shooting the chihuahua

Fingers crossed, a lovely little short film will be visiting your local film festival soon.  Colin the Dog’s Fabulous Midnight Adventure and Another Story is an adaptation of a short story I wrote at the age of 17 about a man who sets out in the middle of the night to find his lost chihuahua.  The story was published by the NSW Board of Studies in an anthology containing examples of major works submitted for the 2001 Higher School Certificate by the inaugural batch of students of the subject English Extension 2.

At the time, I thought that the story had found its final resting place, soon to be forgotten by all but me.  I went off to university to write endless essays and to forget about any artistic aspirations I had once harboured, which included wanting to become Martin Scorsese.  A few years in, however, I got a call from my former high school saying someone wanted to contact me to discuss Colin the Dog. That someone was Jiao Chen, a film student.  He’d read the story in a Year 11 chemistry class and, since then, had wanted to produce it for the screen.  Of course, I said that was a brilliant idea.  We made some moves towards pre-production but things didn’t progress very far.  I look back now and am grateful to Jiao for contacting me when he did because his interest in making the film was the encouragement I needed to start thinking that I might eventually be able to make fiction writing my profession.

While I sat in law school with weak hopes of becoming Atticus Finch quickly fading, Jiao went on to cut his teeth on TV commercials and feature films, such as Children of the Silk Road.  In 2008, while working on the ABC TV production East of Everything, Jiao contacted me again to talk about revisiting the adaptation of Colin the Dog.  

The chihuahua’s time had come.

Jiao had recently worked on the set of Mao’s Last Dancer where he met Grant Scicluna, who was interning as an assistant to Bruce Beresford.  Grant, a very talented director and screenwriter in his own right, liked Colin and got on board to write and direct the adaptation. (You can read more about Grant here, on the website of his new short film, Golden Girl, and here, where he writes about winning the 2011 National Film and Sound Archive’s Orlando Award.)

Jiao and Grant generously kept me in the loop as they sent various drafts of the screenplay back and forth.  The process was fascinating.  I had no idea how anyone would be able to make a story about the internal life of a character work dramatically on screen.  Somehow, Grant managed to do it brilliantly.  The final script was snappier and funnier than my original story.  Damn you and your oodles of talent, Grant Scicluna! ;D

While Grant worked on the screenplay, Jiao started up his own film production company, Staple Fiction, with the producer, Bethany Bruce.  Beth became a driving force behind getting Colin made.  You can read a bit more about Grant, Jiao and Beth here, on the fundraising website for Colin.

Some of the crew members who later came on board (and I’m sorry I haven’t listed everyone) included Director of Photography, Franc Biffone, Assistant Director, Cyntia Miyashita, Editor, Anthony Cox and Production Designer, Pele Hehea.  Groove Quantize was responsible for the sound design, which I’m really looking forward to hearing for the first time at the upcoming cast and crew screening.

The film stars Bob Baines as Giles (the ‘you’ of the short story), Diane Smith as Irlandia, and Sophie Ross and Ian Meadows as the younger couple.  Peter McCallum plays Giles’ friend, Brian.  My high school English teacher, Mr Robinson, makes a cameo in the film as a featured extra who is taking out the garbage.  The producers also managed to convince Boomer the chihuahua to take on a starring role.  The picture at the top of this post is a shot of Boomer catching some shuteye between takes.

I read somewhere once that it’s uncool for writers to hang around the film sets where their works are being adapted.  I decided to be uncool (not much of a stretch) and spent the shoot getting in the way of all the useful members of the crew who were trying to move around an already crowded set.  Below is a video that Staple Fiction put together to give you a feel for what it was like on the shoot.

Being on set was certainly an education.  I hadn’t previously thought too much about the effort and detail that go into creating just one scene.  Something else I realised is how practical an art form filmmaking is.  A great deal depends on well-planned logistical movements and a multitude of uncontrollable variables going right on the day.  The filmmakers had to worry about things like getting parking permits for the trucks that carried the film equipment and whether or not the budget allowed for the hire of a fire engine to recreate the rain that features in the original story.  They also had to consider whether there was enough time to finish filming a scene before sunset and how to deal with cloudy, high wind situations when trying to shoot action that’s supposed to be taking place in the middle of a sweltering summer.

A fiction writer, in contrast, doesn’t need to think about these sorts of logistical constraints.  I don’t need to think practically, which is just as well because practicality is not one of my strong points.  All I need to do is wake up, sit in front of my computer or my typewriter and bash away at the keyboard.  It almost seems lazy, when I think of what filmmakers have to go through.  My biggest issues on a typical day are those of sentence structure and the limits of my own imagination.  Occasionally, too, I need to think about how to earn money to support my physical self while I indulge my fictional self.   My own fictional universe, however, is within my complete control.  If I want torrential rain, all I have to do is say it’s pouring.  If I want a purple cow to drop out of the sky and into a pond, I don’t need to spare a thought for the availability of special effects or the limits of animal welfare legislation.

One final observation.  I think the most difficult lesson to learn while watching the development and shooting of the film was how to let go of the original story as it appeared in my imagination.   Kazuo Ishiguro says that writers shouldn’t be precious about their stories when it comes to film adaptations.  I think he’s right for two reasons.

Firstly, film language is different from the language of fiction, particularly because the former must focus on what can be conveyed by action rather than words.  Elements of a written story will inevitably need to be cut out or played up depending on what will work best dramatically (and depending on what will work within the constraints of time, budget, logistics and so on).

Secondly, a fiction writer is not the sole creator of a story.  Input comes from the reader too, who imports into the words on the page elements of his or her own life experience.  Consequently, those who read and then adapt a story for film will visualise it differently from how the writer does, just by virtue of having unique memories and imaginations.  It is therefore impossible for a filmmaker to render a story exactly as the writer imagines it.  Thus, an adaptation takes on a life of its own and becomes an interpretation rather than merely a faithful reproduction, in audiovisual form, of the original work.

Enough of the analysis.  It’s doing my head in.  Here are some photos I took while being uncool.

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In the next post, I’ll put up more snaps, this time taken by Anna Zhu, the fabulous stills photographer on Colin the Dog.

P.S. If you want to read Colin the Dog, here’s a link to the book in which it was first published.  The minute I miraculously become a technological genius, I’ll also make a very pretty electronic version of the story available for sale via the SHOP.  I have an urge to make edits to the story but I think it’s probably best to publish it intact as it originally appeared.

3 thoughts on “shooting the chihuahua

  1. Ah now I have to buy the book!

    Colin looks a little like my dog.

    Keep up the great work, loving it so far :)

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