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EMPTY CRADLES AND MY FIRST HOLLYWOOD COMMISSION – CHAPTER 9

I found what I hoped to be my next project some months before Jack and Sarah opened. It was a book called ‘Empty Cradles’ about a social worker, Margaret Humphreys from Nottingham, who had uncovered the child migrant scandal perpetuated by this country in the last century. Hundreds of children in convents and orphanages, some even in temporary care, were transported to Australia to be fostered by loving families in a country of “oranges and sunshine.” In reality they were put in children’s homes and many were physically and sexually abused by the Christian Brothers who ran them. They actually had to build one themselves called Bindoon, several miles outside Perth in Western Australia. I visited it and couldn’t imagine the horror of being abandoned in such a hostile, desolate place, so far from home and at such a young age. Margaret had undertaken the enormous task of reuniting these children, now adults, with their mothers back in the UK. It was a great project for me and a marked contrast to J & S. I visited Australia with Margaret a few times and eventually came up with a draft which Pippa Cross then started trying to put together as a movie.

Meanwhile I had been approached a few times to adapt a Peter Mayle book called ‘Anything Considered.’ It was a light-hearted romp set in the south of France and centred around a scam involving truffles. I didn’t really think the book had a good enough ending and I wasn’t actually sure what that ending could be. I’d met with an executive in Los Angeles and politely turned the project down. I’d been approached again a few months later and turned it down again. Then the producer himself phoned and re-pitched it saying that he’d met Hugh Grant who had recommended me for the project. This was nice as I’d never met Hugh. The producer had convinced himself that the movie was perfect for him and Julia Roberts. I explained that I didn’t feel that the movie had an ending and I wasn’t sure I could provide one. The truffle was the Mcguffin but I had no idea how to end the movie satisfactorily. But the producer and my agent prevailed and I thought I would give it a go. Why not? I should’ve stuck with my gut on this one.

The producer was what Variety would describe as an ‘Oscar-winning, veteran.’ He had also been the head of one of the major movie studios for many years and had a reputation for having a fierce, old-school temper. In fact legend had it that he’d lost his temper once, so badly, at a studio board meeting that he had a spontaneous nosebleed. I flew over to New York for a couple of days of meetings with him and his son who was also a ‘producer’, (I shall call them Sr and Jr) but we still bumped up against an ending for the movie. I was asked to stay the weekend and go up to Sr’s house in the country a couple of hours north of New York. Sr was most hospitable in his palacious country pad. After a dinner of sushi prepared by a private chef, a projectionist arrived with several cans of film in his car to screen a movie in Sr’s cinema. Complete with a 35mm projector it was true old style Hollywood. The next morning we continued to talk, going for a walk and ending up in the tennis court. While Sr and I continued to talk about the problematic ending, Jr proceeded to smack a load of stones across the court with an ice hockey stick. I jumped when he smacked the first one deafeningly into the net in the middle of the court. I could tell that Sr was irritated but probably felt it was best to pretend this was normal and not subject himself to the humiliation of telling his son off in front of a stranger. After lunch a limo arrived and took me to JFK and I flew to Los Angeles for a few meetings.

On my second night there I was having dinner with my LA agent when Sr marched into the restaurant with the director of his past Oscar winning success. He was clearly a bit put out by my being there. He was the kind of producer who once you’d been commissioned by him, thought he owned you. He was clearly thinking, as he introduced me to his colleague, “What the fuck are you doing here? Why aren’t you in London writing the script I’m paying you a pittance for, by Hollywood standards?” I left for London the next day. The following day my agent rang to say he’d had a call from Sr asking what I was doing in LA and when was I going to start on his script? Sr then called me in my office in Kentish Town a couple of weeks later and asked me how it was going. I replied it was going fine I was working my way into it and was quite happy. I hadn’t figured out yet that this wasn’t how you spoke to some Hollywood folk. Guys like this expect full on positive bullshit about how well the script is going, how it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever written, how it’s going to make a wonderful movie and how grateful you are for the opportunity. This is how most seasoned American writers would talk on the phone. But of course I’m English and reside firmly in the house of self-deprecation next to the cottage of self-doubt. That I’m so obviously without talent that it’s only a matter of tome before I’m found out at and exposed. So this attitude must’ve crept into my side of the call that day. Sr exploded and started yelling down the phone that I obviously hadn’t started his script and when was I going to? I tried to protest, but was interrupted by a volley of ‘f’ words and abuse down the phone in the middle of which I thought there might possibly have been a sentence. I wasn’t at all sure. So I said very calmly that I was writing his script and the next sound he would hear was my putting down the phone. I was quite shocked. This was new to me. So I called my UK agent and asked him to call Sr and tell him that every time he called me in such a way (I was fairly sure it wouldn’t be the last time) I would put my pen down for two weeks and work on something else.

Eventually I finished a draft, but still with no adequate end of act 3. Sr wasn’t bothered, plenty of time to figure that out, he said. I asked whether we shouldn’t figure it out before I delivered. No, he wanted to see how I was progressing and then we could talk. But before I did, could I do one small thing. Sure I said. Could I possible write a lingerie buying sequence in Monte Carlo where Hugh’s character is buying underwear for Julia Roberts. I was slightly stumped by this, perhaps unsurprisingly, as I had no idea what this had to do with the plot. It was just, well, weird. But Sr wanted it and continued to pitch it in detail and asked me to write it. So, obviously I did. I delivered the following week with the coda that we still had to figure out the end of the movie. Two things happened next. First Sr rang and yelled down the phone “Who the fuck delivers a movie script that doesn’t have a proper ending?!” I tried to explain that I had said we should figure it out before I delivered but a volley of f-laden abuse flew across the Atlantic. I was thinking that I didn’t really want to do this anymore when Jr rang. He said they were very disappointed with the script – I actually thought it was pretty good as far as it went – they just thought it wasn’t as good as my other work. I asked him to explain exactly what he meant by that. He said, “Well, I’ll give you a ‘for example.’ The lingerie scene in Monte Carlo. What the fuck is that all about?!” I brought the call to a swift end and called my agent saying that I was walking away. I didn’t want paying for delivery, I didn’t want to do the next steps. I was out. And that was it. It was the first, ginger, dipping of my toes in the Hollywood pool and I got a mild case of frostbite. The movie was never made and I never heard from Sr or Jr again.

‘Empty Cradles’ had now acquired a new Executive producer in, one Mel Gibson. His star was very much at the top of the Hollywood tree at the time and it has to be said it was an absolute thrill. He was all you would hope for from an A-list movie star. Fantastically charming, devastatingly good-looking and very funny. After one meeting with him in his cottage on the Warner Bros lot, the late Clive James arrived to do some filming with him. With both of us being from the UK and being in the “business” Mel assumed we must know each other. Not wanting to disappoint the star in our midst, Clive and I both played along, greeting each other like old friends and making suitable enquiries about each other’s health and family. This despite the fact that neither of us had laid eyes on each other ever before. One of Mel’s execs then gave me a lift across the lot to meet my old chum the comedian Craig Ferguson who was starring in a sitcom with Drew Carey at the time. As I pulled up in my chauffeur driven Porsche, Craig came out of his trailer. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. This is how we always imagined/hoped it might be.

A couple of years before when I was casting J & S, I had to go and see the actress, Janine Turner who was in ‘Northern Exposure’ a really successful TV show at the time. The problem was she was in Seattle. So Pippa decided I should go over for lunch. Fly in one night, lunch and then back out the next. Business class obviously. When I got to the airport and was given my ticket I was really annoyed to see that I was actually in economy. Eleven hours there and eleven back, it just wasn’t okay. This was before the internet and mobile phones when things could be quickly fixed. I called Pippa from a call box near the gate to complain. She played innocent and said there was nothing she could do. It was a mistake and she was sorry. But I had been at Granada for too long to fall for this old ruse. It had been used on me several times before. But there was nothing I could do. I vented my displeasure and headed for the gate. The woman at the gate had heard my phone call and said – “Are you really going to Seattle just for lunch?” “I am,” I replied wearily. At which point she upgraded me to business, which was really kind of her. I had lunch with Janine at The Four Seasons and then went straight back to the airport for my economy trip back. As I was boarding the plane I realised it was the same crew as the day before. The steward laughed and said “Well I hope whoever she was, it was worth it” and then showed me to a spare seat in business. How nice.

I tell this story because in my contract for Empty Cradles, which Morrison was very keen Granada had, I insisted on First class travel rather than business, Seattle was still, obviously, a slightly festering pimple of resentment. It’s not that I bear grudges but… and anyway Australia was a long, long flight. This was how I found myself in a British Airways First Class compartment one day on a flight to LA to meet the Australian actress, Judy Davis, when a big man in a fedora and leather jacket sat across the aisle from me. It was Bernardo Bertolucci. I was like an over-excited kid, but made myself behave and left the great man alone. When we arrived at LAX there was a delay of about 30 minutes for our luggage. As I waited at the carousel this Italian voice next to me said – “I don’t believe this. We pay all this money and they can’t get our luggage off in good time.” I turned to agree and fell into conversation with Bertolucci as we waited. We actually had a friend in common which was an ice-breaker. He asked me what I did and lit up when he discovered I was a fellow filmmaker (yes I know, but do I care?) and asked me what I was in LA for. As we wheeled our luggage to our respective limousines he told me that he was there because the academy was giving him a lifetime achievement award. We parted ways and the next day I went to the Four Seasons in Los Angeles and was instructed to wait for Ms Davis at the elevator. I had heard many things about Ms Davis and it is possible there was a bead of sweaty trepidation quivering on my top lip as I waited. The elevator duly arrived and out she stepped, Alice band sweeping her hair back off her forehead, makeup that was so pale it was almost Kabuki-like and her trademark brown lipstick. She took one look at me, up and down, and it was instant dislike on her part – mild fear on mine. She clearly hated me. She strode through the hotel at pace, leaving me in her wake, like the little nine year prep schoolboy I once was on an exeat with my parents for the weekend. She was a good fifty yards ahead of me, as I was reflecting that this was probably a wasted trip, when we passed through the bar. At a table sat a large group of men, at the head of which was a very miserable looking Bernardo Bertolucci. As he saw me approach he broke into a broad smile and leapt up exclaiming “Tim! My old friend! How nice to see you!” and enveloped me into a big embrace. He then whispered in my ear “My, God I’m so bored, how’s it going with you?” I was about to answer when I heard the human equivalent of screeching brakes and the smell of burning shoe rubber wafted over the room. Judy Davis had come to a shuddering halt. She turned to see me in the embrace of one of the greatest living filmmakers at the time and in an impressive imitation of Road Runner was at our side in a blur of speed, awaiting an introduction. I left her hanging for a few appropriate seconds as I continued to chat to my new “old” friend then turned and said, “Oh, Bernardo do you know Judy Davis? Judy this is my old friend Bernardo Bertolucci.” She smiled, they shook hands and she was then putty in my hands. We had a delightful cup of tea together. Things were looking good. Or so I thought.

A couple of months later I had flown to Sydney to meet with Judy to discuss the script. My first day there was a Friday. We were flying to Melbourne to meet Margaret herself on the Tuesday. Margaret had cleared her schedule of really important sessions with child migrants to give us a couple of hours. Bruce Davey, Mel’s producing partner had organised for me to borrow an office in the offices of a friend of his who also happened to be Judy’s agent. I was feeling pretty good about everything that Friday morning, when I heard the agent on the phone next door saying very loudly, “Judy you have to see him. He’s flown all the way from London to meet with you. Yes he’s meeting other people but the whole point of his coming here is to meet you. What do you mean you won’t? Don’t be ridiculous… okay, well see how dinner goes tonight and we’ll go from there.” Not the best of starts perhaps. I felt completely deflated. This was going to be a challenge. But if I couldn’t persuade her to do the film then, I was sure, her meeting the fiery, passionate, Margaret on Tuesday would seal it. Dinner was a great success to the extent that she invited me to her house for dinner the next night. That was also great fun with her husband and her old piano teacher. She was delightful. A welcoming and generous host, which made what happened on Monday all the more surprising.

We spent that morning together going through the script page by page. She had great notes for the rewrite I was about to embark on for her. She also said she liked straightforward honest direction, no fucking about. “If you want it quicker for whatever reason, just tell me to do it quicker. No problem.” This is going to be just great I thought. The meeting concluded. Got to the door. Hugs goodbye and I said I’d see her at the airport the next morning for our flight to Melbourne. There was a slight pause and she replied, “Oh yeah, about that. Could you call my agent?” She looked down at the floor. I paused as I tried to make sure I’d heard her right, then said – “What do you mean call your agent? Is there a problem?” “She’ll explain,“ she replied. “No,” I said, “why don’t you explain?” “I just don’t want to meet her just yet. That’s all.” But as I looked at her, I knew in that moment that she wasn’t going to do this movie, if indeed she ever had been. I wasn’t sure what to say. I just had to get out of there before I said something I later regretted. I’ve often wondered if I should’ve said, “Let’s go back inside and discuss this,” found out what the problem was and tried to find a solution. But there was something in those eyes that simply said she wasn’t doing it.

I had a call from her a couple of weeks later, really friendly and saying how great it was working with writer/directors because it was such a “direct” way of working and communicating. Bruce and Pippa thought this was a good sign but I was convinced otherwise. Two weeks later Judy Davis passed. The movie was never made. Oh well, I thought. I’ll always have my Bertolucci moment. No-one can take that away from me.

Postscript – Jim Loach, son of Ken, went on to make a film based on Margaret’s book some years later called ‘Oranges and Sunshine.’

The Cross Chronicles

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A new patient in an old people’s home accuses a resident with dementia of murdering his father sixty years earlier. Is he right or is it a case of mistaken identity?