Barracuda: From Page to Screen

mwf-2016-tsiolkas

My recap of today’s Melbourne Writers Festival session, Barracuda: From Page to Screen will hardly do it justice – needless to say, the session was fantastic.

Author of Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas, was generous and honest with his audience. Producer of the miniseries Barracuda, Tony Ayres, was as equally generous, and very funny. Facilitating the discussion was author Angela Savage, also a dear friend of Tsiolkas (he dedicated Barracuda to her).

Tsiolkas began by briefly talking about the themes of the book – success and failure, class in Australia, and belonging. Sport, one thing that cuts through all parts of Australian society, was a useful vehicle for exploring these themes.

The discussion turned to the complex structure of the book (it moves between past and present tense, and from third to first person narrative). Tsiolkas mentioned that he used a film technique – the jump cut – in writing the book, to deliberately avoid telling some parts of the story. For example, there is no ‘coming out’ scene for Danny – from the outset, the reader knows that Danny is in a relationship with a man. The story rewinds, but Tsiolkas lets the reader fill in the gaps, simply because the focus was never intended to be on sexuality.

The narrative structure presented challenges for Ayres – “Barracuda is deeply embedded in point-of-view. If you broke that, you’d lose your connection with the audience. Danny is basically in every scene, maintaining the link with the audience.” For that reason, Ayres decided to import the bigger themes of the book into the four-year period where Danny goes to college and competes at the Commonwealth Games. In doing so, he maintained the 17-year-old’s point-of-view.

Tsiolkas supported this approach, despite the fact that major sections of the book didn’t make it to film – “I knew I had to let go of the structure because the audience won’t accept the same actor as a 16-year-old and as a 35-year-old – the visual medium is uncompromising.”

There was lengthy discussion around what works on the page compared to film and vice-versa. Ayres wanted to bring Tsiolkas’s’ “muscular” writing style to the screen – “He has the ability to expose issues that we should be talking about…with a touch of ‘fuck you’. Barracuda is Rocky plus ‘fuck you’.”

Of screenplays, Tsiolkas said, “Filmmakers are never going to know that there’s a sentence in the book that you struggled with for half a year… And then suddenly it’s gone! To get hung up on those things is wrong-headed…” He went on to say that there are scenes in the film that exceed what he did in the book, making reference to the powerful scene in the film, where Danny comes fourth in his Commonwealth Games race – “Seeing the 17-year-old howl, the physicality and vulnerability was extraordinary on the screen, and that wasn’t on the page. Cinema can do it in a different way to a book.”

Ayres finished the discussion by noting (with a chuckle) that “…it was bold to make a story about losing in the year of the Olympics.” Prophetic?!

What’s next for Tsiolkas? He’s writing a book about Saint Paul, called Damascus (apparently it’s still a long way off publication). Ayres has a number of projects in the pipeline but the one that I’m most excited about is a series adapted from Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (I reckon that will be ace).

There’s a whole bunch of clips about the making of Barracuda (including how to turn actors into Olympic swimmers) – start with this one.

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12 responses

  1. I’m glad Tsiolkas is talking about class, particularly in relation to privileged private schools, it’s an area generally swept under the carpet in Australia. I like also that Tsiolkas is relaxed with film being a different way of telling a story, not just an illustration of the book as is so often expected.

    • Happily, he is excited and enthusiastic about film, particularly television! In fact, he said in terms of ‘storytelling’, the most interesting stuff at the moment is happening for television (as opposed to films). Interestingly, when I went to see Hanya Yanagihara speak (author of A Little Life), she said the same thing. Tsiolkas said “The novel is my medium, the film is theirs” – a good approach (but one that he can afford because he trusted who was filming his story!).

    • Will be interesting to see if you do get the series. I know The Slap was remade for US audiences with US actors – seemed odd at the time partly because the book is so much an Australian social commentary but also because we all speak English!

      • I know, right?! Of course, I’d love to see the US version to compare. In my experience, US audiences are more conservative than Australian about some things (language, sex) but not others (violence, guns). The Slap is very much about a moral dilemma and sex. Plus the language is crude. I’m guessing it would have been toned down.

  2. This post is great – you’re very thorough! Did you sit and take notes the whole time? Or did you record it somehow? I get so sucked in listening to people talk that I completely forget about taking notes.

    • Thank you 🙂
      I jotted down a few notes – mostly some choice quotes. I’m usually not great at reporting back after author talks (like you, I get caught up in what they’re saying) but after this one, I came home and wrote the post immediately which made a big difference!

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