So my trip began a week ago, when we flew out from Heathrow to Newark. The plane ride wasn't bad, but due to my back, other pain issues, and general dislike of flying, was still not the most enjoyable 7 hours.
The Festival actually began with a party on Friday night followed by seminars throughout Saturday. But because I don't work on Shabbat (Sabbath) my wife and I took some time out to visit family Upstate.
So I didn't join the action until Sunday, and the first thing I went to was the TV Movie/Mini Series seminar. Basically what happens is that the four nominees have clips shown of their work, and then there is a panel with a Q & A. David Aukin and Hal Vogel were there from Daybreak Pictures with the excellent Britz. But from what I saw of the clips, it was a very strong category with films from Germany, Argentina and China. (The award eventually went to
Television por la identidad from Argentina and Britz was unlucky to be the only British nomination not to collect the Emmy in their category.)
What was interesting was that apart from Britz, the other three movies were all period pieces, from the Eighties, Seventies and Twenties. The 'P' word is usually a TV taboo so when I quizzed the nominees on this, the general feeling was that they had a sense of duty to tell these stories. The passion was clear to see and an overriding theme was what can we learn from past successes and failures to inform our world now? Aukin added that whenever they do a period piece, it should always say something about the world today, and not just be about a nice classical book (a slight dig at costume drama but I think it was more that this was not his thing, rather than that was fundamentally wrong).
Another point worthy of note was that, only getting to see the first 15 minutes of each film, it was fascinating to see what was packed into that time frame and how it was structured. Although each film was very different, all four had very clear protagonists and inciting incidents. It's worth thinking about, next time structure is being bemoaned as formulaic and stifling creativity, that stories are told this way (for the vast majority of the time) for a very good reason. Get that right and you have a good foothold. Mess around with it and you could be on a slippery slope. And don't think for one minute that within that structure, you can't be very creative, because obviously you can and these four films were being rightly honoured for being the best this year.
As for Britz, Aukin revealed that he and writer/director Peter Kominsky were sitting in a coffee shop 400 yards away from the 7/7 attacks in London. What shocked them in particular was the fact that the Muslim terrorists were British born and bred. The war on terror was clearly no solution, and was only exacerbating the world climate. At the same time Channel 4, who were extremely supportive, wanted them to follow up the David Kelly story, The Government Inspector, and so Britz was a direct response to all of this.
Aukin and Kominsky are both children of immigrants so had an innate understanding of the pull between assimilating and holding onto your own culture and history. But of course neither were interested in doing a political essay, and were conscious of the fact that Britz was first and foremost a thriller, and had to work on those terms. Nevertheless the script was thoroughly researched and Aukin stated that everything that happened in the film had happened somewhere to someone.
Finally, when asked why a TV movie and not a cinema release, the reply was simple. It was four hours of screentime. They couldn't do it in less without serious compromises for the story, which of course they didn't want to make. TV gives you a bigger canvas, with a greater scope and a larger audience. Plus the nature of the story and the dual protagonist also lent itself well to a two-parter. Cutting between the two stories simply wouldn't have worked or had the same impact. The reward was that the second part got a bigger audience than the first (which is pretty unprecedented,) the main reason being the strong word of mouth and resonance with the British Asian audience.
What came across really clearly in the seminar was that you had four very different countries, complete with different histories, cultures and traditions, who in turn produced four very different movies. But whilst doing that, the focus very much remained on what was universal, in both characters and themes (not to mention the modes of storytelling like I said above.)
When thinking about our own work, it's so important to keep this in mind. Even if we are telling a very personal or localised story, it has to resonate with an audience. As I'm sure I've mentioned before, my script The Storyteller, was the most personal thing I've written to date. But what pleased me the most is that other people 'got it' and it wasn't so interior as to alienate an audience.
What did intrigue me though was how American actors were going to interpret it. Come back soon to find out how the public reading went..!