Benito Di Fonzo
Sydney Morning Herald. March 28, 2008
These black-comic tales of expatriates in Hollywood should be required viewing for NIDA students.
Photo: Natalie Boog
"Rolf de Heer told me a funny story," says Christopher Johnson, relating one of the many Hollywood anecdotes that inspired his play La La Land. "[De Heer] was given 'The List'. Studios have a list of actors they're willing to give you money for, and Richard Dreyfuss is like No.267 on the list out of 500, but he's on The List. After 266 people - starting with Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington - say 'no', then Richard Dreyfuss says 'yes'. Then [the studio will make the film] but for $4 million as opposed to $80 million because as it goes down the list the budget gets smaller."
Johnson is a Sydney playwright who has dual US-Australian citizenship and lived and worked in Hollywood for eight years. After the success of previous stage comedies such as The Young Tycoons and his 2001 hit, Dog Logs, which toured Australia, Johnson has pulled together the best of his black-comic tales of expatriate minnows in the sharkpit of Hollywood for La La Land.
La La Land tells the story of Aussie filmmaker Terry Swanton, played by Sean Lynch, and his best friend Jason Pegler, played by Sam Smith, who find themselves in Hollywood after the success of their independent Aussie film Bushdance, about a gay Aboriginal man coming out in his community.
"I'm thinking I might change it to Coming Out-Back," Johnson says. "Nobody goes to see it, nobody wants to see it, but it wins the AFI for best picture. He's cast his mate as 'the cop' in the community and he wins best supporting actor at the AFIs."
Bushdance brings Swanton to the attention of Oscar-winning producer Jimmy Fleishberg (Ian Watkin), who is a fictional blend of several real-life characters including the Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein and the late American film producer Don Simpson.
"Don Simpson was Jerry Bruckheimer's partner who produced Top Gun, Days Of Thunder and Flashdance," Johnson says. "His entire Hollywood career, he just snorted the coke, screwed the ladies and drank too much, so he set the template for the out-of-control Hollywood producer and it killed him. Harvey Weinstein is probably a little more temperate."
When the Hollywood money lenders enter the temple of Swanton's latest project, he discovers where he really sits in the pecking order. Soon his best mate has been pushed aside for the biggest star in Hollywood. Then it seems Swanton himself may be the next minnow to be spat out of the dream cannery, a reality that many Aussie filmmakers have discovered, Lynch says.
"I remember [Phillip Noyce] talking about when he was doing Clear And Present Danger and Harrison Ford didn't like where the script was going and [Noyce] stood up and went, 'Bugger that, the script was great. Why are we changing it?' And the producer pulled him aside and went, 'We're definitely going to make Clear And Present Danger with Harrison Ford; we don't have to make it with Phillip Noyce.' "
"That's a classic Hollywood line," Johnson says. "So many Australian directors have this story."
Torn between loyalty to his mate and getting his script produced, Swanton begins to question his own dreams, wondering if he really wants to work in a town where arrogance is a badge of success.
"[Fleishberg] talks about how he loves being arrogant," Lynch says. "He says when he met Buzz Aldrin he was a friggin' arrogant man, 'But I out-arroganted him! He's been on the moon but I've won four Oscars!' "
Johnson feels that perhaps some Australians rush to Hollywood a little prematurely.
"People are going quicker than ever, that's for sure," he says. "It's no longer 'you've got your third lead in an Aussie feature film, go to LA', it's 'you've got your fifth-credited role in an Aussie film, go to LA and give it a shot'. Some make it, some stick around for quite a while and some find it brutal and come back quite quickly."
Perhaps La La Land should be required viewing for NIDA students?
"You've only graduated once you've seen this play," Lynch says.
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