EXTRACT: History Matters

In this extract from his collected writings, BILL NASSON recalls acting as a historical consultant for Hollywood movie The Deal.

Photograph by Gareth Smit

The Moonlighting base in the tumbling and dog-eared Cape Town locality of lower Salt River had an aptly latter-Victorian location inside The Armoury. Now trendy, this colonial version of the Woolwich Arsenal had once serviced the port’s British garrison. There, I met Steven Schachter, American director of The Deal and a partner in the enterprise, Irene Livinsky, who appeared to combine superbly the roles of producer, accountant, nudging confidante and labour agent. Schachter, a low-to-middlebrow sort of Californian film-maker in his sixties, shuffled about in furry bedroom slippers, chewing gum and blowing bubbles during conversation.

From him I learned about the creation of The Deal, an independent production put together with the accomplished actor, William H. Macy, with whom he had previously collaborated. Meg Ryan was Macy’s co-star in the production which would also be featuring the veteran actor, Elliott Gould, the rap performer – turned actor, LL Cool J, and Jason Ritter and Aidan Lithgow, the younger sons of the Hollywood B-movie actors, John Ritter and John Lithgow. Being filmed entirely in Southern Africa, the cast also included several leading local thespians, such as Jeremy Crutchley and John Carson. Location and studio shooting was to take place in a blue and sunny Cape Town California, and in the brown desert of a Namibian Arizona.

As for content and, to simplify, the subject matter of The Deal was a deal. Based on a Peter Lefcourt novel about Hollywood, it was (or is) about a range of film industry characters involved in the hair-raising studio world of producing, financing, casting, crafting, and clinching a big business project, depicting the pleasures and pains and delights and miseries that accompany it. As a dramatic rendition, its technique was to show The Deal as turning on the production of a film within a film within a film, placing viewers in, or behind, shifting cameras so that they would be unable to take everything that they could see for the nature of a real film reality. As an artistic collage of surprise cutting and fading, rolling and popping, the idea behind this film project evoked memories of earlier exercises in making a film about a film, notably Francois Truffaut’s 1973, la nuit Americain (Day for Night). But this was set to be a somewhat more coarse version of such cinema, with a director shaped by a culture of California surf, rather than of French New Wave.

One of the key moments in The Deal was its historical dramatisation, on which I had been drawn in. As its subject was the making of a film about a robust moment in Victorian politics, at the end of a turbulent House of Commons exchange, the cameras would roll back, revealing another set of film-makers staging the episode in Liberal-Conservative confrontation. This was the inner film about which there was the deal to be made, and which now required historical scrutiny of that portion of a screenplay that had been co-written by Steven Shachter and William H. Macy. For a DogPond/Sydnyk Works & Muse Entertainment Production, the full script was fairly bewildering to a novice reader.

What ensued opened up a question that may scarcely be novel to those working in cultural studies, or what one might call the technological media. Certainly, at first glance, film-writing seems to bear some resemblance, however superficial or slight, to writing historical narratives and, even more, novels. Both forms involve sitting down with a word-processor and recreating or inventing an imaginative universe with some degree or other of relation to real life in the present, or else to a credible human past. What emerges is a narrative intended to be shared. But there, however, the resemblance surely ends, and for a basic reason underlined nicely by the author and academic critic, Malcolm Bradbury. ‘Novels’, as he puts it, ‘are written’, while film screenplays are endlessly ‘rewritten, all the time, and generally by someone else’.

The Deal experience turned out to be more or less like that, although the pieces of rewriting requested were undertaken by someone with less than the haziest notion of how films were scripted. Inspired by the personalities of William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, the screenwriters had hit on ‘Bill and Ben’ as a snappy title. I pointed out that for a British cinema audience of a certain generation, Bill and Ben might well prove to be unintendedly comical. ‘Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men’ had been a much–loved feature on ‘Watch with Mother’, a popular BBC children’s programme of the 1950s and 1960s.

Although Bill and Ben survived, other minor alterations were effected, mostly to improve implausible English terminology and ahistorical language construction. For instance, there was the unlikely spectacle of the Tory prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, sneering across the despatch box at his Liberal opponent that he ought to ‘get real, man’, in an 1876 debate on trade and protectionism. Even as glib a twenty-first century British parliamentarian as Tony Blair would never have been guilty of such Americanisms in a British House of Commons Debate. There were also the unmistakeable echoes of a John Wayne Western to lines in which Queen Victoria’s foreign enemies were being ‘quick on the draw’, or in which her country’s French adversaries had ‘the drop’ on Whitehall planning. A crop of other small anachronisms included a Gladstonian ‘no way’, and an autumnal Disraeli promise of action ‘right now, in this Fall’.

In the nature of these things, as I now learned, the screenplay did the rounds for a brief time, with Schachter and Macy nodding through suggested revisions aimed at greater historical verisimilitude. Although the job then seemed done, the director was not yet done with me. Inevitably, even recognising another’s pat appetite for flattery does not necessarily prevent one from succumbing. Was the topic chosen for the film’s Commons Debate sufficiently exciting, Schachter wanted to know. Would it convey in dialogue and in combative atmosphere, the drama of high imperial British politics which Bill and Ben was intended to portray?

As a sparring subject for Disraeli and Gladstone, the 1876 Tariff Laws did not, I ventured, really fit that bill. If not that, then what would? Asked to suggest something less dull, what came to mind was heady imperialism. What about the incandescent parliamentary fuss in the mid-1870s over the prime minister’s purchase of the Suez Canal as a gift to Queen Victoria? It had been a coup of sorts, staged by a buccaneering Britain which was greedy for Egypt. It had been a heated domestic issue. It had had its share of party political hostilities, boorishness and absurdities. It would show the intense mutual animosity between the Tory Disraeli, described by The Times in 1868 as ‘an Oriental charlatan devoid of any moral principle’, and the Liberal Gladstone, which the paper derided three years later, as ‘a sanctimonious humbug claiming the authority of the Almighty’.

Known for being pitted against each other like dogs, no Victorian high society hostess would have had them share the same dinner table. A snarling Commons clash over Suez would surely make for a deliciously overstrained history scene.

Moreover, I suggested, given the present day crises of Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, the 19th century Canal saga might even have resonance for some viewers of The Deal.

Not only did the screenwriters take to this. They wanted it to be written as a substitute dramatic scene. Dismissing my qualms at knowing nothing of screen craft, Schachter made light of the exercise. Just take the screenplay, look at its structure of character movement and dialogue, delete the tariff debate material, and insert a Suez Canal scene, simulating the Commons exchange. And write it all ‘to camera’, was the director’s instruction, by which was meant providing physical action prompts to John Carson as Gladstone and Jeremy Crutchley as Disraeli.

History Matters is published by Penguin.

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