At the recent Sydney Film Festival four new Australian screen adaptations premiered: Last Cab to Darwin, The Daughter, Ruben Guthrie and Holding the Man. Holding the Man shares a lineage via the Griffin Theatre with some lasting screen adaptations; The Heartbreak Kid, Lantana (Speaking in Tongues) and The Boys all started as plays on that stage. Writer Tommy Murphy unpacks the experience of adapting Holding the Man for the stage and the screen.
Film and stage are in some regards cousins. In other ways they are absolute strangers.
An adaptation must embrace its new form. I discovered that when I wrote the play Holding the Man from Timothy Conigrave’s 1995 memoir. I took liberties. I had to. Collaborating with theatre director David Berthold, who triggered the play, we departed from the original to make decades transpire on a little diamond-shaped stage up at The Cross, where a troop of six players summoned the populace of a man’s life. The story of Tim, himself a theatre-maker, invited playfulness. It invited theatricality.
The book’s impressive print runs and reputation meant that we always knew our literary source was a cherished text. The readership inundated the theatre’s box office causing our first season to sell out as soon as it opened. We found they were either helpfully forgetful of the detail of the book or swept up by this new incarnation. The play enjoyed a long life with productions in cities around the world. The audience extended beyond the readership and we gained a duty to present a play on its own terms separate to the book that inspired it. These lessons proved useful as I embarked upon a screenplay from that same source.
The idea for the film sparked early in the stage adaptation. It was there in that pile of discarded moments from the book that would never find their entrance on stage. That alternative answer to the material sat in wait. At about the time that the play was announced to transfer to the Sydney Opera House, I took a deep breath and made a phone call from the Griffin theatre offices to Anna Davison, Tim’s sister and literary executor. She kindly granted me the screen rights. Cameron Huang, whose profession was in the construction industry, approached me after he’d seen the play, at a time when I had already begun to draft the screenplay. We formed a partnership and he remains the film’s key investor and an executive producer. Our producer, Kylie Du Fresne of Goalpost Pictures, who would go on to produce The Sapphires, sought us out. Kylie was adamant about the distinctive, sensitive and unapologetic film that she knew she could make. We soon agreed upon a director and I phoned a man who had directed another of my plays and for whom there was justly eager enthusiasm that he direct another movie: Neil Armfield, a film director who knew theatre – or vice versa.
We sign very different contracts with our audience in these two mediums. Theatre rests upon an imaginative pact there in the room. No matter the tone or serious intent, theatre is always about playing a game. ‘Imagine for a moment these people in costumes before you are real’. In Holding the Man, the play, a man took his dying breaths. The man was a puppet. He was lying on a mirror that moments ago had been a doorway and a coat rack. Actors, who within the two hours traffic of the play had been schoolboys, doctors, activists, monkeys and… actors, mourned the puppet. An actor standing in full light provided the soundtrack of the death rattle. It was all declared, a portion of it papier-mâché and all of it utterly make-believe. Yet people cried, loudly, and many spoke afterwards of being transported to the deaths of their loved-ones. Such is the complicity of the imaginative act, the silly and time-tested game we call theatre.
When it came to writing the screenplay such games became entirely useless. New joys took their place. Those scenes shirked from the stage adaptation, many of them central to the book, came alive. Tim wanders on the streets of Italy, alone, searching out clues to John’s heritage, longing to reconnect with him after his death. That necessitated a film crew flying to Italy to capture those cobblestones and Mediterranean vistas. A doctor asks if Tim is prepared to stay and watch his lover in pain. That’s followed by a graphic depiction of a medical instrument entering John’s chest. John winks and his face communicates the love, loyalty and dependence, which in the book and the play were transmitted via many words. The chapter in which Tim and John have sex for the last time is the culmination of Conigrave’s candid recall of a deeply personal and intimate human moment. As is his description of John’s death which the screenplay largely echoes in Tim’s words. Arriving on set that night, I was struck by how much that room felt like the one I’d imagined upon reading the book, as it does for me in the completed film.
Neil Armfield and cinematographer, Germain McMicking, shot things close. They achieve something akin to the readers’ privileged gaze: breath, touch and actual extreme weight loss achieved by a very dedicated actor named Craig Stott playing John. The mood in the cinema feels something like that moment in the theatre. People go quiet together and you hear the sniffles. The techniques to arrive there were worlds apart.
The film hits cinemas 27Aug.