Tag Archives: Rejection

I work in the movies, actually

DRESSED TO SERVE Cinema ushers enjoy some of the more stylish uniforms ever created.

A Writer’s next day job.

DAY jobs come and go. If they’re good, they’re well paid, they don’t take up too much time, and don’t leave you feeling like you’ve reached the pinnacle of your employability. If they’re not good, they place heavy demands on all your time for little return, leaving no space for creativity, and you end up disappearing into career no-mans’ land until you resign.

After leaving full-time employment in The Corporates behind me, hoping that I’d become a much-sought-after freelancer, I landed back in London after a trip across the Continent without any source of income and a round of rejection letters, with that pesky rent still to pay, so I needed a day job.

I’d moved south of the Thames to Greenwich. Like Stratford-upon-Avon, this famous quarter of the city keeps its best face on for tourists, which made it an enjoyable, up-beat place to live.

Houses were affordable, particularly if you shared one, and the parklands between the river and the heights of Blackheath were a great escape from the rat-race.

I still felt hopeful that somehow writing and freelancing would see me break into the production industry, so while I kept trying that on all fronts, I approached the small cinema where I’d seen The Piano and Jurassic Park the year before.

The pay was pretty dismal, and the promise of shifts was not great, but they wanted someone to start straight away. As soon as I’d been allocated my two hot pink polo shirts, a striped green apron (for manning the pick-and-mix stands) and a cap, I was ready to fill the shoes of fully fledged cinema usher.

First Clue – if you wear a weird, brightly coloured uniform, it’s a day job.

Cue the movies! I can recall them all, since I saw them multiple times, from forgettable flops like The Colour of Night, to the excellent The Madness of King George. Seated on the small flip-down seats at the rear of the auditorium I took-in the films of the next twelve months in greater detail than I ever thought possible.

The flip-side of all that free entertainment was having to make countless sacks of popcorn and up-selling terrible hot dogs, before cleaning the cinema’s ‘kitchen’ after every shift. But in return for all the free new-release movies I could possibly take in (and the free popcorn), it was a pretty fair deal.

Second Clue – if you have to weigh-up the pay against the free food, it’s a day job.

After about a fortnight of all the free popcorn I could eat, I didn’t feel like eating any more. As the new guy I went through all the usual wariness from colleagues. For a few days there was the potential to be branded a racist because I refused to pick up the slack for one woman who decided that I had to keep doing the crap work because I was new. The big guns were pulled-out in the form of the largest, scariest guy on staff, who confronted me in the locker room, sizing me up to see if I was indeed the ‘nazi’ I’d been described as.

ALL YOU CAN EAT Until you can’t eat anymore. Popcorn, the great cinematic profit margin.

I think my smile disarmed him. I’ve been tall since I was fifteen, and that helped, but when he realised I refused to compensate for all lazy people no matter what their colour or creed, we were on the same page, in fact I scored plenty of respect.

Third Clue – if you get confronted by a big guy and management doesn’t care, it’s a day job.

Whatever the day job, I have found that what makes all the difference is having fun colleagues to while-away the long, underpaid hours with.

At this cinema we very often staged the Ushers’ Olympics, which involved staircase time trials. I was well-placed in this having legs long enough to leap whole flights.

There was a long-term challenge which involved getting customers to enter the ground floor cinema by first walking to the top floor, and then catching the lift down to the floor where they started, without realizing they were back where they showed their tickets. As far as I know I was the only usher to win that particular challenge, and it took all the guts I could muster as an actor to pull-off. The weird part was that my winning couple were not phased by seeing another whole street outside when they emerged from the lift, which was ostensibly ‘underground’ given the way they ended up getting there.

The funniest thing I ever saw was a random Sunday afternoon challenge, in which I dared one colleague to wave to a customer from within the popcorn bin, the large ones with the glass front slightly below eye-level, through which customers can salivate over their buttered or sugared popcorn choices.

Except on this occasion, Leo greeted them, lying on his side waving through the glass, in a priceless, puerile moment cooked-up by two bored creatives. I was so amused and in awe of Leo’s bravado that I really don’t remember the customers’ reaction!

Fourth Clue – if you’ve got time to muck around, it’s a day job.

Seeing audiences come and go throughout major movie seasons was an eye-opener about which ones really strike a chord with their audience. This was the dawn of the ‘opening weekend’ era, and countless big budget titles came and went with great expectations, often very fast.

MY WATERLOO Seeing films over and over is a great way to understand how they’re put together (Photo: Robert McFarlane).

Other films became perennial favourites with crowds, who poured-in week after week, and had extended lives in the smaller screen of the three at this cinema. Muriel’s Wedding, The Lion King, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle – these were all titles which had long runs on the big screen in Greenwich.

Watching movies relentlessly is a great way to see how scenes are constructed, and you end-up seeing all the errors that one viewing won’t reveal – continuity mistakes, actors looking for their marks, and microphone booms in shot. All the grave no-no’s of film school fifty feet high on the ‘professional’ screen. It can be a validating experience for an emerging filmmaker.

Fifth Clue – sometimes a day job can teach you something about your profession.

Quite often, while cleaning the kitchen or sweeping popcorn, one of us would say out loud: “Don’t worry guys, at least we can say we work in the movies!”, and we’d all laugh, forgetting for a moment how far we were from the other side of the silver screen.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Movin’ on up

MY OFFICE A phone booth off Charing Cross Road, London (Photo: Paul Vlaar).

A Writer’s career goes places? 

TOWARDS the end of my stint fetching food for fabulous people at a post-production facility in Soho, within the dim lighting of editing suites I realised how much I missed the fun of location shooting, and the creativity of starting projects from scratch. Post production was not for me.

So I religiously job-searched through all the usual channels, and in those pre-internet days that involved plenty of footwork.

Every week I’d go to the media and entertainment industry hubs where jobs were posted on notice boards watched-over by office staff jaded from listening to every up-and-coming industry professional in the city. I’d also trawl through industry magazines at the news stand, and then head to my office – a phone booth on Charing Cross Road.

I managed to land a few meetings and interviews with television networks, agents, and production offices, but meetings were as far as these opportunities ever went.

Eventually I was offered a position as a Production Assistant at a small television studio in West London, primarily to work on corporate videos.

‘The Corporates’ dance to a different drum, all very ideas-driven and upbeat. In reality, it’s an industry which relies on making the most boring subjects seem incredibly interesting.

To achieve that, corporations need artists willing to sell their souls for a little while, and with London’s infamous cost-of-living on the increase, and the rent still to pay, I dubiously accepted the invitation.

One of the first things to learn is how to speak Corporate language – a meeting is ‘face time’; giving something a try is ‘running it up the flag pole’; and discussing the fine details over coffee is ‘stirring some sugar over it’.

Just about everything is underscored, literally, with motivational (‘Movin’ on up’) stock music to leave even the most pessimistic participant humming with new-found enthusiasm.

One of the most famous corporate videos ever produced was the management training series presented by John Cleese which cashed-in on his Basil Fawlty notoriety. These set the benchmark in many-a corporate video meeting I attended over the next few years.

My soul has blocked-out most of the utterly boring products, concepts and sales-pitches I made videos about, but there was one project which was so forward-thinking it was impossible to not get genuinely excited about.

This was a drama-documentary produced by an inspiring scientist, Professor Robert (‘Bob’) Spence, of London’s Imperial College of Technology.

Bob had interviewed eminent design engineers about what they imagined human-computer interaction might be like in the year 2020, and he wanted these ideas realised in an ‘envisionment’ of social interaction 25 years into the future. This was my kind of corporate video.

TIMELESS LOCATION Silwood Park House, Berkshire (Photo © Copyright Mick Crawley).

We set about producing what became known as Translations, and it was my role to put a team together to create a drama-style production.

My eye for great locations had fallen on a property owned by the college in Berkshire, a wonderfully out-of-the-way place called Silwood Park House. Once a private home designed by Alfred Waterhouse (1830–1905), this place had all the trimmings that made it perfect for a timeless feel.

Now, thanks to one of the core ideas envisaged in Bob’s project – the internet – I was able to watch Translations again via YouTube.

We had very non-John Cleese resources (you’re only allowed to laugh with us, not at us!), but what is amazing about watching this production now is how many of the concepts have become realities – touch screens, flat screens, video conferencing, Intelligent Person Assistants … and there is still plenty of time for the rest of the ideas to see the light of day before 2020.

Student films aside, Translations was my first real crack at a complete production which relied on my skills as a director realising a vision onscreen. I saw it as a warm-up for things to come – working with skilled friends, on location in old homes and gardens, bringing ground-breaking screenplays to the screen.

If only life were so wonderfully linear.

Further work was in short supply (here come the days jobs!), but I did spend most of that summer polishing my second screenplay, Menace, which I developed into a one-hour format for a television production application. Inspired and deeply moved by the homelessness in London, and the impact of Thatcherite policies on Britain in the 1990s, this polemic little piece was full of gritty realities which Other Kingdom lacked, and remains one of my first works not to hit the rubbish bin.

I think the reason it survives is the rejection letter I received, a kind note which appealed to me on two counts – (a), to believe that not everyone was getting such a letter, and (b), that I should not give up writing.

I threw the letter away because I wasn’t sure (a) was true, but almost 20 years on, technology might have changed dramatically, but (b), I am still writing.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

E. M. Forster – literature’s god of love

BARED IT ALL Edward Morgan Forster, 1911 portrait by Roger Fry.

A Writer’s first hero.

FROM the moment I saw the trailer for David Lean’s 1984 adaptation of his A Passage to India during an English class, I became a sucker for the literature of Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970).

I’d been ambivalent about the drab Penguin Modern Classics edition, but the sight of Judy Davis as Adela Quested, scrambling down the dry slopes of the Marabar Caves, bloodied by thorns, pith helmet rolling in her wake, dislodging rocks (and an ensuing British panic) gripped me into attention.

We had our toes dipped into the ideas of Bloomsbury and the racial overtones and class structure of Empire.

Merchant Ivory did the rest, with their iconic production of A Room with a View in 1985. Through their lens Forster’s English hypocrites and heroes came to life.

“Forster had a greater vision of love between two men than his contemporaries. One or two of them may well have been jealous.”

The icing on the cake was the word which I spied in the blurb of the edition of Maurice that my enthusiasm for Forster had garnered me at Christmas. The word, of course, was inescapable when describing that work.

I wonder now if it was the first time I ever saw the word in print? Only whispered around the schoolyard, it had, by that time, been uttered louder at the peak of the AIDS crisis in the mid 1980s.

But here, on the reverse of Forster’s posthumously published story of Maurice Hall and his gay sexual awakening, it brought a wave of validation.

I recall waiting for my family to register the word. Had my mother seen it when she purchased the book? Had my brother sneered about it when she gave it to him to wrap up for me?

When nobody mentioned “homosexual”, I took that as tacit approval.

I subsequently devoured all Forster’s novels. My favourite moment was starting Where Angels Fear to Tread when alighting my train to university, only to be flawed by a classic Forsterian-surprise-death before reaching the next station, just six minutes down the track. What great ignition for a story!

On summer holiday, during my first year in the United Kingdom, I came across a collection of Forster’s short stories at a hostel in Cornwall.

The inclement weather saw me feast on them, immediately hit by one in particular – Other Kingdom. The Irish Home Rule theme of this story went right over my head, but the gusto of the young Irish protagonist (Evelyn Beaumont), brought my consciousness to a standstill, while I tried to capture her, as did all the other characters in this shining example of Forster’s storytelling skill.

I agreed with Iris Murdoch, in that “I loved Miss Beaumont, because she bamboozled a pack of bores.”

Being a film school student, I had big plans. The biggest became my obsession to bring Other Kingdom to the screen.

I adapted it into an approved screenplay at the behest of the owners of Forster’s work (King’s College Cambridge) and tried for some years to tout it around the funding bodies, to no avail.

The central mystery of what happens to Evelyn Beaumont when she escapes from an ill-fated marriage into a dour English family could not be explained even by Forster himself, let alone by a potential screenwriter in a pitching session.

It wasn’t for another decade that I really understood my attraction to the story, when I realised a deep-seated wish for a solution just like Evelyn’s. I admired her escape in the light of my own need to find a way out of the life I was leading.

In the wake of my coming out, Forster continued to deliver. My second reading of Maurice brought the searing grief and triumph of his gay protagonists back to haunt my recovery from the death of my partner five years later, because Maurice Hall and Alec Scudder loved, no less ordinarily than any other couple.

Forster’s long-unpublished epilogue to Maurice was the heartbreaker. Anyone seeking to understand this novel should read Forster’s exploration of what happened to his characters, for it is no elemental conundrum like that of Miss Beaumont in Other Kingdom.

Forster’s trusted friends who read the drafts prior to 1933 suggested the epilogue be cut from the final manuscript, but I get the distinct impression they were baffled by Forster’s unsullied vision of Maurice and Alec happily ensconced as woodsmen, living rough, fused by the heart, and happy, despite their accidental discovery by Maurice’s unsettled sister Kitty.

Forster had a greater vision of love between two men than his contemporaries. One or two of them may well have been jealous.

Forster left as much written material about his childhood, his career, and his relationships as any biographer would ever need. Trouble is, few have used this resource – the ‘sexuality issue’ undoubtedly the main obstacle.

The finest work on Forster is Wendy Moffat’s A Great Unrecorded History. This study has done more to debunk the myth of Forster as simply a class-conscious comic novelist who stopped writing in 1924, than anything which came before.

PERFECT PANIC Adela Quested (Judy Davis) flees in David Lean’s screen adaptation of Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’.

Forster earns hero status from this writer for protecting his great love, policeman Bob Buckingham, from the criminal courts while he, Bob and Bob’s wife May lived-out a three-way relationship from 1930 until Forster’s death in 1970.

He earns it for politely, and with humour, pointing out the hypocrisy of those in positions of power and privilege in his literature.

He earns it for writing himself onto Hitler’s ‘hit list’ of authors with his WWII broadcasts exploring the axe of Nazism as it threatened to fall onto the neck of civilisation.

He earns it for not killing himself, despite as much cause for depression, isolation and marginalisation as Virginia Woolf cited.

He earns it for creating the archetype of the lusty English Gamekeeper. Long before D.H. Lawrence’s Oliver Mellors’ trysts with Lady Chatterley, Forster’s Alec Scudder hunted his way into Maurice Hall’s bed, and his heart.

And he earns it for diarising himself as he was, warts and all, and sometimes that meant writing about actual bodily warts.

For gay men, Forster’s humanist document on the entire life of a homosexual man will endure as a record of emerging and practical homosexuality which may well come to eclipse his novels.

E.M. Forster might not have physically embodied a Love God, but with his pen, in the shadow of the Oscar Wilde trials, he carved a place in history as a Titan who turned from the affairs of men and women, to those between men and men. His publishers must have hated him for it.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.