Thursday 18 July 2019

You paid the bill... now see the movie - The Guarantee

Morgan C Jones as Sean FitzPatrick in The Guarantee
Morgan C Jones as Sean FitzPatrick in The Guarantee
Former Anglo chairman Sean FitzPatrick leaves court earlier this year
Poster for The Guarantee, which is out later this week
Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in All The President's Men
Colin Murphy

Colin Murphy

'The Guarantee' - the movie that tells the story of that fateful night in September six years ago - opens next week. Here, its creator, Colin Murphy tells the story of the thriller in which we all play parts as extras.

I owe a lot to David Drumm. Last year, I wrote a play for Fishamble Theatre Company based on the bank guarantee. It was more or less a documentary, and the plan was to give it a "pop-up", workshop-style production. All very earnest - but not very likely box office gold.

We had a short rehearsal period and the final run-through was a disaster. The night before we opened, I cut reams from the script. And then I woke up on the morning of the opening and turned on the radio and heard a crackly tape recording of one man asking another where a particular figure of €7bn had come from. "As Drummer would say," his colleague replied, "picked it out of my arse."

The Anglo Tapes, released by this newspaper, put the issue of the bank guarantee back on the front pages, in the week that I had a play on stage with Fishamble that told the story of the bank guarantee. We packed out, and suddenly it felt more like a thriller (or a horror) than a documentary.

I invited along the former film censor, John Kelleher, one of the most experienced screen producers in the country. Incredibly quickly, he got support for a screen version from the Irish Film Board, TV3 and then the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. Still, as a journalist, I know from harsh experience that you can't rely on publication till you see your story on the page. I'll believe it when I see it, I thought.

I set about adapting the play for the screen, working on the presumption that we were going to film it in old-school, "television play" style. And then we hired our director.

Ian Power had made some seminal ads, some incredibly accomplished short films (his short Dental Breakdown, starring David McSavage, is online), and the well-received 2010 movie, The Runway. He loved the script, he told me - it was already cinematic. He suggested some "technical" changes to my screenplay, and I set to work on draft two.

Weeks later, as the technical changes had somehow morphed into an upending of the entire script, he told me how Hollywood worked: "Directors blow smoke up your ass telling you your script is brilliant. And then they sign up, and suddenly they tell you it's all shit."

Weeks turned into months. Key scenes turned into dust. My office turned into a pit of post-its, note cards and discarded drafts. I traced the plot on a whiteboard: has a plot outline ever been written that had axes titled "liquidity" and "solvency"?

I became an absent dad. I lost weight and sleep. When I did get to bed, in the early hours, I read Robert McKee's guide to screenwriting, Story, in the dark on my kindle. I tried to think visually, to think of what the camera sees, rather than what I heard people say.

"Have you seen ET?" Ian asked. He described a scene to illustrate a point about our movie and then, in seconds, pulled the precise scene up on his computer. He did this over and over - a masterclass in movie-making - and I realised that my cinematic education had stopped some time around the year 2000, when my ideal vision of life collided with the realities of job and, then, kids.

Two films were key influences. Margin Call tells the story of a fictional equivalent of Lehman Brothers that schemes to avoid collapse. Too Big to Fail, based on a superb book by Andrew Ross Sorkin, tells the true story of the attempts of the US administration to rescue Lehman.

Margin Call is a great movie that uses fiction to tell a broader truth about banking. Too Big to Fail is a lousy movie that serves a useful educational purpose as a depiction of real events. Our challenge was to navigate a path somewhere between them, telling a story that was essentially true without getting bogged down in the details the way Too Big to Fail had.

In the play, I had simplified and fictionalised characters - we took this further in the film, reducing it to just seven speaking parts (with two of the cast doubling up). There were key story lines in the screenplay, based on hard journalistic grind, about the nuances of the banks' exposure to property; but, after endless drafts, and some filming, they had to be cut: dynamic on stage, they were flat and wordy on screen.

Gradually, the screenplay focussed in on the central drama: the rising tension in Government Buildings as the Irish banking system was rocked by the global financial crisis. I was still clinging to documented facts and statements; Ian encouraged me to not be so "literal". The script needed to free itself from the precise, chronological truth, in order to probe the emotional truth of men (mostly men) buckling under strain.

I wrote and rewrote to the last deadline and through it. We rewrote through rehearsals - testing and finessing material - and then on set, as production constraints required scenes to be shortened or cut.

I was cast in a cameo and had to fake it as an actor for a half-day; mercifully, I was mostly left on the cutting-room floor. My seven-year-old daughter, Sadhbh, picked up a cameo too, and spent a day on set. At home that evening, her sisters asked her what the film was about. She described a scene she had watched. "One man said, 'We should nationalise them'," she said. "And then the other one said, 'I'm not fucking nationalising anyone'."

And her four-year-old sister, Iseult, asked her: "What's 'nationalising'?"

Filming finished, but the writing didn't. We took holidays in August, visiting friends in California, and I got emails from Ian demanding rewrites of key scenes for reshoots. I consoled myself thinking that I wasn't the first person to drive through LA stressed about a script (and hoping that I'd get to do so again).

The reshoots were done and the film was edited - and still there was rewriting. Even after a scene has been shot, if one of the characters is off-screen while speaking (because the camera stays on another character, for example), you can rewrite the off-screen dialogue and bring the actor in to rerecord it. This allowed us to tighten up the plot and make sure that the stakes involved (basically, the threat of financial armageddon) were absolutely clear. These possibilities were fascinating, but seemed cruelly endless.

And then, barely a year after the film board said yes, it was done. Suddenly, the mistakes I had made were made permanent - but barely noticeable amidst the artistic thicket of a film: actors, design, lighting, audio, music, visual effects. There was no clearer lesson in one of the old adages of screenwriting: the screenplay is just a template for a movie.

There was just one last piece of writing to do. It was important for me both to acknowledge that the film relied on the work of other journalists and academics, who had obtained facts and quotes that we used, and to make it clear that most of it was made up, in the service of telling the broad story of the bank guarantee. I put a statement to that effect in the credits but we were left with the question of how to introduce the film: what words should flash up on screen at the start?

"Most of what follows is true," is how William Goldman introduced Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I toyed with adding the word, "unfortunately." Instead, we went for something simpler: "Based on a true story."

It took two years from delivering the first draft of the play to watching the final film in Windmill Lane this week. For me, that one line summarised the journey. I had started with a wealth of verbatim statements and documentary research that told a true but incoherent story. Through drafts of a play and then a screenplay, cajoled (and, well, coerced) by a director, I had tested and finessed and discarded and then created material in order to make sense of that story in 80 minutes on a cinema screen.

On Thursday, The Guarantee hits cinemas. This story of the making of the film will be condensed into two words before my name on the big screen: "Screenplay by." I'm still not sure if I'll believe it.

From political paranoia to the corridors of power on screen

Truth is stranger than fiction. Like most clichés, there's much truth in it - and it's a truth that bedevils political cinema.

Films that aim to be literally true tend to end up bewilderingly complex (Too Big to Fail), or overlong (Lincoln), or reliant on hokey emotional asides to ramp up the drama (Thirteen Days; The Last Days of Lehman Brothers).

The exception that proves the rule is the superb Watergate film, All the President's Men, directed by Alan Pakula and written by William Goldman. It's particularly worth watching again this week in tribute to Ben Bradlee, the legendary Washington Post editor, who died on Tuesday. Jason Robards gave a famous performance as Bradlee in the film, which most will have taken as dramatic exaggeration; according to the New Yorker's obituary, he underplayed.

The Watergate story was mind-bogglingly obtuse, but the genius of the film was that it didn't try to tell it. Instead, it tells the story of the two journalists chasing the story. Nixon is just a figure on a television screen in the newsroom.

All the President's Men was one part of Pakula's "political paranoia" trilogy. The other two, The Parallax View and Klute, were allegorical, speaking to the greater truth of the breakdown of trust in American politics (and big business) in the 1970s, rather than the intricacies of real-life politics.

If that was a golden era for American political cinema, the 1980s in Britain was a golden era for political drama on television. House of Cards and A Very British Coup are classic conspiracy thrillers, set in very believable versions of Downing Street and Westminster. Yes, Minister may have been a comedy, but its iconic status was as much due to its believability.

This may be a new golden era for political drama on television: The West Wing; the Netflix remake of House of Cards; Borgen. The most grimly compelling of them all, though, is The Thick of It, combining the satire of Yes, Minister with the breathy, corridors-of-power intensity of The West Wing and the cynicism of House of Cards.

The film version, In the Loop, was an excoriating treatment of the hapless rush to war in Iraq. By focussing on the bit players rather than the real-life big names, they were able to make the story authentic without speculating as to the unseen actions of known people - perfectly pitched between "political paranoia" and true-life drama.

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