Film Luke Davies on screen­writ­ing for Hol­ly­wood

Aus­tralian poet and nov­el­ist Luke Davies has made the grade as a Hol­ly­wood screen­writer, writes Michael Bodey

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Poet and nov­el­ist Luke Davies is fi­nally com­fort­able — as a screen­writer in Los An­ge­les. A decade ago, Davies was a strug­gling Syd­ney poet whose semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel Candy: A Novel of Love and Ad­dic­tion was be­ing read­ied as a film star­ring Heath Ledger and Ab­bie Cor­nish. To­day, he speaks from the LA home he shares with friend David Mi­chod, di­rec­tor of An­i­mal King­dom, and long-time friend but only oc­ca­sional house­mate Alex O’Lough­lin, who spends most of his year in the mid-Pa­cific on the set of Hawaii Five-O.

Davies could now cred­i­bly count him­self as part of Hol­ly­wood’s gum­leaf mafia, were he not so self-ef­fac­ing.

Davies’s sec­ond screen­play (he co-wrote Candy with di­rec­tor Neil Arm­field), Life, is about to hit cine­mas glob­ally, in­clud­ing in Aus­tralia this week, af­ter its pre­miere at the Ber­lin film fes­ti­val. And many in the film busi­ness are al­ready rav­ing about his fourth screen­play, for the com­ing fea­ture Lion, star­ring Dev Pa­tel and Ni­cole Kid­man (his third was for Alan White’s Re­claim, re­leased last year).

The poet is now an in-de­mand screen­writer. “It’s about time ... it’s good to feel just a bit com­fort­able here and have a rhythm go­ing and have a cou­ple of jobs,” he says with a laugh. “Be­cause I have been the starv­ing artist all my life and it’s not like I have su­per­an­nu­a­tion or any­thing like that.”

Davies fol­lowed a girl­friend to LA af­ter Candy in 2007, think­ing that as she tried to fur­ther her act­ing ca­reer he would write another script and “see what hap­pens”.

“I didn’t re­alise how slow that could be and how dif­fi­cult it is,” he con­cedes. “Lit­er­ally noth­ing hap­pened for years.”

Davies was used to be­ing the im­pov­er­ished artist, though, so had the de­ter­mi­na­tion to stick it out while strug­gling to pay the rent and liv­ing off his film re­views for The Monthly. It was only when he won a $100,000 Prime Min­is­ter’s Literary Award for his po­etry col­lec­tion In­ter­feron Psalms two years ago that he fi­nally paid off his credit card debts.

“It was a huge re­lief and that was the mo­ment the screen­play stuff fi­nally started get­ting some move­ment, and the first one re­ally was Life,” he says.

An­ton Cor­bijn’s rel­a­tively quick fol­low-up to last year’s A Most Wanted Man por­trays a slice of James Dean’s life, the fi­nal tu­mul­tuous months. A Life mag­a­zine pho­tog­ra­pher ap­proaches the young ac­tor with the loaded prom­ise of mak­ing him a star, just as his cru­cial role in East of Eden is about to emerge. The pho­tog­ra­pher, Dennis Stock (played by Robert Pat­tin­son), would take the un­for­get­table im­age of Dean in the rain in Times Square — but be­fore that their bud­ding re­la­tion­ship was a game of cat and mouse, so­lid­i­fied when Stock ac­com­pa­nied Dean (Dane DeHaan) back to his old home­town in In­di­ana.

Davies had to ad­mit to pro­ducer Iain Can­ning that he didn’t have any par­tic­u­lar in­sight into Dean’s life. Emile Sher­man, Can­ning’s part­ner in See-Saw Films, knew Davies when he co-pro­duced Candy (be­fore the es­tab­lish­ment of See-Saw). Af­ter See-Saw’s Os­car tri­umph with The King’s Speech, the duo was look­ing to tackle a big, iconic Amer­i­can story. Can­ning floated Dean as a pos­si­bil­ity and asked Davies, whose 2008 novel God of Speed fic­tion­alised the bizarre late life of Amer­i­can ty­coon Howard Hughes, to in­ves­ti­gate.

Dean’s life had been raked over but Davies ven­tured there could be some­thing in a “lit­tle slice” of it: the brief pe­riod when Stock took a less well-known se­ries of im­ages of Dean as their “weird, com­plex re­la­tion­ship” de­vel­oped in the six months be­fore the ac­tor died.

“Once it be­came a slice-of-life, mi­cro­cosm story, it was clear what the story was, and this philo­soph­i­cal buddy movie, a road movie about friend­ship, was in­ter­est­ing to me to ex­plore,” Davies says.

The mid-1950s was a time when the media, not the stars, held the cul­tural power, a time when a pho­tog­ra­pher such as Stock and Life



mag­a­zine could make an ac­tor’s ca­reer. “He was tak­ing photos for the pri­mary dis­sem­i­na­tor of cul­tural in­for­ma­tion at that time,’’ Davies says. “Not ev­ery house­hold had a TV but 30 mil­lion peo­ple read Life mag­a­zine.”

The film ex­plores Dean’s com­plex and con­flicted re­la­tion­ship with the cul­tural par­a­digm and how, as a very pri­vate per­son, he strug­gled to con­front fame. If Stock was a door­way to fame, was their re­la­tion­ship go­ing to be one of friend­ship or would it be mu­tu­ally par­a­sit­i­cal?

Davies found the energy be­tween the two fas­ci­nat­ing, im­bued with “the melan­choly sense of mor­tal­ity, which is some­thing most au­di­ences are go­ing to bring to it”, know­ing Dean’s un­timely death was im­mi­nent.

A scene in which Dean is given an in­tro­duc­tory pep talk by stu­dio boss Jack Warner also seems melan­choly. It re­calls a story Ledger once told me about an in­tim­i­dat­ing meet­ing in a Sony board­room in which ex­ec­u­tives laid out their plans for his im­pend­ing global om­nipres­ence.

Davies was also struck by Ledger’s dif­fi­cul­ties with fame when the ac­tor played “him” in

Candy. “Dean had this very con­flicted re­la­tion­ship with fame and that I found re­ally fas­ci­nat­ing be­cause I’d seen it to some ex­tent with Heath dur­ing Candy,” he says.

The novel about his way­ward youth, the drugs and the de­struc­tive re­la­tion­ship was largely au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, so to see Ledger play­ing a “con­structed ver­sion of me” was odd and more per­sonal than most ac­tor-screen­writer re­la­tion­ships might be. “And what I got to see at close range was the un­be­liev­able sweet­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­ity and un­cer­tainty, and the re­la­tion­ship with the ma­chin­ery of fame that Heath dealt with, all the pa­parazzi stuff,” Davies says.

“He was not par­tic­u­larly equipped to deal with that stuff well be­cause he was so vul­ner­a­ble and raw and present and he wasn’t one of those peo­ple — and there are plenty in this town — who em­brace the fa­cade and the­atrics of what’s needed to be­come fa­mous.’’

Davies says the com­bi­na­tion of fame with youth was un­com­mon un­til Dean and ap­peared in 1955’s Rebel With­out a Cause. “Be­fore that you’d have 54-year-old Humphrey Bog­art play­ing lead­ing man to 22-year-old Au­drey Hep­burn [in Sab­rina in 1954]. That was nor­mal.

“It was an in­cred­i­bly sig­nif­i­cant cul­tural turn­ing point,” he says. “And that’s not just a pos­i­tive thing; the flip side was the mar­ketabil­ity of youth. Now we have a world dom­i­nated from youth up.”

But the 53-year-old Davies isn’t trou­bled by youth. It de­fined him, to some ex­tent, with

Candy and led to this pe­riod as an ac­com­plished, and in his mind now com­pe­tent, screen­writer.

“I get to feel I have im­proved, ab­so­lutely with­out doubt,” he says. “I know what I’m do­ing more than I did eight years ago. Some­thing’s work­ing and I think Lion is the script I feel most proud of and [which] has changed ev­ery­thing, but Life is cru­cial — and part of get­ting older and get­ting bet­ter and work­ing out what’s the emo­tional cen­tre of a story.

“It’s what I’m still striv­ing for, whether it’s in my nov­els, po­etry or screen­plays. I’ve got skills which are con­tin­u­ally im­prov­ing. I waste less time not hav­ing a clue what I’m do­ing. Hope­fully that will con­tinue.”

Luke Davies, main pic­ture; Dane DeHaan as James Dean and Robert Pat­tin­son as Dennis Stock in Life, be­low left; Ab­bie Cor­nish and Heath Ledger in the 2006 film Candy, above

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