....to be continued...
Monday, December 9, 2013
A light-hearted story about a beautiful, rich, famous but emotionally lost young celebrity with bizarre and often comic suicide fantasies searching for meaning and purpose in her life and finding both (and a strange but satisfying kind of love) in the arms and heart of a self-confessed narcissistic pop star with an Asperger-like penchant for truth-telling.
1 INT. DARK ROOM
ASHLEY, early 30s, made up and dressed to look like a teenage Juliet - from Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. In a mid-shot, spot-lit, ASHLEY stares directly into the camera for along moment before commencing her performance.
ASHLEY reaches down, lifts a silver goblet into frame.
‘A cup closed in my true love’s hand?’
ASHLEY’S performance as Juliet is competent; professional.
‘Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end. O churl! Drunk all and left no friendly drop to help me after?’
Tears well in ASHLEY’S eyes.
‘I will kiss thy lips. Haply some poison yet doth hang on them to make die with a restorative. ‘
ASHLEY leans out of frame for a moment, then back into frame.
Thy lips are warm.
As the reality of Romeo’s death sinks in, the expression on ASHLEY’S face shifts, through stages, from grief to madness. She leans down, half out of frame, stands upright again – a dagger in her hand. She stares at it for a long moment, tears open her shirt and presses the blade into the flesh above her heart.
Oh happy dagger. This is thy sheath.
She grips the handle of the dagger firmly, preparing to plunge it into her heart. The beeping sound of a telephone answering machine intrudes.
ASHLEY tries not to lose her concentration.
WOMAN’S VOICE (answering machine)
Ashley, darling, it’s your mother…
2 INT. TV STUDIO. ‘WAKE UP WITH ASHLEY’. DAY
Close on ASHLEY, eyes closed, smiling. Studio sounds bleed in, dragging her out of her daydream. She opens her eyes.
VERONICA (voice off)
Okay, brief intro, ‘My first guest today…’
VERONICA, the show’s producer, stands by ASHLEY, sitting on a sofa as the studio crew makes last minute preparations to go on air.
‘…Dion Lucian…bla bla bla’
The ‘Wake up with Ashley’ set is art directed as a penthouse with views of Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House. VERONICA hands her clipboard to ASHLEY, turns to her ASSISTANT, mobile phone to her ear.
The ASSISTANT shakes her head. ASHLEY takes in the day’s schedule.
Celebrities! Okay, think positive. He’ll be here.
MELISSA, a make-up artist, mid-30s, steps close to ASHLEY – the tools of her trade in hand.
Hey, Mel! How’d it go?
MELISSA makes a ‘so-so’ gesture.
Nice enough, but the father of my child? No way, Hose…Might have been fun trying, but…
You’ve got your standards?
Indeedy! (A BEAT) You think they’re too high?
Standards can never be too high!
Phillip, his name was. Was tempted to go through the motions.
ASHLEY laughs, touches MELISSA’S arm affectionately, looks at her diary, open in her lap, as MELISSA makes last minute adjustments to her makeup.
ASHLEY ticks ‘call mum’ off a long list.
The magnificent view of Sydney Harbour through the windows is replaced by a blue screen. VERONICA turns back to ASHLEY.
Brief intro…cue MTV clip…
VERONICA gestures to ASHLEY - who smiles effusively, pretending to be ‘on air’ as MELISSA powders her forehead.
Dion Lucian, heart throb rock singer, joins a long line of celebrities trying their luck as actors…yadda yadda…
Cue clip from film…30 seconds…
ASHLEY and VERONICA look at a TV monitor on which:
DION, celebrity pop star performs for a huge crowd – wooing the hysterical teenage girls in the front row.
Please welcome the talented and extremely gorgeous Lucian…yadda yadda
Okay, no sign of Dion so we’ll lead with the footie story (TO ASSISTANT) Get Craig out here…five minutes max…go to the headlines and hopefully our well hung hero…
As the ASSISTANT rushes off she runs into the arms of DION, entering the studio. The ASSISTANT blushes as DION flashes his best white smile. In his late 20’s, DION has rock star good looks, is fashionably unkempt and unshaved and knows how to turn on the charm when he needs to.
Ashley, I’m sorry. Everyone…No excuses, sorry, Mea Culpa…but…
ASHLEY decides to have some fun with DION.
Excuse me, but who are you?
Well, I’m not quite sure, actually, Ashley! Others know me as Dion Lucian but to myself I am a mystery! And you would be?
I would be, and am, always have been and almost assuredly always will be Ashley Loundes.
DION laughs, sits on the couch beside her.
Yes, that’s right, I think I saw you on the front cover of some celebrity magazine…’Miss Perfect’?
Yes, the same one with you in a nightclub with…
It wasn’t cocaine. Cross my heart and hope to die. (BIG SMILE) I really am sorry for being so…so…so fucking late…
Yes, you’re a very naughty boy.
Do I get a good spanking?
ASHLEY smiles. Holds out her hand to shake DION’S.
Nice to meet you, Dion.
DION kisses the back of ASHLEY’S hand; quotes Shakespeare:
“O that I were a glove upon that hand, that I might touch that cheek”
“O, speak again, bright angel!”
Nice to meet you in the flesh Ashley Loundes. Just as gorgeous as your photos. More gorgeous.
That’s a line from your film isn’t it?
Not quite. Close, but you know…the line is not in the screenplay. It was my suggestion. Not quite improvisation but…
One you’ve used a few times?
This throws DION.
Does it work?
Not with you, obviously.
ASHLEY smiles. MELISSA hovers, wanting to powder DION’S face.
Hey, guys, we’re on air in 30 seconds…
DION waves MELISSA away.
Right! (A BEAT) You are not going to believe WHY I am late. This is not an excuse but…
ASHLEY holds up her hand.
Perhaps you could share it with the viewers?
Mmmm…probably not suitable for early morning television…
You think there’s anything about your private life that the viewers don’t know already?
Probably the same sorts of things the viewers don’t know about you.
DION holds ASHLEY’S eyes and she his. ASHLEY nods.
Okay, after my intro I thought I’d start by asking you…
Don’t tell me. Surprise me. Catch me off guard.
DION reads from the autocue.
‘Dion Lucan, heart throb rock singer, joins a long line of celebrities…’ Heart throb! Really, Ashley! You can do better than that.
I didn’t write it.
But is your heart throbbing?
I’d be dead if it wasn’t.
And I’d be very sad. But would you be sad if I was…if my heart stopped throbbing?
You know, Dion, I’m supposed to be interviewing you.
Right. Sorry. You really are more gorgeous that your photos…even if it is a line from ‘Comeback’.
ASHLEY is flustered. DION grins, holds an imagined microphone to his mouth, hams up being an interviewer.
‘Is there any love interest in your life at this point in time, Ashley?’
Well, we all know that there is in yours. More than one, it seems.
You can’t believe everything you read.
Seeing is not necessarily believing!
So that wasn’t your bottom? Bouncing up and down? The one with the pimples on it?
But it wasn’t me who posted it on the internet!
Just a coincidence, then? That it was posted the same week your new album was launched?
God works in mysterious ways! The pimples are gone, incidentally…in case you’re interested.
I wasn’t but thanks for the update!
You’re welcome. Can we expect to see an Ashley Loundes sex video on the internet any time soon?
I’m working on the script right now, but…
If you need any ‘performers’…
DION grins, opens his arms wide: “Here I am!”
If I get really desperate…
DION laughs out loud.
Are you busy tonight?
You asking me out on a date?
But you don’t have to sleep with me…unless you really want to, of course!
ASHLEY laughs, shakes her head, calls to VERONICA.
Shouldn’t we be to be on air by now?
3 INT. KITCHEN. DAY
Close on TV:
We’ve been on air for the last 90 seconds!
ASHLEY’S jaw drops.
CHLOE, aged 12, and JENNY, early 50s, watch the TV.
CHLOE turns to her mother.
She’s in love! Ash’s in love!
JENNY gestures to Chloe to shut up.
In lust, I think…
Whatever! Lust…love…same thing.
JENNY laughs. CHLOE turns to her mother.
JENNY shakes her head, mimics Chloe’s earlier’ whatever!’.
We’ve got a clip here that we’d like to show from ‘Comeback Kid’.
4 INT. TV STUDIO. DAY
ASHLEY looks directly at the camera.
Dion has his clothes on – you’ll either be pleased or disapproved to know…
I mean ‘disappointed’. Disappointed to know…
You wouldn’t be disappointed, I can assure you.
My standards are very high.
Out of respect for the kiddies out there eating their breakfast I’ll leave it to you to imagine my next line.
I think that is an excellent idea, Mr Lucian. Time I think we talked about your film. Your first role as a serious actor.
My first acting role, period! In public, that is.
What about the ‘sex romp’ on the internet? (A BEAT) Pimply bottom…?
5 INT. DARK ROOM. NIGHT
ASHLEY watches the interview on a TV monitor.
That wasn’t acting.
A pretty poor performance whatever you call it.
DION laughs, throws up his hands in a gesture of defeat.
ASHLEY grins triumphantly.
ASHLEY punches ‘rewind’ – her face set hard; not happy:
Dion has his clothes on – you’ll either be pleased or disapproved to know…
I mean ‘disappointed’. Disappointed to know…
ASHLEY hits to ‘stop’ button, annoyed with herself.
ASHLEY rewinds again:
you’ll either be pleased or disapproved to know…
pleased or disapproved to know…
pleased or disapproved…
And again, obsessively:
ASHLEY raises her hands to her face, raking her fingers across it – her finger nails leaving red tracks on her pale skin. Clearly angry with her on-air mistake, ASHLEY, elegantly dressed in an off-white suit, leaps to her feet, stands for a moment as if not sure what to do next, walks to the door of the darkened room. As she does so we catch a brief glimpse of its contents: a video camera on a tripod, lights on stands, what appears to be a rack of theatrical costumes and posters on the wall from classic films like CASABLANCA, GONE WITH THE WIND and others such as JANE EYRE, ROMEO AND JULIET and GIRL INTERRUPTED.
6 INT. LIVING ROOM. PRE-DAWN
ASHLEY emerges from the room, locks the door behind her - her face revealing her agitation. She crosses the expensively and tastefully furnished Living Room, opens the drawer of an antique dresser and places the key in it. She then moves to and opens the sliding door leading out onto the verandah.
7 EXT. VERANDAH. PRE-DAWN
As ASHLEY walks onto the verandah it becomes apparent that she lives in a beach house with a magnificent 180 degree view of the ocean. The first light of dawn cracks the night sky.
ASHLEY looks out to sea, the expression on her face moving through a range of emotions – confusion, panic, a sense of cosmic dread as her brain works overtime. There is a lot going on behind those big sparkling eyes that is causing her a lot of torment. She closes her eyes, takes a few deep breaths, opens them again. Whatever demons possess her she has under temporary control. She takes an iPod from her pocket, turns it on, puts ear plugs in her ears, listens to her favourite classical music as she looks to the horizon - tinged orange now. As the music plays, the tension drains from ASHLEY’S body and face and the beginnings of a contented smile appear on her lips. In this moment she is at peace with herself.
As the first sliver of golden sun appears on the horizon ASHLEY’S smile broadens and becomes a laugh. Her eyes glisten with happiness as the sun bursts from the sea and the music reaches its crescendo.
8 INT/EXT. CAR. ASHLEY’S BEACHHOUSE. DAY
ASHLEY pulls out of her driveway in her shiny red BMW, stops in the street. Natural sound fades. ASHLEY’S face, seen in close up, registers both excitement and anxiety. The sound of a barking dog intrudes.
ASHLEY turns to see a large dog in the yard of her next door neighbour running down the pathway towards her, barking loudly. The chain attached to its collar forces the dog to stop just a few feet from the front gate. ASHLEY’S mobile rings. She looks at the LCD screen – BRAD – and lets the call go to her message bank.
9 INT. CAR. COASTAL ROAD. EARLY MORNING
ASHLEY drives a coastal road. Propped up on the dash, resting in a bracket, is an an iPad. Onscreen: JENNY in her kitchen preparing breakfast.
I’m not going to ask but if you want to you can tell.
JENNY holds up a copy of a glossy magazine with a photo of Ashley on the cover smiling radiantly. Across the top is written MISS PERFECT IN LOVE?. CHLOE walks into the kitchen in her school uniform.
I hate that photo.
So do I.
CHLOE appears on Ashley’s laptop computer screen, her face scrunched up in a grimace.
It’s sooo fake…
CHLOE rolls her eyes.
You try keeping a smile on your face for five whole minutes.
A smile’s not something you try! If you have to try its not really a smile.
So, did you sleep with him?
CHLOE ignores her mother.
It was obvious you would. The way you looked at each other.
You don’t ask those kinds of questions, darling.
You mean you don’t!
JENNY leans close to Chloe, grimaces playfully.
Gotta go, girls!
CHLOE leans forward to kiss the lens on her mother’s iPad – her face looming large on Ashley’s computer screen.
ASHLEY leans forward, kisses CHLOE. As ASHLEY switches off her laptop the joy drains from her face – to be replaced with the distressed look of confusion we have seen before.
10 EXT. TV STATION. PARKING LOT. DAY
ASHLEY parks, gets out of her car, sees BRAD TAYLOR, 40ish, getting out of his flash car. He waves, beams an over-white smile, signals for ASHLEY to wait. She does so, reluctantly. BRAD walks up, kisses her on the cheek, works hard to be as charming as he can be – in a playful way.
Did I ever tell you I love you?
Not that I can remember!
I do, you know.
You picked a fine time to tell me!
Timing’s never been one of my strong points.
Or apologizing…I am sorry, really…And I do love you. Truly, madly, deeply…
I’m not sorry and you don’t love me. Brad, let’s get real here! You love the idea of being in love with me.
That what you’re shrink says?
I can think for myself, Brad. And she’s not a shrink.
Where’s it from? ‘Men are From Mars’ or something?
A blue minivan with the TV station logo on it drives by but ASHLEY and BRAD pay no attention to it.
Not as bad as ‘Did I ever tell you I love you?’
Did I really say that?
Yes, and you’ve obviously been rehearsing it all morning!
BRAD holds up his hands: “I surrender”. ASHLEY touches BRAD’S arm affectionately.
And hey, It’s not a criticism. Just a fact. I’m just as bad as you…
We only really fell in…whatever…because…
ASHLEY gestures with her hands as if about to reel off a list.
Don’t tell me! You’ve got a list!?
I do, actually…
You are bonkers, Ash! You know that, don’t you? Okay, give me your list. Because…?
BRAD mimics her list-making hand gesture.
The reasons are all wrong.
Brad, you’re good looking, you’ve got a beautiful body, you make me laugh, you’re good in bed, you’re charming and witty and…
And the wrong reasons would be? Ash?
You’re as shallow and pathetic as I am.
I just pretend to be shallow. It’s all for show!
You’re very convincing.
Come on, Ash. You’re the only one makes me laugh…
Do you want to have a baby?
Make it into the Guinness Book of Records if I did!
BRAD realizes that ASHLEY is not joking.
This is a trick question, right? You really want to have a baby?
ASHLEY shakes her head. MELISSA pulls into the parking lot in her small car.
Not with me. With Mel.
Are there some pages missing from this script?
Mel’s looking for a sperm donor.
Isn’t that what boyfriends are for?
Not a partner. Just some good quality sperm.
No, and since you like to share yours around I thought…
Twice. I shared it…twice…
Well, Mel would make it thrice!
BRAD laughs, shakes his head. MELISSA is out of her car now and trying, without success, to catch ASHLEY’S attention.
Call me old fashioned but…
Do you want to have a baby with me?
Do you want to have a baby with me!
I didn’t say that but if you really and truly do love me why don’t you want to have a baby with me?
I didn’t say I didn’t want to have a baby with you.
So you do?
I didn’t say that either.
Then you don’t really love me, obviously. And since I don’t want to have a baby with you either, we…us…it’s just lust. High quality lust but…
BRAD stops, holds out his arms.
Jesus Ash! What the fuck is it you want?
ASHLEY stops walking, turns and calls back to BRAD.
Jesus Brad, I don’t fucking know. I was hoping you’d be able to give me a clue!
ASHLEY storms off, leaving BRAD totally confused. MELISSA walks up.
What was all that about?
You don’t want to know.
I do so want to know…everything.
Only now does ASHLEY notices the blue minibus 20 or so feet away - MEN AND WOMEN standing beside it, looking at her. A few of them wave to her. ASHLEY smiles, waves back, turns to MELISSA.
How long they been there?
You don’t want to know.
You guys split up again?
Fucked if I know, Mel!
ASHLEY bristles, holds up her finger: “back off”.
MELISSA holds up her hands: “OK!” They walk together in silence for a moment.
Hey, guess what! I did it.
ASHLEY doesn’t know what she is referring to.
You know, putting an ad on the internet…
11 INT. MAKE-UP ROOM. TV STUDIO. DAY
ASHLEY is looking at the screen of Melissa’s laptop computer:
A cartoon drawing of a woman’s reproductive organs (in cross-section) in the form of a smiling face - the ovaries are the eyes. Written across the bottom of the cartoon figure: I WANT YOUR SPERM.
This is you?
Don’t tell anyone, OK. Not even Brad, OK.
Guess how many hits I’ve got? In less than 24 hours!
Before ASHLEY has a chance to reply, VERONICA walks into the room. MELISSA closes her laptop quickly. VERONICA is in a very good mood.
Did you see the ratings?
12 INT. TV STUDIO. DAY
ASHLEY interviews a POLITICIAN. He smiles patronizingly.
But that is not an answer to my question.
If you’d just stop interrupting me…
I’m interrupting because you keep answering a question I haven’t asked. My question requires only a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.
Ashley, what you don’t seem to understand…
Please! Don’t patronize me. Yes or no? It’s front page news and the voters are dying to…
Well, we all know what will be on the front pages of tomorrow’s newspaper?
This throws ASHLEY for a moment but she recovers quickly.
Would you care to share your psychic predictions with the viewers?
The POLITICIAN smiles unctuously, holds up his hands.
I’m in the business of policy, not gossip.
‘Wake Up’ viewers don’t mind a bit of gossip. And since you mentioned tomorrow’s newspapers…
You really are a cowardly little shit, aren’t you?
This sends a ripple of shock through the studio. VERONICA tries to catch ASHLEY’S eye. MELISSA looks on with concern.
Okay, it’ll probably be you on the front page tomorrow!
A sad comment on us all, isn’t it? And an interesting topic, Minister, but we don’t have time to go into it right now. We do have time, however, for you to answer my question with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. About 10 seconds I believe, before the ad break.
ASHLEY smiles, looks at the POLITICIAN – who clearly has no answer. ASHLEY turns to the audience.
You voted for this idiot!
She throws her hands up in mock despair, grimaces; then smiles.
13 INT. CORRIDOR. DAY
ASHLEY walks fast down a corridor away from the studio. VERONICA and MELISSA follow her.
Ashley, stop. I want to talk…
ASHLEY waves her away.
14 INT. ASHLEY’S OFFICE. DAY
ASHLEY rushes into her office, closes the door behind her, locks it. She is pale, sweating, in the midst of a panic attack. She opens a drawer, takes out a paper bag, breathes into it deeply; calms herself down. She takes a vial of pills from her handbag, tips two into her hand, throws them into her mouth, washes them down with some bottled water, looks at her hands. They are shaking. There is a knock on the door. ASHLEY ignores it.
MELISSA (voice off)
Ash, it’s just me.
ASHLEY composes herself, opens the door, slips into the cool, calm and collected persona she is so good at.
Serves him right, the little shit!
MELISSA, iPad in hand, nods half-heartedly and is about to say something when ASHLEY snaps angrily at her.
Please don’t ask me if I’m OK, Mel. It drives me fucking crazy.
You need to look at this.
A LITTLE LATER
ASHLEY and MELISSA look at Ashley’s laptop – on which there is grainy mobile phone footage of:
Ashley and Brad talking in the car park. All but the last few words are inaudible and even these have been subtitled:
Jesus Ash! What the fuck is it you want?
ASHLEY stops walking, turns and shouts at BRAD.
Jesus Brad, I don’t fucking know. I was hoping you’d be able to give me a clue!
15 INT. TAXI. TV STUDIO. DAY
ASHLEY sits in the back seat of the taxi, slinking out of view as it approaches the gate- outside of which there are several PAPARAZZI. Once clear of the gate she sits up, plays nervously with her hair for a moment, takes out her mobile, fast-dials MUM.
Thought you might like some company!
You had breakfast?
16 INT. JENNY’S KITCHEN. DAY
JENNY cooks a big breakfast in an immaculately clean kitchen, takes toast from the toaster.
Lots of butter. You need fattening up. You’re all skin and bones. Gorgeous, but a few pounds wouldn’t hurt.
ASHLEY grips her upper arm.
JENNY shakes her head, raises her eyebrows.
Your arms are perfect – like the rest of you.
ASHLY bites her lip. JENNY takes ASHLEY’S face in her hands, kisses her on each cheek.
17 INT. BALLROOM. NIGHT
ASHLEY, dressed in a stunning outfit, her hair beautifully styled and looking a million dollars, sits at a table in a crowded ballroom – a huge happy smile on her face as the well-dressed PATRONS of this awards ceremony applaud her. ASHLEY stands and walks confidently towards the stage – on which TWO PRESENTERS wait with a large trophy. An image of her walking to the stage is projected behind the TWO PRESENTERS. The audience is on feet applauding as ASHLEY prances up onto the stage, kisses the TWO PRESENTERS, takes the trophy in her hand, holds it aloft and beams a million dollar smile at her adoring fans And then at DION, looking terrific in a tuxedo as he smiles lovingly at her and claps enthusiastically.
18 INT. ASHLEY’S BEDROOM AT JENNY’S HOUSE. DAY
ASHLEY lies on the bed in her childhood bedroom, looking at her iPad – on which screens the awards ceremony. There are photos of Ashley as a girl, her teddy bears, dolls, ballet and sporting trophies; a quiver of multi-coloured feathers.
Close on the iPad. The shot zooms in on Ashley smiling broadly as she holds her award aloft and bathes in the warmth of the rapturous applause.
Close on Ashley. Tears well in her eyes. She lifts her thumb to her mouth and bites her finger nail. She seems lost; at the end of her tether.
The applause continues over ASHLEY as pulls a tattered teddy bear close and hugs it tight staring into space.
ASHLEY closes her eyes.
Fade to black.
19 EXT. FOREST. DAY
ASHLEY’s BMW is parked amidst trees in a beautiful forest. The sound of Ashley’s favourite music, heard earlier, fills the sound track.
20. INT. ASHLEY’S CAR. DAY
Close on ASHLEY as she listens to her favourite music – a happy smile on her face. The shot holds for a long time as ASHLEY luxuriates in the music.
In a wider shot we see that a rubber hose is pumping exhaust fumes into the car through a close-to-closed window.
ASHLEY’S smile broadens. She seems ecstatically happy. The dull sound of a knocking on the window intrudes – muffled by the music. The knocking becomes louder, catches ASHLEY’S attention. She turns and sees:
CHLOE smiling at her through the window, a quizzical, puzzled look on her face. She indicates to ASHLEY to wind the window down. ASHLEY does so. CHLOE leans forward and kisses Ashley on the lips.
21 INT. ASHLEY’S BEDROOM AT JENNY’S HOUSE. DAY
CHLOE in her school uniform, sits on the edge of Ashley’s bed, kisses ASHLEY on the lips, sits up, looks adoringly at her older sister sleeping.
CHLOE takes a feather from Ashley’s collection of them, tickles ASHLEY’S nose.
ASHLEY twitches, makes funny faces. CHLOE starts to giggle, then laugh.
ASHLEY’S grimaces become more extreme, more theatrical, then she explodes in a ferocious lion’s roar that scares CHLOE for a moment before reducing her to paroxysms of laughter.
ASHLEY grabs her, growls like a lion, bites her. They fall from the bed onto the floor and start to tickle each other.
Stop! Stop. I’m going to pee in my pants!
ASHLEY stops, grins at CHLOE, kisses her on the cheek. CHLOE kisses her back. ASHLEY pecks CHLOE on the cheek. CLOE reciprocates. They peck at each others faces like chickens, making clucking sounds, both laughing uncontrollably again.
JENNY stands in the doorway, smiling, holding a tray with three mugs of steaming hot chocolate and assorted biscuits.
22. ASHLEY’S BEDROOM. NIGHT
ASHLEY, naked, sits astride BRAD (also naked) riding up and down on his cock as she uses one hand to masturbate herself to orgasm.
ASHLEY slides off BRAD, close to orgasm, lies beside him. BRAD reaches one arm behind her so that she can nestle her head on his chest.
BRAD strokes her affectionately.
ASHLEY stills his hand with her own, stares into space.
As the camera moves slowly in to an extreme close-up, tears welling in ASHLEY’S eyes, woman’s American accented voice over is heard. It sounds very like Charlize Theron’s rendition of Aileen Wournos’ voice in the film ‘Monster’.
I always wanted to be in the movies. When I was little, I thought for sure, one day, I could be a big big star. Or maybe just beautiful. Beautiful and rich like the women on TV….
23 INT. ASHLEY’S SECRET LOCKED ROOM
ASHLEY looks directly at the camera. She is made up to look like Charlize Theron playing Aileen Wournos
…Yeah, I had a lot of dreams. And I guess you could call me a real romantic because I truly believed that one day, they'd come true. So I dreamed about it for hours. As the years went by, I learned to stop sharin' this with people…
In a wider shot it becomes apparent that ASHLEY is sitting in front of a video camera on a tripod, delivering this monologue.
…They said I was dreaming, but back then, I believed it wholeheartedly…
24 VERANDAH. ASHLEY’S HOUSE. PRE-DAWN
Close on ASHLEY as she sips her cup of tear, staring out at the ocean. Her voice over (as Aileen Wournos) continues:
ASHLEY (voice over)
So whenever I was down, I would just escape into my mind…
25 INT. CAR. DAWN
ASHLEY drives her BMW along a coastal road, her Aileen Wournos voice over mingled with her favourite music emanating from the speakers. Her face is a mask, expressionless.
ASHLEY (voice over)
…to my other life, where I was someone else.
26 INT. MAKE-UP ROOM. DAY
As MELISSA makes her up, ASHLEY’S voice over continues. Her face remains expressionless – lost in her own reveries.
ASHLEY (voice over)
…It made me happy to think that all these people just didn't know yet who I was gonna be.
INT. STUDIO. DAY
As VERONICA counts down with her fingers – three, two, one…
ASHLEY (voice over)
But one day, they'd all see.
When VERONICA’S last finger disappears, ASHLEY’S expressionless face breaks into a radiant smile.
28 INT. PSYCHIATRIST’S OFFICE. DAY
ASHLEY sits in a large comfortable leather chair talking to someone offscreen.
…A glass bubble…like being trapped in a glass bubble…I mean…I can see everything outside the bubble, through the glass but I can’t…no matter how close…I can’t reach through the glass and…touch things…the people I see there. Does that make sense? And the people I can see, the people I can’t touch, are looking at me, smiling, and I smile back because…because…what if I stop smiling. Will they still love me if I stop…no that’s not the right word…’love’…or maybe it is. I don’t know…what love is…or much else. Anything else…Sorry…I say that a lot, don’t I? I’m sorry…(LAUGHS) OK, enough of me talking about me. Your turn to ask me a question about me?
What question do you think I should ask you?
I don’t know. You’re the shrink, not me.
RUTH nods, smiles, looks directly at ASHLEY – who looks away, shrugs, looks at her watch.
29 INT. ASHLEY’S HOUSE. FRONT DOOR. EVENING
ASHLEY, elegantly dressed and made up to look gorgeous, opens the front door of her house to DION – standing there with a bunch of bright yellow sunflowers. He kisses her on both cheeks as ASHLEY laughs gleefully.
30 INT. LIVING ROOM. EVENING
ASHLEY, carrying the bunch of sunflowers, walks with DION into the Living Room.
You probably think I’m an idiot. ‘Disapproved’ Duh!
Does that mean you do approve?
ASHLEY laughs, moves into the en suite kitchen, takes a vase from a cupboard.
You want a drink?
Mmmm! Do you want the short or the long answer?
The short. Twitter…
And the long?
You’ve done your research, you should know.
That was cocaine.
True, but…oh, no…tell you what, how about a cup of tea?
31 EXT. VERANDAH. ASHLEY’S HOUSE. SUNSET
ASHLEY and DION stand close on the verandah drinking cups of tea. They look at each other and at their teacups and laugh. ASHLEY leans forward, kisses DION lightly on the lips. He smiles. ASHLEY takes both their cups, places them on the table. They look at each other for a long moment.
Make love to me.
Is that a request or an order?
ASHLEY bursts into happy laughter.
32 INT. ASHLEY’S BEDROOM. NIGHT
ASHLEY and DION disengage, having just finished making love.
That you didn’t come? (A BEAT) it’s not a crime…
I just don’t want you to think it’s your fault…
That I’m a dud fuck? Maybe I…
Can we not talk about this?
DION wraps his arms around her, holds her, strokes her neck gently. ASHLEY snuggles close, a truly happy smile on her face. She looks up into DION’S eyes. He smiles, kisses her forehead
33 EXT. VERANDAH. PRE-DAWN
ASHLEY, dressed for work, sips tea as she looks out to sea – above which orange and pink clouds herald the rising of the sun – a tiny golden speck on the horizon.
DION walks out onto the verandah from inside wearing a towel around his waist only, bearing the disheveled look of a man who has just got out of bed.
ASHLEY turns, her face lighting up in a radiant smile as he gets closer.
During DION’S final few steps towards her, his face broken by a happy smile, he opens his arms in preparation for an embrace. ASHLEY closes her eyes playfully and literally falls into his arms. DION catches her, laughs, hugs her tightly.
With her head nestled on his shoulder, Ashley’s smile disappears momentarily – to be replaced by confusion and panic. When she pulls her head back to look directly into Dion’s eyes, her smile returns and she greets him with a passionate kiss.
You get to wake up to this every morning?
ASHLEY nods, turns her head to look at the sun with him – their faces glowing warmly in its orange rays.
The tiniest of grimaces appears on Ashley’s face, a tightness around the eyes.
This is about the time I’m usually going to bed.
The orange orb of sun sits now on the rim of the horizon.
Like the yolk of an egg.
There is something a little strange about the way in which Ashley delivers the following (quoted!?) line.
‘When the orange egg yolk sun rises from its sleep in the ocean’s dark depths, the world begins afresh and anything is possible.’
DION registers ASHLEY’S ‘strangeness’ but before he can respond ASHLEY snaps back to being full of good cheer – bright, bubbly, affectionate. She kisses him on the lips.
I wish I could stay and have you for breakfast…and maybe eggs on toast and bacon and but…
She walks across the room fast, picks up her brief case and laptop computer and walks fast down a short flight of stairs.
DION, a little shocked by the rapidity of her departure, gestures for her to slow down.
Do you have a pause button?
ASHLEY laughs, opens the front door.
Just pull this shut behind you when you leave.
ASHLEY blows DION a kiss, walks out, leaving him bemused. A moment later the door opens again. ASHLEY pops her head in.
And call me. Soon.
She closes the door behind her, opens it a moment later.
Like today. Like in the next hour.
She closes the door behind her, opens it a moment later.
Or you could stay…unless you’ve got something better to do.
ASHLEY closes the door again and is gone. DION laughs.
As he makes his way towards the kitchen, DION stops in front of the door Ashley emerged from earlier, (replaying her ‘Wake Up’ mistake on the TV monitor) stands for a moment before trying the handle. The door does not open. It is locked. DION is puzzled.
....to be continued...
in one paragraph
Ashley Lowndes, early 30s, Australia’s most popular and adored TV personality, her early morning chat show, ‘Wake up with Ashley’, a ratings winner, with everything in life that a young woman could dream of – beauty, wealth, fame, multiple awards, a loving family, gorgeous celebrity boyfriend, Brad, palatial beach house, with views to die for – is not happy. There is something missing from her ‘perfect’ life. She is not sure what ‘it’ is but if she can’t find it she has decided to utilize one of the bizarre and often comic ways of killing herself that she has compiled on a list. Ashley loves lists. Making ‘to do’ lists and crossing off her achievements creates the illusion of control in a life that is rapidly spinning out of control and convincing her that she is “going mad”. Dion, narcissistic pop star, as different to Ashley in temperament and aspirations as chalk and cheese, a self-confessed substance abuser (though “on the wagon” when they meet) seems like the last person Ashley should associate with if she is to retain the fragile remnants of her sanity. Regardless of the risks (or perhaps because of them!) Ashley falls head over heels in lust for Dion and, convinced that she is in love, sets about trying to modify him so that he becomes her ‘perfect lover’. In the meantime, Dion, as obsessed with ‘honesty’ as Ashley is with ‘perfection’ is determined to peel away the many onion skins of her character, personality, psyche and public persona that conceal the frightened, confused and vulnerable young woman he is growing to love and feel protective of. Will theirs be a relationship made in heaven or in hell? Regardless of the outcome, their shared sense of self-deprecating humour guarantees that the emotional roller coaster ride will be an entertaining one – for both Ashley and Dion and for the audience looking through the key-hole. As it happens, the story has a happy ending but that is just the cherry on top of the icing of the cake that is PERFECT.
towards a first draft
The following document, neither a treatment nor a synopsis, can perhaps best be described as ‘character notes’ or as an ‘emotional map’ of the evolving relationships between the central characters – Ashley and Dion - as they confront certain life dilemmas.
PERFECT is primarily concerned with the exploration of Ashley’s character and those of the people near and dear to her with whom she has relationships – Dion, Brad, her mother Jenny, her sister Chloe and best friend, Melissa. Just as Dion wishes to peel away the different onion layers of Ashley’s character, personality and psyche, so too do I? And of Dion and others’ characters, personalities and psyches.
My description of PERFECT as an exercise in character exploration does not absolve me of the obligation to satisfy an audience’s desire for a story. We all love and want a story. Well, most of us! And a story, in whatever genre, is a series of questions that we long to get answers to. “What is going to happen next?” is the most crude and obvious. “Why is s/he doing that? Behaving in that way?” “How of earth is she going to resolve the dilemma that life has thrown up for her or which s/he has created for herself? In order for questions such as to carry any weight it is necessary for audience members to be sufficiently engaged with the central character (at the very least) and not only want to know what happens next to him/her but to care; to have an emotional investment in her fate.
In writing a screenplay I do not work according to any preconceived plan. I never have and never will. My modus operandi changes from one screenplay to the next – dependent on the needs, the peculiarities often, of the screenplay in question. Perhaps the only thing that all my screenplays in development have in common is that I do not start to work seriously on them (regardless of how many months or years they have been in gestation) until I have a strong beginning and a strong end - an opening scene and a closing scene. These might change but I need to feel confident that I can grab the attention and interest of the audience in the first few minutes of the story and provide them with an emotionally satisfying ending before I start serious work of the kind that I am prepared/want to have assessed by someone else – usually, first up, a script editor.
In following this modus operandi it is not just my audience I am concerned with. It is also myself. If I am going to spend many years developing a screenplay (most usually without a screenwriter’s income) I need to feel assured that I am in love with the story I am hoping to tell. If I am not in love with it, screenwriting is just a job and if it is just a job I want (and need) to be paid for it. So, in order to work for free (almost always the case) the story needs to have acquired the status of ‘I cannot not write this screenplay’ before I start serious work. Many an idea drops by the wayside working this way. And some of the screenplays I start with love in my heart lead me into short-term relationships and divorce. It can sometimes take months (years) before it becomes apparent that the relationship is not going to work – a lengthy period of time in which I earn no income. Such is the reality of the life a screenwriter. This screenwriter at least.
Ashley Lowndes, early 30s, is Australia’s most popular and adored TV personality. Her early morning news/chat show, ‘Wake up with Ashley’ is a ratings winner. She has everything in life that a young woman could dream of – beauty, wealth, fame, multiple awards, a loving family, gorgeous boyfriend and a palatial beach house with views to die for. With her happy smile, her ability to infect others with her cheerfulness, Ashley’s public persona is that of someone without a care in the world. She is far from happy, however. She spends a good deal of “alone and lonely time” fantasizing bizarre ways of killing herself that go hopelessly and often comically wrong.
Ashley has tried everything to fill the huge hole she feels inside herself (yoga, meditation, a brief stint of church-going Christianity) but nothing has worked and, as the story commences, she is rapidly approaching the end of her tether. There is something missing from her life. A significant ‘something’. She is not sure what it is but fears, without it, that she will no longer want to go on living. Can she find it, whatever ‘it’ may be, before she acts out one of her suicide fantasies?
Could ‘it’, the answer to many of Ashley’s multiple ‘life problems’ possibly be Dion – the charming but narcissistic self-absorbed and self-destructive pop star and would-be actor, recently out of rehab (“substance abuse is my hobby of choice”) – whom she interviews for ‘Wake up with Ashley’? Would a relationship with Dion be a marriage made in heaven or hell?
With no cracks in her public persona, through which her vulnerable and confused private persona might be glimpsed, Ashley is held up by the media as a role model for young women to aspire to. She has recently been dubbed ‘Miss Perfect’ by Australia’s leading women’s magazine - ‘beautiful on the outside, beautiful on the inside’ but Ashley not only feels far from perfect but hates the word.
As an inveterate keeper of lists, Ashley has a list of reason why she dislikes the word ‘perfect’ so much when applied to herself: (1) She does not feel ‘perfect, (2) She feels trapped by other people’s expectations that she is (a) perfect and (b) has a perfect life : “If everyone thinks my life is ‘perfect’ what is wrong with me that I can’t?” (3) She hates having to pretend in public that she is perfect and (4) Her inability to attaint the various forms of perfection she seeks (“I am a failed perfectionist”) is an endless source of frustration to her. (5) The frustration caused by (4) is self-inflicted and Ashley wishes that she could stop inflicting herself with unnecessary pain and angst.
Ashley’s ever present smile masks daily bouts of anxiety and depression, sleepless nights and a dissatisfaction with her life that she finds inexplicable. As she confides in her diary (but to no flesh and blood human at the story’s outset) Ashley finds media references to her being ‘beautiful on the outside, beautiful on the inside’ particularly painful – her ebullient public persona bearing little relationship to her tormented private one.
Even Ashley’s obvious and universally acknowledged physical beauty is a source of more pain than pleasure for her. It takes a lot of time in ‘make up’ to look as good (‘perfect’) as she does on TV. “Hard work,” Ashley jokes with make-up artist and best friend Melissa. And even more time with a stylist (“a miracle worker”) to look drop-dead gorgeous on the cover of a magazine – “with a little help from the Photoshop magicians!”
Ashley can joke with Melissa about the difference between her “waking-up-face before reconstruction” and herself made-up for TV or a magazine shoot (“with my warpaint on”) but when she holds a magazine photo of herself up alongside her ‘waking-up’ un-made-up face and compares them in a mirror, she cries in despair - wishing that she could be as beautiful in real life (“perfect”) as she is in photos in which tiny crow’s feet and blemishes have been Photoshopped out of existence. Ashley’s public and private personas are locked in a deadly battle for control of her psyche!
Despite making Ashley up every morning, Melissa (mid-late 30s, longing to become a mother, on the lookout for a ‘sperm donor’), is oblivious to the fact that Ashley is miserable, desperate, suicidal. She has her suspicions that all is not well and tries to broach the subject of Ashley’s sudden mood swings at work but Ashley cuts her off. She does not want to talk about it. When pressed, Ashley declares that she is not going to “entertain negativity”. Ashley is, in public, always resolutely ‘positive’. If asked how she is the answer, regardless of how she feels, is “Never been better” – delivered with a bright white smile.
Away from the cameras, the bright lights, the distractions of celebrity, alone in her beautiful and unbelievably neat and tidy beach home, Ashley feels desperate, sad, lonely, confused – her vivid imagination conjuring up “painless and perfect” suicide scenarios. In this she is aided and abetted by her researches into the subject of suicide online – with a particular interest in bizarre suicides of the ‘black comedy’ variety.
Ashley worries that she may be losing control of her sanity, “going mad, if I have not already achieved that status.” Control is very important to Ashley. Her desire to be in control of all aspects of her life manifests itself in various ways – one being an obsession with keeping her house neat, tidy and dust free. Anything out of place annoys her. Another is her obsessive keeping of ‘to do’ lists. If she fails to accomplish something on one of her ‘to do’ lists, no matter how trivial, she feels she has let herself down, failed, in some way and to be deserving of punishment. And Ashley is highly skilled in the art of self-punishment. “The one skill at which I truly excel,” Ashley can joke privately. It is her sense of humour more than anything that keeps Ashley ‘afloat’ but looking on the bright side (or at least pretending to do so) is becoming harder and harder for her to do.
Ashley is managing, just, to keep her inner emotional turmoil a secret from her closest girlfriend, Melissa, her mother, Jenny, her professional colleagues at the TV station and her boyfriend and fellow TV celebrity, Brad. And she is keeping significant parts of her inner turmoil secret from her psychiatrist, Ruth, also – in the hope that Ruth may be able to help her find ‘peace….joy’ without knowing “everything about me, the ugly truth”. Ashley does not want anyone to know everything about her. She does not want to know the truth about herself, herself. The thought terrifies her. “A bit of the truth may set you free,” she jokes, ‘but too much will kill you…me…”
The medication Ruth has prescribed for Ashley does not seem to be helping reduce her laundry list of anxieties. Ashley wonders if the medication may be making her condition worse and wants to stop taking her pills. Ruth cautions her against doing so and gets Ashley to promise not to stop taking them without consulting her first. It is a promise that Ashley makes with little enthusiasm. Will she be able to keep it as her life becomes more and more complicated and she becomes increasingly desperate to finding solutions to her problems that work in practice and not merely in theory?
The one person with whom Ashley feels she can be her ‘true self’, is her 12 year old sister, Chloe – from her mother’s second marriage. Only with Chloe can Ashley drop her masks and play none of the roles demanded of her (or so she thinks!) as a ‘celebrity’ and a ‘role model’ for young women. She cannot, however, tell Chloe of the inner turmoil that is becoming so intense that her obsessive and darkly comic suicide fantasies are increasingly out of her control – despite her medication. For Chloe, her older sister is already perfect - “on the outside and on the inside.” To be considered perfect by her adored and adoring younger sister gives Ashley a warm inner glow that she treasures, whereas being considered ‘perfect’ but others, by strangers, by the media, induces panic in her and make her feel a fraud – yet another contradiction in her life that drives Ashley crazy. Chloe is a perceptive girl, however, who is just beginning to notice the cracks in the façade of Ashley’s public persona; to make observations and ask questions that Ashley does not want to answer. It is becoming increasing difficulty keeping her desperation a secret from Chloe.
It is hard to know when Ashley and Dion meet on ‘Waking up with Ashley’, who is interviewing whom as they spar playfully for the cameras. Despite seeming as different as chalk and cheese, despite seeming ill-suited to each other, they connect immediately and embark on an affair that seems destined to burn itself out very quickly and to add to Ashley’s already long list of life problems.
Ashley’s boyfriend at the story’s outset, Brad (a dashingly good looking TV celebrity) is unable to relieve Ashley of her feelings of aloneness, loneliness and deep-seated sense of alienation from the world – though being a good lover certainly helps as glue to keep them together! Her ‘close encounters ‘ with men, as Ashley describes her mostly unsatisfying relationships with them, (feeling that she has never actually been ‘in love’), have only served to exacerbate her feelings of “loneliness…aloneness”. In her most intimate of encounters with a man she is unable to hide from herself her inability to connect emotionally with her lover. As with all her perceived shortcomings, Ashley judges herself harshly and punishes herself accordingly.
In public Ashley and Brad hold each other’s hands affectionately, smile adoringly at each other if there are any paparazzi around (and there are plenty), kiss for the cameras on the red carpet and so on. And Heather, from ‘Publicity’, puts a good deal of effort into arranging photo opportunities for Ashley and Brad to confirm their status in the world of celebrity as ‘The perfect couple’. Fond though she is of Brad, privately Ashley considers their ‘close encounter’ a failure - regardless of how successful it appears to a public in love with the image of who she appears to be. Perhaps, Ashley wonders, her expectations of herself and Brad and their ‘close encounter’ are too high? “Maybe,” Ashley says, in response to her own question,” but I refuse to lower my standards.”
Too high expectations of himself is not a problem that Dion experiences in his life. He freely admits to Ashley, shortly after meeting her, that he is a self-absorbed, self-destructive “deeply shallow, narcissistic and totally unreliable fuckup as a human being.” And he does not, as he lets Ashley know up front, have a great track record when it comes to relationships. “I’ve never been able to commit myself to the idea of commitment, let alone a woman” jokes Dion. “I do my best in the relationship department,” he says with a grin, “it’s just that my best is never good enough, as you would discover if you ever interrogated one of my exes.” “It’s a long list!” says Ashley. “Yes,” replies Dion. “I wonder if it would get me into the Guinness Book of Records!” Their shared sense of humour, the playful badinage they engage in (mercilessly taking the piss out of each other) kick starts a relationship that makes Ashley feel fully alive for the first time in years.
Dion doesn’t seem like the right boyfriend for Ashley, as she freely acknowledges (to both Melissa and her diary), but he is certainly fun to be with and Ashley doesn’t like to be alone, despite the fact that she lives alone - one of the many contradictions in her life that drive Ashley crazy. It seems, during the ‘honeymoon’ phase of their relationship, that Dion could (at a stretch) be the short-term answer to some of Ashley’s life problems – as long as he remains true to his promise to behave himself and not “fall off the wagon”; not have that first drink he admits to craving so much. Will Dion, can Dion, resist the siren call of alcohol or some other drug that will plunge Ashley deep into the pit of despair that his presence in her life has, for the time being, hidden from her? Ashley has a fondness for inspirational sayings – sound bite solutions to life’s problems. If ‘all you need is love’, as Ashley believes to be the case, she is well on her way to ‘living happily ever after’ with Dion as she mistakes lust for love.
Dion wears his heart on his sleeve and tends to make public the kinds of personal anxieties, confusions and failings that Ashley keeps private. He tells Ashley upfront that his last longer term relationship (three years!) fell apart when his girlfriend, in her early 30s, wanted to have a baby – the thought of which terrified Dion. “I could not inflict some poor child with my defective genes,” he jokes with his characteristic self-effacing sense of humour. Ashley, likewise, does not want to have a baby, but for quite different reasons. “I don’t want a baby to control my life,” she says. “How about a grown-up baby?” asks Dion with a smile followed by a baby-cry. “Dream on, Dion,” replies Ashley. “Captain of your own ship?” he asks, rhetorically. Ashley nods. “Aye aye, captain,” says Dion, saluting her. Ashley smiles.
Babies, the longing for one, (Melissa) the fear of having one and losing ‘control’ (Ashley), is a theme that subtly suffuses PERFECT in a way that should not draw too much attention to itself until quite late in the story.
Dion’s open-book approach to self-revelation makes him very attractive to Ashley, though she hopes he does not expect her to be an open book also! She has never been an open-book to anyone, not even to herself. She is trying, as we will discover as the story unfolds, to get to know herself better. The main obstacle in this quest is herself; her fear that the more she gets to know about herself the more reasons she will discover not to like herself!
Could it be, in his imperfection, that Dion is just what Ashley needs – someone who can crack through the various masks that she has put on to hide from the outside world her confusion, low opinion of herself and her desperation. But is this what she wants? Which is better – to live in denial, put on a brave face and go quietly, desperately and privately mad or to admit to the world that you are a “basket case” (as Dion refers to himself) and just get on with making the best of the hand that fate has dealt you? Perhaps acceptance of imperfection is preferable to striving for perfection? This is one of the themes that informs PERFECT.
One of Ashley’s biggest fears is not being in control. She hates it when anything is out of her control – especially her own feelings. She wants to keep a tight rein on her feelings but it is becoming increasingly difficult. No matter how hard she tries to control them they keep breaking free and living a life of her own. It drives her crazy. “How dare they!” she exclaims with a laugh that hides her fear that her uncontrollable feelings may, literally, be driving her insane.
The striving, the longing, for perfection as a theme that informs PERFECT, demands images that speak to the theme. Amongst other things this is a matter of art and set design, hair and make-up - images of symmetrical perfection (Ashley’s home) set against images that have a chaotic, anarchic quality (Dion’s home). There should be something ruffled, untidy, messy about the way that Dion dresses, lives – in contrast with Ashley’s neatness, tidiness, everything-in-its-right-place-ness. For every to-do list of Ashley’s, Dion exhibits the opposite tendency – doing things on the spur of the moment; changing the contents of his ‘lists’ (insofar as he has them at all) on a whim. If Ashley studied classical ballet when she was young (and why not!), Dion’s dance style is that of a Jack in the Box. Where Ashley wants to keep her emotions under control, Dion is happy for them to be ‘free range’ – to go where they will. “The wild stallions of my heart,” is how Dion might describe his emotions, his feelings. Yes, the wild stallions stampede him into lots of trouble but it is “interesting trouble”, he declares, “Never boring and food for the soul.” What is ‘interesting trouble’ for Dion is the stuff of heartbreak for the women he gets involved with, however. They love the wild stallion but want to tame it. The taming of it drives Dion away. He is not prepared to compromise to accommodate a partner’s different needs, desires, foibles.
Ashley’s mother, Jenny, (a minor character) has no idea that her daughter is desperate and suicidal. Yes, Ashley puts a good deal of effort into hiding her inner turmoil from her mother but so too is Jenny blind to the many clues she could pick up on if she were not so committed to dismissing all “negative thoughts’ from her life. Jenny is obsessively (and annoyingly) positive all the time. “Never been better,” is her standard reply when asked how she is. Jenny has managed to create for herself her own version of a perfect life – manifest in spotlessly clean and tidy house and in her only ever saying positive and complimentary things about Ashley (only daughter from her first marriage) and Chloe - from a second failed marriage. Even these marriage failures Jenny manages to put a positive spin on. “I’m much happier on my own,” she says with a smile. Her actions tells a different story – her body language changing in the presence of men and her eyes mentally undressing men even as she declares her lack of need for them.
There is no doubt about Jenny’s love of Ashley. Indeed it is, for Ashley, a little overwhelming at times but she needs her mother’s affirmation and does not want to burst bubble of Jenny’s happiness by being anything less than loveable (‘perfect’) in her presence.
Ashley sends a series of nonsensical text messages to her mother in the middle of the night. They are replete with oblique references to graves, death, suicide. When Jenny asks her about them, tentatively, Ashley first denies sending them, then says she can’t remember what she wrote, but then insists, with a dismissive laugh, that it was just her bungled attempt at poetry. Jenny accepts this clearly nonsensical response with a smile and changes the subject. Chleo, present for this interchange, does not accept it though, for the time being, she keeps this to herself.
Despite all the hints to her inner turmoil that Ashley drops, she does not want her mother, or anyone else, to worry about her - as we learn from the video diary Ashley records in a rudimentary studio she has set up in her house.
In this secret room, always locked when she is not in it, Ashley keeps an intimate video diary. Believing that she has no-one with whom she feels she can share her deepest life confusions, she shares them with a video camera.
In her video diary Ashley tries to be totally honest with herself. Too honest, perhaps. She is hypercritical of her shortcomings – turning molehill ‘failings’ into impossible-to-climb mountains that overwhelm her. She also expresses her awareness that she leads a dream life. What more could she want or need? How could she possibly not be happy living the privileged life she does? She puts her emotional turmoil down to self-indulgence (“first world problems”) and it is in part because she believes others would concur that she keeps her confused feelings to herself and confides them only in her video diary?
We see only snippets of her video diary as the story unfolds. Fragments. Pieces of the complex jig-saw puzzle that is Ashley. What we learn from her video diary will place much of what we have seen earlier in the story in a new light. And some diary entries will create context for scenes that come later – revealing the widening gap between the way Ashley sees herself and the way she presents herself to the world. Honest though she tries to be, Ashley discovers that even ‘total honesty’ in keeping a diary is tinged with denial, self-deception and lies if the intention is that, one day, it will be read (in this case, viewed) by someone. Just whom Ashley intends to be the viewer of her video diary remains unclear for most of PERFECT.
Ashley confides to Ruth, her psychiatrist, that she feels trapped in a glass bubble. Whilst she can see the world clearly through its walls she can’t reach out and touch it, hear it or smell it. And nor can people in the outside world reach in and touch her. All they can see is the smiling girl in the bubble. They love the smiling girl but would they love her, Ashley wonders, if she stopped smiling and revealed the unhappy young woman that she is? She dare not stop smiling as she fears that the answer may be ‘no’.
There is a limit to how much intimate personal information Ashley is prepared to share with Ruth. She is scared to reveal too much. She does not want to have her ‘imperfections’ exposed and to be judged – not even by her psychiatrist! Ashley is aware of the absurdity of this. She confides in her video diary that she is determined to start telling Ruth the “truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” This is a solemn promise she makes to the future viewer of her video diary. Shortly afterwards, just before a therapeutic session with Ruth is due to start, however, Ashley sees a magazine in the waiting room with her own smiling face on the cover: ‘Miss Perfect - beautiful on the outside, beautiful on the inside’. When Ruth then makes a playful observation that alludes to her beauty (outer and inner), Ashley clams up and tells Ruth a sanitized and much less than truthful version of what she has articulated in her diary about her supposed outer and inner beauty.
One of the fears that Ashley has shared with Ruth is that she may be “going mad, if I am not already?” Ruth reassures her gently – prescribing Lithium to stabilize her moods and another unnamed drug. “What is it?” asks Ashley. Ruth deflects Ashley’s question. “It’s got a complicated unpronounceable name,” she says. “All you need to know is that it’s going to help with the anxiety attacks.” Ashley accepts this and adds ‘take pills’ to her daily list of things to do.
Chloe, only a few weeks short of becoming a teenager, is beginning to ask the kinds of questions, however, that Ashley fears will lead to her discovering that her older sister is not perfect “on the inside”. Questions like: “Why is the door to this room always locked?” Ashley’s “I’ve lost the key,” does not wash with Chloe. “Why don’t you get a locksmith to fix it?” Once aroused, Chloe’s curiosity about the locked room leads to her clandestine search for the key.
Ashley does not want Chloe to become disillusioned with her. She relies on her sister’s illusions, she tells her video diary, to maintain her sanity. She also confides in her diary that it would be cruel to disillusion the person she loves most in the world at such an impressionable age. In not wishing to disillusion Chloe, Ashley is locking them both in a shared fantasy of who she is based on denial and lies. Will Chloe confront Ashley and risk breaking the bond between them when she learns the truth about her sister? Or will Chloe maintain her silence and the status quo – the approach to all life’s problems that her mother Jenny practices.
It does not take Dion long to realize that Ashley’s cheerful happy-go-lucky public persona is a mask; that the many roles she plays (celebrity, role model, beautiful woman, happy-go-lucky-life-of-the-party) hide the vulnerable and confused person she actually is. He likens her playfully to an onion and declares his interest in peeling away the different layers to find out who is hiding “in there”. This becomes a game between them – one which Ashley plays for laughs, deflecting Dion’s serious intent.
There are indeed many layers to be peeled away in this character-driven story that is PERFECT before Dion (and the audience) can even begin to understand who this beautiful, talented and tormented young woman is and what makes her tick. Perhaps Dion, in his ‘imperfection’ - most (perhaps too many!) layers peeled back - and his modest expectations of himself can help counterbalance Ashley’s obsessive need for perfection.
Ashley’s longing for perfection extends to “choosing a mate.”? Brad? Dion? On paper (listing good and bad qualities) Brad is the far better bet. Good looking? Tick. Fun to be with? Tick? Uncomplicated? Tick. Non-confrontational? Tick. Unconditional adoration of Ashley? Tick. Good lover? Tick. There is nothing wrong with him. He is a nice guy. Very nice. And yet, and yet…
Brad is a minor character in PERFECT, but a significant one. He is blessed with height, great physique (a former football champion) good looks and a superficial telegenic charm that has led to his being a minor TV celebrity. Underneath his slightly oafish and crass exterior there lies a sensitive and quite simple soul for whom the perfect life is one without drama. “I hate drama,” he says, “messy relationships!”. His relationship with Ashley is ‘easy’ – neither of them expecting or demanding much of the other. Brad really does love Ashley in his own slightly distant way and will continue to do so regardless. As it happens, Ashley will have a huge favour to ask of Brad as the story draws to a surprising (humorous and upbeat) conclusion.
Ashley admits to Melissa that she feels more connected to Dion than to Brad. Indeed, more connected than she has with any other man. She has no idea why and it annoys her? “Why do you need to know why?” asks Melissa – a much more down-to-earth, ‘grounded’ woman than Ashley and not given too much to pondering such imponderables. “Everything happens for a reason,” replies Ashley. Melissa laughs, shakes her head, jokes about Ashley’s propensity to make lists of pros and cons in order to find the most rational and logical reason to do anything. “Do you think I am obsessive?” asks Ashley. “Is the Pope a Catholic?” replies Melissa with a laugh. Ashley laughs also. She can shift, at the blink of an eyelid, from laughing at herself to chastising herself.
In her mid thirties and having had no joy in long term relationships with men, Mel (as Ashley calls her) is now determined to become a single mother with the help of a sperm donor. As it happens she has her own list of the qualities she is looking for in a donor but, having exhausted the possibilities of conception in the traditional manner she has turned to the internet, soliciting advice from Ashley regarding hair colour, physique, IQ and so on of potential sperm donors. Mel and Ashley’s online search for “the perfect sperm donor” is not without its comedic moments. “What about Brad?” Ashley asks Melissa playfully, as Brad makes his way towards them in a restaurant. “What about Brad, what?” asks Brad. Ashley and Melissa laugh.
Whilst Mel insists that it is only the right man’s sperm that she wants it is clear that this is not strictly speaking true; that her romantic notions of the perfect (but absent) father for her child are more than a little tinged with her desire to experience only life’s joys (parenthood) and none of its hardships (domesticity). In her own way Mel is also seeking a perfect life. And it is this seeking after their own versions of perfection that unites several of the characters in PERFECT on a thematic level.
The more Dion tries to get to know who Ashley actually is underneath the masks she wears, the roles she plays, the more difficult it is for her to maintain her public happy-go-lucky image in her intimate, private, moments with him. Would Dion still love her, Ashley wonders aloud in her video diary, if she revealed to him what a “basket case” she feels herself to be? Dare she confide in him, as she does in her diary that she has hidden her kitchen knives out of fear that...that...she is not quite sure! Her knives have recently come to frighten her. Knives are destined to play a significant role in PERFECT.
As Dion strips away various onion layers and as Ashley feels more comfortable about revealing her vulnerability and confusion to him, she and Dion are able to share their self-deprecating sense of humour – the two of them competing, playfully, in a battle of wills that will inform their relationship, to see who can put themselves down in the cleverest and most humorous manner. There is a limit to the number of onion layers Ashley will allow Dion to peel away, however; a limit to the extent to which she will expose herself. Dion is determined to overcome her reticence. Ashley is equally determined to protect herself, to keep a few onion layers as protection for her vulnerable psyche.
Regardless of how many onions layers Dion can peel back, Ashley will remain in the final scenes something of a mystery to him, to herself, to the audience and, inevitably, to me as the screenwriter who has given her life. In part, PERFECT is, thematically, about the impossibility of pinning Ashley (or any character, any human being) down and understanding them totally. There will always be an element of mystery; of questions unanswered and unanswerable. Always.
Paradoxically, as Ashley firstly allows and then encourages Dion to peel back onion layers to reveal the most intimate details of her psyche, she is fighting a losing battle with sensationalist media that use every intrusive paparazzi trick in the book to invade her privacy and reveal as many such intimate details as they can to a voyeuristic public longing for evidence of her imperfections. For ‘the dirt’. In Ashley’s life there is very little in the way of ‘dirt’ – until, that is, Dion appears on the scene. With his well-known addictions, multiple admissions to rehab, his lack of discretion when it comes to his personal life and a long list former lovers Dion is a gossip magazine and paparazzi dream come true.
The thought of loving and being loved by Dion scares Ashley. She is not quite sure why! Actually, she hasn’t got a clue why, as she confides in her diary – as if her diary might provide her with an answer! Ashley is not quite sure about anything, despite her appearing the opposite in public. Perhaps her fear resides in her realization that for the relationship with Dion to work, long-term, she has to be as honest and open about herself with Dion as he is with her? But what if, if she were to allow him to peel away the remaining onions layers, he doesn’t like what he discovers “deep in the heart of who I really am?”
When Ashley does, after a good deal of probing and prodding from Dion, pluck up the courage to reveal just the tip of the iceberg of her inner turmoil, Dion responds in a light-hearted manner that reinforces her own belief that she is a self-indulgent spoilt Prima Donna “wanker” whose problems are merely of the ‘first world’ variety. Mistaking Dion’s playfulness for a judgment of her character she clams up and retreats back into the ‘smiling girl’ role she feels she must play in order to retain his affection; his love. Dion, his patience wearing thin, will not let her get away with this evasion. He tells her to listen to him and not interrupt. Ashley agrees reluctantly. Dion asks Ashley for a list (“since you are so fond of lists”) of the things that all human being share in common. “I don’t want to play this game,” says Ashley. “It’s not a game,” replies Dion. “Trust me.” Ashley laughs, raises her eyebrows. Dion smiles, gestures for her to answer. Ashley thinks for a moment. “We’re all going to die,” she says. Dion nods, smiles. “And what have most human beings done when they realized this?” “Worried about it,” replies Ashley. Dion laughs. “So you are not alone in the worry department.” Ashley agrees. “OK, but what have they…I mean…so they’ve worried but what have they done about it?” Ashley thinks for a moment. “Invented God.” Dion laughs. “Right. So that they don’t have to worry about why the fuck they are alive and where the fuck they will go when they die.” “I don’t believe in God,” says Ashley. “Uh huh! And do you think that may be your problem?” “I tried God but…it was not a relationship made in heaven.” “The point I am making, Ashley, my darling, is that you are not suffering from a ‘first world’ problem – unless, of course, not believing in God is a first world problem. You are suffering as ever human being has ever suffered from the question with no answer: ‘What the fuck am I doing here.’ So don’t give me any more bullshit about your ‘first world problems’. You think people in the third world don’t worry about what the fuck they are doing here?” The vehemence and passion with which Dion has delivered this monologue has quite an impact on Ashley and she can only respond with silence for a long moment before saying, with a smile, “Does that mean I can cross ‘first world problems’ off my list.” Dion laughs, kisses her. “Up to you,” he says.
Peeling away successive layers of the complicated onion that is Ashley proves to be a difficult task for Dion and a confronting one for Ashley. “What if, when the last layer is peeled away, there is no-one?” asks Ashley playfully – her playfulness covering one of her deepest fears that she is nothing other than the layers of roles she plays.
Ashley’s reference to the roles she plays in real life (when she admits to playing them to Dion) means much more to her (and the audience) than Dion realizes at the time. She uses her secret room with the locked door for another purpose than the recording of her diary. In it she dresses up in costume and plays roles from her favourite romantic comedies – ‘When Harry met Sally’, ‘Pretty Woman’, ‘Bringing Up Baby’ and videotapes her performances. Ashley is a Romantic who loves films in which men and women overcome all obstacles to their love and walk arm in arm off into the sunset (metaphorically speaking) to live happily ever after. She also has a predilection for tragic heroines - Ophelia, Madame Bovary and Phaedra, in which the tragic heroine goes mad and kills herself. Shakespeare’s Juliet, plunging a dagger into her heart, is a favourite and, as her sanity recedes, an obsession. Knives play a significant role in the way Ashley’s story plays itself out.
Ashley’s dress-up play-acting is ostensibly to put together a show-reel that will convince agents and producers that she is not just a pretty face, not just a celebrity wannabe but has the talent necessary to be taken seriously as an actress. We learn this from her video diary. Ashley’s longing to be a serious actress is an ambition she has shared with no-one and she has no intention of showing her show-reel to anyone until it is ‘perfect’.
It takes Dion a while, and the peeling away of several onion layers, to fully appreciate what deep emotional and psychological trouble Ashley is in; that her mental health is precarious and deteriorating. In part this is because Ashley is so accomplished at pretending, even with him when she is trying to be honest, that her life is ‘ relatively problem free’; that she is enjoying it much more than is apparent to Dion.
Dion’s honesty with and about himself (and he is spot on in his self-assessment!) does not make for an easy or harmonious relationship with the secretive Ashley. Dion’s tendency to call a spade a spade eventually leads him to make observations about Ashley, to Ashley, that hurt her feelings deeply – precisely because they are accurate and mirror the observations she has made about herself in her video diary. Will the truth about herself (“is there such a thing?”) set her free or destroy the few illusions she still has that give her life a modicum of value and meaning?
It becomes apparent reasonably early in the story that Ashley’s and Dion’s a relationship has the potential to implode and lead both on a course of mutual self-destruction – if Dion falls of the wagon and if his brutal honesty, his peeling away of too many layers of the onion that is Ashley, strips her of much needed illusions about herself. It is also a relationship in which they can both, damaged and desperate though they might be, help each other to find a way of being at peace with themselves, with each other and the world. Will Dion’s presence in her life be a help or a hindrance in Ashley’s quest to find a reason to go on living? Can these two damaged people help each other or are they bound, destined, to add to each other’s woes.
It is not just Ashley who is confronted with questions in her relationship with Dion. Perhaps he is in need of having a few onion layers of his own persona peeled away by Ashley? And Ashley is happy to oblige! Dion has worn his uncompromising approach to relationships (“What you see is what you get, take it or leave it”) and his life in general like a badge of honour. It has not led to much in the way of success in the relationship department but he is not going to allow repeated failure induce him to change his ways! Perhaps, Ashley wonders, as he is intent on stripping away her various masks, it is time for him to drop a few masks of his own? This is not an idea that Dion has seriously entertained before. He could so easily, when his and Ashley’s relationship becomes complicated, move on to yet another relationship that replicates all the ones he has had already. Or he can make his own needs, wants, desires secondary to Ashley’s and devote his attention, his energies, to helping her get through the existential/emotional/psychological crisis she is going through. Acting in a non-selfish manner is new territory for Dion and it is what he attempts to do –with varying degrees of success.
As the story progresses, as Chloe moves from pre-pubescent girl to savvy teen (her 13th birthday features in the story) she figures out that there is something wrong with her big sister’s life and becomes less and less inclined to accept Ashley’s refusal to talk about or gloss over her problems. She also becomes more and more curious to know what it is that Ashley has hidden in her ‘secret room’ – always locked when Chloe tries the door. Indeed it is always locked to any and everyone other than Ashley.
Chloe is not alone in wanting to find the key to Ashley’s secret room so that she can find out what goes on in there. So does Dion. Both would be amazed, dumbfounded, by what they learn about Ashley if they could find that key! And both look for it. And one finds it, eventually.
No sooner has Ashley fallen as close to being in love as she ever has been with sober Dion than he falls off the wagon. His charm when sober, even when engaged in truth-telling, gives way to a tendency, when drunk, to articulate ‘home truths’ (as he understands them) about Ashley in a way that is hurtful to her. At such times he sees these as the unpalatable truths that Ashley should face up to. His delivery and timing, delivered with aggression, serves to exacerbate Ashley’s problems. His ‘unpalatable truths’ also bring out into the open the very things Ashley knows (and we know, from her diary) she needs to both share with her psychiatrist and deal with honestly. Should Dion tread a little more carefully with Ashley, or is his brutal and insensitive honesty, when drunk, just the tonic she needs? Is Dion doing Ashley a favour when he tells her that the Emperor (in this case, Empress) has no clothes on? Is Dion the best person for Ashley to become romantically involved with in her current fragile state of mind? Ashley is too much in love (or is it lust, as Chloe suggests) to ask such questions of herself.
In his attempt to help Ashley, Dion does a little ‘google research’ and discovers that the drug Ruth has given Ashley (with the unpronounceable name) is usually prescribed for patient’s suffering from a psychosis. He is in two minds about telling her this but decides that honesty is the best policy. This, in turn, leads to Ashley confronting Ruth for not telling her the truth about the drug. Ruth defends herself by telling Ashley that she did not want to add to the burden of her worries the possibility that she could, if she is not careful, have a full-blown psychotic breakdown. The drug Ruth prescribed was intended as a stop-gap to help Ashley in the short term – until they got to the bottom of what her deep-seated problems were. Ashley only half buys what Ruth tell her and confides in Dion that she thinks that the anti-psychotic is making her worse, not better. She wants to stop taking the drug but Dion talks her out of it – for the time being. Dion asks Ashley to promise that she will not stop taking her medication without talking to him first and, if she decides that she wants to, doing so under the supervision of Ruth.
Though it does not become apparent until midway through the story, it is for Chloe that Ashley is recording her video diary. And it is not until later still that we learn that the diary is to be viewed by Chloe when she turns 18 and is old enough to understand why it is that Ashley killed herself. A video suicide note! Working in accordance with the premise that “The truth shall set you free”, Ashley hopes, however, that the recording of her diary will lead to an understanding of why it is she is so unhappy, provide her with the clues as to the cause of her misery, find a way out of her downward spiral into (as she sees it) insanity and death, and make it unnecessary to kill herself.
The time comes when Ashley, at the end of her tether and no longer able to hide her despair, finally confesses to Melissa, “I am lost.” Lest Melissa think she has slipped too far into self-pity, Ashley adds, with a smile, “…and I long to be found.” Melissa laughs. She also wants to be ‘found’ – her own life not being without its problems. Not ‘found’ by man with whom she can walk off into the sunset and live happily ever after but a man with good DNA!
Once Dion has peeled back sufficient onion layers and Ashley is beginning to open up she tentatively, she broaches the subject of suicide with Dion. She tells him that she is considering doing a ‘special’ on ‘Waking up with Ashley’ about suicide. As if speaking hypothetically, she tells Dion of three pre-conditions for the perfect suicide, if she were ever to contemplate such a radical course of action: (1) No pain, (2) No mess for others to clean up and (3) Minimal emotional pain inflicted on loved ones left behind.
Dion guesses immediately that Ashley is not, as she is pretending, talking hypothetically but about herself. He smiles knowingly, looks directly into her eyes but says nothing. Feeling very uncomfortable, Ashley fills the space by adding that no (3), causing minimal emotional pain to loved ones, “must be the really tricky one!” Dion’s smile broadens. He gestures to her to continue. Ashley turns red, feigns ignorance as to what it is he is asking of her. “You can do it,” says Dion. “You’ll think I’m a wanker,” says Ashley. “I already think you’re a wanker,” replies Dion. Ashley laughs. “Have you ever thought of….killing yourself?” asks Ashley. “Only when I was hell-bent on revenge and wanting to inflict maximum pain,” replies Dion.
It is a relief to Ashley to be able to admit to Dion that she thinks a lot about the perfect suicide’ (which makes Dion laugh) and that she can now laugh with him (and she does) at her own ineptness in even fantasizing an effective and painless form of suicide.
Once cracks begin to appear in the edifice of Ashley’s sanity, her life (both public and private) falls apart very quickly. It starts with Chloe’s 13th. birthday – a party at which Ashley is the ‘star guest’ for all the young girls present. Chloe gives a little speech which is, when all is said and done, in praise of Ashley’s perfection as a sister - “beautiful on the outside, beautiful on the inside.” By now we know that Ashley hates references to her being beautiful on the inside and is tired of being praised for her beauty. “It’s just the luck of the draw, a roll of the dice. I could have been born short and plain but I’d still be the same person. I sometimes wish I had been,” she confides in her diary. Should she confide this in this gaggle of 13 year old girls also?
Ashley is expected, by both Chloe and all the other eager and adoring girls present to say a few words about Chloe as the birthday cake is about to be cut. Ashley tells the assembled crowd how much she loves Chloe (“the best sister any girl could have”) Chloe replies with a laugh: “No, you are the best sister a girl could ever hope to have. Perfect.” By this point in the story the word, ‘perfect’ causes Ashley to wince and it is visibly an effort for her not to do so. She is tempted for a moment to say a few words about the word ‘perfect’ but decides that now is not the right time, in front of all these girls, to reveal that she is far from perfect; that the girls should not aim for perfection in their lives – a goal that Ashley has made clear in her video diary is both unrealistic and damaging. Her dilemma here is compounded when one shy girl plucks up the courage to ask Ashley a question: “What do you have to do to become perfect?” This floors Ashley and she is at a loss for words.
Ashley’s evasions at her birthday party have not gone unnoticed by Chloe and lead to some confronting questions. Should Ashley tell Chloe the truth and risk damaging or losing the bond between her and Chloe? To tell the truth now would be to open up a hornet’s nest of questions for Chloe, including “Why haven’t you told me any of this before now?” To lie, to continue to maintain the illusion that everything if fine in her life (a difficult act to pull off now) would only be delaying the day of reckoning.
Chloe decides that the key to getting answers to the questions that have arisen for her about her older sister will be found if she can find the key to Ashley’s secret room. During a visit to her house, whilst Ashley is under the shower, Chloe goes looking for the key – checking cupboards, drawers, under pot plants etc. She is caught in the act by Dion. “Are you looking for the key?” he asks. Chloe, bright red with embarrassment, nods. Dion indicates the drawer in which it is hidden. Chloe moves to the drawer, opens it, finds the key. “Have you been in the room?” Chloe asks. Dion shakes his head. “No. Almost but…we’re all entitled to our secrets, don’t you think?” Chloe nods and replaces the key.
No sooner has Ashley fallen as close to being in love as she ever has been with sober Dion than he falls off the wagon when his performance in his just released film is referred to as ‘laughable’ by one critic, ‘amateurish’ by another, whilst a third recommends to Dion that he not give up his day job. In public Dion puts on a brace face but in private, with Ashley, he cries desperately. At his lowest ebb, he and Ashley have shared pain in common and this forms a deeper bond between them. It also leads Dion to believe that he can have a few drinks to drown his sorrows and then “get back on the wagon.” Ashley does not dissuade him. She is in need of a strong drink herself after her disastrous encounter with Chloe’s 13 year old friends at her birthday party.
Dion is a ‘fun drunk’ (his self-deprecating humour intact) but he does have a tendency, when intoxicated , to articulate thoughts and observations about Ashley that he had intended (when sober) to keep to himself. Brutally honest. As honest as Ashley is with herself in her video diary. Should Dion tread a little more carefully with Ashley, or is his brutal and at times insensitive honesty, when drunk, just the tonic she needs?
The ‘home truths’ (as Dion describes them) that he tells Ashley she should face up to is very confronting for Ashley but these ‘unpalatable truths’, as she refers to them in her video diary, also bring into the open the very things Ashley knows (and we know, from earlier diary entries) she has been promising herself to share with her psychiatrist . And here she is sharing them with a drunk! Ashley can laugh at the absurdity of it - joined by Dion, who now refers to himself as Dr Dion and jokes, “Its just as well you are rich and can afford my consultation fees!”
These moments of alcohol-induced honesty, when Dion tells Ashley precisely what he thinks she needs to hear if she is to confront the problems in her life that she is not dealing with bring Ashley’s emotional and psychological problems into the foreground in what turns out to be a tempestuous relationship – emotional flare-ups resolved with high octane sex resolutions. It is a relationship that continues despite the flare-ups because Ashley understands that Dion’s wanting to get to know the woman behind the masks is just what she needs – no matter how painful it is. “No pain, no gain,” is one of the observations Ashley has made in her video diary. And Dion, self absorbed and self-destructive though he is, understands that he can play an important and constructive role in Ashley’s life if he can put her needs before his own. This is not easy for him and he is not always successful. Despite his almost phobic fear of commitment, Dion feels that he may have found someone he genuinely cares about in Ashley. He wonders aloud, to Melissa, if “genuinely caring about someone is love?” Dion is as confused as Ashley is about what love is.
Mel’s concern for Ashley’s well-being, when it becomes apparent that she is heading for a breakdown, necessitates that she form an alliance with Dion in hopes that the two of them can help Ashley out of the pit of despair she can no longer hide from either of them. As it happens this crisis in Ashley’s life coincides with a crisis in Mel’s also. None of her sperm donors are suitable for one reason or another and, as she says to Dion one night, when they have both had a bit to drink, ‘If I don’t find a sperm donor soon…” She leaves the statement incomplete and hanging and, when she looks at Dion, sees him smile and shake his head in disbelief. “You want me to be your sperm donor?” Mel turns bright red. “No, of course not,” she exclaims.
Mel’s concern for Ashley also brings her into close contact with the ever loyal Brad – a man whom Mel has hitherto had little time for, thinking him to be shallow and vacuous. On closer inspection, however, she finds that underneath Brad’s shallow exterior there lies a straightforward and uncomplicated human being with great loyalty to his friends. And generosity. He would do anything to help a friend in need. “Anything?” asks Melissa, her mind working overtime.
Convinced that it is her medication that is causing her mood swings, anxiety and feelings of disassociation, Ashley decides to stop taking all of it. Cold turkey. She does not tell Dion, thus breaking the promise she had made to him that she would never ever stop without talking to him about it first of all. After a few days without her medication and feeling on top of the world Ashley does tell Dion, asking him in advance not to be angry with her’; getting him to promise not to be angry with her. Dion promises. He is not at all happy that she has stopped taking her medication and thinks it a mistake but, given that she is feeling so high and happy, he downplays his concerns – which he shares only with Mel.
At this point in my story, there are quite a few balls in the air to be juggled – in terms of character and story resolution. I have, quite deliberately, created some fairly difficult problems for myself to resolve (see ADDITIONAL NOTES below) and now enter the realm in which much of what I could write would, of necessity, be prefaced with ‘perhaps’ or ‘it could be’ and other such expressions of uncertainty. Uncertainty, the solving of problems, is of course what screenwriting is all about. Certainty is not always a good thing. Indeed it can be a bad thing if that certainty gets attached to a second rate solution. When one is certain (of anything, but we’re talking screenwriting here) there is little incentive to keep looking for more imaginative solutions.
It will come as no surprise that the pressures on Ashley – both external and internal – are preparing her for a major breakdown. It is my intention (at this point) that this breakdown will take place in a very public context – very likely at a televised Awards event with Ashley onstage to receive an award. In short, the most public of all possible breakdowns that could be imagined.
Is Ashley’s very public break down the beginning of the end of her career or is it just what she needs to help her break out of the many roles she has adopted – some to satisfy TV publicists, some imposed by the media (“Miss Perfect”) and others she has adopted to shore up her deep-seated insecurities? Perhaps the combination of Dion’s (sometimes brutal and insensitive) truth-telling and public exposure of her mental health problems will make it possible for Ashley to live a more authentic life.
One of the straws that finally breaks the camels back of Ashley’s tenuous hold on her sanity is her discovery that she is pregnant. She did not plan it. It was not on any list of hers. She does not want to have a baby. “To be at the beck and call of a demanding little person with its…needs!” At least she thinks she doesn’t want to have a baby. Since she is not sure about any other aspect of her life, how can she be sure about whether or not she wants a baby? She likes babies but…but. She feels ill-equipped to have one. “I would not want to impose my fucked-upness on a another human being.”
She knows full well that she is in no position, being a ‘basket case’, to have a baby. And even if she was more ‘together’ it would mean the end of her career as an early morning TV presenter – if, that is, this option must now be crossed off her list of career options as a result of her public break-down. On top of being a ‘basket-case’ Dion has made it perfectly clear that he has no desire to be a father and has demonstrated, with his inability to control his alcohol intake, that he is not good father material. Like so much else Ashley confides this to her video diary only.
In their final and very heated row Dion, stone cold sober, tells Ashley that she is a fraud, that she is nothing more than the masks she wears, the roles she plays. This is precisely what Ashley has confided to Chloe in her video diary. Ashley goes to The Gap with the intention of killing herself. Dion arrives to find her, literally, close to the edge. Before she dies Ashley has one last question for Dion and it is one that she insists that he answer with brutal honesty. The answer to the Ashley’s question, if Dion is brutally honest, could precipitate the final step to Ashley’s death. On the other hand, his honest answer may just be what Ashley needs to hear to step back from the brink and rebuild her life. This potentially tragic ending gives way to comedy when Melissa arrives and tells Ashley that she is pregnant and that she and Brad are moving in together and have agreed to share the parenting of her new baby. “Brad is the father!” exclaims Ashley as she steps back from the edge of the cliff. “Possibly,” replies Melissa. “How many sperm donors did you…accept donations from?” asks Ashley. Answering this question is not easy for Melissa. “Two,” she says. “Who was number two?” asks Ashley. Melissa glances at Dion and just as the penny is dropping for Ashley, Dion confesses sheepishly. “Me,” he says. “But you told me that you never wanted to inflict your genes on some poor child!” exclaims Ashley. “I was gilding the lilly a bit,” says Dion. Ashley laughs, shakes her head. “Well guess what, buster!” she says to Dion, “Your genes are alive and well and multiplying in more than one belly!” Dion’s eyes open wide in shock, closely followed by a huge smile.
Notes of the kind being presented here, all notes of this kind about a work-in-progress, must of necessity refer to the scaffolding that holds up the story. And just as the scaffolding that holds up a building during its construction phase must eventually be removed and the structure allowed to stand in its own right, so too must the scaffolding of a screenplay eventually be stripped away such that no one – other, perhaps, than fellow filmmakers, will even guess that it was ever present - the screenwriter’s tricks must eventually be hidden from view such that only a simple story remains that works its magic on audience members in ways that they are not conscious of - the themes hidden from conscious view. The audience must experience Ashley’s dilemmas and those of the other characters; not merely hear characters talk about them. Audience members need to become Ashley, to live inside her dilemmas, to live inside Dion’s dilemmas, to cry their tears, to laugh their laugher. Through such identification, empathy and, ultimately, compassion, the audience wants to go on the character’s journey - to whatever destination is appropriate to the circumstances of their lives, their loves, their relationships. Statements of the obvious, obviously, but perhaps useful for Readers not too familiar with the craft of screenwriting. I am tempted to use ‘crafts’ as there is no one craft of screenwriting but many.
Just as a sculptor, working with a block of stone, might begin with a hand, a leg, a face, so too can it be with screenwriting. Whilst I will not start serious work on a screenplay until I have a beginning and an end, much of what transpires in between is revealed to me in fragments, and not necessarily in a chronological sequence. In developing this document to date I have moved back and forth between these notes and the tentative (provisional) opening scenes – modifying the latter as I discover more about Ashley and the other characters; more about their evolving relationships as I worked on my ‘emotional map’. Working in this way, style, approach, form and structure become a function of character (content) and not the other way around – where characters are expected to reveal themselves within a pre-conceived structure. There are dangers in my approach but there is also the possibility that I will discover a fresh way of telling my story – generated by the characters and the story that they generate through their relationships with each other. And freshness of approach is one element that makes a low budget feature such as this appealing to its intended niche audience.
We screenwriters always want (hope!) that our audience will respond in a particular way to our characters. We do not necessarily want our audience members to like them (dislike, annoyance and outright hatred are also options) but we do want the audience to accept them as true and real (within the constraints of genre) and as carrying with them, representing, concerns about the mystery of being human that audience members share. And, of course, we want our audience to be captivated by the characters – more often than not because they are different from any other they have encountered in a story before. They are unique, original, not ciphers. It is my belief (and I am working on the presumption) that Ashley’s life dilemmas are shared by many women of or close to her age; that male audience members also will engage with her (and Dion, of course) as a recognizable character within the world in which they live. That both Ashley and Dion are celebrities is, from a character point of view and in terms of the complexities of their relationship, incidental.
With any screenplay, regardless of how much time and energy has been invested in its inception, regardless of how passionately the screenwriter might feel about his/her story, the possibility of failure looms large always. A fact of life. One way to lessen the possibility of failure is to tread in well-worn paths; to do what has already been done and proven to be viable. Fair enough, but this leads to derivative and not original work. I am much more interested in trying something that has a very high possibility of failing than I am in pursuing a project that has every (and obvious) prospect of success owing to its similarity to what has already been done. One of the advantages of working to a low budget, of course, is that the financial stakes are not high. Given the ban placed on me by Screen Australia (which, of course, extends way beyond the hallowed halls of that institution) I may well have to make PERFECT for close to zero budget or what I can raise through Pozible or other such online crowd funding sites. Alternatively, I may re-write the screenplay such that the story takes place in Los Angeles and take my chances in a market where screenwriters are not (and have not been since the 1950s) banned for any reason.
The preconceptions about how a screenplay ought to be developed, implicit in Screen Australia’s script development application demands, bear no relationship to the way in which I develop a screenplay. Indeed, my development modus operandi is different from one screenplay to the next. One of my rules (which has arisen from experience and is not one that I set out to apply) is not to write anything that I do not feel pretty sure about, confident in. This results in holes in the story that have yet to be filled – as is the case with this story and will be obvious to any reasonably perceptive reader. Sometimes it can take a lot of work to fill what appears to be a simple hole in the story. It is necessary work, however, and to fill it prematurely, to satisfy the demands of a funding body for a clearly articulated synopsis or treatment, can lead to a poor solution becoming part of the fabric of the story and, as such, difficult to get rid of without, further down the track, dismantling the structure that has been put in place to support second rate solutions to story problems. The more difficult the problems are to solve, the more interesting and complex the characters and the story are likely to be. I prefer to wait for inspiration than to reach for the first answer that presents itself. As Picasso said:
“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”
The bulk of screenwriting is doing the craft work that needs to be done whilst awaiting inspiration. If you don’t start work until you feel ‘inspired’, chances are you won’t get much work done. A cliché, of course, but screenwriting is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration.
Whether the combination of perspiration and inspiration will result in an ultra-low-budget ‘Pozible’ film made in Australia or a low-to-medium budget film made (and set) in the United States remains to be seen. Regardless of the budget, even if PERFECT’S ultimate destination were to be internet release, the screenplay needs to be as good as it possibly can be. This will involve many drafts. For as long as I am a filmmaker banned by Screen Australia the majority of these drafts (perhaps all of them) will be self-funded. I can live with this. What is more difficult to live with will by my inability to work with a script editor – a member of any script development team whose input (if s/he is good at her job) is worth its weight in gold.
Whether a film is ‘niche’, ‘arthouse’ or ‘cross-over’ is not just a function of the genre or budget but of the quality of the screenwriting, the direction and the acting. In any event, ‘niche’ is not a dirty word. Indeed, in the broadcast/distribution world we now find ourselves in, ‘niche’ films may well provide us with the answer (an answer!) to the problems confronting an English-speaking country such as Australia with a small population and little or no capacity to compete with Hollywood ‘tent-pole’ or even medium-budgeted films from the United States. If the Danes can make exciting cinema and TV drama in a language spoken by very few in the world and capture a global audience, (BORGEN, THE KILLING, GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO etc) why can’t we English-speaking Aussies do the same? The primary reason, in my view, is second rate screenplays – the end result of a lack of daring and imagination on the part of screenwriters and all those gate-keepers standing between the inception of an idea and its realization on a screen – big or small. A significant part of this problem lies with film bureaucrats whose job it is to seek out, identify, encourage and support quality screenwriting with development money. Screenwriters in Australia (those who are not independently wealthy) are ultimately dependent on these film bureaucrats – many of whom have limited understanding of either the art or craft of screenwriting other than what they have gleaned from books or worshipping at the feet of some ‘script guru’. More importantly in terms of the quality of Australian films, these film bureaucrats are prepared to invest relatively large sums of money in the production of screenplays that are still several drafts short being ready to go into production. “Why waste money getting the script right,” the thinking seems to go, “when we can waste 10 times that amount pouring production monies into a project that we know in advance audiences will stay away from in droves?” And part of the problem inherent in the models of script development we practice is that readers/assessors are in no way accountable for the anonymous opinions they arrive at of the projects they read.
The world of film is awash with screen gurus who, for a couple of decades now, have been writing books, conducting master classes and generally telling screenwriters (experienced and inexperienced) what they must do in order to improve the quality of their screenplays. In addition to these self-described ‘script gurus’ there are film schools galore teaching the craft of screenwriting. And what has been the end result? One would think, with all this expertize available to screenwriters, that screenplays would be getting better and better; that producers worldwide would have an embarrassment of riches to choose from – their desks stacked high with brilliant screenplays. One only needs to go to the cinema to know that this is not the case.
The question could be phrased thus in an Australian context: “Are Australian screenplays in 2014, benefiting as they have done, from the input of script gurus and a gaggle of screenwriting gate-keepers working for government film funding bodies, better than those written in the 1970s when there were no script gurus, no books about how to write screenplays?” If the answer is ‘no’ (and it is hard to see how it could be any other) surely the conclusion must be that enormous amounts of money have been wasted by the infrastructure within Australia that supports screenwriting. Or, at the very least, the question should be raised: “Might there be a better way to develop high quality screenplays?” If this question is not asked, if it is not even entertained, the status quo will prevail and we will all continue to scratch our heads and wonder why it is that audiences are underwhelmed by our filmic creations.
The banning of a screenwriter (in this instance, myself) is very unusual. Indeed it is, as far as I can tell, unprecedented. However, my being banned reveals a mind-set that has been dominant within Screen Australia for the five years of Ruth Harley’s tenure. It is this mind-set that needs to change and for it to change there needs to be not just a Chief Executive willing to change it but a Board prepared to support such a change. Alas, there is no sign at present that the Board is prepared to entertain significant changes to the way Screen Australia operates. Again, evidence for this is to be found in the Board’s belief that the banning of a critic, the banning of a filmmaker is, in some way, of benefit to Australian film!
There is the danger, using Ashley’s video diary as a device, that it can seem as though this is an easy (lazy) way of getting to know Ashley. No, the intention is, in the brief snippets we see of Ashley’s video diary, to create dramatic tension between to two Ashley’s – the public persona and the private one.
The plot is much less important in PERFECT than is the development of Ashley’s character. This involves the peeling away of as many as possible of the onion skin layers of the roles that go to make up firstly her public and then her private persona. The intention (Dion’s and my own, as screenwriter) is to reveal Ashley’s innermost workings to the extent that this is possible within the constraints of the medium. Having made this declaration, my decision to start with character, to allow characters to develop relationships and to allow these to determine the themes that inform PERFECT, some quite distinct plot ideas are beginning to form. I will let these percolate for a while before deciding that they will enhance or detract from what is in place already.
PERFECT was conceived and has been written in such a way that the film that can be produced for next to no budget at all if need be.
There is no shortage of actors prepared to work for nothing (or next to nothing) on projects they believe in, feel passionate about and which they see as an opportunity to demonstrate their talents.
The onus is on me to write as many drafts of the screenplay as is necessary to arrive at a final draft that is so good that talented actors will be prepared to work on the film for zero income or whatever money I can raise without utilizing the services offered by Screen Australia to filmmakers.
This is not the path I wish to go down. It is my fallback position. Ideally, I would like to have a proper budget to work with so that actors (along with all other members of the crew) can be paid appropriately. Such a budget is not easy to acquire for as long as I am banned by Screen Australia – a ban that has, as was intended by Ruth Harley and the Screen Australia Board, to make it very difficult indeed to get this or any other film project of mine off the ground.