The Clay’s the Thing

From Bailiwick: Bristol’s Independent Listings Magazine

Jason Wyngarde talks to playwright Peter King about filming, feminism – and working with Ray Harryhausen

Peter King
Peter King

Local playwright and university lecturer Peter King is just back from Hollywood, where stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen is putting the finishing touches to an adaptation of his play, Consciousness Rising.

‘Being home is disorientating,’ King explains, ‘because Los Angeles is so weird.’ His plane only landed this morning and he is feeling rather dishevelled. ‘Half the time you’re astonished the people talking to you can look you in the eye; the rest of the time you’re surrounded by talented, hard-working folks whose names appear so far down the credits not even their mums stick around to see them. And LA’s so familiar from films and TV that you constantly have these moments of epiphany. I was in a bookstore on Venice Beach and I suddenly realised, “My god, this is exactly where the Rock stood in Southland Tales!”’ He laughs. ‘I’m not going to convince anyone that that was an epiphany, am I? I won’t tell the story about traipsing around the Westin Bonaventure, trying to find the spot where Gil Gerard stood in Buck Rogers…’

Ray Harryhausen
Ray Harryhausen

The question everyone’s asking, though, is not about LA but about how he got to work with Harryhausen. ‘Ray’s amazing. He’s been doing this for seventy years and he still loves it. His stuff is an indelible part of my childhood. The sword-fighting skeletons, of course, like everyone else. And I really loved the octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea – the effects budget was so tight on

Terror of the sextopus
Terror of the sextopus

that movie it only has six tentacles. Ray was doing a talk about his work at the Watershed, and we just kind of started chatting. He was visiting Aardman animation while he was in town because he was thinking about coming out of retirement one last time and he really, really wanted to do a film in claymation. Something different, something focused on human interactions, and when I mentioned Consciousness Rising – which he’d actually heard of, from a granddaughter, I think – he asked to see a copy of the script. Serendipity. Nothing in life is ever that easy.’

Nothing?

‘Well, we also had amazing luck with the voice cast. I had this list in my head of actresses who could play each of the characters, and we got all my first choices: Isabel Adjani, Holly Hunter, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sarah Polley. There were two minor male characters we added for the film, only a few lines each, but Holly got us John Goodman, and Sarah and Jennifer picked on Don McKellar until he joined in. They all turned down scale, which was all we could afford, for a cut of the box-office, so really they worked for free because they believed in the movie, thought it was important. And once we had those names – along with Harryhausen and Aardman – the financing came together almost overnight.’

Skeleton army
Skeleton army

The film represents quite a departure for Harryhausen, and not just in the style of animation. ‘Well, it does have a fantasy premise of sorts, but yes, it is basically four women sitting, talking and drinking coffee. No mythological beasts, giant apes, Venusian lizards. No dinosaurs.’

So what is it about?

‘I spent years working with students who thought feminism was just this kind of dreary, dungareed monolith, this thing that happened in the past and was over and done with now. I wanted to find other ways to open up its liveliness and diversity, and its relevance. I spent a year working on a novel about Simone de Beauvoir’s relationship with Nelson Algren, but that was really about learning to imaginatively invest in the material, to make it come alive. And then I saw this Russian film, Chetyre, at the Arnolfini. It has this fabulous opening section with four strangers meeting in a bar and idly talking to each other – and that’s when the whole play came to me in a flash. It takes some counterfactual juggling of biographies, but basically, sheltering from the rain one day, de Beauvoir (Adjani) runs into Mary McCarthy (Hunter), Betty Friedan (Leigh) and Helen Gurley Brown (Polley) in a New York hotel. You have these four amazing women: a French existentialist philosopher; an anti-Stalinist socialist writer and critic; the author of The Feminine Mystique and first president of the National Organization of Women; and the author of Sex and the Single Girl and editor of Cosmopolitan. Four women who don’t know each other, the younger two yet to make their marks, all of them feminists but in profoundly different ways. And in their conversation over coffee, their differences of opinion and their common ground emerges. Second-wave feminism coalesces. It’s like the first consciousness-raising session, hence the title.’

Consciousness Rising premiered at the Tobacco Factory to impressive reviews, and the production toured all around the world. ‘I had a great group of women to work with there, as well. I borrowed a trick from Peter Watkins and gave each of them a huge pile of stuff to read about the women they were playing, about the society and culture in which they grew up. And then we just kept on workshopping until we had transformed my rough script into a play. It’s why they get co-writing credits; there is so much in the play that would not have been there without them. For the film, there was a different kind of workshopping – basically me learning from smart and experienced people how to make this into a movie. We opened it up, added some blokes and a couple of musical daydream/fantasy sequences. It’s the same story, but also a whole other can of fish, kettle of worms, now. I saw an almost finished cut two days ago – no, wait, that was yesterday – and Ray had organised a real surprise for me. He only went and put Joseph Gordon-Levitt singing “Natural Woman” over the end credits!

Kaffeeklatsch of the Titans opens in the spring.

It is not in 3D and does not star Sam Worthington.

13/12/10
This is the last of the old ‘by Jason Wyngarde’ pieces I will post here. It is all rather Mary Sue and doesn’t really work, but I have a fondness for it because when China Miéville posted a version on his old blog back in 2010 a whole bunch of people thought it was real. Go figure. (Actually one bit of it is sort of real only it happened differently. I saw Southland Tales weeks after being in the Venice Beach bookstore, but me and The Rock were both once in the same physical space, just sadly not at the same time, and I did get all excited about it. Same thing happened once with Cory McAbee, more or less, and a hotel in Perth.)

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Best books of the millennium so far

The BBC asked a bunch of US critics, what is the greatest novel of the millennium so far? Such an obviously completely bullshit question, you can imagine my eagerness to see the results. I was really looking forward to the pleasure of being outraged and/or bemused by their idiocy and poor taste. That’s the kind of thing that gets me through the day.

What can I say? I was robbed.

Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao topped the poll. And, leaving aside for one moment the obvious and complete bullshitness of the question, I had no problem with that. I like the novel an awful lot. And Junot very generously blurbed the Africa SF collection and contributed an extraordinary long interview to the SF Now collection, extracted here, so I’m very happy for him personally. But none of that helps when I’m jonesing for affront.

The situation was redeemed a little by one of the judges comparing Oscar Wao to Philip Roth’s Portnoy and John Updike’s Rabbit. What the fuck? At last some provocation! Such pedestrian taste! How benevolent of white literary culture to elevate Díaz to such company! The unsavoury reek of appropriation, not only of Dominican/Latino culture, but of geekdom, too! Who dared to say such a thing?

I clicked on the link, and was once more robbed. The journalist is paraphrasing Greg Barrios’ interview with Díaz in the Los Angeles Review of Books, in which the comparison – which also mentions  James T Farrell’s Studs Lonigan – is really just an attempt to explain the structure of the series of Oscar Wao stories Díaz once contemplated writing.

Maybe the other 19 titles in the poll’s top twenty would offer some enormity, some better shots at genuine WTF moments.

Of the other books, I have read only three.

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (number 6) has been sitting on the shelf for years. I finally overcame the potential embarrassment of being seen not to have read it yet, and got through it in one long sitting on two trains and two planes (serially, not simultaneously) en route to the US. A thoroughly enjoyable romp, full of geek-stroking moments, and I get why people like it so much. But all the way through I was troubled by how comfortable it was. How comforting to imagine twentieth-century American history so utterly free from any anti-Semitism whatsoever. It just seemed dishonest. Good, but a long way short of great. On the whole, I probably rate Jonathan Lethem’s vaguely comparable Fortress of Solitude more highly. (By coincidence, my partner, sat next to me on one of the trains and both of the planes, read Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall (number 3), and had a kind of mehhh response. Neither book made the return journey.)

A professional obligation recently required me to read Zadie Smith’s NW (number 18). It took me completely by surprise. A genuinely compelling page-turner, if ultimately also just a bit too comfortable in its rather bourgeois worldview. I promptly bought White Teeth (number 11), but have not had chance to read it yet.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (number 17) utterly mystifies me. It is flimsy and trite and I really cannot see what anyone sees in it. But people damn well keep on seeing something in it.

Three others are in the to-read pile or, rather, one of the to-read piles, ‘cos this place is becoming unmanageable again. There is a looming happy convergence of personal interest and work which will hopefully get me to Edward P Jones’s The Known World (number 2) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah (numbers 10 and 13) within the next year.

Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex (number 12) has been flickering in and out of a similar indeterminate space for a few years now, but every time I decide this time I really do need to read it I realise I don’t actually have a copy.

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (number 19) would be in a to-read pile but I am determined to read one of these shorter books of his I have lying around before committing to such a sizeable tome. I mean, over there in the corner, there’s a small mountain range comprised of the evergrowing proportion of William Vollmann that remains unread. Surely I should do something about that first?

I confess to finding the whole idea of Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, number 5) baffling. At least he only provokes indifference.

But Ian McEwan? (Atonement at number 9). Genuine ire.

I have not managed to get past the first chapter of anything McEwan has written since, I dunno, Black Dogs or possibly Enduring Love, though I can recall nothing about either of them. (I remember quite liking The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers, and the two early story collections, which is why I stuck with him as long as I did, but I was fifteen or sixteen when I read them, so I doubt it is worth going back.)

At least, I suppose, we are spared Martin Amis. I agreed wholeheartedly with Beulah Maud Devaney’s statement this week that ‘life is too short for Martin Amis’, though found myself repeatedly moving her words and their meanings around a little. Martin Amis is too short to live! Let’s shorten the life of Martin Amis!

Nothing on the rest of the list provoked a thing. Least of all interest.

I don’t know which are the greatest novels of the millennium so far. Not least because is it such an obviously and completely bullshit idea. But here is my list of the books published so far this millennium that I rate most highly. My criteria boil down to this: I could not wait to finish them so I could force my copies on other people to read. Which is unusual for me since, despite my enthusiasms, I am not by nature enthusiastic.

In date order:

2002
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt 
2003

Ahmadou Kourouma, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (this is cheating a little, since it was published in France in 1998)
Nalo Hopkinson, The Salt Roads
2003-4
Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle
2004
Gwyneth Jones, Life – I also rate her Rock and Roll Reich series (2001-14) very highly; it is becoming increasingly prescient.
2005
Geoff Ryman, Air: Or, Have Not Have
2006
Shelley Jackson, Half Life
Anthony Joseph, The African Origins of UFOs
Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow
2007
Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions
2009
China Mieville, The City & the City – or perhaps Iron Council (2004), actually, the whole Bas Lag trilogy (Perdido Street StationThe Scar)
2010
Nnedi Okorofor, Who Fears Death
Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel
2011
Andrea Hairston, Redwood and Wildfire
John Sayles, A Moment in the Sun
2012
Zadie Smith, NW