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Spada 2012: Tom Scott

This is the text of Tom Scott’s John O’Shae address to the 2012 SPADA Conference
Thank you SPADA for inviting me to give the 2012 John O’Shea Memorial Lecture. If I am honest I am honored and also a little intimidated by this invitation. When I told my colleague, the stage and screen director, Danny Mulheron, that I had been given this noble task he barked at me;

“Don’t be bitter! Don’t be bitter!”

“Why not?”

“Because that’s my job!”

Unlike previous speakers such as John Barnett, Michael Stedman and Dave Gibson, I don’t run a company employing multitudes making programs that have to sell all around the world or people will starve. I don’t own stock, plant or machinery, post-production facilities or offices. I don’t own a photocopier. I don’t have a business card. My company logo is hand drawn. I have no staff. If I wanted to sexually molest someone it would have to be myself and I’d like to think my standards are higher than that.

I am essentially a solo yachtsman and a cowardly one at that. I spend most of my time in dry dock. A complete absence of risk and corporate responsibility allows me to be utterly selfish.
I have a day job and I write the occasional television drama and make the odd documentary and feature film purely because I can and not because I have to.

This could mean I’m a dreamer, but mostly it makes me a poseur and a dilettante. Over the last few nights I have lain awake wondering what hard-won knowledge and insights such a person could possibly pass on to seasoned professionals such as your selves. Maybe I could share some of my mistakes, but how could I expect you to learn from them, I haven’t.

As I stare across the room this morning it comforts me to see that many of you are also dreamers, poseurs and dilettantes. This speech is for you.

It is worth reminding ourselves here that between 1940 and 1970 only three films were made in New Zealand and John O’Shea made all three of them. It occurs to me that if I make my third feature film before the year 2017 my career will uncannily mirror John’s.

I only really got to know John O’Shea when he was an old man, he was still burly, still fleshy-faced, still handsome, still charming, with hair slicked back like an Oxford Don. You wouldn’t put it past him to have been a spy in World War Two. In fact, deeply pacifist, he served with New Zealand Army Medical Corps in Italy. John loved telling the story of how, as the Germans retreated, dark and luscious Italian women greeted advancing New Zealand troops as heroes.

“Neo Zay-lan-daisy Liboratoray!”
“Neo Zay-lan-daisy Liboratoray!”

In a remote village high in Apennines, New Zealand troops were being feted and adored in a rustic, raucous taverna by full breasted raven-haired beauties when the plastic curtains behind the bar parted and the most luscious, the most raven haired, the most red-lipped beauty of them all stepped through. A hush descended as men held their breath, staring at her utterly transfixed. Nearly a minute passed while she looked them up and down, took a sip of Grappa and asked:

“Any of youse jokers from Taita?

John had a disabling stammer that he refused to let disable him. He forced himself to tell this story because it was a story worth telling and he believed to the core of his being that all stories worth telling needed to be told.

I have some appreciation of the ordeal John’s stammer must have been to him because my father also suffered from a terrible stutter. He was an agricultural contractor and it was agony listening to him converse on the phone with farmers who rang wanting his services.

“Yu yu yes… su su six… hu hu hundred… wa wa weight of su su super…pho pho phosphate.”

Several times they lost patience and hung up and he would rip the phone of the wall in a fury, which in a round-about way solved the phone stammering problem. My father took my twin sister to our first movie when we were four. He was stationed on Ohakea Air Force Base at the time and it was screened in the Sergeant’s Mess. It was about a runaway lawn mower. It ran through flower gardens and low hedges, it was terrifying. The little boy sitting next to my father started sobbing and poohed his pants. The smell was unbearable. I remember my father muttering, “For shi shi shit’s sake” as he gingerly carried this boy out to the toilets to clean him up. That was it. This was also the last movie he ever took us to.

I didn’t see another moving image until Lytton Street Primary school in Feilding. In a specially darkened pref-fab we sat on long wooden benches and watched National Film Unit films newsreels on hydro dam being constructed.

“Here in Roxborough the mighty waters of the Clutha are being harnessed for a young nation on the move!”

There was always footage of Maori driving a wide bulldozer on a narrow ledge. “Look at the happy Maori! Is he happy? You bet!”

We lived too far out of town to cycle to the movies so I didn’t go to films regularly until I went to Massey University in Palmerston North and flatted behind the Regent theatre. Midnight horror sessions were always sold out. Some, like Roman Polanski’s REPULSION were classics, but most were shoddy and moronic. I was sitting behind some shearers one night who had driven all the way down from Kimbolten to catch a particularly dreadful offering. Half an hour in one of them turned his mate and asked:

“Kev, are you still awake?”



That’s what every filmmaker in this room needs to remember. The least you can do when the lights go down is keep a shearer awake.

It was a principle I applied when I began writing satirical Parliamentary columns for the Listener. I set out to hook readers in the opening sentence then hold onto them for as long as possible, and hopefully get a handful through to the end. Thanks to its monopoly on the television guide back then The Listener had a million readers a week, and if they bothered to read anything else in the magazine it was the bridge column or me. I wrote about real events mainly and when I ran out of those I dabbled in fictitious cabinet meetings and the like.

They were mini-dramas I suppose, but I never gave script-writing a second thought until I got a phone call out of the blue one morning from an Englishman living in Auckland who wanted me to write a film script for him. I protested that I had never done anything like that before, but he must have heard my heart pounding and sensed that my eyes had glazed over because he said he was leaping on his motorbike that very instant and coming to see me.

He arrived late that night, tall, dark, impossibly good-looking, with waist length hair tied in a pony tail, which normally I don’t like in men, but it suited him. Plus he was dressed head to toe in skin-tight black leather. I was relieved the mother of my children had gone to bed because if she’d clapped eyes on him it would have been all over. Inside his jacket, nestling in tangle of gold chains and chest hair was a bottle of Courvoisier Cognac. His father had been Keeper of the Royal wine cellar at Buckingham Palace, his brother was the lead guitarist in the rock group, YES, and this was what all the beautiful people drank.

The movie never happened but at that precise moment the Bellamy’s Bar at Parliament, where they served Muller Thurgau through a hose, and where it took ages to cross the room because the carpets were sticky with spilled beer, seemed to lose some of previous allure.

A beast within me stirred.

A few months later the beast yawned and opened one eye when director Sam Pilsbury arrived on my doorstep with a proposition. He had just made SCARECROW which captured perfectly the seedy claustrophobia of small town New Zealand and he wanted me to write his next movie for him. He was bearing a bottle of Goldwater Estate chardonnay, aged in oak and buttery enough to raise the cholesterol levels in a dead man. I thought this is a trend I can’t ignore so I said yes.

Long after Sam had any involvement, twenty five years later in fact, after countless revisions and rejections, that script became the movie SEPARATION CITY.

Graeme Tuckett in his review in the Dompost said Tom Scott’s script had been polished to a dull sheen. This rendered me incandescent with self pity at the time and I much preferred Evan William’s review in the Australian, that said, and I quote: “The best moments deliver an energy and exuberance worthy of Billy Wilder in an earlier age. This is the screenplay Edward Albee might have written as a sequel to WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF?”

If you want to read the full review for your selves see me later, I have it tattooed on my chest just above my heart.

In a way both reviewers were saying the same. SEPARATION CITY was movie whose time may have been and gone. It might have had more impact and resonance had it been made ten years earlier.

I want to stress here that it wasn’t through lack of trying on my part, but to man all the woman at the Film Commission hated it. Jane Campion, bless her, loved it and was toying with directing it. On September 11 2001 when the twin towers were attacked and came down, Jane thought IN THE CUT might be delayed and she would have a gap in her schedule, but it was not to be.

When Danny Mulheron came on board as the director we thought the best way to change the Film Commission’s mind was to invite them to a rehearsed reading. Ruth Harley wriggled and squirmed saying none of our suggested dates really suited them. We asked her to nominate a date that would suit them. Somewhat reluctantly she did and we booked the studio at Circa Theatre. We hired a caterer to provide drinks and snacks. We paid actors who came in early so Danny could put them through their paces. At the appointed hour we were excited and ready. Nobody from the Film Commission turned up.

It was my very own WAITING FOR GUFFMAN moment and I will always treasure it.

Sam Pillsbury lives in Arizona now, making prize-winning red wines that have been served at the White House. Last year he saw a DVD of the movie he initiated all though years ago. He was wistful gracious and complimentary. With one caveat, “Why did it look like one long hair shampoo commercial?”

Most probably because it was directed by a man who makes prize-winning commercials. When people ask me what would be the best way to raise the tone of the debating chamber in Parliament I invariably reply put sawdust on the floor. That’s what SEPARATION CITY needed – sawdust on the floor. Danny Mulheron would have made raw, uncomfortable comedy with sawdust on the floor.

But the Film Commission said Danny couldn’t direct with me producing and writing it, so I looked around for someone else. Mike Horton recommended a Kiwi working in Australia, Paul Middleditch.

We met in Sydney, I liked him immediately, though I was surprised that someone half my height and half my weight wanted demonstrate and he did so convincingly that he could drink me under the table.

His show reel was stunning. It contained some of the funniest thirty second commercials the world will ever see, but a feature film is ninety minutes long and I don’t think Paul ever held the whole movie in his head the whole time, which a film director must be able to do.

I arrived on location one morning and Paul hugged me near tears, and said, “Mate we shot a beautiful scene in the bedroom last night. Joel and Danielle were so tender and loving. It was fabulous, you’re gonna love it”. I said, “Paul, what is the scene which follows this?” He said, “Dunno. What is the next scene?” “They are in the kitchen having a tense and bitter conversation about their sex life being in the toilet.”

It’s a small point, but ideally when you are making a movie everyone involved is making the same movie also.

When I first met Robert Slaverio from Hoyts he said, “Mate, I love this script, mate. It’s bloody funny. It’s about us. It’s about blokes and how sheilas are impossible to live with.” Our Dutch and German investors thought we were making a comedy in similar vein to BRIDESMAIDS and THE HANGOVER.

Paul thought he was making Chekov.

Although the film is elegantly shot and has fine performances there is gap between what the screenplay intended and what Paul delivered.

Our hands were tied to some extent when Paul invested a lot of his own money in the film and became a de-facto producer. It is difficult enough telling someone who doesn’t listen that they are not listening, let someone who feels they no longer have to listen. This is no excuse. John Barnett would have read Paul the riot act. Paul would have needed sedation and a change of underpants afterwards, but he would have paid attention.

The biggest failing on my part was letting a project I cared deeply about slip away from me.

This has made me more determined than ever that this won’t happen on another project that is even more dear to my heart; HIGHER GROUND a film about Sir Edmund Hillary, the conquest of Everest, and the terrible tragedy that nearly tore him apart just when his life seemed perfect… to quote from my own tagline.

Again, it began quite by accident. In December 1990 I finally met my childhood hero, Sir Edmund Hillary. We were guest speakers at a black-tie dinner at Canberra Press Club held to celebrate New Zealand’s Sesqui-Centenary. I was up first and told them that we flew across Tasman at roughly the same height as Everest, with the air temperature outside as freezing as at the top of Everest and Ed asked for a blanket and went and sat on the wing for the whole flight.

When I sat down Ed’s pale eyes glinted keenly, “That was pretty good, I’ll have to lift my game!” And he did. He gave a fantastic speech punctuated frequently by laughter, applause and pin-drop silence when he recounted some of his close calls. I was delighted to see that hard-nosed, cynical Australians held Ed in much the same affection and awe as Kiwis. On the way home, over lunch at Sydney Airport, I was curious to know why a film had never been made about his exploits. “The right person hasn’t asked.” he grinned. When I blurted out that I would love to do it, he replied evenly, “You are the right person.”

In April 1991, as part of my research I accompanied Sir Edmund and Lady Hillary to the Solu Khumbu region of Eastern Nepal where his Himalayan Foundation has built over 30 schools, half a dozen medical clinics, three airstrips, two hospitals, and a number of bridges. At 14,000 feet, in the village of Kunde, Ed was struck down by altitude sickness, we didn’t have enough oxygen and by rights he should have died but he refused to oblige. It was an invaluable insight into just how tough and determined a character he was.

I returned again in 1993 for the 40th anniversary of the first ascent and was able to interview all of the surviving climbers and the Expedition’s leader, Sir John Hunt. Returning to my desk with screeds of notes and pictures, hemmed in by mounds of reference books, I spent the next year fashioning a sprawling treatment that you risked rupturing yourself with if you picked it up without bending your knees first.

With no real idea what to do next I set off in 1995 to the AFM in Los Angeles, bumping into a number of Kiwi film makers who had their travel and accommodation paid for by the NZ Film Commission. I remember looking at them with unabashed admiration and envy and thinking how do people do that?

The AFM had all the charm of a third world zoo in a heat wave. Like an old lady holding a racing guide I made appointments with every company whose name or logo hinted at mountaineering – Crampon Pictures, Frostbite Films, Pulmonary Oedema Movies . You get the picture. On several occasions I would be half through my pitch when producers would interrupt me kindly, “Hey, dude, this would make a great film. You’re in the wrong place. We make shit!” When I protested, pointing to posters of what looked like great films b
ing made, they confessed that many of their movies started with the poster and worked back.

We are starting to do that here and we should stop. When we can buy mindless garbage cheaply off the shelf there is no need to make mindless garbage of our own. Our films should like bespoke suits, beautiful hand crafted one-offs, never to be repeated pieces. Our best films ONCE WERE WARRIORS, WHALE RIDER, BOY and the PIANO are utterly unique to this landscape. No one else could have made them.

Just about everywhere you looked at AFM there were posters of films that came from everywhere and nowhere in particular. I was staying with Sam Pilsbury, he decided I needed a change of scenery one evening took me up into the Hollywood Hills to meet a producer friend who interested in a Hillary movie.

Dan was a short angry guy with head full of very strange crinkly orange hair. I tried my best not to look. “You’re staring at my hair aren’t you?” he barked. “Not really, no…” He then insisted on explaining that he was an ugly Jew whose receding hair had been forcing him to have sex with woman his own age. So he went in for a hair transplant. They wanted to do it in stages but he insisted on doing it all at once. They ran out of hair on the nape of his neck so they harvested his armpits and when that wasn’t enough they took pubic hair to fill in the top of his scalp. You couldn’t help thinking that his head would look better wearing underpants. Still, I warmed to Dan, and over coffee the next day he asked me if Ed had to be a New Zealander. Not wanting sound negative I asked him what exactly he had in mind. “What if he was a lanky guy who comes from Nebraska!”

I passed on Dan. Somehow the project came to the attention of American Zoetrope. They flew Averil and me to Los Angles for a preliminary meeting. I told them war stories about my travels in the Solu Kumbu with Sir Ed and they were suitably spellbound.

Then Fred Fuchs disappeared to make a phone call and came back flushed. Francis Ford Coppola himself wanted Averil and I to have lunch with him the next day. They would fly us to San Francisco, a limousine would whisk us to Marin country and we would dine alfresco with the great man under a spreading tree in his vineyard.

We were too excited to sleep that night. Before dawn a despondent Fred Fuchs rang with bad news, Kenneth Branagh, who was acting in as well as directing Mary Shelly’s FRANKENSTEIN, was having an affair with his female lead, Helen Bonham Carter. Emma Thomson had just found out and was demanding a divorce. A shit fight of epic proportions was brewing and Francis had to fly off to London and sort it out.

Had Kenneth Branagh shown some decency and self control I might have been far too important by now to talk to you today.

To be fair, American Zoetrope asked me to trim my bulky treatment down to a succinct thirteen pages and flew me back to Los Angeles to pitch HIGHER GROUND to a number of studios. I was often the oldest guy in the room, babbling rapidly to confident young men who didn’t seem to see any need to take notes which was disconcerting. Things looked up at Columbia Tri Star. For starters Gareth Wigan was older than me. As Co-Vice Chairman he had a huge corner office on the top floor. He couldn’t wait to tell me that as young university student he was part of the huge Coronation crowds lining the streets of London. He remembered how they cheered in the rain when they heard the news over loud speakers that Everest had been conquered by the New Zealander Hillary and the Sherpa Tenzing.

I thought I’m in here and I set off on an emotional spiel that reduced me and everyone else to tears, Gareth dabbed his eyes and took us to lunch at the Commissary. His departing words rang in our ears like Church bells. Yes. He wanted to make this movie.

As we drove out the gates Fred Fuchs told me it was the best pitch he’d ever heard and our long quest was nearing an end. Two weeks later there was a changing of the guards at Columbia and Gareth was gone.

Back home I thought that rather than sulking I should sit down and finally write the screenplay I had spent four years talking about. I did, and found it an exhilarating, cathartic experience. Whole days flew by in what seemed like a flash. I resented sleep because it interrupted my flow. I dropped a copy off at Wingnut Films for Peter Jackson, who had given me some sage advice on three-act structure.

A few days later the phone rang. It was Peter. “Congratulations, I’m quite surprised to be honest. It’s very good. Fran wants a word.” “Hi Tom, Fran here, I’m surprised too, it’s very good.”

They were prepping LOTR for Miramax and relations with Harvey Weinstein were unraveling, and New Line had not yet come on board. Peter said he would love to direct HIGHER GROUND if LOTR fell over so I spent the next six weeks lighting candles in every Church, Temple, Synagogue and Mosque in the lower North Island praying for LOTR to collapse. It didn’t and the rest is history.

Since then I have approached or been approached by a number of producers about HIGHER GROUND with no success to date. It is and always will be a difficult film to finance and a hugely demanding film to shoot.

Someone who knew the challenges, how they could be met, and was keen to make it if he could raise the finance and attach a director was the LA based Kiwi, Lloyd Phillips. He produced VERTICAL LIMIT which was shot in Queenstown and he invited me and Sir Ed to the New Zealand premiere in Auckland. Sadly, like most mountain movies, with the singular exception of TOUCHING THE VOID, it was both visually stunning and grotesquely stupid.

Ed leant over in the dark and whispered, “These fellahs aren’t making our movie, are they?” “No.” I whispered back.

When the lights came up news crews crowded around Ed wanting to know what he thought. Ed spread his arms wide and beamed jovially, “Gosh, it wasn’t like that in my day.” Very shrewdly he spoke the literal truth that half sounded like an endorsement and the producers swooned with delight and relief.

The Aussie raised, Kiwi groomed Director Roger Donaldson entered the frame after this. His friend, Army Bernstein, at Beacon Pictures was very keen to meet me and talk about the film. Back then he had a huge office overlooking Santa Monica Pier and he paced back and forth in his immaculate suit, shouting at Roger, who was slumped in a leather couch, “Rog, this is kind of movie we got into this business to make. This is a great story. If we make this movie we could go to our graves knowing we had done something wonderful. Do we have the courage, Rog? Do we have the courage?”

Roger seemed unsure, which I guess answered the question. The courage they seemed to lack most was going with my script. I heard from various sources that they wanted to bring in an American screenwriter who they would feel more comfortable with.

When a contract duly arrived it effectively asked me to surrender all my rights in the project while allowing them to re-fashion it however they pleased. I did a rare thing for a writer, I passed on them.

I hear it whispered all time in New Zealand, Tom needs to give up and hand this project over to other people and walk away – it’s the only way he’ll see it made.

Three things make that impossible.

Firstly, I promised Ed Hillary I would never do that.

Secondly, although neither I or the NZ Film Commission submitted it the Equinoxe Scriptwriting Workshop in Germany, they heard about it, asked to read it and 48 hours later it was unanimously accepted for their 2009 Master Class. Every adviser on the course told me that I had something special and I needed to protect until I was working with people I trusted and respected, people who trusted and respected me, and who cared about the project as deeply as I did.

I had the great good fortune on that course to have as my main adviser, David Magee, the writer of the multi award winning FINDING NEVELAND and Ang Lee’s about to be released LIFE OF PI. David gave me then and since, detailed, precise and priceless script advice. In return all he asks is that I thank him in my Oscar speech which he is certain will happen if HIGHER GROUND is ever made.

Thirdly, Sir Peter Jackson is continuing source of encouragement. He says no one is more qualified to tell this story than me, and I should never forget that. In one note he even says, “I don’t know why you don’t direct this film yourself…”

In one of my favourite episodes of SEINFELD George Costanza is fuming about some wrong that he been perpetrated on him by some guy.

“I gotta get back at him. Jerry, I gotta get back at him!” Jerry responds calmly, “Look George, they say the best revenge is to live well.” “Like that’s gonna happen!”

I would love to direct HIGHER GROUND, surrounded by the right people I could. I’d love to, but as George says, “Like that’s gonna happen!”

As I told Ed once, I would rather this movie were never made than made badly. It gives me clarity and power. Researching my screenplay and making documentaries on Ed for Channel 4 UK has taken me to the South Pole, to the Himalayas and up the Ganges. It owes me nothing.

As Tenzing said approaching the Summit of Everest on long rope behind Ed;

“Thuche Che! Thuche che, Chomolungma”

I am grateful. I am grateful, mother Goddess of the World.

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