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.