Adapting Disgrace: An interview with screenwriter and producer Anna-Maria Monticelli
By Rochelle Siemienowicz
It was always going to be an ambitious project: adapting a much-loved and critically acclaimed novel for the screen. That the novel was the Booker Prize winning Disgrace, written by Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee, made the task even more daunting. But Australian screenwriter and producer Anna-Maria Monticelli was always quietly confident that she could pull it off and produce a script that would get the final go-ahead from Coetzee himself.
“It’s such a beautiful book,” says Monticelli, “a great book actually, and I didn’t want to bastardise it. I didn’t want to change it in any way that would reinterpret things. It has this biblical kind of proportion to it, and a language that’s quite formal. I wanted to capture that.”
The result is a stunning film that feels completely faithful to the book. The story is multi-layered and complex, full of texture and nuance in its tale of a lecherous South African academic (John Malkovich) who retreats to the countryside and is forced to face his own moral and political failures. Beautifully shot and impressively acted, the film has received a number of awards already – including the international critics’ prize, the FIPRESCI at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, and an AWGIE (Australian Writer’s Guild award) for Monticelli for best adapted screenplay
Monticelli served as co-producer on the film, which was directed by her husband Steve Jacobs. They form a tight creative unit, these two former actors. Their previous collaboration, La Spagnola (2001) was inspired by Monticelli’s own experiences as an Australian immigrant. It was a vibrant and passionate low budget film, garnering 11 AFI Award nominations. But Disgrace feels like a marked progression, a giant leap into the big-time. With an almost $10 million budget and a star like Malkovich, this is an international film; a South African story, made by Australians, with
resonance for audiences anywhere. So how does the film qualify, technically, as Australian?
“What happened is that Screen Australia basically put in 50 per cent of the money,” says Monticelli. “Then we got a gap from the bank, and then we got an American investor. We were hoping to get money from South Africa and we just weren’t able to. Nobody would put a cent into it. There were some people who wanted it and would fund the film, but they would take over and have creative control. And that was something I just couldn’t do. I couldn’t let that happen.”
So, was it difficult to convince Australian funding bodies that this was an Australian film? “Yes, we did have to argue for it a bit,” admits Monticelli. “Coetzee lives in Australia now, and the director and myself are Australian, and all the key crew elements are Australian, and there are quite a few Australian actors in the film. We tried to say to Screen Australia that it’s like documentaries. You can have an Australian team and they go to India, you know, and tell a story. And I like the idea that Australians can tell stories that are outside of what we normally
do. It’s Australian craftsmanship in the end, and I believe our films need to become more international. We are so lucky to have a government that supports the film industry and of course we need to stay nationalistic, but we can get out as well. I think cinema should be international, to be quite honest, and I think lots of countries should get involved.”
So how does an actor become a writer? Monticelli laughs. “When I was an actor I used to always rewrite my lines. I was famous for it. I do respect writers but I’m a particular type of person who speaks in a particular way and sometimes it was written in a very Australian way [Monticelli has an elegant Mediterranean accent]. My very first film, Smash Palace, was very much improvised, and I loved that, and to me that was always what acting was about.”
Were there workshops or courses or mentoring involved in turning Monticelli the actor into a script writer? “No, I’ve never taken a course or gone to a seminar on adaptation or writing. I have a little bit of a horror of group working. I’m not a group person. I don’t really believe you can make things with committees overlooking and saying ‘oh, you should change this or that.’ That would confuse me. I think in the end you get lost with that, and you don’t know if you should believe your original idea or not. I think that’s why sometimes we
don’t make good films here – too many cooks in the kitchen! You’ve got to be brave, have an idea. It’s true that sometimes it doesn’t work, but nobody told Picasso what to do.”
While Monticelli has a horror of collaboration in general, working alongside her partner and director, Steve Jacobs, is a completely different matter. “He does write things himself,” she says, “he writes comedy, and very different things to me. But with Disgrace and La Spagnola, I just write the whole thing myself and then I let him look at it because I know he’s going to direct it. And he sometimes cuts things, or says ‘I could do this whole scene with just a look.’ And sometimes he cuts really beautiful scenes. But he’s the one
who’s got to direct it. I’m not precious at all.”
So no fiery conflicts on set? “No never, not about work. We fight about different things like ‘you’re not driving properly, change gears!’ But with work it’s very calm. And we’re very good at casting. We just instantly know and agree when someone is right nor not for a part. Perhaps it’s because we both come from an acting background.”
Monticelli’s role as producer obviously requires a completely different set of skills to those required when she’s writing a script. “Well I’m an actress don’t forget!” she explains of her multi-tasking. “I’ve seen the way other producers work and they might come on set at lunchtime, every other day. But I get up with the director in the morning, and I’m on set every single day next to him, and I look after things and notice things like what the actors are wearing, the make-up, whether the focus should be here or not. When there’s
a problem on set I’m at hand to solve it. And when Steve says he’s got to have a crane or an extra day of shooting and we don’t have the money, well I just find it. I’m there to support him and make sure he has everything he needs to make the film. I’m basically just a slave!”
Monticelli is not really complaining though. “There are things I don’t like. The politics of being a producer and things that happen before you get to make the film. Having to ring people up to ask them to read your script, and then when they don’t return your calls. That is just so demoralising and tough. But what I love is the creativity. The writing. I love the writing, and I love being on set, solving those problems creatively. That’s what I love.”
Disgrace is screening nationally from 18 June.