Film Luke Davies on screenwriting for Hollywood
Australian poet and novelist Luke Davies has made the grade as a Hollywood screenwriter, writes Michael Bodey
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
IT’S ABOUT TIME ... IT’S GOOD TO FEEL JUST A BIT COMFORTABLE HERE AND HAVE A RHYTHM GOING
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