‘The writer’s place in a movie is somewhere between the second assistant cameraman and the catering staff’
You’d think swanning off to France for the premiere of a film adapted from your own novel would give anybody a big head. On the contrary, my May visit to Cannes to see We Need to Talk About Kevin screen in competition was humbling, and I’ve felt put in my place ever since.
That place is somewhere between the second assistant cameraman and the catering staff. Even the invitation to bring the author over for a night was a last-minute afterthought, though I was thankful that my husband Jeff and I were included at all.
After driving around for an hour and a half, the driver sent to pick us up from Nice airport admitted that he’d been given the wrong address for our hotel, and if I hadn’t thought to scribble down the address from the web we’d still be teeming back and forth along the Med.
Getting ready for the pre-screening dinner, I learned once more that a lifelong tomboy isn’t cut out for this stuff. I tried putting up my hair seven or eight times-after which, strands flailing, I looked less like a woman on her way to a gala evening than one en route to a police station to report a brutal sexual assault.
I’ve never understood make-up, which I wear rarely, and once I’d daubed ineptly in the dim wardrobe mirror (while Jeff hogged the loo) my face resembled a preschool finger painting. While I was feverishly trying to adjust the circumference of the bow tie from Jeff’s rental tuxedo, I smeared beige foundation on the bright white collar of my Alexander McQueen dress, a thing of beauty with which a charity-shop slob should never have been entrusted.
By 7pm, it was obvious that our 6.30pm festival car was not showing up. No one had provided me any contact details, so we hailed a taxi. Fortunately I’d jotted down the name of the villa where we were dining, or Jeff and I would have eaten mini-bar macadamias in front of CNN. When we arrived, a production staff member took one look at me and blanched. I was too grateful to feel embarrassed, and gladly took her up on the offer of onsite hair and make-up.
Look, meeting the cast was a kick. Tilda Swinton is unexpectedly warm, though she’s scary; in heels, I come up to her waist. Ezra Miller is a wiseass, sharp and wickedly charming, while John C. Reilly is solid, salt of the earth. The director and her husband, Lynne Ramsay and Rory Kinnear, have been unfailingly gracious, and I was touched how profoundly pleased they seemed that I think their film is terrific.
Nevertheless, once our car drove us up to the famed red carpet, I took my husband’s arm and strode up the stairs, and … with some two hundred photographers on either side, not a single flashbulb went off. I might have been the popcorn vendor.
Breakfast was on me. Hung over, Jeff barely touched his stone-cold eggs. I had half of a miniature jelly doughnut. Total: 56 euros. And the coffee sucked.
Writers in Film World are extras. Moreover, wandering around the dazzling marquees and snaking queues of fans the next day, I realised that literature enjoys no equivalent hoopla. In comparison to Cannes, the London Book Fair is a church social.
Feature film may be under strain lately, but it still involves money that dwarfs publishing’s outlay into chump change. Writers sometimes inspire movies, but the movie is cultural king. A hardback makes a respectable showing when it sells 10,000 copies, while a film counts its audience in the millions.
Yet I returned from France with a renewed sense of calling. I have the job I want. Explaining the difficulties of filming one (very funny) scene in Kevin, in which the mother is so desperate for relief from her screaming infant that she seeks out the merciful obliteration of a jackhammer, Lynne Ramsay despaired that it took them days to rent the equipment and get health and safety go-ahead-all for 30 seconds of film. In my occupation, I write, “Eva stood by the jackhammer,” and voilà: Eva is standing by a jackhammer. Even in the UK, health and safety inspectors don’t immediately rap on my door.
I needn’t raise millions to start a novel; I press command-N on my keyboard and part with a few pence for a cup of tea. Writer World may be a cultural ugly ducking, but within the manuscript itself I enjoy God-like omnipotence, dishing out birth and death, success and failure, on my whim. I can conjure a jackhammer with ten letters, the end of the world with a few more. And I don’t have to get along with hundreds of difficult creative people; I email my publisher from time to time, chat with one agent, and save my social energies for dustups with tin-eared copyeditors. Exiling the Alexander McQueen to the dry cleaners, I shamble joyfully to work in filthy jeans.