BACK FROM THE EDGE

Lead­ing stage and screen writer An­drew Bovell has sur­vived some dark times. As he launches a re­veal­ing, au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal es­say, he opens up to Rose­mary Neill

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

You could call it the curse of fame. Or per­haps the self-em­ployed writer’s ter­ror that the phone will stop ring­ing. How­ever you de­fine it, it was a syn­drome that pushed An­drew Bovell, one of our best-known screen­writ­ers and play­wrights, to “the edge of sanity’’, even as his ca­reer seemed to be flour­ish­ing.

In 2001, the ground­break­ing fea­ture Lan­tana, which he adapted from his play Speak­ing in Tongues, won in­ter­na­tional crit­i­cal praise and seven Aus­tralian Film In­sti­tute awards, and per­formed strongly at the box of­fice here, in the US and Europe. In the years that fol­lowed, doors that Bovell had as­sumed were closed to him sprang open: of­fers of work from Hol­ly­wood and Bri­tain flooded in.

How could the father of three, then in his early 40s and based on a re­claimed goat farm at Wil­lunga, near Ade­laide, say no to writ­ing a film that was to star Robert De Niro? Or to adapt­ing Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge for the big screen? “My head was spin­ning,’’ he has said. “… One day a play­wright with roots in left­wing po­lit­i­cal theatre in Mel­bourne. The next an in-de­mand Hol­ly­wood writer. And it was all on the back of a rel­a­tively mod­est Aus­tralian drama [ Lan­tana].’’

Over the next five years, Bovell split his time be­tween five Bri­tish and Amer­i­can films, as well as Aus­tralian pro­jects. But as he re­veals in a Cur­rency House Plat­form Pa­per to be pub­lished on Tues­day, this was a mis­take that would take a heavy toll on his fam­ily life, con­fi­dence and men­tal health.

He writes in the heav­ily au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal pa­per, Putting Words in Their Mouths: The Play­wright and Screen­writer at Work: “I took on too many pro­jects and spread my­self too thinly across a dif­fi­cult slate of work.”

Bovell con­tin­ues: “[I] wrote my­self into a pre­ma­ture mid­dle age. Most of those pro­jects weren’t made and the one that was, Edge of Dark­ness, based on the sem­i­nal 1980s BBC TV se­ries … and star­ring Mel Gib­son, was taken away from me.” A speech, al­ter­nately raw and funny, which he gave to the Bri­tish Film In­sti­tute in 2015 was more forth­com­ing about how his long in­volve­ment with Edge of Dark­ness “took me to my own edge of dark­ness”. He said the adap­ta­tion dom­i­nated his and his fam­ily’s life for five years, adding: “I have stared into the abyss of break­down be­cause of this project.”

The un­der­ly­ing prob­lem was that carriage of the film shifted from BBC Films to Warner Bros, so it mor­phed from a cri­tique of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s post-9/11 in­va­sion of Afghanistan and Iraq to a high-oc­tane re­venge thriller cen­tred on Gib­son. Af­ter years spent wrestling with mul­ti­ple drafts and paralysing self-doubt, Bovell learned from a Va­ri­ety head­line that he had been re­placed by Os­car-win­ning screen­writer Wil­liam Mon­a­han. Al­though he re­tained a writ­ing credit, he tells Re­view he was dev­as­tated by this dis­cov­ery. “Yeah,” he ad­mits, with a slow in­take of breath. “For sure, I didn’t see it com­ing — but you bounce back.”

He has cer­tainly done that. Since then, he has scripted the in­ter­na­tion­ally ad­mired A Most Wanted Man, star­ring Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man in his fi­nal role, an adap­ta­tion of a John le Carre novel about spies and ji­hadis in Ham­burg. He has writ­ten sev­eral ac­claimed plays, in­clud­ing a land­mark adap­ta­tion of the Kate Grenville novel The Se­cret River. Last year, he won the Syd­ney Theatre Com­pany’s Pa­trick White Play­wrights Fel­low­ship for es­tab­lished drama­tists, and in com­ing months he will be jug­gling more screen and theatre pro­jects than a Cirque du Soleil vet­eran.

Nev­er­the­less, in his es­say he re­flects on those “stalled” film pro­jects and how “I lost some of what should have been the most pro­duc­tive years of my writ­ing life, and found my­self in the midst of a de­bil­i­tat­ing bout of writer’s block. An­other word for it is de­pres­sion. I had been dis­tracted from my own jour­ney as a writer and had lost some of my con­fi­dence and spirit.”

When we meet at the in­ner-Syd­ney home of Cur­rency House founder Katharine Bris­bane, it’s hard to imag­ine Bovell los­ing his con­fi­dence or equi­lib­rium — his de­meanour is as steady as that of a High Court judge. With his close­cropped white hair and square-rimmed specs, he re­sem­bles Kevin Rudd. In fact, around the time Rudd was de­posed, Bovell hopped into a cab to find the driver com­mis­er­at­ing with him: “I don’t agree with what they did to you — Gil­lard and her mob.”

To­day, he talks openly about the most dif­fi­cult years of his ca­reer, chuck­ling softly about how writer’s block is the writer’s form of de­pres­sion. “It’s a pretty ter­ri­fy­ing thing if sud­denly you feel you don’t know how to do the thing that you do, or if you don’t have the men­tal clar­ity and stamina to do it any more. But I do feel that was a re­ally im­por­tant cri­sis, be­cause it al­lowed me to ask some big­ger ques­tions about what I want to do as a writer.”

How long did the cri­sis last? “If I look back at it now,” says the 54-year-old, his arms crossed tightly across his chest, “it feels like a blur. It’s not that I stopped writ­ing through that time, it’s just that it stopped bring­ing me joy. I know it started to shift around 2007, 2008 and it felt like it started around 2003, 2004. Four years of re­ally go­ing, ‘Why am I do­ing this?’ That also cor­re­sponds to that time in your life when you are most busy, bring­ing up three chil­dren, it’s just a busy time of life.”

In spite of in­evitable ten­sions be­tween the de­mands of par­ent­ing and work, it was his chil­dren who pulled him out of his funk. He is mar­ried to Greek-Aus­tralian ac­tress Eugenia Fra­gos, who has ap­peared in The Slap, the film Dead Europe and Bovell’s 2016 play Things I Know to be True, a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the State Theatre Com­pany of South Aus­tralia and Bri­tish com­pany Fran­tic Assem­bly. The play­wright and screen­writer re­calls that “I kind of reached a point where my kids were grow­ing up and they needed a father in the house, not a neu­rotic writer, not some­body who was look­ing at their navel. I needed to pull my­self out of that and par­ent three chil­dren.”

His youngest child, now at univer­sity, was then about eight and he “went through a pe­riod when­ever he would walk with me, he would need to touch me. He would have one arm on me some­how … and I thought, ‘ This kid’s a bit anx­ious, he needs re­as­sur­ance.’ And then at some point I re­alised, it’s not him that needs re­as­sur­ance, it’s me. He’s re­as­sur­ing me.” This de­scrip­tion has the emo­tional del­i­cacy of his best writ­ing, which of­ten cen­tres on fam­ily and in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ships, and segues seam­lessly be­tween ten­der­ness and emo­tional savagery, black hu­mour and heart­break.

The Plat­form Pa­per traces the long arc of Bovell’s event­ful film and theatre ca­reer, start-

An­drew Bovell says he suf­fered a de­bil­i­tat­ing bout of writer’s block

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