‘Let the turtle live!’ A discussion on adapting radiance for the screen by Louis Nowra and Rachel Perkins

‘Let the turtle live!’ A discussion on adapting radiance for the screen by Louis Nowra and Rachel Perkins – Australian And New Zealand Cinema

Gerry Turcotte

THE FOLLOWING TALK AND INTERVIEW WERE CONDUCTED AT THE UNversity of Wollongong, as part of a Novel and Film class run in the English Studies Programme by the convener of the subject, Gerry Turcotte. The focus was specifically on the art of adaptation in the Australian film context, and the particular demands of moving between play and filmscripts. The talk was supported by the Centre for Canadian Australian Studies.


I should begin by saying that I wrote the play Radiance for three particular actresses. It was reasonably successful and then it had numerous productions. About two years ago, Rachel and I were talking about work on another project with another director. Rachel had just seen her Auntie do a piece from Radiance–the piece by Mae that’s in the film and in the play–she came to me and said: ‘Can I film that piece?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know,’ and then I thought about it and said, ‘Why don’t you just direct the whole play?’ And that’s how it happened.

Naturally enough we had a play that we wanted to make into a film and things began to happen very quickly. Rachel and I didn’t know one another very well, In relationships when you work on films, there’s also a personal thing. You have to get to know one another and get to know one another’s working methods, Plus, what’s very different from doing an original screenplay is that you have the writer in to adapt his own work, So you have three different aspects to it, We began to work, remembering that we’d always have a small budget, And then Rachel and I started to work at her place.


Louis started to come over and we’d sit around a table. To be totally honest I’d never been involved with a feature before or any drama really. So it was a massive learning curve for me.

I’d heard of Louis, before I met him and from the sound of the name Louis Nowra I was expecting him to be this old man with a big grey beard. Then this guy with black, pointy snake-skin leather shoes came along and I was sorta stunned: I’d heard a lot about Louis too through other people (because you always check other people out) and heard all these horror stories (Laughter.)

So I was a bit worded about the whole process and how it would happen. But I suppose it was great because with Radiance we had clearly drawn characters, we had a clear tone and a plot and it was a very highly developed work that had been through a number of rehearsals and productions before we came to it as an adaptation. It had been work-shopped with actors. And of course Louis had created this fully developed work. So, I was lucky just to come along and have this great … what do you call it …

LN: ‘Property.’ (Laughter.)

RP: Yeah. So we sat around and started the adaptation process. I don’t really have anything to compare it too, because it’s the first time I’ve been involved with something like this. But it was ‘hot-housed’ very quickly. It was one year from the moment we decided to do the film until the end of production. We had to adapt it, film it, cast it, produce it, and finish it within a year. And the adaptation process took about six weeks, didn’t it?


It was financed in about four weeks and adapted in six, which was extraordinarily fast. I suppose there were a lot of things about this particular work. It isn’t your normal three-act structure based on a novel. It was a play that had three central characters which didn’t really move out of that one space much. A lot of people didn’t think it was filmic. It wasn’t easily adapted to film and a lot of people didn’t want to support the project or were concerned about it for that reason. But we took it on anyway. And we looked at other films in that genre. Films like Cat on a Hot 77n Roof (Richard Brooks, 1958), Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean (Robert Altman, 1982) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Mike Nichols, 1966). We looked at films where the drama relied on the tension between three characters to drive the film.

I think the thing you have to understand about plays is that they are character driven. If you were to film a play without it being translated into a screenplay, then you wouldn’t actually have a very strong narrative drive. Films depend on narrative and a story; plays essentially create the story through characters. It’s what they go through that creates the story. Again these are all generalizations.

What we had to do was establish two things, which was very important: what is the story and what are the highlights (and we’ll get to this in a moment), and what are the narrative twists and jumps? The next thing was reminding ourselves that in fact film is very different from plays. If you look at Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard or Three Sisters they are very hard to film because essentially most films work through the eyes of one or two characters. We found that one of the interesting problems in adapting was getting to a certain stage and thinking who’s film is it? Is it Cressy’s or Mae’s or None’s? We jumped backwards and forwards until we decided that it was going to be Nona’s story and she would begin and end the movie. It would also be a journey. It would be about a young girl with attitude finally discovering something adult about herself when scattering her mother’s ashes. Once you’ve established whose journey it is you begin to plot the high and low points. Having adapted the play of Capricornia, and having done a couple of movies, it was interesting when Rachel discovered a couple of books which I’d never looked at.

The process of the adaptation worked like this. Louis would come around and we would tell yarns and sometimes we would read the script to each other and just talk about experiences and people we knew. We’d look at the play and say: ‘This is good and this is bad.’ There were a variety of ways that we got to it but as we got closer to producing a draft script I began to get nervous about whether it was working. I started to feel convinced it wasn’t working. I was concerned that we weren’t on the right track, because a lot of feedback we were getting was from very nervous Australian Film Commission people. I started to get nervous and went to the film school and got some books out on adaptation. And one’s Linda Segers’ book and it’s a very formula driven way of doing it. She asks a number of questions and one is: Can you adapt this work? And then it has all these sub-questions: Does it have a journey? Does it have a this? Does it have a that? And I’m like, ‘No! Shit! No! It doesn’t have any of that!’ You read on and it says, ‘By page thirty-eight your character should have done this and by page fifty-two you should have done this and this must have happened and this must happen’. There are all these lists to check off and diagrams to see if your work fits into the three act structure which most films do.

This was when our working relationship was at its most fragile point. (Laughter.) When Rachel brought out the book and said, ‘But by page thirty-eight it says here …’ Do you want to do a …?


Do a diagram! These are all the books that teach you how to adapt.

It was something like, Here’s the character and there is the first plot point, the second plot point. And then …

The straight lines go down there. And then an action has to transform, that character’s development. Now plays do not work at that level.

That’s what he said to me. (Laughter)

You never get a director in the theatre who says, ‘No by page thirty-eight the character should have transformed himself.’ It doesn’t happen! But it has to happen in film and it’s interesting why.

So I did all this research and said to Louis, ‘Is it like this Louis? Is Radiance working like that?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Well, I think it’s got five acts’. That actually blew us out of the water (Laughter).

Then I asked for a bottle of wine and said I would have a think about it. But the interesting thing about this process is that it enabled Rachel and I to actually have an objective way to talk about the script and how to adapt it. And just one of the things that we realized about film is that audiences are psychologically conditioned. You’re all Pavlov’s dogs! (Laughter.) You are psychologically conditioned for these changes to happen whether you’re aware of it or not. So, these character changes have to be strong. I can now watch a movie and think, ‘it is now time for the reversal of this character,’ and umph! They go through some crisis and the coward becomes a hero. It’s very standard, it relates to the narrative and it’s the constant thing. Which is why when we went through this process, it helped us to establish the character relating to the story. One of the things film has as an advantage over plays is that we could literally burn down a real house! Which cost how many bottles of champagne?

A case of Moet!

So again, you have two problems and in this one we had to establish the main character arid then we had to establish turning points. We had a huge problem in the play in that, although Cressy says she’s going to go, she doesn’t. Now in a film, you’ve got to establish that she’s going to go in an actual way. We decided, ‘Why doesn’t she just go to the airport and miss the plane’. Rachel came up with the idea that maybe Nona should stop her.

That was in line with the point of view decision. That was a really big thing–we felt that the film needed a character’s journey. It needed to be someone’s journey. At first we thought it was Cressy’s journey because she sorta changed the most and often that is the signal for a particular character’s journey. But then we realized that Nona is the protagonist. She’s changing the situation; she’s driving the action. Therefore, it’s her point of view. And even though in the end her change isn’t as physical or obvious as Cressy’s, it’s much more fundamental. So we set out to try to make her drive the film all the way through, to make her instrumental in any of the changes that happened and for her to be the one who was upping the stakes all the time and forcing the situation. We added the detail that she’d make Cressy late for the plane and stuff like that.

Again, with film, it can’t hop out of a conceptual basis. Someone has got to hop out of the car and take a piss. So that there is an actual event that stops the other from happening. Once that’s happened you have almost the end of the first act–Cressy’s now stuck. She now has another option, which is to take the next plane. And we had a hard time with this. Is she stuck now for good or does she have another option? And this is very important in films. You’ve got other options that have to be blocked. And then of course it’s the rain and the mail plane won’t be coming in the rain. Again, in film, you have a desire and it’s blocked, or you have a desire and you hop over that hurdle. And you have to invent those hurdles.

There would be no going back.

One of the things needed was to open up the play. Now when we went through other adaptations, the best plays made into films were the ones that didn’t pretend they were anything else other than a play. Like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? We noticed a constant mistake made by producers was to say, ‘Open out the play, we’ve got the money. Show us the world and let’s interact.’ We went through that a lot. Do you show Harry Wells, who in the play, is only mentioned? We spent a bit of time with that didn’t we? Do we even show him?

Do we show the mother? Do we have flashbacks to show the past?

We actually went through a version where we do have flashbacks.

But then we felt that the story was not to do with the past but actually to do with the present and how their lives unfold in the present and not in the past. We thought that the imagined Harry was much more potent than the real Harry you might put in front of the audience.

What you notice in the film is where Mae is outside Harry’s place, throwing a wreathe at Harry and yelling at him, ‘Come outside Harry I know you’re in there!’ I think every guy in the audience is thinking, ‘Don’t step outside, just don’t step outside. She’s going to kill ya.’ That was a good thing, not to actually have a Harry. We spoke quite a bit about that. It’s interesting that there were many scenes that we shot outside that were cut back.

Yep! And there were lots of scenes in the beginning that we set up, because we didn’t know whose point of view it was for a while and because we were trying to be fair and keep it a three-hander in a sense and to give equal weight to everybody. We set them all up individually and as we came more and more to Nona’s point of view we cut out Cressy. For example, we had this scene with Cressy receiving a letter that her mother had died and we shot that when she was in this big Madame Butterfly outfit and we trashed that, shot it and lost it and we did stuff with Mae beforehand and lost it. So, we went through the whole process of focusing on who’s story is it and stuff like that. Even into rehearsals we were adapting the script right through until the second week of rehearsal. We didn’t even have a final draft until midway through rehearsals.

That’s when you said, ‘I’d like the draft tomorrow.’

Give me the draft!

That’s when she was becoming a director.

Fascist (Laughter).

As Rachel was saying, we made a mistake thinking initially that we needed to indicate everybody’s journey. We had Nona at the beginning doing what’s in the film, and then Cressy cracking up at the opera in Europe, and the something happening to Mae, and therefore doing portraits of the three women. And then they get together. There were two problems with that approach: one, you give away to much. It’s almost like when we had the flashbacks. You just give away too much information. And the other thing was that it cut away from whose story it was.

The next problem we had was one of the features of the play which is this claustrophobic atmosphere. Do you make the mistake with the film of opening that out and dissipating that claustrophobic atmosphere? Do you actually concentrate on the strengths with the claustrophobic atmosphere? And, I remember seeing the cuts. The things that weren’t working were when the film stayed away from that claustrophobic house too much, weren’t they? There was a much longer scene at the pub, which had crucial information, but it seemed to go on for hours because it was out of their world.

Question from the Audience: How different an experience were your previous screenplays?

Unlike plays or novels every film is a totally different experience. Actually every film is about hurdles, the amount of money, and the actors. Mostly, it’s about hurdles. Constantly about hurdles. In Map of the Human Heart I was under constant pressure from the Americans to save money and they wanted to cut out characters. With Cosi, they didn’t understand the humour. It was endless. If anyone knows Cosi, Doug the Pyromaniac is quite central. At the script stage they wanted to cut him out because [hey said it was a bit like Silence of the Lambs. I thought, ‘Hello?’

What you have to understand about American film people is that often when you deal with them it’s got nothing to do with reality. It has everything to do with film culture. They are not talking to you when they are talking about a character; they are not talking about real people. They are talking about the film they saw last week. They’re talking about dreams; they’re just into dreams. And so with Map of the Human Heart the real problem was we needed about another 15 million dollars (said he cavalierly). And I was on the set everyday in the Arctic rewriting because we had run out of money and that went on for a long, long while. With Radiance it was much more interesting because the budget was tight and it was such a pressure cooker to get the script done. Also, we were dealing with a smaller cast and I was also getting to know Rachel and there was no time for friction. The only time I went on the set (because I hate going on the set) I was put into a taxi and was rushed to the hospital. That’s right. Let that be a warning for would-be writers. Go on the set and die (Laughter).

One of the important things was that we had a rehearsal period and rehearsal periods taught us two things. One was that the actress we had as Cressy was probably not going to be the right person, and second, it enabled us to know what dialogue to cut out. One of the difficult things is, do you actually cut out a speech because it may remind you that it’s a play or do you go with it?

So, I always touted the fact that we went with a bit of Mae’s speech and then Rachel put in that fabulous moment when she starts to speak in her language at the end of the film. We did have one thing though that we didn’t agree on. I wasn’t sure about that awful idea, that loony idea, of putting the girls in those wigs at the end.

No that’s true I was a bit worried about that.

I think that was the only thing that we had a difference of opinion about. I just said, ‘Go ahead and do it and see if it works.’ Because I thought the chuckle factor could be big.

And you were right!

Girls in wigs, it’s a goer (Laughter). Boys in wigs and it’s a double goer (Double laughter.) Everybody was under such pressure. I remember huge pressure was on at the level of the AFC. We spent a huge amount of time talking about the turtle. ‘So you’re going to kill the turtle are you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to kilt the turtle. Shouldn’t we be talking about casting? You wanna know who plays the turtle? A turtle plays the turtle!’ And they said, ‘You know how it’s upside down and it dies this way?.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s the way they do it up near Cairns. I’ve been up there and you put it that way and then you cut its throat, So it’s on its back for a while and the blood goes all …’ Then they’re like, ‘You can’t have that! You have to have Nona rescue the turtle!’ So there were some directives. That bloody turtle!

RP: She goes back into the house and rescues the turtle. I’ve had people come back to me and say, ‘I was really pleased that the turtle was rescued.’ And I say, ‘What about the burning house?’ And they say, ‘Yeah no, I was just really pleased that the turtle was rescued.’ Now I see that it was somehow right. I’d forgot ten how the small-I liberal, pro-vegetarian, pro-nature thing kind of rules. But it was a dicey thing for them, because it was a traditional way and I didn’t want to seem anti-Aboriginal. But they were like, ‘Can you kill it another way? Couldn’t you gas it?’ Yeah gas it! That’s what we’ll do. We’ll just turn the oven on and we’ll shove it right in there and gas it. So sometimes when I go to meetings I feel like I’m in the twilight zone and nobody’s told me. But we were left going, ‘Let the turtle live!’ It wasn’t a pleasant experience.

And they also hated the script!

LN: Oh yeah, they actually hated the script. But now they’re full of praise for it. But I kept a diary. ‘No, you actually hated it!’ (Laughter). I guess there was fighting on that level but because we had such a small budget they thought oh well what the hell, we’ll do it. And again we were going for the claustrophobia, they found that very difficult to understand and about the three sisters. When Rachel and I got together she said, ‘Do you imagine that there’s something missing from the play that you always wanted to see?’ I said, ‘t always imagined that part two would be all the girls together heading off down the road.’ And that became the end of the film.

RP: Yeah and I mean it’s totally corny. They drive off into the sunset, but it works.

LN: The other thing is that we were very keen to do a portrait of Australia that not many other people had seen. Because everybody always focuses on Aborigines, but always the outback. We were very interested in having the tropical–Cairns. It had never been done. Just to give that totally different aspect to it.

RP: To bring that small country townness in to the sense of separation …

LN: The other thing the film can give you which the play can’t, are the imagined moments: you actually get to see Nona scatter ashes on the island and struggle to find her way through the water. When you see her scatter the ashes you realize that she’s become an adult woman and that was her journey–which is not actually in the play.

Q: Did you work at producing Aboriginal dialects or inflections in the characters’ speech?

RP: No, that emerged doing the shoot. You see it in the scene where Cressy hands her wallet to Nona and says, ‘You coming in,’ and that sort of thing. It wasn’t dialect but there is this Aboriginal sort of thing. Black people have a have way of talking in some regions and we wanted her to put some of that into it. But then we felt that Deb was Aboriginal and that was enough. We didn’t want to push that because in a lot of work I’ve seen urban actors, even in films like Dead try to do pigeon accents and it’s just hideous. It’s like, ‘You be number one fellow good one’–it is just awful. We were really keen not to do that. These are urban girls so they didn’t need to speak like that. I think that’s what attracted me to the film in the first place.

Here were these real, fully dimensional women being normal to each other and full on and gutsy. You had range of ages and creativity and stuff. Because most Aboriginal characterizations are just boring. And the characters are so weighted down by their social background, they can’t escape that and you can’t get-to, the story or essential nature of those characters. I mean, we started with Radiance in this way, and I haven’t read anything since. It was sophisticated in a sense.

Q: Why was the project funded if so many people had so little faith in it?

RP: SBS and AFC only supported it because of the team. They thought it was impossible to adapt it, they thought that we hadn’t adapted it well enough, and they were terrified of the whole process. They didn’t see it for what it was. They couldn’t see any of the humour. They didn’t realize it was funny. They just missed it.

Q: Was the refusal to make this an Aboriginal ‘issue’ film one of the problems?

LN: Yes, in Radiance the three actresses didn’t want the mention of the word Aboriginal. There’s not one mention, it’s like Lydia said, ‘It’s not as if we sit around saying, ‘Hey, we’re Aboriginal.’ It’s when white authors write about them that they constantly talk about their identity. We didn’t want that. We wanted it about three sisters’ emotional journey together. That was really the crucial thing. The funding bodies found this very difficult because they could understand it if it was a much more polemical piece about Aboriginal identity as such. They could understand a film like Dead Heart, and they mentioned Dead Heart. I answered that I found Dead Heart polemical; that we didn’t want to do that sort of film; that this was about three sisters trying to get to know one another; everything else is residue. And I think they found that terribly difficult to understand. You have to remember that these are bureaucrats these people in our film industry.

(with emphasis) At the same time they were very supportive of the project and they pushed it through. They gave us the money and they supported the team. And they went with it.

LN: We added that because we are being filmed and this could get back to them (Laughter).

Q: How did the funding come about?

RP: Once we talked about doing the film, Louis and I met up with Ned Lander and Andrew Myer who-had just started up a production company called Eclipse films, and they put up half a million dollars of private investment and then we went to the AFC and they put up about the same, and-then we talked to SBS, Actually, the first person we sold it to was Marion Pilowski. She was a cable woman end she bought the rights for Showtime. She read a bit and was like, ‘This is a commercial film! This is a great film?

LN: Even we went ‘All right! Of course it’s commercial.’

RP: So she was the first one to come in and she is a Jewish girl and she was like, ‘I don’t care that they’re black, so what I’m Jewish who cares, you know!’ And she had a great sense of it and she was the one who really made it happen after Andy and Ned picked it up.

LN: I’ve also remembered something that is very crucial to our talk. Something that we constantly talked about with regards to the film was that we viewed it as a gothic film. We constantly talked about the gothic nature of the film. Under the house was where the monster is, which is the residue of the mother. The burning down of the house is very gothic. And when Nona comes from the city to the country house she enters and it’s filled with the faces on the wall and the mysterious atmosphere. We constantly thought of gothic and the mother was as it were, a sort of Jane Eyre character, but instead of Bertha being locked in the cellar or the attic, it’s the mother being locked inside their memories.

That was something that-came in on the cut because we screened to people a lot when we, were crying it and Louis came in and said, ‘Remember the tone, go for that. Put these things in the beginning and give it that tone all the way through.’ And that was the most valuable feedback I had had from anybody to that point, because that ‘go for the was the broad vision of what the film should be in it’s quality.

One of the aspects was incest which is why it’s really important to gothic. The whole thing about illegitimate birth or the baby in theatric … that’s what we got in Radiance. It was very important to us. Some parts that I really tike are when the camera is just going through the house and the eeriness of the house which is consuming them. I think Rachel has done that really beautifully. They just have to burn the house down. It’s like in gothic the house or the mansion has a life unto itself. To burn it down was really important–and the whole thing about ‘witch, witch,’ and that sort of stuff.

Q: There’s wonderful macabre humour too.

LN: Yes! My favourite line is when Cressy is splashing the kerosene around and she says, ‘This is so operatic!’ Go for it baby!

RP: I think the good thing with Radiance, anti, how we managed to do such a full-on-emotional piece, was that Louis kept undercutting the emotional outpouring with humour. So that it’s really just taking the piss. You go through a really full-on moment when Mae is going, ‘I just wanted her to love me just once.’ and then she goes, ‘should we burn down the house?’ And another says, ‘Fuck yeah!’ You know? And the wigs and ‘This is so operatic!’ Those moments undercut the drama, and just make it easier to watch and digest.

At the first major screening there was an American in the audience and there was good laughter. People were lapping it up. As the American was leaving he was talking to one of his friends and saying, ‘This is so Australian’ and the friend said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘In America, we would continue until it got sentimental. The emotion would continue, but here, there is always this undercutting with the humour. They reach a peak and then there is this undercutting.’ He found this to be a revelation. He ended by saying, ‘They don’t push it like the Americans into sentimentality.’ That use of humour is very Australian.

Q: How does this compare to a project like adapting Capricornia for the stage?

Capricornia, technically, was very different because I had to control twelve character’s. In Radiance, I only had three characters. One of the things about three characters ors stage is that when you pick up a programme, as an audience, you know no one else is going to enter. You’re stuck with these three people and technically that is a very different aspect. What actually happens is that you concentrate more on the psychology of the characters. It’s a very different play than Capricornia, which concentrates ors story and narrative. And Capricornia is much more filmic than Radiance because of that, when you look at them superficially. Radiance concentrates on the emotional rawness arid psychology and Capricornia is more the story of one guy’s epic journey to find himself.

Q: Did I read somewhere that you selected Trisha Morton-Thomas after watching her perform an excerpt from the play?

Yes. She’d only done one student’s play at a performing arts college in Redfern. So she was a non-actor. And as Louis said she was the original inspiration for me seeing Radiance, because I saw her do this piece, which is much longer in the script than in the film, just to an audience like you guys without any props. The whole audience was crying and so was I. I was just stunned. That’s when I rang Louis about Radiance.

Q: What do you think is the strongest point in the film?

For me it’s when Mae is stalking outside et Harr Wells’ house, yelling, ‘Come out here Harry!’ I always thought that was so raw and powerful–what she’d gorse through and now she was just yelling at his house. I thought it was quite wonderful, because I had already seers her do Mae in rehearsal. I knew what she was capable of, but that stalking backwards and forwards was very impressive. The hardest part to do is actually Cressy, because she w, ants to leave and is uptight but she never says anything. So everything is reactive instead of proactive. That’s a very difficult journey for somebody.

Q: What about stereotypes and expectations by those who funded the project? For example, did you have any difficulties making Cressy an opera singer?

That is a very interesting question. When the play first went on, I was attacked by a couple of people, who said, ‘How dare you make her an opera singer? There is no such thing.’ And I think we have three or four.

They wanted her to be a blues singer–some sort of crusty blues singer.

And who wants to write a film about a blues singer?

So if we have to get rid of Madame Butterfly what are we going to have?

Madame Butterfly–twelve bar blues! Woke up this morning, going to kill a kid! (Laughter). But real bad!

Q: Who came up with the opera parody in the film?

RP: Well, that actually comes from Deborah because in the original she just says, ‘spaghetti bolognaise,’ you know, like Italian foods and then she worked that up a little bit and we liked it. And then this white woman comes and takes the baby and all that. She’s great Deb! She’s a natural. She brought a lot of that stuff, like the orgasm scene, where she’s annoying Mae. That was her piece.

LN: Her party piece.

RP: And dialogue and that sort of thing. We took the text into rehearsals and they really pulled it apart. Louis and I had spent a couple of weeks on it and I had even written some of it and they were sitting there going, ‘This is shit! This is fucking shit! This is so bad how could somebody write this.’ And I’m saying, ‘No, it’s not!’ They just tore it apart,

Q: What is notable about the film is the way it refuses to conform to expectations.

RP: I think that’s the thing with Radiance. The audience doesn’t know what it’s going to be, but they know it’s Aboriginal. So they come with all these expectations of what it might be. They think it’s going to be pretty wordy and pretty boring. And it is a bit slow in the first ten minutes. If there’s one criticism I’ll make of it, that’s it. And so you’re watching this film and it’s pretty slow and this woman’s arriving and they are all pretty shitty characters and then suddenly Mae gets in the car and does this big wheelie and the film changes directions completely I think.

Q: Was that page thirty-eight? (Laughter.)

LN: No, it was about page nine I think. I remember the conversation. We had to decide about Mae, whether she was driving or not. And this may sound trivial, but movies work on a completely different level. We had to decide what type of car she would drive and if the car was totally against the grain of how we perceived the character up until then. And we talked about cars because Rachel knows more about cars than I do. So when she hops into the Charger … It definitely was not going to be a Peugeot. And when we decided it was this purple Charger, it was like, ‘Yes, she would.’ That’s her one release. One could imagine her getting pissed with living with mom who’s dying and going, ‘Well fuck you! I’m going to the hotel,’ and roaring down there and getting a bottle of Vodka and roaring back. And you can’t do that in plays. All you have to do is see her in that Charger to go, ‘Oh I’d already prejudged you; there is something else to your character.’ And that’s how film operates.

Q: Were producers breathing down your neck throughout? Is that how they work?

RP: Well, Louis probably knows more about this but with us it was such a small budget; it was 1.5 million. They just let us go and they’d come to the set and have a coffee and leave and say, ‘Very nice, very nice,’ and then go. Or we’d say, ‘Let’s schedule something exciting for them.’ So we’d burn something down, which felt good and then they’d just go away. Once we had gotten the script and the money they just left us alone.

Except for one thing: we had a rough cut and somebody had come in from a funding body and she sat down and started to give notes like in an English Tutorial. It was frightening because I kept on wanting to say, ‘This is a film. Sorry to point this out but this is a film! You tell a story in a different way.’ She started to do that and because I was the writer I just said, ‘Well, goodbye Rachel. See you later,’ and I left and Rachel had to deal with her.

RP: She was saying, ‘I want two pages on my desk Monday morning addressing my comments.’ It was terrible.

LN: So, they did employ somebody who’d majored in English! (Laughter). Sorry, sorry, Gerry!

Q: Did you the film a much more economical form than playwriting?

Very interesting question! In a play it is much easier to show the psychology of the character because you give them dialogue and you give them interaction. In a film what you have to do is put them in the context of a real building or a car. Basically, you have to supply the real image of what they’re like. So, with the car, the Charger, I couldn’t have done that in the play. Film operates by shorthand, plays don’t. For example, in the opening all you have to have is Deb sitting on the toilet holding a pregnancy test and you realize, ‘Oh my God, she’s pregnant!’ With a play, you’ve got a few pages of dialogue, she comes in, ‘Hey, I’m pregnant!’ That’s the easy way to do it. In plays you have to dig it out. So again, films work in incredible shorthand which is very easy to do and it’s interesting. You actually show the tossing of the ashes to convey the idea of the character becoming an adult. In the play, I couldn’t do that. And then Rachel filmed brilliantly: Deborah on the bow of the ferry, you realize that even she knows she’s done something wonderful, even she knows that she’s achieved something and there’s no words or anything. It’s just that took. It’s Greta Garbo in Queen Christiania; it’s the look on a bow of a ship. That’s the difference.

I think there’s one thing that I’ve sort of learnt from the process which is that when you’re working with a writer you don’t say, ‘She could do this or this could happen there.’ Louis had a framework of what the characters did, what they didn’t do, and what they wouldn’t do. So he would say, ‘oh but it wouldn’t do that,’ but what he would do is take a stupid suggestion and fit it quite quickly into the framework that he had of the piece. And I think that’s the good thing with writers. They have a discipline in terms of the world they’ve created and how things slot into that. So that was a really interesting process for me to observe.

And the other important thing is that in the play I couldn’t get to the island, but in the film they actually have the island there just sort of always beckoning in this silhouette. It had a kind of semi-reality, but it was always there. It was always this presence in the movie that I would have loved for the play.

Gerry Turcotte is Head of the English Studies Programme at the University of Wollongong. He is a novelist, poet and critic.

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