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Brian Carbee as Bingo caller in Accidents Happen Brian Carbee as Bingo caller in Accidents Happen
BRIAN CARBEE IS THE WRITER OF DIRECTOR ANDREW LANCASTER'S FIRST FEATURE FILM, ACCIDENTS HAPPEN. IT'S ALSO CARBEE'S FEATURE DEBUT, A SCREENPLAY THAT EVOLVED FROM A DANCE WORK INTO A NOVEL AND INTO A SCRIPT.

The film premiered in 2009 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and then at the Sydney Film Festival. I met with Carbee as the film’s Australian season was about to be launched prior to American distribution in cinemas and on demand. I asked Carbee to detail the evolution of the film and to place it in the context of his career as an actor, dancer and choreographer and how those roles have influenced the way he writes for a film and collaborates on its making.

background

Born in the United States, Brian Carbee trained as an actor at the University of Connecticut, worked as a dancer and choreographer in Boston and New York and then migrated to New Zealand in 1986 where he created works for Limbs Dance Company, danced with Douglas Wright Dance Company and produced works for his own company, The Jump Giants. Carbee moved to Sydney in 1997 and made In Search of Mike, a 30-minute dance theatre piece which he adapted into an eight-minute film (see RT44) directed by Andrew Lancaster. He created Glory Holy! (see RT41), a much praised text-based dance work for One Extra’s 2000 season of Foursome and the following year made Stretching it Wider (see RT42) in collaboration with Dean Walsh. In 2004 he won the IF Award for Best Unproduced Screenplay for Accidents Happen and in 2005 the script was chosen to be part of the FTO NSW Aurora screenplay development project.

early evolution

How did the film evolve?

Its genesis was an exploration of language in the relationship I had with my mother. At that point it was a duet with a choreographic and a large textual element. I have a background as an actor. That’s where I started dancing, in drama school. So over the years I started to develop work that incorporated text because that was another skill I had and it was really interesting melding the two. It started to morph into various other forms. I did a bit of the material as stand-up once.

I moved to Sydney in 1997. I was approached by Leisa Shelton to be part of Inter-Steps at Performance Space. I thought, let’s re-work it. I was new here and I just wanted to land on something I felt secure with. So I made it into a solo and expanded the choreographic element and kept much of the textual component. Andrew Lancaster was in the audience one night—one of four. He just bailed me up afterwards and said, “Look that was really interesting. I’m a filmmaker and I’d like to make a short film out of it.” And I thought, who is this guy? But he was serious, though it took us quite a while, til 2000, to make In Search of Mike. It kinda sat around on various funding bodies’ desks. It didn’t quite fit the model of what short films were at that point.

Did it involve dance?

I’d basically eliminated the dance element. There’s one little dance piece in it. Up to that point Andrew had made short films, using sound and movement, and music videos and he wanted to branch into dramatic storytelling. He liked the material and thought this would be an interesting way to go. He hooked me up with a computer for the first time and I wrote a script. I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing but he got me through it. In Search of Mike was a big hit. It did really well, sold overseas. We even made a bit of money, which is unheard of. And it actually made the funding bodies take notice. First they weren’t going to fund it at all...then [someone] called us and said, “This is fantastic. Ask for more money.” It was completely surreal. I took all the choreographic elements out [which meant] we were left with the kind of harsher elements of the story which I didn’t feel did my mother much justice. It was a very ‘rough’ piece.

My mother was quite ill at the time. I loved our relationship. I thought it was a great, full relationship. It wasn’t easy but it was rewarding in so many ways. And I just thought, hang on…So I wrote a novel and Andrew read it and optioned it. As the screenplay was nearing production, it really separated quite strongly from the book. The book is quite epic.

The necessary economising that comes with a screenplay.

Yes. Characters went flying out of it—all that stuff. So, 1995-2010, for 15 years the story has been kind of shifting through various media and forms.

developing the script

I wrote a first draft and got money [from Screen Australia, then the Australian Film Commission] to write the second draft. Then after another two drafts, it was accepted into the FTO’s Aurora Script Development initiative. So we had a year focusing and that was the stage that was meant to bring it up to finance-ready, and it did.

Was Aurora helpful?

We had a good year. It worked really well for us. Not that it gives you any answers. It just ups the ante around the film, it shifts your thinking. And it brings a lot of interest to bear on it, which causes you to lift your game as well. As a new writer it really made me feel I had business doing it because, you know, Gus Van Sant was there giving me feedback, and John Sayles and Alison Tilson. It was really confidence-building because they liked it. They thought it had lots of potential, which was the reason it was there.

structure and emotion

What kinds of issues were you addressing in script development?

The real shift that Aurora made was that the script had been a black comedy. At that point it shifted to really bringing up the emotional core of the characters. That was really satisfying to me. It kind of went back to why I wrote the book, which was to bring more depth into what the relationship initially was. They helped mine that.

Geena Davis, Accidents Happen Geena Davis, Accidents Happen
The gradual tonal shift in the film is very interesting, from grimly comic to deeply emotional as the repressed grieving opens out.

It was a real challenge to mix that and to varying degrees of success. People criticise it either way. It’s a tough little balance to get. I think what little tragedy unfortunately I’ve had in my life has been the source of quite amazing humour. How we deal around those extremes of existence is quite broad.

Gloria (played by Geena Davis) puts up so many shields about grief that at the funeral, she’s asking [about the overweight dead man], “What did he do, eat an ice cream truck?” She’s so good at insulating. Then after the wake she breaks down. That wall is such a façade. The trick with her is to find the humour that’s a weapon, but mostly it’s a shield. It’s what keeps her from falling to bits.

So the structure was constantly being addressed so you could get closer to this depth?

And the whole causal effect that really starts to kick in in the film, once the boys make up lies about where they were—it all starts to unwind.

location, location

We were really keen to make the film in America because it’s an American story. It appealed to our sense of adventure and enterprise to do it there. But then, upon investigation and very close to production, the fringe costs and the labour costs and travel costs just blew the budget to such a degree that the percentage of the budget that was actually going to make it onto the screen was so minimal compared to what was going to be spent. Then we talked about, well, can we do it here? You know, there have been enough films made here, set in America, that we have the infrastructure to do it. When we started auditioning, we discovered the kids’ American accents were much better than the older actors. They grow up with it now. So it became an interesting possibility to do it here.

And that was embraced, was it?
It was a hard fight because you go back to funding bodies [who ask] “Why are we making it here? Why are we funding the second-best version of this film, the best being one made in America?” Fortunately, we’d been down that road and we could say, this is actually the best version because we can put a better quality film on the screen for the budget we have. So that was persuasive. In the meantime, Geena Davis got involved because we had been going to make it in the US and that suddenly lifted the finance possibilities.

It was interesting when we were doing Aurora, part of the process near the end of the year involved a follow-up workshop when actors came in and read the workshopped scenes. We said “just use your voices; don’t try to make accents.” And as they were reading, they naturally went into the American vernacular. There was something about the language for them to feel true doing it, they needed the accent. And many of the set pieces, whether about the bowling ball, the baseball, the drive-in, felt much more American than Australian iconic. We had to find the last drive-in in this country to shoot the film in! Then when Geena became involved, we thought well, we’re not gonna have her doing an Australian accent. That would be silly. She jokes that she came over here and her Australian accent was so bad everyone else had to learn American accents.

We got some private money. A British company called Bankside [also handling international sales] and quite a new Australian film funding group, Abacus Film Fund—we’re the first cab off the rank for them.

the re-writing mindset

Were you still writing at this stage?

I was writing right up to production. As it gets closer, all kinds of budget considerations come into play, location and scheduling issues happen. “We can’t afford to go to that location. We have to travel too far. The schedule doesn’t permit it. We need to combine those scenes.” All that stuff. But as a story it was settled.

You didn’t find this stressful?

No, there were so many changes over the years for various reasons and, because it had changed form, I was used to it. My promise to myself was that at any point the challenge wasn’t to change it but to make it better, to accommodate the change. I really feel I was able to achieve this. Even though we had “You can’t go there” and “We have to chop that scene.” It’s like, okay, well how is that a blessing?

When the film was being shot, were you present?

I visited very sparingly. That’s the kind of culture there. It was difficult, but prior to filming I had a great deal of influence really, during casting and location decisions and design.

the writer as collaborator

Andrew and I have a long history, and I was the resident American, the ‘expert’ if you will. The autobiographical nature of the film has been played up, but it’s a fictionalised memoir to a ridiculous extent. But there’s a basic truth to it because elements of it bleed through in terms of the basis of some of the characters. It was important that I have an input into the casting, to really understand and to secure the right people. So I was really lucky. Writers don’t normally get that kind of influence. They’re usually kept to the kerb.

What about in post-production?
Back into the game again. I was giving notes on picture edits, sound, music and marketing—I had a hand in some of that. So from one film, I’ve got a pretty broad knowledge of how the system works.

the dancer's vision

What did your experience in dance and other performance bring to filmmaking?

Over the years I’ve directed shows and had dance companies so I’m used to the production role and working collaboratively. Dance is the great collaborative artform, particularly contemporary dance. Film is also incredibly collaborative. But I think on the dancer level, the great evolution of dance over the last 30 years has been the empowering of the dancer and their artistic expression.

Rather than being the tool of the choreographer. So is dance still a part of your life?

I still perform with Chunky Move when they do Tense Dave. Hopefully they haven’t retired it because I think it still has legs. We had a month in New York with it at one point and a couple of small tours around the States and around Australia. I teach contemporary technique at Sydney Dance Company, and stretch classes and yoga around various gyms. I make my living in a very physical way. The writing is new. I’m still trying to get the novel published and that could finally put that story to bed and I can move on.

Is there a relationship between writing and choreography?

Well I’ve had two writing experiences, one is the book which was very solitary, with the occasional agent or friend’s feedback. The film screenplay has continual feedback, weekly. Both work really well. I really like the collaborative element with the film. It’s how I’m used to working historically. As a dancer, you’re constantly criticised. It’s just part of how it works. So I kind of fell into that. It’s nice having that energy. I’ve read thousands of books but I hadn’t read many screenplays, so it was nice to have that support in terms of the language. I discovered I’m quite good at imagining what something is going to look like on the screen. Being a choreographer, I’m used to seeing visual images. So it played into one of my strengths.

You know when words are not needed.

That’s one of the things that dance has taught me, the power of an image and that the whole comprises many things, not just a performance. There’s a soundtrack, there’s lighting, the composition of each scene. So I intrinsically understand that and know that all the pieces make the story.

film or dance?

The film adventure came along and it was very seductive because suddenly there was all this support and interest and funding and I got swept up in it. At the same time, the dance world was really difficult to penetrate for me. Funding was impossible without going through years of development funding and all this step by step funding. I’ve been doing this work for so long, I’m just not interested in that. I’m a mature artist and I want to make work. And I’ve applied in the past and I got so discouraged because the whole process of asking for funding actually encourages you to lie. And that’s just no way to start an artistic contract. Or if not lie, to fantasise about “What do you hope to learn?” If I knew I wouldn’t need to do this. “How will it benefit the community?” “Why do you want to work with these people?” Well, because they’re fantastic and brilliant and they’ll inspire me and they’re people I want to spend time with.

going deeper

Lastly, I'd like to come back to what you were saying about moving the script away from black comedy into more something more deeply emotional.

That actually brought me home in terms of what I wanted to achieve with the relationship between mother and son and the power of Gloria, who is ball-breaking and totally devoted at the same time.

Did Geena Davis live up to your expectations?
The great thing about Geena is that while the role is at times so unpalatable, she brings a history of likeability. So you cut her a break because you can’t help but like her. She’s adorable. So you go, okay I’m gonna stick with her.

Conversely, Billy appears likeable, but when he starts lying and covering up, if sometimes from altruistic motives, you think that perhaps Gloria's right, that he's selfish, or heading that way. But that's unfair and her wit is cruel: “I’d always hoped you’d amount to something. Maybe I wasn’t specific enough!”

It’s like he doesn’t know quite how to be bad. It’s like the scene with him and the girl next door, Katrina, with the cigarette and the kisses. They’re both trying to act up but they don’t really have the DNA for it.

When Gloria asks Billy about remembering his dead sister, he confesses to a blank—until he’s made to think about it. This amongst others of the later scenes adds considerable depth of feeling.

It was one of the struggles. Early in development, they wanted me to lose Linda altogether. She’s one of the ones I fought for. I thought poor Linda has never been grieved for because she’s been eclipsed by this person, Gene, who’s in limbo, keeping the family in stasis. The double grave is half-empty, waiting for him.

next: the american market

How is the US distribution of Accidents Happen being handled?

That’s the next hurdle, which will happen sometime late their summer. At the moment, we’ve negotiated a couple of screens in major cities and a 12-city tour of Australian films, with Accidents Happen being the headline film. The cinema release will allow Geena again to do publicity tours. Two companies have been contracted in the US, one does the theatrical release and the other is doing ‘movies on demand,’ which is the new basic avenue for getting independent films distributed. It comes via the internet to your TV. It eliminates all the costs of cinemas and prints and publicity. Hopefully it will allow a return somewhere down the line and allow the film to find its own audience.


For more on Accidents Happen see the RealTime+OnScreen review and go to http://www.accidentshappenthemovie.com/; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accidents_Happen


This article first appeared online April 27

RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 18-19

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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