STRIKE: an excerpt from a screenplay
In the lead-up to 'It Took Pages: Adapting Books to TV', writer and critic Clem Bastow shares an excerpt from her screenplay-in-progress: STRIKE, a comedy inspired by Aristophanes' Lysistrata. Clem worked on the screenplay as part of a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship.
STRIKE centres around the host of an Antiques Roadshow-style series, who launches a sex strike in order to gain more editorial control and equal pay. In this excerpt, we meet our protagonist in a taxi cafe at a particularly low moment, after following through with the 'strike'.
Clem, on writing the screenplay:
I was a couple of weeks into my Wheeler Centre Hot Desk spell when a friend sent me a message: 'Hey! Turns out Spike Lee’s new film is a Lysistrata riff, too!' My response, as someone who had hitherto felt very smug about having cheated the collective unconscious when it comes to mining Ancient Greek theatre for screenplay gold, was a little like that moment in The Simpsons where the horrified PTA member leaps out the window.
In truth, that horror lasted about five minutes: Hollywood has a storied history of everyone thinking of the same thing at the same time, from Deep Impact and Armageddon to The Illusionist and The Prestige; on some level, to have happened to plug into the same vein as a filmmaker of Lee’s calibre was a bit of a cosmic pat on the back.
More importantly, with the help of the Hot Desk, I was able to actually work on my script. Support opportunities for 'emerging' or 'early career' screenwriters in Australia approach a 'thylacine sighting' level of mythic status; to be able to take the time (and the desk and wall space) to work on a script in that all-important notes/outline/treatment/initial draft phase was a godsend.
As is often the case in screenwriting, at least in my limited experience, the sequence excerpted here began its life as part of a different script altogether. However, with the thinking time afforded at my Hot Desk, unfettered by deadlines or the burning 'need' to go look in the fridge 'just in case', I realised it would work much better as a part of Strike, and even as that other project was quietly retired, this scene went on to live another day.
Lee’s Chi-Raq is in cinemas right now; my project is obviously a long way away from seeing the light of day. Only time will tell if my script turns out to be the Deep Impact or the Armageddon of this year’s (non) battle of the Lysistrata adaptations, but I’ll be forever grateful to The Wheeler Centre for helping me take it from being little more than a bright idea and beginning the process of turning it into a reality: straight into the 'to be thanked at the Oscars' document.
An excerpt from STRIKE:
INT. TAXI CAFE - NIGHT
The door JINGLES as Laura enters. She looks around: it’s a 1980s time capsule, all Big M and Chiko Roll posters.
A TV shows late-night programming, almost silent, on a wall bracket. A transistor QUIETLY plays BBC World Service.
The PROPRIETOR (75) emerges from behind a bead-curtained back room: an ancient roadhouse bird whose formidable bosom droops under the weight of accumulated wisdom.
She takes one look at the dishevelled Laura and works it out.
Cup a tea, darl?
She gestures to the stools in front of the counter.
Laura sits down, silently, relieved.
How’d you know?
The Proprietor raises her eyebrows in a show of gruff empathy, points at Laura’s teary face.
Why’d you think I keep the joint pen at this hour? I know the look by now. And--
She cranes her neck around to look at an ancient, branded clock.
--And the usual time.
Laura realises she can’t bullshit her.
Well... I think my life might be fucked.
The Proprietor pushes her a sturdy cup and saucer, Bushell’s tag dangling, and a slice of fruit cake on a side plate.
To be honest I still don’t know. Maybe I’ll commit hara kiri on the red carpet.
The Proprietor rests her arms on the counter.
Wanna have a chat about it? I think Lifeline’s pretty underfunded these days.
Laura laughs softly at her generosity.
I work in television.
Ahh. I don’t watch much, but I’ll take your word for it.
Twenty years ago I was a journalist, a proper one. Award- winning. But somehow I ended up hosting this very silly show, a silly show that meant more pay than I could have ever imagined.
And it didn’t make ya happy?
Well, happy enough, but this year I found out I was being fucked over by my male peers, and I started this strike, you know, no...
Laura makes an exaggerated “P in V” hand gesture.
The Proprietor nods sagely.
...To get them to take notice. And it became this huge campaign, a meme, and thousands of women joined in. We got what we wanted, but it suddenly struck me: there must be more to life than this. Couldn’t I do something more...
You mean the show’s not the sort of thing you dreamed of making?
Laura laughs bleakly.
You could say that. I mean, I’m an award-winning journalist, but in the end what’s my legacy going to be? That I managed to secure equal pay for a small handful of very rich women? That I spent a decade punching my card for the ratings?
The Proprietor thinks for a moment, susses Laura out as she takes a gulp of tea. She points to the fruit cake.
Y’know, I’ve been going to the Royal Show every year since I was a kid. And I always wanted to enter the fruitcake contest, because I reckoned I had the best recipe of all. So when I was about twenty, I decided to give it a crack.
Laura decides to go along with this.
But then I found out you have to all follow the same recipe for the fruitcake contest. Well, I wasn’t having a bar of that: what’s the point in entering if I can’t show off my fancy recipe? My recipe with the crystallised ginger and the sour cherries and the sherry: all the flash stuff. The official recipe looked boring as buggery. It had glace cherries! From the supermarket!
Laura looks down at the cake, then back at the Proprietor.
But did you enter?
The Proprietor is about to forge on when the DOOR BELL JINGLES and a hulklike MILKMAN strides in, a crate of milk on his shoulder.
Here ya go.
Oh, thanks darl. You want a cuppa for the road?
Laura looks slightly anxious as the Proprietor shuffles around, slowly making a takeaway cup of tea for the Milkman, who stands, leafing through the newspaper.
After a small eternity, he takes his traveller and exits the cafe.
Where was I?
Oh yeah: the next year I decided to swallow my pride and give it a crack. I followed the official recipe down to the letter, and I delivered my cake to the Showgrounds. And how’d you be, two weeks later I turn up and there it is, with a second place ribbon stuck on it.
Laura nods; not bad.
So the next year I gave it another crack, and that time I got first place!
She points at the cake.
(softly, with purpose)
I got over thirty blue ribbons for my fruitcake.
Laura looks at her, head tilted.
Their fruitcake, surely.
The Proprietor snorts sagely.
If you wanna look at it like that. But you know what I realised? It’s not about who has the fanciest recipe, or makes the grooviest cake: it’s about who puts the most passion in, no matter what the rules are.
LAURA looks humbled, and maybe a little bit inspired.
And you know what else: sometimes the cakes with the real unique, fancy recipes taste like shit anyway.
She grins at her gamely.
They both sit for a moment, while the WORLD SERVICE drones on, before LAURA leaps to her feet.
I have to go.
She frantically searches her pockets, and leaves a small mountain of change and notes on the counter, then dashes out the door.
The Proprietor watches her go, then shuffles back behind the bead curtain.
AT THE REAR OF THE CAFE
She sits down in an accommodating armchair.
HER HUSBAND sits across from her in an equally voluminous chair.
Who was that?
The Proprietor burps as she picks up a Sudoku book and a pencil.
Just that Laura woman from Treasure Hunt.
Her Husband nods sagely and both sit in silence save for the faint DRONE of the World Service.