Friday, 2 May 2008

Pitching my Wagner movie to Hollywood

A movie with a Wagner theme. Not the story of the composer's life. British director Tony Palmer took that on over a decade ago with mixed results. (How can a film on such a flawed, complicated genius be anything other than flawed and complicated?)

No, I want to adapt a big, funny love story about a bass-baritone who longs to sing the great role of Wotan, and find true love in the process. Forgive the Hollywood logline but I've been practising those all week and that's the best I can do. I had a script, I had a one page synopsis but the biggest hurdle turned out to be reducing a 480 page novel that had become a 120 page script and gone on to be a two paragraph synopsis into less than 25 words.

And I'm doing it with that nagging sense that anyone who looks at this will snigger - Wagner? Opera? Not a hope in hell. I like to respond that "Amadeus" took on Mozart and Salieri (who?) and swept the Oscars. Or that a movie about a band of geriatric musicians in Cuba packed them in across the planet.

But Wagner? Oh my, the associations are so toxic. My bass-baritone, Leo, knows that. So do the musicians he works with. In the original novel, he says to his new love, Rose: "I think it would have been very difficult to have been a singer when he was alive, to know that he was such an obnoxious man and yet to want to be part of that extraordinary music. It's easier now that he is dust." So "now that he is dust," I want to pitch my "wildly romantic, acerbically funny" (said the book blurb) story to movie producers.

I know that with its mix of big romance and daffy English eccentrics, I'm putting a foot in Merchant-Ivory country (think "Howards End" or "Room with a View".) And with the "ordinary woman meets world's greatest singer", I'm on "Notting Hill" territory.

I've got snow, I've got great love and I've got that glorious final scene of Die Walkure when Wotan bids farewell to Brunnhilde. I believe that if that theme weaves in and out of the story, people who fear Wagner as "heavy", "difficult" etc will discover the ecstasy that this music induces in people. National Review editor, Jay Nordlinger, called that passage the greatest piece of music ever written.

I recall a Covent Garden Ring with Haitink conducting in the Gotz Friedrich production. James Morris sang Wotan. There's a passage just after "freier als ich der gott," where the music leads us into a rapture that does not quite relate to the dramatic action or lyrics. But by then we don't care. On that day (it was a general rehearsal) I walked out the Royal Opera House not quite sure that my feet were anywhere near the ground. I wasn't alone. A couple of flute players from the orchestra wanted to go for a drink but both said they needed to be pulled off the ceiling before they could make it to the pub.Next thing I knew it was 3 hours later and I was in the coffee shop at the Royal Festival Hall - with no real idea how I got there. Wagner will do that. It scares some people because he reaches down and unleashes very deep emotions.


And that's what I want to put into my story but by making my protagonist a wise compassionate man, perhaps I can move Wagner away from a lot of the ugliness that has surrounded him.

Still, pitching this movie is not going to be easy. So when an email dropped into my inbox from Virtual Pitch Fest last week suggesting that I "pitch in my pyjamas" I couldn't resist. For a small fee, with the low dollar, I can pitch a dozen producers, agents and managers in Hollywood -all from the comfort of wherever my laptop has landed. I don't own pyjamas but I donned my red fleece dressing gown, my free towelling slippers from some hotel or the other, poured a glass of wine and here, looking out on the daffodils in Ealing, West London, began pitching. It's 5 am in Los Angeles. I suppose some hyper-active loony is headed for the gym but in theory, the 'Coast' is still deep in slumber. We'll see what they have to say.

Monday, 24 March 2008

The Courtyard in August

If you look out of your aircraft window as the plane taxis across the Roissy tarmac, you will see the rabbits – hundreds of them, burrowing in the earth next to the runway. Nell Marchand – an English chief purser at Air France, gazes at the rabbitsas her flight arrives from Tokyo but she doesn’t see them. Nell is worried. Nell is always worried and today her worries are about the summer heat, moving house and betrayal.Paris is too warm, Tokyo was too warm- she has just flown over her native England and noticed with a gnawing anxietythat it is parched and brown. Nell has always preferred places to people and this gradual transformation of the world that she has flown around for years terrifies her. Nell is also concerned about her approaching move from Chantilly to Provence where her pilot husband, Luc, wants to spend his retirement. Nell, who rarely sees her husband is anxious about that retirement. But within days of the Tokyo flight, Luc is hi-jacked while flying a cargo plane carrying several hundred cans of baked beans, fifty containers of oversized women’s underwear and a lone dolphin. The dolphin’s handlers are believed to be responsible for the crime. “Return our relatives to the seas” is the slogan of these ecological terrorists. With the house in Chantilly already sold and the purchase of the new home in Provence puzzlingly cancelled by Luc, Nell is left to wait out the sizzling summer alone in his old bachelor flat on the Paris courtyard.

She is drawn into the lives of her neighbours: prim, mysterious Mademoiselle Marina who plies her transsexual trade in the Bois de Boulogne at night; and carefree, careless Mort, the American TV weatherman whose failure to cover a hurricane has cost him his job. Back in England Nell’s father is terminally ill. As she flies back and forth between Roissy and Heathrow, Nell discovers that her father has been living a double life. And that her mother knew and seems to understand. A confused, unhappy Nell attempts to cope with these latest dramas as she has always coped: by reducing the whole, immmense baffling world down to a collection of small, routine tasks. But as the summer progresses, she learns that work and duty are not always enough. Faraway places are not always enough. And that whether she likes it or not, her destiny is entwined with transsexuals, an irritating American weatherman and those hundreds of rabbits out at Roissy…

Sunday, 23 March 2008

The Singing House

On the eve of her wedding, Rose Lorenzo is handed a ticket to the opera at Covent Garden by an eccentric stranger. The opera is Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.Listening to Wagner's ecstatic, deeply erotic music, Rose realizes that if she goes ahead with her sensible marriage to suitable Martin, everything she has heard in this music will be lost to her forever.


She cancels her wedding and agrees to drive Otto and his equally eccentric twin sister, Eva, on an operatic road trip to the great theatres of Europe. As they drive across a snowbound continent from La Scala in Milan to Venice to King Ludwig's castles in Bavaria, Rose meets and falls in love with Leo dalla Vigna - the greatest operatic bass in the world but a lonely, driven man still inextricably tied to his elusive and unstable wife who lives alone in their villa on Lake Como.

"Unashamedly romantic...crisp and witty," Hilary Mantel