Friday, April 25, 2008

Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Folk

While I'm waiting to get some script feedback on 'Empire of Flesh', and with 'Mum & Dad' in the midst of having a raft of marketing materials (albeit a small raft, like a matchbox tied to two lolly-sticks) designed for it, ready for us to embark on our first screenings (more of which at a later date...), I've been working on another story idea. I hate waiting at the best of times, and although I've got some teaching work on, it's not enough to occupy me until EoF kicks back in, so I've started doing some research for a new project, titled 'Katie Cruel'. I think it's going to be a slightly harder pitch than either M&D or EoF, because it looks like it's going to be a bit more complicated structurally, but if anyone asks, I generally tell them that it's like a cross between 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?'
and 'Night of the Eagle'. (An AIU favourite).

My usual method of research is pretty haphazard - I tend to read a few books at once, making notes from them in various notebooks which I later gather together in one general folder. At the moment, I'm reading a biography of F.Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, an illustrated copy of Frazer's 'The Golden Bough', a couple of books about Aleister Crowley (although I'm finding them a bit of a slog), William Faulkner's late novel 'The Mansion' and Colin Wilson's book on 'The Occult'. I like switching between the books and having my notebooks alternate between fiction and biography and essay, because I like the idea that it all gets mashed together - that each of the elements starts to play off the others in the part of my head that's thinking about the film. At the moment, it's still early stages - I have a basic story idea and some characters planned out, but the structure and the full story arc are yet to be set in place. I know (at least, at the moment I do) that the film is going to be set in the present day and in the past, mostly the 1920s/30s - and that it's going to be set in America. One of the characters is a novelist from the 20s, hence the Fitzgerald and Faulkner research. Both of them were writers I studied at University and although I never really got heavily into F. Scott, at least not much past 'The Great Gatsby', I loved Faulkner and read a load of his novels - 'The Sound and The Fury', 'Absalom Absalom', 'Light in August' and the brilliant 'As I Lay Dying' among them.
Although they're not exactly light reads - Faulkner often used stream-of-consciousness and multiple timelines and narrators, and even in his more straightforwardly structured books, he would often run a single sentence over a whole paragraph, or even a page (meaning that if you like to read in short bursts, it can be really difficult to find your place if you don't polish off a whole section at one time) - but his books really reward the reader, with their intensity of language and their sense of place and their absolute free-flowing complexity of connections.

Another element that's feeding into the story - and which gives the film its title - is the song 'Katie Cruel'. I first heard this performed by Karen Dalton, a 60s folk singer who has recently had a bit of a popular renaissance, partly due to being mentioned in Bob Dylan's 'Chronicles' book. (Nick Cave is also a massive fan, and recorded a song inspired by 'Katie Cruel', "When I First Came To Town'). Of course, it's early days yet, and I don't know if it'll stay being the title, but I hope so.

It's funny, but 'Mum & Dad' also had an unofficial anthem in the shape of a folk song - '900 Miles' by Odetta. I first heard Odetta a few years ago, again through Bob Dylan (I'm going to have to start paying him royalties in a minute) when she was featured briefly in the Scorcese documentary about him 'No Direction Home.'

I remember thinking at the time that she had such an incredible voice and was such a strong performer that I wondered why I'd never heard of her before. I sought out a few of her recordings and came across '900 Miles', a version of an old folk song which I ended up playing over and over again while I was writing M&D. I knew we'd probably never get the original to use in the film, but we did get a new version recorded by a band called The Gemma Ray Ritual, which is terrific - a different take to the Odetta version, but really fitting in with the film.

I don't know what it is about traditional folk songs that makes me think of brutal horror films - maybe it's something to do with the fact that they seem - like the stories in 'The Golden Bough' - to be drawn from a well of sources, being changed in every telling along the way, but still retaining a primal story-truth that still echoes with audiences today. Well, it's either that, or the fact that you don't have to pay publishing on them...

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