The Death of Klinghoffer
THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER (2002)
This film was the beginning of my opera, I can’t exactly call it a career, my toe in the water of the opera world. It’s kind of a big toe because it has taken place with arguably the best contemporary classical composer John Adams at two of the best opera houses in the world, The Metropolitan Opera in New York and the English National Opera at the Coliseum in London and more recently at the Los Angeles Opera House.
My only musical gift is that I love music and I respond to it fully. (I originally wrote that I respond with my whole body and soul and then scratched that because it sounded pretentious. Except it’s true.) I have been going to classical concerts for thirty years, before that I was too broke and I thought perhaps I wasn’t allowed to do something so wonderful. We make funny rules for ourselves and it’s only when they become conscious that we see them for the paper tigers they are. I have loved John Adams’ music since 1988 when I walked into a record shop in the covered market in Newcastle upon Tyne where I was living at the time, and heard music playing that was so extraordinary that I rushed up and asked the salesperson what it was and bought it immediately. It was Nixon in China. It was actually about to play in Edinburgh at the festival but I was still thinking that such things were not for the likes of me so I just bought the boxed set CD.
Then about 1998 when I had got over my strangely masochistic prohibition (I got over it in 1990 when wandering around the city of London on my birthday, the 1st of January I made a new years resolution that since I loved classical concerts I was going to go to them) I was at the Barbican with my friend James and heard the LSO chorus performing the first two choruses of The Death of Klinghoffer. The first is the Chorus of the Exile Palestinians which starts like this
My father’s house was razed
In nineteen forty eight
When the Israelis passed over our street…
and ends with
I’ll take your stones and break your teeth.”
It is followed by the Chorus of the Exiled Jews, a mournful heartfelt lament from a people seeking a place of safety after the horrors of the Holocaust.
And there it is. The whole thing.
I turned to James, tears pouring down my cheeks and he said. “You should make a film of this.”
I had the CD so I knew the music and I said. “Yes, you’re right. I should.” At that time I was writing the screenplay for Tina Goes Shopping and a few days later I was a bit stuck so I wrote an email to Janey Walker who I knew slightly and was head of music at Channel 4 suggesting I make a film about The Death of Klinghoffer. (At that time I had a Pipex dial up email account that hogged the phone line so I used it sparingly.) I fully expected her to either ignore me or tell me to get lost but my landline rang immediately. It was Janey saying that she had just come from a meeting where they had been discussing what Channel 4 was going to do about opera. There was something in their remit that said they had to do something for the next couple of years and the way they were filming live performances at Glyndebourne were extremely dull. (The television experience not the performances some of which were probably wonderful.) This was before the HD transmissions of theatre and opera into cinemas which is a completely different experience.
This is what’s called luck. But it is also about being in the right place at the right time. And I remember all the times I tried something and it didn’t work. Only today, 19th September 2017 I received another rejection for a project I put a lot of work into. I sometimes use the analogy of the football striker who scores from a cross. And it looks like luck that he was there but nobody notices all the runs he makes when no cross comes. You have to keep making those runs. Sometimes you want to give up but if you do nothing, then nothing will happen for you.
Here randomly is a list of films that got rejected:
The Day the Dog Died – a brilliant script that leaps back and forth in time around a murder. It’s one of the best things I have ever written.
The Rapper and the Soprano – a love story between a rapper and a soprano, crashing these two opposite worlds together.
The Long Term – a treatment I wrote and researched about homeless teenagers who were somehow managing to get to school and do their A levels.
YOI a drama about a youth offender institution, Scum for the 21st Century.
Darknet – a film co-written with Jake Davis about a reclusive teenage hacker
Fourteen – a drama series about teenagers and social media from multiple points of view
Documentary – The Story of Grime
And there’s more, lots more of them too depressing to list. All that work and all those good ideas! What a loser! I haven’t included the ones I am still hopeful about.
Anyway back to the one that worked. Channel 4 were keen but I had to get John Adams on board. Madonna Baptiste – my producer at that time – contacted Janis Susskind managing director of Boosey and Hawkes John’s music publisher. Janis rang Madonna back immediately and said, “I was just on the phone to John last night and he said, ‘why does nobody make a movie of one of my operas?’”
Having leapt towards this goal I suddenly felt naked. As if I had tentatively tapped on a gigantic door just for fun to see if it would shift a little and it swept open wide. I mean I can't even read music and I have never directed an opera! Very soon after while I was still shaking in my boots Janey Walker was promoted and Jan Younghusband was appointed Head of Music. I was relieved. Nobody likes mopping up other people’s projects. Janey had expressed interest but that’s as far as it went and in my experience if the person who is commissioning you leaves, the project is dead. Except it wasn’t.
Jan came to see me in the cutting room full of enthusiasm. She loves John Adams and she loved the idea of me doing opera. So now I had to do it.
The difficulty was that The Death of Klinghoffer is really an oratorio and not an opera. It has long abstract choruses and minimal interaction between the protagonists. It also jumps around in time and space, back and forth from big abstract choruses to the events of the accidental hijacking of the Achille Lauro in 1985 by Palestinians and the killing of an elderly American Jew, Leon Klinghoffer thrown overboard with his wheelchair. I didn't know what to do with it or how to start to make a story.
It knocked around helplessly in my mind while I was doing other things until it got to the Christmas holidays and I had to write the screenplay. But I didn’t know how to do it. As I mentioned my birthday is on January 1st. I have no recollection of New Years Eve that year except that I got extremely drunk. The following morning I was still drunk and James suggested we walk up the Edgeware Road which is full of Middle Eastern shisha bars looking for inspiration. We set off. When drunk or upset or puzzled I often wrap a jumper around my head like a turban and I did this, as I wove my way unsteadily up the street. And then I understood how to write the screenplay.
I realised that the little girl who tells the story about her father’s house being razed in the opening chorus could be the mother of one of the hijackers. Of Mamoud who has a moving exchange with the Captain. And then I could invent another couple for the Jewish chorus and they could be passengers on the boat. And these threads could weave satisfying narratives binding the story together. And then I knew I was all right.
When Jan asked what orchestra I would like I replied, “The London Symphony Orchestra” because I knew their name and had heard them at the Barbican. She nodded. We got all the wonderful singers we wanted, who sung beautifully, looked right and could act and recorded their voices at Abbey Road in isolation booths in case we couldn’t use the location sound – but in the end over 85% of the sound track was live.
We hired a ship to sail across the Mediterranean and I sent the singers to army camp to learn to strip down their Kalashnikovs so they didn’t carry them like spear carriers in a chorus. John conducted the LSO and we videoed him. Then Murray Hipkin the assistant conductor ran around behind Graham Smith the cameraman with a tiny monitor of John hanging around his neck just about keeping in the sight lines of the singers. It was a magical shoot.
We had more luck before we started. The budget for the Death of Klinghoffer was 2.5 million pounds, huge for television at that time and unheard of for an arts film. Jan was surprised when it was quickly nodded through the budget round. She popped in to see Tim Gardam, at that time Director of Programmes. “You approved The Death of Klinghoffer?” “Yeah”, he replied. “It’s great.” Jan was relieved. Months later when we were in the middle of the shoot Tim came into her office and saw a panoramic picture of our cruise liner. “What the hell is that?” “It’s our boat!” beamed Jan. “Isn’t it great?” Tim hit the roof. It turned out that he had misread the figures and thought he was approving a budget of £250,000 not £2.5 million.
That is a lot of money but given what we were trying to do it was peanuts. We restaged the war over the foundation of the state of Israel, recorded the LSO at Abbey Road Studios, sailed around the Med with a large cast and a bunch of opera singers any one of whom could have got a sore throat and so on and on. We could only squeak through if every single thing went right, every single day. We had to get what they call a bond for the film – it’s a kind of insurance. Without it the filming would not go ahead.
Film Finances put up bonds for most British films and Jan, Madonna and I were summoned to a meeting. There were a lot of long faces and a huge amount of scepticism about how we were going to achieve this film, on schedule and on budget. I was on a fairly short fuse at that time and I exploded much to Jan and Madonna’s horror. I was banging on the table and shouting loudly about how dare they question us and so on and on. At the end of the meeting they said they would give us the bond and we later heard that they thought it was a very borderline project and they just wanted to see whether we had the backbone to deliver it. I’m not saying this would ever work again but it worked that time.
We made the film. I was sea sick the whole time but I had the backbone to do it. I’m proud of that film.