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
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