Bitter and Twisted – Oz movie #14

Bitter and Twisted
director: Christopher Weekes

One of the things I’ve been discovering, during my exploration of Australian movies the last few months, is how often wonderful young talents get fucked over by a powerful and corrupt system. They make a neat movie on the proverbial smell, get snapped up by the movers and shakers in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and come out scarred for life…that’s if they are ever seen again.

It’s a mystery why they all want to go to the US, where it seems to me that none of them will make better movies. Is having a big budget worth that rather obvious compromise? Gregor Jordan bitterly describes his post-Two Hands Harvey Weinstein experiences here. For him it was a disaster he freely talks about. Christopher Weekes, who, on the back of Bitter and Twisted, enthusiastically set sail for the place where really big movies are made, is yet to reappear. Promises, headlines….amount to nothing.

He made this movie when he was 24, though it was much longer in the development thereof. It has a grace and gentleness which belies his youth and perhaps also his gender.  A budget of $200K and the goodwill of many saw it shot in twenty days. Please see, paraphrasing Weekes, what is there, not what is lacking. For me that’s easy: slickness, special effects, the smell of money give me nothing when I’m watching a movie.

There’s that motivational thing that athletes do: dream, believe, achieve. By that young age of twenty-four, Weekes had already had plenty of experience at the dreaming and believing. How to achieve? Particularly since he’d been rejected from every film school he tried. He wrote the part of Penelope for Noni Hazlehurst, such a fantastic actor, who of course doesn’t have the right sort of looks to permit her to be a ‘real’ star. She was doing show hosting on TV at the time. He had his screenplay smuggled into her dressing room. She read it. She loved it. It’s a great role and she does it justice.

I loved the scene where the TV is on and there on the screen is Julie Walters doing one of her kitchen sink dramas. I assume that this was Weekes’ nod to what a talent Hazlehurst is.

But this is an ensemble piece. Everybody who appears has a desirable cameo to play. Showing my ignorance again, I confess I didn’t know Matthew Newton, though clearly I should. Steve Rodgers is mostly found on stage and writing. Leeanna Walsman with a baseball bat and an imaginary foetus: Weekes has a deft touch that makes these moments poignant rather than crazy. As well as Hazlehurst, he got heavyweights Gary Sweet and Rhys Muldoon onboard.

Interviewed in 2010, Weekes described the way in which he wanted to set his film apart from what is so often done in Australia…and how that went down:

I wanted to write a movie that showed Australia in a way it’s not normally presented, without the bush and beer cans.  The Australia I grew up in was more about frozen chops, power lines and driveways….

I’d tried to get into virtually all of the film schools in Australia and couldn’t even get short-listed. I tried to make a few short films, but they turned out horribly.  I just wasn’t inspired enough.  My passion always seemed to be in long form.  So I gave up after a while and focused on making a 90-minute film, no matter how long it was going to take.  My theory was that I’d rather spend five years to make a feature film than spend six years and make three short films.

I know it sounds ridiculous, but I’ve felt over the hill since I was twelve, so when I turned twenty and still hadn’t managed to prove to the world, and myself, that I could actually write and direct something – I basically stopped trying to apply for schools and began thinking of other ways to make it happen.  Besides, most of these places charge almost as much for three years of tuition as it would cost to just turn around and make something, so I really was jumping into the project thinking of it as my “education”.

I had only just turned twenty four when I finally managed to coax a cast and crew into taking a chance on this young guy who wrote a film in the back of his parents house, and to make it even worse I was paying for the whole film myself with what I was able to save up from working two jobs in between shooting.  To say it was challenging is probably an understatement.

I wrote the first draft at 19 and tried for years to get people just to even read it, but it’s hard to be taken seriously at that age – especially when you’ve never done something before.

The real break came when I begged my best mate from school to drop a copy of the script in Noni Hazlehurst’s (below) dressing room on the set of Better Homes and Gardens.  Noni is this incredibly well known and respect actress in Australia who had been out of the “movie business” for some years while she worked on a variety show.  I’d written the main part of Bitter & Twisted with Noni in mind from the beginning.  I’ve seen her play so many roles, on stage and on screen and knew she could do such an incredible job with the character. Luckily for me she called the next day to say she loved it.

If you look online, you can see any number of references to Weekes around 2009-2011. ‘The Golden Boy of the Black List’ when his script for a Muppet Man, an odd biopic of Jim Henson appeared at the top of that list. That happened in the wake of the Tribeca Film Festival where notable critic Howard Feinstein was more than taken with Bitter and Twisted. In a report on the ‘Great Films’, to quote him, of the 7th NY Tribeca Film Festival he said:

Since I wrote here last, I found some incredible works that I might never have been exposed to without Tribeca’s existence. The one that really got my juices going is “Bitter & Twisted,” a $200,000 Australian drama about loss that was slipped in by screener to programmer David Kwok late in the game. This is a masterpiece, a project largely homemade in the tacky ex-urbs south of Sydney by Christopher Weekes, a young director with enormous talent, and his friends. Three years after the unexpected death of a twentysomething son, the movie tracks the daily lives of his parents, surviving brother, and girlfriend. Without cheap sentiment, it explores the shifts in their lifestyles, the alteration of daily routines — the subliminal effect of loss on one’s psyche.

Weekes himself portrays the surviving brother, but it is Aussie icon Noni Hazelhurst, real and dumpy at 53 (forget the botoxed Aussies who conform to Hollywood convention, the Kidmans and Blanchetts who were once fresh-faced human beings) as the mother who is at the center. All the loved ones act out in different ways, only to ultimately face their demons and move on. This is touching and probing, both universal and specifically Australian (with no concessions to marketing a certain Aussie “otherness.”) I get the feeling that the fest’s priorities are finding talents who can work in the biz, so I don’t know where this puts a foreign artist like Weekes. Maybe he’s a fluke in this arena.

And so the hype began. The Black List topping. Reports like this from the LA Times in December 2009:

When the Black List, Hollywood’s annual ranking of the top unproduced scripts, was unveiled Friday, it lent the full weight of its authority to Christopher Weekes.

Weekes’ screenplay “The Muppet Man,” about the life and loves of Jim Henson, had landed the top spot, ahead of a number of up-and-coming writers and even established names like Aaron Sorkin.

That kind of honor comes with a host of benefits, not the least of which is giving a valuable boost to the project (last year’s winner, a quirky character piece called “The Beaver,” was catapulted toward production by its Black List win, with Mel Gibson now starring, Jodie Foster directing and Summit Entertainment, the studio behind the “Twilight” franchise, distributing the film).

“The Muppet Man,” which takes an almost fairy-tale view of the romance between the late Jim Henson and his longtime wife Jane, faces a far tougher climb.

Weekes was discovered by managers Britton Rizzio and Kelly McCormack after they had seen an indie movie of his at a film festival in 2008. They soon found he had written, entirely on spec, a script about one of the most enigmatic and private of contemporary artists without having ever met or even read much about him (there exists no major published biography about Henson).

Instead, Weeks conjured the story mostly out of his imagination, basing it on a series of photos he’d studied and whatever strands of information he could find on things like Wikipedia. “Even though I was just 10 when he died, Jim Henson had been this Walt Disney-like figure in my life, and I wanted to create a version of him as seen through these kind of rose-colored glasses,” Weekes said Friday from Australia.

As whimsical as the script is said to be (it also folded into the narrative invented particulars of the romance between Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, including a depiction of a hungover Kermit heartbroken by Miss Piggy’s impending marriage to another beau), it also wanders into a legal and creative thicket. Weekes had written a story about individuals — Jim and Jane Henson — to whom he did not hold rights. Equally problematic, Weekes had included a number of Muppet characters to which Disney owns the rights.

That kind of thing is, to say the least, usually frowned upon.

“He basically did what all your representatives tell you not to do,” Sarah Hammer, who used to represent Weekes as an agent, says with a laugh.

And sure enough, when the project was sold to the Jim Henson Co. shortly after  — “the only place it could go,” says Rizzio — it was welcomed but quickly found itself mired in creative differences. The production banner, according to people familiar with the meetings, wanted to turn the story into more of a Muppet romp — even a musical — and excise the Jim and Jane Henson relationship. And Weekes had written an intimate, if not dark, character study.  As the novice Weekes found out, it’s not easy being green.

Lisa Henson, the daughter of Jim and Jane Henson who helps run the Jim Henson Co., maintains that the problems can be resolved by simply combining two different visions, though even she acknowledges that the story that came to her was not one that the company liked.

“It was a very gutsy move on [Chris’s] part to write this script, and we recognized the enthusiasm,” she says. “But it would be irresponsible to make a biopic that would be all made up.”

After Henson acquired the script, a number of studio executives read it and began calling Weekes’ reps. And stars like Jim Carrey, Leonardo DiCaprio and Hugh Jackman expressed interest in playing the legendary creator of Big Bird and Elmo.

But without the blessing of the Henson Co., it may well be doomed. And that’s not even broaching the question of Disney, which, to add more problems to the furry pile, is currently developing its own Muppets movie with Jason Segel. It’s hard to imagine new studio chief Rich Ross eager to make a biopic about the founder of a company with which Disney is so closely aligned, not to mention approving a script in which Kermit the Frog smokes and drinks.

Weekes is no longer actively working on his script — he, in fact, has not written a new draft since the original was sold to the Henson Co. Instead he is working on two new movies, including one for Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures called “Waterproof,” to which “Enchanted” director Kevin Lima is loosely attached to direct.

Weekes’ own professional arc appears to be headed toward a happy ending. The big-screen story of Jim and Jane Henson — and Kermit and Piggy — may not fare as well.

— Steven Zeitchik

You look on IBMD news and he’s doing the Muppet Man, he’s signed on with Milos Forman to write the script of a biopic of Mr Ponzi, he’s doing Waterproof, he’s all over the place, flaying LA alive – or it him….He is interviewed in 2010 and described as ‘He is based in LA, where he is finishing a rewrite of the film ‘Waterproof’.’ Shortly after, this was being done by others; not that they have succeeded either. The movie still doesn’t exist.

And when finally Martha the Monster was released in Australia in 2017, Weekes was back where he had started, making short movies. The movie had taken four years to make – it won funding of $150K in 2013. Considering where he thought he was in 2008, it’s pretty depressing to see how little he was able to achieve over the next ten years. Did he get anything from those years in LA, I wonder? Other than a reality check.

Asked in 2010 ‘Being in L.A., do you feel you’re now part of the ‘real’ club of filmmakers?’, he replied:

I don’t know if there’s a club.  But I do know that if you want to write and make films in Hollywood, or anywhere for that matter, you need to be passionate about it because it’s not going to happen overnight.

You have to love the idea you’re working on, because you’ll be sitting with it for the next five years of your life.

If you’re passionate about what you’re doing and believe in it then someone’s going to be passionate about seeing you produce it.

It seems so sadly naive and trusting. And maybe that takes us back to Bitter and Twisted. Ben trusts Indigo. Indigo trusts Greg. Matt trusts Ben. Penelope trusts Lucas, (Sam Haft plays the charmer perfectly). Misplaced or not, trust makes each person what they are. Jordan is tormented when he discovers his trust of Penelope has been lost. But she trusts him to the extent of saying exactly how she feels and what is wrong. Jordan trusts Penelope enough to chuck in his hated job. Indigo trusts that getting a bus to Melbourne in the middle of the night will turn out well, not badly. I think the degree of trust in the movie is at least partly what wins the audience over.

So, I hope that Christopher Weekes continues his charming optimism on screen, in development and in life. May he end up fulfilling his potential, wherever that may take him. It’s a crying shame that the Australian box office for this movie was $12,000.

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