In this coming together for the final session of the 2017 Big Screen Symposium, we discover that writer Luke Davies and writer/director David Michôd have been living together in a shared house in Los Angeles for 8 years now – along with fellow Australians Mirrah Foulkes (Michôd’s wife) and actor Alex O’Loughlin.
With his short-back-and-sides and greying hair, plus old-fashioned glasses, Davies looks if anything a little older than he actually is; while Michôd, with his baseball cap and small tied-back ponytail, looks, as he has been described elsewhere, younger than his age. The duo appear at first more like a father-son couple rather than flatmates. In fact, the age gap between them is only 10 years; and it soon emerges that these two really are best mates. The constant laughter between them is contagious.
When Davies first went to Los Angeles in 2007 as part of his recovery from yet another broken relationship, he was able to score many meetings. Each meeting would feel like the best in the world, and he would come out thinking that he had scored an American agent. It was his Australian agent who had to let him down – Davies discovered that these meetings, with all their bonhomie and friendliness, were in fact quite meaningless.
In Los Angeles he endured years of poverty – at one point his landlord let him fall eight months behind on his rent. (Can one imagine that happening here in Auckland?) The first couple of years, he said, were simply abject failure at every turn. He struggled financially, and emotionally.
But with the recent success of Lion, Davies’ whole life has been turned upside down. Good things were happening before that – not least his writing partnership with David Michôd. In their shared house in LA, they have a room set aside for their writing.
Davies likes order. Michôd, less so.
Michôd: “I fall apart in the afternoons. So I get up early, make coffee, and work until lunchtime or thereabouts – no emails, no other stuff. Then I finish – and I can do whatever I want for the rest of the day.”
Davies: “Time gets shorter, goes faster, the process speeds up. I want to get more efficient.”
Michôd: “With my writing, I like to set up the structure, the building blocks – then the actual writing is easy, a bit like colouring in.”
Their new project together is an adaptation of a World War II book, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, often described as the best American novel of the 20th century.
It was made into a feature film in 1970 but, despite critical acclaim, did not connect with the audience. Perhaps agreeing with the criticism that the book had too much content to squeeze into an effective 120-minute film, this new adaptation is a six-part TV series. “Yes, we are moving into television, and it’s terrifying.”
“But it’s been a beautiful discovery,” Davies added. “We can sit together all day, every day, and it’s warm, it’s fun, there is no ego. There are so many anxieties in life – if we can create this environment, then all the crap goes away.
“We love our characters – Yossarian most of all.”
Michôd: “For years after film school I wrote heaps of scripts for free. I just accepted the situation. Being a paid writer for Screenplay (magazine), I could afford to do it. But the question is – at what point do you stop writing for free?”
The two gentlemen both found that there were certain difficulties in adapting to working in the United States of America.
Davies: “There is the difference between ‘How are you doing?’ and ‘How’s it going?’ for example. Most Americans have no idea of the meaning of many Australian phrases.”
Michôd found he had to learn how to take compliments. When someone would say to him “I’m blown away by your film”, he would find himself responding, “Yeah, it’s got some problems…” – and would then inwardly curse himself – “What are you doing!!!”
This reminds me of a an assertion by the Australian director John Hillcoat (The Proposition). “It’s an Australian thing – our whole history is inspired by and based on failure.” Or as his fellow Australian scriptwriter and composer Nick Cave called it in the same interview, “fervent incompetence”.*
It took a while for both Davies and Michôd to get used to the fact that in the USA, people are generally non-ironically positive – and actually, real.
When asked if they planned to do something more in their homeland in the future, Davies replied, “My identity is complex – I’m Australian but I want to participate at the highest international level.” Michôd’s response was that while he loves the English language, he also loves wide open landscapes, and would love to do something in that realm…
* from an interview by Jason Wood for his book Talking Movies.