Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Interview (Part 2): Spencer Harvey and Lloyd Harvey (2016 Nicholl Winners)

My conversation with the brother and sister writing duo from Australia.

Spencer and Lloyd Harvey wrote the original screenplay “Photo Booth” which won a 2016 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with the pair about their background as writers and filmmaker, and their award-winning screenplay.

Lloyd and Spencer Harvey receiving their Nicholl Award from screenwriter Misan Sagay

Today in Part 2, Spencer and Lloyd reveal what their inspiration was for their script “Photo Booth”, and we dive into some of the script’s key characters:

Scott: At the Nicholl ceremony, I saw the video of your presentation there when you spoke. You talked about the scripting process being like a tree or a plant growing, and used that as a metaphor to thank various people that have been participating and supporting you as you’ve grown in your career.

You started with this idea of a story idea as a seed, and how your parents taught you that, “Ideas are worth planting.” I thought that was such a wonderful image, taking that initial seed of the story concept, then tending to it, and digging into the soil of your imagination, and all that. I take it that from just that idea, your parents have been supportive of your creative endeavors.

Spencer: Very much so.

Lloyd: They definitely have, and I think that being champions for the arts themselves, as gallerists, they see how hard artists work and the value in what they do. They had nothing but love and support for us when we chose to venture down this path.

Spencer: Our mother is also a musician and singer/songwriter, so she has always followed her passion.

In fact, when I was doing my law degree, I kept complaining that it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, that “I want to be a writer. I want to be a writer.” My mum is the voice I remember saying, “Well, drop out of Uni. Get a bar job and just write.” I was the one saying, “No, I should finish what I’ve started.” I’ve always thought it was an interesting role reversal.

Scott: Sounds like you’ve got a great familial dynamic. Let’s use that as a segue to get into your script “Photo Booth” because the parents in that story don’t seem to be cut from the same cloth as your parents. There’s a lot of problematic parent‑child relationships and it’s a very deep dive into the theme of being a mother, motherhood. Plot summary ‑‑ this is from The Nicholl ‑‑ for the script “Photo Booth”:

“A successful performance artist decides to adopt the unborn baby from her husband’s one night stand.”

This script is a complex, tightly‑woven drama, with multiple relationships and subplots, characters struggling to find their way in this morally gray story universe. Let me start with a quote from Spencer from an article I found.

Spencer said about this process, “The important part for us was not to judge the choices of our characters, but to allow them to live honestly and fully in the world of the story.” Could you unpack that a bit more, in relation to the process and the approach you took in writing “Photo Booth”?

Spencer: Absolutely. It’s interesting. As soon as you start to give a character life, you have to give them flaws, or you allow them to have flaws rather — and you’ve got to let those flaws be a part of the way in which they communicate and the way in which they see the world.

I think a lot of early mistakes any writer can make with their character is to try and protect them from their flaws and make them insufferably lovable and therefore inherently dishonest or unrelateable.

In “Photo Booth” it was important for us to allow our characters to be seen fully and to allow those flaws to be a part of what enriched them and made them human. Made them like us.

And particularly, when telling a story about motherhood, we felt we had to add to — not just continue the same conversation. There are incredible stories of motherhood, where the mother is a Madonna like figure, where the mother is sanctified, the mother is all‑knowing, the mother is all‑capable, and is always doing the right thing for the right reasons.

But that’s not what we always see in the world. We wanted to be really, really honest about how, sometimes, motherhood can be a compromise; can be greedy; can be tainted; can be…

Lloyd: Messy.

Spencer: …Can be messy. That was definitely a big part of our character’s journey.

Scott: Interesting you use that phrase, “allow the characters to be seen,” because that’s literally in the scene description, a couple of times in the script as I recall. This person could finally see this other person. It’s almost like masks sort of fall away.

Spencer: You know that moment in a film where a character gets that look in their eye — when they’re finally seeing themselves, or someone in front of them.

You can’t really describe it, other than to say that they’re finally seeing ‘something’, and here the word “seeing” takes on the meaning of insightful rather than just plain sight. It’s that moment the actor brings, when they gloss over in their eye…

Lloyd: …and the veil falls.

Scott: Let’s talk about the characters. I’d like to go through the key ones and get your impressions of them. The central character in the story is Jean. She’s the successful performance artist. Could you give us a thumbnail sketch of who she is and talk about some of these flaws and issues that she’s confronting in the story?

Lloyd: Jean is a powerhouse, above everything else. She knows what she wants. She’s a strong, visceral artist. Where people find her a little tough is that she’s also quite unwavering, but we always feel that she is very fair. At the core of her being, she’s a fair player in her game, in her story.

Being a strong, successful woman who chose or didn’t have the opportunity to have children at a time when most women seem to, or are told that they should have children…well it is hard for a lot of people to understand or even find that likable. Which is funny to us, it’s a cultural hurdle we still haven’t jumped over and we really need to examine why. We love Jean and we admire her. We think that same sentiment should be given to women who own their choices across the board.

Scott: Yeah, that’s one of the things that’s very obvious in reading the script. Jean’s character does some rather, even cruel things, says some things from time to time, that you weren’t hung up on this whole “screenwriting guru,” thing, or conventional wisdom, that you need to have a sympathetic protagonist.

“No, we’re going with this idea of this deeply flawed woman who is a powerhouse,” as you say, and has got, obviously, a lot of good qualities to her. Let’s get into the issue of her mother, Eileen. Jean has got this backstory where her mother, Eileen, was an alcoholic, to the point that Jean actually went to live with her grandmother.

Could you, maybe, talk about Eileen’s character? She is not in the story until later on. I don’t know if it’s OK to say that she re‑enters the story at some point. What do you think the impact, the key elements, dynamics that arose from this, I guess you’d say dysfunctional relationship with her mother?

Spencer: Eileen is also a mother in our exploration of motherhood. She’s another perspective on that. For us, her flaws have birthed a lot of Jean’s flaws, which is often the case in parenting. We are a bi-product of where we come from, intentionally or not.

Eileen, again, intentionally or otherwise, and I say that because I don’t think mothers ever go out intentionally to cause harm to their offspring, but I think in raising children, we can not protect them from ourselves. Through our cracks and flaws, I guess, if you think of it in a ceramic sense, [laughs] we bake them in. She’s definitely the key character to Jean’s story in that respect.

Lloyd: In her art as well.

Spencer: And in her art, yes. She inspires her

Interview (Part 2): Spencer Harvey and Lloyd Harvey (2016 Nicholl Winners)

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