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Lantana has been praised for its complex and dramatically satisfying script, enabling the director, Ray Lawrence, and a first rate cast to create an engaging and haunting film. One of its key topics is emotional transactions between people, writer Andrew Bovell tells Andrew L. Urban.

Andrew Bovell has moved his family (three young children) to the solitude of southern South Australia from metro Melbourne, a year before Lantana makes its commercial debut on Australian screens. The move to a more remote place geographically, ironically coincides with Bovellís rising fame and profile as a writer, both here and internationally.

As he takes the phone for our interview, his keyboard is treading water, waiting for him to return to it to continue the task of adapting the great Arthur Millerís 1950s play, A View from the Bridge, into a screenplay. The task is challenging, but he says "Millerís very supportive of what weíre trying to do, namely to loosen it up and give it a contemporary sensibility."

Bovell can thank Lantana for the chance of working on this Ė and in particular, Lantana star Anthony LaPaglia, who is the man responsible for introducing him to the project. LaPaglia Ė as he himself explains in our INTERVIEW

a couple of weeks prior Ė was so impressed with Bovellís Lantana script, he made the introduction.

the outcome is cataclysmic

Latent sexual obsession, paranoia, envy, and even homophobia swirl about in Millerís play (also made into an opera) and the outcome is cataclysmic for everyone involved. Not really like Lantana at all, although there is a fair amount of "emotional transaction" between the characters, which is the stuff that really interests Bovell. As you would know if youíve seen Head On, directed by Ana Kokinos and starring Alex Dimitriades.

In Lantana, like in all his work, Bovell explores "men and how they deal with relationships. . . itís fuelled not by direct personal experience, but anyone whoís been married has asked those same questions; how do you sustain a relationship, etc. All around me, people were asking the big questions Ė not only about their relationships, but about their life. How do I survive this event emotionally . . . "

The play (called Speaking in Tongues) preceded the screenplay; it began with a simple urban myth about a woman whose car breaks down and she calls her husband. The machine answers and she leaves a series of messages. She tries to hitch a ride. "Then I began to think about the man who gives her a liftÖand then perhaps he discovers that sheís left a shoe in his van. . ." And slowly, Bovell built a complex set of people and relationships, and what started to look like a thriller.

He was never in doubt that the material was strong; "itís about emotion, though, and I didnít know how Australians would respond. Itís also dialogue driven and so I anticipated some resistance. But I always felt it was a strong, compelling story- thatís what drove it, in the stage play and through to the film script."

Could it work as a film? It wasnít hard to convince director Ray Lawrence, who returned to see the play four times. Producer Jan Chapman took longer to get enthused, but not much longer. She asked to see a treatment, which convinced her.

emotional transaction between men and women

"My interest is in the emotional transaction between men and women," says Bovell. "What if we fuck it up; how do we go on; what do we learn. And Iíve always been interested in the multi-narrative structure, ever since I first saw Robert Altmanís work. The form is now more common, and itís very satisfying to write Ė but very hard to balance. I wanted it to be an ensemble film where we can explore other characters deeply, not just have them as tools for the leads and the action."

When shooting began, director Ray Lawrence made it clear that Bovell was very welcome on set. The two had already exchanged trust: "one of the things Lantana is about is trust, so I had to understand that in giving it over to ray. And ray had to trust me in the writing. So I did go on set for a while, but there came a point where I felt a bit useless. I also wanted to give Ray some breathing room. I needed to step away so he could become the central force of creative authority."

But Bovell did come back at editing stage, "where we did a lot of restructuring and Ray was very open about things."

Like many writers do, Bovell headed straight back to writing well before Lantana was completed. He wrote Holy Day, dealing with the relationship between white and black Australia. Following a successful Adelaide season, the play opened in Melbourne just a couple of weeks before Lantana opened across Australia.

He is also developing another screenplay with director Ana Kokinos, to be produced by Al Clark (executive producer, Chopper, producer PriscillaÖand others), based on The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thompson. Clark describes it as a large budget erotic horror story "with a spiritual ancestor in last Tango in Paris," says Clark. "Itís an account of sexual obsession prompted by emotional trauma."

the mystery is love...

Meanwhile, Lantana has already played to warm receptions at the opening of the Sydney Film Festival and other fests. The central character of Leon (LaPaglia) is a detective; but we can read that metaphorically. The mystery is love, which could be compared to that troublesome Australian weed, lantana camara, with its dense, spiky undergrowth, and colourful, aromatic flowers above. . .

Published October 4, 2001

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