to write them with more of what I regarded as a purely existential theme. I tried to convey in each character a sense of disorientation in an absurd world in which meaning could not be defined by the individual. This was the theme expressed in Michelangelo Antonioni’s trilogy, L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962).
I tried to convey that each individual is solely responsible for giving meaning to his or her life. From both a nihilistic and existential viewpoint, it might be said that society and religion are prisons suffocating the individual and thwarting his or her aspirations towards a perfect state of existence or divinity of self.
Stephen Holden, writing in The New York Times *1, observed that taken together, Antonioni’s three films constituted a trilogy on modernity and its discontents.
The phrase ‘modernity and its discontents’ could equally be an allegorical description of the Beat artists and poets of the 1950’s but Antonioni’s existential art was very different from the art of the Beat movement which, although rejecting perceived standards and materialism and embracing non-conformity, pursued a spiritual journey and embraced eastern religions.
Antonioni’s characters are alienated in the modern world. Gregory Solman, writing in Cinémathèque Annotations on Film *2, observed that the religious faithlessness of the characters in L’Avventura separated Antonioni’s depiction of existentialism in his art form from that of the Beat artists because the characters created by the latter were on a spiritual journey and not the agents of incidental malevolent activity.
Have any other directors influenced you in the writing of these three screenplays?
There is a strong Jean-Luc Godard influence in all three screenplays, not so much in terms of the existential theme of which he too was a proponent but in the liberated use each requires of the camera.
I didn’t want the camera to merely see, from a different viewpoint, what each character sees. That’s why I have included directions where the action is seen from the specific point of view of a character. I want the audience to believe during those scenes that they are looking through the eyes of that character and not merely third party observers.
Which Jean-Luc Godard films have influenced you the most and why?
Vivre Sa Vie (1961) and Le Petit Soldat (1963). I admire the inevitability of outcome of both of these films; the submerged expression of futility. I also like the technical disharmony and inherent contradiction of Vivre Sa Vie. Anna Karina, as impoverished Nana, becomes a prostitute yet affluence is on every street corner in the form of coffee bars and neon-lit pool halls with pinball machines and juke boxes. Girls have the latest hairstyles and the streets have foreign cars.
You have two courtroom scenes in You Murdering Barristers! which the reader will be bound to compare. Did you write these scenes side by side?
I wrote them in sequence. I used whatever technical ability, legal experience and expertise I possess in writing the first courtroom scene with no thought of what was to follow in the second courtroom scene. I held nothing back. Then when I began writing the second scene, I had only one rule. It had to be better than the first.
Inevitability of outcome and the submerged expression of futility are quintessential elements of You Murdering Barristers! yet I wanted doubt to remain to create suspense.
What was the origin of the unused draft material?
Initially, I wrote this as a two hour film. The original working title script was seen by several production companies whose contemporaneous ethos it didn’t quite reflect. The feedback was generous and it was suggested that I reduce the film to ninety minutes by simply removing en bloc the section of the script that was tangential and not essential to the central theme.
Denise Vickers is a Film Co. Exec.
1.Stephen Holden, The New York Times, June 4th 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/04/movies/04hold.html
2.Gregory Solman, Cinémathèque Annotations on Film, Issue 31, April 22nd 2004 http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/cteq/l_avventura/